Three new books on medieval and Renaissance Venice and Florence caught my attention recently. Most significantly: Blake de Maria’s Becoming Venetian: Immigrants and the Arts in Early Modern Venice. The famous social stability of the multicultural Republic of Venice he calls partly a myth and credits partly to its “ethos of mediocritas, a state dictum favoring the visual promotion of society and state over individual accomplishment. Realizing that visual imagery could be (ab)used for personal gain, the Venetian government advocated aesthetic restraint in the private realm.” The ethos was, of course, open to interpretation:
Architecture’s status as the most inherently public of all art forms placed the patron of a private residence in a potentially precarious moral realm. [A] residence misconstrued as an overt visual manifestation of individual accomplishment provided a tangible contradiction to Venice’s ethos of mediocritas … Classical literature provided some guidance for patrons, most notably Aristotle’s views of magnificence … The philosopher deemed the expenditure of wealth on material goods, including residential architecture, as both the right and responsibility of the prince … [S]ince the architecture of magnificence benefited the entire community, its patronage was both justifiable and laudable. This concept quickly expanded beyond the princely realm to include all individuals.
Tackling an earlier chapter in Venice’s history of art- and myth-making is the recent essay collection San Marco, Byzantium, and the Myths of Venice edited by Henry Maguire and Robert S. Nelson, which focuses on the complex early history of the church of San Marco, whose elements accreted over time, experienced numerous changes in meaning, and incorporated diverse influences from all over. As essayist Fabio Barry notes, “From the moment, in 828, that Venice abducted the remains of the apostle Mark from Alexandria, the construction and adornment of San Marco became an exercise in authentication by appropriation.”
A third volume, Lost Girls: Sex and Death in Renaissance Florence, by Nicholas Terpstra, doesn’t directly concern visual art, but provides fascinating insights into daily life in the Renaissance, particularly into the fates of the impoverished girls and women who rarely make an appearance in official histories. The book revolves around a gripping mystery (still unsolved): in 1555, a shelter for orphaned and abandoned teenage girls saw over half its charges die in that one year, of unknown causes. It incorporates all manner of fascinating and horrifying period documents, including one detailing the 1584 conscription of a Florentine virgin to be deflowered by Vincenzo Gonzaga, a test intended to prove his manhood and thus his suitability as a fiancé to Eleonora Medici. The act was certified by nobleman Belisario Vinto who went so far as to “put his hand between her private parts and that of the Prince.” Sometimes, apparently, seeing isn’t believing.