December 12, 2023

Venetian ethnogenesis and its role as the creative hotbed of the Italian peninsula after the fall of the Roman Empire

I've been trying to write up various posts on describing and tracing the history of striking visuals in cinematic history, having been motivated by watching the 1970s TV show The Incredible Hulk -- from what I've seen, easily the best photographed TV show ever made.

It's not as great as the movies from the same time period, since they had long production schedules and could deliberate more over composition (how things are arranged within the frame), unlike a weekly TV show. And perhaps the more talented people went to work in movies instead of TV. But I've been blown away by how vibrant the colors are, and how much contrast in brightness is shown within a single scene (i.e., dark shadows along with bright highlights).

But the iconic look of movies and TV from the second half of the '70s and into the early '80s is for another post. And so is the history of high-contrast visuals within movie history (not so surprising spoiler -- back to D.W. Griffith, in his shorts from the late 1900s, before his features and way before German Expressionism).

Then I thought how far back such a style goes in visual media that are not photography or movies. Naturally I looked into European painting -- Caravaggio, chiaroscuro lighting, that whole phenomenon. But that wasn't what I was seeing in the Hulk TV show -- Caravaggio et al. are using contrasting bright-dark tones for the purposes of rendering 3D volumes within a 2D medium like a painting.

When you see someone's face being half lit up and half in shadow, with the dividing line down the middle, it tells you their face is not flat but protrudes along that line -- that protrusion of features is like a mountain chain that is blocking the light, coming from the direction of the lit-up half, from reaching the other half, leaving it dark. Or using shading to show muscles in full 3D sculptural pseudo-reality.

I'll call this the "sculptural" use of chiaroscuro.

Certainly the classic TV shows and movies of the 1970s employ this form of chiaroscuro -- which can be used to render the 3D volume not only of individual people, but animals, buildings, particular elements of a building (like a column), and other objects that could be placed within the frame.

What makes the Hulk look so striking is not just this form of chiaroscuro, but its use at the total composition level -- breaking up the frame into regions of darker light, and brighter light, often several such regions alternating with each other as a function of distance "into" the frame, or from left-to-right across the frame. That is, not just a simple breaking-up of "left half dark, right half bright" -- even though that, too, is a welcome degree of contrast from a uniformly lit scene that leaves the aesthetic lobe of our brain unstimulated.

I'll call this the "compositional" use of chiaroscuro. Typically, works that use it also use sculptural chiaroscuro for the smaller-scale figures, buildings, etc. within the overall scene. It's taking that for granted, and applying it at a higher scale, and for purely aesthetic purposes, not necessarily for realism (if only our everyday environments always had such striking contrasts in them...).

It is most evident in exterior scenes that involve some kind of landscape -- across such a distance, some regions may be naturally brighter because there's nothing blocking the sunlight from directly striking them, while other regions may be darker due to a building, a large tree or group of trees, a patch of clouds, or some artificial obstruction put there by the movie-makers in order to give some variety to the brightness levels around the landscape.

In still photography, this compositional chiaroscuro is the defining feature of the work of the American pioneer Ansel Adams, and sure enough, that is mostly of landscapes. He used crafty technical tricks after already taking the negative, like "dodging" and "burning" to brighten or darken the targeted regions within the final print, increasing the contrast from what he'd originally shot. Artificial or not, it makes a more striking result, and that's all that matters. As a great artist, he didn't want his audience to suffer from an unstimulated brain.

I doubt any such tricks were applied in post-production for a weekly TV show like the Hulk, and even in feature films, I think it's more used for limited optical effects, not the entire look-and-feel of the movie.

* * *

Well, Caravaggio and others under his influence were not using chiaroscuro compositionally -- at most, it may have been applied to a small intimate space like a room where a half-dozen people are gathered together. And more likely, to a single individual in a portrait, for sculptural purposes.

