Venice, a City of Gold
Food for Thought is a series in which tastemakers from different fields consider their knowledge in relation to old masters, asking how they might offer a fresh perspective in the way one engages with the art of the past. For this issue, Katy Kelleher writes about the color she most associates with Venice.
The faceless man throws a golden ring into the turquoise water. He is not casting away his love but rather giving a gift, making a solemn vow. He is marrying his city, built on islands and bridges, a port of trade and a center of craft, to the vivid Adriatic sea. Although I look hard, I can see no emotion, no love in the misted figure of the doge as he performs his marital duty. All I can see in this unfinished, wavering image are the colors: copper, teal, eggshell, beige, celeste, and azure. Here and there, I glimpse flashes of sweet, warm gold.
JMW Turner painted Venice, the Piazzetta with the Ceremony of the Doge Marrying the Sea in the 1830s. Unlike his other paintings of the city, this piece was never finished. Here, we get to see Turner’s gestures toward a historical event, a rather pagan celebration that had died out by the time he visited Italy. The nuptual ceremony, which declared the union of Venice and the sea on every Acscension Day, has since been revived. We get to see the genesis of a scene, the basic strokes, and most tellingly, the palette. Crucially, but not loudly, it sings gold.
Venice hasn’t always been so gilded. While there was a decent amount of gold circulating in the Mediterranean basin during antiquity, Venice was only founded in the fifth century, after the Fall of Rome. From the eighth to the thirteenth centuries, there was far less gold in circulation in the West than before. Europe was no longer the economic force it had once been, trade with North Africa had slowed, and gold dust was no longer flowing into Italian workshops, waiting to be smelted and worked. But the tide changed again in the latter thirteenth century, which is when “large quantities of gold from southern Italy, Sicily, central Europe, and Africa started to arrive in Venice.” In 1284, the Venetian government introduced the ducat, a gold coin that weighed 3.56 grams and was 23.75 carat. The impressive object was heavy, yellow, and printed with the image of the doge kneeling before the figure of Saint Mark—the patron saint of Venice.
Furthermore, it is thought that the introduction of the florin (in Florence) and the ducat (in Venice) led to a rise in quality of gilded art . From the thirteenth century onward, Venetian painters were able to use the purest gold available in the background of their works, thanks to the new standards imposed by the government and the guilds. While goldsmiths and goldbeaters each belonged to their own guilds, gilders were welcomed among the painters, for the two forms were happily married in the minds of most Italian patrons.
Given its location, it’s not surprising that Venice’s artistic community took many cues from the work that came out of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. Despite their considerable differences, both cultures were obsessed with gold and used the material in religious and secular works. Using techniques like “water-gilding” and “oil-gilding,” artists were able to adhere beaten gold leaf onto wood, canvas, or vellum, covering all but the area they wished to paint. Considered one of the first distinctive Venetian painters, Paolo Veneziano was the subject of a recent Getty Museum retrospective that showed the artist’s gold-ground religious paintings in all their gleaming glory. In person, these works seem to glow and shimmer, the backdrop of gold more alluring than any of the figures. Even graceful Mary, who has always been my favorite, recedes into the sparkling atmosphere of heaven, overwhelmed by the finely applied sheets of precious metal.
Veneziano’s workshop was also responsible for the gold-gilded wooden panels that hide the lusciously decorated altar retable known as the Pala d’Oro (“golden cloth”) from sight. Located within the Basilica di San Marco, this remarkable piece of Byzantine enamel is an absolute orgy of gold, pearls, and precious stones. Here, too, the religious figures are meant to be the subject of contemplation, yet one becomes blinded by all the gold and gems, dazzled by the wealth and beauty of the earth. I’ve always gravitated towards the aesthetics of the ritual more than the details of the scripture—though as a Catholic, I admit to feeling some guilt over this tendency. I know that Saint Mark’s pig-fat coated bones are inside the Basilica di San Marco, and yet I didn’t go there to see them. I went, like most people do these days, for the gold.
