Venice in Poetry – Progress Post 1

Project description

In this project we want to investigate the presence of references of Venice in international, but especially Italian and Latin poetry, to understand how Venice and its inhabitants were perceived in the particular domain of poetry.

To explore all this, the methodology consisted in gathering some renowned literary works from a database of poetry works and search in them for some keywords related to Venice, for instance the Italian name of Venice, Venezia, and its ancient and colloquial ones, respectively Venetiae and Vinegia, or things and places renowned to be part of Venice, such as San Marco, Rialto, doge and so on.

Once the references are found, we need to analyze them. To do so, we address and try to answer the following questions:

  • What kind of references are they?

  • For which purpose?

  • What are we talking about? The city itself? Its inhabitants?

  • How do those images relate or possibly influence the way people see Venice?

First analysis

The first opus analyzed and presented here is the masterpiece of Italian literature, the Commedia, written by Dante Alighieri around 1320 AD. The poem is not just the narration of Dante’s travel in the afterlife (Hell, Purgatory and Paradise) but it is also a summary of all mankind’s knowledge of that time.

The first reference comes from Inferno, Canto XXI, 7-18:

7 Quale ne l’arzanà de’ Viniziani As in the arsenal of the Venetians,
8 bolle l’inverno la tenace pece all winter long a stew of sticky
9 a rimpalmare i legni lor non sani, boils up to patch their sick and tattered ships
10 ché navicar non ponno – in quella vece that cannot sail (instead of voyaging,
11 chi fa suo legno novo e chi ristoppa some build new keels, some tow and tar the ribs
12 le coste a quel che più viaggi fece; of hulls worn out by too much journeying;
13 chi ribatte da proda e chi da poppa; some hammer at the prow, some at the stern,
14 altri fa remi e altri volge sarte; and some make oars, and some braid ropes and cords;
15 chi terzeruolo e artimon rintoppa -; one mends the jib, another, the mainsail);
16 tal, non per foco, ma per divin’arte, so, not by fire but by the art of God,
17 bollia là giuso una pegola spessa, below there boiled a thick and tarry mass
19 che ‘nviscava la ripa d’ogne parte. that covered all the banks with clamminess.

In the fifth Bolgia, Dante encounters the barattieri, that is, those who in life misused the public money for their own purposes. Their punishment is to be eternally immersed in a sea of boiling pitch, with devils tormenting and pushing back inside those who tried to escape.

Illustration of the fifth Bolgia by Gustave Doré

To describe the boiling tar, Dante utilizes a similitude with the pitch used in the arzanà, the Venetian arsenal build in 1104 and begins a description of the work of the Venetian carpenters: when in winter it is not possible to navigate, some build new boats, some close the leaks with oakum, some beat the bow and the stem, some produce new oars and shrouds and some repair the terzeruolo (the smaller sail) and the artimone (the larger one).

On a more semantic level, the similitude goes even further by comparing the sins of the barattieri with the work of the carpenters: during their life, they were as industrious to find new tricks to achieve their purposes and to try to hide and repair the damage they created.

This image of the workers in Venice is so detailed that some Dante’s scholars believe he actually visited the city during his exile from Florence, although no confirmation of this fact was ever found. In any case, the meticulous depiction of the carpenters shows how the work of Venetians was perceived by Dante and his compatriots and reiterated this vision to the next readers of the Commedia, which became more and more popular as time passed.

Other occurrences

Other occurrences of Venice are present in the text, but are mostly used to give spatial coordinates to the reader with some circumlocution and are not really interesting from our point of view:

In Inferno, Canto XXVIII, 74-75, the castle of Marcabò, close to San Marco and destroyed in 1309, is cited to refer to the Po valley.

In Paradiso, Canto IX, 26, Rialto is used to describe the meridional border of the Italian region of the Marche, where particularly harsh crimes were committed.

Finally, in Paradiso, Canto XIX, 141, we find the other name of Venice, Vinegia, to refer to Stefano Uros II, king of Croatia, who falsified the ancient silver coin of the Venetian Republic with an alloy of inferior value.


Original text and translation of the Commedia

Voice of “Venezia” on the Enciclopedia Dantesca Treccani