Founded in 421 CE, the city of Venice began attracting a permanent population by approximately 450 — but it took some time for it to be the center of arts, culture, and tourism that the lagoon city remains to this day. New research by Dr. Sandra Toffolo from the School of History at the University of St Andrews, Scotland has uncovered the oldest known city view of Venice, in the collection of the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence, Italy. Dr. Toffolo made the discovery while completing researching for her monograph Describing the City, Describing the State. Representations of Venice and the Venetian Terraferma in the Renaissance, which will be published with Brill in early 2020.
“… Venice is one the most-depicted cities in history,” said Dr. Toffolo, in an email interview with Hyperallergic. “From the 14th century onwards people have continuously depicted the city in manuscripts, printed books, paintings, and countless other media. My own research focuses on representations of Venice in the Renaissance.”
Dr. Toffolo’s book provides a detailed analysis of descriptions and visual representations of both the city of Venice and the Venetian mainland state during the Renaissance, when Venice came to stand at the head of a large state on the Italian peninsula.
This particular image, uncovered by Dr. Toffolo in May of 2019 during her research at the Biblioteca, is part of a travel manuscript by Italian pilgrim Niccolò da Poggibonsi, who traveled to Jerusalem from Italy in 1346-1350. The pen drawing accompanies a description of Venice, which he passed through in the course of his pilgrimage.
“The discovery of the image in Niccolò da Poggibonsi’s travel account shows that Venice already from a very early period held a great fascination for contemporaries,” said Dr. Toffolo.
According to an article by the University of St. Andrews, the oldest extant map of Venice was made by Fra Paolino, a Franciscan friar from Venice, and dates from around 1330. But the image discovered by Dr. Toffolo is the oldest city view and predates any other depiction of the city besides maps and portolan charts. Dr. Toffolo also noticed the presence of small pinpricks in the image, and surmises that these were made in the process of replicating the image.
“The presence of these pinpricks is a strong indication that this city view was copied,” she told the University of St. Andrews. “Indeed, there are several images in manuscripts and early printed books that are clearly based on the image in the manuscript in Florence.”
Though not as edible as some more recent depictions of Venice, the discovery of such a foundational image must be delicious indeed, for such an avid researcher of Venice’s history!