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The Statue of
Francesco Maria I della Rovere
and the Loss of
Venetian Exceptionalism

by Dial Parrott
Author of
"The Genius of Venice"

In 1601, Venice completed a new prison building just east of the Ducal Palace, which allowed state prisoners to be transferred out of their ground-floor cells built into the Palace courtyard itself.  Having transferred this unsightly function to more specialized quarters, the Republic soon initiated a major project to reconstruct and embellish parts of the vacated enclosure.  This included dismantling a large fifteenth-century staircase erected along the northern face of the courtyard and covering the exposed wall with a lavish assortment of Renaissance arches, panels, columns, piers, pinnacles and niches, all in marble and Istrian stone.  The government also installed a larger-than-life-size marble statue in front of this luxuriant stone backdrop.  Carved in the round atop a ten-foot pedestal, the person represented is shown in the pose and armor of a Roman emperor.  There is nothing else like it, not only in the Palace courtyard, but anywhere else in Saint Mark’s Square, and the reason for this is simple.  The statue is a blatant violation of one of the city’s oldest artistic prohibitions, a rule which Venetians had long believed was vital to the health of their republican political order with its insistence on the virtues of communal anonymity, solidarity and tradition.  This held that no individual, foreigner or Venetian, noble or non-noble, regardless of the value of his service to the state, could be honored with a purely personal effigy erected in the public areas of the Piazza San Marco complex.  It was this rule which, in the late fifteenth century, had banished the brilliant equestrian statue of the great mercenary general, Bartolomeo Colleoni, to the Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo in the northern precincts of the city, even after the wealthy old soldier had left the Republic an estate of more than 600,000 ducats on the express condition that his statue be erected in the Piazza.  The prohibition was reconfirmed in 1552 when the Senate summarily rejected the offer of a wealthy doctor, Tomaso Rangone, to construct a beautiful new façade for the church of San Geminiano at the western end of the Piazza if the design would include a statue of the donor.  Yet here was a work installed sometime after 1625 within the inner sanctum of the Venetian political order, and its entire rationale was the glorification of a single individual.  Moreover, it was a work whose choice of pose and costume proudly asserted that the figure in question should be honored as though he were an imperial conqueror.



The individual represented is Francesco Maria I della Rovere (1490-1538), Duke of Urbino, who, toward the end of his career, served as captain general (land commander) of the Venetian army, the same post held earlier by Bartolomeo Colleoni.  The Duke’s statue originally had nothing to do with Venice, having been carved in 1587 by the Florentine sculptor Giovanni Bandini and placed on display in Pesaro, a coastal town in the Duchy of Urbino.  It was given to Venice in 1625 by the Duke’s heir, Francesco Maria II della Rovere (the work which now stands in the courtyard is a copy of Bandini’s 1587 original).  The Duke was the nephew of Pope Julius II (born Giuliano della Rovere), who appointed the Duke to his first military command in 1509.  Such casual preferment of near relations was at the heart of the della Rovere family tradition, Julius himself being the nephew of an earlier Pope, Sixtus IV (Francesco della Rovere), who was infamous for the brazen manner in which he used the Church to advance the wealth and station of his family.  The Duke’s earliest military assignment for his uncle the Pope was conducting mop-up operations against Venetian loyalists on the mainland following the devastating rout of the city’s land forces at the battle of Agnadello in 1509.  In retrospect, this uncontested seizure of the Romagna from Venice after the French had destroyed her army turned out to be the summit of the Duke’s career as a soldier.  The following year, Pope Julius unwisely made his young nephew captain general of the entire papal army with responsibility for achieving a new and much more ambitious mission ridding Italy of the 40,000 victorious French soldiers the Pope had ushered into the Italian peninsula the year before in his obsession to punish Venice.  The plan called for a winter campaign to capture the city of Mirandola, but the Duke evidenced little appetite for battle in any weather, fair or foul.  Facing a serious opponent for the first time, he kept the army in camp while he remained in his tent playing cards.  When Mirandola finally did fall as the result of a siege directed by the Pope himself, the French countered by attacking Bologna where the Duke had repositioned his forces.  The Duke panicked and fled Bologna, leaving the city defenseless and abandoning the papal artillery and baggage train, which the enemy quickly captured.  From his headquarters in Ravenna, the Pope ordered the Duke to report to him to explain his actions, at the same time remarking that the Duke deserved to pay with his life for such cowardice and incompetence.  The Pope also ordered one of his principal advisors, Cardinal Francesco Alidosi, the papal legate of Bologna, to appear before him to answer charges made by the Duke that it was the cardinal’s unpopularity with the citizens of Bologna which had caused the city’s fall.  On their separate ways to appear before the Pope, the Duke and the cardinal accidentally encountered each other in the streets of Ravenna.  Unable to restrain himself, the Duke drew his dagger and fatally wounded Alidosi.  Fortunately for the Duke, Pope Julius soon fell seriously ill, and in preparation for what he believed to be his imminent death, pardoned the Duke for this outburst of homicidal rage.



