Venice | The Basis of Classical Revival in Renaissance Art & Architecture

In his book ‘The History of Venice’, JJ Norwich states “However majestic the churches, however magnificent the palazzi, however dazzling the pictures, the ultimate masterpiece remains Venice herself.”.  Indeed, the very splendour of Venice conjures up a sense of romance which is steeped in classical history.  Aesthetically, Venice penetrates and overwhelms the senses with her abundance of visual delights.  However, this carefully crafted veneer that Venice has constructed since the Renaissance conceals an unsettling motivation in which to induce us. 


A carefully crafted history

Without a natural history of its own, there was a deliberate attempt to frame a very specific ideology, which began at the very formation of Venice in 421 AD.  The clearest illustration of this is the legend termed ‘The Myth of Venice’.  It began with a theft of the sarcophagus of St. Mark in 828 from Alexandra.  This was to become a visual testament of classical symbolism, and would demonstrate the Venetian hubris of Renaissance architecture and sculpture.  The epitome of this is the Lion of St. Mark, where the evangelist St. Mark is personified as a winged-lion, and is integrated within many artworks and architecture, reaffirming its classical past.  A seminal image was produced by Carpaccio in 1516 (pictured below), illustrating the divine gesture of the winged lion crossing the divide between past and present.  This icon was used throughout art and architecture, and also takes centre stage at the very shores of Venice in statue at the Piazza San Marco, opposite St. Theodore of Amasea.



A fusion of Italian and Islamic themes

Several iconic landmarks exemplify a fusion of neo-Gothic and Byzantine themes.  A particular example of this is the Doges Palace (pictured opposite).  The exterior illustrates a use of marble, monolithic columns at each corner, and a system of horizontal and vertical brickwork, all consistent with classical, gothic and Islamic Byzantine themes.  A panel of Quatra-fore motifs, which are references to the Doges Palace, are consistently used.  Neo-Gothic visuals envelope the structure, with its arched window frames and  sharply pointed spires.  Within the building itself, the Council of Ten commissioned Paolo Veronese to paint three large canvasses, which depicted classical mythology narratives of Mars & Neptune, Triumph of Faith, and Venice with Peace.  The interior of St Mark’s Basilica further illustrates similar classical arches, gothic-style pointed windows, and Byzantine-esque sensuous gold, which remained even as its constituent parts around it were refashioned.


Consolidating Padua

Venice incorporated Padua in fifteen century.  The ‘Paduan Circle’ of the Florentine Donato (Donatello), Francesco Squarcione, and Andrea Montegna, engaged in various artistic projects that would shape classical interest in Venice.  Donatello’s work garned huge interest in the remnances of antiqurian culture.  His bronze castings exemplified his alliegience to the classical and ancient style already prevalent in Florence.  Of particular reference were both his magnificant bronze sculpture of Gattamelata (pictured above), a re-creation of the Venetian Condottoriee of 1438, andSt. Justina at the Basilica di Sant’Antonio.  Meanwhile, Andrea Montegna had a passionate love affair with classical antiquity, and he participated in culture greatly.  His fresco’s in Padua were both historically correct and authentically antique.  These artisitic achievements cemented Padua’s place as an epicentre of artistic innovation, gestating Padua’s classical development ahead of Venice.


Tulio Lombardo

Tulio Lombardo was born in 1455.  He had a natural love of antiquity, to the point that his own signature expressed fine antiquity lettering.  His sculptures depicted a new kind of portraiture, commonly referred to as ‘alla antica’.  Nudity was an important dimension to his work, as it visualised divine power that clothing struggled to represent.  He further fused historical and present-day, by portraying the image of modern people in antique guise.  The ‘meditational’ aspect of his sculptures evokes memories of antiquity, as do other classical references like the bare chested females, and the slight dip of the head.  His funeral monuments (tombs), were the genre between private and public during Renaissance, and were the fusion between Tuscan & Paduan classicism into Venetian tomb design.  An exquisite example of this is the Tomb of Doge Andrea Vendramin (pictured above), located at the Church of Santi Giovanni Paolo from 1489. The old testament characters of Adam & Eve, intricate decoration, triumphal (Roman) columns, all juxtapose within this seminal piece.   This style was also demonstrated in his earlier Tomb of Doge Pietro Mocenigo from 1476, once again displaying a richness of alla antica gestures and detail.


Marc Antonio Barboro

Whilst sculptures were a central part of visual indoctrination to classical antiquity, tomb design could be viewed as a natural progression to larger-scale architectural projects.  At the forefront of this, was Marc Antonio Barboro.  He was involved in all major public buildings from 1550-1600, and throughout had a sustained interest in religious architecture.  Marc’s collaborations with his brother Daniele and Paolo Veronese combined to produce one of the most stunning classical style villas for private use: Maser.  The villa at Maser (pictured below), which was Barboro’s very own, was constructed during the early 1550’s. The collaboration was a celebration of external architectural design, and interior classical mythology. Daniele & Palladio both studied antiquities in Rome in their former years, which is clearly evident in aspects such as the grand imperial staircase.  Deeper into the compound is The Nymphaeum, which hosts a beautiful Roman fountain.



In Summary

Later in the sixteenth century further examples of classical-style architecture were established.  Jacapo Sansovinio, who was the chief super of Venice buildings during 1530-1570, worked on the Library of San Marco (pictured below).  The building is of grand design, with engaging columns providing the exterior a clear Roman reference.  It has Roman statutes aloft, and detailed classical-style mosaics panelled above the first storey, all culminating in light, elegant decorations rich in classical motifs.



Whilst Florence & Rome were quick to adapt to Renaissance ideals, Venice was restrictive and held onto gothic themes, and therefore constantly re-inventing.  Among the many catalysts, Doge Andrea Grimani resurged Venice, presenting it as an imperial city with a single vision – the new Rome.  Around 1500, there were emergences of classical mythology through the early work of Titian.  He evolved the style to mythological, including narratives infused with classical references like the Three Ages of Man.  Ultimately though it was architecture, literature and sculpture that truly promoted the classical cause.  These original reinventions gave ‘alla antica’ authority, by making them look authentic, organic, and credible.  This was the mastery of Venice.



Useful links:

Venice (Wikipedia)

The History of Venice by JJ Norwich (Amazon)


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