A sumptuous tour of Renaissance Venice in books and drawings at the Morgan Library

Titian's 'St. Theodore Overcoming the Dragon' (Courtesy Morgan Library & Museum)
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In its heyday, from about the twelfth through the eighteenth centuries, Venice was Western Europe’s easternmost capital. With trading posts scattered as far off as China, Venice was uniquely cosmopolitan: its dialect was full of Greek and Arabic words, and the city was both a port of embarkation for pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land and a pleasure palace swarming with merchants, sailors, and whores.

In 828 Venetians showed their Christian bona fides by stealing Saint Mark’s relics from Alexandria; during the Fourth Crusade, Venetians and others ravaged not “infidel” territories but Constantinople, one of Christendom’s holiest cities. And it was in Venice that Shakespeare located two great dramas of confrontation with religious and ethnic Others: The Merchant of Venice and Othello.

Venice, in short, was louche, lax, and diverse: an ideal setting for an explosion of creativity and beauty. A new exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum, Renaissance Venice: Drawings from the Morgan, explores some of the cultural bounty that the city and Most Serene Republic of Venice gave to the world during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Renaissance Venice is drawn entirely from the Morgan’s own holdings. Splendidly curated and comprising roughly eighty drawings, maps, letters, and books, it covers a great deal of ground while inducing none of the visual and mental overload of a mega-show. Instead, Renaissance Venice seduces viewers quietly, with something of the sober, muted grace of the city’s backstreets.

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Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz printed his 42-line Bible around 1455, and the first books printed on the Italian peninsula were produced near Rome about ten years later. While Venice cannot claim chronological primacy in printing, its presses soon dominated the industry (accounting for a quarter of the books published in Europe by the fifteenth century’s end) and also issued some of the most beautiful books ever wrought. Like Gutenberg’s Bible, the earliest Venetian books on display at the Morgan—including a 1470 Livy, a 1471 Italian-language Bible (pictured at left), and a 1483 Aristotle—could pass for manuscripts. But where Gutenberg set forth God’s word in largely naked splendor, the margins of these Venetian books teem with illustrations rendered in stunningly vivid hues. The gold-and-green border on the title page of Livy’s History of Rome has the puffy, tactile allure of brocade—not surprising, since Venice was a center of the pigment and textile trades. In both the Bible and Livy, pages are decorated so that the text appears to be printed on frayed pieces of vellum, a nod to the age’s tropes of antiquarian recovery and rebirth. The banners in the center margin of the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon bear in Latin and Greek the aphorism from Apollo’s Temple at Delphi: “Know thyself.”

That snippet of pagan, humanistic lore—unthinkable in what one scholar called Gutenberg’s sternly “Gothic, Christian, and mediaeval” Bible—swells into the whole of one of the most ravishing and mysterious of all books, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (“Poliphilo’s Strife of Love in a Dream”), a prose romance printed in Venice in 1499 by Aldo Manuzio. Its author and illustrator are unknown; its language is a polyglot soup (including hieroglyphs); and its concerns are esoteric and decidedly un-Christian, as far as anyone can tell. But the volume’s harmonious proportions, masterly integration of text and images, and elegant type make it a monument of design, the “radiantly and graciously Italian, classic, pagan, and renascent” antithesis of Gutenberg’s great work. A few years later in Venice, Manuzio would invent the modern book: compact, portable, and modestly priced, in contrast to the luxurious and unwieldy tomes that had been the norm until then.

Other important books on display at the Morgan include a 1556 edition of Vitruvius’s On Architecture illustrated by Andrea Palladio, and Palladio’s own Four Books of Architecture, from 1570, both hugely influential. (Palladio-inspired buildings on these shores include the U.S. Capitol and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.) The Padua-born architect also designed Vicenza’s Teatro Olimpico, among the first theatres built in Europe since antiquity; it opened in 1585 with a production of Oedipus the King by Sophocles. Giovanni Battista Maganza the Elder designed the costumes, and his pen-and-ink drawing in the Renaissance Venice show depicts two characters, a moody, imposing nobleman (possibly Oedipus himself) and a pageboy.

For all that the Republic of Venice was a seafaring power and the city of Venice a marshy cluster of islands, Venetian artists had a strong interest in landscapes, to which they turned earlier than their Roman and Florentine analogues. Their inspiration was in part political: the Republic’s Terraferma or mainland holdings were extensive in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, stretching north to the Alps and west nearly to Milan. A rare landscape by Titian is one of the highlights of the Morgan show: Saint Theodore overcoming the Dragon (c. 1550, pictured at top), rendered in pen and brown ink, depicts an early patron of Venice (predating the theft of Saint Mark’s remains) in a windswept vista that seems to shrink back in awe before the warrior-saint’s exploit.

An earlier drawing by Giulio Campagnola represents a non-narrative landscape, uncommon for the age, while the scenery in a remarkable Landscape with the Baptism of Christ by Campagnola’s adoptive son Domenico is both naturalistic and symbolic. As John the Baptist performs the rite in the River Jordan, washer-women, fishermen, and shepherds toil in the background, each group evoking Christian parables and teachings, among them baptism as a cleansing from sin, the apostles’ proselytizing mission (to be “fishers of men”), the miracles of the fishes and loaves, and Jesus as a “good shepherd” whose own birth was first announced to watchers of flocks.

Religious themes underpin many of the most powerful works in Renaissance Venice. Artists from all Europe came to Venice to study the works of local masters. They included Albrecht Dürer, whose Kneeling Donor (1506, pictured at left), drawn on typically Venetian carta azzurra (“blue paper”), combines inwardness with a virtuosic rendering of drapery. Active largely in Spain, El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos) was born on Crete, then a Venetian holding. A Pietà with an Angel and a Fourth Figure attributed to him is a distillation of grief in brown ink over black chalk, with the lifeless Christ seemingly engulfing those surrounding him in the darkness of death. One horse in Pordenone’s tumultuous Conversion of St. Paul (c. 1530, pictured below right) appears to charge viewers as a voice from on high scatters man and beast and a “light out of heaven” blinds the writhing Pharisee Saul of Tarsus.

Other works reflect more narrowly humanistic themes. The woman with a hairnet in an anonymous drawing after Leonardo seems lost in thought, restrained yet absorbed in some great mystery: perhaps death, since the Renaissance portrait often served as a memento mori. Tintoretto reportedly drew Samson Slaying the Philistines by candlelight. Though it depicts a wax or clay model of a statue that Michelangelo never executed, its plastic qualities and the warrior’s rippling muscles tell of kinesis and bitter combat. Titian encloses an engraving after one of his paintings with a 1576 letter to the Roman collector Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, an early example of personal branding made possible by reproductive technology and of the far-flung influence of the artists and artisans who called Venice home.

’Renaissance Venice: Drawings from the Morgan’ is on view through September 23 at the Morgan Library & Museum. Information at www.themorgan.org or 212-685-0008. All images Courtesy the Morgan Library & Museum.