Peter Ackroyd

Venice Pure City


Acknowledgements

<p>Acknowledgements</p>

I would like to thank my two research assistants, Thomas Wright and Murrough O’Brien, for their invaluable work on this project. I would also like to extend my thanks to my editor, Jenny Uglow, and my copy-editor, Jenny Overton.


List of Illustrations

Section One

Section Two

Section Three

Section Four

<p>List of Illustrations</p>
<p>Section One</p>

i1.1 Cristoforo Sabbadino, Map of Venice, c.1557. Archivio di stato, Venice/Cameraphoto Arte Venezia/Bridgeman

i1.2 Perspective plan of Venice (detail). Musée du Louvre, Paris/Cameraphoto/Bridgeman

i1.3 The mosaics in Saint Mark’s cathedral, late 14c. Alinari/Rex Features

i1.4 The Madonna, cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello, early 13c. akg-images/Cameraphoto

i1.5 The Flood, mosaic in the narthex, western portico, of Saint Mark’s cathedral, 13c. akg-images/Erich Lessing

i1.6 Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti), The Stealing of the Body of Saint Mark, 1562–66. Galleria dell’Accademia/Cameraphoto/Bridgeman

i1.7 The Lion of Saint Mark, 15c., Museo Correr/Bridgeman

i1.8 Monks praying to Saint Theodore, from a Mariegola, 1350. Museo Correr/Bridgeman

i1.9 Simon Marsden, The columns of Saint Mark and Saint Theodore, Piazzeta San Marco. The Marsden Archive, UK/Bridgeman

i1.10 Gentile Bellini, Procession on the Piazza S. Marco, 1496. Galleria dell’Accademia/akg-images/Erich Lessing

i1.11 Piazza S. Marco, c.1880–90. Roger-Viollet/Rex Features

i1.12 Gentile Bellini, The Miracle of the Cross on San Lorenzo Bridge, 1500. Galleria dell’Accademia/Bridgeman

i1.13 Francesco Guardi, The Departure of the Bucintoro towards the Lido on Ascension Day (detail), 1766–70, Musée du Louvre/Giraudon/Bridgeman

i1.14 Vittore Carpaccio, The patriarch of Grado heals a possessed man on the Rialto Bridge (detail), 1494 Galleria dell’Accademia/akg-images/Cameraphoto

<p>Section Two</p>

i2.1 Paolo Veronese, The Battle of Lepanto, 1571. Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice/akg-images

i2.2 Plan of the Arsenal. Museo Correr, Venice/Bridgeman

i2.3 Franceso Segala, a Venetian warship, on the Mausoleum of Girolamo Michiel, c. 1558–59. Basilica of Sant’Antonio, Padua/Bridgeman

i2.4 Sign for the Marangoni family of shipbuilders, 1517. Museo Correr/Alinari/Bridgeman

i2.5 Jan van Grevenbroeck, Dredging a Canal, 18c. Museo Correr/Giraudon/Bridgeman

i2.6 Jan van Grevenbroeck, An Oar-Maker from the Arsenal, 18c. Museo Storico Navale, Venice/Bridgeman

i2.7 Jan van Grevenbroeck, A Venetian Doctor during the Plague, 18c. Museo Correr/Bridgeman

i2.8 Jan van Grevenbroeck, Venetian Bellmaker’s Shop, 18c. Museo Correr/Bridgeman

i2.9 Venetian glass in the Pauly showrooms, Milan, 1910. Alinari/Rex Features

i2.10 Lace workers on Burano, 19c. Collezione Naya-Bohm, Venice/Bridgeman

i2.11 Ferdinando Ongania, A Venetian Courtyard, c. 1880. Museo di Storia della Fotografia Fratelli Alinari, Florence/Bridgeman

i2.12 A funeral gondola, 1880–1920. Collezione Naya-Bohm, Venice/Bridgeman

i2.13 Giovanni Pividor, The railway bridge across the lagoon, from Views of Principal Monuments in Venice, 1850. Bridgeman

i2.14 The remains of the Campanile, La Domenica del Corriere, 27 July 1902. Cameraphoto Arte Venezia Corriere/Bridgeman

i2.15 “Windows of the Early Gothic Palaces,” from John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, 1851–3

<p>Section Three</p>

i3.1 Giovanni Bellini, Leonardo Loredan, Doge of Venice, c.1501. National Gallery, London/Bridgeman

i3.2 Joseph Heintz, Audience with the Doge in the College of the Ducal Palace, early 17c. Museo Correr/Bridgeman

i3.3 Pietro Uberti, Portrait of three lawyers, Orazio Bembo, Orazio Angarano and Melchior Gabriel, 1730. Palazzo Ducale/Cameraphoto/Bridgeman

i3.4 Jacobello del Fiore, Justice and the Archangels, 1421. Galleria dell’Accademia/Cameraphoto/Bridgeman

i3.5 The lion’s mouth. Palazzo Ducale/Bridgeman

i3.6 The Pozzi prison, from Vedute delle Prigioni, 18c. Museo Correr/Bridgeman

i3.7 Vittore Carpaccio, Dream of Saint Ursula, 1495, Galleria dell’Accademia/Cameraphoto/Bridgeman

