Venice: An Eastern City in the West
By Claudia Cappuccitti
The Future of History, Vol.4 (2009)
Introduction: It is not surprising that in the Judeo-Christian West, the controversy over the use of religious images stretched from the emergence of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine, to the years of Reformation and Counter-Reformation in the sixteenth century. In the East, the climax of this debate was realised much earlier than in the West; in fact, the issues concerning iconoclasm were resolved in the East more than six hundred years before the first serious rumblings began in the West. It would take another century for preachers in Italy to begin actively pursuing the reform of images. In Italy, the call to re-examine the way in which images could be used for religious purposes was made mainly in Milan, as a result of northern influences, and in Florence, through the teachings of Girolamo Savonarola. The northern Italian city of Venice, however, was truly a unique case. La Serenissima had a large German population, which by the fifteenth century was firmly established in the city. The Germans boasted their own trade guild (La Scuola dei Caleghieri Tedeschi, for German cobblers) and palace for expatriates and visitors (Foncaco dei Tedeschi). Despite this influence, however, the movement for the reformation of images was not introduced to the city with any force – neither from the north nor the rest of the peninsula. Instead of looking to Europe for inspiration, Venice looked eastward to a culture in which icons had been used for veneration without hesitation since the Iconoclasm. The Venetians did not simply adopt the aesthetic of Byzantium, but much more profoundly, the Byzantine icon and an Eastern approach to (and understanding of) images. This approach embraced and celebrated the icon, leading Venetians to accept its authority while the rest of Western Europe launched into a battle with religious art, creating the pre-Reformation climate of iconoclasm.
Venice had always seen itself as an Eastern city rather than a Western city. The art, architecture and religious customs of medieval and Renaissance Venice all reflect this self-perception. Venetian merchants were involved in trade with the East from as early as the ninth century, and it was this commerce with the East that sustained the city despite its absence of natural resources. Venice imported exotic goods from the Near and Far East to Europe (especially to Germany), and returned to the East with raw materials, particularly metals from central Europe. It was this Eastern commerce that first introduced Venice to the aesthetic of Byzantium.