Anyone who has been to Venice knows that it is a world all its own. Floating atop the waters of the Adriatic Sea, it is a city that carries with it an innate mystery, romance and creativity. Its iconic gondolas and the dome of the Santa Maria della Salute are archetypes of the city’s beauty. While all of the major Italian cities were known for certain things — Florence for banking, Rome for the papacy — Venice was known as the epicenter of trade, with goods flowing in and out along its canals at a staggering rate. This made the city a veritable melting pot and meant it enjoyed an abundance of resources and knowledge. The result was a long and rich tradition of Venetian hand-crafted goods.
View of the Grand Canal by William James, 18th century.
History of the Republic
Venice’s beginnings give it an important place in Italy’s — and Europe’s — history and artistic development. It was founded sometime in the 5th or 6th centuries by people fleeing barbarian invaders after the collapse of Rome, and they chose the marshy land for the protection it could offer. It did not require massive city walls and fortresses, giving it a completely different character than other Italian cities. The sea became so important to the Venetians that the Doge performed a ceremony each year that wed the city to the water. Amazingly, the Venetian Republic was the only western European state to avoid revolution and invasion all the way from antiquity almost to modern times; it was conquered by Napoléon in 1797, though eventually regained its autonomy. The Republic’s natural protection and unique geographic position brought the city great political and cultural importance. Its positioning meant it could create bases throughout the Adriatic to facilitate sea commerce. Venice became a flourishing commercial center and served as the bridge between the West, the eastern Mediterranean and Africa for many centuries. Along with goods, new artistic techniques were also coming into the city, allowing artisans to create objects to trade for valuable spices, fabrics and other wares.
Guilds and Patronage
For much of Italy’s history, guilds held considerable influence over commerce. Crafts and arts in Venice were organized by a system of guilds, and there was a guild for practically everything, from goldsmiths to glassmakers to woodworkers. There were guilds for the building trades, the painters and even the bakers. One could join a guild by first serving as an apprentice for a period of between 7-10 years. At the end of their apprenticeship, they would have to undergo a test to demonstrate their skills. If they passed, they would be awarded the title of master and officially be a member of the guild. Guilds were responsible for ongoing training, establishing standards for their work and representing their craft to the patrons of the city.
Insignia of the Goldsmiths and Jewelers of Venice
Patronage was essential to the growth of these guilds and the development of art in early modern Venice. Because of its commercial success, Venice had a rich supply of governmental, religious and civic monetary support. The Republic was governed by the Doge. Although not strictly a hereditary office, he was generally a member of the inner circle of powerful local familie, and the aristocracy appointed him for life. Through the Doge’s patronage, Venice celebrated itself and demonstrated its civic ideals through paintings and decorative objects that filled the Doge’s Palace. Wealthy lay confraternities, called scuole
, also provided monetary support for artisans. Finally, a powerful and sophisticated aristocracy commissioned works for their lavish residences to include a diverse range of objects both religious and secular in nature.
Perhaps Venice’s most high-profile export is glass. Modern-day tourists visit the city’s factories to see lively glass blowing demonstrations, and its shops are filled with glass trinkets that make wonderful souvenirs, but the story of how Venice became the mecca for glassmaking is fascinating and sometimes surprising.
A Venetian glass fountain, circa 1940
Because the security of their city was maintained by the lagoons surrounding it, the Venetians once boasted the largest navy in Europe. Using that navy, the Venetians sacked Constantinople in the 13th century during the 4th Crusades. At the time, Constantinople was the largest and wealthiest city in Europe and Near East, and they traded with everyone from the Indians and Persians to the Muslims and Chinese. They had knowledge of a huge variety of craftsman techniques, including glassmaking. When the Venetian navy attacked, they brought back with them this knowledge and began their own legacy of glassmaking. Glassmaking is a hot process. To melt glass you must have fire, which was a liability in a city made up of wooden structures. Because of this and because glass was becoming such a large and profitable business, Venice’s Maggior Consiglio
, or Grand Council, ordered Venetian glassmakers moved to the nearby island of Murano where they would have privacy from those trying to steal trade secrets and where they would pose no danger to the city. Once there, the glassmakers were forbidden from leaving. One of the most exciting stories about the tradition of Venetian glass involves the famous Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles. Jean-Battiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s head of construction and Minister of Finance, decreed that every single aspect of the palace had to be manufactured in France. When Versailles was constructed in the 17th century, mirrors were extremely expensive and an important status symbol. The only problem was, no French artisans knew how to make mirrors. The only people who could create them were the Venetians, and their craft was a highly guarded secret. Colbert devised a plan to hire Venetian glass artisans and smuggle them away from the Isle of Murano. The Republic of Venice was so protective of their secret that after the defectors escaped to France, the government put their families in prison and even deployed assassins to poison them. They were ultimately unsuccessful, and the rouge glassmakers taught French apprentices their craft. Still, Venetian glass stands apart in the genre. It is so delicate and colorful that it almost looks as if it is made of spun sugar. They covered their works with intricate, whimsical adornments such as dragons, dolphins, flowers and birds. The artisans had such control over their technique and such imagination when it came to their decorations that their glass creations were unparalleled.
