Gallery view of Glory of Venice exhibition

The Myth of Venice

Glory of Venice is on view Oct. 2, 2016-Feb. 12, 2017

Glory of Venice: Masterworks of the Renaissance gives Denver a taste of the art and history of Venice. Following is an essay about the city by curator of painting and sculpture Angelica Daneo, which is adapted from the publication that accompanies the exhibition. (Exclusively available at The Shop and our online shop.)

It is difficult to think of another city whose enduring charm has captured people’s imagination for centuries and continues to seduce visitors to this day.

'Another World'

Venice is a city unlike any other. Seemingly floating on water, it was built atop a group of about 120 islands, separated from one another by some 150 canals, with the Canal Grande as its major water artery.

The use of superlatives to describe Venice recurs constantly in the diaries and memoirs of travelers, who often admit that they lack the words to properly describe a city that the Tuscan poet Petrarch, as early as the fourteenth century, called a mundus alter (another world).

Endowed with Wealth, Fame, Peace & Stability

From its mythical founding on the day of the feast of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary (March 25) to the arrival from Alexandria, Egypt, of the (supposed) relics of Saint Mark in 829, Venice forged for itself a legendary past that would explain the blessed present: a city endowed with wealth, fame, peace, and political stability, a most-valued quality during the tumultuous times of the Renaissance.

In reality Venice owed its origin to mainland residents fleeing the barbarian Longobardi in the sixth century. After a period of direct control from Byzantium, Venetians and their doge (“duke” in Venetian dialect) increasingly asserted their independence, culminating in the sack of Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade.

Even though no longer under the control of the Byzantine Empire, Venice maintained lucrative relations with the East and strategic outposts in the Adriatic, Mediterranean, and Aegean seas. Although over the Quattrocento and Cinquecento the Venetian republic lost some colonies, the Venetian maritime empire continued to be significant and, together with Venice’s mainland territorial possessions, a threat to the ambitions of other powers.

Acknowledging this threat, in December 1508 Pope Julius II, King Louis XII of France, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, and Ferdinand II of Aragon, king of Sicily, sealed an alliance called the League of Cambrai, with the purpose of curtailing Venice and taking possession of its dominions. Venice sustained a disastrous defeat by the French armies at Agnadello in May 1509, which resulted in the loss of all its mainland territories. This crushing humiliation, however, did not prevent Venice from gradually reconquering its lands by 1516, thanks also to a strategic alliance with France, its former opponent.

Although conflicts to maintain or gain power were always on the horizon, the end of the War of the League of Cambrai inaugurated a short period of peace under the leadership of Doge Leonardo Loredan (ruled 1501–1521). Venice had, for the moment, triumphed over its enemies.

Venice's Triumph

The city’s renewed confidence in its greatness, and sense of divine protection, is well represented by a grandiose work included in this exhibition, The Triumph of Venice (pictured above), painted in 1737 by Pompeo Batoni. Commissioned, and intellectually conceived, by Marco Foscarini, Venetian ambassador to the Holy See, the painting is an allegorical glorification of the Republic of Venice following the War of the League of Cambrai. Doge Loredan stands next to the personification of Venice, who is seated on a chariot drawn by winged lions, symbol of Saint Mark, patron of the republic. The complex allegorical program of this canvas sought to celebrate the flourishing of Venice in the aftermath of the war, with references to its superior political system and artistic achievements.

But Venice’s arts did not thrive solely during peacetime. Throughout the second half of the 1400s and early 1500s, the period that is the focus of this exhibition, Venice was constantly engaged in both offensive and defensive actions to promote its interests. And yet this was a most fruitful time for the development of a distinct Renaissance style and artistic identity.

Centuries have passed, yet Venice continues to inspire and captivate, as mythical today as it was during the Renaissance.

Image credit: Gallery view of Glory of Venice: Masterworks of the Renaissance. Pompeo Girolamo Batoni, The Triumph of Venice, 1737, Oil on canvas, 68 5/8 x 112 5/8 in. (174.3 x 286.1 cm), North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh: Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, GL.60.17.60.

Angelica Daneo is the curator of painting and sculpture at the Denver Art Museum. Angelica has been at the DAM since 2004.