A first-time visitor to Venice today, with a tour of the city aided by travel guidebooks and a cursory browse of the internet, may be directed to an unassuming and unusual landmark along the Grand Canal: a small, granite statue of a crouching, naked hunchback (Figure 1). Upon his twisted shoulders, he supports a small flight of steps and a podium. He bends under the weight he bears with great effort, a parody of the Titan Atlas holding up the heavens. Known as Il Gobbo di Rialto—“The Hunchback of the Rialto”—the sculpture has occupied the same spot since its creation by sculptor Pietro da Salò in the mid-sixteenth century. But Il Gobbo also occupies an odd space in the modern cultural imagination, existing on the peripheries of art scholarship and popular tourism. His brief Wikipedia entry holds more information than most books on Venetian art, and a Google search will yield plenty of images and directions to the landmark, yet little by way of historical detail. Il Gobbo currently holds a 3.5-star rating on TripAdvisor.au, ranking number 294 in a list of“740 things to do in Venice,” and most visitors categorise their experience of the [End page 33]
Figure 1. Il Gobbodi Rialto, sculpted by Pietroda Salòinthe sixteenthcentury. The Latin inscription on the podium is a much more recent addition, and proclaims that the statue was restored by civic funds in 1836. Image by Ethan Doyle White and used under an Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) licence. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ User:Ethan_Doyle_White.
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sculpture as between “Very Good” and “Average.” The “Suggested Duration” is less than an hour.1
While Il Gobbo is visited and photographed by many tourists today, his historical and cultural significance remains a mystery. He does not appear, for instance, in John Julius Norwich’s A History of Venice, an encyclopaedic volume of almost seven hundred pages, despite Norwich’s many descriptions of and references to other popular landmarks.2 Similarly, Christopher Hibbert’s Venice: The Biography of a City makes only a passing mention of the sculpture, identifying its medium (Egyptian granite), describing its location (opposite Venice’s oldest church, San Giacomo di Rialto), and noting that the podium the hunchback bears on his shoulders was once used to deliver official proclamations.3 In the wealth of scholarship on Venetian art and architecture, Il Gobbo is rarely mentioned at all. For the scores of modern tourists who dutifully pay Il Gobbo a cursory visit, does his reputation as a quaint Venetian landmark, a figure so conspicuously underwhelming amid the vast richness of sights to see in Venice, justify his status as an attraction? If visitors to Florence flock to Michelangelo’s David, and tourists in Rome obligingly view the Vatican’s famous “Belvedere” Apollo, Il Gobbo is something of a bizarre choice for an icon of Venice, a city lauded for its beauty and soaring grandeur since the Middle Ages. Why does this diminutive instance of early-modern grotesque endure, and what aspects of Venice’s history and culture does it represent?
This paper takes Il Gobbo as an unlikely starting point for a tour through early-modern Venice. Having crouched upon the Rialto— Venice’s historical central business district—for more than four centuries, Il Gobbo would have long been passed and seen by thousands of Venetians and visitors alike. The sculpture’s central location and proximity to other significant landmarks allows one to explore the cultural complexities of the city in which he has for so long resided. Nonetheless, Il Gobbo is both a local and an outsider. To view seventeenth-century Venice through Il Gobbo’s eyes is to consider what it means to be a transgressive body in such a society, and the nature of display within a culture once characterised by spectacle, pageantry, and theatricality. The hunchback’s status as a deviant body on public [End page 35] and permanent display is a remnant, I argue, of the city’s history of carnivalesque display, which drew a deliberate contrast between the ideal and the abject as a means of consolidating Venetian identity. Il Gobbo is one of many liminal bodies that played an integral role in Venetian culture, particularly during the famous Carnival season, whose isolated “otherness” worked to reaffirm collective normality.4 But while Il Gobbo’s deviance from bodily norms might ordinarily categorise him as a liminal “other,” Carnival was itself a festival of deviance and transgression, a time to celebrate the liminal, the marginal, and the abject. Unlike Il Gobbo himself, the cultural role of the abject other was not set in stone.
