Friday, January 10, 2014

Empress Sissi Slept Here: What Price History? Part 2

The Museo Correr identifies this as Sissi's bedroom; the bed now in it belonged to Napoleon's nephew (but calling it the bedroom of Eugène de Beauharnais would excite few people)
In the English-speaking world the author would probably have been labeled a "crank." But the text was in Italian, and though it was rather long (by internet standards) and I skimmed it more than read it, it has stuck with me for nearly a year while whatever it was I was actually looking for when I chanced upon that open letter about the Museo Correr is long forgotten.

What I remembered about it was the author's outrage over the fact that the route into the Museo Correr's extensive collection in the Procuratie Nuove was no longer down a corridor of work by Canova but through Napoleon's overweening ballroom, past Banti's heroic sculpture of the French Emperor as benevolent conqueror, then into an extended suite of rooms glorifying the French and Austrian occupations and celebrating the 7-month residence of the Empress Elisabeth ("Sisi" or "Sissi") of Austria and Queen of Hungary.

I remembered the piece as being a letter to the editor in some local paper and thought I'd never be able to find it again. But, after a number of unsuccessful searches, it turned up as soon as I simply googled "contra Museo Correr", beneath the rather hysterical heading of Rimossi 14 secoli di storia dal Museo Correr, principale vetrina della Civilità veneta ("14 Centuries of History Removed from the Correr Museum, Main Window onto Venetian Civilization").

It turns out that to call the writer of the open letter merely "a crank" would probably strike most people as being far too kind. The text was actually in response to a similarly outraged letter on the website of an extremely conservative and militant group of Catholics: followers of a Holocaust-denying priest with intimate ties to Lega Nord. For obvious reasons I am not about to provide a link to it.

What a frightening place the internet can be!

But if we can forget about, or at least bracket the unfortunate source of that letter, I'd like to return to what I hope is the more reasonable question of what is the appropriate way for the museum of Venice to represent the French and Austrian occupations of the city? Especially considering the large likelihood that the bulk of visitors to it know practically nothing about those decades and the conditions under which Venetians lived.

I ask this not only in the interest of historical fidelity, but because after living here for three years I've begun to think that the present day "tourist crisis" can hardly be understood without some knowledge of the city's dire (and ongoing) struggle to survive since the collapse of its Republic. That is, for well over 200 years the question has been what to do with this place that has so clearly outlived the economic, social and cultural conditions from which it sprang and in which it once thrived--especially now that its fishing, industrial, lace and glass-making sectors have also either disappeared or seem about to.

Austrians and Venetians clash in Mestre in 1848
That the vast majority of Venetians hated the French and the Austrians can be little doubted--in spite of the fact that, as an expert on Venice just informed me, it's still possible to catch a glimpse of a statue of Napoleon, commissioned by Alvise Mocenigo, standing in the depths of a androne in one of the Palazzi Mocenigo. (Though to do so one must be in a sandolo on the Grand Canal). After living in Venice for nearly four years in the 1860s as the American consul to Venice, William Dean Howells wrote:
Consigned to the Austrians by Napoleon I; confirmed in the subjection into which she fell a second time after Napoleon's ruin, by the treaties of the Holy Alliance; defeated in several attempts to throw off her yoke, and loaded with heavier servitude after the fall of the short-lived Republic of 1849--Venice has always hated her masters with an exasperation deepened by each remove from the hope of independence, and she now detests them with a rancor which no concession short of absolute relinquishment of dominion would appease. 
That the majority of Venetians lived in abject and hopeless poverty during the 19th Century is also well established. Both John and Effie Ruskin, for example, write in letters about the wretchedness they witnessed all around them during their stay in the city in 1849 (soon after the fall of Manin's Republic), and "the ubiquitous beggars" of Venice are a primary subject in Howell's work--and bear no resemblance to the images of dancing and singing Italian idlers he'd seen in a childhood book. "Indeed," Howells writes, "the indolence of Venetians is listless and silent, not playful or joyous; and as I learned to know their life more intimately, I came to understand that in many cases they are idle from despair of finding work, and that indolence is as much their fate as their fault."

But in the Museo Correr there's no hint of any such reality beyond the myth of Napoleon and outside the silk-clad walls of what the museum calls the "Rooms of the Empress Elisabeth" (Stanze dell'Imperatrice Elisabetta).

Now I'll admit that my ignorance of the Empress made me wonder why so much attention was lavished upon a person who actually spent so little time in the city. After all, while she may still be a hero to Hungarians for the love she bore that country and her efforts on its behalf, she plays no similar role in the history of Venice. Nor, really, hardly any role at all.

