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5—All'immortalità del nome di Venetia : The Serenissima on Stage
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The Myth of Venice

In their misty visions of the origins of their city, Venetian chronicles traced two alternative routes back to Troy. One offered a direct line of descent: just as the Trojan Aeneas had founded Rome, so, in parallel course, Antenor had fled burning Troy for northern Italy, there to found Venice—not, significantly, Padua (which more famously claimed him as progenitor).[2] The second version, less direct, but boasting a more celebrated genealogy, went via Rome. The city established by Aeneas developed into the Roman Republic and matured into the full glory of empire, only to succumb to inevitable decline. Once-mighty Rome fell to the invading barbarian hordes, and from the ruins of one great historical epoch there rose a new, divinely ordained republic founded in Christian liberty. The successor to the pagan state created by Aeneas was the Republic of Saint Mark, which, favored by God, was destined to surpass Rome in power and vastness of dominion, glory and abundance of riches. Either way, then, the myth of Venice was based, ultimately, on the Trojan succession.

Integral to that myth of Venice as the safeguard of liberty and justice and preserver of civilization was the Rome-Venice paragone . Evolving as a response to the need for historical self-definition, an exercise in political etiology, the myth proved extraordinarily successful at home as well as abroad in promoting the image of Venice. It shaped the political imagination of the Serenissima and came to permeate every aspect of Venetian culture as well. Broadcast in a remarkable variety of literary efforts—including religious and political tracts and histories, in addition to encomiastic poetry and occasional scripts—it assumed pictorial form in the decorations of the Ducal Palace and other public buildings. The personification of the state as an armed female warrior, Venetia, was explicitly modeled on the goddess Roma.[3]

Although the myth had slowly evolved in the course of the Middle Ages—crudely asserted in the chronicles, more elegantly and influentially articulated by Petrarch—events in more recent history stimulated important elaborations of the basic material. The most serious threat to the survival of Venice, the


League of Cambrai (1508) and the accompanying papal interdict (1509), forced significant and resonant modifications. That crisis was successfully resolved with the Peace of Bologna (1529-30), but Venice could no longer rely on her military might. With her imperial momentum thwarted, she now emphasized her diplomatic virtues, her role as champion of peace as well as liberty. A new, Renaissance iconography was developed as part of this self-conscious presentation of a new rhetorical image of Venice, one populated by Olympian deities and pagan heroes. It is most publicly announced in the sculptural program of the Loggetta of San Marco designed by Jacopo Sansovino in 1537: in niches, bronze figures of Minerva, Apollo, Mercury, and Peace declare the special attributes of the state; in the attic above, a relief representing Venice as Justice is flanked by others of Venus (Cyprus) and Jupiter (Crete), suggesting the expanse of Venice's maritime empire.[4]

In the Ducal Palace, the central architectural monument of Venetian political power and wisdom, this imagery was brought to still more spectacular life in the paintings of Veronese and Tintoretto. Personified in those canvases were the same virtues, attributes, and qualities that were celebrated again and again in the encomiastic poetry in praise of Venice. Venetian poets invoked the same allegorical dramatis personae in giving voice to the myth. Thus, for example, a poem by Domenico Venier, written before the middle of the sixteenth century and set to music by Baldassare Donato, sings of "Gloriosa felice alma Vineggia / Di Giustizia, d'amor, di pace albergo." Another, also set by Donato, celebrates the "Quattro Dee che 'l mondo honora et ama," the four political virtues of Victory, Peace, Wisdom, and Fame. And, combining these several arts, theatrical presentations in the Ducal Palace gave further life to their message in the late cinquecento. In a masque such as the Rappresentatione fatta avanti il Serenissimo Prencipe di Venetia Nicolò da Ponte, il giorno di S. Stefano 1580, the text of which was duly published, the characters include Peace and Victory as well as Wisdom, by now traditional personifications of Venice's political virtù .[5] Venice had quite effectively pressed all the arts into service in presenting


herself to the world, and the Venetians themselves were at once participants in and audience to this spectacle.

