social critic?

I’m on an extended vacation in Italy with my spouse, so not posting much. But this part of my travel journal seems pertinent to sociology. In Venice, we visited the Church of the Frari. There is a lot of important and wonderful renaissance art here (the Titian and Bellini works were gorgeous), and we listened to an informative audio tape that described the art. But what blew me away the most was a piece that was not described in the audio and had no English (or Italian for that matter) interpretative material. Lots of Latin on the signs. Intricately carved statues of Black slaves in tattered clothes holding bags of flour? rice? on their shoulders and thereby supporting the edifice above — a rich Doge surrounded by angels and dragons. The slaves are very human and wear unhappy expressions. There are also two black skeletons holding scrolls that tell about his life. I thought that the artists were perhaps making a statement about the source of power and wealth. I spent a lot of time looking at it. To me, the “message” of the piece was unmistakable: this wealthy give lived by exploiting the labor of suffering Black people. It seems to me that the artist had to intend some critique. But as the monument was meant to honor someone, maybe not. I bought a postcard so I could look this up later. It is the monument to Doge Giovanni Pesaro, designed by Baldassarre Longhena; the giant statues¬† are by Melchior Barthel from Dresden. You can see a lot of good-quality slides showing the details of this monument beginning here.

Here is some straightforward text description from one tour site.

Here is another reaction: “Beyond the Titian, and over the small door of the S. Aisle, stands the gigantic, vulgar, and ugly monument of Doge Giovanni Pesaro, (d. 1659,) by Longhena and another. This is the worst Baroque work in this church, almost equaling in pretentious vulgarity the tomb of the Valiers in San Zanipolo. The boastful character of the monument is shown, not only in its vast size, but in its theatrically gesticulating Virtues, its fly-away Faith, Hope, and Charity, its oddly startled figure of the Doge, jumping forward under the canopy of his own sarcophagus, (which is supported by very fearsome nondescript animals,) and, above all, in the four figures of captive negroes (black marble faces with white eyes) which sustain the whole. The skeletons below are in the vilest taste of their period. The bombastic Latin inscriptions, exactly paralleling the style of the tomb, state that the Doge “lived 70 years,” ” unlived,” (not died,) “in the year 1659,” and “lived again in this monument in the year 1669.” A monstrous and hideous nightmare.” Source:¬† http://www.oldandsold.com/articles29/venice-30.shtml >

From Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad: “The monument to the doge Giovanni Pesaro, in this church, is a curiosity in the way of mortuary adornment. It is eighty feet high and is fronted like some fantastic pagan temple. Against it stand four colossal Nubians, as black as night, dressed in white marble garments. The black legs are bare, and through rents in sleeves and breeches, the skin, of shiny black marble, shows. The artist was as ingenious as his funeral designs were absurd. There are two bronze skeletons bearing scrolls, and two great dragons uphold the sarcophagus. On high, amid all this grotesqueness, sits the departed doge.” Source: http://twain.thefreelibrary.com/The-Innocents-Abroad/23-1#Pesaro

My spouse and I keep debating whether the artist meant to glorify the doge or meant some social critique. The doge was dead when the monument was built so its object did not have to be consulted. It obviously had to be at least readable as honor by his heirs. But was a critical alternate reading meant by the artist, or am I just imposing it later with my own sensibilities? If it almost universally strikes viewers as ugly and vile, can this reaction not have been meant by the artist? The Internet tells me that very little is written about this monument in English. I wonder if anybody knows.

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