The Medieval Review 11.10.26

Maguire, Henry and Robert S. Nelson. San Marco, Byzantium, and the Myths of Venice. Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Symposia and Colloquia. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010. Pp. 295. $60. 978-0-88402-360-9. . .

Reviewed by:

William Tronzo
University of California, San Diego

The editors of this volume seem fond of Goethe's description of the basilica of San Marco in Venice as crab-like because they give it pride of place, citing it in the first sentence of their introduction. Goethe's remark is coarse, however, especially in the way in which it holds the exuberant eclecticism of the edifice to the measure of neoclassical taste. If I were to draw upon an experience of the past to characterize San Marco, it would be that of Albertus Magnus, who recounts, in his De mineralibus et rebus metallicis, the discovery of a king's portrait in the swirling patterns of marble revetment in the church. [1] This is San Marco as an absorbing even magical place, that meets the viewer's gaze from within, and that has the capacity to conjure up a world in its glistening surfaces. Although they echo comments made by others elsewhere (similar things were said of the marble in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, for instance), the words of Albertus Magnus are also a rare witness to an actual perception of the physical form of San Marco in the thirteenth century. Thus they are prime material for the kind of reception history with which many of the authors here are concerned but they are not discussed or even cited in this volume.

This book is based on a colloquium held at Dumbarton Oaks in 2007. It consists of a brief introduction and eight papers on the church whose chronological focus is the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries: three of them have to do with the narthex or the exterior space immediately adjacent to it (Barry, Nelson and Jacoff); one with portals (Dale); one with an icon of the Virgin (Maguire); one with relics and liturgical artifacts (Klein); one with the mosaics (James); and one with the Baptistery (Pincus). The editors and some of the authors are at pains to pay homage to Otto Demus--Liz James, for example, calls his scholarship "intimidating" and "staggering" (227)--and they are entirely right to do so. His work on the church in all of its dimensions--not only the mosaics, but also the architecture, the sculpture and the programmatic or ideological framework of the project--is weighty, profound and still to be reckoned with. What the authors offer as new, in the editors' estimation, however, is their application of "recent approaches" to the material, which are characterized by rubrics such as spolia, display, construction of identity, cultural hybridity, fashioning and past and present. Given this apparent diversity, the degree to which certain assumptions are shared and certain conclusions dovetail is therefore somewhat surprising.

One of these agreements seems to be in the nature of the project, that is to say the outfitting of the building, particularly with objects that were presumably acquired by the Venetians after the sack of Constantinople in 1204--as an act of appropriation in the narrowest and most literal sense, proclaiming at once victory over and possession of the East, as well the ambition on the part of the Venetians to conquer even more--in the words of Michael Jacoff, their "grand geopolitical ambitions" (113). Not only is the word trophy peppered throughout these texts, but certain pieces of sculpture, such as the "Tetrarchs" (which many of the authors doubt or deny actually represents the Tetrarchs) or "Il Carmagnola," are claimed to have been set up as a way of humiliating or even punishing the Byzantines (see the discussion of Fabio Barry, 34ff.). But how likely is it that the Venetians would have used precious face-time on the façade of their greatest church to perform some base and ultimately trivial acts of derogation. Not very, it seems to me. Some scholars, in fact, have raised doubts about the Byzantine origin of this sculpture. In what is by far the most stimulating study of recent years on the medieval use of ancient sculpture, including architectural sculpture (what is now commonly referred to as spolia), Michael Greenhalgh surveys the widespread phenomenon of the looting of marble in the medieval world, and then says of Venice: "This does not disprove the idea that S. Marco was decorated with material from the Sack, but renders it a little limp." [2] The term "appropriation" with its implications of aggression and hostility, of power and domination, seems all too familiar from spolia studies in general, where it has engendered a one-sided and inaccurate picture of reuse, as if it were only about trumping the past.

Otto Demus claimed that the reliefs in the spandrels of the arches on the west façade of the narthex (those of Herakles, the Virgin and Gabriel and Sts. George and Demetrios) were apotropaia, and of the contributions to this volume, Henry Maguire comes closest to following this thread. [3] Maguire argues that the marble relief of the Virgin "Aniketos," which is now in the Cappella Zen, became, for the Venetians, "the actual stone struck by Moses" (106), and thus a potent relic. Maguire connects the icon to the mosaics in the narthex depicting scenes from the life of Moses, to the point of arguing that the icon may have provided the inspiration for them, which is an interesting observation, and especially in the degree to which it suggests a deeper relationship between parts of the decorative program heretofore regarded as separate. One instinctively feels that more could be done in this vein.

The focus of this book is a single edifice, but as the title proclaims, the larger framework within which it must be understood is Byzantium, whence derived materials, ideas and perhaps even personnel who executed various phases of the project. Holger Klein provides copious documentation of Byzantine affiliations in relics and liturgical objects, including the Pala d'Oro. To anyone versed in the extensive literature on San Marco this is familiar territory. Still there emerges in these papers other contexts, which have the potential to enrich our view. One of them is Italy, and particularly Rome and Sicily with regard to mosaic production, as Liz James discusses. James begins by raising an important question about materials, the tesserae used in the mosaics: where did they come from? This is a question that someday may be answered by materials analysis, if it were broadly based enough, on the order of the kind undertaken by Ruggero Longo for the pavements of Southern Italy. Michael Jacoff analyzes a number of church facades in central and northern Italy in order to come to terms with the design of the façade of the narthex of San Marco. The contribution of Deborah Pincus on the Baptistery, on the other hand, would have benefited from a wider point of view that embraced more of central and northern Italy, since the rise of baptistery in this area--in Florence, Pisa and Parma, for example--was one of the salient features of the later Middle Ages. Genoa is another frame of reference, which is discussed by Robert Nelson. The conclusion that he reaches at the end of his paper, that the provenance of the "Pilastri Acritani" was retrofitted to a Venetian victory subsequent to that of 1204, is reasonable (but at the same time also disconnected from the historiography which forms the bulk of his analysis). Thomas Dale draws on some interesting comparisons from Fatimid and Mamluk Cairo in order to explain the appearance of ogee arches in certain portals in the church, although it is a question whether they were understood (or intended to be understood) in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Venice as containing regional references with political overtones (i.e. territorial ambitions in the East). There is a service, however, in attempting to expand the parameters of the discourse, for the very nature of San Marco as a monument without parallel is a guarantee that this discourse will continue.



1. See Wladimiro Dorigo, "Spolia marmorei d'oltremare a Venezia (secoli XI-XIV)," Saggi e memorie di storia dell'arte 28 (2004): 5.

2. Michael Greenhalgh, Marble Past, Monumental Present: Building with Antiquities in the Mediaeval Mediterranean (Leiden, 2009), p. 149.

3. Otto Demus, The Church of San Marco in Venice: History, Architecture, Sculpture (Washington D. C., 1960), p. 134.