In the opening years of the seventeenth century, a crisis once again confronted Venice, an open conflict with Rome that led to yet another papal interdict (1606-7). Seizing the occasion, Venetian apologists—led by Paolo Sarpi—reaffirmed the superiority of their city over (now modern) Rome, celebrating it as a haven of religious liberty.[6] And the War of Candia (Crete), beginning in 1645, offered still further occasion for mounting the literary defense of Venice—now as the civilized Christian bulwark against the pagan barbarians of the east.[7]

Among the most prominent of the writers whose pens were in the active service of the Serenissima and who exploited the Rome-Venice paragone toward that end was Giulio Strozzi. His epic poem Venetia edificata (1624), a monumental verse narration of the founding of Venice, epitomizes the mythic vision of Venetian history (figs. 13, 14). Continuing the long tradition of genealogical epics, Strozzi's "poema eroico" aspires to be the Venetian Aeneid —and, by implication, to crown its poet as a Virgil redivivus —although Ariosto is fully acknowledged as a more modern model. The author's ornate dedication of his work to the "immortal" name of Venice establishes its reverential tone and encomiastic intent; filling two pages, it offers an epigraphic summary of the myth of Venice:



Giulio Strozzi, La Venetia edificata  [venice, 1624), title page.


Portrait of Giulio Strozzi, from  La Venetia edificata  
(Venice, 1624).


In twenty-four cantos Venetia edificata recounts the foundation of Venice, combining assumptions of its Trojan origins with a more historical placement of that event in the time of Attila's invasion of Italy. Through the complex narrative—of declining Roman power and virtue, of barbarian destruction and perfidy, of the machinations of an evil sorceress and the prophecies of a good magician (Arthurian Merlin, the essential seer in such historical epics), of love thwarted but eventually rewarded—Venice comes to be founded miraculously on the lagoon for all eternity. Art herself is the agent here. Lamenting the destruction of so many noble cities, she intercedes with God and obtains the divine plans for the new foundation, as well as the holy protection of Saint Mark and the four archangels. Strozzi's verse summary heading canto 11 translates as follows: "Art, in order to 'mend such great destruction of the works of her illustrious and worthy hand, having ascended into Heaven, strives wisely to express her sorrow to the divine ears: God reveals to his beloved the plan of an eternal city, where in a little cove of the Sea will be enclosed all that Genius, Nature, and Heaven can achieve."[9]

In the front matter of Venetia edificata is a prefatory poem in praise of the author by one of Strozzi's future colleagues as Accademico Incognito and librettist, Francesco Busenello. And two of its fourteen stanzas further summarize the basic catechism of the myth:

Queen of the Sea, Goddess of the waves, metropolis of Faith, nest of Peace, who is only like herself, who lights a perpetual torch in Liberty, who in Heaven sees no glory to which she herself is not heir.

Sister of Astraea, immortal maiden, who blesses her vassals with sacred laws; she, who is herself both pole and star, nor fears the rage of evil influence: sing of her, praise her, in a thousand ways you will immortalize yourself by praising her.[10]


Strozzi the dramatist carried the message of his Venetia edificata directly into the theater. La finta pazza was the first of a trilogy of librettos by him that together span the period from the Trojan War to the founding of Rome. The others were La finta savia (1643), dealing with the proto-history of Rome, and Romolo e Remo (1645), which concerns its founding. The author himself outlines the structure of the trilogy in an essay at the end of the second work, La finta savia :

These dramas [La finta pazza and La finta savia ] are imperfect poems: the one contains a Greek story, and the other a Latin one; the one leads toward the destruction of Troy, the other refers to the future founding of Rome, which [poems], in the coming years, God willing, we are preparing to complete. . . . The real name of the finta savia was Anthusa, which we, for greater elegance, have changed to Aretusa: and the name Anthusa was the third name of the city of Rome. . . . The second name of Rome was Amaryllis, drawn from the loves of Ilia and Mars, which will be expounded by me in the future drama of Romolo e Remo . (Appendix 1.18c)[11]

And he explained the relationship of his trilogy to the standard Venetian genealogy in the Argomento e scenario of Romolo e Remo . Here is his description of the prologue: "Aeneas descends on the chariot of his mother, Venus, and seeing Fame drowsy among the clouds, he invites her to broadcast for many centuries the works of his glorious descendants for the future founding of Rome, of whose valor the Most Serene Republic of Venice has remained the eternal heir."[12] The prologue concludes with the following dialogue between Enea and Fama:





You, having wreathed her tresses with immortal laurel, divulge that today both the walls and the great empire of Rome were founded.

