This is a detail of the mosaic in the semi-dome of the portal of San Alipio on the facade of St Marks in Venice. It’s the last survivor of five such mosaics which once graced the famous church. The detail shows the whole reason for the church’s existence, the arrival of the body of St Mark. The story goes that in the 9th century Venetian merchants were in Alexandria–where Mark had been martyred over seven centuries before–and heard of the Sultan’s plan to destroy the cemetery where St Mark’s body was thought to reside. The merchants stole the body, packed it in pork to dissuade diligence on the part of the Muslim customs inspectors, and smuggled the body back to Venice. There, instead of giving the relic to the bishop of the city, they presented it to the Doge, the secular, political leader of the city. Thus St Marks became a sort of extension of the state. Here we see the coffin of St Mark being carried in through the doors of the church. It almost seems like his head is up and taking a look at his new home.
The spiritual heart of Venice is the church of St Mark, one of the world’s most famous and recognizable buildings. Fewer people know what the inside looks like, however, and today they push people through it by the thousands. It’s not very conducive to contemplation. So here’s a picture to ponder. St Marks was modeled on a famous church in Constantinople, the church of the Holy Apostles, which was destroyed by the Ottoman Turks in 1461. A mosque was built in its place. What wonders of art were destroyed with it one can only guess. San Marco gives us a sense, however derivative, of the former church’s splendor.
This is a detail of the mourning figures at the foot of the cross in Tintoretto’s Crucifixion scene in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice (see also post below). San Rocco, or St Roch, was a French plague saint, which meant he protected people, and the city, from the Black Death. Since the plague was a constant threat, especially for seafaring Venetians, San Rocco was a particularly popular saint. He’s often shown as a pilgrim. He contracted the plague, and in his depictions he shows the characteristic festering wound on his thigh. Through his faith, however, he survives and becomes a saintly model. In this detail of Tintoretto’s painting in the Scuola, a pyramid of despair piles up at the foot of the cross, with St John and the two Marys as well as other figures. The women, especially, slump into a heap, inviting the viewers to share their grief.
One of the great sights in Venice is the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, not only in terms of its monumental and classicizing facade but for the dozens of paintings by Tintoretto that decorate the interior, especially the upper room or sala del capitolo. The most impressive of all, and the largest, is the crucifixion scene. This figure, who pulls on a rope to help raise the cross of the good thief (who is being crucified alongside Christ), is the most dynamic in a field teeming with energetic figures. Tintoretto liked him too, giving him a brighter colour and spotlighting him so he stands out. His pose is complex and dramatic. It feels as if, if the rope were to break, he’d fall right into our space.
There are a lot of Venetian altarpieces in museums, and there were a lot of medieval ones broken up into component parts and sold off bit by bit. Both instances take the altarpiece out of the context that is was made for. This past week I finally made it into the church of San Zaccaria in Venice. I’d seen the outside before but had never dropped by when it was open. So I finally got to see Giovanni Bellini’s 1505 San Zaccaria altarpiece in its proper location with its original frame against the walls of the church. San Zaccaria was the most important nunnery in Venice in the renaissance, and they exercised a lot of discretion in their patronage of both art and architecture.
The gondola is perhaps Venice’s most recognizable icon, and the gondoliers take great pride in their individual crafts, even though it may seem at first that they are all the same. In the details they vary greatly. These golden additions caught my eye as their gondola bounced in the wake of a vaporetto near the Bacino waterfront.
As anyone who frequents my blog knows, my favorite medium is mosaic, and there isn’t anywhere I won’t go to find some great ones. This is a detail of a semi-dome in the church of San Lorenzo Maggiore in Milan. In the mosaic Christ is flanked by his apostles, four of whom are shown here looking up to their divine boss with appropriate admiration. The 5th century CE artist has used orange tesserae (that’s what the bits of a mosaic are called; sing. tessera) to indicate light shining from heaven. A brilliant technique.
The Galleria of Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan might be the world’s first shopping mall (though in truth the Romans had them), built by the architect Mengoni and finished in 1877. It’s still magnificent almost a century and a half later and takes it’s place among the iron matrix wonders of the 19th century, of which the Eiffel Tower is the most famous, though it was finished a decade after the Galleria. Frescoes in the corners of the huge dome at the intersection of the barrel vaults show allegorical figures of the four continents as they were then understood: Asia, Africa, Europe, and America. Even though it’s so old, even today it looks like an architecture of the future.