When Julius did die two years later in 1513, the Duke’s fortunes suffered a serious reversal.  The new Florentine Pope, Leo X, was Cardinal Giuliano de’ Medici, the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent.  Upon his election, Leo is credited with uttering the famous phrase: “God has given us the papacy.  Let us enjoy it.”  Part of that enjoyment involved systematically stripping the members of the della Rovere family of their papal grants and offices as part of the ongoing war between the Medici and della Rovere clans which went back almost forty years to the papacy of Sixtus IV (Francesco della Rovere), the Duke’s great uncle.  In 1478, Sixtus IV had been at the center of a famous plot (known as the Pazzi conspiracy) to assassinate Pope Leo’s father Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother Giluliano during Mass in the Florentine Cathedral.  While Lorenzo escaped with only a flesh wound, one of the assassins drove a dagger into Giuliano’s skull and then stabbed his dying body more than a dozen times.  Thus, as soon as he was in a position to do so, although with considerable difficulty and at great expense, Leo ejected the Duke from his holdings in Urbino.  Then pointing to the Alidosi murder, he commanded the Duke to report to Rome to defend his conduct.  When the Duke refused to appear, Leo declared him excommunicated and appointed his own nephew to be the Duke’s successor.  The Duke responded by joining a plot to assassinate Pope Leo.  When the plot was discovered, the Duke escaped, but a number of conspirators were seized and dragged through the streets of Rome before being tortured and hanged on the Ponte Sant’Angelo.



After Leo’s death in 1521, the Duke managed to regain the Duchy of Urbino, but he continued to feel an intense hatred for the Medici.  This became important two years later when the Duke was appointed captain general of the Venetian land forces and another member of the Medici family was elected Pope Clement VII.  It meant that in 1527, the year that an army of 20,000 Germans and Spaniards collected by the German Emperor Charles V invaded Italy and decided to march on papal Rome, the chief military force opposing them was commanded by the Duke.  Whether caused by his animosity toward a Medici Pope or that combination of poor planning and timid execution which habitually characterized his military command, the Duke failed to take any effective steps to prevent a brutal sack of the city and the murder of 12,000 Romans, an attack so savage that it caused the collapse of the High Roman Renaissance.  Rather than confront the enemy, the Duke dithered, delayed and retreated, all the while belittling his fellow commanders, disparaging the fighting quality of his Italian soldiers and ignoring the agreed-upon plan of battle.  His obvious unfitness for command was the subject of biting sarcasm in the "campos" of Venice.  There was talk that the Duke’s behavior had to be more than simple incompetence, that he must have been bribed by the enemy.

Such was the man whom seventeenth-century Venice chose to honor with a monument that contradicted her deepest communal values and traditions.  He was the nephew of Pope Julius II, one of the most ruthless military and political enemies the Republic had ever faced.  His greatest feat as a military commander had been exploiting Venetian helplessness following the Republic’s crushing defeat by the French at Agnadello, a blow from which her once robust self-confidence never fully recovered.  And his personal character had revealed itself in a string of nasty incidents, all revolving around a vile, ungovernable temper that occasionally exploded in acts of murder and attempted assassination.  In sum, the Duke embodied most of the worst qualities of the Renaissance man identified by Machiavelli and other writers of the age unbridled egotism and selfish ambition linked to an essential anarchy and violence of character.  Near the end of his life, the Duke had his portrait painted by Titian, one of the great masters of psychological penetration.  Now hanging, ironically enough, in the Medici-created Uffizi gallery in Florence, the work shows the Duke in full armor, with a dark black beard, heavy eyebrows and large sunken eye sockets.  He looks lost and gloomy as though he had just suffered another major military defeat for reasons he cannot fathom.  He wears the brooding frown of a man for whom things mysteriously always seem to go wrong and who appears quite prepared to murder anyone who might dare to affront his shaky sense of dignity.



