February 17, 2006

Carlo Maggi’s Voyage

Newly-posted in Curiosities of Literature today, is Isaac D’Israeli’s article, Of a Biography Painted, which describes a curiosity more pictorial than literary: the so-called Codex Maggi, a manuscript tracing the adventures and misfortunes of ‘Charles Magius, a noble Venetian,’ which ‘consisted only of eighteen pages, composed of a series of highly finished miniature paintings on vellum, some executed by the hand of Paul Veronese.’ D’Israeli had never seen the codex himself, and based his article on an account of it written (ca. 1761) by Louis César de La Baume le Blanc, the duke de la Vallière (1708-1780). The codex now belongs to the Bibliothèque National de France. The paintings from its pages were reproduced in a book, Le Voyage de Charles Magius, 1568-1573, published by Anthèse in 1992: the following images are details of scans of the reproductions therein.

Detail from a portrait of Carlo Maggi, from the 'Codex Maggi,' 1570s.


Detail from a schematic view of Cyprus with symbolic tree motif, etc. from the 'Codex Maggi,' 1570s.

In the summer of 1570, the Ottoman Sultan Selim II ordered an attack on the island of Cyprus, at that time a dependecy of the Venetian Republic. The Ottoman army conquered most of the island in a relatively short time, but were unable to seize the fortified port of Famagusta on its North coast. Carlo Maggi (aka Charles Magius) was charged by the Venetian senate with aiding in the defence of Famagusta, and in this capacity he helped raise troops in the Republic’s territories in Puglia, travelled on diplomatic missions to Egypt and Syria, and visited Rome in an effort to secure Papal assistance. Returning to the beseiged city, Maggi helped its governor Marcantonio Bragadin orchestrate its defence, but their efforts were in vain: while their troops repelled three attacks on the city’s walls, these defences had exhausted their stock of gunpowder, and in August 1571, a surrender was negotiated.

Single panel depicting St. Mark's Square, Venice, from the first of the narrative paintings in the 'Codex Maggi,' 1570s.


Single panel depicting the port of Candia, from the second of the narrative paintings in the 'Codex Maggi,' 1570s.

The terms of the surrender were favourable to the Famagustans, and many of its erstwhile defenders were allowed to leave in peace. Soon after, however, events took a nastier turn: Maggi and others were captured and sold into slavery, while Bragadin’s fate was yet worse—he was flayed alive, and his skin, stuffed with straw, was sent to Constantinople as a macabre trophy of victory. Maggi’s servitude was relatively short-lived, as ‘his age and infirmities induced his master, at length, to sell him to some Christian merchants,’ who freed him, allowing him to return to his native Venice in 1573. Having been missing—persumed dead, Maggi had been a convenient scapegoat for the defeat at Famagusta by his political opponents, and was obliged to vindicate himself before the Venetian Senate, who, presumably satisfied by his account (or perhaps merely embarrassed by his return) thereafter exonerated, and honoured him.

Single panel depicting Maggi's enslavement, from the sixth of the narrative paintings in the 'Codex Maggi,' 1570s.


Single panel depicting a naval incident off the coast of Cyprus, from the seventh of the narrative paintings in the 'Codex Maggi,' 1570s.

Rather than write a memoir, Maggi took the unusual step of commissioning a pictorial record of his journeyings, which was completed ca. 1578. The first six paintings in the codex serve as a sort of introduction: (i) an elaborate title-page, (ii) Maggi’s genealogy, (iii) Maggi’s coat of arms, (iv) A portrait of Maggi himself—see the first of the images above, (v) a portrait of his young son, and, (vi) an elevated view of part of Cyprus, with, at its centre, an emblematic motif of a tree, broken by a storm, from which new growth nevertheless issues—see the second image above. The next eight paintings form a narrative of Maggi’s travels. Each of these pictures consists of a central figure, the personification of a particular nation, or virtue, around which are ten smaller scenes illustrating places Maggi visited or incidents he participated in, or was a witness to.

Detail from the left hand side of the 2-page painting in the 'Codex Maggi' attributed to Veronese, 1570s.


Detail from the right hand side of the 2-page painting in the 'Codex Maggi' attributed to Veronese, 1570s.

The first, second, sixth and seventh of these narrative paintings are represented by the quartet of red-bordered details above. Note especially the third of these, which illustrates the beginning of Maggi’s captivity, where he is shown being presented, stripped, for the purpose of estimating his retail value. Click on these details to see them in the context of the full pages to which they belong. The codex is concluded with three more paintings. The first presents Maggi’s ‘debriefing’ before the Senate. This is followed by the jewel of the book, an exceptionally vivid and rich double-page painting, which, along with the portrait of Maggi’s son, was thought by de la Vallière to be the work of Paolo Veronese. The final pair of details above offer an incomplete view of this painting. At its centre, Maggi is depicted with his son, his father, brothers and sisters-in-law, and to the left of the painting, the same figures are shown seated for a feast in a magnificent outdoor dining-hall, reunited and reconciled. The codex concludes with Maggi and his son shown together at the foot of a mannerist stairway to heaven…

Posted by misteraitch at February 17, 2006 03:10 PM

This is spectacular and unusual. Is there any text to go with the paintings? Does the Veronese attribution have any legs, and is Veronese known to have produced other books?

Posted by: Michelangelo on February 17, 2006 10:33 PM

A marvelous journey: what an interesting hero-tale. Clashes with another realm, high challenges, suffering, and a proper return to status and family--with a plesaunce at the end. I like this very much!

Posted by: marlyat2 on February 18, 2006 03:01 AM

Pleasaunce, that is...

Posted by: marlyat2 on February 18, 2006 03:03 AM

Michelangelo—I don’t think there is any additional text in the manuscript. Ariane Isler-de Jongh, in her essay at the end of the 1992 book states il consiste en dix-huit pages sur vélin in-quarto, entièrement peintes à la gouache recto-verso, & I presume she is referring to the short texts facing the illustrations in the printed book where she writes Le texte se résume à quelques inscriptions, phylactères et légendes mais il est accompagné d’un commentaire, longue description rédigée en 1761 pour le duc de la Vallière. The attribution to Veronese is quite likely wishful thinking, based on the date & quality of the paintings La mention faite par le commentaire de 1761 d’attributions au Titien at à Véronèse pouvait n’être qu’un moyen rhétorique de souligner la qualité de certaines images. Isler-de Jongh tentatively attributes the whole manuscript to a Flemish painter named Lodewijk Toeput, aka Ludovico Pozzoserrato (ca.1550-1604).

Posted by: misteraitch on February 18, 2006 08:53 AM

A fascinating story and that is a wonderful labyrinth in the bottom picture. I wonder where the canopied paths lead...

Posted by: Anne on February 18, 2006 08:18 PM

Anne—one of the paths leads around the house, and its formal gardens; the other to a pergola.

One other thing regarding the attribution to Toeput / Pozzoserrato: Isler de-Jongh bases this in part on some intriguing likenesses between the two-page ‘family reunion’ painting in the codex with Toeput’s canvas Convito all’ aperto.

Posted by: misteraitch on February 19, 2006 08:25 AM

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Posted by: gavieroloco on February 25, 2006 12:57 PM

As always, an excellent post.

I am struck by the similarities between Maggi's story and the adventures of the nameless Venetian in Pamuk's "The White Castle". Perhaps one informed the other?

Posted by: Bill @ Orbis Quintus on March 1, 2006 05:25 AM

Bill—that’s very interesting possibility. I still haven’t read any Pamuk, but this is just the kind of connection that could get me to give his books another try.

Posted by: misteraitch on March 2, 2006 04:11 PM
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