But then I learned that a romantic trilogy of films based upon her life and shot in the 1950s with a teenage Romy Schneider in the title role is supposedly shown every Christmas on Austrian, German, Dutch and French television.

And I learned, further, that it is now a weary commonplace to consider Empress Elisabeth the Hapsburg version of Lady Diana.

And everything fell into place.

"The Hapsburg Lady Di"
Ah, the romantic myth of the free-spirited aristocrat, the young woman of privilege bristling against the constraints of court, the beautiful plutocratic goddess with the common touch! Whatever their interest as living breathing suffering human beings, or historical figures, I can't help but notice how the romantic myth of these two womens' lives conveniently combines the contemporary ideal of individuality to whose mass-marketed forms, paradoxically, we're all supposed to conform, with the supposed apotheosis of crass materialism in extravagant luxury.  

That is, even as I marvel at the "Rooms of the Empress Elisabeth" I sometimes wonder if  I'm not really doing too much more than looking at a museum version of that vulgar old 1980's American class-porn celebrity-driven series Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. One which goes pretty light on any kind of history beyond the decorative arts, and pretty heavy on lifestyle.

I understand that given the museum's prime position on the Piazza San Marco its attendance has traditionally been rather disappointing and it needs to come up with ways to make itself "sexier." But does that preclude contextualizing the "Rooms of the Empress" at least just a bit?

Must one be a nut (or worse) to wonder if there might not be some value in following up this extensive suite of imperial profligacy with at least a little room (or mere display case) devoted to documenting Venetian life during the same periods?

It need not be so simple-minded as to suggest anything like a uniform Venetian rejection of the French and Austrian occupiers. It could include Venetians like Alvise Mocenigo, who cultivated a working relationship with both the French and Austrians, as well as revolutionaries like Daniele Manin. But it would--with etchings, manuscripts, newspapers, daguerreotypes or pamphlets of the eras--present a bit of the same period from the complex perspective of Venice and Venetians, which is, after all, supposed to be the museum's focus.

Of course I'm not sure how the Comité Français pour la Sauvegarde de Venise would feel about this. They're the group that purchased and restored not only the Napoleon sculpture that was the focus of Part 1 of this post, but also financed much of the renovation of what they refer to as le Palais Royal de Venise (of which les petits appartements royaux du Palais Royal--Appartments de "Sissi" was "the second phase"). Bronze plaques attesting to this fact adorn each renovated room, decorously placed-- though still, to be honest, reminding me that the word chauvinism originated in the surname of a fanatical Bonapartist. 

Nor am I sure how the luxury textile house of Rubelli, which donated both their expertise and their fabrics to the restoration of the rooms would feel about it. For it's one thing to identify your brand with the "Hapsburg's Lady Di," but quite another to have it anywhere in the vicinity of daguerreotypes of hopeless poverty and filthy begging children.

And, finally, I'm not sure how many Venetians themselves would go for it; many of whom make their living from a tourism industry that celebrates their city's glamour, not its long periods of despair, or even desperate doomed rebellion. Indeed, even the extremist Veneto separatist whose open letter started me thinking about all this was not outraged by the absence of anything like I mention, but by the disappearance of display cases celebrating the legendary military prowess of Francesco Morosini. He seemed to be more interested in propaganda than history: more the pro patria mori heroic than the well-considered.

I think it might be useful to consider how the ways in which museums are funded might influence the way history is framed and presented, but I can't pretend to offer some conclusion about the Museo Correr and its French and Austrian rooms--and can only hope that by taking the time to entertain such questions I haven't myself slipped crank-ward.


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you, pc, you're kind to let me know you liked the piece.

  2. I can't find any way to contact you on the there an email address or a form I can fill out? I'm interested in chatting with you about an interview opportunity. Let me know!

  3. Sig. Nonloso - thank you for this post. As always, you are thoughtful and thought provoking.
    I was interested to see these apartments when last in Venice, and I too was perplexed by the lack of CONTEXT about this critical period in Venetian history, and particularly about the demise of the Venetian Republic.
    Your point about sponsorship and cultural institutions is also appreciated. I work in the museum industry, and it's been interesting to watch and work in the context of the influence of sponsors and other commercial interests on cultural organisations. My job is marketing manager and I daily think about the challenge of getting people through the doors and finding 'sexy' ways to entice them in - and how to craft marketing and media messages that are curatorially rigorous, and provide context, authenticity and accuracy. Thanks again.

