Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 16, 2005
Patricia Fortini Brown Private Lives in Renaissance Venice: Art, Architecture, and the Family New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. 32 pp.; 80 color ills.; 200 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (0300102364)

In this well-illustrated and impressively documented volume, Patricia Fortini Brown presents a new kind of history of the Venetian Renaissance home. Unlike most prior studies of domestic architecture, furnishings, and the decorative arts (not often discussed together), this volume reunites architecture with lived experience, form with function, and aesthetic choices with their broader societal implications. Fortini Brown is a masterful social as well as art historian, and her analysis of what it meant to be noble in sixteenth-century Venice prepares the reader for a highly nuanced reading of the palaces that line the Grand Canal. Alert to the paradoxes inherent in a merchant “nobility” that was renowned for being opulent and frugal at the same time, where even the grandest palace was termed a house (Ca, in Venetian dialect), and families felt obliged to balance personal aspirations with ideals of communal solidarity, Fortini Brown writes a history that is necessarily complicated and yet lucid, one that admits and finds significant meaning in contradiction.

Reading this volume, I had an uncanny sense of entering not just the residences of Venice’s ruling class but also their mindset. This is largely due to Fortini Brown’s remarkable culling of the Venetian archives and early printed texts. Reading broadly in treatises on nobility, the household, household management, sumptuary legislation, household inventories, and anecdotal material (including the very useful and at times entertaining remarks of the Englishman Thomas Coryat, who visited the city in the very early seventeenth century), she provides rich anecdotal texture to her broad narrative. We see brothers struggling to maintain the family home and patrimony, nobles ceaselessly defending the purity of their lineage, and much more renting of housing and furnishings than we might have imagined among a class of patrons who were major land owners both within and outside the city. As Fortini Brown pithily remarks, “Appearances mattered; ownership less so” (254). While Venetians were renowned for the splendid displays that accompanied their banquets and civic festivities, more than one foreign visitor complained about the meagerness of food actually provided on the table and the relatively small number of servants associated with these great houses.

The book begins with a discussion of the problems of nobility in Venice, where economic status and social class were not synonymous, and where emphasizing personal distinctions among members of the noble class was considered untoward. This resulted in subtle and nuanced behavior that only a highly observant and perspicacious interpreter like Fortini Brown could tease out of the written and visual documents. Once revealed, however, Venetian sensibilities are quite evident and provide a systematic framework for appreciating palace facades as social and aesthetic documents. Fortini Brown analyzes the numerous approaches taken by patrons and their architects in fashioning the public faces of their homes. She shows how designs, whether progressive or conservative, were always purposeful, especially in eclectic and tradition-conscious Venice. Doors, door knockers, entrance corridors, courtyards, and staircases all benefit from the same approach, culminating in Fortini Brown’s discussion of the most important gathering place in the Venetian noble home: the portego or main salon on the piano nobile where Venetians often displayed arms and family portraits (most frequently male; the portraits of brides and wives that are so common in Central Italian art seem to have been rare). Later in the book we also see how these spaces served as impressive theatres for familial celebrations and festivities, especially those associated with marriage. Music and card and board games filled these spaces with more than sound and mirth, playing to the intellectual and social concerns of Venetian nobles.

Two chapters on women in Renaissance palaces, one concentrating on noble mothers and daughters and the other on sumptuous Venetian courtesans, reveal remarkable similarities, not just contrasts, in how houses were furnished and maintained. City fathers and foreign visitors repeatedly expressed consternation that noble and ignoble women dressed extremely similarly, down to their splendid damasks, stilt-like platform shoes, and exposed breasts. Yet, as Fortini Brown emphasizes, this slippage had its benefits. Just as sumptuary laws attempted to limit the amount of conspicuous consumption among nobles and yet tacitly allowed extravagance through the imposition of fines that certain families were more than willing and able to pay, splendidly dressed women were one of the great glories of Venetian civic celebrations. Even normally closeted Venetian noble women and their unmarried daughters were dressed as extravagantly as possible and put on display in windows for civic holidays and celebrations. They were the ultimate luxury item. Home decoration similarly advertised and even flaunted the city’s wealth, with many houses featuring a specifically designated gold reception room (camera d’oro). Whether attending to their wives or lovers, men in Venice encountered women in well-appointed and frequently gilded suites, and the Madonna, Child, and saints were ever present in the bed chamber, though the courtesan’s bed was remarkably elaborate, and she often displayed a portrait of herself in other parts of the house, a clear flaunting of the modesty expected of noble women. In the end, Fortini Brown joins social historians in seeing the courtesan as a necessary counterpart to male obsession with their women’s propriety and purity, redirecting erotic energies away from mothers, daughters, and sisters. What is more, tax revenues from the courtesan trade filled state coffers.

