La Serenissima’. To the average tourist who discovers Venice on a brief city break through a whirl of gondolas, snaking queues and souvenir carnival masks, the city is anything but serene. But they are all there for the same reason: Venice, long billed as one of the world’s most beautiful cities has captured the hearts and minds of artists, musicians, writers and thinkers ever since the first invasions by the Lombards. And every day, a fresh invasion occurs...
But beneath the gleaming facade and tourist-thronged squares, Venice is a city of quiet corners, deserted squares, dark alleys and unexpected treasures: who better to root them out and show them off in the light of their cultural, historical and artistic history than Peter Ackroyd? The prize-winning historian, journalist, novelist, broadcaster, biographer and Fellow of both the Royal Academy and the Royal Society of Literature has recently completed his own biography of Venice. Join us from the 6th of September on Sky Arts 1 / HD as we follow him through the history and geography of ‘The Queen of the Adriatic’, exploring the city's architecture, art, music and theatre and examining its architectural development from Byzantine gold to Gothic elegance via the glamour of the Renaissance, the sumptuousness of the Baroque and the revolution of the Enlightenment.
Episode One: The City as Architecture
Peter Ackroyd begins his tour of Venice by following in the footsteps of the 19th century author, poet, artist and critic John Ruskin, who visited and lived in the city over a period of some years and whose work The Stones of Venice Ackroyd describes as “still the perfect introduction to a city under threat”. He traces the development of the city’s buildings from its earliest beginnings (Venetian historians claim that the city was established at the very precise time of midday, March 25, 421, by a fisherman named Giovani Bono or John the Good: in fact, Venice emerged after a series of invasions by the Lombards in the late 560s) through to the emergence of a uniquely Venetian architectural aesthetic, formed by layers of Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance architecture, melded together by the practicalities of building on – and defending against – the ever-encroaching waters of the lagoon. Such practicalities also become evident as Ackroyd examines what the city does with its dead, and the peculiarly Venetian approach to façades: the idea of the carnival mask permeates through, since only the fronts of many houses are deemed to be worth embellishment or decoration, no matter how uncomfortable they are behind. But while Ruskin believed he was recording, in words and picture, a city in terminal decline, “a ghost upon the sands of the sea, so weak – so quiet - so bereft of all but her loveliness”, Ackroyd looks to the future with a number of the efforts that are being made to preserve the city for future generations.
Episode Two: The City as Art
Peter Ackroyd continues his exploration of Venice by looking at the art of perhaps the most frequently-painted city in the world. As he notes; “There is no scene in Venice that has not already been painted. There is no church, or house, or canal that has not become the subject of an artist’s brush or pencil. Even the fruit in the market looks as if it has been stolen from a still-life”. Here, Ackroyd examines the art and artists that Venice has inspired over the centuries and explores just what it says about the city. From Bellini to Guardia, via Tintoretto; Tiepolo; Titian; Bassano and Veronese, he notes that it is the buildings that star in the paintings of Venice; not the people: “Who can remember any of the human figures in Canaletto? In the many images of the public processions of Venice, the spectators and the participants become part of the architecture”. He also explores how the city inspired a number of uniquely Venetian innovations in its artists. The creation of the workshop system, for example, where art was viewed as a collective endeavour and many artists worked on a single piece; the city-focused loyalty (few native Venetian artists were tempted away from the city by lucrative patronages), and the uniquely Venetian skill of improvisation: Tiepolo reputedly said that he could finish a painting while other artists were still mixing their colours. Ackroyd also examines the impact of the Venetians’ popularity: much of the art relating to Venice was sold abroad, and he meets the curator who brought it back, while also uncovering what is being done to preserve the frescoes, mosaics and plasterwork that remain.
Episode Three: The City as Music
Peter Ackroyd looks at how music has woven itself into the fabric of the city, and discovers, as he puts it, “the Venetians were infatuated with music”. From the gondoliers famous for singing recitatives taken from the poetry of Tasso; to the famous Venetian serenades, sung beneath the ubiquitous balconies to the accompaniment of the mandolin or the guitar; to the modern-day musicians at the restaurants in Piazza san Marco, music is – and always has been – a way of life in Venice. As Ackroyd notes, a 1581 guide book referred to the city as ‘the seat of music’, while the inventories of middle-class Venetian households reveal the presence of string or keyboard instruments in most of them. Ackroyd explores how Venice’s musical awakening really came about as the expansion of its empire drew to a close. Another form of supremacy was required and Venice became the home of the madrigal, the centre of church music and the capital of opera: European composers from Handel to Stravinsky flocked to the city: Wagner and Monteverdi even died there. But perhaps the composer who remains most synonymous with the city is Antonio Vivaldi. Ackroyd traces his life from his early days in the priesthood to his leadership of the Ospedale della Pieta, where he trained orphan girls to perform concerts that became the wonder of the age and notes the thoroughly Venetian rapidity of his execution: he boasted that he could “compose a concerto with all its parts faster than a copyist could copy it”.
Episode Four: The City as Theatre
If you know little else of Venice beyond its canals, the chances are you will have heard of its carnival. In the fourth and final part of his exploration of the art, architecture, culture and history of ‘La Serenissima’, Peter Ackroyd explores the city from the perspective of its theatre. The city has a long collaboration between art and theatre: Jacopo Bellini was a pageant master and stage designer as well as an artist; the work of Veronese was known as “maestoso teatro” or majestic theatre, and when Sansovino redesigned the Piazzetta in the sixteenth century, he intuitively defined it as a stage set with a one-point perspective; from the bacino, the buildings on both sides diminish towards the ‘vanishing point’ of the ornate clock tower, while from the other direction, looking from the Piazzetta towards the bacino, the two great pillars frame the watery landscape. Dramatic as ever, this was the stage for a number of public gatherings, not least the public executions. And of course, it is impossible to speak of theatre in Venice without mention of the Carnival. While each year there were nineteen annual pageants, fifty large processions and over a thousand religious festivals, there was nothing so grand, or so spectacular, as the Carnival. But, asks Ackroyd, while the fantasy of masks, secrets and double lives was a glamorous one, what did it reveal of the Venetian nature? Comparisons of luxurious duplicity, double-dealing and reflections within reflections are hard to ignore: Ackroyd finds that the saying that nothing in Venice has a single meaning; everything, from art to government, is open to endless interpretation, may have some grounding in the truth.