Light and shade of five centuries of very refined and lavish collecting
There was a diaspora; but how was such fortune possible?
Out of professional habit, I often find myself analyzing phenomena that gradually attract my attention from an opposite point of view. And it is because of this habit, not because of a snobbish temptation to go against the trend, that I have often asked myself what the other side of the diaspora of the Venetian artistic heritage actually was. We often repeat "diaspora", "dispersion", "sell off", "pillaging", "expropriation", "dismantling" -all terms that indicate the infelicitous ending of an extraordinary accumulation; but which make us forget something very banal, something that is not taken into consideration- if heritage has been dispersed, why and how was it put together in the first place? It is certainly interesting to study it as the subject of diaspora; but it would be just as interesting to see it in the processes and motivations of its refined or "industrial " formation. Its accumulation is just as important as its dispersion in the hundred year range of Venetian art. The editorial selection of «VeneziAltrove» obviously focuses on the outgoing flows, even underlining that it was not just the result of dispossession but also an exceptional industrial, productive and marketing ability which was more or less consciously created in the city during the centuries of its splendour and dominant economic and cultural presence. However, we have never paid any attention to the "incoming " flows – unless by coincidence: guaranteed by the wishes and choices of the vast and refined collections of important Venetian families (and not only, if one thinks of the amounts amassed by churches and convents). This year’s contributions reveal a relatively unknown side of the diaspora. The reader will be amazed (at least this was my reaction) reading that "from the fifteenth century onwards if not earlier, there was not one Venetian palazzo or residence of a certain standing that could not boast the presence of at least a couple of Greek or Roman sculptures, whether inscriptions, reliefs, statues or busts". And then, from the middle of the sixteenth century onwards, collections of all kinds of art multiplied: paintings, medals, hard stones, small tempiettos, relics and "holy bodies", books, coins, stones, prints, prints of just one subject (for example, the image of the Virgin Mary), ornaments and furnishings, ancient glass, frescoes, Venetian and Italian engravings, shells, Napoleonic artefacts, "exotic and indigenous " volatiles. One has the impression of a bulimic city, one that attracted and incorpo rated everything, even fakes, thus "adding gold to corruption". We often dwell on the greed or cynicism of those who stripped Venice (seethe passage on Pietro Edwards), but we often forget the Venetians themselves were often no less greedy – but paying out of their own pockets – when they accumulated that "immense patrimony" which was then the object of dismantling and the diaspora. If Alvise Zorzi estimates that 25 thousand pieces left the city in the last dispersion between the eighteenth and nineteenth century alone, referring only to paintings, it is reasonable to estimate that everything that was amassed in Venetian collections went well over 100 thousand paintings and hundreds of thousands of other various items. And a part from that "corruption", which was actually inevitable in view of the quantities involved, there was also the best of artistic production of those times; the best of the market (even for our days); the best for whoever wanted to "stockpile " works of art and keeps a kes.
Where did that staggering inclination to collect, that collectors’ greed that characterised Venice for at least five centuries come from? This is not the place to go into sociological and psychological interpretations (collecting as a repetition compulsion, and as an ambition for t he safety of completeness), it would be much better to keep to the realization that Venetian society was one that was very wealthy, one that loved luxury and refined tastes and one with the proud tendency to own and show off nothing but the best. To this aim it exploited its internal productive resources (from the salaried Vivaldi, to hundreds of artisan workshops), or it attracted them from outside (even if only for a few years, as with Antonello da Messina or Scarlatti); otherwise it simply bought the existing products on the market directly (a constant line of behaviour if, at the peak of that terrible dispersion, audaciously going against the general trend, the Marciana bought the thirteen volumes by Scarlatti in 1835 and still owns them today).
When the unscrupulous art merchants, astute speculators, travellers and ambassadors in search of a good deal got together t o "plunder the lagoon ", they were successful not just because the political power of the Serenissima had disintegrated, but also and especially because there was no longer that wealth, that love for art, that compulsion to collecting that had supported the earlier accumulation. The value and need for the p reservation of this accumulation was understood by just few families and churches (the Grimani and Correr families made legacies to the city, the Querini family founded a permanent structure, while the remaining heritage was sold on markets of various quality, going from auctions to the receiving of stolen goods. Collecting does not survive time if it does not encompass deep cultural values, if groups and subgroups of the most various types (from artists’ masterpieces to stuffed exotic birds) have simply been thrown together. Indeed, collecting is a psychological and not a cultural phenomenon. When it collapses, it drags everything beautiful and mediocre that has been put together with it, without selective criteria and perhaps even without the ability to establish the value of what is being surrendered, as can be seen from the "prices" at which some great masterpieces were sold. A more detailed study of the greatness and the misery of art collecting would therefore not be out of place. This is what concerned Venice in times gone by, but I fear that nowadays it would also be an interesting subject.
[ Publication date: 16 March 2006 ]