This phrase is the renaissance scholar’s David Rosand’s, and I came across it while researching my next course on the art of Venice: Venice, Renaissance to Ruskin. I was intrigued by the phrase, especially as I wanted to consider how Venice used its complex system of signs including such images as the “Lion of St Mark”, as in Carpaccio’s painting shown above,Venetia (the personification of Venice) to present a picture of the state to the world, and of course its own citizens. In his book Myths of Venice: The Figuration of a State (2001) Rosand presents an iconographical exposition of signs such as these in order to show how the myths and origins of Venice were communicated through the art of the 15th and 16th centuries. We’ll return to the idea of propaganda in Venice, but before we can evaluate the appropriateness of the term propaganda for the Venetian renaissance, we need to say something about the concept’s relationship with art historians who worked on the pre-modern period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the notion of propaganda entered into discussions about controlling the masses through systems of information control.
Propaganda and Baroque Art History: Wittkower and the Jesuits.
“But should propaganda operate as more than a sign in art history?
Evonne Levy, Propaganda and the Jesuit Baroque.
Those searching for clues to the link between propaganda and the early modern could do worse than to consult a book by Evonne Levy entitled Propaganda and the Jesuit Baroque. Published in 2004, the book focuses on the connections between propaganda and the Jesuit baroque, which is a style label that became derogatory in the eyes of many intellectuals. Scholars were suspicious of the Jesuit’s use of painting and sculpture to overwhelm the spectator; this was a kind of “crowd control” designed to put the dazzled viewer in a state of conformity. Towards the end of the 19th century there was growing alarm about the rise of people in cities and fear of mass society were expressed through studies of the crowd like Gustave Le Bon’s book on crowd psychology. Legendary art historians like Rudolph Wittkower, Heinrich Wöfflin and Walter Friedlaender, the generation of art historians who lived through World War One, developed their ideas about baroque art while these concerns about crowd psychology were in the air, and as Levy argues it had no little impact on their thinking given that they had been subjected to Nazi ideology. To give one brief example, Friedlaender a German émigré to the United States, disdained to use the term propaganda fidei to describe Caravaggio’s art; instead, he associated it with baroque artists like Rubens and Bernini. In the words of Levy, though she cannot know if describing Caravaggio’s art in terms of propaganda was unpalatable to Friedlaender, it seems likely that he sought to “distance Caravaggio from impious Jesuitism.”
Berenson, Lippmann, and Painting for the Masses.
“People began to feel the need for painting as something that entered into their daily lives almost as much as we now sometimes feel the need of the newspaper; nor was this unnatural, considering that, until the invention of printing, painting was the only way, apart from direct speech, of conveying ideas to the masses.”
Bernard Berenson, Painting in Venice.
Berenson’s volume on Venetian painting first appeared in 1894 after he had left Harvard, followed by his others on different schools of Italian painting up to 1907. His comparison of painting to the newspaper is intriguing and begs the question of how the debates on methods of controlling information disseminated to the masses was influencing his own thinking on the way renaissance art communicated data to the public in Italian cities. While we can’t demonstrate that Berenson was assimilating the ideas of the modern information managers and theorists, we can certainly prove that one of their most important writers was aware of Berenson’s writings on Italian art. In his book of 1921, Public Opinion, the American “public intellectual” and journalist Walter Lippmann ( above) drew on Berenson’s essay on Central Italian Painters (pub 1897) when inventing his notion of the “stereotype,” which is part of his analysis of how social psychology and mass society in the modern world works. Lippmann focused on the problem of wether the masses were capable of processing the welter of information and material in the modern world distributed through the mass media. An elitist, Lippmann concluded pessimistically that the masses lacked the capacity to deal with this tsunami of information and he recommended a bureaucratic elite to filter this information. This debate still rages today, more relevant in this age of information overload, and the loss of objectivity in our 24/7 news culture. I cannot claim that I have uncovered another tradition of art history and propaganda, but I think it is correct to say that this constellation of ideas which includes aesthetics and mass psychology seems to have emanated from the intellectual climate in Harvard. It is very interesting that Lippmann, another Harvard graduate, drew on Berenson to help formulate his ideas on social psychology, advertising and the role of the newspapers. The link between Berenson and Lippmann, and indeed other Harvard intellectuals, certainly merits further study, but that will have to be the subject of another post.
Searching for a Framework: Propaganda and Rhetoric.
