Venice is an artificial miracle, a metropolis of gold and marble and crumbling brick and peeling stucco improbably set afloat upon the Adriatic, anchored in its lagoon by alder stakes confidently driven into a shifting subsoil of silt and sand. Gabrielle Wittkop, in her delightfully macabre novel Sérénissime assassinat (2005), recognized that the Venice we see rising up out of the water “shows only one half of herself,” for she is actually “held aloft on millions of felled trees, upon the forests of Istria, the great trunks cut down, dragged, floated, flayed, and sawn into piles, planted in the mud, bolt upright and tarred like mummies, chain-bound oaks, hooped in iron, held motionless in the sand for all the ages, doubly dead, etiolated corpses encrusted with lime, dead mussels, putrefied seaweed, swathed in nameless debris, decomposed rags and bones.” There is indeed something otherworldly about Venice, both beneath and above the waves. Longfellow called it a “white swan of cities,” a “white phantom city, whose untrodden streets are rivers, and whose pavements are the shifting shadows of palaces and strips of sky,” but insubstantial though it may seem, Venice is also, as Wittkop wrote, a “city of appalling gravity, where even the corpses weigh more heavily than elsewhere.”
Those attuned to the preternatural charms of La Serenissima, like the Regency poet Letitia Elizabeth Landon, understand that the place possesses:
Not the calm beauty of a woodland world,
Fraught with sweet idleness and minstrel-dreams;
But beauty which awakes the intellect
More than the feelings; that of power and mind —
Man’s power, man’s mind — for never city raised
A prouder or a fairer brow than Venice,
The daughter and the mistress of the sea.
Venice can therefore only disappoint those partial to terraferma and the “calm beauty of a woodland world.” François-René de Chateaubriand, who passed through Venice on his way to the Levant, recorded his critical thoughts in a letter appearing in the Aug. 16, 1806 edition of the Parisian journal Mercure de France. Infamously describing Venice as a “city against nature,” Chateaubriand submitted that Venetian architecture was “too varied,” that the ornate Gothic palazzi had been built too close to one another, that the narrow, winding passageways induced claustrophobia, and that the gondolas had “the air of hearses. I took the first that I saw to be ferrying a dead person.” Even the sky was “not what it is beyond the Apennines.”
De gustibus non est disputandum, of course, but it remains unclear how Chateaubriand could possibly have reached the latter of his conclusions. The Friuli-born artist Pompeo Marino Molmenti, in a passage on the “powerful genius” of the Venetian painter Tiepolo, waxed eloquent about how “there are on his joyous palette, vivid transparencies, opaline distances, sunsets of the purple Venetian sky,” while the Scottish historian Horatio Brown, in an equally sensitive discussion of three more Venetian painters — Bellini, Tintoretto, and Titian — elucidated how “the dome-like spaces which Bellini leaves above his throned Madonnas’ heads, recall the infinite sweep of the vast Venetian sky; nowhere in painting do we feel, as we feel in Tintoret, that shimmer of light, that blending of tones which belong to the waters of the lagoon; nowhere are the flaming glories of the sunset sky more vividly reproduced than in the triumphant splendours of Titian’s canvases.” These are sights and sensations that no good faith visitor to the Floating City could miss, yet the Frenchman’s dour characterization of Venice as “une ville contre nature” would have lasting consequences.
Chateaubriand’s letter provoked a predictable uproar in Venice, with the spirited Marchioness Orintia Romagnoli Sacrati responding with a pamphlet in which she asked: “Per altro come mai si può rispondere al delirio di un uomo? Se uno dicesse che il Sole è un corpo emanatore di tenebre, chi vorrebe contraddirlo? [On the other hand, how can you even respond to such delirium? If someone were to say that the sun was a body that emanates darkness, how could you contradict him?]” The Marchioness’ fellow woman of letters, Giustina Renier Michiel, was rather more temperate in her response, calmly insisting that “each of our streets is a trophy of our endurance, and every step is taken on the soil of a monument of peaceful conquest,” while pointing out that it was the Venetian sculptor Canova who was responsible for some of the finest artworks on display in Chateaubriand’s beloved Rome. Madame de Staël, author of Corinne, ou l’Italie (1807), would side with Chateaubriand, however, asserting that “a feeling of sadness falls upon the spirits as you enter Venice,” the result of a “grotesquely ornamented” urban landscape sorely lacking in “nature, trees, and vegetation.”
