16 October 2023

Delacroix’s paintings
take me back to Venice
and to massacres in
the east Mediterranean

‘The Execution of the Doge Marino Faliero’ by Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) in the Wallace Collection, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

I was recalling yesterday how Charlotte and I recently spent an afternoon visiting the Wallace Collection, a museum in Hertford House in Manchester Square, London. There I was particularly interested in the collection of Canaletto paintings of Venice in the Wallace Collection.

But another great classical work took me back to Venice and has also reminded me in recent days of another painting that has me thinking of how massacres and acts of brutality seem to mark out the history of conflicts in the East Mediterranean for far too long.

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) painted ‘The Execution of the Doge Marino Faliero’ in 1825-1826. It is a work in oil on canvas and measures 145.6 x 113.8 cm. It was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1827 and is now in the West Gallery II in the Wallace Collection. This painting dates from a time when Delacroix briefly shared his studio with Richard Parkes Bonington whose influence can be seen in this painting.

The subject of the painting, Marino Faliero (1274-1355), was the short-lived 55th Doge of Venice. He was appointed on 11 September 1354, and was executed seven months later, accused of an attempted coup d’etat, on 17 April 1355.

Faliero was one of the three heads of the Council of Ten in 1315 when it was punishing the organisers of the conspiracy by Bajamonte Tiepolo in 1310. Faliero continued as a member of the council until 1320 and held the office of chief and inquisitor several times. He and Andrea Michiel organise killing Tiepolo and Pietro Querini, the only two leaders of the conspiracy still at large.

Faliero was a naval and a military commander and then a diplomat before he was elected Doge in 1354. He learned of his election while he was on a diplomatic mission to the papal court at Avignon. At the time, the people of Venice were disenchanted with the ruling aristocrats who were blamed for a naval defeat by the fleet of Genoa that year at the Battle of Portolungo.

Within months of his election, Faliero attempted a coup d’etat in April 1355, aimed at taking power from the ruling aristocrats. According to tradition, this came about because the dogaressa, Faliero’s second wife, Aluycia Gradenigo, had been insulted by Michele Steno, a member of an aristocratic family. However, in a study of the Doges of Venice, Antonella Grignola suggests Faliero’s move was consistent with a trend in Italian city states to move away from oligarchic government to absolute, dynastic rule.

The plot involved murdering the chief patricians on 15 April and proclaiming Faliero Prince of Venice. It was badly organised and was quickly discovered because of leaks from some of the key plotters.

The Council of Ten ordered the arrest the ringleaders, several conspirators were condemned to death, and others were jailed. Faliero pleaded guilty to all charges, he was beheaded on 17 April and his body was mutilated. Ten additional ringleaders were hanged on display from the Doge’s Palace in Piazza San Marco.

Faliero was condemned to damnatio memoriae. His portrait in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio or Hall of the Great Council in the Doge’s Palace was removed and the space painted over with a black shroud, thar can still be seen today. A Latin inscription on the shroud reads: Hic est locus Marini Faletro decapitati pro criminibus, ‘This is the space reserved for Marino Faliero, beheaded for his crimes.’

The story of Faliero’s failed plot inspired plays by Lord Byron (‘Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice’, 1821) and Casimir Delavigne (1829), and an opera by Gaetano Donizetti (1835). All three present the traditional story that Faliero was acting to defend his wife’s honour.

Eugène Delacroix’s painting in the Wallace Collection, with some variations from the text, is based on Byron’s ‘Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice,’ a blank verse tragedy in five acts published and first performed in 1821.

In Byron’s play, Faliero offends Steno, who retaliates by writing on the Doge’s throne an indecent libel on Faliero’s wife. Steno is tried by the Council of Forty and convicted, but is sentenced to only a month’s imprisonment.

Faliero is outraged by what he believes is an inadequate punishment for an affront to the ruling Doge. He secretly joins the plot to abolish the constitution of Venice and to take revenge on his enemies. The plot is discovered and Faliero is executed.

Byron was inspired to write his play when he viewed the portraits of the Doges in the Palazzo Ducale and saw how Faliero’s had been blacked out. Byron was living in Ravenna when he completed the play in July 1820, and it was published in April 1821, along with his ‘The Prophecy of Dante.’ He intended this play to be read rather than acted, and it was criticised for its neoclassical form and lack of sensationalism and love interest.

Delacroix’s painting depicts the Scala dei Giganti or Giant’s Staircase in the Doge’s Palace. But this is a much later addition to the palace, designed by the architect Antonio Rizzo in 1483-1491. There, at the top of the staircase, the newly elected Doge would receive the zoia or ‘crown’ and make the solemn pledge (promissio ducis) of allegiance to the Most Serene Republic.

