Sunday, May 2, 2010

You Might Invade Venice, But You Can't Conquer Her

(Venice, Italy) Back when I was a regular contributor to the International Herald Tribune's Italian supplement, Italy Daily, I used to write a column called, "By the Way," which featured art exhibits and other goings-on around town. I decided to start something similar here on Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog, which you will find over there in the column on the right under the red rose. I've also added a couple of other new features: "About Town" and "HEAR YE! HEAR YE!," so be sure to check back often, even if the main blog post doesn't change -- a situation I hope to soon remedy with a creative solution... stay tuned!

In June, 2003, I wrote an article entitled, CAPUCHIN INGENUITY AND BOOKS, which I would like to share with you, slightly edited.

I found that image of Herbario Nuovo by Castore Durante on Wikipedia, which says it is the 1585 edition, published in Rome. I am no expert, but to me, I think that is a Venetian edition published in 1684. Here is the link for anyone who wants to check for themselves:

by Cat Bauer
originally published June 6, 2003
Italy Weekly

After invading Venice in 1797, Napoleon paid a visit to the Capuchin Order on Giudecca to try to discover what riches the friars had stashed in their monastery. When he spotted just a few recently published books on the shelves and not much more, he declared the monastery only fit to house horses. Transporting livestock across the Giudecca Canal was another matter, so he abandoned the idea, leaving the Capuchin friars alone to practice the simple lifestyle for which they were known.

Little did he realize that if he had searched more carefully, he would have found a treasure trove of ancient and rare books -- the friars had piled all the valuable books into bags made of horsehair and carried them out back to the pens where the pigs lived. Thanks to their ingenuity, today there are about 8,000 volumes in the Capuchin's ancient collection, including books that date back to the 1500s.

An antique wooden bookshelf lines the locked room on the second floor where the rare books are stored. Connoisseurs of botanical art will appreciate the exceptional colors of the drawings in Sertum Botanicum collection de plances, published in French in Brussels in 1831 (I just checked, and a similar edition sold at Christies for $7,961 back on November 29, 1995), or the descriptions of herbs and medicinal plants contained in Herbario novo di Castore Durante, published in Venice in 1617.

Long after Napoleon invaded Venice, there were still many wealthy and noble families living in the city who continued to donate their collections to the monastery, so topics such as ancient history, science, and Greek and Latin classics are also well-represented. Due to their sojourn in the pigsty two hundred years ago, many volumes fell victim to pest and worm infestation, with damage not only to the bindings, but also to the valuable pages inside. A thorough restoration was completed in 2003.

Recent funding from the European Union has also allowed the monastery to catalogue the library. In addition to the ancient collection, the library contains more than 30,000 volumes of contemporary manuscripts, which grows by about 2,000 books each year. Although primarily focused on theological writings, the collection also includes books about history, law, philosophy and literature.

Libraries of the Veneto
Comune of Venice
Library of the Capuchin Friars at Redentore
Giudecca 194

Speaking of stuff that Napoleon looted, a few months back there was an article in ANSA pleading Carla Bruni, the wife of Nicolas Sarkozy, the President of France, to try to get Veronese's Wedding at Cana out of the Louvre and back to the Palladian refectory at the Cini Foundation, where it belongs -- Veronese painted it SPECIFICALLY for that space, and right now all we've got is a huge photocopy.

(ANSA) - Venice, January 7 - A Venice heritage association is appealing to French First Lady Carla Bruni to persuade the Louvre to return the most famous painting looted by Napoleon from the lagoon city.

The Progetto Nordest (PNE) is the latest in a string of local bodies to ask France to restore Paolo Veronese's Wedding at Cana to a Palladian refectory on a lagoon island where it hung from 1563 until the French emperor sacked Venice in 1797.

"I feel I can appeal to your sensitivity to raise the Veronese issue with French public opinion once more," PNE culture chief Ettore Beggiato wrote to the Italian wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Beggiato said that "thanks to (Bruni's) authoritativeness" the Mannerist masterpiece "may find its way back to its natural home on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore".

He recalled that Bruni, who is also a singer and arts patron, had come out in the past in favour of returning the giant canvas, one of the prize pieces in the Louvre's late-Renaissance collection.

The former supermodel also came to Venice in November to give the Cini Foundation, which is based on San Giorgio, the huge archive of her father Alberto Bruni Tedeschi, a tyre magnate, music buff and art collector who died in 1996, the PNE chief noted.

The Louvre has turned a deaf ear to Venetian pleas for the Veronese, which is regarded as his greatest large-canvas achievement.

But it has allowed a computer-graphic facsimile to be made which was hung in the Palladian Refectory of San Giorgio's old Benedictine monastery on September 11, 2007, the 210th anniversary of its looting by Napoleon's troops.

Commissioned by the Cini Foundation and made by a Madrid art institute under British artist Adam Lowe, it consists of 1,591 files.

Venetians are increasingly unhappy with having to make do with the clone, Beggiati claimed.

"It has only increased bitterness and resentment towards the French Republic, which is Napoleon's heir, for better or worse," he told Bruni.

I was there on September 11, 2007 for the unveiling, so I can tell you first-hand how I felt when the copy was presented. I felt very sad, and started weeping; I didn't know why. Now I think it was because we were expected to accept a copy as the real thing, which it is not. Yes, it LOOKS just like the real painting, including the damage marks left by Napoleon when they ripped it off the wall -- the technique used to make the copy is outstanding. But the human touch of Veronese is not there. The living oil and canvas is not there. There were samples outside the Palladian refectory of other artists who had tried to copy the Veronese by hand -- they did not come close, and the computer-graphic facsimile is far superior to any copies made by man. It really made me appreciate the genius of Veronese to see the inferior attempts made by the other artists... but the soul of Veronese has been stolen. When you see the copy, you can feel his pain -- he is screaming his anger from the grave; it is as if Napoleon robbed his tomb. That is why France should give the painting back.

The hors d'œuvres and wine served at the unveiling were excellent, however, as I recall.

Ciao from Venice,
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog


  1. I guess I was lucky to see the original in the Accademia way back in the fall of '98!

  2. Christopher, you are thinking of Veronese's "Feast in the House of Levi," his version of The Last Supper, which he renamed after the Inquisition told him it was blasphemous. The "Wedding at Cana" is a different dinner, different painting:) Remember when the wine was running out at the wedding feast, and Jesus turned the water into wine? That dinner. (It's a neat trick I wish I knew how to do:) It hung in the Palladian Refectory for 235 years until Napoleon took it. France was supposed to give it back, but they didn't. Instead they keep hiding it during the various wars; it's been damaged more than once. We could just switch the original painting in the Louvre with the copy here in Venice, and Veronese could get some rest:)

  3. That's right! My mind is going at an early age....LOL
    BTW going to hear John Dixon Hunt speak about Ventetian gardens later this month at the Boston chapter of Save Venice. I'll have to tell you about it! Your name came up in a conversation with Fredrick Ilchman at the last lecture I attended. The lecture was by the Gable's who own Villa Cornaro in Piombino Dese.


  4. The next time you see Fredrick, please tell him I send my regards. I adore him. In a week or two I'm going to a lecture that covers his expertise (Titian, Tinteretto and Veronese)from a different point of view. Perhaps I'll blog about it.