Canaletto - Il Campo e la Chiesa dei Gesuiti

“The “eye” that looks to the East” by Alberto Giorgio Cassani

[Tempo di Lettura: 11 minuti]

Notes on the architecture of Venice from its origins to the Renaissance

“The Doge’s Palace in Venice contains three elements, in exactly equal proportions: Roman, Lombard, and Arabic. It is the central building of the world”
John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, 1851-18531

In the ancient city of Hatra, in Arabic al – Hadr, a border town between the Eastern and Western worlds, stood a temple dedicated to Hermes (the Greek messenger of the Gods, in his Roman guise known as the God of Commerce). It was located next to temples dedicated to the God Nergal (Sumerian and Akkadian mythology), the God Atargatis (Syrian-Armenian mythology), to Allat and Shamiyyah (Gods of Arabic mythology) and to Šamaš (the Sumerian Sun God). Now, the followers of the so-called IS (Islamic State) have razed the ancient UNESCO-listed city with bulldozers and dynamite (following the destruction, in January, of the remains of the ancient walls of Nineveh and the statuary conserved in the museum in Mosul), and with it the extraordinary, multiethnic Pantheon which had survived, up until then, all previous battles and invasions throughout history.2
This was a deliberate strategy, a damnatio memoriæ, (the damnation of memory) aimed at everything that is not in accordance with a “Sunni-Salafi Islam” world which must, according to the megalomaniacal beliefs of the male followers of the Caliph, conquer the world (according to a biased interpretation of the Arabic word Jihad, “effort”).
One of those Gods, Hermes-Mercury, could well represent what Venice once was in the history of the world: the city of commerce. Therefore, we should be able to find, somewhere in the vicinity St Mark’s, somewhere in the soil of the former Serenissima, a statue of the God in his talaria – his winged sandals – and his kerykéion, the caduceus, an ancient symbol of peace and prosperity. A peace that Venice had always pursued with all her might, because only peace allows the flourishing of trade. In this sense, if the fall of Constantinople in 1453 traumatized the West, perhaps it disturbed Venice to a lesser degree, as she had been trading with the Byzantine Empire, and was therefore able to prepare to deal with the Gran Turco.
Why this preamble? Because the ideology of Venice was, almost always, throughout the time of her rule da Mar, one of mediation and dialogue with the East and, therefore, the demolition of the temple of Hermes can also be seen, to some degree, as the destruction of that beloved ideal in Venice. A very extensive “East”, it must be said, from the “Catajo” of Kublai Kahn, to the days of Marco Polo (XIII century), to the Istanbul of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (not forgetting, however, the shameful episode of the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth crusade (1202), of which Venice still bears the shamelessly exhibited “stains”, in the group of the Tetrarchs, and in the four bronze horses of St Mark).
An exhaustive discussion of the relationships between Venice and the East would be unthinkable. One can at best scratch the surface. It would be enough to scan just some of the titles of the immense bibliography on the subject: from Venezia e i turchi, (Venice and the Turks), by Paul Preto (Sansoni, 1975), to Venezia e l’Oriente: Arte, commercio, civiltà al tempo di Marco Polo (Venice and the East: Art, Commerce, Civilization in the Time of Marco Polo) and Marco Polo: Venezia e l’Oriente (Marco Polo: Venice and the East), both edited by Alvises Zorzi (Electa, s.d. and 1981, 1989), to Venezia e l’Oriente (Venice and the East), edited by Lionello Lanciotti (Olschki, 1987), to Venezia e Bisanzio nel XII secolo: I rapporti economici (Venice and Byzantium in the Twelfth Century: Economic Relations) by Silvano Borsari (1988), to Venezia e Bisanzio (Venice and Byzantium) by Donald M. Nicol (Italian translation by Bompiani, 2001), to Bisanzio e Venezia (Byzantium and Venice) by George Ravegnani (Il Mulino, 2006), to Venise et l’Orient: 828-1797 (Venice and the Orient) (exhibition at the Institut du Monde Arabe, Gallimard, 2006), to Venezia porta d’Oriente (Venice, Gateway to the East), by Maria Pious Pedani (Il Mulino, 2010),3 to Venise et la Méditerranée (Venice and the Mediterranean) edited by Sandro G. Franchini, Gherardo Ortalli and Gennaro Toscano (Venetian Institute of Sciences, Letters and Arts, 2011), to name only the most significant titles.
But perhaps even more fundamental to an understanding of the relationship between Venice and the East are the volumes written by two great Italian scholars, Sergio Bettini and Ennio Concina: in particular, the first, the classic Venezia: Nascita di una città (Venice: Birth of a City) (Electa, 1978) and, the second, Dell’arabico: A Venezia tra Rinascimento e Oriente (Marsilio, 1994).4

