In Venetian art

Stars in Venetian history played a major role. They would help navigators find their routes in the Adriatic and Mediterranean Sea. They would direct travellers of the kind of Marco Polo to the Far East across the Silk Road. But also orienteer fishermen in the lagoon. Therefore, it does not surprise the scientific knowledge of the astronomical vault reached very high levels. 

But how did astral sciences influence Venetian art? And what about nowadays, what relation is there between Venice and stars?

Let’s start from the Middle Ages and one of the most iconic monuments in Venice, St Mark’s Basilica.

Stars in St Mark’s Basilica: Stars and Travels, an art and science exhibit

An amazing discovery was first presented in 2016 by prof. Gloria Vallese at the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice. Her research has gone further and more results have been exhibited in the Magazzino del Sale 3 at the Zattere in 2021-22. 

According to Vallese’s studies, the main portal of St. Mark’s Basilica depicts an extraordinary sculptural representation of single stars or constellations dating back to the mid 1200s. The interesting part is that it features an inclusive contamination of Northern European models together with Persian, Indian and Chinese ones. 

Mapping stars in St Mark’s Basilica

Dromedaries, cranes with twisted necks, peacocks and more would therefore refer to stars and constellations appearing when traveling across the Mediterranean area and the Middle East. Both lunar and solar calendars are referred to with incredible precision. Also, the rose of the wind seems to correspond to the bas-reliefs. In few words, a very rigorous celestial map: the position you look at St Mark’s portal allowed you to see the constellations direction north or south.

Female figure in the northern side of one of the arches of St Mark’s Basilica’s portal, 1250 ca.

Dromedaries and wild animals in the southern side of one of the arches of St Mark’s Basilica’s portal, 1250 ca.

The “patere” in the Venetian warehouses

This discovery also casts another interpretative approach over the ancient “patere” medallions we find on houses in Venice, like the ones at the Corte del Milion where Marco Polo lived. Eagles catching hares and foxes, snakes, entangled vegetation and hybrid humans and more may not represent the fight between the Good and the Evil, but refer to astronomy. Vallese suggests they could be allegories of the travels completed, appearing on the external walls of byzantine “fondaco” warehouses of Venetian merchants. 

The arch of the months and the zodiac in St Mark’s Basilica

In her more recent research Vallese and her team analysed one more arch of St Mark’s portal, the one of the months, and came up with more extraordinary discoveries. From a very close observation, Vallese argues that there used to be small stars on relief, likely gilded, and metal studs, also shining, placed on the different figures of the arch. The position of these glittering elements corresponded to constellations and to single stars. You would see them shining at twilight, both at dawn and at dusk.

October is the month represented here accompanied by the zodiac sign of Scorpio and Sagittarius, St Mark’s Basilica, Venice – Detail

Stellarium, a free open source planetarium running in your web browser

What made me particularly curious in the project “Stelle e viaggi” (Stars and Travels) was also the use of Stellarium, an app that shows a realistic star map on your pc. Mallika Sottana, a student participating in Vallese’s project, explained how this app can show you the sky as it was at a particular place, at a particular time. This allowed her to see how the sky over Venice looked like when that arch was built, in 1259-1260.

So, while thinking of art works in Venice meant to be enjoyed at their best when sunlight weakens, how could I not think of the most celebrated Callisto Room in Domus Grimani? 

The Domus Grimani and the Callisto Room: a Renaissance representation of a stellar map

Giovanni Grimani in 1537 commissioned to Giovanni da Udine the decoration of a room in his Venetian palace near Campo Santa Maria Formosa. Giovanni da Udine had just left Rome where he had worked with Raphael and had decorated the Vatican Loggias, proving to be an expert in the technique of the ancient Roman stucco.

1537 is the date carved in the stucco relief in Callisto Room in Grimani Palace, Venice

In Venice, Giovanni da Udine represented the story of the nymph Callisto, seduced by Zeus disguised as Artemis.

Artemis alias Zeus approaches Callisto between Capricorn and Taurus, Callisto Room in Grimani Palace by Giovanni da Udine, 1537-40, Venice – Detail

White stucco, gold leaf and small metallic mirrors are supposed to shine above our heads, maybe at twilight, maybe thanks to the presence of burning candles. Looking up you can easily follow the five scenes describing, quite faithfully, the Sapphic story of the nymph and her final transformation (with her son Arcas) into the constellations of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.