A Murano glass chandelier, circa 1880.
In Venice, there are canals instead of roads. and you would arrive to someone’s home via boat rather than carriage. Due to this, Venice originated their own form of transportation — the gondola — a flat-bottomed wooden rowing boat. The first mention a gondola was in a 1094 letter from a Venetian Republic official, and by the Renaissance, images of the boats appeared often in paintings. With its simple but sophisticated design, gondola required a skilled craftsman to build. The practical need for this form of transportation meant that Venice and woodworking were inextricably linked. As mentioned before, there was a guild for everything. Each aspect of boat making had its own dedicated guild. There were the mastmakers (alboranti
), the pulleymakers (tagieri
), the oarmakers (remeri
) and the wood carvers responsible for decoration (intagliadori
). The intagliadori
were more like wood sculptors than carvers, and they were commissioned for much more than gondola decoration, including altarpieces for cathedrals and decorative objects for the wealthy. All of the Venice’s nobility and its wealthiest merchants built impressive homes on the banks of the Grand Canal. The entrances to these palaces would feature torchères not only to light the way for visitors from the canal to the door but also to make a grand impression. The examples below represent the spirit of Venice because of their subject matter. Because of its melting pot mentality, the Venetian Republic was a fairly secular state, and operated independently of the Vatican. Instead of religious figures, these torchères depict two of Italy’s most celebrated merchant explorers — Marco Polo and Amerigo Vespucci — and a similar pair reside in the Doge’s Palace.
A pair of Venetian torchères paying homage to Marco Polo and Amerigo Vespucci, early 17th century
Blackamoors in Venetian Decorative Arts
The image of the Blackamoors first came about in the Middle Ages as a result of the Europeans’ encounters with the people they called the Moors. Moor was the term used for the dark-skinned Muslim peoples of northern Africa and the Middle East who migrated to various parts of Europe.
A pair of ebonized, painted and gilded blackamoor jardinières, circa 1850.
By the 17th century, the Moors were especially prominent in Venice. Due to its unique global position and focus on trade, it was a relatively tolerant and diverse city for the time period. Merchants of all nationalities, colors and creeds operated freely in the Republic (although with some notable restrictions such as the Jews being relegated to living in an area known as geti,
or ghetto). Shakespeare even made the titular character of his 1603 play Othello
a Moor because it was entirely plausible that a person of that background could reach the rank of general in the Venetian army. Blackamoors were a popular subject in Venetian decorative arts for these reasons. Robed in sumptuous fabrics and carved of ebonized wood, these stylized depictions typically placed the Blackamoors in a nobly subservient role. Four Blackamoor figures even hold up the Tomb of Doge Giovanni Pesaro in the Frari church.
The Tomb of Doge Giovanni Pesaro in the Frari church, Venice.
Thanks to its central importance to the region and its rich artistic traditions, Venice became an important destination on the Grand Tour. The Grand Tour was a trip throughout Europe (usually with a focus on France and Italy) that became a standard part of the educational curriculum of the young, well-to-do Englishmen of the 17th and 18th centuries. Paris, Florence, Rome and, of course, Venice were necessary stops on the tour. As more and more Grand Tour travelers visited the city, Venetian paintings known as vedute
emerged as a popular and lucrative genre.
) is a highly detailed, highly accurate painting, drawing or etching of a cityscape. These scenes were extremely popular souvenirs with tourists, who brought them back to England as proof of their worldliness. By the mid-18th century, Venice had become renowned as the center of production for these paintings. Artists who created vedute
were called vedutisti
, and the greatest of them came from Venice, including Canaletto and the Guardi family, Giacomo and his father Francesco. These artists strived to remain faithful to the location they were painting so that it could easily be recognized and could appeal to a sense a local pride or nostalgia for a place visited. The examples below by Giacomo Guardi showcase the brick structures (a material lighter than stone and more appropriate for construction in Venice) as true-to-life as possible while also capturing the spirit of the city full of active citizens and thriving commerce.
View of Piazza San Marco by Giacomo Guardi. Gouache on paper.
View of the Ponte di Rialto by Giacomo Guardi. Gouache on paper.
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. Sources: Anna Mutter, Roger Crowley. “The Genius of Venice.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, October 15, 2015. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/genius-of-venice-180956858/. Barr, Sheldon, John Bigelow Taylor, and Gordon. Venetian Glass: Confections in Glass 1855-1914
. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998. Davis, Robert Charles. Shipbuilders of the Venetian Arsenal: Workers and Workplace in the Preindustrial City
. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2007. “DIALOGUE BETWEEN CULTURES.” Venice and its lagoons :: Craft guilds in Venice. Accessed January 2, 2020. http://www.venicethefuture.com/schede/uk/317?aliusid=317. Hartt, Frederick, and David G. Wilkins. History of Italian Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture
. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2011. “Venice – The Guilds.” Renaissance Rules, January 30, 2012. https://renaissancerules.wordpress.com/2012/01/16/venice-the-guilds/.