IN the midsummer of the city’s history about 1500 we shall say, which is rather later than its meridianit must have offered as perfect a theater for the sensuous enjoyment of life as any city in any time has done, and thus it is that the Art in its highest development, in the hands of Titian, Giorgione and Paul Veronese, corresponds with and expresses not an enervated nor a relaxed condition of the mental powers by any means that comes afterwards but a life of exertion, all the vital farces strong, sensuous gratification and pleasure being servants, not masters, and success following invariably the clearly-understood motive of self-aggrandizement.
For three centuries before this, war as well as trade had gradually made Venice the richest city in the world. In no Italian war, intestine or foreign, throughout the entire history of the various States of that country, must we look for honor or justice. The leaders were as leaders are now, showing noble qualities of self-devotion, bravery and fidelity; but we speak of the motives and reasons for Italian wars, and those of Venice are conspicuous for being wars of plunder or of destruction, rapacity and jealousy being the motives. The greatest early accession to the wealth of the ” City of the Sea ” was on the taking of Constantinople by the allied Crusaders in 1206, when the submission of the metropolis, intimated by the crowd of priests and women bearing the cross and appealing to the barons as to brethren, was followed by such excesses and monstrosities of cruelty, that we hesitate to believe in their history; and the value of the pillage seems almost, even at this day, equally incredible. In the palaces of Bucoleon and Blacherna; the accumulations of centuries, collected from all parts of the known world, were seized, and in the churches also the difference between the creeds of the East and West making sacrilege a virtue. At that time, silks, furs, tapestries, porcelain, glass, and the arts of the finest metal-work, as well as the Fine Arts of painting, enamel, and mosaic, were all Oriental; and the portion that fell to the share of Venice, estimated by Gibbon at a sum about equal to ten years of the then revenue of England, must have contributed largely to make it what it shortly afterwards became the most skilful of all the cities of the West in certain luxurious manufactures. Villehardouin, quoted in Smedley’s able little book, Sketches of Venetian Historian, says: ” It is my belief that the plunder of this city exceeded all that had been witnessed since the creation of the world.” Gold and silver in every form, vases for every use which the caprice of luxury could suggest, and of more various names than we can hope to translate with accuracy those now unknown myrrshines, which Pompey had won in his triumphs over Mithridates and Tigranes; gems wrought into festal cups, among which the least precious were framed of turquoise, jasper, or amethyst; jewels which the affection or the pride of Oriental despots was wont to deck their imperial brides; crowns of solid gold crusted with pearls; rings and fibulae set with fabulous or world-famous diamonds, unnumbered jacinths, emeralds, sapphires, chrysolites and topazes that had been hoarded as treasure against the day of need; and ” lastly those matchless carbuncles which, placed afterwards on the high altar of St. Mark, were said to blaze with intrinsic light, and serve as lampsthese are but a sample of the treasures that accrued to Venice ; and the historian, in adverting to them, appears conscious that language must fail him in the attempt to convey an adequate impression of their immeasurable extent, their in-appreciable cost and their inexhaustible luxury.”
Many of the articles from this sack were afterwards to be seen in Venice adorning the altars and reliquaries, and possibly on the berretta,’ and other appliances of the Doge; but the most notable articles transported to the lagoon, and, it is said, almost the only ones whose value depended on their Fine Art, were the Bronze Horses now over the porch of St. Mark. To quote the same authority: ” The long catalogue of precious works of Art, ruined by stupid, brutal, and unfeeling ignorance, excites no less astonishment than regret and indignation. Books, the whole literature of the time, never to be replaced ; marbles, pictures, statues, obelisks and bronzes which the magnificence, the pride, the luxury, or the good taste of her princes had lavished, during nine centuries, upon this their favourite capital, prizes which Egypt, Greece and Rome had supplied, and which had justly rendered Constantinople the wonder of nations, perished in-discriminately beneath the fury of the marauders; and while almost every church throughout Christendom received a large accession to its reliquary from the translated bones of saints and confessors (a catalogue of these disgusting but super-human valuables falling to the share of Venice is still extant), scarcely one monument of ancient skill and taste was thought worthy of preservation. The Venetians afforded a solitary example in the removal of the four horses of gilt bronze from the hippodrome. Antiquaries appear to hesitate concerning the date or even the native country of these horses; for by some they have been assigned to the Roman time and to the age of Nero; by others, to the Greeks of Chio, at a much earlier period. Though far from deserving a place among the choicest specimens of Art, their possession, if we may trust their most generally received history, has always been much coveted. Augustus, it is said, brought them from Alexandria, after the conquest of Anthony, and erected them on a triumphal arch in Rome ; hence they were successively removed by Nero, Domitian, Trajan, and Constantine, to arches of their own; and in each of these positions, it is believed, they were attached to a chariot. Constantine, in the end, transferred them to his new capital.”
At this period St. Mark’s was built, and, externally, pretty much as it is at present, and the two granite columns had been placed on the quay of the Piazzetta, also brought from Constantinople at a former time, although as yet they had not received their crowning burdens, the Lion of St. Mark, and the figure of St. Theodore standing on the crocodile. Very shortly after this time, the two square piers, the visitor will also remember, near the corner of the Ducal Palace, were brought from Acre and other plunder of a semi-artistic kind showed that the love of beautiful, or perhaps rather of rare, things, had begun to distinguish the Venetians from all other men employed then in war or trade. These objects, indeed, were rather trophies than refined works, but they remain to us to indicate the taste that appreciated whatever decorated either the city or the person a taste that assisted to develop the prodigious prosperity of the Republic at the time of its greatest power. The incessant activity and love of adventure abroad united with that love of Art and of pleasure at home. At first the settlers had to fight for the preservation of the soil they built upon, and they never ceased fighting for dominion till the whole earth acknowledged them foremost.
An enumeration of the articles peculiar to that time to the trade of Venice would be curious enough now. The ships of her merchants exchanged from country to country whatever could be converted into money, but they were still more employed in exporting. After the silk manufacture was transplanted from the Bosphorus, it was very soon extended to an infinitely greater amount of produce than it had attained in its original seat, and being interdicted for domestic use to all the citizens or their wives, save magistrates, as many other luxuries were (a Spartan simplicity for a brief time being maintained), the whole of Christendom was sup-plied from Venice. A little later sprang up the manufacture of cloths, to which we in England contributed wool before we could use it ourselves; and long prior to its production elsewhere, gilt and stamped leather brought into the Exchange 100,000 a year, as did waxen tapers to a somewhat similar extent, and the liqueurs and poisons so celebrated or so feared. To correct these last, the glass-makers of Murano, the only glass-makers in the world for centuries, fabricated the apocryphal thin drinking cups that flew to pieces on receiving the deadly potion. Besides this article of doubtful commercial value, these glass-houses began the making of mirrors, as well as vessels of all sorts, the architect they had assisted since early times, thus aiding civilization in Italy in several ways, while the Northern nations lagged behind. And when Germany began the new arts of printing and engraving, Venice, where a trade in stenciled or stamped playing cards had previously existed, very quickly advanced in front of her, showing equal learning and greater dexterity. During the first age of printing, the number of books produced in Venice exceeds that of all the presses of France and England together; and many of them are besides very perfect specimens of the new art, such as those by the Aldi from 1488, the year in which the elder Aldus settled in the city. The production of such a book as The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili alone is enough to place it first in the early history of illustrated typography.