Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Napoleon in Venice

Providence, January 16, 2013

Most views of Piazza San Marco look east, with the Basilica dominating the center of the image, the Campanile rising to its right and, also to the right (south) but farther back, the facade of the Palazzo Ducale extending beyond the view into the Piazzetta, that in turn opens to the waters of the lagoon.

If you turn 180 degree, there is lot less going on.  The narrow west end of the square makes a really good case for the continuity of the façades around the piazza, dutifully following the pattern of the Procuratie Nuove to the left (at least on the first two levels) and carefully splitting the height difference with the lower Procuratie Vecchie to the right.

Now, stay where you are, looking in the same exact direction, but go back to the end of the 18th century.  A very different image appears, with the facade of a rather major church, Sansovino's San Geminiano, at the center (actually, a little to the right.)  On either side, the long façades of the square simply turn the corner--two tall levels to the left, three shorter levels to the right--and stop dead at the edge of church.

Canaletto, our most exhaustive of Venetian chroniclers, gives us an exquisite view of that side of the piazza in 1735.  But by 1810 it will be all gone, as Napoleon, coming from his resounding victory at Austerlitz, takes Venice back from the Austrians, demolishes the west end of the square (yes, including Sansovino's church!) and rebuilds it as an extension of the Procuratie Nuove but with the top level as a blank wall in front of large ceremonial spaces.

You may think that the Ala Napoleonica is rather restrained the ambitions our petit Caporal turned Emperor, except that the original project actually included a large statue of Napoleon as Jupiter, following the model of Ingres's famous painting. 

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