Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Hero of Lepanto, Veronese, and the Vagaries of History

Veronese chapel of the rosary 1

Though the sheer number of monuments and paintings commemorating the victory of the combined forces of Venice, Spain and the Papacy over the Turks in the famous sea battle of Lepanto might easily lead one to assume otherwise, this celebrated event of 7 October 1571 had little lasting effect on the declining fortunes of the Republic, according to the historian John Julius Norwich. It provided an immediate and immense lift to the morale of the city, whose residents were beginning to fear that
Veronese chapel of the rosary 2Turkish mastery of the sea might extend even so far as the city itself, and it provided some measure of vengeance for the Turkish massacre of Venetians and the torture and mutilation of their leader Marcantonio Bragadin following his negotiated surrender of Famagusta in Cyprus. But within two years of the battle Venice would relinquish all claims to Cyprus to the Turks, and in the following century, Norwich points out, they'd lose Crete as well. 

Sebastiano Venier, by Antonio dal Zotto
Which is not to say, however, that the victory had no long-lasting results, as one of the most beautiful of them was constructed to commemorate Lepanto and opened in 1582: the Chapel of Our Lady of the Rosary (beside the Church of SS Giovanni and Paolo in what was once the 14th-century Chapel of St Dominic), with its beautiful paintings by Veronese.

At least this is what I used to think. But, actually, those paintings by Veronese in that chapel--which is typically one of the most peaceful locales of great art in the city--originally had nothing to do with Lepanto, nor with the chapel they now adorn.

I only found this out the other day, after a long slanting beam of late afternoon sunlight focused my attention on a sculpture I usually overlook: Sebastiano Venier, victorious commander of Lepanto and, later, a doge. In a church containing some of the most celebrated memorial sculptures in the city, and with Andrea Verrocchio's famous equestrian bronze of Bartolomeo Colleoni commanding the campo outside, it's not uncommon for this bronze to remain both figuratively and literally in the shadows.

The statue was made by the same Venetian sculptor, Antonio dal Zotto (1852-1918), responsible for the jaunty Goldoni bronze that overlooks Campo San Bartolomeo, as well as the bronze of Titian in the painter's hometown of Pieve di Cadore. It was commissioned in 1907 to commemorate the transfer of Venier's remains from their original resting place on Murano in the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli to their present resting place in Giovanni and Paolo.

But the chapel beside which the bronze figure of Venier proudly stands bears little resemblance to the one constructed in the years after his victory. That chapel, with its gilded wooden ceilings and works by Tintoretto, Palma di Giovane, and many others, outlasted the Venetian Republic's last remaining outposts in the Mediterranean by a good two centuries, but it did not last until the present day. It was destroyed by fire on the 15th and 16th of August 1867--along with one work by Giovanni Bellini and another by Titian that happened, unfortunately, to be undergoing restoration within the chapel at the time.

I found all this out in the course of looking up information about dal Zotto's bronze. Though I've never come upon any of it in a guidebook, it's all readily available--and in English, too--on the very informative website of the Basilica of SS Giovanni and Paolo:

The Veronese paintings I like to visit whenever I'm in the neighborhood (some of which are posted above and below) were painted for a church on the Zattere, the long-deconsecrated church of Umiltà. Though I always imagined them to be native to the Chapel of the Rosary, they were only installed in their present location in 1925.

Before I found out all of the above, the difference between the short-term political gains from the Battle of Lepanto and the persistence of what I imagined to be the original Chapel of Our Lady of the Rosary might have called to mind that old saw of the ancients about how Life is short, but Art endures. And perhaps some would say that the lasting (if delicate) beauty of Venice itself might be considered as evidence of whatever validity this claim may still have for us. It's a nice thought, in any case... But the destruction of the original chapel and its paintings by fire--especially that Bellini and Titian!--reminds me that as much effort as humans put into both art and commemoration, it's sometimes just dumb damn luck that decides what, and who, survives.

The present carved ceiling was begun by Carlo Lorenzetti in 1932; the Veronese's within come from the deconsecrated church of Umiltà

During the Christmas season the low gate usually blocking access to the presbytery is open & one can finally get a good view of what I find to be the most striking of Veronese's 4 evangelists, this dapper St Luke
The Christmas season is also the only time one can see the ten early-18th-century low-reliefs on the walls around the chapel's altar. The above and below are by Luigi and Carlo Tagliapietra


  1. Thank you for this moment of beauty. The Veronese paintings are stupendous. If not for your blog, I might not have seen these particular ones.

    1. I'm happy that you can tell even in pics why I stop in to see them whenever I have the chance. The thing is, there are other really great Veronese in the same chapel, but because of lighting issues I wasn't able to get very good pics of them. Perhaps next time. I hope you'll be able to see them in person one day.

  2. It looks like Lord John Julius Norwich reasoned like Voltaire (a philosopher) and not as Braudel (a magnificent historian): what would have happened to Venice with an Ottoman victory at Lepanto (actually at the Curzolari)? Crete and Corfù would be have been captured by the Turks if not in 1571, in the next year, and the Queen of the Adriatic would have been very soon strangled in its own sea. Lepanto was on the sea what Vienna was on land a century later: the end of the Ottoman military superiority and the victory of the Western technical supremacy.

    1. An interesting and very good point. And of course you're right that a long "philosophical" view obscures the more immediate (and even far-reaching) practical outcomes of some action. Also, perhaps when one sets one's mind on the notion of a state's decline one can miss broader implications. Thanks for your comment.

  3. There is a tradition of seeing the victory at Lepanto as something like...non-victory. I think if the allied fleet was crushed that day, the difference between victory and defeat would have been much more dramatic. So...A victory is a victory.

    By the way, there was a more devastating fire sooner after the battle than 1867 - in 1577 the same painters' other works perished in a huge blaze at the Doge's Palace.

    P.S. A huge new book on Veronese was printed at the beginning of this year:

    1. Of all the paintings that were destroyed in that fire at the Doge's Palace, Sasha, it's the work by Paolo Uccello that I find most regretful. There's not a lot of Uccello around anyway, and it's easy to forget that he was here at all (from about 1425-30). Another lost work by Uccello in Venice was a design he made for the basilica of San Marco in mosaic.

      I'll have to check out the new Veronese book, thanks for the link.