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Punta della Dogana, Venice

Punta della Dogana at the Meeting of the Grand and Giudecca Canals, Venice

The Punta della Dogana at the meeting of the Grand and Giudecca Canals.

The Punta della Dogana is the pointy tip of the Dorsaduro where the Grand and Giudecca Canals meet. It is named for the dogana (Dogana di Mare), or customs house that operated here at least from the fourteenth century until well into the twentieth. The present dogana was constructed in 1682, not long after the neighboring Santa Maria della Salute (Saint Mary of Health), which was built in thanks for the passing of the plague in 1630.

Most visitors today, coming from the Santa Lucia train station, or the Piazzale Roma parking area, or the Marco Polo airport, enter the city from the rear. Until the mid-nineteenth century, when the first rail connection was built across the lagoon, the face of the city was on the opposite side, at San Marco. This was signaled to approaching vessels by the columns of San Marco and San Teodoro (more about them later). The Dogana lay directly across the Grand Canal, and as Venice was an empire built on trade it must have been a lively place indeed.

A Section of the Grand Canal in the Dorsaduro Sestiero of Venice

A Section of the Grand Canal in the Dorsaduro Sestiero of Venice

The stretch of Venice’s Grand Canal between the Rialto Bridge and the Bacino includes some of the city’s finest buildings. Owners of these buildings invested great effort and funds into creating impressive facades facing the Canal.

The five buildings shown here — with the dome of the church of Santa Maria de la Salute and a tiny slice of the former Abbazia di San Gregorio in the background — are, left to right, Palazzo Genovese, Palazo Benzon, Palazzo Salviati, Palazzo Barbaro, and Palazzo Dario.

Grand Canal, Venice, looking south.

Ca’ Farsetti, Venice

East bank of the Grand Canal, looking south from the Rialto Bridge. The two buildings to the right of the yellow facade are the Ca' Corner Loredan and the Ca' Farsetti, both built in the the early 13th century (and later modified). These are the earliest major palazzi facing the Grand Canal.

East bank of the Grand Canal, looking south from the Rialto Bridge. The two buildings to the right of the yellow facade are the Ca’ Corner Loredan and the Ca’ Farsetti, both built in the the early 13th century (and later modified). These are the earliest major surviving palazzi facing the Grand Canal.

I have been researching the interesting history of Venice and the Veneto, and will be posting a few entries, mainly incorporating photos I’ve taken during visits there. (This one was taken 30 Oct. 2010.) The second building to the right of the yellow facade is the Ca’ Farsetti, a palazzo of historic importance.

Before 1200 the focus of life for most Venetians was the open campo outside each island compound’s church. However, as the city filled up, becoming one rather than many, the divisions between those compounds were blurred. The great open space of the Piazza San Marco became the city’s campo—a place for the citizens of a unified state to gather. In the same way, the Grand Canal became its central boulevard, filled with traffic of all kinds. Where the palaces of rich Venetians had previously faced their local campi, they now turned toward the Grand Canal. The wealthiest Venetians jostled for position along the waterway, each attempting to outdo the other in grandeur. The oldest surviving such palazzo is the Ca’ Farsetti, built by Ranieri Dandolo, the son of Doge Enrico Dandolo. This impressive Gothic structure near the Rialto Bridge is today used as Venice’s city hall…. Unlike family palaces in other Italian cities, the Venetian structures remained unfortified—a feature that speaks volumes about the lack of factionalism and lawlessness in the Republic of Venice.
—Thomas F. Madden, Venice: A New History

Camel plaque, Palazzo Mastelli, Venice

The House of the Camel, Venice

Camel plaque, Palazzo Mastelli, Venice

Camel plaque, Palazzo Mastelli, Venice.

In the Canareggio sestiere of Venice, between the Jewish Ghetto and the Madonna dell’ Orto church, on the Calle dei Mori (the Street of the Moors), resides the Palazzo Mastelli. It is an venerable edifice, marked with a plaque depicting a camel laden with burdens. (Consequently, the palazzo is familiarly known as the House of the Camel.) The camel is an enduring symbol of the position of Venice as an entrepôt for trade between East and West.

The original meaning of the camel plaque seems to have been lost to legend, most of it xenophobic. According to legend, three brothers came to Venice from “Morea” (the Peloponnesian peninsula of Greece) in 1112. Or maybe, according to other accounts, they were from the Levant. Maybe they were Arabs. In any case, their names are always given as Rioba, Sandi, and Afani, and they were traders, wicked men who, one story has it, sought to sell cheap fabric to a Venetian lady at an exorbitant price. But the victim of the scam cursed the money, and the three men were turned into turbaned stone statues that stand near the palace in the Campo dei Mori.