Delacroix derived the costumes, some of the heads of the dignitaries and the rich colouring in his painting from Venetian Renaissance paintings. The elderly bearded man at the top of the stairs, for example, is based on Titian’s ‘Self-Portrait’ in Berlin.

The picture was a favourite of Delacroix himself, and it is said he estimated it higher than any other of his works. However, the painting’s lack of a strong moral message upset some of his contemporary critics.

Delacroix was a pupil of Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774-1833), and was deeply influenced by Rubens and the 16th century Venetian masters whose paintings he copied in the Louvre. He was also interested in the works of Dante, Goethe and Tasso and in English art and literature.

Delacroix visited London in 1825, accompanied by Bonington. By then, he was an established leader of the Romantic painters, and the word ‘Romantic’ has been associated with his name ever since.

Perhaps the painting that most help to establish his reputation was ‘The Massacres at Chios’ (1824), depicting the Massacre of Chios two years earlier in April 1822, one of the many horrific events during the Greek War of Independence. The details of this massacre continue to shock and to horrify people as they learn about it.

The island of Chios is an Aegean island that is often counted as one of the Dodecanese islands, and it is just 8 km off the main Anatolian coast of Turkey. The Chians or Chiots – the islanders of Chios – never joined in the Greek War of Independence, and enjoyed many privileges under Ottoman rule, including a degree of autonomy, religious freedom, property rights, and exemptions from many taxes on houses, vineyards, orchards and trade.

The islanders had avoided threats of forced conversion to Islam experienced on so many other Greek islands, and they were exempt from the devshirme, in which the fittest and strongest boys in families were captured or conscripted and sent to Constantinople, where they were trained as janissaries, an elite and brutal corps.

The island was known for the production of mastic, silk and citrus fruits, and for its sea trade. Many merchant families from Chios dealt in banking, insurance and shipping and founded merchant houses in England, Italy and the Netherlands. Traders from Chios settled in Smyrna, Constantinople, Odessa and other Black Sea ports.

It is easy to understand why the people of Chios rebutted an appeal to support a naval assault on the Ottoman Empire in April 1821. But, a year later, in April 1822, a small number of people from Chios joined a small band from the neighbouring island of Samos who attacked the small Turkish garrison on Chios. A small number of soldiers were killed. But the response and retribution were swift, brutal and merciless.

The bloodbath began on Easter Day 1822 and continued for several months. In a revenge attack in June 1822, Greek insurgents from the neighbouring island of Psara attacked a flagship of the Ottoman navy anchored in the harbour of Chios while its sailors were marking the end of Ramadan. In all, 2,000 men were killed in one assault. A second wave of savagery was then unleashed against the people of Chios.

The original population of the island was 100,000 to 120,000. At least 30,000 people were murdered or executed or died by suicide or disease, and another 45,000 people were sold into slavery. Whole villages were wiped out. Of the survivors, about 20,000 people managed to flee to safety on islands under Greek rule.

Richard Calvocoressi, a descendant of one such family from Chios, wrote last year in the New Statesman: ‘For months afterwards the slave markets of the Levant were glutted with Chian boys, girls and young women, for sale at knock-down prices; and for many, slavery meant sexual slavery.’

The massacre inspired Eugène Delacroix’s Scenes from the Massacres at Chios or Scènes des massacres de Scio, completed in 1824. It is an enormous painting in the Louvre seen by millions of visitors each year.

The massacre caused an outcry throughout Europe. Reports of the massacre, Delacroix’s painting and Byron’s writings encouraged Philhellenes to redouble their efforts in support of Greek independence from Ottoman oppression. But Ottoman rule continued for another 90 years, and Chios did not become part of the modern Greek state until 1912.

Although the composer Mikis Theodorakis (1925-2021) is popularly identified with Crete and was buried there when he died two years ago, he was born on the island of Chios.

Today, Chios is the fifth largest of the Greek islands, and is one of the Aegean islands that have become a centre for asylum seekers and refugees seeking to arrive in Europe.

Now, over 200 years after the Massacre of Chios, it is hard not to think of those merchants in Odessa and the brutality in Ukraine today; it is hard not to think of the refugees and slaves created by the massacre; it is hard not to think of the refugees and asylum seekers who arrive in Chios and other Greek islands in the hope of finding freedom today; and it is hard not to be reminded of the massacres, murders, brutality and responses in recent days in other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean, in Israel and Gaza.

‘Scenes from the Massacres at Chios’, Eugène Delacroix (1824), in the Louvre in Paris … the massacre began on Easter Day 1822

No comments: