Veneto-Byzantine Art: the ‘Proto-Renaissance’

Early Days

Nativity by Paolo Veneziano, in San Pantalon

Although Byzantium dominated Venice’s first politics and art, the oldest surviving buildings in the Lagoon, the Cathedral and Baptistry at Torcello (rebuilt in 1008) were inspired by forms closer at hand: the Early Christian basilicas of Ravenna, and their ancient Roman antecedents.

The basic plan consisted of a nave and side aisles, with the triumphal arch over the chancel: Murano’s San Donato (1125), San Nicolò dei Mendicoli and the Giudecca’s Sant’Eufemia were built along these lines. But other early churches were designed in the centralized Greek-cross style, such as the 11th-century Santa Fosca, built next to Torcello Cathedral, and the original of Santa Maria Formosa.

The most important example, however, was the first: the Basilica of San Marco, built in the 830s, a copy of Constantinople’s five-domed church of the Apostles – a form kept through all subsequent rebuildings.

Constantinople’s other great contribution to the young city was in mosaic decoration. The dazzling mosaics of Ravenna’s basilicas begun by the last Roman emperors were finished by the new Romans of the Byzantium, who imported artists from Constantinople. These artists soon found additional work in Torcello and St Mark’s. Their stiff, ‘hieratic’ portraiture of highly stylized, spiritual beings who live in a gold-ground paradise, with no need of shadows or perspective or other such worldly tricks, was to remain prominent in Venetian pictorial art until the 13th century.

The third important artistic cross-current from Constantinople was in gold-work, namely the spectacular Pala d’Oro (altar screen) in St Mark’s, ordered by Doge Ordelafo Falier in 1105, and in its final form a collaborative effort between Greek and Venetian craftsmen.

The great looting of Constantinople’s treasures in 1204 did much to prolong the Byzantine influence in the Lagoon. Although most of the fabulous riches were devoted to embellishing St Mark’s, marble columns, mosaic icons and carvings were incorporated into other churches as well.

A new wave of Greek mosaicists emigrated to Venice to sheath St Mark’s domes in gold, in images straight from the 5th century. For, curiously, the loot from Constantinople sparked a retro fashion for Early Christian art (sometimes called the ‘Proto-Renaissance’) that lasted through the 12th and 13th centuries. The Venetians had the style down so pat that no one will ever know if some of the works date from the 6th or 13th century (St Mark’s alabaster columns, for example).

As Rome, the upstart, had Virgil’s Aeneid to give the city an ancient and noble lineage, Venice (a much later upstart) has the mosaics in St Mark’s to anchor it to the hallowed traditions of the Early Christian church. But on the façade of St Mark’s the Venetians took iconographic pains to show they could also claim an ancestor as illustrious as Hercules. The anonymous 13th-century sculptors of the pseudo-antique reliefs of Hercules and the basilica’s side portals formed Venice’s first workshop. They had hardly begun when their work was overshadowed by the far livelier, more natural figures of the Labours of the Months on the central portal, carved by Lombard stonemasons trained by the great Benedetto Antelami of Parma.

Venice’s oldest palaces (such as the Ca’ da Mosto, Ca’ Farsetti and the Fondaco dei Turchi) date from the 13th century, and show a similar taste for Byzantine and Islamic designs, especially in their arches. In them you can already see the classic form of the Venetian palaces: main façade on a canal, where waterborne arrivals entered the androne, a long hall running through the centre of the ground floor. This is where Venice’s merchant princes conducted their business, with their store rooms off to the sides and their offices on the mezzanine.

The same floor plan is repeated in the living quarters on the first floor, or piano nobile, where the long room is called the portego or salone. In later palaces this would be the ballroom, and the family moved up to the next floor, or secondo piano nobile. On top was the altane or roof terrace, used for drying laundry, or dyed fabrics, or for sun-bleaching the locks of Venetian ladies.

The basic structure remained the same throughout the centuries, leaving fashion to change only the surface decoration, the layout of loggias, and the shape and patterns of the windows and arches.

Next: Venice's long love affair with Gothic.

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