American artists and tourists flocked to Venice in the second half of the nineteenth century, enticed by rapturous accounts of the city in picture and print, including Lord Byron’s poems, J. M. W. Turner’s paintings, and John Ruskin’s three-volume study of Venetian art and architecture The Stones of Venice (1851–53). Ruskin popularized the idea of the city as miraculously crystallized in a lost preindustrial age; despite its clamorous tourists and the traffic of vaporetti, many nineteenth-century visitors to Venice viewed “La Serenissima” as a soothing refuge from modern industrial life. Americans were drawn further by a sense of historical kinship, as citizens of a rich and powerful commercial republic akin to Venice at its peak in the fifteenth century, when the city was Europe’s preeminent trading center. If the subsequent collapse of the Venetian Republic offered a tragic lesson in the rise and fall of empires, it was one from which Americans felt exempt. Many American visitors to Venice spoke of themselves as inheriting the city’s former glory without any of its fatal weaknesses. The city’s faded splendor became the backdrop against which Americans understood their own modernity and ascendance on the global stage.
Charles Gifford Dyer (American, 1851–1912), detail of Venice, 1895. Pastel, approx. 15 1/2 x 9 in. Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. Gift of the estate of Marquis de Mattei, 1970.