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Venice & the Birth of the Modern World: visual culture in the era of print – five online talks by Dr Michael Douglas-Scott

posted on 02/02/24


Contemporary Venice, despite its biennale and film festival, has long been a dying city, creating little of its own, the venue for millions of tourists drawn by its mythical status and beauty, astonished at the shell of its former glory. But it was once a great maritime power, a state of exemplary stability and, in Petrarch’s words, ‘the one home of liberty, peace and justice’.

In the 15th and 16th centuries it became a major centre of artistic excellence, particularly in painting, with the Bellini family, Giorgione, Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto, among others, establishing an international reputation for its ‘school’. Concurrently, from the 1470s onwards, Venice became the principal centre for book production and illustration throughout Europe. In this series of lectures, it will be argued that there was a strong link between advances in art and architecture and the emergence of an urban-based print culture. As a direct consequence of their interaction, much of what we recognize to be ‘modern’ originated in Renaissance Venice.

They take place every Thursday from 13th June to 11th July at 4.30pm and, including Q&A, will probably last just under an hour. They are available for viewing for eight weeks after the last episode is streamed (5th September 2024).

Register for the webinar series for £65

The talks

1. The ‘Myth’ of Venice (13th June 2024)

The Venetian State propagated its own ‘myth’ through civic ritual, the visual arts and written ideology. It claimed for itself the status of a new Rome, with a singular destiny as a city born of the sea, like Venus, under the special protection of the Virgin Mary and its patron saint, St. Mark. Its image as the perfect polity, harmonising the elements of monarchy (the Doge), oligarchy (the Senate) and democracy (the Main Council), came to be accepted by foreigners, including the English, as a model. Venice harboured a reputation for political liberty and commercial enterprise, which transformed it into the most cosmopolitan port in the Western world. Its welcoming environment attracted foreign printers, and print-makers such as Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg, who were to make Venice into the hub of the first global information network, a melting-pot for different visual cultures.

2. The Invention of Arcadia (20th June 2024)

As Venetians lost control of their eastern Mediterranean empire to Ottoman expansion, they acquired a land empire (which they called the 'terraferma') in northern Italy, extending from the plain of Lombardy to the Alpine Friuli. In 1509 they lost for nearly a decade their 'terraferma' to an alliance of European states, the 'League of Cambria'. It was during this existential crisis that a new cultural focus was placed on rural life. A modern genre emerged, both in printed literature and the visual arts, in which the countryside was refashioned as a terrestrial paradise, equivalent to the pastoral Arcadia of ancient myth. This idealised version of nature was promoted in the paintings of Giorgione, Titian and the Bassano family. Circulated through woodcuts, engravings and etchings, this secular vision of landscape was to capture the European imagination for centuries.

3. Text and Image in the Venetian Printed Book (27th June 2024)

Printing with moveable type was invented in Germany but brought to Italy in the 1460s. The Venetian state supported its introduction to the city and by the end of the century Venice had become the centre of book publishing throughout Europe. The Frenchman Nicholas Jenson in the 1470s printed folio books here in an incomparably beautiful font based on Italian humanist script. He was to be followed by Aldus Manutius, the greatest of all printer/publishers of the Renaissance. The ‘Hypnerotomachia Poliphili’, the erotic archaeological fantasy which he printed in 1499, is considered the most beautiful book of the entire Renaissance. Other illustrated books on architecture, cartography, anatomy, calligraphy, romance and vernacular literature preceded and followed it. The combination of word and image in printed form accelerated developments in the arts and sciences in what was a seismic communications revolution, destabilising the existing order.

4. Painters, the Poligrafi and Publishing (4th July 2024)

Already in the 15th century, painters of the standing of Giovanni Bellini had formed relationships with humanist writers. The advent of printing intensified this relationship and brought in a third (and sometimes fourth) player into the equation: the printer/publisher (‘editore’ in Italian). As manuscript illuminators adjusted to the new technology, painters such as Titian soon began to understand the advantages the new medium offered them. He collaborated with printers in the production of large-scale woodcuts. He also befriended a new generation of writers called the ‘poligrafi’ who lived by the printing press, such as Pietro Aretino, who in his published letters spread Titian’s international reputation. Along with the printer/publisher Francesco Marcolini, also a friend of Tintoretto’s, painters could now promote their own ideas and styles, as well as spreading their personal fame to a wider public, claiming creative authorship of their own work. This was also true of architects like Sebastiano Serlio and Andrea Palladio, who established a new authority in Roman antiquity.

5. Artistic Licence versus Authority in the Autumn of the Renaissance (11th July 2024)

With the help of the humanists who wrote about painting as an art from Alberti in the 15th century onwards, patrons had begun to appreciate artistic invention and to allow painters more choice in formulating their subject-matter. This process was accelerated with the advent of printing. Artists increasingly could buy or borrow affordable books in the vernacular, which they could use to source their themes from biblical and ancient history. With the threat of Protestant heresy, however, censorship was introduced and had by the mid-16th century restricted what could be written or depicted, resulting in Veronese being questioned by the Inquisition over his painting called ‘The Feast in the House of Levi’. This repressive regime, along with the plague of 1576 during which Titian and many printers died, spelled the end of the golden age of Venetian printing. But a new world order had been established in Venice: the genie was out of the bottle and the road to modernity in the visual arts opened for the future.

Image: Jacopo de’ Barbari of Venice, The View of Venice, 1500. Courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Art

The speaker

Dr Michael Douglas-Scott

Mixes scholarship with accessible discourse, with reasoned opinion, and is highly sought-after as an art history lecturer. He has lectured for New York University (London campus) and Birkbeck College, University of London, specialising primarily in 16th-century Italian art and architecture. He studied at the Courtauld and Birkbeck College and lived in Rome for several years. He has written articles for Arte Veneta, Burlington Magazine and the Journal of the Warburg & Courtauld Institutes.

Register for the webinar series for £65

Frequently asked questions

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An electronic invoice will be sent to your e-mail address 1–3 working days after you have completed our registration form. Payment can be made online using AMEX, Apple Pay, Google Pay, MasterCard or Visa.

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No, unfortunately not. The series must be purchased in full.

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What happens if I am unable to attend the live broadcast(s)? 

A recording will be uploaded to a dedicated webpage approximately two hours after the live broadcast. For copyright reasons, these recordings cannot be made available indefinitely; access is granted for eight weeks after the final live broadcast of the series.

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