Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 20, 2020
Helena Katalin Szépe Venice Illuminated: Power and Painting in Renaissance Manuscripts New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018. 400 pp.; 225 color ills.; 25 b/w ills. Cloth $70.00 (9780300226744)

This elegant and information-packed volume, Venice Illuminated: Power and Painting in Renaissance Manuscripts by Helena Katalin Szépe, is the fullest statement we have to date of the importance placed on the holding of public office by high-ranking patricians of the Venetian state. The book presents a study of a particular category of Venetian state documents collectively referred to as ducali (dogali in Venetian dialect), prepared in large part by the ducal chancery for newly elected holders of the top three offices of the republic. These were high-quality manuscripts containing the oaths, rules, and regulations attached to each office. Over the course of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries each manuscript came to feature an elaborate opening illuminated page, sometimes two, with officeholders themselves often participating in the design and expense. Typically, the opening leaf featured a portrait of the recipient together with one of Venice’s key power figures: the city’s patron saint, Mark; the Virgin; or the handsome figure that combined personifications of Venice and Justice, the so-called Venezia/Giustizia. An aura of divinity conveyed by these figures hovers over the illuminated pages, pointing up Venice’s claim to a divinely ordained state. Exquisitely bound, these books were featured in portraits and kept in private palace archives as treasured pieces of family history. Szépe opens her study with the death-bed request of Antonio Grimani, who expressed anxiety during his last hours that his ducali be preserved “for the honor of the casa (13).

First and foremost were the promissioni prepared for the doge (the office at the top of the cursus honorum, or ladder of public offices), the first of the ducali to be given the deluxe treatment. Next up were the giuramenti for the procurators, the most powerful office after the doge. The third and loosest of the group, the last document category to receive a painted decoration, were the commissioni ducali, given to patricians who were sent out from Venice to govern its territories and command its ships. A handful of these manuscripts, particularly those housed in Venetian libraries and archives, are well known to scholars and have been drawn on for specialized studies. But bringing forth the full story entailed a massive research effort on Szépe’s part. Years in the making, this volume is the work of a scholar with broad art historical and archival training, a command of Venice’s complex history, the skills of up-to-date data organization, and the tenacity needed to bring the mass of this relatively hidden category of documents to light. The author personally examined over one thousand full and fragmentary documents covering the period from 1382 to 1624, housed in libraries and private collections both in Europe and the United States and backed up by a database of two thousand entries. The explosion of work on the Venetian state in recent years has been absorbed and fully referenced in the notes. The series of appendixes include a list of known payments to miniaturists for illumination of ducali and an extremely useful list of Venetian governmental positions abroad.

The evolution of the genre is handled in separate chapters devoted to each category. Intriguing is the role assigned to Doge Francesco Foscari (r. 1423–57)—a transitional figure in many aspects of Venetian political and artistic life—in opening up the promissione, and by implication the entire ducali category, to an expanded decoration. The large illuminated initial on the opening page of his 1423 promissione (Giustiniani Recanati Falck Library, Venice) shows Foscari in golden robes kneeling before Saint Mark, receiving a codex (presumably a copy of his promissione) directly from the saint, with two additional saints in attendance. By the end of the fifteenth century, the entire first page of the promissione had opened up, as can be seen in the 1486 promissione of Doge Agostino Barbarigo, where a splendid triumphal arch rising in front of a deep landscape houses Saint Mark and the kneeling doge. During the same period, the giuramenti of the procurators moved toward further expansion, as in the 1485 commissione of Bertuccio Contarini (Biblioteca del Museo Civico Correr, Venice), where an added page displays a splendid rendering of the recipient’s coat of arms. By the second half of the sixteenth century double-page illuminations had expanded into elaborate narratives, as in the 1568 giuramento of Girolamo Zane (British Library, London), which displays him dispensing funds in Piazza San Marco as procurator on one page and presiding in full armor as Captain General of the Sea (the highest naval command) on the accompanying page.