He was working in Rome circa 1600, and even back when that city was the center of a thriving imperial culture, they did not use chiaroscuro compositionally. Roman frescos use shading to carve a 3D form out of a 2D painting on a wall, but not to create dramatic tension and variety across an entire scene or landscape.

Nor, for that matter, did the more well-funded painting style of Florence. I was really shocked to see how little the big names of the "Italian" Renaissance -- Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael -- used striking brightness changes across a composition. They're way too evenly lit, on the scenic scale, to make an impression on that lobe of our brain.

Their lesser known contemporaries in that region were scarcely any better, although some might have used it once in awhile to experiment, or because that specific patron wanted that kind of look, I don't know.

But to give credit where it's due among the Florentines, Ghirlandaio used chiaroscuro compositionally in his Adoration of the Shepherds (1485), where there are alternating levels of brightness "into" the frame (basically, bright-dark-bright-dark-bright). And across the frame, the right two-thirds is relatively darker, and the left third is brighter -- but this simple scheme has several sub-regions that stand out from that, to make it a more complex rhythm, with the top-left being dark, and the bottom-center being bright, and the distant bright landscape on the right side that is shown through a dark opening.

Partial credit for his Old Man and His Grandson (1490), where a small landscape in what is otherwise a large portrait has varying brightness levels into the distance. Most of this painting uses shading sculpturally (facial features and clothing folds), and even then it's pretty evenly lit, not like Caravaggio.

Raphael's very late Transfiguration (1520) is about as close as the Florentines got to the Venetian level of lighting and coloring. It does have alternating levels of brightness, but they're all explained within the frame -- the light emanating from Jesus, brightening those who have nothing in their way with him, and the earthen mound blocking this light and casting some people in shadow. Not much varying brightness "into" the distance of the landscape either.

Pre-Renaissance Florentines like Cimabue and Giotto also did not use chiaroscuro compositionally.

Although I may be missing the odd work or two by other Florentines, it's clear that compositional chiaroscuro was not a recurring technique for any single artist or school or period in Florence and Central Italy generally. Not the way it was for Ansel Adams.

As far as scenic-level variety in brightness, it's as if the Renaissance in Central Italy was still stuck in the Dark Ages -- or the Roman era, for that matter! Nobody had adopted it as a signature style at any point along the way.

Rather, the main compositional innovation of the Florentines was linear perspective, i.e. how to arrange things within the frame in order to simulate 3D spatial reality. Everyone already knew, and applied the knowledge, that the further away something is, the smaller it appears to our eye, and close-up things appear larger. But working out the precise mathematics of these relationships, to the point of laying out a grid or fabric of space onto the canvas, only took off during the Florentine Renaissance.

This goes along with their use of chiaroscuro primarily for sculptural purposes -- they really wanted the closest possible simulation of 3D reality within a 2D medium.

* * *

This brings us to their main rival during the Renaissance period -- Venice. Not only were they political-military rivals, they practiced opposing cultural movements. What was more important? -- autistically accurate simulation of 3D spatial reality, or the striking use of color and lighting to activate the neurons of the viewer?

This was the war between Florentine "disegno" (drawing) and Venetian "colorito" (coloring, but in the full sense of combining hue, saturation, and brightness). Here is a brief overview, which in an uncanny coincidence, I linked to in an old post nearly 10 years ago to this day, about how girls should choose multicolored patterns for their "tights as pants," if they didn't want the 3D volume of their lower half to be fully rendered by a monochrome pair.

And yet, still relevant -- although girls now wear baggy jeans or sweatpants that don't expose anything, their tops have gone skin-tight and micro-mini, like yoga pants for the torso. If she wants to not fully render the volume of her boobs and nipples, while still taking part in the crop-top and bra-less trends, she can choose one with multicolored patterns that will obscure the precise sculptural details of her figure. So far I've only seen girls with monochrome, usually white, crop-tops or "bras as tops" (similar to "tights as pants"). But if you want that funky-yet-wholesome vibe, go for a multicolored pattern!