There’s another type of gold that appears in Venice, and it’s less metallic, far lighter than the kind that appears on the periodic table under the symbol Au (atomic number: 79). This type can’t be weighed, it can’t be gathered, it can’t be pounded or glued or worked. It’s in the air. It’s in the light.
Or perhaps, more accurately, it is the light. I haven’t visited Venice in over a decade, but I still remember the golden sheen, the haze that develops over the water in August. We have similar air in Maine, heavy with salt and water. These particles scatter the light and cloud the scene, erasing details and hard edges. Like all weather phenomenon, these effects are seasonal. When I first told an Italian acquaintance I was going to fly into Venice in late August on my way north to Hungary, he expressed disgust. “Into the mouth of the lion?” he said, shaking his head. “It has foul breath.” I took this to mean that Venice would be unbearably hot, crowded with tourists and stinking of bodies. He wasn’t wrong, precisely, but he didn’t know what discomforts I was willing to tolerate just to be near something so glorious as a big cat with a tawny mane.
My memories of Venice are as soft as the Turner, as soft as Claude Monet’s aqua-and-gold masterpiece. I remember lugging a suitcase over a bridge, crying with jetlag and joy against a plaster wall by my tiny hotel, buying soft yellow bread and tomatoes from a street cart. I recall seeing an exhibit of Matthew Barney and Joseph Beuys’s conceptual works at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and being repelled by Beuys’ heavy golden sculptures made from layers of felt and fat. The large blocky pieces of animal lard and soft fabric were a grotesque counterpart to all the pristine and dramatic Titians I had seen around the city. They were so unlike the luxurious femininity of Carlo Crivelli. Yet, like the ceilings and the lions and the gilded frames at the Academia and the gold-infused mirrors minted at Murano, these too, gleamed.
Our English word for both the metal and the color is “gold,” which is believed to have grown from the Proto-Indo-European root word “ghel,” meaning “to shine.” This word also gave us the words yellow, gloss, green, and most tellingly, “gall,” as in, bile. The Latin word for gold, “aurum”, is rather more positive. It gave us the symbol for gold (Au) as well as the words auspicious, aurora, and aureate. It seems to me that the Latin term emphasizes the shining qualities of the color, the brightness of dawn, the sunniness of it all, while the English is linked more closely to all that yellow entails (jaundice, illness, bile, and madness). Perhaps I’m just playing word games, but I do think there’s something of both the slick and sickly to be found in Venice’s golden surfaces (even the ones that were imported, like Beuys, from elsewhere). It’s a place that many love to view through a Vaseline-coated lens.
This is the version we see in the restored version of Luchino Visconti’s 1970s film, Death in Venice. Adapted from a Thomas Mann novel, the original movie was already drenched with grotesque yellow hues that highlighted the contrast between the sickly and the lush, youthful beauty of blonde Tadzio. Like Shakespeare’s Portia with her “sunny locks” that hung from her scalp like a “golden fleece,” this golden-haired boy was the embodiment of purity, the object of desire. Unlike Portia, Tadzio isn’t given much agency. He exists to be beautiful, a foreigner caught in the golden glare of the Italian sun, the artist’s gaze. His blondness is central to his appeal. Although he is not Venetian, he is the embodiment of those old fashioned standards, an alchemical dreamboat.
I returned to Venice the following January, and it was no longer a lion’s mouth teeming with life. It was quiet and rather austere, the light was flat and cool, the streets were comparatively empty. I remember walking in the city at night and looking at the water. It reflected twinkling Christmas lights, sparkling points of gold on black. In the freshness of a new year, Venice had transformed. I no longer experienced the city as hazily gilded. Instead, the bridges had cleared, and I could see the marble particles glinting from plaster, the quartz crystals embedded in the facades. They held up the city, scattering light, resisting rot. The city of gold had revealed its marble. It was still precious, but in the chilly air, Venice had become far more concrete. A city on the water, married to the sea, built as a refuge. There was no magic there, just stone, plaster, paint, and sometimes the thinnest layer of pounded, pressed gold.❖