One of the problems in using the word propaganda to describe art as a mechanism of state power in the renaissance is that the word never existed. The nearest thing to it would have been rhetoric, the art of persuading through argument, which derives from classical times. In Propaganda and the Jesuit Baroque, Levy analyses this within an unravelling of the history of propaganda and rhetoric. By the time rhetoric had reached the renaissance period, it was used by humanist speakers in the public realm. This of course happened in Venice which had opened up its public spaces in imitation of Rome. Berenson makes the interesting point that the growing diversity in wider renaissance society led to a split between the humanist, literary imagination, (part of the tradition of rhetoric) and the emergence of a more popular style in Venetian painting; the renaissance ceased to be a movement conducted by poets and scholars alone and so painting acquired a new municipal function of instilling pride in the prosperous and peaceful Venetian state. Assuming Berenson’s model is correct, and it will need closer investigation, we could tentatively say that there were many different types of social registers for painting in renaissance Venice. Giorgione’s lyrical allegories clearly reflect the taste of an elite company of scholarly humanists; the Bellini ( Gentile’s St Mark Procession above) and Carpaccio with their colourful processions and pageants convey something of a more popular taste centred on the festivals. Yet, we must be careful not to simplify since as Rosand says, the imagery of pagan humanism and archaeology, the province of Venetian intellectuals, intruded into these popular events so there could be an overlap of high and common cultures. Also, Venetian society was imbued with a corporatist ethos ensuring that everybody, whatever their station in the social hierarchy, worked for the good of the republic. Finally, the overpowering triumphal allegories of such artists as Tintoretto and Veronese might be seen as approximations of rhetorical writings that proclaimed the fame of Venice to the outside world.
The «Venetian Renaissance Propaganda Machine ».
Some might see Rosand’s use of the word « propaganda » as anachronistic, but I would defend it on the grounds that though the word wasn’t coined in the renaissance period, the germ of the idea was present within the framework of rhetoric in renaissance Venice. If we were searching for a word that described this concoction of politics, art and communication in the renaissance, we could use a word like glory which Berenson frequently employs when discussing Venetian painting, but this word conjures up the gloire of the court of Louis XIV in the 17th century, and Venice did not have a court. Perhaps we can distinguish Venetian propagandistic art from this kind of gloire since in some cases, notably Titian, the genius of the artist could mesh perfectly with the needs of the commission and the Venetian state. With a painter like Louis XIV’s Charles Le Brun, his individuality doesn’t outshine the terms of the official commission at all.
As Berenson says, Michelangelo and Leonardo didn’t paint their famous decorations to glorify the Florentine Republic, but “to give scope to their genius.” The Venetian ruling class, however, cleverly recruited artists like Titian and Veronese ( his Triumph of Venice in the Ducal Palace above) to celebrate the state in art, and they drew upon the parallel skills of scholars to use their rhetorical skills to praise the Venetian Republic in writing which was effective as propaganda since 17th English travellers were interpreting Venetian painting in precisely that way. This interest marked the success of the “Venetian Renaissance Propaganda Machine” as it was this rhetoric of the humanists that inspired this ceremonial visual imagery despite the mundane reality of the situation which surely would have been evident to travellers to Venice in the baroque age when the city was in decline.
We can look for the stirrings of propaganda in the renaissance in this slippage between the concept and the rhetorical tradition helpfully explicated by Levy. Eventually, propaganda would come to be seen by pre-modern art historians like Wittkower and Wöfflin as a predominantly baroque phenomenon, but we can see elements of the propaganda concept in play in renaissance Venice with this tension between the rhetorical humanist tradition and one of a more public art directed towards the masses as explored by scholars such as Rosand and Berenson who stress either explicitly, or by implication the “propagandistic” function of painting in renaissance Venice which is, to borrow Berenson’s words, to use art to “remind the Venetians of their glory and state policy.”
I’ll return to these ideas in my Venice course/blog which will begin soon.
 Levy, Propaganda and the Jesuit Baroque, 64.
 These were all assembled in a two volume edition published by Phaidon in 1952.
 Public Opinion, Chap XX, “the common interests very largely elude public opinion entirely, and can be managed only by a specialised class whose personal interests reach beyond the locality.”
 Levy mentions Lippmann’s later book, The Phantom Public which I haven’t read.
 For interesting remarks on individuality in Venetian painting, see Patricia Fortini Brown, The Renaissance in Venice: A World Apart, (Everyman 1997), 58-63.
 Myths of Venice, 37-8.
 Myths of Venice, 118.
 Berenson, Venetian and North Italian Schools, 11.