An Almost Perfect Guidebook: Martin Gayford’s Venice. City of Pictures

Imagine that you, usually a stay-at-home person, win the lottery. And so you are able finally to travel. Where will you choose to go? Naturally, who can doubt it!, you want to visit Venice, which has been the goal for many centuries of innumerable travelers. You will follow in the footsteps of Casanova, Byron, George Eliot, Henry James and, of course, all too many contemporary tourists. And to inform yourself about the Venetian art which you will see you should read John Ruskin, Walter Pater, Bernard Berenson and a whole host of present day writers. In your happy situation, I would recommend to you one new publication, Martin Gayford’s Venice. City of Pictures Clear, vividly well written and deeply original. It offers a miraculously well-tuned account of the literature.

Gayford’s book effectively falls into two parts. There’s a very clear, well illustrated presentation of the familiar visual art history of art in Venice. And then there’s the developed sketch of a highly original perspective on those materials, an extension of that history into the present. The Bellinis, Giorgione, Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto, Tiepolo, Canaletto and Longhi have been much written about. And now two Venetian women, Rosalba Carriera and Giulia Lama, also are discussed. There are, Gayford remarks early on, two clichés in the Venice literature: the history ended, with the disappearance of the Republic in 1797; and, what follow, that there is nothing new to say about the city. Both of these claims, he argues are wrong. His are important claims, and so I will focus on them. What counts as the Venetian artistic tradition? Looking at Gayford’s Bellinis, Giorgiones, Titians, Veroneses, Tintorettos, Tiepolos, Canalettos and Longhis, we see very varied paintings that share a certain essence, ‘Venetian-ness’, that distinguishes them from the works of Giotto, Masaccio, and Michelangelo just to look at the rival Tuscan tradition. The vast art historical literature, nicely employed and summarized by Gayford, works at spelling out this contrast. Venetian painting is painterly, while Tuscan work is linear; Venetian painting responds to the light reflected from canals of that maritime Republic, while Tuscan art deals with a very different home site; and the patronage in Venice and Florence differs. There are, of course, regular cross connections between these traditions, for artists and artworks travel between them. You need only take the short trip from Venice to Padua, for example, to see Giotto’s frescoes in the Arena Chapel. Still, the famous scene, nicely recounted by Gayford, when Michelangelo encounters Titian in Rome summarizes these surprisingly large differences between Venetian and Florentine art. Titian would be a great artist, the Tuscan master proclaims, if only he had learned how to draw. The usual cliché, which follows from this art historical way of thinking, is that the story of Venetian art ends with the destruction of the Republic, 1797 by Napoleon. Once the older system of patronage disappears, this artistic tradition cannot continue. Of course painters still come to visit Venice, and make records of their residence. And there are, also, Venetians still making paintings. But this work does not extend the Venetian tradition.

If we consider the post 1797-works of Turner, Manet, Whistler, Paul Klee and Emilio Vedaova, to list just some of the artists presented by Gaylord, we certainly have an impressive listing of art made in Venice and depicting that city. And, as he suggests, we should consider also the Biennale d’Arte, that massive exhibition. The critical question, then, is how to understand this expansion of our concept of Venetian art. In my experience, which is much more limited than Gaylord’s, most of the works in the Biennale could be shown in any gallery anywhere. In that way, the Biennale is like the Carnegie International in my city, Pittsburgh, where art from everywhere is gathered in the museum. (The Venice Biennale is the oldest such exhibition, and the Carnegie International the second oldest.) There are, of course, Pittsburgh artists, but there is, so far as I can see, no distinctive Pittsburgh tradition. Analogously, that art is now transported from everywhere to be displayed in Venice that does not, in itself, allow us to speak of a living Venetian artistic tradition. What then justifies including Gayford’s post-1797 artists in a discussion of art in Venice?

I said earlier that Venice. City of Pictures begins with a traditional history of Venetian painting. But that is not quite correct. The book begins with a short story of a walk past the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista, a structure that, by framing the courtyard, creates a : theatrical transformation of urban space.

That is what you find in Venice: images on top of images, views of the town itself, sometimes pictures of pictures. This is a city of pictures (p. 8).

And then, much later, Gayford picks up this idea with reference to Goethe’s account of traveling on the lagoons, which might describe a Monet or a Tiepolo. In Venice everything turns into a picture.

Rather than thinking of the city as a mass of old buildings, made up of ancient stones, timbers, and bits of painted cloth, you could regard it as a huge, three- dimensional repository of memory. The churches, palaces, and streets hold innumerable recollections— historical, cultural, and personal. (p. 434).

Here, I think, is an immensely suggestive idea. It’s true that the specifically Venetian tradition of painting ends with the fall of the old regime. But what we have inherited, and so what justifies Gayford’s project, is understanding the way that an entire city can become a collective work of art. At least, that is possible if that city is Venice, a place which has been so much depicted by artists. Thanks to this tradition from the Bellinis to Canaletto, we are prepared to see its subject, the city itself as a work of art. And so when the tourists wander in Venice, they are within what amounts to a gigantic, open-air museum. That, I think, is what attracts them, even if they are not able to articulate their desires in these terms. My sense of how to present this claim, it’s worth adding has been decisively instructed by Sean Scully’s 2019 display in Venice, as discussed in my Note below.

Since Gayford says relatively little about the political history, his account deserves to be supplemented by a recent account, Elisabeth Crouzet-Pavan’s Venice Triumphant: The Horizons of a Myth which explains how “this theatrical production” (p. 138) of a city was constructed and maintained by a relentless, on the whole highly efficient police-state

Behind the image of profusion and plenitude in “the wealthiest place in the world” were sordid alleys teeming with hardworking but miserably poor and at times dangerous people. The guards of course made regular rounds and patrols (p, 161).

Her account offers a useful discussion of the political uses of Venetian art. The goal of the Republic, the justification of the costs of its expensive art world, was to impress visitors and remind citizens of its power. They wanted everyone to see that their city was strong and wealthy. And that was possible, to quote Guy Debord’s famous elliptical statement: because “the spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image.” But the beauty of old regime Venice had its price. This is an important, dazzling idea, which deserves development. But to pursue this topic I would need to exit the art world and enter the treacherous domain of political discussion. And that’s the topic for another day.

Under the disguise of being merely a tourist guide, Venice. City of Pictures offers a very bold, far reaching analysis of this so much discussed city. As Gayford says at the start, everything hasn’t been said. And so to offer an original perspective on this important city is a very significant achievement. Just as it is not perhaps really fair to turn Venice. City of Pictures into an account of aesthetic theory, as I have done, so it’s not legitimate to make Gayford a critical political analyst. But his book has legs- and so legitimately inspires such far reaching discussion. Of how many art history guidebooks can that be said?


On memory theaters see my “Remembering the Past: Art Museums as Memory Theaters,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 61, 1 (Winter 2003): 61-5. On Scully in Venice, my on the aesthetics of the city, the title essay in my

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.