Fortini Brown pauses briefly near the end of the volume for a most helpful comparison of noble residences with the kind of housing that was occupied by the ninety percent of Venetians who had neither the social nor economic status to build impressive independent homes. Again, appearances could be deceiving. Venetians kept the indigent off the streets, and large apartment blocks gave the impression that even poor people lived in palaces. Civic charity and generosity made rent-free apartments available to the so-called “deserving” poor, and small charitable institutions provided comfortable hospices for widows and the aged. Fortini Brown’s brief but insightful consideration of the Jewish ghetto in this chapter demonstrates the essential linkage between the city of the rich and the city of the poor: Jewish merchants provided much of the rental and pawning of domestic goods and decorations upon which the nobility relied for its conspicuous life style, just as nobles often acted as landlords and developers of apartment houses.

Clearly, what went on in the domestic sphere had great implications for civic life in general. Venetians lived much of their private lives in public, and innovations and developments in and around the home could have broad-ranging repercussions. For example, Fortini Brown makes a surprising but convincing claim that the manner in which antiquities were displayed in the late sixteenth-century Palazzo Grimani near Santa Maria Formosa marks an important watershed in the development of European museums. The Palazzo Grimani may be the first building in modern Europe to have been designed around collections rather than to have fit sculpture and painting into a pre-existing structure; at the Grimani careful attention was paid to how objects were displayed, lit, and accessed by the public.

Given the obvious accomplishments of this very fine book—it was a finalist for the Charles Rufus Morey Book Award of the College Art Association—there is little to criticize other than some understandable sins of omission. As Fortini Brown herself emphasizes, her book is not fully comprehensive or exhaustive. She rightly encourages others to explore her themes and observations in future, more detailed studies. One of those areas might be a much more detailed consideration of what the service facilities of Venetian palaces, especially kitchens, may have been like. The text makes reference to certain displays of serving ware that appear in paintings, but in a book as rich in its consideration of material culture as this, it would have been intriguing to learn more about the utilitarian objects that kept these splendid houses running and that ensured the orderliness and cleanliness that writers of household management so prized. As with Fortini Brown’s discussion of working-class housing, these items might have provided useful comparative and contextual material. Understanding when and how they were acquired, what identification of ownership, if any, they sometimes carried, and whether, when, and which noble family members came into direct contact with less prestigious items would add further texture to our understanding of the fact and fiction of the noble Venetian life style. Similarly, it seemed odd not to consider the material accoutrements and necessities of grooming and the toilet. As a recent exhibition of eighteenth-century costume and interiors at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City made clear, costume played a much larger role in shaping and even completing domestic experience than is usually understood. To be sure, not much Venetian Renaissance clothing survives, but even fragments of actual damasks and silks have their stories to tell, as Fortini Brown herself underlines in her excellent discussion of lace and lace making, which she characterizes as “a metaphor for a crystallized social hierarchy” (118).

“High art” and “low art” are meaningless categories for Fortini Brown, as they were for Renaissance Venetians. Instead, this book provides a model synthesis of how Venetian nobles presented and defined themselves through and within the architecture and furnishings of their homes, demonstrating conclusively that “the house was not a neutral shell; it was an embodiment of the family” (24).

Gary Radke
Professor Emeritus of Art History, Syracuse University