i3.8 Pietro Longhi, The Tailor, 1742–3. Galleria dell’Accademia/Cameraphoto/Bridgeman

i3.9 Pietro Longhi, The Geography Lesson, c.1750–2. Galleria Querini-Stampalia/Bridgeman

i3.10 Pietro Longhi, The Perfume Seller, c.1750. Ca’Rezzonico, Museo del Settecento/Alinari/Bridgeman

i3.11 Madonna of Mercy, 16c. Museo Correr/Alinari/Bridgeman

i3.12 Paolo Veneziano, Madonna and Child Enthroned with Two Devout People, 14c. Galleria dell’Accademia/Cameraphoto/Bridgeman

i3.13 Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano, The Coronation of the Virgin, late 15c. Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice/Cameraphoto/Bridgeman

i3.14 Giorgione (Giorgio da Castelfranco), The Tempest, c.1506–8. Galleria dell’Accademia/Cameraphoto/Bridgeman

i3.15 Giovanni Bellini, Young Woman at Her Toilet, 1515. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna/akg-images/Erich Lessing

i3.16 Titian (Tizian Vecellio), Venus of Urbino (detail), before 1538. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence/Bridgeman

<p>Section Four</p>

i4.1 Paolo Veronese, The Marriage Feast at Cana (detail), c. 1562. Musée du Louvre/Giraudon/Bridgeman

i4.2 Gabriele Bella, Concert by the girls of the hospital music societies in the Procuratie, Venice, 18c. Galleria Querini-Stampalia/Bridgeman

i4.3 Francesco Guardi, The Parlour of the San Zaccaria Convent, 18c. Ca’Rezzonico, Museo del Settecento, Venice/Bridgeman

i4.4 Pietro Bianchi, Cross-section of a theatre on the Grand Canal, 1787

i4.5 Alessandro Longhi, Carlo Goldoni, 18c. Casa Goldoni, Venice/Bridgeman

i4.6 Jan van Grevenbroeck, Venetian Noblemen in a Café, 18c. Museo Correr/Bridgeman

i4.7 Giandomenico Tiepolo, Pulcinella with Acrobats, fresco 1793. Ca’Rezzonico, Museo del Settecento/Alinari/Bridgeman

i4.8 Francesco Guardi, Three Masked Figures in Carnival Costume, c.1765. Museo Correr/Bridgeman

i4.9 Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal), Regatta on the Grand Canal, 1735–40. Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, County Durham/Bridgeman

i4.10 V. Ponga, Masked Ball in Saint Mark’s Square, 19c. Caffe Quadri, Venice/Bridgeman

i4.11 Gabriele Bella, Battle with Sticks on the Ponte Santa Fosca, 18c. Galleria Querini-Stampalia/Giraudon/Bridgeman

i4.12 Gabriele Bella, Game of Bowls in the Campo dei Gesuiti, 18c. Galleria Querini-Stampalia/Bridgeman

i4.13 Sir Claude Francis Barry Bart., RBA, The Bridge of Sighs, etching, c.1930. Private collection/Bridgeman/www.sirfrancisbarry.com

i4.14 Cover of René Jeanne, Casanova, 1927, with photographs from Andre Volkoff 1926 film. Private collection/Archives Charmet/Bridgeman

i4.15 Hugo d’Alesi, travel poster for the Chemin de fer de l’Est, Paris to Venice, 19c. Stapleton Collection/Bridgeman

Part Titles. The vignettes, engraved by Dionisio Moretti, are taken from Antonio Quadri, Il Canal Grande di Venezia (1831)


Section One

<p>Section One</p>

i1.1 Cristoforo Sabbadino, Map of Venice, c.1557. Archivio di stato, Venice/Cameraphoto Arte Venezia/Bridgeman

i1.2 Perspective plan of Venice (detail). Musée du Louvre, Paris/Cameraphoto/Bridgeman

i1.3 The mosaics in Saint Mark’s cathedral, late 14c. Alinari/Rex Features

i1.4 The Madonna, cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello, early 13c. akg-images/Cameraphoto

i1.5 The Flood, mosaic in the narthex, western portico, of Saint Mark’s cathedral, 13c. akg-images/Erich Lessing

i1.6 Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti), The Stealing of the Body of Saint Mark, 1562–66. Galleria dell’Accademia/Cameraphoto/Bridgeman

i1.7 The Lion of Saint Mark, 15c., Museo Correr/Bridgeman

i1.8 Monks praying to Saint Theodore, from a Mariegola, 1350. Museo Correr/Bridgeman

i1.9 Simon Marsden, The columns of Saint Mark and Saint Theodore, Piazzeta San Marco. The Marsden Archive, UK/Bridgeman

i1.10 Gentile Bellini, Procession on the Piazza S. Marco, 1496. Galleria dell’Accademia/akg-images/Erich Lessing

i1.11 Piazza S. Marco, c.1880–90. Roger-Viollet/Rex Features

i1.12 Gentile Bellini, The Miracle of the Cross on San Lorenzo Bridge, 1500. Galleria dell’Accademia/Bridgeman

i1.13 Francesco Guardi, The Departure of the Bucintoro towards the Lido on Ascension Day (detail), 1766–70, Musée du Louvre/Giraudon/Bridgeman

i1.14 Vittore Carpaccio, The patriarch of Grado heals a possessed man on the Rialto Bridge (detail), 1494 Galleria dell’Accademia/akg-images/Cameraphoto


