Nor yet forget how Venice once was dear,
The pleasant place of all festivity,
The revel of the earth, the Masque of Italy! (Byron, 12).
Those few melancholic verses of Lord Byron, written in the early 19th century, testify of Venice's enchanting influence in European literature. For centuries, Venetians had been known to be enthusiastic producers of civic imagery in what became a project of self-promotion and redefinition (Wilson, 4). From that, they forged an extraordinary, almost mystical, reputation around their Serenissima Republic, which claimed, for instance, that it had been an example of freedom, justice, and stability (R. Finlay, 931). Historians have largely contested this representation with countless arguments, but this article cannot enumerate all of them, and therefore it will take another approach to illustrate the limits of this myth. During the 16th century, Domenico Tintoretto painted The Conquest of Constantinople, a magnificent painting taking centre stage in the Great Chamber Council of the Ducal Palace, which depicted the fall of the Byzantine capital during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. Commissioned directly by the Serenissima, Tintoretto brilliantly embraces essential elements of the myth’s rhetoric, but at the obvious expense of historical accuracy. Although the artist sought to glorify the city’s prestigious history, his painting also inevitably recollected the memories of a controversial period when Venice came to slaughter the Byzantines, their Christian brothers. This article attempts to illustrate the limits of the myth of Venice by exposing the duality of this painting.
Above all, Tintoretto’s Conquest of Constantinople tries to perpetuate the military and naval glorification inherent to the myth. In this painting, Venetian troops are depicted swarming the city walls, planting their flags all around the place, and meeting almost no resistance. In the meantime, the Venetian fleet occupies most of the canvas, and seems unharmed by the surrounding conflict. These representations are essential in understanding the myth. For centuries, the floating city promoted a prestigious maritime history and superiority, to the point of anchoring it into its identity. In 2002, the historian Elizabeth Crouzet-Pavan stated that:
Venice was born in the water; Today as yesterday, it triumphs over the water. At least this is the destiny that Venetian history assigned to the City (Crouzet-Pavan, 1).
And for her, there are no doubts that paintings such as Tintoretto’s Conquest of Constantinople had been commissioned for this exact purpose, such as the one illustrating 'Venice’s dominium over the sea' (Crouzet-Pavan, 48). Historians have reminded that Venice was, at that time, on the verge of decline, and its politicians, being aware of it, took the initiative to promote glorious historical events in a desperate attempt to counter this reality (Grubb, 61). Along with the Conquest of Constantinople, other paintings were commissioned at the same period such as Andrea Vicentino's Battle of Lepanto, and each of them shared this common objective.
Tintoretto does not simply seek to illustrate the military and naval exceptionalism of his beloved city, but also desires to defend its religious image. During the 16th century, Marin Sanudo, an eminent Venetian humanist, defined Venice as “a free city, a common home to all men, (…) built by Christians, (…) powerful and rich people, (…) with their faith in Christ” (Sanudo, 4). He even came to declare that the city "may be called the bosom of all Christendom, for it takes pride of place before all others, if I may say so, in prudence, fortitude, magnificence, and clemency" (Sanudo, 5). The Conquest of Constantinople embraces this religious ideal with the depiction of the deputation of Byzantine priests welcoming the crusaders in the middle-left part of the canvas (Nicol, 143). Although historically accurate, this choice suggests a religious victory of the Crusaders over Byzantium. Tintoretto’s use of light further confirms the desire to grant a positive religious connotation to the crusaders' actions. Whereas the painting should expose the chaos of the siege, as did Eugène Delacroix’s Entry of the Crusaders in Constantinople, Tintoretto decides to surround the Latin forces in light, conveying the idea of a divine acknowledgment and blessing for Venetian troops.
Unfortunately, this painting ultimately fails to achieve its original purpose, as it revives the controversial memories of the Fourth Crusade. In the first place, the religious narrative established in the painting falls short in front of the historical consensus, which asserted that the motivations during the Fourth Crusade were not religious, but primarily economic and political (G. Finlay, 82). George Finlay, for instance, indicates that the fall of the Byzantine city of Zara in 1202 originated from an idea of the Doge in order to finance the campaign (G. Finlay, 83). On a broader scale, it has been argued that this expedition had been an ideal occasion to strengthen Venetians' maritime positions, acquiring new frontiers, gaining access to new markets, and to put an emperor on the Byzantine throne, who would be indebted to Venice (Berto, 111). Although the Conquest of Constantinople attempts to accommodate reality with the depiction of noble values, the cautious study of the expedition reveals a truth far from corresponding either to Tintoretto’s vision, or Sanudo’s idea of Venice being the core of all Christendom.
