At the turn of the fifteenth century, Venice’s ascendancy as a political and commercial power was
nearing its zenith. She was in possession of Zara, Ragusa, Crete and numerous Aegean islands, and enjoyed trading privileges all around
the Mediterranean in such centres as Alexandria, Sidon, Tyre, Acre, and Byzantium herself. Travellers and trade brought contacts from
Venetian Republic, 1600 A.D.
© 2010 Christos Nüssli, www.euratlas.com
further east, including Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Sumatra. As a nexus of trade in the known world, Venice was not only famous, she was fabulously, almost unimaginably wealthy.
The rulers of Venice held a sure grip on their power. A world–wide network of diplomats and foreign intelligence kept tabs on practically every important country or principality in Europe, Asia and Africa, as attested to by thousands of archived books and documents. The Council of Ten brooked absolutely no interference, internal or external, in the business of trade. Thus life in La Serenìsima Respùblica de Venexia could be brutal, its authorities ruthless. The Council’s enemies were hunted down and killed wherever they fled. Emigration by tradespeople was forbidden for fear of losing such secrets as glass–making and ship building. When Pope Sixtus IV (reigned 1471 – 1484) placed Venice under interdict, clergy who refused to carry out their official duties were threatened with charges of treason, torture and execution, and so the interdict was summarily ignored. Gentiles, Jews, Moslems, Greeks, Armenians, all traded and interacted with one another daily, and although some were segregrated — the word ghetto itself is probably of Venetian origin — religious persecution was not tolerated.
Politics in general took a back seat to the pursuit of trade, except where the two were connected. As long as the various little powers and territories of the Lombard plain remained small and relatively weak, or were content to fight among themselves, Venice took no notice. They were, however, very quickly swallowed and added to Venice’s land holdings in the region when they threatened overland routes across the Alps into Europe. Verona, Vicenza, Padua, Bergamo, Brescia, and Treviso were among the regions that came under Venetian domination in this way. Characteristically, her wealth grew even more as a result, while she left religious, cultural and petty political pursuits in her land empire to the squabbling locals.
Venice well understood how to exploit the arts to manage her image and to use as propaganda. One could buy anything imaginable
Piazza & Basilica San Marco
in Venice. The city was festooned with riches, luxury, and opulence, from the façades of the buildings by such as Sansovino, to works of art by such as Giorgione, Titian, Carpaccio, Tintoretto, Veronese, Bellini, to treasures from around the world. Atop the Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco stand four bronze horses that once adorned the Byzantine Hippodrome. The city impressed not only visitors, but her own citizens with ubiquitous symbols of wealth and absolute power.
Saint Mark’s was the personal chapel of Il Doge, who ruled Venice at the pleasure of the Council of Ten. The Doge’s influence was limited, yet he was hardly a powerless figurehead. And he was constantly surrounded by all the splendour and ostentation befitting his office. His palace and Saint Mark’s Basilica sat next door to one another, both letting off the Piazza San Marco, where much of Venice’s pageantry took place.
In 1527, Adrian Willaert (ca. 1490 – 1562) was elected maestro di capella at Saint Mark’s, not without some influence by the Doge Andrea Gritti. Willaert was one of a number of musicians of the influential Franco–Flemish school who was transplanted to Italy. He remained at Saint Mark’s until his death in 1562, whence spread both his personal fame and the reputation of the cathedral.
With its numerous galleries and mezzanines, Saint Mark’s is particularly well suited to
antiphonal music, comprising two or more groups
Interior (Transept), St. Mark’s Basilica (Wikipedia)
or “choirs” who alternate during a performance. How and when the cathedral was ever used specifically for this purpose is not entirely clear, but Willaert extended a tradition of antiphonal and polychoral (“many choirs”) techniques at Saint Mark’s, as did his successors Cipriano de Rore (ca. 1515 – 1565) and Gioseffo Zarlino (1517 – 1590). But the duties of composition more usually fell to Saint Mark’s organists. In 1585, Claudio Merulo’s position as first organist passed to Andrea Gabrieli (ca. 1532 – 1585), who had occupied the second organist’s bench since 1566 following time he spent in Germany, where he met Lassus. The now–vacant second organist’s
bench went to Andrea’s nephew Giovanni, but sadly not for long. When Andrea died later that year, Giovanni in his turn took the first organist’s position.
Together, the Gabrielis zio e nipote brought the polychoral technique in Venice to its height; they were
respected and admired throughout Italy and the rest of Europe. Their works called for the usual choirs of voices, ensembles of instruments and, more importantly, for combinations of the two. During the Renaissance, it had been customary to play instrumental parts with whatever might be at hand, depending on the clefs and the range of the part. Giovanni especially was one of the first composers who actually specified which particular instruments — cornetto, violins, sackbutts — should be used, and he consciously exploited differences in colour through contrasting tonal ranges, instruments and dynamics.
Among the gilded and glittering arches of Saint Mark’s rising from mosaic and tiled marble floors, a visitor would have been greeted with music seemingly coming from everywhere. One can only imagine the effect.