What started out as an aesthetic debate between various Romantic literati would have grave real world consequences when Napoleon Bonaparte arrived on the Venetian scene in the dying days of 1807. Having already rifled through the corpse of the Venetian Republic back in 1797 as part of the rapacious spoliations napoléoniennes — carrying away Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana, Mantegna’s San Zeno Altarpiece, and other priceless works of artistry — Bonaparte wanted to refashion what remained. Eager to introduce Venetians to “the joys of verdure,” the French dictator declared that a swath of the Castello neighborhood near the Arsenal was to be transformed into a vast garden replete with formal walks, public baths, caffès, and in the very center a hill planted with evergreens and surmounted by a circular Neoclassical temple featuring an idealized statue of Bonaparte. The ambitious project required the destruction of a number of churches, including Sant’Antonio, San Domenico, and San Nicolò, as well as a seminary, a hospice for sailors, and innumerable residences of the fishermen, lacemakers, and impirasse (bead-threaders) who traditionally dwelled in the Castello district. Sir Francis Palgrave, writing in 1842, suggested that the creation of the giardini pubblici “afforded an excuse for pulling down a few churches which in itself was a recommendation for the French.” Displacing members of the roiling Venetian underclass may have been an added benefit.
The garden would be completed in 1810, though without the baths and the indulgent tempietto so as to save on costs, but it was never embraced by the Venetians themselves, who rejected the site’s prim formalism. Emmanuele Cicogna inveighed against the garden’s entrance, which looked like a “lion cage” or the “gateway to a well-defended fortress,” while the architect and archaeologist Gaetano Pinali lamented the loss of the demolished churches, all for the sake of a “monotonous walk,” and further twisted the knife by critiquing the “obsolete preference for a formal garden, rather than one closer to nature.” The reality of the Venetian urban landscape precludes sprawling gardens like the Parisian Tuileries, Jardin du Luxembourg, and the Jardin du Palais Royal, and Bonaparte’s efforts to greenify the city were bound to end in failure. Yet it was, as Gaetano Pineal argued, the destruction of the Church of Sant’Antonio di Castello for the sake of the mediocre Giardini Napoleonici that proved to be the worst aesthetic crime of all.
In Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella Death in Venice, the protagonist Gustav von Aschenbach determines that “to reach Venice by land, on the rail-road, was like entering a palace from the rear, and that the most unreal of cities should not be approached except as he was now doing, by ship, over the high seas.” From the 13th through the 18th century, it was the facade of the Church of Sant’Antonio di Castello that would have first greeted seagoing visitors to Venice; one 17th-century chronicler noted that “whoever arrives to Venice by way of sea, who passes by the Ledo Harbor, and travels past the island of Certosa, past the island of Sant’elena will see the urban nucleus of the city within a vast lagoon. The city will be presented to them with the façade of the church of Sant’Antonio Abate, also known for its location as Sant’Antonio di Castello.” By destroying the church, whether as as a matter of aesthetic whim or deep-seated anti-clericalism, the French occupiers had essentially cut off the city’s nose, thereby disfiguring it in perpetuity.
A few images of Sant’Antonio survive, most notably Luca Carlevarijs’ 1740 View of the Chiesa and the Monasterio, but if the reader wishes to know what the interior of the church looked like in its heyday, the best way is to visit Vittore Carpaccio’s The Vision of Prior Ottobon in Sant’Antonio di Castello, currently on display as part of the spectacular “Vittore Carpaccio: Master Storyteller of Renaissance Venice” exhibition in the National Gallery of Art’s West Building. Carpaccio’s Vision depicts a dream experienced by Prior Francesco Ottobon in 1511 after he prayed for his monastery’s deliverance from the plague, whereupon he was visited by a spectral parade of 10,000 martyrs, but it also lovingly portrays the interior of the Sant’Antonio di Castello, with its gracefully undulating ogival arches and lavishly decorated chapels.
Those 10,000 martyrs reappear in another painting by Carpaccio that once graced the same church of Sant’Antonio, and has now been included in the National Gallery exhibition: The Crucifixion and Apotheosis of the Ten Thousand Martyrs of Mount Ararat. Here Carpaccio has illustrated the legendary event in which Roman legionaries sent by the Emperor Diocletian to subdue Armenian rebels, having converted en masse to Christianity, were crucified by the thousands after refusing to revert to pagan idolatry. The canvas is appropriately teeming with holy victims mounted on crosses or impaled on tree branches as if by a bloodthirsty shrike, while Mount Ararat seems to float off in the distance beneath a glowering dark sky. Since the destruction of Sant’Antonio, Carpaccio’s masterpiece has languished in relative obscurity in the Galleria dell’Accademia, overshadowed by some of his better-known works, like the Dream of Ursula cycle, but it is altogether worthy of notice. An anonymous marginal annotation in the 1550 edition of Vasari’s Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, part of Yale University’s Beinecke Library collection, states that Carpaccio “made an altarpiece in Sant’Antonio in tempera representing ten thousand martyrs, which is the most beautiful altarpiece in Venice,” and it is hard to disagree with the assessment, though it would doubtless look much better in its original context.