Thus, this brief guided tour of seventeenth-century Venice will be in three stages, although none of these requires a visitor to venture too far from the starting point of Il Gobbo’s location. Initially, the nearby convents and ghettos suggest how Venice was a society carefully arranged by enclosure and segregation. Subsequently, the neighbouring opera houses and theatres remind us that the popular amusements of the Venetian entertainment industry were predicated on the voyeuristic pleasures of watching and judging. Finally, Il Gobbo’s civic duty as a platform for the law, which was delivered from the podium upon his back, aligns him with the criminal bodies on display as part of the early-modern public exhibition of justice. The alternative ways in which Il Gobbo might be considered in relation to Venetian society—as a marker of cultural otherness, as a celebration of the grotesque, or as scapegoat onto which society’s negative emotions could be projected— each provide a framework for discussing the role of the transgressive “other” within the vibrant, volatile, and paradoxical culture of the Most Serene Republic.
The Liminal City
For a city that has been kept economically afloat by tourism since at least the seventeenth century, perhaps it is no surprise that Venice should be a culture of display. But the early-modern Republic of [End page 36] Venice was also a society of countless paradoxes, and its culture based on many apparent contradictions. It was at once transgressive yet deeply conservative, cosmopolitan yet rigidly insular. It was the most efficient police-state in Europe, and yet a haven for radicals, sceptics and libertines, who enjoyed a relatively uncensored printing press and a vibrant intellectual climate that Edward Muir describes as a “proto-Enlightenment” of sorts.5 Its government actively promoted tourism but “jealously guarded its citizens from social intercourse with those from outside the Republic.”6 It had a notoriously expansive sex industry, boasting more than 20,000 courtesans at the beginning of the seventeenth century, but Venice also contained more convents per square mile, and nuns per capita, than any other European city.7 The celebrated presence of courtesans, actresses, and female opera singers contrasted sharply with the secluded existence of Venetian wives, as well as with the conspicuous absence of women from civic and political life.8 And while Venetian tastes were synonymous with all that was modish and fashionable, the state enforced draconian sumptuary laws against citizens of every class.9
These extreme contrasts suggest a culture that embraced its spotlighted position on the European stage, yet remained anxious about preserving and protecting its own unique culture from external influence. Located at the crossroads of the Eastern Mediterranean and a major port along the trade routes between Western Europe and the Orient, Venice was both peripheral and central. The city’s longstanding and mutual antipathy towards Rome and the papal seat (resulting in excommunication in 1605) made Venice a renegade city in the eyes of Christian Europe, and its Eastern heritage gave its art and architecture a distinctly exotic, Byzantine appearance.10 By the seventeenth century, Venice had established itself as a European epicentre, in a deliberate attempt to maintain its international presence after its glory days as a maritime superpower were long past.11 As a result, early-modern Venice was cosmopolitan by nature, which became a source of both pride and paranoia.
Il Gobbo’s arrival upon the Rialto sometime during the sixteenth century coincided with the “campaigns of segregation and purification” [End page 37] instigated by authorities at that time, which were designed to partition a cosmopolitan society into distinct groups.12 Mary Laven’s study of nuns in Renaissance Venice opens with a direct comparison between the confines of the cloister and the original Jewish Ghetto—one of Venice’s less praiseworthy inventions. She writes that “the segregation of the Jews and the enclosure of the nuns typified a certain style of discipline and order, anxiously pursued by the Venetian authorities at the time.”13 These extended beyond the convent and the Jewish quarter: prostitutes were only allowed to ply their trade in certain districts, and foreign merchants’ movements were restricted throughout the city. While Il Gobbo stands alone, the sculpture’s proximity to the Ghetto Vecchio and Nuovo suggests the possibility of the hunchback being coded as Jewish, or as a racial or religious other.14 Could his physical distinctiveness and deliberate isolation be read as an expression of social order, in a society based upon segregation? The possible association between Il Gobbo and Jewishness is furthered by his indirect appearance in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, through the comic figures of Launcelot Giobbo and his blind, stooped father Old Giobbo.15 The allusion to the Venetian landmark in a play explicitly concerned with anti-Semitism and racial difference strengthens the possibility of considering the hunchback in parallel with the racial and/or religious outsider. His positioning in such a prominent location, despite his less-than-impressive stature, only heightens his sense of displacement and subjects him to the scrutiny and judgement of all passers-by.
