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September 27, 2006

Not everthing is rubbish

Hard to believe but true - not all is rubbish everything is rubbish on TV nowadays, sometimes they even show something really interesting. Last weekend I watched a program about Albrecht Dürer visiting Venice at the end of the fifteenth century. One of Dürer's mentors in Venice was his fellow countryman Anton Kolb, a publisher and entrepeneur. Kolb had been commissioned by the City of Venice to print a detailed map of the whole city at the scale of 1:750. The first copy of this map was printed in 1500 and then distributed among all major trading posts in Europe. In fact, the map was part of one of the biggest PR campaigns of the Middle Ages to ensure the economic survival of Venice.

The most astonishing fact about this map apart from its sheer size and the abundance of minute details is the fact that the city of Venice is printed as seen from about 300 m above the surface of the lagoon - a perfect three-dimensional picture. Now, how was that achieved. Easy, of course, the artist was sitting in a balloon and looking down. The only thing is, the brothers Montgolfier didn't let their first hot-air balloon take off until almost three hundred years later in 1783!

So, the artists had to think of something else. A few years before Dürer's visit to Venice painters and mathematicians in Northern Italy had discovered the laws of perspective. Hard to imagine nowadays that people had been unaware of these laws until the late 15th century. But when you look at paintings before that time you realise that they either look very flat or that some things seem to be out of proportion.

Anton Kolb employed a large number of artists and surveyors for his map. First a detailed survey of the Venice had to be accomplished. Then drawings of all buildings were made, all from the same viewing angle. The Venetian artists used a sheet of glass with a grid on it through which they viewed the buildings to be able to draw precisely and to scale. After that was done the individual drawings had to be put together and to be distorted according to the laws of perspective in such a way that the result gave the impression of viewing Venice through a bird's eye. What a task!

If you like to see the result or at least a tiny bit of it for yourself, try this link: http://www.zdf.de/ZDFde/inhalt/20/0,1872,3980020,00.html

Venetians seem to have been extremely resourceful people. For one, they build a whole city on poles. Whole forests must have gone under water for this project. Nine poles were needed per sqare meter. Several hundred years later the buildings are still standing! Buried in salt water and shielded from air the tree trunks have become as hard and durable as concrete.

Venetians were also famous for being able to build ships as fast as no one else. They were even accused of using magic to do this. Their magic was that they had optimised their production line: 700 highly specialised workers - men, women and kids - put ships together from prefabricated modules. The Venetian dockyards not only turned out merchant vessels but also galleys to protect their trading routes.

The end of the 15th century also marked the downfall of Venice. In the East the Turks had started to take over the trading in the Black Sea region and to the West Portugese and Spaniards send out ships to discover new trading routes and markets. The Mediterranean Sea quickly loses its importance as an economic region. The final blow is the discovery of a sailing route to India by Portugese ships. Portugal takes over the trading of herbs and spices, Venice's last monopol.

Perhaps it is not surprisind that so many new ideas and inventions came to Europe via Venice during the Renaissance. A city where its inhabitants had to be resourceful and inventive to take on the daily challenges of trading successfully with the rest of the world must have been an ideal environment for art and science to flourish profusely.

Posted by Mausi at September 27, 2006 08:40 PM

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