When I learned that the subject of Garry Wills’s latest book was Renaissance Venice, my initial reaction was a mixture of surprise, disappointment and pleasure. Surprise, because it seemed to stray far beyond his usual field of interest and expertise, however broad that may be. Disappointment, because I was hoping that he would continue the discussion of the contemporary Catholic Church begun in his previous work, Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, published barely a year ago. Whatever its shortcomings, Papal Sin is an extremely important book, which gives clear, forceful expression to the sentiments of many Catholics, sentiments in need of much more frank discussion. Pleasure, nonetheless, because I, too, am a lover of Venice and looked forward to seeing what light Wills’s fine, penetrating mind would shed on the history of that fascinating city during its period of greatest glory.
In a highly readable, engrossing fashion, Wills, in fact, sheds much new and significant light on Renaissance Veniceno mean accomplishment, given the numerous monumental tomes that have previously been dedicated to the same topic by the most gifted scholars in the field. And as it turns out, Venice: Lion City is not so far afield of Wills’s perennial interests and proven expertise inasmuch as it too focuses on his oft-explored topics of religion, politics and social analysis. Furthermore, it does not abandon completely the discussion begun in Papal Sin. During the period in question, the thoroughly Catholic but fiercely independent Venetian republic was in constant struggle with an increasingly absolutistic papacy, a struggle culminating (as does Wills’s book) in the Interdict Crisis of 1606, an abject failure for Rome. The recounting of that struggle necessarily obliges the author to address the issue of the nature and extent, use and abuse of papal power, here mostly through the eyes of Paolo Sarpi.
No conventional institutional history, Venice: Lion City offers the reader in enjoyable and at times tourist-guide, conversational terms a thoroughly interdisciplinarypolitical, social, military, economic, religious and, especially, artisticportrait of The Most Serene Republic. Though focussing on the 15th and 16th centuries, the book provides as well abundant exploration of the roots of Venetian culture in the preceding centuries from its founding onward. In doing so, Wills presents an original and compelling comparison between Renaissance Venice and Periclean Athens, another sea power whose cultural influence permeates Western culture to this day. A comparison could also be struck between the Venice of yore and the United States of today, two international commercial empires sharing similar myths of heaven-ordained foundings and of exceptionalism (we are unique in the world), not to mention moral self-righteousness and megolamania.
Wills’s greatest accomplishmenta surprising one considering that this is his first book on the subjectis in penetrating the core of the collective psyche of the strange, complicated commonwealth that was Renaissance Venice. He is able to do so because he takes seriously and explores thoroughly the republic’s foundational religious myths surrounding most importantly, but not only, the Evangelist St. Mark and the Virgin Mary. Wills also has the deep, expert familiarity with theology and church history lacking in most historians and art historians. This exposition of the religious-political psyche of Venice involves detailed examination of the state’s own brand of Christian civic religion as expressed through its celebrated and beloved relics, feasts, liturgies, symbols and, above all, art.
Art was at the service of the state in Venice, with an intensity not paralleled elsewhere in Italy. Accordingly, a significant portion of the book is devoted to a discussion of painting, sculpture and architecture as revelatory of the republic’s history, culture and identity. I was impressed with Wills’s command of art history as well as his ability to describe works of art in technically expert, visually compelling and emotionally satisfying fashion, as when he tells us that Giovanni Bellini gave Venetian art its atmospheric richness, enveloping his figures in an outer glow that symbolizes their radiant interiority. His figures respond to inner promptings that evoke a kindred hush in the onlooker. At times, however, he is a bit imprudent, as for example in his explication of Bellini’s enigmatic St. Francis, now in the Frick Museum. One should not make so confident a pronouncement about the meaning of a painting that, as Wills himself acknowledges, has suffered the loss of nearly 8 inches of canvas. Furthermore, Francis’s pose, upon which Wills’s interpretation rests, is by no means necessarily that of patronage, as he claims; the lowered, open-palm gesture, seen frequently in religious art, communicates also, if not more often, humble, willing receptivity to divine grace.
As a professor of Italian, I also could not help paying attention to details that some might deem insignificant. Wills’s translations from Italian to English are at times inspiredly original (New Breed for I Giovani) but more often comically precious (Peterkin for Pierino and Pity Crests for Monte di Pietà). The accents in many Italian words that he here reproduces were meant by the Italian dictionary in which he presumably found them merely to indicate stress, and are not part of the spelling of the word. The Jesuit Cardinal Pallavicino’s first name is Sforza, not Pietro (someone long ago mistook the P in front of his name as an abbreviation for Pietro, whereas it meant Pater, Father). But these are minor blemishes in an otherwise admirable work. Wills’s latest tome is a lion of a book, monumental and beautifully written, as only befits its glorious subject.