Another variant of the story says that the unscrupulous merchant used his favorite phrase while peddling his cloth, “May my hand turn to stone if what I am saying is not true.” Unfortunately for him, his intended victim was an avatar of St. Mary Magdalene (or maybe she simply answered the woman’s prayer) and once again the brothers end up as stone figures.

Turbaned figure in exterior wall niche,Campo dei Mori, Venice.

Turbaned figure in exterior wall niche,Campo dei Mori, Venice.

On one of the statues, known as “Sior Rioba,” satirical poems and protests politicians and other powerful people were traditionally hung. In the nineteenth century Sior Rioba lost his nose, and in 2010 his head, although it was later found in the Calle della Racchetta and restored.

Legends endure, and Venetians and travel guides have enjoyed relating the story for centuries. (One version appears in Giuseppe Tassini’s Curiosità Veneziane, 1872.) But the bases of the statues are in fact parts from a Roman altar, and the statues were not constructed as a group but are a composite from various sources, put together in the fourteenth century.

The Palazzo Mastelli is a similar mélange, combining thirteenth-century Byzantine fragments with sixteenth-century construction, Roman fragments set in a column, and all of that topped with a Gothic balcony. All quite Venetian and, if you ask me, charming.

Palazzo Mastelli, the Fondamenta Madonna dell'Orto facade.

Palazzo Mastelli, the Fondamenta Madonna dell’Orto facade.


Astronomicum Caesarium, 1540

Astronomicum Caesarium

Astronomicum Caesarium.

The Astronomicum Caesarium (“The Emperor’s Astronomy,” 1540) by Petrus Apianus is a monumental example of European book arts of the sixteenth century, and one of the most beautiful books ever produced.

The author and producer, Peter Bienewitz (1495–1552), was the son of a shoemaker. He took the name Apianus (Latin for “bee man,” more or less a translation of his German surname), while a student at the University of Leipzig. Apianus worked as a mathematician and cosmographer (and astrologer) in the employ of emperor Charles V (1500–1558), whom he may have tutored. The Astronomicum Caesarium was produced for the emperor in folio format (about 18 x 13 in.) in a limited edition (about forty copies survive but the original run might not have been much larger).

Orbis sensualium pictus, 1659

<em>Orbis sensualium pictus</em>, 1659, by Comenius (Czech, 1592-1670), sheet from printed book.

Orbis sensualium pictus, 1659, by Comenius (Czech, 1592-1670). English translation by Charles Hoole (English, 1610-1667). Sheet from printed book.

The Orbis sensualium pictus, often described as the first children’s picture-book, sought to use animal sounds to teach children the alphabet.  The author, Jan Amos Komenský, who took the Latin name Comenius, was an early champion of universal education. The book was originally published in German and Latin, and translated into English the following year by Charles Hoole, an English cleric and educational writer. A sheet from that translation is displayed above.

By C. Walter Hodges - Folger Shakespeare Library,-1599-1613--A-c?sort=Call_Number%2CAuthor%2CCD_Title, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Shakespeare’s Globe

Democritus and Heraclitus, by Johannes Moreelse (Dutch, ca. 1603–October 1634). Oil on canvas. Democritus and Heraclitus, the laughing philosopher and the weeping philosopher, were a popular subject for early modern painters, including Rembrandt, Rubens, Velasquez, and many others. The philosophers are usually shown, as here, viewing a globe.

Democritus and Heraclitus, by Johannes Moreelse (Dutch, ca. 1603–October 1634). Oil on canvas. Democritus and Heraclitus, the laughing philosopher and the weeping philosopher, were a popular subject for early modern painters, including Rembrandt, Rubens, Velasquez, and many others. The philosophers are usually shown, as here, viewing a globe.

The aged are inclined to live in the past. In 1576, when Thomas Platter was seventy-seven, he published a charming autobiography. It would be admired centuries later by Goethe. Platter was the son of Swiss peasants. In Europe, the explosion of printing begun in the fifteenth century made advanced education available beyond the traditional literary elite, and Platter had learned seven languages and ended as a schoolteacher in Basel. As a legacy of his success, both of his sons, Felix and Thomas, became physicians. In 1599 the brothers were well enough off to partake of the new fad of international tourism, and they traveled to London. In his travel diary the younger brother, Thomas, describes attending a play “very pleasingly performed” on September 21. The drama was a tragedy concerning the Roman emperor Julius Caesar. Felix is sometimes remembered for being one of the first to articulate a theory of germs. Thomas is remembered for having attended a play.

Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty

Jade suit, Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Unearthed from Tomb 2, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Jade and gold. Nanjing Museum, EX2017.1.1. Photograph © Nanjing Museum.. Unlike jade death suits that have been seen here in the past, this one was made for a royal woman.

Jade suit, Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Unearthed from Tomb 2, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Jade and gold. Nanjing Museum, EX2017.1.1. Photograph © Nanjing Museum. Unlike jade death suits that have been seen here in the past, this one was made for a woman.

In 210 BCE Shi Huangdi, the “First Emperor” of China, died at the age of forty-nine, likely from poisoning by the very elixirs that were supposed to make him immortal. He was placed in an underground tomb where he would be protected for eternity by thousands of life-sized terra-cotta warriors. In 2013 some of those warriors took a break from their guardian duties to visit San Francisco as part of the Asian Art Museum’s exhibition China’s Terracotta Warriors.: The First Emperor’s Legacy.

Above ground, things did not go well for the emperor’s people. Less than four years after his death, his empire collapsed. A new power, based first in Chang’an and later in Luoyang, controlled China. It would be known as the Han dynasty, lending its name to the country’s majority ethnic group. It would endure for more than four hundred years (while the West was dominated by imperial Rome). The new dynasty was marked by economic and technical development, as well as a great cultural flourishing. It too left elaborate tombs full of spectacular and intriguing artifacts. Now a new Asian Art Museum show presents 160 such objects, most never before seen outside China, in Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty (through May 28).

Few fields have advanced as rapidly as the archaeology of ancient China in recent decades. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, not many archaeologists were systematically exploring sites in China. This omission began to be remedied in the second half of the twentieth century, resulting in the first major exhibition devoted to the new discoveries, Archaeological Finds of The People’s Republic of China, organized by the U.S. National Gallery and the Nelson Atkins Museum in 1974. Twenty-five years later, the same institutions teamed up on another major exhibition, The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology. Since that time there has been an explosion of archaeological activity in China, and scholars are still working on making sense of the ongoing discoveries.

Belt hook in the shape of a dragon, unearthed from Tomb 12, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Silver. Nanjing Museum. Photograph © Nanjing Museum.

Belt hook in the shape of a dragon, Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Unearthed from Tomb 12, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Silver. Nanjing Museum. Photograph © Nanjing Museum. The two pieces making up this belt hook are inscribed with characters reading “Forget me not.”

Traditional Chinese histories tended to treat the nation’s development as the passing of the mandate of heaven from one monolithic dynasty to another. But the archaeological discoveries have suggested that ancient China was more multiplistic and multicultural than had previously been acknowledged. Chinese culture, to judge from the archaeological finds, did not arise in one place and then spread throughout China so much as it arose in multiple and varied locations, with several regional cultural groups all contributing to the mix.

Under the leadership of director Jay Xu, the Asian Art Museum has intensified efforts to strengthen working relations with sister institutions in China, as well as to keep abreast of the rapidly changing developments in the archaeology of ancient China. (Xu received his doctorate from Princeton University with a specialization in early Chinese art and archaeology.) The objects in this exhibition mostly come from mausoleums excavated in 2011 belonging to the Jiangdu Kingdom at Dayun Mountain, and from royal tombs of the Chu Kingdom at Xuzhou, first uncovered in 1995. They were borrowed from museums in Nanjing, Xuzhou, and Yizheng, all located in Jiangsu province, near Shanghai, where the new archaeological discoveries were made.

Co-curated by Xu and Fan Jeremy Zhang, the museum’s senior associate curator of Chinese art, the exhibition is organized into three areas built around Han-era phrases found on period objects:

A manuscript of geometric solids

geometric solid from Codex Guelf 74. 1, via Bibliodyssey

This curious image, shamelessly copied from Peacay’s excellent Bibliodyssey, is one of several similar images from a 36-page manuscript said to date from the sixteenth century. The provenance and attribution of this work are a bit mysterious. There was great interest in regular geometric solids during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as it was thought that in them was hidden God’s secret design for the universe. Such thinking derived from the ancient lineage of Pythagoreanism.

