What was the contribution of Venice to the Italian Renaissance?

Gentile Bellini painting of a civic procession in Venice

The Renaissance in Italy was a great cultural and intellectual flourishing that changed Europe, and it is widely seen as heralding the end of the Middle Ages and ushering in the Modern World. Many Italian city-states and the Papacy made important contributions to the revival of art and intellectual pursuits during the period from 1400 to 1600. Historians have long recognized the contribution of Venice to this period for many years. This city-state was unique in Italy at the time and made a singular contribution to the Renaissance.

Venice was essential in this remarkable era as its trade networks helped to create the wealth that laid the foundations for the cultural flourishing. Moreover, the city was pivotal in the development of the printing press and print culture in Italy. Finally, the Republic of Venice the schools for painters, architects, and sculptures created some finest work in Italy during the High Renaissance (1490-1550).

The rise of Venice

Painting of the Battle of Lepanto

During the various cataclysms that engulfed northern Italy in the centuries after the fall of Rome, many refugees fled to a lagoon in the Adriatic Sea, sometime in the 5th century AD.[1] Over time, several settlements developed, on some islands and they merged to become a single city, which came to be known as Venice. It became a dependency of Byzantium in the 6th century AD.[2] The relationship with the successor state of the Roman Empire allowed Venice to become a great trading and maritime power by the 11th century AD.

The city which was a Republic benefitted enormously from its role in the Crusades, and after several wars with other Italian maritime powers such as Genoa, it came to dominate the trade in the Eastern Mediterranean. The ‘Serene Republic’ as it was known was governed by a Doge who was elected by the citizen body.[3] Venice became the wealthiest city in Europe and maintained the largest navy in the Mediterranean by 1200. It was very democratic for the time and its institutions and laws were by contemporary standards very equitable.

Relations between Venice and Byzantium deteriorated in the 12th century. The ‘Massacre of the Latins’, when Emperor Andronicus incited the populace of Byzantium to kill Italians in the city, embittered relations between the Italian maritime republic and the Greek Orthodox Empire.[4]

The Fourth Crusade was another expedition by Christians to reclaim the Holy City of Jerusalem that was occupied by the Muslims. Venice was contracted by the Crusaders to ferry them to the Near East. However, they could not afford to pay for their passage. The Doge at the time reached an agreement with the Crusaders to attack Byzantium to pay for their transport to the Holy Land. In 1204 the Venetians and the Crusaders attacked and seized the city and partitioned the Byzantium Empire, among themselves. This result greatly increased the power of the Republic.

The Venetians by 1400 had established a maritime Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Adriatic. The emergence of the Ottoman Turks prevented their further expansion in the Levant. The city-state abandoned its long-established policy and began to expand on mainland Italy. [5] This involved it in wars against an alliance of Italian principalities and city-states. Venice was able to secure much of the fertile lands of north-east Italy. However, in 1453 Byzantium fell to the Ottoman Turks and this changed the geopolitical situation in the Mediterranean.

Venetians were always on the defensive after 1453, and they became embroiled in many brutal wars with the Ottoman and signaled the decline of the city-state. From the late fifteenth to the mid-sixteenth century the Hapsburgs and the French monarchs battled for control of the Italian peninsula. Venice allied with France and the city paid dearly for this alliance. A coalition of Italian cities attacked Venice and weakened it considerably.

The 16th century was the Age of Exploration, and European kingdoms such as Portugal created trans-Oceanic trade routes.[6] These trade routes were more efficient and profitable than those controlled by Venice. By the mid-sixteenth, the Portuguese effectively excluded the Venetians from this trade. Then Venice faced a series of disastrous outbreaks of bubonic plague that decimated its population.

However, Venice remained an essential power in the region, and it continued to fight many wars against the Ottomans and was even central to the Christian victory at Lepanto (1571). Moreover, while the city went into economic decline, it remained a wealthy state. The Venetians, natural entrepreneurs, began to find other markets, and the city became a significant exporter of agricultural products and developed new markets such as the glass industry. By 1600, the city was past its zenith, but it was still wealthy and remained a formidable maritime power.

Venice and the Renaissance

The city-state was always somewhat different from the rest of Italy. Its culture was more deeply influenced by the Byzantines. For many centuries, successive Doges had avoided becoming entangled in the mainland. The Venetians were somewhat isolated from the rest of Italy did not really participate in the Renaissance until later than other parts of the peninsula. Moreover, the city straddled important Alpine trade routes and was deeply influenced by ideas and technologies from Northern Europe. This meant that the ‘Serene Republic’ had a distinctive culture.

Another important aspect of the city-state was its relative independence from the Papacy. The Venetians were very independent-minded and often resisted Papal policies, even during the Counter-Reformation.[7] As a result, the city provided a climate that allowed thinkers and artists a level of freedom that was not available elsewhere after the Counter-Reformation began in the early sixteenth century. This is most evident in the fact that the Inquisition was forbidden from operating in Venetian territories. As a result, while the culture of the Renaissance declined elsewhere it continued in Venice. While other cities began to culturally stagnate by the end of the 16th century, the city in the Adriatic was enjoying a period of artistic and intellectual achievement.

Venice and trade

Self-portrait of Titian

The city was the most important commercial center in Italy, although it had competitors such as Amalfi and later Genoa. The city after the Crusades and the capture of Byzantium was the major commercial power in the region. The trade of Venice helped to create the prosperity that was essential for the Renaissance.

