What if some terrible natural catastrophe, an earthquake or a deluge, had wiped Venice off the face of the world, say about the year 1500? Suppose for a moment that not a stone were left, but the whole of that unique city--which more than any other owes its existence to man's patient, creative triumph over the inertia of nature--lay engulfed beneath the green calm of the lagoon. The fact is that even then, were only the paintings of Jacopo and Gentile Bellini, of Giovanni Mansueti, Lazzaro Bastiani and Vittore Carpaccio left to us, we should still have a vivid and accurate picture of the splendors that once were Venice. The Piazza San Marco, the Rialto Bridge, Rio di San Lorenzo and Campo San Lio, the gondolas, canals and bridges, roof gardens, galleries and loggias, the merrymaking of the aristocracy and the daily life of the people --all these things, as recorded in the works of these painters, provide a firsthand picture of early Renaissance Venice.
How steady and brilliant was her rise in the 15th century we have seen in the preceding pages. Hand in hand with economic prosperity and political stability went an intense intellectual life marked by achievements in the arts. Guilds of artists and craftsmen were formed alongside academies of philosophy and science; painters, architects, sculptors, scholars and men of letters met with generous encouragement. The last three decades of the 15th century saw Venice develop into the chief printing center of Italy, with the celebrated presses of Giovanni da Spira ( John of Speyer), Nicholas Jenson and, above all, Aldo Manuzio, founder of the famous Aldine press.
By 1450 the city numbered over 100,000 inhabitants and already ranked as one of the great capitals of Europe. Thus, in 1442, wrote Jacopo d'Albizzotto Guidi, a Tuscan poet whose eulogy of Venice is one of the most detailed and reliable documents we have of 15th-century Venetian life. In those days, by common consent, the doge's court outshone all others for luxury and color, and ambassadors from every court of Europe were accredited there. Festivals, processions, gorgeous pageantry and lavish entertainments seemed to follow one another in almost ritual succession all year round. State visits of foreign princes--those of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III in 1468 and Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, Duke of Ferrara, in 1487, being particularly memorable--gave rise to rejoicing and revelry in which, to a man, the people lustily shared. On such occasions the best artists were called upon to embellish the city, on others to commemorate a red-letter day, with the result that the 15th century stands out as one of the most colorful and eventful eras in Venetian art and history.
Compared to their evolution in many Italian cities, art and architecture in Venice got off to a slow start. At the end of the 7th century--when Ravenna, for example, was already a flourishing oasis of Western culture--Venice still was no more than an outpost in a desolate lagoon. In 639, driven from the mainland by the barbarian invasions, a Christian bishop founded the cathedral of Santa Maria at Torcello, rebuilt in the form of the present basilica in the 9th century; this is the earliest monument of Venetian art. In 832 a fane of wood and wattles was built at Rialto to house the relics of St Mark the Evangelist which Venetian seafarers had just brought from Alexandria; this was the early church of San Marco. Venice at the time was but a huddle of wooden dwellings erected on piles driven into the mud banks of the lagoon, an indigent settlement of fishermen, mariners and salters who regarded the sea as an ally and giver of life, for they had as yet no outlet for trade on the mainland, but were hemmed in first by the barbarians, then by the Franks. From the start Venice took its cultural lead from Ravenna and Constantinople, and when, from 1063 to 1094, St Mark's was transformed into the five-domed Byzantine basilica we know today, it was modeled directly on the church of the Holy Apostles at Constantinople. 11th-century Venice was a melting pot of traditional Byzantine art-forms, on the one hand, and, on the other, of newer, ruder forms introduced by the Lombards and Franks; of this period all that remain are a few old wells and gateways, sculptured ornamentation on a few old arches, and a number of capitals from early palaces, of which the slightly later Fondaco dei Turchi seems to be a good copy. Not till after 1100 did Venice begin to assume her present aspect and lay-out, expanding in the direction of the mainland, with her commercial quarter--the Rialto--along the Grand Canal and the heart of political life at the Piazza San Marco.