Oh happy voyage, oh welcome news.

Of whose valor may the Venetian lion remain the eternal heir, planting his foot on more blessed shores.[13]

Strozzi reasserted the relationship in his description of the concluding scene of the opera (3.12), in which Numitore, Flora, Remo, and Ilia "settle their affairs, pray to Heaven for their prosperity, and invite their peoples, who were of noble Trojan blood, as the Venetians still are, to applaud their deeds."[14]

While Strozzi was a particularly vocal patriot, whose commitment to polishing Venice's image shines through most of his works, he was not the only librettist to explicate a connection between his themes and the Venetian political myth. Here, for example, is the author of Le nozze d'Enea (1640 [1641]), sounding very much like Strozzi:

Hymen himself takes the opportunity to touch upon the origin and greatness of Rome . . . and then the birth of our Venice, certainly an event, it is safe to say, of no less significance, since this most noble city began at the time when Rome fell under the yoke of the Barbarians, who, by invading Italy, pushed many of her in- habitants, who were not at all ignoble, to take refuge in these lagoons in order to escape their fury; and in this way they founded the city . . . which through the valor of our fathers attained the greatness for which we admire her now. (Appendix 1.9k)

In his description of the closing scene, the author takes a final opportunity to refer to the myth: "Hymen . . . with Venus and Juno . . . unites the happy couple, foretelling from such a marriage the greatness of Rome, and the birth and marvel of the city of Venice. Here the opera ends" (Appendix 1.91).[15]

Perhaps the most explicit statement of the Rome-Venice connection occurs in the preface to another libretto based on Homeric legend, Nolfi's Bellerofonte (1642), the immediate successor to La finta pazza at the Teatro Novissimo.


The special qualities and circumstances of the city of Venice cannot be adequately described, because they exceed any term and epithet with which a worldly thing can be magnified, unless perhaps she be called rival of ancient Rome, or rather, ancient Rome come to life again in our time; in fact, if you consider the majesty of dominion, the dignity of government, the prudence and virtue of the citizens, the magnificence of the public and private buildings, and so many other marks of nobility and excellence, you will find that the expression is well suited to the comparison. In fact, her singular and miraculous site makes Venice superior to Rome, and to every other work of human hands, so that one can only acknowledge her a work of divinity.

Only in entertainments, I still think, and the famous temporary theaters of the Scauti and Curioni, is Venice not equal; but for this it worked in her favor that the Republic of Rome, established at the end of the wars and expansion, and having as a political principle athletic and bloody games, like those to which her citizens were accustomed from their military exploits, and that freed them from certain feelings of pity and tenderness that are almost innate in mankind, engaged herself in these with zeal. But the goals and institutions of this Most Serene Nation are different, and are directed only toward self-preservation, to the public good, and to the security of her subjects, whom she guides and governs with most sacred and truly Christian laws; nor is she, if indeed she takes up the sword of war, in any way ambitious or unjust, but she always either defends her own threatened or besieged states, or else comes to the aid of friends who have been oppressed by the iniquitous appetites of the powerful.

As for scenic spectacles, those instructors of men, which by offering a true model for living set them on the path of virtue, she has in these last years multiplied her power with sets and performances that are indeed regal [affatto reali ], that would make ancient Latium blush; heavenly harmony, wondrous illusions and stage-machines, most magnificent displays of costumes, and all this in multiple theaters, with almost incredible productions. (Appendix 1.20a)

Bellerofonte , especially distinguished by its literal incorporation of Venetian imagery, is the first opera in which the city was actually represented on stage by the scenery. Its prologue concludes with the emergence from the sea, by command of Nettuno, of "a most exquisite and lifelike model of Venice. . . which everyone acclaimed as a tour de force: the eye was deceived by the Piazza, with its public buildings imitated to the life, and it delighted increasingly in the deception, almost forgetting where it actually was, thanks to that fiction"[16] (figs. 15, 16).

