Venice–Art, Architecture, and Society: A Five-Part Course with Dr. Susan Steer

Venice–Art, Architecture, and Society: A Five-Part Course with Dr. Susan Steer


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From glittering altarpieces in a convent chapel to a soaring heavenly vision on an orphanage ceiling, much of Venice's celebrated art was made for the city's social and religious institutions. Crossing the boundaries of art history and social history, this course takes you to some of Venice's most remarkable lesser-known sites to explore art and life in historic Venice.

Rather than looking at Venice’s extraordinary art and architecture simply in terms of artistic trends and personalities, this course instead considers Venetian art as a window onto the vibrant and varied society which created it. It is ambitious in scope, encompassing a wide range of art and architecture made for a variety of institutions, dating from the Middle Ages through to the end of the Republic of Venice in the late eighteenth century.

Whatever their remit and their means, Venetian institutions generally took great pride in their premises and sought to embellish them as much – and sometimes beyond – what their budget allowed. Each lecture focuses on the art of a different type of institution, taking in convents and friaries, guilds, and associations of foreign migrants, orphanages, and other welfare organizations.

Led by art historian Dr. Susan Steer, this course examines the art and architecture of the different institutional bodies that together scaffolded Venetian society. Designed to inform curiosity as well as future travels, participants will come away from this course with a broad knowledge of Venice’s less-known monuments and an understanding of the art that fills them. Participants will learn how the architecture of these organizations fulfilled functional requirements as well as aesthetic precepts; they will decipher meanings embedded in the paintings and sculpture discussed and to see these objects as part of a wider social context, even where they have since been placed in museums, divorced from their original surroundings.

Lecture 1: Cloistered Women

Convent life was the fate of many “spare” daughters. Victims of an inflationary dowry system, many girls were excluded from married life and sent to spend their entire lives within convent walls, often against their will. This lecture will describe the realities of life within the confines of the convent, and we will learn how some women rebelled and subverted this fate. Although lives were led in austere fashion, it was within convents that we find some of the first important examples of female artistic patronage, for convent churches were often associated with great prestige and decorated accordingly, with buildings clad in the finest marbles and lavish images and liturgical objects on their altars. This lecture will consider Venice’s most outstanding examples of convent art and architecture, including the exquisite Renaissance chapel of the Miracoli, and the former convent church of San Zaccaria which preserves a unique triad of gothic altarpieces and outstanding paintings by Andrea del Castagno, Giovanni Bellini, and Tintoretto.

Lecture 2: Caring for the Vulnerable in Venice’s Ospedali

Venice’s most vulnerable citizens were cared for by welfare institutions which were supported by wealthy benefactors, such as the Mendicanti, which housed indigent men, and the Penetenti which helped poor women extricate themselves from a life of sex work. The lecture will particularly focus on the city’s orphanages, which cared for innumerable infants and children who had been born to vulnerable mothers. These institutions fed, clothed, and educated the children. Founded in the fourteenth century, the Pieta’ became Venice’s most important children’s welfare society, patronized by Venice’s ruling Doge. Here Antonio Vivaldi taught music and the Pieta’ became so famous for its fund-raising musical performances that well-healed eighteenth-century tourists included a concert at the Pieta’ as an essential part of any stay in Venice. Vivaldi himself advised the architect on the construction of a church-cum-concert-hall, which Tiepolo decorated with a heavenly vision to accompany the angelic singing.

Lecture 3: The “Great” Societies

Although Venice’s "scuole grandi" had their roots in the bloody piety of the medieval flagellant movement, by the Renaissance they had become Venice’s provider of welfare “insurance” to their membership. Venetian citizens from most walks of life benefited from membership of one of the scuole grandi and could turn to their scuola for support in hard times. Membership of the scuole grandi entailed collective pride and by the Renaissance, the societies became known for the magnificence of their pageantry and the splendor of their meeting rooms – so much so they were sometimes criticized for their lavish expenditures on buildings instead of welfare. This lecture will examine some of the most celebrated examples of Scuola Grande meeting rooms and the paintings made to decorate them, in particular cycles of paintings by great artists like the Bellini, Titian, Tintoretto and Tiepolo.

Lecture 4: The “Small” Societies

This lecture will discuss the "scuole piccole"; a myriad of different types of organization that were the forebears of modern organizations like trade unions, community groups, and prayer groups. Although their premises tended to be smaller than the buildings of the scuole grandi, these organizations still took great pride in their meeting rooms and decorated them as best as they could within their means. Although the membership was often from relatively humble sections of society, collectively they sometimes commissioned some of the finest examples of Venetian art, like the famous cycle of paintings by Vittore Carpaccio at the Scuola Dalmata.

Lecture 5: Monastic Magnificence

Whereas the opening lecture focused on female convents, the final lecture looks at the splendor of the art and architecture at the equivalent male institutions. In particular, this lecture will examine how the friaries of SS Giovanni e Paolo and Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari became the unofficial mausoleums of Venice’s most notable citizens, filled with magnificent monuments of the city’s rulers and war heroes competing for space and prestige across the once-austere brick walls – arguably subverting the ideal of poverty promoted by these Mendicant orders’ founders.

Susan Steer PhD is an art historian specializing in Medieval and Renaissance Venice. Susan has an extensive teaching background, lecturing on Italian art for universities in the UK and in Italy. She has also worked as a paintings researcher at museums in the UK, and has published on Italian Renaissance and Baroque art in leading specialist journals. She has lived in Venice for over 20 years.

How does it work?

This is a five-part journey series held weekly and hosted on Zoom. Please check the schedule for the specific dates and times for each lecture.

Is there a reading list in advance?

Though the course is open to participants with no background in Venice, there are suggested readings for further investigation. You will receive this soon after course registration.

How long are the lectures?

Each lecture is 90 minutes long with time for Q&A.

How much is the course?

The course is $175 for five lectures.

Is a recording available?

In general, our courses are not recorded. However, if you need to miss a lecture please let us know in advance and we can arrange for a recording for that session on an individual basis.

This course is suitable for all ages

90 minutes, including a 30 minute Q&A.

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