There is, appropriately enough, a distinctly dreamlike quality present in Carpaccio’s The Vision of Prior Ottobon in Sant’Antonio di Castello and The Crucifixion and Apotheosis of the Ten Thousand Martyrs of Mount Ararat, just as there in in his deeply affecting 1510 portrait A Young Knight, also on display in the National Gallery, which may have been painted in memory of a soldier who fell either in the 1509 siege of Padua or the War of the League of Cambrai (1508–1516).
Carpaccio’s pensive knight, who has either just sheathed or is just about to unsheathe his sword, stands against a fantastical landscape teeming with symbolism — a falcon and heron battling in midair, white lilies and white ermines, a sturdy oak tree nearly devoid of leaves, a piece of paper discarded in the weeds bearing the slogan malo mori quam foederi, or “death before dishonor.” John Ruskin, who helped rescue Carpaccio from critical indifference, thought that the Venetian painter had wielded a “kind of magic mirror which flashes back instantly whatever it sees beautifully arranged, but yet will flash back commonplace things often as faithfully as others … a subject under Carpaccio’s hand is always just as it would or might have occurred in nature; and among a myriad of trivial incidents, you are left, by your own sense and sympathy, to discover the vital one.” The Narrator of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time likewise makes repeated mention of Carpaccio, whose paintings were described as exhibiting “a bloom of luminosity, that sort of tenderness, of solemn sweetness in the pomp of a joyful celebration.” The paintings included in “Vittore Carpaccio: Master Storyteller of Renaissance Venice” show another side of Carpaccio, with works manifesting a sense of dreamlike hyperreality, alluding to plague, war, and genocide while somehow maintaining a sense of stillness and heavenly calm.
Proust’s Narrator, out for an evening walk in Time Regained, remarks on the sheer variety of soldiers on parade in post-war Paris:
There, the impression of an oriental vision which I had had earlier in the evening came to me again, and I thought too of the Paris of an earlier age, not now so much of the Paris of the Directory as of the Paris of 1815. As in 1815 there was a march past of allied troops in the most variegated uniforms; and among them, the Africans in their red divided skirts, the Indians in their white turbans were enough to transform for me this Paris through which I was walking into a whole imaginary exotic city, an oriental scene which was at once meticulously accurate with respect to the costumes and the colors of the faces and arbitrarily fanciful when it came to the background, just as out of the town in which he lived Carpaccio made a Jerusalem or a Constantinople by assembling in its streets a crowd whose marvelous motley was not more rich in color than that of the crowd around me.
Carpaccio, with his unique combination of meticulous accuracy and fancifulness, produced timeless works that transcend their origins in the Venetian Renaissance. Looking at the surviving depiction of the interior of Sant’Antonio, we cannot help but be reminded of the places of worship destroyed in ongoing conflicts, like the Church of St. George in Zavorychi on the outskirts of Kyiv and the Sviatohirsk Lavra monastery in Donetsk, destroyed by Russian marauders, or the Armenian Ghazanchetsots Cathedral of the Holy Savior in Shushi, pulverized by Azerbaijani forces. Gazing upon The Crucifixion and Apotheosis of the Ten Thousand Martyrs of Mount Ararat inevitably evokes the genocide that has been visited upon Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in recent years. And standing before A Young Knight, we are confronted with the immensity of the sacrifice made by those on the frontlines who choose death before dishonor.
Carpaccio was a quintessentially Venetian artist, his works simultaneously ethereal and yet exhibiting an “appalling gravity.” The ongoing exhibition of his works at the National Gallery, the first Carpaccio retrospective ever held outside Italy, represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience the painter’s magic mirror firsthand on this side of the Atlantic. In doing so, the visitor may partake of the particularly Venetian “beauty which awakes the intellect,” which has thankfully been rescued, at least in part, from the teeth of time.
“Vittore Carpaccio: Master Storyteller of Renaissance Venice” will be on view through February 12, 2023 at the National Gallery of Art’s West Building, Main Floor, and then at the Palazzo Ducale in Venice from March 18–June 18, 2023.