After expressing their astonishment at the magical appearance of so beautiful a sight, like an enactment of the paintings celebrating Venice on the ceilings of the Ducal Palace, Innocenza and Astrea, the goddess of Justice, join Nettuno in singing the praises of the Serenissima, concluding the prologue with a (com-


Giacomo Torelli, stage set for  Bellerofonte  (1642), prologue. 
Engraving by Giovanni Giorgi.

petitive) hymn in her honor: "City wise, rich, and noble over any the world admires, Sparta, Athens, and Stagira are but a modest shadow of your greatness. Henceforth the ages to come will see Heaven, swollen with light, rush to your shores as a river to pay you tribute."[17]


Giacomo Torelli, stage set for  Bellerofonte  (1642), prologue. 
Engraving by Giovanni Giorgi.

Venice was depicted onstage in another libretto a few years later, Busenello's La prosperità infelice di Giulio Cesare dittatore .[18] Like Bellerofonte , Busenello's text gives dramatic life to the traditional myth of Venice's origins, making use of the standard iconography. In the final scene of the opera (the epilogue) Libertà and Nettuno play out the myth in detail:



Ill-treated by Rome, I turn toward the lofty peaks of sublime Olympus, because I foresee my losses clearly, nor do I know when fate will allow me to return to live on earth in safety.


Stay, Liberty. Your residence will be a glorious and great city, which, virgin and invincible, will have the waves as its foundation and Heaven as its roof. Here you will see divided among a thousand heads the power of authority. Venice will be the name of this supreme and triumphant city, which will make the Adriatic shores famous; epitome of wonders, portrait of the spheres, summary of the world, rich empyrean of the arts, compendium of nature, and abridgement of the great universe. Powerful, and free, and just, in every season three signs will grow bright in the political Zodiac: Virgo, Libra, and the Lion.


And how you console me, Oh, how you increase my dignity, O Neptune; but if only I could see among the models of eternal ideas the lofty cast and immortal image of the city that is more of Heaven than of earth.


Look there, for Jove, out of his divinity, is showing a small model of happy Venice. And look how, as proof, divine lightning flashes about it, and she, serene in herself, in her radiant circle, renders the sun idle and superfluous.


O blessed dwelling, earthly heaven for togaed demigods, you will reign over the waters, and of your empire nature will be the boundary, and the sun the sentinel.


Hear, Liberty, listen to what prophetic Neptune foretells: many centuries from now you will sing the praises and I the cheers of immortal VENICE in a joyful style, in the world-famous GRIMANI THEATER.


Long live VENICE, hurrah, let every pen describe the glories of your name, the histories of your exploits, and may destiny bejewel the crowns of her most generous LION. (Appendix I.12e)[19]

The scene between Libertà and Nettuno is an allegorized reenactment of Saint Mark's holy vision, in which it is foretold that he will come to rest in Venice. Caught in a storm upon the lagoon, Mark finds refuge among its islands; in a dream an angel, or Christ himself, declares: "Pax tibi Marce Evangelista Meus. Hic requiescet corpus tuum."[20] In enumerating the unique qualities of Libertà's new haven, Nettuno charts the three signs of Venice's political


zodiac. Vergine : founded on the Feast of the Annunciation (25 March), Venice associated herself with the Virgin Mary ab initio , as well as with the virgin goddess Astraea, and claimed for her unconquered self the epithet "Venetia sempre vergine";[21]Libra : the scales of justice, the chief virtue claimed by the Republic; and Leone : the winged lion of her patron, Saint Mark. One of Busenello's aims in his thumbnail sketch of the mythic origins of Venice was obviously to exalt the city's present glories, in particular the Grimani theater. Involving that theater so directly as the stage from which Venice's glories will be proclaimed, he confirmed the political significance of opera, its importance as a means of enhancing the image of the Serenissima.

Busenello's view of opera as one of the jewels of the city was shared by other authors, among them Giovanni Faustini, whose contemporary Ormindo (1644) is yet another opera that portrays Venice on stage. The setting of the prologue represents Piazza San Marco, "the most conspicuous part of the city of Venice" ("parte più cospicua della Città di Venetia"), and the protagonist is Armonia, who summarizes the familiar genealogical myth in slightly new—operatic—terms.

