The opulence of Venetian style is deeply rooted in time. In the history of art, Venice plays a unique and important role. In addition to its novel political organization—hailed as a model of government during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance—the Venetian Republic’s influence stretched far beyond the waterlogged city. Its geographical location, poised on the edge of the Eastern world, made it an important point of departure for western pilgrims and crusaders.
East and West
In the Middle Ages the powerful Republic of Venice colonized the eastern Mediterranean. Venetian merchants and mercenaries alternately pummeled and traded with some of the most illustrious cities of the East, especially Constantinople. This strategic location also made Venice a point of entry for luxury goods and plundered wares from the Byzantine and Arab worlds. As Venetian Crusaders looted Eastern cities and brought home their booty, local artists were influenced by the modes of the Byzantine and Islamic worlds. The city’s artistic traditions and forms bear witness to this historical position as a crossroads of East and West. In turn, many of the goods produced in the Venetian Republic were exported or copied elsewhere in Europe.
Luminous colors, shimmering surfaces
In addition to this nod toward Eastern modes, Venetian art is also renowned for its luminous colors and shimmering surfaces. Surrounded by the sparkling, reflective waters of the Venetian lagoon, it is only natural that artists would feel inspired to replicate these effects. Artists sought to achieve the most vibrant colors: the rich ruby, sapphire, green and amber used in painting, mosaic, glass, marble, and other materials. Venetian artists used a variety of techniques to impart this lucidity and richness to their materials. Medieval Venetian mosaicists, for example, experimented with applying colored oxides over silver or translucent glass so that light would be reflected back from the tesserae, or pieces, they assembled to create mosaics. Venetian painters of the 1500s experimented with grinding shards of Murano glass into their paint pigments to impart a rich translucency and shimmering quality to their oil paintings, a particular Venetian practice whose results brought these painters fame across Europe.
Even after the decline of the Venetian Republic, the distinctive Venetian spirit continued to pervade the city’s artistic traditions. Today in Venice, many of the trades of the past are still living traditions. The medieval guilds may be long gone, but their arts, their techniques, and their soul still thrive in Venice. The skills, the forms, the knowledge, and more importantly, the spirit of the past, is kept alive in the hands of a small number of individuals who take pride in their city’s unique visual essence.
I’m enjoying these short articles, Laura. I find it interesting that the Venetian painters in the 1500s experimented with adding ground Murano glass to their paints. I’ve never read that before!
I’m glad you’re enjoying them, Suzanne! Venetian painters were known for imparting luminescence and vivid color to everything they did. The ground glass just seemed to make sense to them, I suppose! –Laura