Los Angeles may be the only city on Earth where a reference to Venice inspires the question, "Which one?" Our own Venice parallels the jewel of the Adriatic in artistic sensuousness, free-wheeling hedonism, sinister nighttime streets and tatty opulence. The Marina del Rey channel provides an artificial waterway where gondolas are succeeded by predatory power boats.
There is such affinity between the two geographies that when ancient Venice threatened to crumble and collapse into the sea, Southern California was a leading fund-raiser in the rescue effort. Nothing seems to please our museums more than acquiring Venetian objects or unfurling exhibitions of the art of the Serenissima. The Getty loves its Carpaccio, the Norton Simon reveres its Tiepolo and the County Museum of Art takes pride in a pair of Veroneses, among other examples. Former LACMA director the late Kenneth Donahue was never happier than when he organized "The Golden Century of Venetian Painting" in 1979.
The latest chapter in the L.A.-Venice love story is LACMA's main summer offering, "The Treasury of San Marco, Venice" (on view to Sept. 8). It consists of just 50 precious objects from the city's main cathedral, that fabulous flimsy Byzantine fantasy building familiar to every tourist who has ever trudged goggle-eyed across St. Mark's Square, wondering if everything in view was some manner of mirage.
Wait! That title sounds as if we have one of those bread-and-circuses "treasures" exhibitions cunningly calculated to draw huge crowds of voracious yuppies, whose appreciation will never rise above the level of a consumerist feeding frenzy inspired by the sight of objets de luxe fashioned of gold and precious jewels. Their reaction to the show will be to rush to Rodeo Drive to buy something . Anything, as long as it's expensive.
Frankly, the "Treasury" exhibition has a measure of that character, and it is scarcely diminished by the layout of the show. Each object is displayed in a kind of Post-Mod high-tech case shaped like a pyramid for Pete's sake, and lit with little pinpoint spotlights designed to make things twinkle. Widely spaced cases take on ceremonial importance, augmented by galleries arranged in processional order and linked by arched openings. The main, three-aisle gallery echoes a basilica form, and everything--but everything, except the objects--is slate gray.
Actually, the design (by Bernard Kester) is witty and effective in itself. It's just so slick that some of the more modest works, like a Byzantine glass hanging lamp, look a bit shabby.
In an odd way that is a good thing, in that it suggests the dual nature of this exhibition. Dutiful souls who read the catalogue will find statements like Daniel Alcouffe's: "The collection of hard-stone vessels . . . is so outstanding that it should be used one day as the basis of the history of this kind of object from Classical Antiquity to the end of the Middle Ages. It contains virtually all of the landmarks."
Or Margaret E. Frazer's: ("The Treasury") "now houses the best single collection of Byzantine metalwork, and particularly of enameling that survives."
Hardstone? Metalwork? Enameling? Sounds like a specialist's exercise in scholarly esoterica. And words of elaborate praise suggest fare for the jaded connoisseur, the refined palette that has long since digested the boffo highlights of art history, the dramatic Davids of the Renaissance and the sparkling swaths of the Impressionists.
And that is the way it is.
"The Treasury of San Marco Venice" combines popular appeal and bookish sophistication in a way that produces an agreeable intertwining of social, historical and aesthetic vectors. For starters, it acts as a metaphor of Venice's long history as the international hub of the Western world. It magnetized the sensibility of the Middle Ages, blending it with the opulence of Byzantium, the splendor of Islam and the grace of Classical antiquity.
The so-called "Throne of St. Mark" is hardly a cosmetic object, with its monolith stone form and powerfully monosyllabic carvings, but it is a rare example of early Christian art of the 6th Century. It is also a touchstone of Venice's belief that it was under the special protection of the apostle and that it gave them a kind of mystical manifest destiny. This religious sense of self-confidence saturates everything in the exhibition. Afflatus allowed them to entertain the worldliness of a perfectly splendid 4th-Century Classical glass situla with a Dionysiac scene, then turn right around and set off on a righteous crusade against Constantinople.
The famous conquest of 1204 brought the basilica its first Byzantine treasures as booty from the Fourth Crusade. Never mind that most of it was destroyed in a fire in 1231, or that a triumphant Napoleon melted reconstituted treasures down for cash again after his victory over Venice in 1797. The resilient gondoliers salvaged and recouped again and again, ending up with the amazing array of chalices, icons, reliquaries and assorted baubles that we see today.
They didn't just preserve the material. They energetically recombined and adapted glorious luxury into liturgical solemnity, and vice versa. In many ways the leitmotif of the whole exhibition (and encrusted Venice herself) is the rather bizarre so-called "Grotto of the Virgin." This historic bit of bricolage is made up of a 4th-Century rock crystal ornament, a cloisonne 9th-Century crown and a 13th-Century figure of the Virgin. How's that for assemblage?
The exhibition will fascinate lovers of technique, with its hand-carved quartz and delicately fashioned filigree. But it poses a more compelling quandary in the way it raises the old wonder about the power of old societies to make craft objects that are unmistakably art. It is a knack we seem to have lost.
Back then, however, they could make a chalice or an icon that casts the same aesthetic spell we find today only in, say, a Joseph Cornell. And it doesn't take an educated eye to see it. Perfectly casual visitors are mesmerized by the two chalices of the Emperor Romanos (one from the 1st Century) and two 11th-Century gold icons to St. Michael. They seem to exercise this riveting fascination because they were made by people working with fervid intensity. The forms of the Middle Ages are simple to the point of awkwardness, but they are invested with ecstatic elaboration that gives off a kind of radioactive spiritual awe and joy.
The difference between them and us begins to show in the final gallery as works move toward the Renaissance. Those that retain Venice's links to exotic cultures continue to work as art. Others, like the "Reliquary of the Arm of St. George" or "The Column of the Flagellation," lose magic in demonstration of mere mechanical intricacy and elaboration.
Anyway, the exhibition remains a rare event upon these youthful shores. If we are able to discriminate among its qualities, that does not mean it's not worthy. It just means we like the Serenissima without being Venetian blind.