Toto Bergamo Rossi, Director of Venetian Heritage, curator, restorer, and author of the epic new book, Venice and the Doges, is determined to challenge our perceptions. The lavish tome has a singular mission, to help us understand and appreciate the funerary sculpture which memorializes the 120 doges of Venice and why this often-neglected genre deserves our attention and respect. Weaving the history and cultural significance of each doge’s reign with remarkable photography, Venice and the Doges offers a rare view into how these men lived in relationship to how they were immortalized in stone.
What is the original inspiration for your fascination with the funerary monuments of the Venetian doges? Do you remember the first funerary sculpture you saw and the impression it made?
I was always attracted by sculpture. Ever since ancient times sculpture had been the most widely utilized of the figurative arts for representing the gods, emperors, and, later on, saints, virtues, and notables in perpetuity. Thanks to the materials sculptors chose – marble, wood, bronze, and terracotta – these effigies have often survived to our own day almost intact. And then, in the sixteenth century, painting gained the upper hand and stole the limelight from sculpture.
The monuments dedicated to the doges of Venice are the best expression of sculptures from the thirteenth century until the end of the eighteenth century. When I was nineteen, I started to study conservation of stone. After few years I was able to restore some of these very beautiful monuments and appreciate and study them through scaffolding from a very close distance. Early Renaissance has been always my favorite style. The search and the interpretation of antiquity made by Venetian artists at that time is unique. I still remember when with a more grown-up eye I started to appreciate Tullio Lombardo, and the monument dedicated to Doge Andrea Vendramin in the Basilica of Santi Giovanni e Paolo build in 1492/3 ca.
In your first sumptuous book, Inside Venice, you included several funerary monuments located at different churches. So, I realize this often-neglected sculptural element of Venice has been on your mind. When did you experience the epiphany to write a lavish tome dedicated solely to the doges of Venice and their final resting places?
In 1993 I restored the monument of Doge Nicolò Tron and in 1997 the one of Doge Giovanni Pesaro both in the Basilica dei Frari in Venice and then I realized that there wasn’t any book dedicated to this specific subject, so I started to study them and take notes about it. But only during the pandemic I was able to put all the material together and dedicated myself to this book. Profiting from empty churches during the lockdown, we were able to produce this amazing photographic campaign.
Peter Marino, Chairman of Venetian Heritage, admits “…unlike painting, sculpture has not always received the critical attention it deserves.” It seems challenging to have an appreciation of the architecture, sculptures, and plaques created to immortalize the doges without understanding their personalities, achievements, and characteristics of their service to Venice. This is why combining the elements of each reign with the funerary monuments succeeds brilliantly in the book. Do you think that part of the reluctance to give this canon of sculpture significant attention is because the history of the doges is not studied diligently enough, so nuances of the monuments are lost on the casual viewer?
Simply sculpture wasn’t the most studied topic in Venetian art. Indeed, while guides on Italian painting and the works of the great masters began to be published already in the seventeenth century, it was only in the last few decades that important studies have been published on sculpture, notwithstanding the importance of the genre.
Your book has charming revelations. It was the first time that I read about Doge Giovanni Bembo indulging in his love of salami. It was sweetly optimistic to learn that a clause was added that prohibited a doge from marrying a foreigner without the Great Council’s permission, just in time for the 80-year-old Giacomo Contrarini to take his oath. Was there a conscious effort to include more intimate details, which revealed the curious subtleties of these 120 powerful men and their obligations?
I try to give access as much as I can about the heritage of Venice, so I try to share more information with the intention to attract a vast public and not only academic audience.
Likewise, the photographic details are revelatory. When confronted with many of the sculptures in situ, it can be visually overwhelming. To be able to see so many exquisite carved details enhances our appreciation of the artistic skill involved. How did you decide which elements of each monument should be photographed?
All the most amazing and peculiar details of the monuments have been photographed. Through details it is possible to study and understand the hand of the artist, the meaning, the value of the work of art, and read the story told in the monument.
My suspicion is that you are a consummate and impeccable host. Given the opportunity to invite a doge to dine with you at your beautifully restored Palazzo Gradenigo who would you choose? What secret would you ask him to reveal and what would you serve him to eat?
I would probably invite Andrea Gritti, the great Doge who decided the Renovatio Urbis of Venice and invited architects such as Jacopo Sansovino to redesign Saint Mark Square and other important places of the city. Before his election, he was the Venetian ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul. I would ask him about the intricate political relations between him and the Sultan. He was well known as a gourmand so I would organize a rich banquet for him.
One could spend a very long time investigating all the churches, architecture, and sculptures in your book. Most visitors to Venice are limited in how long they stay. Given the incredible range of work available to explore, which church is the one you would most recommend to visitors to begin their understanding of funerary monuments in Venice?
I would suggest the Basilica of Santi Giovanni e Paolo considered the Pantheon of Venice. What I like most is that inside this church it is possible to appreciate the evolution of Venetian sculpture from the 13th until the 18th century.
Top photo: Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Monument to Francesco Foscari by Niccolò di Giovanni Fiorentino, first half of 15th century
All photos ©Matteo De Fina
JoAnn Locktov received a complimentary copy of the book from Rizzoli however her observations are entirely her own.