Anyway, back to Renaissance "Italy" -- there was no national unification back then, not since the collapse of the Roman Empire. There was a patchwork of rival city-states, some under foreign imperial occupation, but one of them was actually on an expansionist path -- not reaching the level of an empire, though an expanding Great Power nevertheless, akin to Sweden in the 17th C., or Japan in the 19th and early 20th C. That would be the Republic of Venice.

Venetian ethnogenesis begins on the not-quite-so-meta-ethnic frontier between the native Italic peoples of the late Roman Empire, and the invading / migrating hordes of Germanic people during the middle of the 1st millennium. Although the Germanic people gained a foothold over almost all of Northern Italy, under the Kingdom of the Lombards, some Italic people fled to / remained in the inhospitable lagoon communities in Venice. The Lombards were coming from the west, and Venice is nestled right against the eastern coast of the peninsula, so that was the furthest frontier left between the Germanic invaders and the Italic natives.

The difference was pronounced enough -- barbarian migrants vs. more civilized and settled natives, Germanic vs. Italic languages, although the Lombards were Christianized and even Catholicized by the time they took over Northern Italy. So, not quite as intense as if there'd been a major religious difference.

At the same time, Venice had already been occupied by the Byzantine Empire, which used to control much of the Italian peninsula during the mid-1st millennium. They too were foreigners, speaking a different branch of Indo-European (Greek), and yet they were more sedentary and civilized and Mediterranean and in a sense the originators of Christianity as an institution or organized religion. So they were not so foreign to the Venetians, and the latter gladly accepted being a final outpost of the Byzantine sphere of influence, rather than get absorbed into the barbarian Germanic sphere.

This also made them opposed to the Papal States, the rump state left after the Roman Empire collapsed. They were very similar ethnically to the Venetians, but they always pushed for Roman and Papal supremacy, in a sad LARP of their imperial heyday. So, Byzantine sponsorship didn't look too bad for Venice, compared to the alternatives.

Gradually, the feeling of being encircled by the Germanic barbarian kingdoms made the Venetians cohere to such an extent, in common defense against their ethnic nemesis, that they could do some militaristic expanding of their own.

Although not referring to Venetian military expansion, the Florentine Renaissance humanist Petrarch did note how cohesive, communitarian, and solidarity-driven the Venetians were: Venice was "solidly built on marble but standing more solid on a foundation of civil concord." Not the feuding, sniping social climate that would produce literal Machiavellians, like Florence. The guild system, akin to mid-20th-century labor unions, has always been strong in Venice, back to the High Middle Ages. Nothing like getting encircled by invading barbarians, and pinned against the sea-wall, to grow a little solidarity within the community!

* * *

First Venice became more independent from their Byzantine sponsors, as that empire got long in the tooth by the turn of the 2nd millennium. But then the Venetians organized large galleys into a navy that went on to control maritime territory from the nearby Dalmatian coast (across the Adriatic Sea), as far east as Cyprus. And not long after that, they turned toward the Italian mainland and reconquered Northeastern Italy and even parts of Lombardy itself.

In their eastward expansion, they wound up fighting in the First Crusade in the Levant, where their elite must have gotten a further dose of higher asabiya from an even more intense meta-ethnic frontier -- the Seljuk Turks were Muslim, Turkic rather than Indo-European, were a mighty empire rather than a patchwork of fiefdoms like the Lombards, and were fighting to the death rather than leaving the Venetians alone in their little corner of land. At the same time, the Seljuks never came close to invading Venice, so this did not heighten their sense of needing to band together for collective self-defense like the Germanic invasion of Italy did.