It has been five years already that I have shone on you from gilded stages and illuminated my glories; your immortal Muses and divine swans adorn my tresses with new garlands. I, who as a child trod the stages of Athens in jeweled buskins, I, who when Greece was conquered and tamed by the victors of Rome saw no splendor or magnificence equal to yours, Most Serene and immortal Virgin.[22]

Harmony, a metaphor for civilization, has passed from Greece to Rome to Venice, whose "pompe e fasti" she deems superior to those of any other place. Here Venice is praised specifically for her hospitality to music, echoing Francesco Sansovino's remark that "music has her own special place in this city." Again, the Rome-Venice paragone is invoked in favor of Venice.[23] The illusion of the stage representing Venice itself is reinforced elsewhere in the opera; for example, when Nerillo remarks, touristlike, on the wonders of the city he is seeing for the first time:


Che città, che città

Che costumi, che gente

Sfacciata, ed insolente.[24]

What a city, what a city,

What customs, what people

Impudent and insolent!

Not all of the librettos based on Trojan or Roman history state the Venetian connection as specifically as La finta pazza, Le nozze d'Enea , or Giulio Cesare . But the mythology was so much a part of the Venetian consciousness that it automatically formed part of the cultural context in which these stories were understood. It most likely underlies operas with Roman plots in which Venice is never even mentioned—such as the best known of Busenello's librettos, L'incoronazione di Poppea , notorious for its portrayal of Roman decadence. There is some indication that the work could have been understood by its contemporaries as a moral lesson implying the superiority of Venice over Rome, and suggesting that such immorality was only possible in a decaying society, not in a civilized nation.[25]

This response is offered in a book by a Venetian cleric, Federico Malipiero, who, like Strozzi and Busenello, was a member of the Accademia degli Incogniti. L'imperatrice ambiziosa (1642) tells the story of Poppaea and Nero, although it is actually more concerned with Nero's mother Agrippina, the empress of the title. And it is her downfall that inspires Malipiero's philosophical conclusion:

This was the greatness of a woman, incomparable in every way. Thus did she fall from supreme eminence to the darkest depths, because the higher mortals rise, the more they are subject to uncertainty. Empires are transformed in a flash, like human happiness, which can collapse and be extinguished in a single moment. Often the tombs of one kingdom have become the cradles of another, and from the ruins of a fallen republic has arisen the magnificence of a new one.[26]


The implications are clear. Malipiero's invocation of the conventional Rome-Venice paragone is only slightly veiled.

Although not always in connection with Rome, Venice as a political or symbolic image figures in one way or another in practically every work produced during the first five or six seasons of operatic activity, whether metaphorically, through choice of plot, or in a more literal way, through direct reference. We have seen her depicted visually. She is personified even earlier in the final scene of Ferrari's Armida (1639), where Venetia herself sings her own praises to an audience of Nereids:

Would I, mother of heroes, support of the glorious Adriatic empire, leave you on a solitary path? Happy is he who rests in this place. My waves are swollen with treasures, and my sands teem with triumphs. When the sea murmurs, it speaks of me, and it says in its language that there is no nation more beautiful outside of Heaven.

And the Nereids respond with the typical encomium to the city (like the conclusion of Giulio Cesare and Bellerofonte ):

Come, glorious heroes, to celebrate among us, while to the sound of musical harmonies every shore and bank echoes, Long live VENICE![27]

Even Ermiona , the lost "proto-Venetian" opera performed in Padua in 1636, contained a number of topical allusions to Venice. In his account of the performance, Bartolini describes Venus stopping to deliver "the praises of the Serene Republic of Venice" ("le lodi della Serenissima Republica di Venezia"), which, he continues, "is the greatest marvel that has ever been in the universe" ("è la maggior meraviglia che mai sia stata nell'universo").[28]