The confinement of Venice’s large Jewish community to the ghetto was but one of many constraints that were designed to safeguard the purity and integrity of Venetian society. Venice’s longstanding concern about purity of bloodlines led to the tight regulation of noble marriages from the fifteenth century onwards. The Libro d’oro or “Golden Book” of Venice’s nobility listed only the offspring of two patrician parents, and the inflexibility of marital strictures brought the Venetian aristocracy to the point of near-extinction by the mid-seventeenth century, when marrying outside the nobility became the only option for survival.16 Such extreme measures, however, are indicative of that same impulse to sort and categorise, to isolate difference and enforce [End page 38] the boundaries between various groups, that lead to the creation of the original ghetto, or the suspicious treatment of foreigners on Venetian soil. In fact, it was Venice’s status as an international trading port and its subsequent strict border control that established the now-global practice of medical quarantine. Under Venetian law, both foreign and Venetian vessels were required to remain isolated in port for forty (quaranta) days, a custom that highlighted, in a far more literal sense, the virtue and necessity of enforced isolation.
With nuns enclosed within convent walls, Jews confined to the ghetto, and the Venetian population subject to “one of the most rigid marital regimes known to history,” the Venice of Il Gobbo’s earliest days was one characterised by segregation at every level; class, race, gender and profession.17 Cosmopolitanism was necessary for Venice’s continued prosperity, but this was countered by the state’s persistent efforts to create a boundary between Venetian purity and foreign contamination (both literal and figurative), as well as enforcing and reinforcing rigid categories within Venetian society itself.
A Celebration of Flesh
Just a short walk westwards of Il Gobbo’s spot on the Rialto stands the Teatro San Cassiano, Europe’s first ever public opera house, which opened in 1637. The first half of the seventeenth century saw Venice’s public entertainment industry flourish on an unprecedented scale.18 While Il Gobbo’s location near the Jewish quarter potentially marks the hunchback as a racial outsider, his proximity to Venice’s first opera house also positions him within a commercial marketplace that thrived on spectacle and novelty. When viewed in the context of Venice’s tourism and entertainment industries, Il Gobbo becomes less a signifier of social or racial segregation than one of individual performance: a one-man show of bodily deviance.
Although trade and travel meant that Venice had a constant flux of non-Venetians present in the city all year round, the number was never greater than during the famous Venetian Carnival. At that time, [End page 39] tourists would come from all over Europe to experience the thrill of wearing masks and of losing themselves in the many pleasures—both harmless and scandalous—offered during this annual celebration of excess.19 Although the Carnival season was celebrated across medieval and early modern Europe, the Carnival of Venice had become particularly famous for its scale and extravagance, and its unique tradition of masquerade is still the centrepiece of the Venetian Carnival today.20 But if Il Gobbo was regarded as an outsider during most months of the year, aligned with Jews and foreigners, what status might the hunchback been accorded during Carnival, when the city was transformed into a stage for the performance of transgression and subversion? As an approximation of flesh made of stone, what place does the grotesque body have during the celebration of carnality?