Callisto and the nymph bathing in Grimani Palace by Giovanni da Udine, Venice, Detail

As in Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book II, a case of catasterism:

uicinaque sidera fecit – they were turned into stars close to each other

The Zodiac in Callisto Room in Grimani Palace in Venice

All around you find the representations of the twelve months, symbolised by gentle winged putti, as well as four zodiacal symbols, the Capricorn, the Taurus, the Leo and the Sagittarius. Annalisa Bistrot in her paper published in 2008 suggests the four symbols are referring to the four seasons and maybe to the horoscope of Giovanni Grimani.

Capricorn in Callisto Room by Giovanni da Udine in the Grimani Palace, 1537-40, Venice – Detail

Not everyone agrees on the birth date of Giovanni Grimani, but it is supposed he was born on July 8th in 1506. I thought therefore I could use Stellarium to see what sky constellations would be like on that day when Giovanni was (maybe) born. Of course, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor are dominant. 

But it was quite interesting to notice that Capricorn, Taurus and Sagittarius and Leo seem to surround Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. The rectangular structure of the story narrated emerges from the position of the four zodiac signs. At the same time, Giovanni da Udine also represented cancer on all sides of the rectangular, at a time in the year when the sun lies in this zodiac sign. While you move your eyes around and follow the route of the narration, you explore the sky and its constellations.

Putto like a farmer spreading the seeds in Callisto Room by Giovanni da Udine, 1537-40, Venice – Detail with the mirrors

Whether this is connected to Grimani’s horoscope, we cannot tell, but it shows his interests, joining astral sciences, art and ancient mythology.

Arcas and Callisto turned into a she bear, Callisto Room in Grimani Palace, Venice – Detail

Venice July 8th, 1506 Stellar map… just playing with

SEEING STARS, an art performance by Daan Roosegaarde (2021)

If singles stars or constellations were common knowledge in the past, we cannot certainly say it is so nowadays, even if our technological devices would seem to guarantee a more in-depth familiarity. We generally know less about stars today than in the past. And this is due to the fact we hardly get to see the stars.

In 2007 the Declaration in defence of the Night Sky and Right to Starlight was adopted during the Starlight Conference held in La Palma, and the Declaration was promoted by UNESCO. Unesco Netherlands recognises that observing stars can bind us people, it is universal heritage. The artist Daan Roosegaarde has launched a project in this sense proposing urban landscape to switch off the lights in the night, so everyone could see the stars. His first experiment in June 2021, launched in December 2021, involved the Dutch town of Franeker and the photos taken show the magic of the moment.

Daan Roosegaarde at
See the stars in your own street. It might sound like a fairytale, but the Dutch city of Franeker is the first in the world to achieve this by switching off all its lights in the project SEEING STARS. This way UNESCO and Daan Roosegaarde bring the stars back to create a sense of connection with each other, something we have all miss in this pandemic.
Unesco Netherlands aims to recognise seeing stars as a universal heritage. SEEING STARS is one switch away.

The experiment is meant to let the stars create connection among the residents, recovering that dimension we all have lost with Covid19 pandemic. 

Darkness as a concept to re-consider

This is a philosophical issue first. According to Francesca Rigotti in her essay “Buio” (2020), darkness in our civilisation is considered only in negative terms. Connected to the lack of light, the dark night is a condition often opposed to rationality while the color black is reflecting sadness, danger and even infernal elements. 

Dark, however, is the element that should be re-considered, allowing for imagination, meditation, serenity. Rigotti also recalls that too much light can blind our visual ability and moving to a more material aspect, she points out how light pollution in our cities has erased the stars in the name of hyperactivity. As Daan Roosegaarde wrote:

Everyone is now in their own little bubble, disconnected from each other. I realised that every night, there is actually an amazing light performance hidden up high in our sky. SEEING STARS brings the stars back to your own street. The stars are one switch away

Stars have the power to make us feel part of the same universe. What about if the next city to return its attention to the stars were Venice?

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy


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Showing 2 comments
  • Jill Kerby

    Once again, such an ‘enlightening’ (pun intended) essay from Luisella. I will be scanning the pillars and arches of the great Basilica SanMarco and the ceilings of Palazzo Grimani with greater attention and admiration ( if that’s possible) for the artists and craftsmen who incorporated art and astronomy into their stonework and frescoes. As for seeing the stars above Venice (or Dublin), we can only wait in hope that the Seeing Stars project catches on …☺️☘️

    • Reply

      Dear Jill, it was enlightening for me to learn about Vallese’s research, too! To imagine the arch figures correspond to the constellations you would see at that time was mind blowing. I love the idea of Grimani thinking of what the sky map would be an allegory for… and in the meanwhile, we all look up. Thank you for your words and support!

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