Aside from the Troy-Rome-Venice succession, other thematic relationships to Venetian imagery are established through ancient mythology. Andromeda ,


for example, involves a rescue at sea. And even Arianna may have been selected for revival in 1640, despite its old-fashioned style, partly for the relevance of its subject matter to Venetian iconography. -Ariadne is the subject of one of four paintings by Tintoretto in the Sala Dorata of the Ducal Palace described by Carlo Ridolfi, the seicento biographer of the Venetian painters, as treating "subjects appropriate to the government of that Republic" ("soggetti adeguati al ministerio di quella Republica"). (The others are Vulcan with the Cyclopes, the Three Graces with Mercury, and Mars being chased away by Minerva while Peace and Abundance celebrate together.) According to Ridolfi's reading, the picture portrays the abandoned Ariadne discovered by Bacchus on the beach and crowned by Venus (with a golden crown) declaring her free and welcoming her among the heavenly bodies, "which is meant to signify Venice born on a shore of the sea, and made abundant not only in every earthly good, through Heavenly grace, but crowned with the crown of liberty by the divine hand, whose power is recorded in eternal characters in Heaven."[29]

By the mid 1640s, plots centering around the Trojan War and the founding of Rome had begun to give way to a greater variety of subject matter; connections between these new works and the myth of Venice continued to be maintained, but in different ways. However, the Rome-Venice paragone was now firmly ensconced in the history of Venetian opera. This is clear from the first attempt to view that history, Ivanovich's "Memorie teatrali." The connection between Rome and Venice was central to an understanding of the development of Venetian opera, a development Ivanovich viewed in political terms.

His essay opens with an unequivocal statement of the standard tenet of the myth: "Never in the world was there a republic that excelled all other republics as did Rome; nor any other that better imitated Rome than the republic of Venice" (Appendix II.6d).[30] His opening four chapters deal specifically with that relationship. The first tells how "the republic of Venice, imitating the Roman republic, created anew the magnificence of theaters," because both republics understood the secret of successful government: "Through material goods and games, used judiciously, the ruler gains the love of his people, who can never more easily forget their yoke than when sated or diverted by plea-


sures" (Appendix II.6d-e). In chapter 4 he compares Venetian theaters to those of Rome, finding many similarities—and incidentally providing important information about the structure of theaters and practice of theatergoing in his own day.

Present-day theaters can hold a small number of people compared with ancient ones; moreover, instead of stands several ranks of boxes are constructed, most of' them for the convenience of the nobility, for the ladies like to stay unmasked there and to feel at liberty. In the middle are benches, rented from night to night with no distinction as to rank, since the use of masks obviates the need for respect that was shown to the Roman senators and matrons, who made a grand appearance; for in this respect too, Venice, born free, wishes to preserve freedom for all. (Appendix II.6h)

Venetian spectacle, Ivanovich admits, cannot match in splendor that of ancient Rome, for the latter, instead of using artifice to portray violence, enacted it literally at whatever human sacrifice (Appendix II.6i). But, whereas the Roman theater, habituating the people to slaughter and horrors, was intended to serve an admonitory function, Venetian theater has a different purpose: "Today, however, musical theater has been introduced, for the lifting of the spirits and as a virtuous diversion, since one can observe the appearance of amusing machines suggested by the drama, which give great delight, along with the spectacle of sets and costumes that satisfy everyone's curiosity to the utmost" (Appendix II.6j).

Although Ivanovich was writing much later, when Venice was clearly at the height of her operatic (though no longer political) power, the importance he ascribes to the Rome-Venice comparison and his emphasis on the political component of opera are, as we have seen, borne out by the earlier sources themselves, from which he clearly derived much of his material.[31] In fact, Ivanovich's patrons, the Grimani family, were quite used to having their theater compared favorably with those of ancient Rome. In the preface to his Scipione affricano , performed at the Grimani theater in 1665, Nicolò Minato had invoked the familiar paragone : "You will see that the most-famous Grimani theater is capable of rivaling the Marcellus and Pompey theaters, and any other of the most famous ones that glorious antiquity might bring to mind."[32] So, too, had Aurelio Aureli in the dedication of his Eliogabalo of 1668 to the brothers Gian Carlo and Vincenzo Grimani, "who no less than the Pompeys and the Trajans


make themselves known in the world as true Maecenases of the muses by the construction of sumptuous theaters and through the patronage of musicians."[33]

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