But on the close ties between East and West (and vice versa) – speaking of “anti-fundamentalism”, to which the slogan on a poster, put up recently all over Venice by the Centri Sociali of the Northeast, bears a striking similarity – there is a long, often debated literature, starting with the essays of Anton Springer, Louis Courajod, Émile Mâle, Jean Alphonse Joseph Marquet de Vasselot, through the disputed theories of Josef Strzygowski 5 (which Bettini defines as “aberrations”6), all the way through to the still masterful studies of Henri Focillon: Art d’Occident: Le Moyen Age roman et gothique (Art of the West: The Middle Ages in the Roman and Gothic Worlds) (A. Colin, 1938), and of his best pupil, Jurgis Baltrušaitis: Art sumérien, art roman (Sumerian Art, Roman Art) (Ernest Leroux, 1934) and Le Moyen Âge fantastique: Antiquités et Exotismes dans l’art Gothique (The Extraordinary Middle Ages: Antiquities and Exoticism in Gothic Art) (A. Colin, 1955). In the first of the two volumes, the author states, “since the protohistoric period, if not before, we find a whole repertoire of ancient Eastern images and motifs in Europe, a repertoire which was constantly being renewed and enriched”.7 In the end he sums up the entire research thus: “We have shown some of the relationships between Romanesque sculpture and the ancient forms of Asia, and the phases though which the relationships passed. Probably the introduction of Asian
motifs in medieval Europe is explained, in part, by the arrival in the West of massive amounts of various oriental objects, fabrics, vases, barbarian and Sasanian jewelry, and Muslim ivories, which have preserved the memory of ancient art”.8
Of course, in this transmigration of images, from East to West, there was a shift in meaning: “The Romanesque sculptor understood the mechanism of their figurative Venice and the Mediterranean metamorphoses [sc. of oriental forms] and applied it to his own formal world. Although based on the same elements and on the same principle, the ornamental repertoire, enriched by the evaluations of different eras, here takes on a new meaning and a new focus”.9
Venice, gateway to the East and gateway of commercial maritime traffic, how could she not have served as a medium of these transmigrations?
In fact the relationship between Venice and the East began with a theft (the other side of Hermes, as we know, is that he was also the God of thieves): in 828, two Venetian merchants steal the relics of St. Mark from a Coptic church in Alexandria. It is a productive theft, because it serves to establish, with the relocation of the saint’s body, what the saint had dreamed of: his final destination, Venetian ground. A praedestinatio, as Bettini writes, “by which the church of Venice was symbolically liberated both from Byzantium and from dependence on the German Empire via Aquileia, and also, in the end, from too strong a dependence on Rome”.10
Venice is thereby faithful to the East in that it adheres strictly to the precepts of the Koran (there is a Camillo Boito joke, at which time you could still make such jokes, without too much risk). Speaking of the lack of good sculptors in Venice, he writes: “In respect of the Turks, the Koran, verse 92 of the chapter entitled The Table, says: O you who believe! the wine, the game of chance, the statues and the fate of the arrows are abominations devised by Satan: abstain from them and live happily. The Venetians, therefore, follow the precept of the Koran, at least in what it says about statuary. In that city, full of wonderful examples of sculpture, in that city where there is no lack of art lovers, no lack of wealthy people, one can count only three sculptors”.11

Canaletto - Il Campo e la Chiesa dei Gesuiti
Canaletto – Il Campo e la chiesa dei Gesuiti

