The republic at work: S. Marco's reliefs of the Venetian trades.

Author:Rosen, Mark

Many Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals throughout Italy and France featured sculptural cycles on their portals depicting the Labors of the Months. (1) A traditional subject showing a solitary, usually male, figure tending the fields, domesticating animals, or struggling to fend off the winter cold, the Months formed part of the encyclopedic character of the medieval church facade. Meyer Schapiro defined the identificatory function of these sculptures on a religious building as revealing "the earthly activity of man in an art devoted chiefly to a supernatural order." (2) One of the best preserved and most dynamic Italian examples of this subject appears on an arch over the central door of the basilica of S. Marco in Venice. Sculpted in the mid-thirteenth century, the cycle shows individuals performing tasks appropriate to the given month--such as harvesting grapes in September (Fig. 1)--and the astrological sign associated with the time of year, accompanied by a banderole bearing the name of the month in Italian.

Despite Venice's possession of some rural territory on the mainland, it is unlikely that the Venetian viewer walking through the portal of S. Marco would have glimpsed such rustic labors on a daily basis. The French and Italian towns with similar sculptural programs on their cathedral portals dating from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, like Chartres, Parma, and Ferrara, were agriculturally based regional hubs and market towns rather than major economic powers or centers of production. Medieval Venice, instead, was a sea-based empire based on trade and industry--the most flourishing economy in Europe, with the most extensive shipbuilding complex in the world and a thriving mercantile network stretching to Alexandria and Constantinople. As pilgrims and merchants from all over Europe passed through the city, they regularly commented on the high quality and diversification of Venice's artisanal workshops and the wealth of goods available in its market stalls. Perhaps in recognition of Venice's singularly diversified modern economy, the builders of S. Marco decided to further refine the presentation of labor over the central door of the basilica by adding a second set of sculptures showing individuals at work. This cycle of Trades, which has no obvious forerunner among thirteenth-century European sculpture, was unquestionably meant to signify as taking place within the fabric of medieval Venice. As opposed to the pastoral vision of the Months, the cycle of the Trades illustrates city-based, mercantile occupations like shipbuilding and shoemaking (Fig. 2), portraying workers in contemporary clothing and bearing the tools utilized in the thirteenth century. With a remarkable amount of observational detail, the Trades reliefs signify the Venetian Republic productively at work: fishermen dropping lines into the bountiful lagoon (Fig. 3), a pair of sawyers halving a massive tree trunk (Fig. 4), cheese sellers cutting wedges for their customers, masters training apprentices. Set in stone over the central doorway of the city's most important religious structure, the Trades introduced a new visual paradigm to celebrate the work of the Venetian Republic. It suggested to everyone in Venice from the patricians to the popolo that the highly specialized, protoindustrial labor of their urban republic was as worthy of representation as the traditional agricultural labors defining the rest of Europe.

With few exceptions, depictions of work in medieval art have tended to be viewed through the lens of iconography and style rather than social history. (3) Imagery from disparate parts of Europe has all too frequently been lumped together into broad categories irrespective of local conditions or the historical moment that created them. Scholarly interest typically focuses on the origins and transmission of such images at the expense of other methodologies. The work of economic and social historians, Marxist and otherwise, has scarcely been brought to bear on representations of the artisan class, particularly those commissioned by the nobility. The Venetian Trades, however, offer a rare opportunity to investigate the social and cultural contradictions that such imagery perpetuates, since the images themselves were made at a time of significant class tensions within Venice. The cycle's patrons were members of the city's nobility, who would have intended a meaning beyond celebrating the city's workforce or documenting the conditions of the city's working class. The basilica's Procurators--a small group of nobles from the city's leading merchant families--selected the subjects and dictated their placement, but gave no clear indication of what they intended in commissioning this unusual cycle. By studying these reliefs alongside contemporary thirteenth-century Venetian laws regulating workers' rights, we discern that the monumentalization of local work becomes yet another Venetian myth, a projection of an ideal at odds with contemporary experience. The cycle was sculpted at a moment when the real power of Venice's working population was in fact on the wane, as the republic's wealthiest families closed ranks to exclude the representatives of the workers--the guilds--from having any significant say in the rule of the republic. In light of such exclusion, images that at first glance appear to valorize and dignify the artisan class on closer examination reveal fissures expressing the patrons' increasing fear of the collective strength of the popolo.

