Sunday, March 16, 2008

Glory Days When Knights Rode the Earth - Venice

(VENICE, ITALY) Oh, the Glory Days when Knights rode the earth! Yesterday, I was over in Campo San Giovanni and Paolo, which is chock-full of all sorts of fascinating structures. I went with new arrivals in town, from England; I wanted to see Venice through fresh eyes. By taking a little tour with them, it was easier for me to see the wonders of Venice by watching their reaction, and appreciate, again, how many miracles we have here. Just one masterpiece would be enough to provide the income for a entire town anywhere else; the problem with Venice is that we have so many masterpieces. My hope is to show you how magnificent and powerful this culture once was -- and still is -- if you know how to scratch beneath the surface.

I'm not going to tell you everything we did, because it was so wonderful we must keep some things secret or the next thing you know there will be tourists in the bathtub. But there is a magnificent bronze statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni right in plain sight. I think my uncle may have used it as his inspiration for his black walnut wood sculpture, Italian Knight, but I have to ask him to be sure.

Born outside of Bergamo, which is in Lombardy, Bartolomeo Colleoni was a professional condottieri, or mercenary soldier, for the Venetian Republic from 1448 until his death in 1475. He actually started working for them many years before, in 1432, but he was always switching sides. Colleoni was the son of a nobleman, Paolo, who was killed by his cousins after he conquered the Trezzo castle, and the Duke of Milan, Filippo Maria Visconti, had him assassinated -- since, after all, it was his castle. The Colleoni were Guelphs, which means they supported the Pope against the Emperor. (The eternal war seems to be: are you for or against the Pope? Are you for or against the Empire? Which Pope? Which Empire? Who is your God? Is your God the same as my God? If there is one God, then who is his Son? Is there a even a God at all, or are there a bunch of gods up on Mt. Olympus playing men against each other like human chess pieces?) Everyone was always changing sides; towns changed sides; families changed sides, etc. Sometimes the Black chess pieces were winning, and sometimes the White; when the game was over, they set up the chess pieces and started all over again, sometimes switching colors.

So, if we think it terms of chess, we can understand a little bit more about Italy. If you take someone's castle away, they are going to be a bit perturbed. Can you imagine such a thing in real life? A Knight actually, physically takes away a Duke's actual, physical castle. Ah, those were the days!

And then we have Venice, a Republic which had different rules than the the city-states. The Venetian nobility created their own rules, which we will examine another time. Of course, they still had to obey the various Emperors and Popes in their fashion, but since there were/are so wily, they were always playing tricks on the authorities:) The Venetians were playing a different game, which often intercepted that other chess game.

So, all those city-states were constantly fighting with each other, trying to conquer each other in the name of the Pope or the Emperor or God-knows-who. Venice didn't care much about either the Pope or the Emperor; they were an entity unto themselves, much like today. At one time the Venetian Republic did reach all the way to Bergamo -- I would imagine that Colleoni had a bit to do with that. Colleoni took a lot of towns away from the Milanese on behalf of Venice. Colleoni knew how to play both games, and that was valuable.

Nowadays, we use nationalism to have soldiers fight on behalf of their respective countries, and it would be an act of treason to switch sides, but back then it was fine to hire a good commander. So, for Venice to hire Colleoni would be kind of like Arnold Schwarzenegger being loyal to California, but then switching over to Massachusetts if California annoyed him too much. And maybe one day he just might do that! Who knows! Maybe Massachusetts could use Arnold's help to straighten things out. "Hasta la vista, baby!" Or even Clint Eastwood. What's he doing? If somebody gave Clint a bad time, he could just glare at them: "Go ahead. Make my day." I remember when David Puttman -- who is a knight, himself, by the way -- came over from England to conquer Hollywood. Well, that didn't work! Everyone grouped together and he did not last long. So you can imagine how clever Colleoni had to be to get along with the Venetians.

Colleoni was born around 1400, right into the thick of it. In this case, we can see that, perhaps, Colleoni had personal reasons for changing sides: the Duke of Milan had killed his father. The point is that he was not Venetian, but he worked for the Venetians (similar, again to Otello). Anyway, after Venice and Milan made peace, he went back to Milan, but the cunning Duke threw him in prison, where he remained until the Duke died. I am quite sure that Colleoni was not happy about that, so he went back to the Venetians. In return for this, he expected some pretty decent perks -- he wanted to be the captain-general. The Venetians did not grant him this privilege, so he went back again to Milan, until the Venetians finally caved in and made him captain-general for life.

To really grasp the how powerful Colleoni was, let us look at what he has left behind: the magnificent equestrian monument here in Venice, modeled in 1481 by Leonardo da Vinci's teacher, Andrea Verrocchio, and an entire church/mausoleum in Bergamo, the Cappella Colleoni (Colleoni Chapel), where his remains are. First he asked nicely if he could have the sacristy of the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore for his tomb, but the officials said no. So, he conquered it, destroyed it and built a new one, which he turned into a personal mausoleum for him and his beloved daughter, Medea (what kind of man is going to name his daughter, "Medea!"). Although this was back in the 1400s, in terms of history, it was not that long ago, so you can only imagine how much the level of life has changed as we all sit behind our computers and pretend we are cyber knights with cyber castles.

Colleoni was such a strategist that in order to get the equestrian monument built, in his will he left the Venetians a fortune -- 216,000 gold and silver ducats, as well as land and property on the condition that they "build a monument in his honor outside of San Marco." The Venetians needed the money, but it was against Venetian rules to have any statues built to individuals in Piazza San Marco. (Remember, Venice was an oligarchy, a group of noble, very rich, powerful families, that constantly monitored each other. One family could not be more powerful than another, and certainly no guy from Bergamo was going to get a statue in Piazza San Marco!)

The Venetians, clever as they are, found a solution to this problem. Since Colleoni's will said "outside of San Marco," not Piazza San Marco, they built the statue outside the Scuola Grande of San Marco! Ha! The Scuola Grande of San Marco is now our present-day hospital, and you can see what a beautiful job the non-profit organization, Save Venice, did to restore the facade the next time you are over in Campo San Giovanni and Paolo. Have a look with your own eyes and imagine what kind of men once walked upon the very space you are standing in another dimension of time.

Ciao from Venice,
P.S. If you remember my blog about Lawrence Carroll, and you include all this history, you can understand how awesome it is that an Australian-American's name is fluttering on the Correr Museum in Piazza San Marco! I just saw Lawrence last night, and he seems to have acquired a kind of quiet nobility himself:)


  1. Hi Cat Have you noticed the Coat of Arms on the statue? It has what appear to be little bags. They are testicles! It's a play on Colleoni's name. Italian for testicles is coglione which sounds similar. He must have had a sense of humour!

  2. Ha! I originally wrote: "Colleoni was such a ball-buster that in order to get the equestrian monument built..." but I changed "ball-buster" to "strategist." I should have left it alone!