This is a detail of a painting by Gentile Bellini called The Miracle of the Relic of the True Cross at the Bridge of San Lorenzo, which dates from 1500. The painting was commissioned by the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista, a Venetian lay brotherhood that owned and venerated a fragment of the True Cross. They commissioned a series of paintings by a number of artists to show the history of the relic and the miracles performed by it, especially those in the many processions it was carried in. In this painting the relic has jumped into the canal, and only a virtuous member of the scuola, Andrea Vendramin, can catch it, demonstrating his and his family’s virtue. Witnesses to this miraculous event line the shores of the canal, here, a cortege of noble women, all dressed to the nines and reacting appropriately to the event unfolding before their eyes.
This is a detail, an even closer one, from the painting in the posting below: Tintoretto’s St Mark Saving the Slave of 1548. I wanted to get a shot that showed the painter’s brushwork, how he created a convincing sense of shiny fabric crimping on a bending elbow. It’s a complex series of white and shades of blue all done in a quick zig-zag, and yet from just a few feet it’s entirely convincing and evokes a strong sense of the fabric’s sheen, weight, colour, and texture. Note, too, the foreshortened faces. In this painting almost every figure is either completely or partially foreshortened in some way. The ‘Little Dyer’, Jacopo Comin (Tintoretto’s real name; he was the son of a dyer) showing off.
This is a detail from a remarkable 1548 painting by Tintoretto, which was once housed in the Scuola Grande di San Marco in Venice. Now it’s in the Gallery of the Accademia in Venice. The whole painting shows a miracle of St Mark as the saint flies out of the heavens to protect a slave who is being attacked for worshiping relics. It’s a classic Counter-Reformation piece, reconfirming forcefully the Catholic focus on the veneration of relics. I picked out a detail of the nude body of the slave, the broken wooden clubs and loosed rope around him. One of the most difficult techniques for artists of the renaissance was foreshortening, and only the best masters could do it well. Here, Tintoretto shows his mastery not only of the nude male figure but also its foreshortening in space.
In Byzantine decoration the peacock is a common motif. In many cases, a pair of them eat grapes from a vase, often with vines growing from it. The vase shape is a kantharos, a Greek vase that was used for wine. The grapes and wine are a symbol of Christ (the wine signifying his blood), and thus the promise of salvation and the paradise that awaits the blessed. These peacocks are done in mosaic on the floor just inside the main portal of the magnificent church of San Donato on Murano in the Venetian lagoon. They date from the 12th century. All of the pavements of San Donato are done in splendid mosaics. In one scene, a fox is captured by rabbits, while in others knot designs and geometric motifs in coloured stones decorate the floor.
The famous four horses that for centuries graced the facade of the church of St Mark in Venice have now been moved just inside, replicas having taken their places out in front. They are mostly made of copper and some of the gilding still clings to them, though there are hundreds of scratches, likely made by people trying to get off what little gold there was. Indeed, it may have been Venetians themselves who did the scraping. These horses have a storied history. Where and when they were made is a mystery. Some think that they are late-Greek works, Hellenistic, made in Chios or for a Roman emperor. It’s probable they were linked to a chariot and stood at the famous Circus Maximus in Rome. At some point, either at the bidding of the emperor Septimius Severes or Constantine, they were moved to the hippodrome in Constantinople, and there they graced that legendary city for about a thousand years, until 1204 when the Venetians sacked the city and stripped Constantinople of all its finery, shipping all the loot back to Venice. The horses, too, were part of the spoils. There they overlooked the Piazza San Marco for another 800 years. Finally, they get to retire inside. If only these horses could talk.
Lorenzo Lotto (1480-56) was one of the finest Italian painters of his generation, but not so many people have heard of him because he was eclipsed by other more famous and more productive Venetian painters like Titian. But he created some marvelous works. Of his portraits this may be my favorite. It’s of a man, his identify unknown, sitting at a desk. What I’m showing here is the detail of the desk and the objects on it: rose petals, a lizard, a book, a folded piece of paper, a cap, a gold chain…. The book shows he’s learned, his clothing shows his wealth, his delicate hands his refinement and the fact he doesn’t work with them.
This is a detail of a 6th century CE mosaic from the church of San Lorenzo in Milan. The entire mosaic scene, much of it gone, depicted Christ in the Chariot of the Sun, an early and rare depiction of Christ relating him to the Greco-Roman god Apollo in his sun chariot. The city of Milan, in northern Italy, was Christianized early and was once controlled by the Byzantines, and some significant early mosaics still survive there. This figure was part of a bucolic scene at the bottom of the mosaic showing shepherds in grassy fields with their flocks. This fellow stretches out along the shore of a verdant spring stream.