Looking at the relationship between Venetian architecture and the East, it would perhaps be superfluous to mention here, because it is so well known, that in approx 1069, when it became necessary to rebuild the church of St Mark, Venetians did not turn, as may have been expected, to the models of contemporaneous Romanesque architecture,12 but decided, in a gesture of unmistakeable political value, to look to history, choosing the Apostoleion, the Basilica of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople (later destroyed by the Turks), to mark a departure from Western architecture (the German Empire) in favour of a bond with Byzantium. But the entire mosaic decoration of the Basilica, from the re-construction of the eleventh century to the fourteenth century, is a story of the relationship between East and West, by way of the close links with the schools of the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople; first with the artists of “ that architectural manifesto of the imperial idea of the East”,13 that is, Hagia Sofia, but also in so-called “minor” centres such as Ochrida (Macedonia). Hagia Sophia and St Mark’s (thus, indirectly, the aforementioned Apostoleion), in this way, “were marked by the indelible sign of Venetian art”.14 Not only that. As Concina rightly points out, André Chastel hypothesized, in the revival of buildings with a central plan, beginning with San Pietro Bramante at the beginning of the sixteenth century (1504), “a response”15 to the Bayezid mosque (Bayezid Camii in Istanbul, 1502). And besides, the other iconic Venetian building, the Palazzo Ducale, as we have seen from the exergo, according to Ruskin, was, as well as “Roman” and “Lombard”, also “Arabic”.
But there is perhaps a building in Venice which, above all, encapsulates this ‘looking towards the East’ influence on the city better than any other. It is not the most famous building in Venice and is not on any tourist route: it is Ca’ Zen. Around this “notable palace” and its strange architecture, Ennio Concina built the fascinating story of his aforementioned Dell’arabico. The author, with the wisdom of a great writer, introduces the protagonist of his story thus: “A short distance from the triumphant late Gothic Ca’
d’Oro, almost behind it, where, in the early sixteenth century there was only the long muddy beach of the northern lagoon facing Murano, rises one of the most enigmatic palaces, in form as well as content, of the Venetian Renaissance: Ca’ Zen ai Crosechieri”.16
The Zen family is not one of the many noble families of the Serenissima, but a family whose long history is “closely intertwined with that of the links between Venice and the Byzantine Empire, the relationship between Venice and Islam, the rise of Venice as a maritime power. A history within an articulated and diversified cultural space, of conflict and dialogue together. Which is a true reflection
of the identity and the fate of the Marciana republic”.17 The ability of the eye of the Zen family to understand the architecture, in their travels in the Ottoman Empire throughout several generations, leads Concina to remark that “the Venice of the Zen family […] appears as […] the eye, not only the gateway to the East”18 and “the eye of Europe to the East”.19
There are two “signs” in particular, in the palace, that point towards the East: the sparse decoration on the façade – “pastoral landscapes […] combined with palm trees, scenes of work outside the city and […] camels”20 – that demonstrate how Venice “not only looks, but knows about, plays and moves beyond the horizon of the lagoon, aware of the vastness of the world around her, sitting between West and East, and that she means to remain firmly rooted in her own origin and nature, whilst being able to embrace other people’s languages and customs”;21 and “the unusual and extravagant […] design of the arches’ cusps […] a truly key symbol of the architecture of the façade”,22 (as opposed to the round-headed ones, that adorn a palace decorated in the “Levantine manner”)23 in which the cusped arches and those right at the centre demonstrate that yes, apparently, we have East and West together here; but at the same time, as Sebastiano Serlio had noted, writing on the peculiarity of Venetian architecture, they also reveal the whole “licenciosità” of it,24 thus highlighting “the uniqueness of a Venice that contrasts the exacting universalism in the precision of layouts with the greatness of a history “that has no equal among all other cities”.25
But the end of this close relationship with the East is near and perhaps in part it is based on the crisis of 1537.26 It coincides with the arrival in Venice of Jacopo Sansovino, who brings with him a new language, “of the old”: the Biblioteca Marciana (the Marciana Library) and the Mint will be the two episodes that will mark the abdication The “eye” that looks to the East of Venice to Rome (although, the library especially is subjected to a typically Venetian, vibrating “chiaroscuro”). As controversially pointed out by Vasari, that town that had persisted with “the same things, always in the same measure, and according to old customs”, now begins “to manufacture public and private things with new designs and better order, and according to the ancient discipline of Vitruvius”.27
With these two buildings, Venice “seemed to want to renounce her primacy and individuality”.28 She became “Romanized”,29 which is to say that she “betrayed” the subtle balance that made her unique in Europe, that made her both eye and mirror of the Orient.
But perhaps it is not so. The “Byzantine” Scarpa will again look to the East. Perhaps not to a close neighbour or even a medium-distance one, but a far distant one: the land of the rising sun.



1 I am literally stealing this exergo (exergue) from Ennio Concina, Dell’arabico: A Venezia tra Rinascimento e Oriente, Venezia, Marsilio, 1994, p. 11.

2 As an antidote to the monoculture of the IS, as well as to all the monocultures in the story, I recommend reading two volumes: Maurice Cerasi, La città dalle molte culture: L’architettura nel Mediterraneo orientale (The City of Many Cultures: Architecture in the Eastern Mediterranean), catalogued by Emiliano Bugatti, Milano, Libri Scheiwiller, 2005 and Maurizio Bettini, Elogio del politeismo: Quello che possiamo imparare oggi dalle religioni antiche (In Praise of Polytheism: what we can learn today from Ancient Religions), Bologna, il Mulino, 2014.
3 By the same author, see also the essay Venezia e l’oriente: Note su recenti letture, in
«Mediterranea: Ricerche storiche» (Venice and the Orient: Notes on recent readings, in “The Mediterranean: Historical Research”), vol. 31, 2013, downloadable in pdf format on the web.