Nothing could have been or seemed more inconsistent with Venice’s historic governing values of anonymity, tradition and selfless public service than the posture of imperial self-importance displayed in the Duke’s effigy when it was installed in the Ducal Palace courtyard sometime after its receipt in 1625.  It was a stance which traced its roots back to ancient Roman examples like the famous statue of the Emperor Augustus found in his wife Livia’s villa at Prima Porta.  By 1587, the year the Duke’s statue was carved, this particular combination of pose and Roman costuming had become a Renaissance convention, employed to create a large number of freestanding, life-size sculptural portraits of well-known generals.  There is an entire room of such works, known as the Hall of Captains, created from the end of the sixteenth to the first decades of the seventeenth centuries, in the Capitoline Museums in Rome.  However, unlike the Duke, some of the commanders represented in the Roman museum, such as Marcantonio Colonna, who led the papal fleet into battle at Lepanto, the great naval victory over the Turks in 1571, were men of actual military merit.  Given the Duke’s martial record and unsavory character, that a work based on such models was even suggested for the Ducal Palace courtyard should have shocked the sensibilities of Venetian leaders.  Instead, such a radical departure from Venetian tradition seems to have passed without notice, an event which, by itself, is strong evidence of a serious deterioration in the city’s commitment to her traditional communal ideals as well as a dramatic loss of belief in Venetian exceptionalism.  At the time of the Colleoni bequest toward the end of the fifteenth century, the Venetian patriciate still viewed itself as the guardian of a unique, divinely ordained community whose record of cumulative success over a span of between six and seven centuries was equal to that of virtually any previous state, including ancient Rome.  At the apogee of her power, governing authority in the Venetian Republic was dispersed within an oligarchy of approximately 2,000 male aristocrats whose principal source of wealth was international trade.  Because this merchant nobility placed an extremely high value on communal decision-making and feared rule by a single individual or dominant faction, it had carefully erected and rigorously enforced a set of complicated restrictions designed to prevent the display of arrogance, ostentation and personal power.



By 1625, the year the Duke’s statue was accepted by the Venetian government, most of these unique protections seem to have been discarded.  The government of the Republic appears to have become slack, careless and indifferent toward undeniable signs of corruption. This was the same year that Giovanni Corner, who belonged to one of the Republic’s oldest and wealthiest families, was elected Doge.  Almost immediately, Corner and his sons began to systematically violate a host of well-known legal restrictions designed to keep ducal family power and influence within constitutional limits.  For instance, to lessen the risk of foreign influence over the heart of the city’s governing order, sons and nephews of a reigning Doge were strictly prohibited from accepting ecclesiastical office.  Yet in 1627, following a long campaign to curry favor with the Pope, the Doge’s son Federico was made a cardinal by Urban VIII, one of the most militant pontiffs of the Counter Reformation.  Doge Corner, aware that in the eyes of seventeenth-century Catholic Europe, a highly placed cleric added aristocratic luster to any family tree, chose to completely ignore this clear prohibition and attempted to justify his action with a transparently specious argument.  When the matter was forwarded to the Senate for confirmation, it concluded that, taking into account the Corner family’s extraordinary wealth and social standing within Venice and the risk of offending Pope Urban, the law should be overlooked in this particular instance.  Naturally, such laxity only encouraged additional violations.  Cardinal Federico was soon offered and accepted a second major religious appointment as Bishop of Vicenza, and other members of the Corner clan were allowed to make regular visits to the papal court, where they were paid handsomely for exploiting their relationship with the Doge.  At this point, a single strident voice began to demand a return to established constitutional protections.  Renier Zen, descended from one of the city’s old aristocratic families, used his membership in both the Senate and the Council of Ten to denounce the laxity and corruption which he saw around him.  While his style was often shrill and impolitic, Zen correctly pointed out that Doge Corner was not the only one abusing his office.  Many other wealthy patrician families, whose members regularly dominated the Senate and the Council of Ten, were also willing to imperil the city’s republican system for their own selfish ends.  And all of this was happening at a point in Venetian history when the dangers of foreign intrigue and serious papal interference were far from imaginary.  In a critical interdict battle two decades earlier, Pope Paul V had employed every weapon at his disposal to force the Republic to surrender her traditional religious liberties, and only nine years later in 1618, the city had been the target of a major Spanish conspiracy to murder her leading patricians and put an end to Venetian political independence.  When the plot was detected, hundreds of Spanish soldiers in civilian dress were already standing by for secret infiltration into the city where they were to await the approach of a Spanish fleet, the signal for launching a coordinated land and naval attack.  Over 300 conspirators were caught and executed, but many escaped.