Besides the real motivations behind the Fourth Crusade, the atrocities committed during the conflict bring further prejudices to the myth. In 2001, Pope John Paul II declared to the Archbishop of Athens and Primate of Greece: "Some memories are especially painful, and some events of the distant past have left deep wounds in the minds and hearts of people to this day" (John Paul II). Referring to the Fourth Crusade, this speech testifies of the existing wounds between the two Christian communities caused by the actions of the Latin crusaders centuries ago. Unsurprisingly, Venetians remained remarkably silent about these events in the years that followed the end of the expedition. On one side, this can be explained by the fact that Venice had not yet developed a tradition of chronicle writing, but on the other, many historians assumed that this silence was primarily due to the embarrassment resulting from the city’s responsibility in these horrendous crimes (Madden, 316). Nicetas Choniates, a Byzantine witness of the fall of his city, denounced the actions of his Christian brothers:
In the alleys, in the streets, in the temples, complaints, weeping lamentations, grief, the groaning of men, the shrieks of women, wounds, rape, captivity, the separation of those most closely united. (Choniates, 15).
Tintoretto’s inspiration was not drawn from Choniates’ testimonies, which had been translated and were accessible at that time, but from the Chronicles of Geoffroy de Villardhouin, a Frankish crusader who had been far less critical of the role played by Venice (Wolters, 141). This deliberate choice indicates, once again, the desire of the Venetians’ 16th-century political elite to erase disgraceful actions, and replace them to fit in the myth’s narrative.
Beyond bearing the memory of unforgivable slaughters, Tintoretto’s painting reminisces of the city’s disobedience to the Pope. In 1202, Pope Innocent III tried to stop the crusaders by placing Zara and Byzantine cities under Papal protection, and threatening to excommunicate anyone assaulting it (G. Finlay, 83). Although both armies ended up ignoring these orders, the Frankish barons were the only ones seeking absolution for their actions, whereas the Doge showed little interest in the divine punishment (Villardhouin, 26). Not only does this behaviour reflect the prevalence of economic motivations over religious ones, it also reveals the tumultuous relations between Venice and Rome. Across the centuries, the two cities went through many disputes and diplomatic relations, which were deplorable in the late 16th century. Historians noticed that the choice to put Tintoretto’s painting on the first floor of the Ducal Palace, a place reserved to glorify the city’s most glorious historical achievements, happened to be at a time of tensions between Rome and Venice. For them, this was no coincidence and could only suggest that it was a direct provocation to Rome, which deteriorated, even further, the image of a city claiming to be a devoted one.
Overall, the Conquest of Constantinople echoes the words of Edward Muir, which were that Venice cultivated the belief that 'outward beauty was a sign of inward virtue', which encouraged the cultivation of appearances at the expense of what modern historians would consider the underlying realities (Muir, 18). Not everything depicted in Tintoretto’s painting is incorrect: Venetians had undeniably testified of their military and naval supremacy, but the motivations of the expedition, coupled with the exactions and papal disobedience, remained deeply antagonistic to the ideas defended by the myth. In the end, the Conquest of Constantinople stands as a reminder that victors are the ones writing history, reminiscing of the famous and so-true Roman proverb Vae Victis.
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Crouzet-Pavan, E. (2002). Venice Triumphant: The Horizons of a Myth (Lydia G. Cochrane, Trans.). John Hopkins University Press.
De Villardhouin, G. (1908). Memoirs or Chronicles of the Fourth Crusade and the Conquest of Constantinople (F. T. Marzials, Trans.). J. M. Dent.
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Nicol, B. (1989). Byzantium and Venice: A Study of Diplomatic and Cultural Relations. Cambridge University Press.
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Wolters, W. (2010). The Doge’s Palace in Venice: A tour through Art and History. Deutscher Kunstverlag.
Delacroix, Eugène. Entry of the Crusaders in Constantinople. 1840. Oil on canvas. https://bit.ly/3MCVsfk
Tintoretto, Domenico. The Conquest of Constatinople. c. 1580. Oil on canvas. https://bit.ly/35Jx0Z9
Vicentino, Andrea. Battle of Lepanto. 1603. Oil on canvas. https://bit.ly/3MAlmQW
Vicentino, Andrea. Crusaders Conquer the City of Zara. c. 1580. Oil on canvas. https://bit.ly/3MDBhhC