In the much-debated etymology of the word “Carnival,” the presence of the Italian word carne, “meat,” is apparent. In the Christian liturgical calendar, the Carnival season fell just before Lent, which forbade the eating of meat in preparation for Easter. Therefore, “carnival” signified the “putting away of meat” (Latin: carnelevamen) for the approaching Lenten fast. But carne might also be translated as “flesh,” thus denoting not only the flesh to be eaten (meat) but the flesh to be indulged. Furthermore, the temporal proximity of Carnival to Lent (and thus of Carnival to Easter) further blurs the line between carne as food and carne as bodily flesh. If Carnival is the season in which flesh is made food (through the eating of meat), then Easter is the time in which food is made flesh (when bread is transfigured into the body and wine into the blood of Christ) through the sacrament of the Eucharist. In this most liminal of periods, the boundaries of the bodily self are broken down. The impending solemnity of Lent gave Carnival its spirit of wild excess: it was an irreverent prelude to the most sombre of liturgical seasons, and “a final fling before a period of self denial.”21 Thus, Carnival and its pleasures are what Muir describes as a celebration of “the lower body”; that is, a tribute not to the head or heart, but of the loins and the stomach, the “passions of the flesh.”22 The season granted collective licence to indulge the flesh in all matters; in food and drink, in sex and bloodlust. Gruesome blood sports like [End page 40] bullfighting and bear-baiting—so violent that they often caused civilian deaths—were among the most popular and eagerly anticipated of Carnival entertainments.23 The very language of Carnival took its analogies from the more visceral aspects of being human: in debates amongst Venice’s ruling elite about the necessity of the Carnival season, many pragmatically agreed that “Carnival and its pleasures are as essential to a healthy society as bowels are to the human body,” and that “every civil society needs a sewer to drain its vices.”24
Amid this celebration of bowels, bloodlust, and bodily urges, abnormal bodies proliferated. The vast array of entertainments offered in Venice seemed to command the voyeuristic gaze, with bodies that were unusual, exotic, or deviant—those of acrobats, rope dancers, clowns, dwarves, transvestites, and “rare beasts” from all over the world—exhibited for a fee.25 By the seventeenth century, this spectrum of mass entertainments also included the professional acting troupe (the commedia dell’arte, or “theatre of professionals”), as well as opera, the newest innovation in musical entertainment, with the Teatro San Cassiano as the first of many opera houses opened to meet popular demand. With so many spectacles to enjoy, one lonely statue of a hunchback seems not to have been worthy of notice or mention by Carnival revellers. Nonetheless, the nature of Il Gobbo’s bodily abnormality does in fact align him directly with the kinds of deviant bodies being displayed and performed. Of the colourful cast of stock characters in the commedia dell’arte tradition, for instance, two are frequently performed as hunchbacks: Pantalone, the greedy miser, and Pulcinella, the effete social climber. Commedia’s villains or clowns, identified by their exaggerated physical grotesqueness, are amongst the earliest examples of the “theatrical popularity of the hunchback figure as a symbol of exclusion” in Western theatre and literature.26 Later examples include Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Rigoletto (which, as it happens, premiered in Venice to great popular acclaim) and Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.27 Il Gobbo, although stationary, attests to the pervasiveness of this cultural tradition in Venice, by providing a counterpart in the visual arts. [End page 41] The increasing popularity of opera as a form of mass entertainment during the seventeenth century added yet another deviant body to Carnival’s stage: castrato singers. A sensation of the Baroque age and the scandal of music history, castrati quickly became an indispensable part of opera culture, and one of the greatest attractions of Carnival. Though hardly unique to Venice, Valeria Finucci posits that in the minds of other Italian city-states, Venice might have been particularly implicated in the production of castrati, since its role as a cross-cultural point between the Mediterranean and the Orient connected the Venetian Republic with Moorish Spain (where castrati were thought to have been first introduced to Western Europe).28 However, the discomfort surrounding the origins of castrati meant that “the place where the knife was plied was always elsewhere,” and the number of castrati in Venice was never remarkably higher than elsewhere in Italy.29 Still, because Carnival was so closely associated with the theatrical and operatic, and Venice was home to Europe’s most famous Carnival as well many of its most prominent opera houses, Venice’s reputation as a city that particularly embraced this phenomenon was inevitable. Musicologist Martha Feldman describes the castrato as belonging to a category of liminal beings who, like the clown or actor, usually existed upon the peripheries of society, but took centre stage during Carnival, “a liminal time that privileged liminal creatures.”30
But while the castrato and the clown, like Il Gobbo himself, share the condition of inhabiting an abnormal body that unites them during Carnival, they are still characterised by a physical deviance that marks them, in everyday life, as anomalies. Carnival offered a panoply of abnormal bodies for inspection, comparison, admiration, laughter, or derision. Part of the celebration of flesh was recognising the shared corporeality of all bodies, but Carnival also capitalised on the appeal of observing deviant bodies from the vantage point of the spectator. In light of the blood sports and spectacles of violence simultaneously on offer in Venice, spectatorship takes on a more sinister character, suggesting that there was a strong element of sadism in Carnival revelry, which also found an outlet in the mockery or even assault of certain minority groups.31 Thus, Carnival’s peripheral bodies—clowns, [End page 42] dwarves, hunchbacks and castrati—became vehicles for reaffirming normality; that is, the spectator could celebrate their belonging to a Venetian collective by gawking or laughing at those considered abnormal or abject. Mikhail Bakhtin’s vision of a merry, liberating Carnival, which brought all participants together into a unified collective, is perhaps somewhat idealistic.32 The cruel joy of Carnival clearly exposes another dynamic: that of the self and of the other, and ultimately of differentiation rather than universality. These abnormal bodies, thrust into the spotlight, suggest that Carnival was as much a celebration of exclusivity as it was of a shared, universal human condition.