    1. Given your background and experience, CV, your comments mean a lot to me, and reassure me that I wasn't completely off-base about the Museo Correr's decisions in regard to the history of occupation here. What you write makes me think that the museum has, in its descriptions of each room, for example, attempted to be curatorially rigorous, as you say, but only within the most limited horizon. They provide probably everything one might want from a decorative arts museum, but they leave out pretty much everything else.

      What a difficult job you and others in the world of arts and culture have these days! I would like to think I'm being overly-pessimistic, but for the most part it seems that the acceptable range of what is represented in or to our mass culture becomes ever more narrow--or maybe "bi-polar" is more accurate, everything tending toward one extreme or the other: flash or trash, imperious or abject. The two poles of a tabloid world, though most of us live our lives somewhere in the middle. I admire you for trying to maintain standards appropriate to the mission of a museum even while looking to draw people in--Venice too often seems ready to sacrifice all standards.

  4. We had a city tour in Vienna last July, and almost one third of everything the guide said were some details of Sissi's life. Her Barbie-like statuettes compete with Mozart’s figurines for shelf space at the souvenir shops.
    There are also imperial rooms at Schloß Schönbrunn dedicated mainly to her, and the guide went on and on about her phenomenal hair and weird eating habits and her troubled life. At one point the group even urged the lady to move on to the other rooms – we were standing near the empress’ mannequin with coiffure falling down to the knees level and becoming bored with all that trivia.

    It was amusing how the guide had no doubts every detail of Sissi’s life is valuable to us. But we were unimpressed – all that stuff definitely belongs to the same place where the late Lady Di’s trivia is stored, it’s a kind of quasi-history, tabloid-style.

    The decision to give away several rooms in Museo Correr to such display is…I don’t know what was the reason. Giandomenico Romanelli, the director of state museums, was introducing these new spaces in a film, congratulating Rubelli on the fine work they did with their fabrics and even called the new additions long waited for or something like that.

    It’s very likely some politics are involved – the decision to occupy a considerable part of the city’s museum with memorabilia of one of the least significant events in Venetian history doesn’t seem like a logical step in the Museo Correr’s development.

    1. In terms of Rubelli itself and their field of expertise, their contributions to the museum are admirable and the process by which they were researched and created is quite interesting. But that's only a part of what's going on in these rooms, though it sounds like the director of the state museums would like to treat it as though it was everything. That's a problem, I think.

      Thomas Carlyle wrote that "The history of the world is but the biography of great men." It was an influential notion that has been long and completely discredited as simplistic, even childish (not to mention sexist and much else). Yet it seems to persist in the popular imagination--and those who would profit by pandering to it--in the slightly altered from of "The history of the world is but the biography of great celebrities."

      Alas, this has--as the your tiresome experiences in Vienna make clear--only opened the door to sloppier and worse curating, hasn't it?

  5. I don't know much about hystory, it was so painfully taught in my schools that I tried to forget it as fast as I learned it unfortunately.

    What I know about Napolen is that he burnt the Bucintoro in the bacino to both show that Venice and the doge were no more, and also to melt all the gold it contained. He looted many pieces of art (not that Venice never did that...), and he ordered many effiges of the winged lion destroyed. In short, Venetian hate him.

    I suspect that since the mass tourist doesn't really care to visit museums, and if it does he/she will have only few hours to dedicate to an exibit, the curators choose to show crowd pleasing/glamorous things versus gloomy depressive facts. Like you concluded, why risk offending the sensitivity of the French? Doesn't History get rewritten or forgotten many times?

    FIY, I am in Venice and have kale seeds if you know anyone with an "orto".

    1. You bring up an interesting point, Laura: considering that mass tourists (that is, those 80% of the tourists to the city who are here for only a few hours) don't even bother to visit the Museo Correr, and considering that many of the moneyed interests who seem to control Venice are interested only in increasing the swift flow of tourists in and out of the city (NOT having them stay longer), why would the Museo Correr even gear itself to an audience it has no hope of ever enticing inside its doors? Forget about Empress Sissi, not even scandalous photos of a young Lady Di herself in some palazzo would alter the fixed efficient itinerary of the mass tourist rackets who hurry their pigeons along the same fast worn courses.

      Of course maybe the museum believes even the 20% who remain in the city longer than a few hours need to be enticed with something glossy and celeb-driven. But maybe they're underestimating people.

      I know of 2 orti. How long are you here for?