The ‘Serene Republic’ and its fleet of trading ships allowed Italian states to export their wares and products. Not only did the city grow wealthy, but it greatly boosted the economy of other Italian Republics. For example, Florentine clothiers could export their cloth to Northern Europe and the Levant. The wealth that was produced by Venice and its trade routes was essential in the fostering of the urban milieu that was so important for the development of Civic Humanism.[8]

More importantly, the profits generated by Venice traders for Italian merchants and rulers, allowed them to become patrons of the arts. Without this great artists’ such as Michelangelo and others would not have been able to create their masterpieces. Venice commercial links were crucial in the development of the Renaissance.

Moreover, the demands of long-distance trade meant that the Venetians had to develop sophisticated financial instruments and progressive business regulations. These developments were immensely beneficial to the city and its merchants’, but other Italian Republics quickly imitated them. Venice's wealth helped to foster the economic conditions that promoted the cultural and artistic flourishing of the Renaissance.

Venice and Print

While the printing press was developed in Germany in the late 15th century, Venetians quickly adopted the technology. By the early 16th century, the city had developed an indigenous printing industry. Indeed, it was to become one of the major centers of the early print industry in Europe. The presence of printers was not only important economically but also culturally. The Republic’s printers produced many important volumes of Latin and Greek authors, and this was very important for the study of the classical past. Printed peoples encouraged more to study the ancient past, which was very important in the spread of Humanism and ideas such as the superiority of reason and the individual.[9]

Venetian printers also did not have to contend with Church censorship or the threat of the Inquisition. Venetians printed texts that could not be published anywhere else in the Catholic world. Moreover, the Republic’s publishing industry attracted many writers to the city, such as the great satirist Aretino who were able to earn a living with their pen and did not require a patron.[10]

Venice and the arts

Tintoretto painting of the bringing the body of St Mark to Venice (1548)

The Republic has a long tradition of workshops which produced works influenced by Byzantine icons. The city’s artists who formed associations came under the influence of those from nearby Padua. They introduced oil painting to the city, and the works of Leonardo were also influential. The Venetians absorbed the new ideas and techniques and developed a new style of painting.

Jacopo Bellini (1400–1470) is considered to be the founder of the Venetian School which was characterized by the use of color and a love of light to create works which have remarkable environments. His sons Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, and his son-in-law Andrea Mantegna, also produced masterpieces. Bellini’s workshop trained many great artists. These included Titian (1498-1575) and Giorgione (c. 1477/8–1510). They are considered to have increased the portrayal of landscapes in painting, and they achieved great effects by organizing colors in evocative ways. Titian who lived to a great age was noted for his daring compositions. The Venetian School because of the city’s liberal atmosphere were able to paint nudes and also erotic paintings.

A good example of this openess is Titian’s Venus from 1538. Titian became court painter of the Hapsburg Court of Charles V, and he helped to spread the ideas and techniques of the Venetian School across Europe. Among the other great painters that lived and worked in the Republic were Tintoretto (1518–1594), and he helped to develop the Mannerist School which prefigured Baroque Art.

Venice also had an extraordinary architectural tradition represented in both St Mark’s Cathedral and the piazza. Many great architects worked in the city in the sixteenth century such as the great Palladio who is one of the most significant Venetians architects of all time. There also emerged a school of sculpture in the city that interpreted the classical tradition in a poetic and sensitive style. Venice made a significant contribution to art, architecture, and sculpture especially in the 16th century and it is regarded as one of the great centers of the Renaissance, the equal of Rome and Florence. Moreover, the city was to become one of the centers of European art until the 18th century.[11]

Conclusion

Venice was a great commercial center and maritime power. It was instrumental in the economic expansion of Italy that was so important for the artistic and intellectual flourishing, that was the Renaissance. The Venetians enabled city-states to become wealthy and allowed rich merchants and rulers to patronize the humanists’ scholars and artists. The city was much more receptive to new ideas and technologies than the rest of Italy because it was both a trading power and less dogmatic than the rest of the region.

Further Reading

Howard, Deborah, Sarah Quill, and Laura Moretti. The architectural history of Venice (Yale, Yale University Press, 2002).

Martin, John Jeffries, and Dennis Romano, eds. Venice Reconsidered: The History and Civilization of an Italian City-State, 1297–1797 ( Oxford, JHU Press, 2003).

Bernstein, Jane A. Print culture and music in sixteenth-century Venice (Oxford, Oxford University Press on Demand, 2001).

Ruskin, J. St. Mark's Rest: The History of Venice (London, Lupton, 1902)

References

  1. Norwich, John Julius. A History of Venice (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1982), p 13
  2. Norwich, p 14
  3. Norwich, p 17
  4. Ferraro, Joanne M. Venice: History of the Floating City (Cambridge University Press; 2012), p 145
  5. Herne, Judith. The History of Byzantium (London, Knopf, 1995), p 101-110
  6. Norwich, P 134
  7. Ferraro, p. 117
  8. Norwich, p 114
  9. Ackroyd, Peter. Venice: Pure City (London, Chatto & Windus. 2009), p 113
  10. Norwich, p 113
  11. Brown, Patricia Fortini. Painting and history in Renaissance Venice (London, Blackwell, 1984), p 113
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