THE ITALIAN WORD ‘scuola’ (plural: scuole) does not always mean ‘school’ (i.e., an educational establishment). In Venice, there are several scuole, which were never schools, but confraternities (or guilds). Well-known examples of these include the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, which contains many fine paintings by Tintoretto (1518-1594), and the Scuola Dalmata dei Santi Giorgio e Trifone, which contains a superb set of paintings by Carpaccio (1465-1525). The latter, also known as the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, was founded by Slavs (‘schiavoni’ in Italian) from Dalmatia (now mainly Croatia).
Another group of migrants from the Balkans, Christian (mostly Catholic) Albanians, began arriving in Venice in the early 15th century, both as traders and refugees from the Ottomans. In 1442, the Albanian community in Venice established its own confraternity, the Scuola di Santa Maria degli Albanesi. The building that housed it from the end of the 15th century still stands on a narrow passageway, the Calle dello Spezier, connecting Campo San Stefano and Campo San Maurizio. During our annual family holidays in Venice in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, we often passed along the passageway whilst walking from the Academia Bridge to Saint Mark’s Square. After my interest in Albania was first kindled in about 1967, I learnt about the Albanian scuola and always felt excited when we walked past its façade decorated with bas-relief stone carvings.
Three of the sculptures, which are affixed above the ground floor windows, depict two saints (Gallo and Mauritius) with the Mother and Child between them. Above them and located between the two second floor windows there is a larger bas-relief. It portrays a scene with two men in turbans standing on a rock facing a high hill on top of which there is a building with two heraldic crests. One of the men is brandishing a curved sword. This scene is a representation of the great Siege of Shkodër (1478-79). The city was then a Venetian possession. One of the men with a turban is a depiction of Mehmed II. The shields on the building and on the top corners of the sculpture were those of the Loredan and Da Lezze families, who were heroes of the siege.
The Albanian community in Venice was quite important during the period of the Venetian Republic, which ended in 1797. Several years ago, I met the Kosovan scholar and diplomat Bejtullah Destani, who told me that the city’s archives contain many documents charting the activities of the Albanians in Venice, and they have yet to be examined in detail.
Like the Scuola Dalmata, the Scuola degli Albanesi was decorated with a series of paintings by Carpaccio. In 1780, the Albanian scuola was closed. Its building became home to a bakers’ confraternity. 28 years later, when Venice was under Napoleonic rule, the other scuole were all suppressed. The Carpaccio paintings have long since been removed from the Albanian scuola, and can be found in museums in Venice, Milan, and Bergamo.
To get some idea of how splendid the Scuola degli Albanesi must have been in its heyday, a visit to the wonderful Scuola Dalmata should do the trick. Even if you have minimal interest in either Albania or Dalmatia, the paintings by Carpaccio make a good reason to visit Venice.