One researcher who explored this direction in depth, as described in my 1616: The World in Motion, was Johannes Kepler, who in the early seventeenth century produced this somewhat similar diagram of a “cosmic cup” in which all of the regular solids are embedded together (Kepler persuaded the eastern Habsburg emperor Rudolf to commission royal metal workers to construct such a cup, though the efforts came to nothing):

kepler: planetary solids


The image reproduced at Bibliodyssey is curious for its lack of context and its early date. As a philosophical/mathematical model it is much less rigorous than Kepler’s version and seems as much the result of private symbolism as of mathematics. Some of the images from the manuscript have something of the quality of origami, which is certainly out of the mainstream even of esoterica, so to speak. I would hazard the guess that the author of this work might have been a forerunner of Rosicrucianism (notice the three-dimensional cross in the center of the image, which has some of the vocabulary of alchemy). If I can learn more about the manuscript I will share what I find out.

The Gettysburg PowerPoint

gettysburgh powerpoint slide

As Presidents Day approaches, it is worth recalling one of our nation’s finest moments.


Turkey Day

turkeycock by mansur

North American Turkey, ca. 1612, by Mansur. Victoria and Albert Museum, IM 135-1921.

In honor of Thanksgiving, here’s a painting of an American turkeycock by the great Mughal painter Mansur (from my forthcoming book 1616: The World in Motion). Mansur was the greatest Mughal painter of natural history subjects.

It was an area in which the Mughal emperor, Jahangir, was deeply interested. A world in motion brought to his court many strange and curious creatures, which he invariably directed his painters to document. In 1612, when a large number of birds and animals were brought to his court from Goa, he wrote, “As these animals appeared to me to be very strange, I … ordered that painters should draw them in the Jahangirnama [his reign journal], so that the amazement that arose from hearing of them might be increased.”

Among the birds brought from Goa was this American turkey painted by Mansur. Like Abul Hasan (who painted the cover image of my book), Mansur ranked high in Jahangir’s esteem, and the ruler gave him the title of Nadir-ul-asr, “Unique of the Age.” “In the art of drawing,” he said, Mansur “is unique in his generation.” He ranked him together with Abul Hasan, saying, “In the time of my father’s reign and my own, these two had no third.”

Jahangir was proud of such creatures in his menagerie as flying mice, tailless monkeys, zebras, yaks, cheetahs, West Asian goats, Himalayan pheasants, dodos, ducks, and partridges. He had many of the foreign animals bred in captivity. When he received a strange animal he typically would record a verbal description of it before having its likeness painted. In 1616 he was presented with an Abyssinian elephant, noting that “Its ears are larger than the elephants of this place, and its trunk and tail are longer.” His concern for accuracy and completeness of documentation led to a naturalistic approach to paintings of natural history, of which Mansur was the foremost proponent.

How well do you know the Declaration of Independence?

Find out by taking this quiz.

I scored 9/12 (thanks to some lucky guesses).

Help wanted: Italian painting specialist

quirinal fresco

Help! For the book I’m working on I’m trying to identify the painters of these frescos in the Quirinale (the Italian equivalent of the White House). They depict foreign ambassadors to the Vatican, and I’d also like to identify the ambassadors — but first things first.

quirinale frescos

I’ve consulted several books in both English and Italian but remain uncertain about the attributions. My best guess at this point is that the top two are mainly by Carlo Saraceni, the third one by Agostino Tassi, and the last one perhaps by Giovanni Lanfranco.

quirinale frescos

Among the ambassadors are Robert Sherley, Aliqoli Beg (not entirely sure who that is), Emanuele Ne Vunda, Hasekura Tsunenaga, and Luis Sotelo (the last a Franciscan missionary and not an ambassador per se). Can the Turkish and Persian ambassadors be distinguished by their styles of turbans?

Even if you don’t know the answers to these questions, if anyone can point me in the direction of an obliging Italian painting specialist I could be in touch with about this it would be a great help. Thanks!



When you attempt something ambitious you’re bound to make some mistakes along the way. I’m sure the book I’m working on will have its fair share (recently I realized I had confused the Mughal painters Bichitr and Bishandas). But sometimes a mistake is so stunning that it’s hard to recover from.

I was finding Charles H. Parker’s Global Interactions in the Early Modern Age, 1400-1800 generally interesting and credible. Then I came upon this sentence:

The lack of any indigenous pack animals, except for the llama, and the absence of a wheel meant that humans formed the primary source of portage in Mesoamerican trade.

