‘Venice’ – Francesco da Mosto – BBC 4

By chance on Sunday evening 22 May 2016 my fiance and myself were ‘channel flicking’ to find something to watch late in the evening and stumbled across this series on BBC4 on the iplayer and as we watch the series these notes will be added to.

The first programme called ‘Blood’ concentrated on the historical beginnings of Venice and how the city grew in the marshes of the Venetian Lagoon around 400 AD.  The people who founded the city were fleeing from the barbarians of the north and eastern Europe shortly after the decline of the Roman Empire.

Francesco da Mosto is well placed to present such a documentary as his family were amongst the first settlers so literally one of the founding families and historically are tied into the very fabric of Venice – his family eventually became architects, merchants, historians or academics and courtesans.   Watching the programme I question whether his family could have been part  of the Scuoli  – the lay religious fraternities of the 15th Century who were the great patrons of the arts.  What is without doubt is that his family built one of the first palazzo’s on the Grand Canal – the Ca’ da Mosto which was owned by his family for several generations until around 1603 and it was fascinating to see Francesco going into this building … suddenly the historian comes face to face with his family history in a way he never has before and quite literally steps back in time although sadly the building is empty and decaying.  The da Mosto family still own a palace within Venice with doors onto a canal and beautiful frescoes within and like many old buildings a hint of decay which can be seen – what is without doubt is there is an extensive art collection which does make me think about how much his family were some of the patrons of the arts in the 15th to 17th Centuries? I have studied the likes of Bellini, Tintoretto, Vernonese, Titian and Giorgione amongst others and the question of whether in fact there are any of these great works within the palace the family still occupy and who did the frescoes themselves?  questions I would love to be able to explore Francesco’s home to discover!

Rather than repeat what the programme said in detail I picked out small facts that I found particularly interesting:

  1. Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello – dating from the 7th Century and on one of the earliest islands occupied in the Venetian lagoon – in the 10th Century the island was more important than Venice.  Around the 12th Century however the waters of the lagoon began the decline of the island and the people fled to Murano, Burano and Venice.  What fascinated me with this basilica was the byzantine style art – the Christian images on the walls that had clearly influence of the Christian East before it became Islamic.   Further information can be found on a website I discovered today which gives me more detail of the history of the basilica as well has on the other churches of Venice:  http://www.churchesofvenice.co.uk/islands.htm#santamariassunta
  2. Doges Palace or more importantly the paintings within on the walls whereby Venice is represented as  a beautiful woman and like the Doge himself sometimes of higher status than God himself with many on the ceilings by Tintoretto but also works include those by Titian, Veronese, Bella and Giovani Bellini … in other words all the major Venetian artists of the 15-17th Centuries. The Palace was a council chamber for government, prison and palace all in one.  Francesco da Mosto showed the Council Chamber with the great works of Tintoretto which were painted to create an awe inspiring vision  and even through the television it is mind-blowing to see … a photo in a book or on the internet does not do it justice but the film crew of the series managed to capture the atmosphere and the effect of the works as they did through the whole building.  The room held over 2500 representatives of Venice as well as the Doges themselves.
  3. St Mark’s Basilica – this has personal resonance for me as I have been in very very briefly and seen the gold altar screen – the beauty of it, without knowing its history, is still something I talk about with reverence even 28 years later.  I visited Venice in 1988 for just 6 hours and have very few photographic images, if any, left at all but my memories enable me to describe the exquisite detailing on the icons on the gold screen and to remember the jewels that surrounded them which I now understand to have been stolen during the sacking of Constantinople.  St Mark’s was built to house the body of St Mark which was reputedly stolen from Alexandria in 828 – the Venetians wanted to rival St Peter’s in Rome with a religious relic at least equal to the bones of St Peter  bearing in mind the importance that was put on these relics at the time.  The body of St Mark  lies beneath the altar and St Mark’s itself was used primarily as the private chapel of the Doges of Venice – the palace is literally next door.  What was also fascinating was to discover the domes on the exterior were a later edition as the original roof was much flatter – the onion shaped domes are of a wooden structure covered with lead.
  4. The Winged Lion of Venice – the symbol of Venice was the symbol of St Mark and adopted by the Venetian upon the acquisition of his body.
  5. In St Mark’s Basilica there are 4000 square meters of mosaics crafted over several centuries … the programme was able to show these mosaics and give an overall impression of a very elaborate and very wealthy basilica and republic – the wealth of the area portrayed within its Christian church and like the golden altar screen I do recall seeing those mosaics and ‘mind blowing’ is still to this day my overriding memory.
  6. St Mark’s Square which is still the centre of Venetian life was created as an act of defiance but symbol of unity in the 12th Century in reaction to constant threats of invasion.
  7. 30 years before the 4th Crusade Venetian traders were imprisoned in Constantinople as the had been slowly taking over the city – Venetian merchants were literally trading all over the Mediterranean at the time due to the Venetian empire.  One of the merchants was one very wealthy Henricus Dandolo and during a trip to Constantinople he was tortured or beaten up and blinded.  However on his return to Venice he eventually became the Doge of Venice.  When the 4th Crusade needed ships to go to Jerusalem  Dandolo essentially persuaded the crusaders to help the Venetians conquer Constantinople … the majority of the army that were going to Jerusalem were Venetian.   Dandolo was the Doge responsible for this momentous event in European history and accelerated the growth of Venice due to the riches they stole and brought back including the jewels that are now on the golden altar screen.    Dandolo himself did not return as he died in Constantinople in 1205 and is buried in the church of Sta. Sophia in a marble tomb.


Lombardo A 2016. Enrico Dandolo – Doge of Venice [online] [Date accessed: 23 May 2016].  Available from:  http://www.britannica.com/biography/Enrico-Dandolo

The Churches of Venice.co.uk.  The Churches of Venice [online]  [Date Accessed: 23 May 2016]. Available from:  ‘http://www.churchesofvenice.co.uk/islands.htm#santamariassunta

Bedell G 2004.  Picnic at my palazzo [online] [Date accessed: 23 May 2016]. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2004/oct/10/foodanddrink.features5

Sock ii 2015.  Torcello – The First Venice [online] [Date accessed: 23 May 2016]. Available from:  http://www.spacial-anomaly.com/torcello-the-first-venice/



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