Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Eyes of a Lion: Venice at its Height and in its Decline

The lion of Venice growls at us, its rear feet in the water, symbolic of Venice's empire of water.  Its left front paw is on land -- Venice's empire of lands across the Mediterranean. Its right paw holds open a book displaying the traditional inscription to the city's patron saint, whose bones they acquired: "Peace be upon you, O Mark, my Evangelist."The wings of the lion frame the full sails of ships entering the harbor; by its haloed head is the Doge Palace, San Marco, the tower.   Here is Venice in 1516 at its height, unbowed despite attacks just a few years earlier by the League of Cambrai.  

A few rooms later, in the Doge Palace, comes another painting, from two centuries later.  The mighty are falling.

Mary McCarthy, in her Venice Observed, argues that "the Venetians (like the Americans) hated the idea of death" (p. 252).  It may be, but in one of the very last images commissioned by the Venetian Republic, Tiepolo could not help but portray the impending end of the Republic, which was in the air, even if Napoleon would not finally conquer Venice until 1797.  In  Neptune Offering to Venice the Riches of the Sea, from somewhere in the 1740s or 1750s, Tiepolo seems to be showing the faithful Neptune continuing to share his riches with the queen of the lagoon.  But all eyes are drawn to the eye of the lion, no longer walking on water and land at once, but wheezing under the hand of the queen.  The postcard sold in the gift shop captures just this detail of the eye -- tired, cloudy, eyebrows raised to look at Neptune because the head is to heavy to lift.

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