Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 14, 2006
Bronwen Wilson The World in Venice: Print, the City, and Early Modern Identity Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005. 406 pp.; 100 b/w ills. Cloth $70.00 (0802087256)

Studies of Venice, including surveys of art, architecture, politics, and business, often hinge on an author’s understanding or characterization of Venezianità, or the concept of being Venetian. Bronwen Wilson directly addresses this facet of early modern Venetian studies in her erudite explication of the evolution of Venetian identity in an era featuring the dynamic growth of the printing industry and the increasing use of prints by illustrators and artists. For Wilson, Venetians learned to read images of Venice and Venetians themselves, as did the outside world, and, indeed, “may have come to see themselves as they were seen by others” (265). In other words, the power of printed images of cities, spaces, and individuals was in fact so strong that the prints ultimately transformed identities to conform to the two-dimensional, black-and-white woodcuts, etchings, and engravings issuing from the hundreds of presses operating in Renaissance Venice and elsewhere during the sixteenth century. Wilson’s argument is appealing due to the art-historical understanding of the impact images had and have on their audience as well as the influence circulated images have on manufacturers of future images. The World in Venice, however, suffers from the impossible task set by Wilson to find confirmation for her thesis and fails to fully convince this reader that the Venetian penchant for dissimulation is a direct result of Venetian use of and familiarity with images of Venice and Venetians or Turks and naval engagements, as opposed to being a characteristic deemed “analogous” to Venezianità by trading partners and astounded visitors to the mercantile center of the late medieval and early modern West.

Although the premise of Wilson’s study remains unproven, her tantalizing series of case studies and evaluations whets the appetite for further consideration of the relationship between printing and Venetian identity. As a text replete with discussions of Venetian farce and mistaken identity in plays such as Giovanni Battista della Porta’s La Turca (ca. 1570) and the wondrous yet ultimately disappointing arrival of four young Japanese in the city with their Jesuit handlers, The World in Venice reveals Wilson’s wide-ranging grasp of Venetian history, art, and culture. More specifically, the detailed dissection of these kinds of presentations of character and individuality, the nature of surface appearances, the ramifications of disguise, and the possibilities of discovery offer readers new ideas about early modern concepts of self, societies, and species. It also presents ways in which each individual declared herself or himself as such or saw in another a reflection or embodiment of class or cultural identity.

Wilson has produced a careful and impressive study of the nature of the printing industry and the use of printed images by artists, authors, and readers in the sixteenth century. Furthermore, Wilson clearly enunciates a pattern of behavior in the creation of diagnostic or diagrammatic image-making that relied upon the viewer’s previous exposure to other images in order to digest the information incorporated into printed images. Thus, artists and printers were primed to deliver to their audience standard formulae that introduced new information marking an image as distinct from its predecessors or complements in the growing catalogue of printed works.

This book also serves as a helpful assay into the nature of the print as both a work of art and as a graphic counterpart to text, particularly when Wilson takes on the issue of the nature of her subject itself. Although much of the text focuses on images produced of and for Venetians due to the author’s concentration on the fashioning of Venetian identity, Wilson has helped us better understand an important facet of the use of and appreciation for prints as the new presses made more and more images available to increasing numbers of viewers. First and foremost, Wilson reminds us that the growth of the printing industry brought images into the hands of more people; this explosion of available imagery played an important role in the transmission of information about the world to Venetians. The explosive growth of presses, subsequently, allowed the larger number of Venetians now capable of owning images to carefully study individual prints or other images, such as illustrations in costume books and travel narratives, and to determine or define those things that indubitably signaled difference. Wilson suggests that these Venetians then turned similarly discerning eyes on images of their city and their fellows in such a way as to see how they themselves might be identified. Ultimately, this subjective response may or not have influenced the Venetian fashioning of identity in the manner that Wilson proposes, but one can nevertheless appreciate the wider range of available images as a remarkable influence on the market or audience of these prints.

Wilson also addresses the motivations of the makers of these images and the determination made by printers about the value of verisimilitude, origin, and replication. According to Wilson, in the case of a portrait, an image produced by a printer could be of more value if the image was based on an original, particularly a well-known original, that would be understood by the audience to have been created in the presence of the sitter and, thus, carry forward into the latest iteration a memory of the individual subject. To reinforce this point, many printers or the artists who produced woodcuts and engravings for sale carefully distinguished some works as their design and others as their reproduction. The contrast between fecit—I designed or made—and formis—I shaped—seemed to elaborate on the reliance an engraver or printer must place on the first, original image as the most powerful representation of the spirit of the subject. More importantly, Wilson contends that this unusual subjugation of the object created for consumption to the prototype “authenticates the referent through its very reproducibility, an idea emblematized by the mirror image pulled from the plate, the indexical sign of the printing process” (240).

The World in Venice is a work that challenges the reader to question the roles of print, author, printer, and audience in the definition of identity. Although the creation of Venetian identity and the true basis of Venezianità cannot be fully correlated with the Venetian response to images of their city and their contemporaries, Wilson makes us ponder the mercurial and self-conscious development of identity in a city like Venice. Her book has already helped this reader think of new questions about Italian Renaissance identity, and it offers scholars an exemplary model for inquiries into the nature of identity in a fluid environment like that of early modern Venice that responded to and likely influenced print culture in Europe, and may have indeed inspired Venetians and the artists that depicted Venice and its people to make more concerted efforts to define Venetians and “being Venetian” for themselves and others.

Christopher Pastore
Associate Director, Programs in the Humanities and the Social Sciences, University of Pennsylvania

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