The execution of the doge Marino Faliero by Eugène Delacroix
In his paintings, the Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix (1798 – 1863) aimed to capture all the moments and emotions from a story that interested in one scene. A good example of this is The execution of the doge Marino Faliero (1826). The painting is a free interpretation of Byron’s drama with the same title, which was staged in both London and Paris shortly after its publication in 1821. The story takes place in fourteenth-century Venice and is about Marino Faliero, the 53rd Doge of Venice. Faliero had already passed the age of seventy and was – it is said – slightly senile when he was elected. He despised the nobility, who, he thought, looked down on him, and attempted a coup d’etat in April 1355, aiming to take effective power from the ruling aristocrats. The coup failed and Faliero was sentenced to death together with ten accomplices, after which his body was hanged at the Doge’s Palace.
In The execution of the doge Marino, Delacroix broke with existing conventions. Most of all, the composition is not centered around a limited number of people who performing related actions. Within this work there are several stories, which makes it difficult to name at once which scene is depicted here. In fact, Delacroix recorded three different moments: the past (the execution), the present (the raising of the sword) and the future (the citizens who want to enter the palace). By capturing several moments in a painting, Delacroix suggests a passage of time and gives the painting vitality. Moreover, with this work Delacroix broke an important rule for history pieces: Faliero has already died and the drama that is considered so suitable for history pieces is therefore missing. While in Byron’s play the execution is the highlight, Delacroix also deviates from his inspiration. Delacroix did not choose the most fertile moment but depicted the scene that follows.
Delacroix’s choice to depict only the heads of the incoming crowd is equivalent to directing a play and creates a certain tension by creating the illusion of action: as if the figures can move at any moment. By using an off-stage technique, Delacroix ensures that the performance does not stop within the frame. The emptiness in the middle – through the positioning of the white stairway – creates an enormous distance between the nobility and the ordinary bourgeoisie. Moreover, the emptiness makes the viewer’s eye look for a relationship between the different moments.