By far the most numerous of these manuscripts fall into the third category—the commissions of patricians sent out by the government as representatives of the state. While a considerable amount has been written about the offices of doge and procurator, less detailed analysis exists for the myriad of jobs that patricians filled in the governance of Venice’s territories and in the manning of its ships. It is in the discussion of this category that one of the major themes of the book emerges most fully: the delicate balance between celebration of the state and celebration of self. It was expected that the governors of Venetian territories would leave their mark on the subject lands in the form of embellishment of the territories under their command. Despite government resolutions aimed at curtailing lavish presentation, the holding of prestigious office was often an opportunity for unbridled display, of which the illuminated texts of the commissions were only one part. The author’s discussion of auxiliary materials commissioned by these territorial officials—paintings and sculptures as well as ephemeral events such as entries and departures—fleshes out the picture of personal importance conveyed by the individual ducali. One message rings out loud and clear: Venice’s great empire was serviced by nobles who seized on all available opportunities to glorify both themselves and the state they served.

It is fair to say that the study actually consists of two books. On one hand, there is the panorama of the ducali manuscripts themselves, presented here in luscious display in large color illustrations and with numerous full-page blow-ups. The office and the imagery of individual exemplars is carefully probed. Then, interleaved with the examination of these manuscripts is an examination of the structure, character, and development of the Venetian state, both at home and abroad. The organization of the Great Council is laid out in full and documents coming out of the council are analyzed and placed side by side with illuminated pages of the ducali. The discussion of the third category of ducali, linked to overseas service, provides the opportunity to delve into the nature of Venice’s territorial expansion and the idea of empire within the Venetian ethos, explored with much new material in the book’s concluding chapters.

Equally important in giving the book its richness is the author’s deep understanding of the book as object. She makes the interesting connection between the vibrant book culture of Venice and the care and interest that patrician officeholders gave to their ducali. Venice became in the fifteenth century an important publishing center, and by the mid-sixteenth century was one of the major publishing centers of Europe. The author knows and understands this world in all its manifestations. Her early work focused on the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili of 1499, that curious category-breaking printed book that merged illustration and print in a virtuoso early production of the Aldine Press. She knows about book bindings, about the emphasis placed on handwriting in the ducal chancery, about the ever-expanding presence of the book industry in Renaissance Venice, and about the growing class of miniature painters who decorated both books and manuscripts—all fueling her study of the ducali.

Finally, the book is an eye-opener in terms of the information gathered here regarding the large group of miniature painters operating in Venice. This includes a group of miniaturists who have already achieved some prominence in the literature—such as Leonardo Bellini, who trained in Jacopo Bellini’s workshop, and Benedetto Bordone, often considered one of the major illustrators of the Hypnerotomachia, who added frontispieces to a number of Aldine books. But there is also the large crew of anonymous miniature painters of the enticing pages so beautifully presented here, pages that capture one’s attention and will certainly provide fruit for further research. The interplay between the miniature painters of the ducali and major artists of Venice is demonstrated by the discussion of paintings and sculptures commissioned by or depicting the recipients spread over the meeting rooms of the Palazzo Ducale and seen elsewhere in the city. The high level of interest in manuscript illumination within the patrician class is also made clear, inter alia, by the history of the famous sixteenth-century illuminated Flemish manuscript known as the Grimani Breviary, purchased by Antonio Grimani’s son Domenico, which was kept on display in the family palace, shown to important visitors, singled out for preservation in family wills, and eventually donated to the state with a binding underscoring Grimani ownership.

A fascinating final chapter deals with the dispersal of large numbers of the ducali after the fall of the republic in 1797. They were collected by Venetian historians as pieces of their history and by connoisseurs as beautiful objects, treated virtually as relics testifying to the importance of Venice in its golden years of power and conquest. While the wealth of information in the volume may seem overwhelming at times, the charm of the ducali pages always pulls the reader back to the main theme. In its breadth and detail, the book takes its place as a distinguished contribution to Venetian studies.

Debra Pincus
Independent Scholar