416 pages, Simon & Schuster, ISBN-13: 978-0684871905
Venice, Lion City: The Religion of Empire looks at the history of the Venetian Republic through the eyes of a cultural historian, with special emphasis on the visual symbols of Venetian uniqueness. While the early chapters and the concluding chapter give us intelligent but conventional history writing, much of the book focuses on Wills’ interpretations of Venetian Renaissance art and architecture. His intriguing scholarly observations place these works in the context of Venetian history, politics, and society. Wills also highlights many of Venice’s most striking personalities. The book is extensively illustrated with black and white reproductions; a central section presents 31 color plates. Readers with a strong interest in the visual arts will find this book fascinating, while I suspect that other readers may find the second half heavy going.
Venice is organized in several theme sections. First, in Imperial Disciplines, there are the historical origins and unique structure of this Renaissance state, which allowed it to escape the power struggles that dogged medieval Italy, i.e. unlike the innumerable city states re-fought the same territorial battles every generation under different egomaniacs. Second, in Imperial Personnel, Wills looks at the various members of society, from the frozen aristocracy (built on the expectation of duty rather than privilege) to the workers who made the city’s arsenal such as great and unique strategic asset as well as the “outsiders”, such as the Jews (the word “ghetto” we learn was coined for Venetian brass foundries); how the state functioned, who held power and how it was exercised (in a diffused bureaucratic balance), are expertly described while avoiding the heaviness of a comprehensive history. Third, in Imperial Piety, there is the religious iconography and ritual, which in part allowed Venetians the sense of legitimacy they needed to defy Rome and the Pope over centuries. As I am quite ignorant of Christian history, this was fascinating and valuable for me, e.g. that St George was a Christianized Hercules, who also fought the many plagues that inevitably arose in the Venetian environment. Finally, in Imperial Learning, there is the Renaissance scholarship that came late to the city, and how it altered the art, politics, book scholarship, and the like, all set in geo-political context. Throughout, Wills interprets the art and architecture of Venice in light of these themes. The result is simply dazzling, in my view, a masterwork by a great popularizer and philosophical moralist.