Prolific classicist Wills (Saint Augustine’s Childhood, above, etc.) examines the politics, art, and religion of Renaissance Venice to show how the sea empire was a crowning achievement of civilization.
Venice controlled much of the Mediterranean during the 15th and 16th centuries, defying the Turks, the Pope, and a host of other powerful neighbors. Wills owes this success to an extremely efficient government and the patriotism and piety of the Venetian people. To forestall internal power struggles, Venice elected its leader, the Doge, from a community of patrician families. Participation in this community was hereditary; others were “locked out.” But the government this system created was progressive for its time. The Doge was almost always elderly and had severely constrained powers. Membership on key state committees, also limited to the nobility, had its checks and balances in the form of constantly rotating committee appointments. As a result, no one person accrued too much power, but the emblems of state lived on. “As federal buildings in the United Stated have pictures of the current president in courts and bureaus, the administrative offices of the Venetian republic had large heraldic paintings of the lion of Venice as certifications of their authority,” writes Wills. The lion, the symbol of Saint Mark, served as a link between the Venetian state and people. The body of Mark was stolen from Egypt, hidden from Muslims in a ship’s hold (it was concealed under pork) and deposited in Venice, where it blessed the city as a holy relic. Wills spends much time delving into the intricacies of the lion symbol, as well as the images of numerous other saints that played a crucial role in Venetian culture. He paints a picture of a city awash in iconography, with each generation—including artists like Titian and Tintoretto—adding its layer of monuments and designs. The author’s close readings occasionally border on the obsessive, but the subject is rich and merits the attention.
A history from the precious perspective of a devotee.