4 But see also the essential Storia dell’architettura di Venezia dal VII al XX secolo (History of the Architecture of Venice from VII to XX Century), Milano, Electa, 1995.
5 Cfr. Orient oder Rom (Orient or Rome), 1901 and Ursprung der christlichen Kirchenkunst
(Origin of the Art of the Christian Church), 1920.

6 Cfr. Sergio Bettini, L’arte alla fine del mondo antico (Art at the End of the Ancient World), Torino, Testo & Immagine, 1996, p. 76. See also, ibid., the note on p. 5.

7 Jurgis Baltrušaitis, Portrait de Jurgis Baltrušaitis & Art sumérien, art roman (Portrait of George Baltrušaitis & Sumérien Art, Roman Art), Paris, Flammarion, 1989, Italian trans. by Marco Infurna, Arte sumera, arte romanica (Sumerian art, Romanesque art) and Ritratto di Jurgis Baltrušaitis di Jean-François Chevrier (The Drawing of Jurgis Baltrušaitis by Jean-François Chevrier), Milano, Adelphi, 2006, p. 70.
8 Ibid., p. 107.
9 Ibid., p. 109.

10 Sergio Bettini, Venezia: Nascita di una città (Venice: Birth of a City), Milano, Electa, 1978, p. 114.

11 Camillo Boito, [Rassegna Artistica: (Art Exhibition)] Povero stato degli artisti a Venezia. – I pittori giovani. – Un nuovo pittore naturalista. – Come i Veneziani seguano un precetto del Corano. – Il Ferrari, il Minisini ed il Borro, che sono i tre soli scultori in Venezia, in Nuova Antologia di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti (The poor status of artists in Venice – The young painters – A new naturalist painter – As the Venetians follow a precept of the Koran – Ferrari, Minisini, Borro, who are the only three sculptors in Venice, in New Anthology of Science, Arts and Letters, 18.12, December 1871, pp. 876-888: 884.

12 Boito is not convinced of it. He writes: “The external body of the temple is not Byzantine it is Lombard. Behind the countless columns, under the pompous dress of Oriental marble, the sides of the ancient basilica of Domenico Contarini and Domenico Selvo were discovered. They were majestic, simple, all brick, with huge
arches, niches in the pillars, embellished only on the smooth brick backgrounds, with not very large mullioned windows and small openings, without tunnels, scattered here and there with a series of small arches supported by slender columns and brackets, which are one of the characteristics of the style of the mainland in the eleventh century. […] The body was imposing but crude and lacking; it was not
only clad, but was transformed with overwhelming additions; additions that the
new conquests, the new love of sumptuousness, the increasing need of oriental luxuries, suggested to the Doges of the twelfth century”, “I restauri di San Marco” (“The Restoration of St Mark’s”), in Nuova Antologia (New Anthology), second series, 18.24 (Volume XLVIII), 15 December 1879, pp. 701-721: 707-708.
13 E. Concina, Dell’arabico…, cit., p. 44. 14 Ibid., p. 46.
15 Ibid., p. 49. The work in question is Renaissance méridionale: Italie 1460-1500 (Southern Renaissance: Italy 1460 – 1500), Paris, Gallimard, 1965.
16 Ibid., p. 15.
17 Ibid., p. 27.
18 Ibid., p. 52.
19 Ibid., p. 56.
20 Ibid., p. 78.
21 Ibid., p. 80.
22 Ibid.
23 Ibid., p. 84.

24 Cfr. Sebastiano Serlio, On Domestic Architecture: Different Dwellings from the Meanest Hovel to the Most Ornate Palace: The Sixteenth-century Manuscript of Book VI in the Avery Library of Columbia University, foreword by Adolf K. Placzek, introduction by James S. Ackerman, text by Myra Nan Rosenfeld, New York, Architectural History Foundation and Cambridge (Mass.), The MIT Press, 1978, comment in the Table LVI, cit. ibid., p. 86.
25 Ibid.; the internal quote is from Francesco Sansovino, Of Notable Things in Venice,
originally published by Francesco Rampazetto, 1565, p. 2.

26 The siege of Corfu by the troops of Suleiman the Magnificent and the subsequent war with Venice lasted until 1540 (the peace treaty was signed in October), a conflict in which the central episode is the defeat of the Christian alliance in Preveza, Greece,on the 28th September, 1538.

27 Giorgio Vasari, Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori e architetti, (The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.) selected and annotated by Gaetano Milanesi, Firenze, G. Barbera, 1868, vol. VII, pp. 502-503, cit. ibid., p. 91.
28 Ibid.
29 Cfr. ibid., p. 92.