The Trades cycle propagates an idealized vision of the artisan class while at the same time subtly deflating its claims to collective strength. Acting in obvious contrast to the established iconography of the Months on the arch below, the Trades both borrow from and challenge the traditional characterization of work as a rustic and solitary pursuit, encouraging a reading of Venetian labor as cooperative, urban, and triumphant over the agricultural calendar that defined labor elsewhere in Europe. Yet, by intentionally undermining the power of the city's workers through the selection of certain trades to the exclusion of others, isolating individual trades from one another, and asserting the role of governmental control in the marketplace and the artisanal workshop, the reliefs suggest that the government wanted less to heroize the workers through this cycle than to signal what the ruling class defined as their proper conduct within the republic. A subtle balancing act, the cycle thus confirms a particularly "Venetian" reading in that it strenuously asserts the supremacy of local trades while also being informed by the oligarchy's open antagonism toward the claims to power of the artisan class.


The Portale Maggiore and the Trades

John Ruskin, who vacillated between awe at S. Marco's unmatched aesthetic grandeur and exasperation at its blatantly triumphalist vocabulary, once defined its exterior as "rather a shrine at which to dedicate the splendour of miscellaneous spoil, than the organized expression of any fixed architectural law or religious emotion." (4) Among the items placed on the church's three exposed facades are marble of various colors, narrative mosaics, pillaged ancient and Byzantine sculptures, and bronzework in abstract patterns--a mix of new and old implying both continuity with the past and an inheritance of the authority of fallen empires. The polyphonous effect of contrasting media was especially notable on the main western entrance facing the Piazza S. Marco (Fig. 5), where much of the decoration was put in place gradually during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries with apparently little aspiration to maintain symmetrical balance.


One part of the western facade that appears to have been conceived as an ensemble from the beginning, however, is the group of relief sculptures above the Portale Maggiore, the church's central portal. The doorway is framed by a series of three large arches, each bearing Proconessian marble reliefs both on its archivolt and intrados underneath (Fig. 6). (5) The sculptures of the first and lowest arch concern the theme of earthly sin: allegorical figures of Lust and Satan frame imagery of undomesticated animals in fierce combat on the intrados, while biblical scenes of vice and its consequences (Cain and Abel, the Prodigal Son) appear on the extrados. (6) Progressing upward and outward (each arch projects farther out from the portal than the one beneath), the second arch reveals how postlapsarian man overcomes sin and temptation, through work (Fig. 7). Explicitly linking labor with piety, the program of the second arch places the Months on the intrados and Virtues and Beatitudes on the archivolt. (7) Moving further up, the third arch--which breaks through the balustrade above--features the Trades on the intrados and a series of scroll-bearing prophets on the archivolt facing the piazza. The overall program expresses an upward progression from bestiality, temptation, and lawlessness to order, harmony, and productive labor, with the grouped figures of the Trades representing the culmination of the Old Testament injunction to work. The program forms what Otto Demus justly referred to as "a condensed Speculum Mundi, a mirror of Christian virtue and--a characteristic Venetian touch--of civic virtue." (8)



The author or authors of the sculpture on the three arches remain unknown. In terms of their style and iconography, their closest affinity in Italy is with the work of Benedetto Antelami and his followers in Emilia-Romagna and southern Lombardy. (9) Documentary sources are silent about the making of the Trades reliefs, and no other medieval sculptural program quotes motif's from them. Given this situation, scholars have widely disagreed over the appropriate dating of this sui generis cycle. The range of proposed dates begins before Antelami in the late...

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