Richard Hoover: Engraving has many hidden surprises

"The Republic of Venice at War," circa 1690, and attributed to the famous Franciscan cartographer Vincenzo Coronelli. Courtesy photo

Pardon my returning to old themes, but coming to grips with the soul of an antique may require digging into purposes, symbols and traditions long lost. For example, who today would recognize an 18th century fleam? Or, who can fathom the origins and meaning of the Liberty Cap when found etched on an American sword from the War of 1812, or fixed upon the head of Liberty herself as she appears on our early coins?

So, let’s come to grips with this large folio-sized engraving, with its hidden surprises “lost to the mists of time.” Acquired on eBay and just back from Candy the Framer in Front Royal, we have “The Republic of Venice at War,” circa 1690, and attributed to the famous Franciscan cartographer Vincenzo Coronelli [View full size image]. The setting is an unknown (to me) coastal fortress on the Greek Peloponnese during the Great Turkish War of the 1680s. It was the last time a declining Venice was able to settle Ottoman hash, and it did so only with the assistance of allies and mercenaries from the papal states, the Germanys and Sweden.

As for the event itself, seen in the background, it’s not clear to me whether Venetian besiegers (note the ships) have just taken over the fortress from the Turks or whether a Turkish siege (note the Turkish encampment to the East) has failed. In either case, the Ottomans are running for their lives and out of sight.

One thing is clear, however, and this I have learned from visits to places of ancient mayhem and blood-letting: while the world at large may have forgotten this obscure event, those who live on that spot are still talking about it, will ensure that a chain of memory is preserved. That is what locals do. In Warren County, for example, we entrust the continuation of the memory of the Battle of Front Royal largely to ourselves; we take responsibility for it. But I digress.

As she goes to war, the female representation of the Most Serene Republic of Venice, “La Serenissima,” dominates the composition, wearing the horn-pointed cap of the doge, the head of state. One might even say she is a “tranny,” not with regard to gender, but in terms of her multiple personae.

Richard W. Hoover

Most often, La Serenissima takes the form of Justice, carrying her attributes of sword and scales. She is seen that way throughout the doge’s palace and standing upon the gilded prow of his ceremonial ship, “La Buccentoro.” In the picture, see how her maidens ready her for combat, fixing her sword in hand, girding her waist. On the far right, one brings her lance; directly before her, another presents a shield while resting her arm on a fallen column, a symbol of the fall of paganism. To the left, a putto wrangles with a set of scales, an unnecessary encumbrance that Justice has discarded on going to war. Left and rear, note the putti bearing cross and cup, a symbolic nod to the republic’s papal ally. All the while, the winged lion of Venice — the symbol of St. Mark the evangelist, Venice’s patron saint — prances in the foreground, snarling and ready for war.

But this particular Serenissima assumes a second and sacred persona — the Virgin Mary. Venice was the quintessential employer of Christianity in the service of economic, military and political goals. I think, for example, of the virgin standing on the dome of Santa Maria Della Salute holding the baton of a Venetian admiral — Mary as “Capitan Generale da Mar!” But this is hardly unique to Venice; recall the official watchword of Wilhelmine Germany: “Gott mit uns!” And when a boy, I remember a stained glass representation of the resurrection in some western courthouse — Jesus rising from the grave with cross in one hand and American flag in the other!

See the two putti, center right, struggling to bring up to the platform an oval mirror, symbol of Mary’s grand gift: God’s image and reflection in the form of Jesus Christ. Also virgin-like is La Serenissima’s treading on the quarter moon, normally a sign of Mary’s universal rule. In this case, however, and as upside down as it is, this particular moon becomes one of the primary symbols of Islam. Mary’s stomping it into the ground symbolizes Christian victory over the Turks.

Finally, this bifurcated Venetian figure of Justice and the Virgin Mary is, amazingly, bare breasted — an attribute of Venus who is not often associated with La Serenissima, at least not in my limited experience. The Goddess of Love and Venice share their common origins in the sea and, whatever else she signifies, Venus imparts to Venice the gift of both spiritual love plus all virtues with which she skillfully restrains the excesses of her loutish consort, Mars, the God of War! With the addition of the Goddess of Love, we now have an all-encompassing Christian-pagan trinity representing and protecting the Republic of Venice, covering all of its bases, so to speak. Besides, as an ancient adage has it: “If one loves Venice, one loves Venus!”

What might the analysis of this antique suggest? Certainly, its contemporaries were not constrained by political correctness, by any fear of calling out the enemy! Further, they shared a common moral and civic code rooted in religion, patriotism and pagan tradition — expressed in the form of large numbers of dramatic figures and symbols known to everyone, whether lettered or not. As for the rest, permit me to reference the very opening sentence of this column!

Richard Hoover, a retired Foreign Service officer, resides in southern Warren County.