All of these warning signals were ignored by the Venetian government, and in late December of 1627, two months after he had risen to issue his first warning to the rest of the government, Renier Zen was set upon by masked assassins just outside the Ducal Palace.  The assailants delivered several savage dagger blows before retreating through the doors of the Palace itself.  Following a brief investigation, it was established beyond doubt that the would-be murderers were the Doge’s son Giorgio and two other Corner family members, at which point the three men fled to Ferrara.  As for Zen, he soon recovered and made it clear that his brush with death had done nothing to quiet his zeal for protest.  Worse still, Zen’s arguments were beginning to find increasing favor with the people, causing the Corner clique within the government to try to bar him from attending meetings of the Council of Ten, and when this failed, to exile the troublesome patrician.  While popular uproar quickly ended these particular maneuvers, nothing was done to address the underlying pattern of aristocratic abuse which had led Zen to make his denunciations in the first place.  The Council of Ten continued to act in an increasingly dictatorial fashion, and members of the Corner family continued to exploit their proximity to the ducal throne for all it was worth.  At the heart of such blatant corruption lay a pronounced decline in the size and quality of the Venetian patriciate.  Beginning in the sixteenth century, the ratio of nobles to the general Venetian population began to shrink, falling from 2.2 percent in 1509 to 1.6% in 1631.  And as the shrinking Venetian aristocracy continued its withdrawal from trade (a transformation which was virtually complete by 1660), the number of wealthy nobles also began to decline, and many patrician families simply died out or became too impoverished to play an active role in public affairs.  In such an environment, the influence of still wealthy families like the Corner clan was necessarily exaggerated, and it became much easier for self-interested political coteries to buy votes and violate time-honored constitutional protections with impunity.  It was against this political and social background that the Duke’s statue was accepted and erected in the Ducal Palace courtyard, a setting which had historically been set aside to represent the Venetian state and its communal political order in their ideal form.




Following his apprenticeship in Baccio Bandinelli’s Florentine workshop, Giovanni Bandini was called to work on the Cathedral of Florence where he completed the choir screen begun by his master and executed several statues including the portrait bust of Cosimo I de’ Medici.  Early in his career, he achieved recognition, and in 1563 he became a member of the newly established Accademia del Disegno in Florence.  From the late 1560’s until the early 1580’s, Bandini was the foremost portrait sculptor in Florence, executing some twenty busts of antique subjects as well as ten busts of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany typically dressed all’antica and shown as aloof, expressionless and virtually static with only a hint of movement in emulation of Roman imperial portraiture.  In 1582, he was called to Pesaro by Francesco Maria II della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, and shortly thereafter, he was appointed the court sculptor of the duchy.  The busts commissioned for the duke continue to emulate antique imperial portraiture, but the full-length figures show a more lively, energetic figural style.   Bandini continued to work for the duke until 1595 when he returned to his native Tuscany.   Throughout his career, however, the frontal poses, solemn grandeur, and reduction to essentials are characteristic of his Florentine manner and owe much to Michelangelo’s work.