Walking around Venice, you see lots of prints of old maps of ‘Venice from the air’. From the sixteenth century onwards, this became a stock way to depict Venice pictorially. The many different versions provide useful information about the history and development of the city through the ages and are fascinating to look at in detail.
The first, and to my mind still the best, version was produced in the year 1500 precisely by a certain Jacopo de’ Barbari, a Venetian painter, thought, through analysis of his style, to have been a pupil of Alvise Vivarini. Not much is known of him, save that he was born in Venice and moved to Germany in 1500, the year that his map was published.
Despite having been familiar with it for most of my life, my love affair with this map began in 1991, when I spent a year studying Renaissance Venetian history under Professor Brian Pullan at the University of Manchester in England. The professor had a large reproduction of it on his wall and used it to introduce us to Venice as it would have been in the Renaissance.
Comparing the map with a modern aerial photograph of the city is remarkable. De’ Barbari captured the shape of the city and the relative locations of the principal buildings and islands very accurately, despite it being a view that he could never have seen. It’s thought that he produced it by climbing campaniles around the city, drawing what he saw, and piecing it all together like a large jigsaw. You can still climb the Campanile of San Marco and that on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore to have an idea of what he would have seen.
The original, consists of six woodcuts, which, put together, make a print of about one and a half metres by three metres. It’s preserved in the Correr Museum, in the Piazza di San Marco. I remember that when I was a child, it was displayed on the wall above the stairs as you went in, but now it’s been moved to a less prominent location.
It’s fascinating to look at the map in detail and see how some buildings have changed whilst many have remained exactly the same. The Campanile di San Marco is without its golden angel, added in 1513, and the Rialto area appears as it did before the great fire of 1514, complete with wooden bridge.