Today it is hot, humid and overcast in Venice. Fewer people are tempted by the beach so the tourists flood the streets even more than usual, and I wade through the throng to find an answer to a question that Shakespeare must have asked himself four centuries ago. If Othello is “the Moor of Venice”, what exactly is “a Moor”? Actors and critics have quarreled forever about a complex and ambiguous identity that neither the play nor its sources clarify completely.
In St. Mark’s Square one can find at least three kinds of Moors, each very different from the other. The most famous are the great bronze statues that strike the hours at the top of the Clock Tower. Although a contemporary document refers to them as Ziganti (giants), as a result of the dark colour of the metal, the Venetians took to calling them “Moors” and the tower is best known as the “Torre dei Mori”.
If you move now towards the corner between the Basilica and the Doge’s Palace, you will see the enigmatic group of the Tetrarchs, a Byzantine sculpture that depict Diocletian and the other three leaders of the Roman Empire. However, Venetians prefer to believe that the sculptures are none other than four Moors who were turned to stone as they tried to steal the Treasure of St. Mark’s. It seems a classic case of projection for the theft was famously perpetrated by Venetians, who stole the body of St. Mark from Alexandria by concealing it under a layer of pork, repugnant to the Muslim guards.
And then, on the XIV century capital of the Doge’s Palace, the third from the left on the water side façade, we can see the turbaned head of a Moor, complete with the “thicklips” Roderigo refers to when speaking of Othello.
There are other places with names associated with “Moors”, and the most charming is campo dei Mori in Cannaregio. Here there is a palazzo where the four Mastelli brothers lived from 1112, when they fled to Venice to escape the disturbances in their native Morea (Peleponnese) (hence the improper epithet of mori). Their statues undoubtedly depict people in oriental dress and in particular the turban, the shawl and the box held by one of the mori might suggest a Levantine Jewish merchant or a Moslem ulema with his alms box.
This gallery of Moors shows how in Venice the term could be used in many different and inventive ways, applicable both to recognizable ethnic physiognomies and to creatures shrouded in legend and stereotypes. This may explain how Othello has changed many faces in the stage history of the play.
And, finally, a picture of St. Mark’s square that Shakespeare would not have seen, a sad reminder that Venice’s Renaissance rulers had more creative ways to fill the coffers of the city.
Part one of this series is available here