The main period of Venetian expansion, beyond the nearby Dalmatian coast -- that is, from 1200 to 1500 -- seems to coincide with a lull in the growth of empires in the region, or their decline and collapse. Although the Byzantines had been past their peak for centuries by then, the Fourth Crusade circa 1200 more or less finished them off, before the nascent Ottoman Empire dealt Constantinople the coup de grace a few centuries later. And Venice took a leading part in the sacking of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, carrying off immense wealth from their former sponsors.

With the Byzantines effectively wiped out as a Mediterranean power, the Arab invasions also long gone, the Vikings long gone, the Frankish Empire long gone, who else was there to check the expansion of Venice? France was a growing empire, but was oriented more toward unifying France, then the Hundred Years War with England, and maybe getting a piece of Northwest Italy. But they weren't in Venice. The Spaniards, ditto. In 1200, the German Empire wouldn't even begin for another 300 years, nor was the Holy Roman Empire a bona fide empire yet, as it would become under the Austrian imperial era. The various Turkic and Mongol empires were stopped in Eastern Europe, before crossing the Alps down into Venice.

And for much of this time, the Ottomans were only beginning to conquer Anatolia and Thrace, and some of that they were mired in their integrative civil war (Ottoman Interregnum). They did eventually unify and dominate the Eastern Mediterranean by the 1500s, and almost immediately the Venetian Republic went into stagnation, then decline, ultimately becoming absorbed into the Austrian Empire's sphere of influence circa 1800.

This highlights what I've said earlier about Sweden in the 17th C, Japan around the turn of the 20th C, and Alexander the Great -- these bouts of insane expansion are mainly due to the sorry state of their neighbors at the time, who are mired in civil war, imperial collapse, etc.

For Sweden, their neighbors were bogged down in the Thirty Years War, and the Reformation and wars of religion before that. After that was over, and once they met an enemy no longer mired in civil war -- Russia during the Great Northern War -- Sweden went away as a Great Power.

For Japan, the Joseon Dynasty was collapsing in Korea, and the Qing Dynasty / Empire in China was also collapsing, not to mention the moribund Euro empires that had colonial holdings in East Asia. Once they ran into an expanding empire not mired in civil war -- America during the Midcentury -- it was over for their expansion.

For Alexander, it was the collapse of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, and his "empire" did not last beyond his own death.

* * *

What did the Venetians do with their rising levels of cohesion, to match their geographic expansion, and sense that they were a special people? Why, cultural innovation! How else are they going to let themselves and others know that they're a new people, not just descendants of the Roman Empire, and not like other Italic peoples, e.g. those residing in Central or Northwest Italy (let alone the South).

In music, they pioneered the Venetian polychoral style, where groups of musicians and singers were physically separated into different wings, and accordingly developed more of a "working-against" and alternating style, when multiple voices are present. This paved the way for the Baroque era, through the pioneering German composer Heinrich Schutz, who worked in Venice.

In the dramatic arts, they invented the commedia dell'arte, where masked and sometimes dancing performers play stock character roles in performances that are partly scripted but also improvised.

In architecture, they did not innovate very much, but kept going with their Venetian take on the Gothic trend (originally from France during the Capetian expansion). Notably, they did *not* take up the Ancient Roman or Greco LARP that their Florentine and Roman contemporaries did. Oddly enough, Palladio was a Venetian, but found very little success in his home city or region -- only abroad, especially in the British Empire and its later American off-shoot, both of whom were big-time into Roman LARP-ing as a way to legitimate their nascent empires (i.e., they were not upstarts or arrivistes, but inheritors of an ancient civilization).

But more than anything else, Venice invented the use of compositional chiaroscuro. Not just "in the medium of painting" -- ancient and Medieval mosaics did not use it either. Nor did cave paintings. As a recurring stylistic feature, it was totally new! And it was the trademark of the Venetian school, which is usually known for their use of bold hues, vibrant saturation, and glowing brightness of colors.