If voyeurism and the pleasures of spectatorship were essential to the dynamic of Carnival, there is another context in which we might consider Il Gobbo, which similarly pertains to the assertion of power or authority through the gaze. More sinister still than Carnival’s merry cruelty, the darker side of bodily display is nowhere more apparent than in the practice of public execution and corporal punishment, still commonplace all over early-modern Europe. And if considered in this context, the public display of Il Gobbo on the Rialto might have a different significance altogether.
Venice extended its theatrical flair to its public displays of justice in action. Corporal punishments and executions—one often a prelude to the other—were promoted as public spectacles, performed “with great public solemnity and … ritualized through a judicial procession.”33 Even nobles were hanged from public gallows, and Venetians “were all too accustomed to the sight of the exposed corpses of malefactors swinging by a leg from the Piazzetta gibbet.”34 Venice’s hypercharged vigilance against corruption made an extravagant show of those who dared threaten its good name through moral deviance. John Julius Norwich mentions one spectacular instance, recorded in the sixteenth century, of a seditious priest who [End page 43] was suspended alive in an iron cage from the campanile of St Mark’s basilica (although somehow, and perhaps even more spectacularly, the perpetrator managed to escape).35 On these occasions, the body of the perpetrator was cast as the abject “other,” onto whom all society’s negative feelings were displaced, before being ritually purged through bloodshed. Accounts of such gruesome spectacles frequently employed the metaphor of the state-as-body, and the execution of its wrongdoers as the amputation of a festering limb: an unpleasant but necessary operation for the health and wellbeing of the whole.36
One popular explanation for Il Gobbo’s presence in such a prominent location as the Rialto is that he marked a site of public punishment: if the podium supported by the hunchback was indeed the platform from which official announcements were proclaimed, as Christopher Hibbert suggests, then Il Gobbo appears, in this context, as a citizen of the Republic, subject to the same strict laws that govern the state.37 If Il Gobbo is understood as the body of the malefactor, then the hunchback’s nakedness suggests shame, vulnerability, and exposure, while the statue’s bent and twisted form draws a correspondence between physical and moral deviance. Condemned to bear the platform of justice for all eternity, Il Gobbo bends and bows beneath the authoritarian might of the law.
For an anomaly fixed in stone, Il Gobbo serves as a surprisingly mutable and convenient meeting point for a cultural tour of early-modern Venice. Paradoxically, he stands out precisely because he is so easily overlooked. His significance as a deviant body on permanent and silent display changes, depending from which angle he is viewed. Il Gobbo is a solitary enigma, yet analogous with a range of figures of liminal or abject status: the clown, the eunuch, the racial other, or the enemy of the state. His own status as a grotesque or deviant body links him to Carnival’s celebration of bodily transgression, and to the metaphors of the body employed by Venetians themselves—from flesh to bowels to amputations—to make sense of their society and its internal workings. While the hunchback’s popular status as a Venetian landmark initially seems at odds with Venice’s own reputation as a city of unrivalled beauty and splendour, perhaps, ultimately, it is fitting that a city unique [End page 44] and contradictory in so many respects should have an unexpected and enigmatic public representative.
About the Author
Jessica Sun completed her PhD at the University of Sydney in 2017, and has been working as a sessional lecturer in the English Department since. Her thesis examined seventeenth- and eighteenth-century opera culture across four major European cultural capitals: Florence, Rome, Venice, and London. Her chapter on Venice, from which the article in this volume was born, examines how the dynamics of the opera house were played out in everyday Venetian life, with its artifice, dissimulation, surveillance, and games of incognito. Sun’s research also concerns the visual arts, particularly those of the seventeenth century.