Unbelievable part 3: Venice

The Venetians, like the British, were a seagoing island race, who laid claim to an extensive empire out of proportion to the size of their homeland, whose influence at times extended to the reaches of the known globe. Yet like America, Venice’s empire was more concerned with trade domination than with actual territorial possession. And, like both empires, it was not afraid of isolation: of turning its back on the large land mass that began just across the water, or of ignoring the larger continental worlds beyond – in the form of Europe, America and Asia.’
(Strathern pp. 1-2)

That Venice’s vast maritime empire in the middle ages was built on trade and all that the notion of trade can encompass made it the logical home to Damien Hirst’s Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, an artist whose wealth and success have accumulated in his trade in the art market. Hirst’s extravagance and the power he can wield in a way make him the Venice of the art world. As a creator, a merchant, a dealer, a buyer and an appropriator from humble beginnings, his persona chimes with Venice’s past as a formidable city state that, as historian Roger Crowley describes, was ‘conjured out of marsh, existing perilously on oak pilings sunk in mud’ (p. 11). Crowley also points out that for the Venetians who had no land to cultivate and relied on imported goods for survival, ‘[t]rade was their creation myth and their justification, for which they were reviled by more terrestrial neighbours’ (p. 4). The Hirst brand is constructed from myth (as will be examined when I come to the Treasures Netflix film) and his tactics in accumulating excessive wealth as an artist and collector have attracted disdain.

In the Baudrillardian sense, Venice and the Treasures show are Hirst’s Disneyland.* Crowley explains (p. 4):
The city’s prosperity rested on nothing tangible – no land holdings, no natural resources, no agricultural production or large population. […] Venice was perhaps the first virtual economy, whose vitality baffled outsiders. It harvested nothing but barren gold and lived in perpetual fear that if its trade routes were severed, the whole magnificent edifice might simply collapse.’
Today’s commercial art world and Disney seem much less likely to meet a demise with no sign of diminishing demand for their products. From such descriptions it is easy to imagine Venice as a hyperreal placeless place, a world between, as Crowley says, ‘the land and the sea, the east and the west, yet belonging to neither’ (p. 4). Treasures embodied that betweenness, mixing the past with the present, myth with history, lies with truth, originals with appropriations, the plausible with the implausible and the real with the fabricated. The show also reflected the ‘peculiar mixture of the secular and religious’ in the Venetian character (pp. 34-5).

Venice seems always to have been a construction, beginning as a simulacrum and remaining one today with its main trade of tourism cashing in on romantic notions of its past. However, at its core are its people. In the early centuries of the common era, no land meant no feudal system and so society was relatively democratic and anyone could thrive if they could trade. Survival in the physical conditions was difficult, so people helped each other. For the common good they had to work together, much as we’re seeing in circulated images of the recent floods. It has a history, though, of getting involved in violence, not because it had a cause in the holy wars of the Crusades, but because it profited from them and began to rule other ports from the lagoon on conditions of tax-free trade. In the twelfth century, operating from Palestinian ports substantially expanded trade routes for the Italian republics, giving them access to goods, knowledge and skills from as far as China as well as within the Levant. Crowley states (pp. 35-6):
For Venetian merchants the crusades had proved highly profitable. In the process they deepened their knowledge of how to trade across a cultural divide, which would make them, in time, the interpreters of worlds.’
There are further parallels to be drawn here with Hirst’s bartering in the art market and close analysis of the work in Treasures; can he and his team be considered as interpreters as well as creators of (mythic) worlds? As we’ll see when I look in detail at specific works, the show shared Venice’s affinity with the East and demonstrated how intertwined the histories of the East and the West have been since antiquity.

Concurring with Crowley, historian Paul Strathern points out that the Venetian empire looked east rather than west in contrast to other Italian kingdoms and empires. In accounts of its history – apart from when it was at war with certain territories – Venice appears to have had relationships with other settlements akin to what is emerging in discoveries of lost ancient Greek ports in Egypt where fusions in Greco-Egyptian art and evidence of shared communities have been uncovered. Also according to Strathern, though, the fall of Constantinople in 1453 was blamed on ‘Venetian short-sightedness’ and saw ‘the split between East and West, which had come into being more than a thousand years previously when the Roman Empire had split in two, leading to the establishment of the (Byzantine) Orthodox Church and the (Roman) Catholic Church. Now this was to be replaced by the Moslem East and the Christian West’ (p. 115). Even so, Venice continued to amass wealth and art from the Byzantine and Muslim worlds as well as farther afield. Closer by, Venice maintained connections with Greece. Crete had been Venice’s largest colony in 1363 (Strathern p. 45) and many of its wealthiest residents during and since the medieval period owned vast collections of ancient and classical Greek art and artefacts, perhaps speaking to Venice’s long-term resistance to Italian Rome and its attraction east-wards. 

Punta Della Dogana from across the Grand Canal

In terms of the materials used in the show, from where they came, who worked with them and where they were displayed (Punta Della Dogana was Venice’s customs house and Palazzo Grassi has held collections since the fourteenth century), Treasures hearkened back to Venice’s glory days as a world power in trade. The sheer excessiveness of the Treasures collection mirrored the excess of Venice and its past. Reminiscent of discoveries like the sunken Roman city of Baiae, an ancient holiday resort near Naples and Pompeii, medieval Venice was often viewed as an amoral haven where pleasure-seekers went to enjoy the excesses of food, parties, jewellery, etc. (Strathern p. 118), while evading close scrutiny by the church and conservative officials who were more active in the surrounding Italian states. Today, it is a tourist hotspot having to deal with the behaviour of visitors, which is particularly challenging in tough times like the current floods. Like Thonis-Heracleion, Venice will sink, with the process already happening at an alarming rate. The artefacts found at the Thonis-Heracleion discovery site off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt, and the activities around the digs are inextricably related to the Treasures exhibition, which I will detail in later posts about sunken cities and the show’s photography. These further link to large-scale exhibitions of recovered artefacts driving tourism to major cities such as Paris, London and Cairo. That Treasures was shown for seven months during a biennale year, it at once cashed in on and propelled arts tourism to Venice in 2017, which raises a whole gamut of ethical implications while indicating how intrinsic trade is to the shows being.

The histories I’ve read on Venice are, perhaps unsurprisingly, very male in focus, and the issues I’ve presented here gloss over bigger problems such as the historical persecution of Jews and the great many wars the Venetian empire was involved in and upon which much of its commerce was built and what led to its downfall. Today, these histories become stories, and in the gaps in knowledge grow legends, out of which develop myths to a point where it is difficult to untangle established mythology from fictional mythology. In looking towards the exhibition, at least it acknowledged women that were there in any instance, including the new and remixed ancient mythologies it presented. The works also showed the vulnerability of men, much as the real ancient-world mythologies do. We’re only just beginning to scratch the surface.

*Watching and reading around The Florida Project (dir. Sean Baker, 2017) helps explain the Disneyland reference as it too rose from reclaimed land.


Baudrillard, Jean, Simulacra and Simulation (The Body in Theory: Histories of Cultural Materialism), trans. by Sheila Faria Glaser (University of Michigan Press, 1994 [1981])

Crowley, Roger, City of Fortune: How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire (London: Faber, 2011)

Strathern, Paul, The Spirit of Venice: From Marco Polo to Casanova (London: Jonathan Cape, 2012)


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