But just about every expanding empire loves its bold, rich, vibrant colors -- and every declining and collapsing empire turns toward a pastel, drained, and grayed-out palette. Once the cohesion leaves, so does the sense of special purpose -- and with that, the will to live a vibrant cultural life. Might as well go gray. So the Venetians were not unique in using bold, vibrant, glowing colors. Unique within Italy, perhaps, due to no other expanding states there. But not unique within Europe or the Near East of that period, where multiple empires were expanding and very fond of bold vibrant colors (back to Gothic stained glass for France and England).

What did make them unique was compositional chiaroscuro, something that has been inherited into the American imperial visual style, from Ansel Adams landscapes to '70s Hollywood cinematography.

The revolutionary Giovanni Bellini already began developing this style in his St. Jerome in the Desert, and Agony in the Garden (1450s), a subject also painted by his brother-in-law Andrea Mantegna around the same time, also using chiaroscuro compositionally. It reached its height by the end of the century, in his St. Francis in Ecstasy (1480) and Holy Allegory (1490s). The striking contrast of dark-bright all around the frame is self-evident in the latter, so let's explore its subtler use in the former.

Of course there is sculptural use of chiaroscuro to render his facial features, the shape of individual boulders in the rockface, the branch posts, etc. But there are also shadows cast on the ground or other surface -- which do not render a 3D volume at all, but add to the contrast in bright vs. dark within the frame.

Then there's the variation in brightness around the landscape -- dark at the near section of the rockface, then bright on the middle of the top row of stones, before darkening somewhat again on the left / far stone along the top, more muted levels where the donkey is, dark at the next level back where there's vegetation, then brighter where the small town is, darker going up the hill, before reaching a bright reversal on the castle at the top, and even the sky has a brighter lower half and darker upper half.

Why does the brightness level change in this rhythmic way? No natural reason! Maybe there's a large building casting a huge shadow where it's dark, or a huge expanse of clouds. But it's not clearly motivated by the physics of the scene. It just looks too cool to do it any other way! Contrast, variety, stimulation, excitement, rhythm, dynamism -- that's what our brain wants, and he's giving it to us! Call it poetic, dramatic, stylistic, whatever -- but it's not coming from physics or mathematics like some other uses of shadow.

This would become a Venetian trademark after Bellini. See Giorgione's Adoration of the Shepherds (1505), Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne (1520), Bonifazio Veronese's Adoration of the Shepherds (1520s), Palma Vecchio's Diana and Callisto (1520s), Paolo Veronese's Deposition of Christ (1540s), Jacopo Bassano's Adoration of the Kings (1540s), and Tintoretto's Christ at the Sea of Galilee (1575).

Compositional chiaroscuro would also become a fixture of other imperial styles, including Spanish (El Greco's View of Toledo ca. 1600), French (most Poussin landscapes, e.g. with Orpheus and Eurydice ca. 1650), and not to mention it too many times, American (Ansel Adams). Not so much in Russian painting, aside from some Neoclassical painters of the first half of the 1800s (this shows it is not an "Eastern" thing that Venice got from being more oriented toward the Byzantine Empire than the Papal States, once upon a time). But as a thriving, enduring aesthetic phenomenon, it all began in the Venetian Renaissance, as the most cohesive people in the Italian peninsula sought a way to distinguish themselves stylistically from their feuding and Ancient LARP-ing compatriots.

This greater level of cohesion, as well as stylistic distinctiveness (at least, since the Ancient period), must be what makes Venice so much more romantic and sought-after and thought-about, compared to other places in Italy that are no slouches in the art-and-history department. Assuming you don't want to indulge in Caesar LARP-ing, Venice is the place for the most vibrant culture in the Italian peninsula after the Crisis of the Third Century. It may not even be right to call it the place for "Italian" culture, or the cultural leader of "Italy" -- it's Venetian culture, not "Italian". Most importantly, their Renaissance did not owe to economic factors like new riches, but ethnogenetic ones -- being encircled by strange barbarian invaders, as well as facing off against religious rivals from a mighty empire in the Holy Land.