Venice's landmarks are rendered with meticulous draftmanship. The Piazzetta San Marco is at center.
In the galleries: Jacopo de’ Barbari, View of Venice, circa 1500, woodcut from six blocks on six sheets of paper, 52 ¹/₄ x 109 ¹/₄ in., Minneapolis Institute of Art, The John R. Van Derlip Fund, 2010.88
This large-scale topographic survey, which has no known precedent, is actually an enormous woodcut printed on six oversized sheets of paper (the largest ever produced in Europe at that time). The enterprise was accomplished over three years by a team of surveyors, woodblock cutters, and press operators who probably worked under the direction of the painter and printmaker de’ Barbari.
The astonishingly detailed representation is one of the most impressive achievements of Renaissance printmaking. Combining an aerial view and a city map, it records nearly every street, sidewalk, canal, building, green space, and square in Venice. The artist paid equal attention to the lagoon and Grand Canal, where currents, waves, boats, and sailors are delineated with precision.
Detail: Arsenale. Covering 80 acres, this walled, fortified district employed hundreds of skilled workers and drove Venice’s mercantile economy, military power, and territorial expansion.
Detail: Neptune, god of the seas, watches over the ships at harbor in the Arsenale, Venice's massive state-owned shipyard.
The record of the commission does not survive, but other documents describe Kolb’s enterprise. In October 1500 he petitioned the Venetian government for the right to sell each print for three ducats—a month’s wages for a typesetter—and for permission to sell the prints within the Venetian territories without paying duties. His application stated that he had incurred great expense producing his image “by the new art of printing,” for which he obtained paper of a size “never made before.” Because Venice’s unique geography was its chief claim to fame, it is not surprising that the government granted Kolb’s request.
Kolb and de’ Barbari would have been able to draw upon earlier bird’s-eye views, but this one is remarkable for its higher view point, rigorous observation, and meticulous draftsmanship. Although the panorama encompasses distant islands of the lagoon and the Alps beyond, we can easily discern Venice’s landmarks. In the center is the ceremonial entrance to the city from the waterfront leading to the L-shaped Piazza San Marco. The Doge’s Palace and domed Basilica of San Marco frame the right side of the piazza; the tall campanile rises to the left. The east end of the island is occupied by a massive state-owned shipyard, the Arsenale.
Even today, in the age of satellites and Google Earth, we are still amazed by the achievement of de’ Barbari and his collaborators, and the question we continue to ask—as viewers in 1500 would have—is “How did he do it?”
The View was probably synthesized from many drawings made by surveyors and draftsmen standing on the ground or atop bell towers. They would have been able to calculate the height of monuments using compasses and astrolabes (ancient instrument that measured altitude). The artist would have added details to the drawings before handing them over to professional block cutters. Even today, in the age of satellites and Google Earth, we are still amazed by the achievement of de’ Barbari and his collaborators, and the question we continue to ask—as viewers in 1500 would have—is “How did he do it?”
Detail: Rialto, the commercial and financial district of Venice, filled with government offices, international banks, money exchanges, trading houses, shops, and markets. The Rialto Bridge was the only fixed crossing point on the Grand Canal until the 1850s. The wooden structure with center drawbridge seen in de’ Barbari’s View was constructed in 1458 and burned in 1514; it was rebuilt in the late 16th century as the stone structure that still stands today.