Probably another reason Mesoamericans depended on humans for portage is that the nearest of their “indigenous” llamas was nearly 2000 miles away in the South American Andes.

This reminds me of a visit to the market in Chichicastenango in Guatemala a few decades ago. The blanket vendors all touted their blankets as pura lana, which means “pure wool.” At the market I met a foolish young Spanish-challenged gringo carrying a blanket he had bought. He’d paid a high price, but it was worth it, he assured me, proudly proclaiming it “pure llama!”


Image from felipe ascencio‘s photostream.

WW2 vets head for DC

This news reports features my dad, who served on Guam. My sister recorded it off the TV and put a frame around it.

Early 20th-century scenes of Paris

Eugène Atget made a number of interesting sets of photos of aspects of Parisian life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Bibliothèque Nationale de France has made a number of them available on the web. This is a detail from a photo of the Cabaret Alexandre, 100 boulevard de Clichy, printed between 1910 and 1912 from a negative taken in 1910. Great stuff! (I love the way the type echoes the form of the doors in this one.) See more here.

A brief history break

original pledge of allegiance

If it [the Pledge of Allegiance] was good enough for the founding fathers, it’s good enough for me. — Sarah Palin

Pop quiz! What historical event is associated with the origin of the Pledge of Allegiance?

  1. The American Revolution, 1775-1783
  2. The Declaration of Independence, 1776
  3. The Constitutional Convention, 1787
  4. The swearing in of George Washington as president, 1789
  5. Attempted secession of southern states, 1860-1861
  6. Lincoln assassination, 1865
  7. World’s Columbian Exposition (World’s Fair), 1892

Answer after the break.

For bonus points, when did we start to print “In God We Trust” on our currency?

Insert tab A into slot B

How did the order of letters in the Western alphabet get so firmly established that there are more similarities than differences between such languages as Latin (a, b, c), Greek (alpha, beta, gamma), Arabic (alif, b?’, t?), Hebrew (aleph, bet, gimel), and so on? As Jonathan Hoefler at Hoefler & Frere-Jones observes, the order can be traced back 3,500 years to the Ugaritic alpa, beta, gamla.

Part of the answer might lie in the use of letters to indicate the assembly of parts in construction projects. Witness this passage, which Hoefler came across in Peter T. Daniels and William Bright, eds., The World’s Writing Systems, Oxford University Press, 1996

Ancient Near Easterners used fitters’ marks, single letters of the alphabet apparently used to indicate the order in which various building materials are to be assembled. Various decorative ivory pieces from Nimrud, Iraq, were letter-coded to show the order in which they were to be inserted into furniture. In a temple at Petra, Jordan, archaeologists found “large, individually letter-coded, ashlar blocks spread along the floor of [a] room … in the temple structure.” In a 1971 salvage expedition of a ship downed off Marsala, Italy, Honor Frost discovered “letters at key places where wood was to be joined … the ship assembly [was thus] a colossal game of carpentry by letters, like a modern paint-by-numbers project.”


Shown: Artist’s reconstruction of the palace at Nimrud


Vocabularium rerum

vocabularium reurm, a printed book from 1495

An early printed bilingual dictionary, the Vocabularium Rerum provided German readers with the meanings of common Latin words and phrases. This edition (photo from Helga’s Lobster Stew’s photostream) was printed in Venice in 1495. According to HLS, the book can be seen”open to the public in the library at the Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry on 16th Street in DC.” The label in the photo says that there are three known copies, the other two being in London and Vienna.

Notice the perfection of the printed book as an information technology — after about 513 years, the data is still perfectly readable. From a book design point of view, observe that the bottom and outside margins are larger than the top and inside margins. On a spread, this holds the facing type areas together; it also provides a place for the reader’s fingers. This page has nice even type color, especially considering the variation in type size.

I hope that label is on acid-free paper! I would not have set it directly on the page.


19th-century printing press

Typographia: An Historical Sketch of the Origin and Progress of the Art of Printing was published in 1825, “Printed for Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy.” The author was Thomas Curson Hansard. The book is now available as a Google scan. Its musty pages contain some information that has been largely forgotten. Here’s a passage offering some insight into the life and character of the typographer William Caslon.

character of william caslon

As you can see, like many nineteenth-century books, this one, despite its topic, is not a good example of the typographic arts.

Is it too technologically difficult or time-consuming for the texts of these public domain books to be rendered by Google as texts rather than graphics? In this respect Project Gutenberg is far superior.

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