Section Two

<p>Section Two</p>

i2.1 Paolo Veronese, The Battle of Lepanto, 1571. Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice/akg-images

i2.2 Plan of the Arsenal. Museo Correr, Venice/Bridgeman

i2.3 Franceso Segala, a Venetian warship, on the Mausoleum of Girolamo Michiel, c. 1558–59. Basilica of Sant’Antonio, Padua/Bridgeman

i2.4 Sign for the Marangoni family of shipbuilders, 1517. Museo Correr/Alinari/Bridgeman

i2.5 Jan van Grevenbroeck, Dredging a Canal, 18c. Museo Correr/Giraudon/Bridgeman

i2.6 Jan van Grevenbroeck, An Oar-Maker from the Arsenal, 18c. Museo Storico Navale, Venice/Bridgeman

i2.7 Jan van Grevenbroeck, A Venetian Doctor during the Plague, 18c. Museo Correr/Bridgeman

i2.8 Jan van Grevenbroeck, Venetian Bellmaker’s Shop, 18c. Museo Correr/Bridgeman

i2.9 Venetian glass in the Pauly showrooms, Milan, 1910. Alinari/Rex Features

i2.10 Lace workers on Burano, 19c. Collezione Naya-Bohm, Venice/Bridgeman

i2.11 Ferdinando Ongania, A Venetian Courtyard, c. 1880. Museo di Storia della Fotografia Fratelli Alinari, Florence/Bridgeman

i2.12 A funeral gondola, 1880–1920. Collezione Naya-Bohm, Venice/Bridgeman

i2.13 Giovanni Pividor, The railway bridge across the lagoon, from Views of Principal Monuments in Venice, 1850. Bridgeman

i2.14 The remains of the Campanile, La Domenica del Corriere, 27 July 1902. Cameraphoto Arte Venezia Corriere/Bridgeman

i2.15 “Windows of the Early Gothic Palaces,” from John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, 1851–3


Section Three

<p>Section Three</p>

i3.1 Giovanni Bellini, Leonardo Loredan, Doge of Venice, c.1501. National Gallery, London/Bridgeman

i3.2 Joseph Heintz, Audience with the Doge in the College of the Ducal Palace, early 17c. Museo Correr/Bridgeman

i3.3 Pietro Uberti, Portrait of three lawyers, Orazio Bembo, Orazio Angarano and Melchior Gabriel, 1730. Palazzo Ducale/Cameraphoto/Bridgeman

i3.4 Jacobello del Fiore, Justice and the Archangels, 1421. Galleria dell’Accademia/Cameraphoto/Bridgeman

i3.5 The lion’s mouth. Palazzo Ducale/Bridgeman

i3.6 The Pozzi prison, from Vedute delle Prigioni, 18c. Museo Correr/Bridgeman

i3.7 Vittore Carpaccio, Dream of Saint Ursula, 1495, Galleria dell’Accademia/Cameraphoto/Bridgeman

i3.8 Pietro Longhi, The Tailor, 1742–3. Galleria dell’Accademia/Cameraphoto/Bridgeman

i3.9 Pietro Longhi, The Geography Lesson, c.1750–2. Galleria Querini-Stampalia/Bridgeman

i3.10 Pietro Longhi, The Perfume Seller, c.1750. Ca’Rezzonico, Museo del Settecento/Alinari/Bridgeman

i3.11 Madonna of Mercy, 16c. Museo Correr/Alinari/Bridgeman

i3.12 Paolo Veneziano, Madonna and Child Enthroned with Two Devout People, 14c. Galleria dell’Accademia/Cameraphoto/Bridgeman

i3.13 Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano, The Coronation of the Virgin, late 15c. Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice/Cameraphoto/Bridgeman

i3.14 Giorgione (Giorgio da Castelfranco), The Tempest, c.1506–8. Galleria dell’Accademia/Cameraphoto/Bridgeman

i3.15 Giovanni Bellini, Young Woman at Her Toilet, 1515. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna/akg-images/Erich Lessing

i3.16 Titian (Tizian Vecellio), Venus of Urbino (detail), before 1538. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence/Bridgeman


Section Four

<p>Section Four</p>

i4.1 Paolo Veronese, The Marriage Feast at Cana (detail), c. 1562. Musée du Louvre/Giraudon/Bridgeman

i4.2 Gabriele Bella, Concert by the girls of the hospital music societies in the Procuratie, Venice, 18c. Galleria Querini-Stampalia/Bridgeman

i4.3 Francesco Guardi, The Parlour of the San Zaccaria Convent, 18c. Ca’Rezzonico, Museo del Settecento, Venice/Bridgeman

i4.4 Pietro Bianchi, Cross-section of a theatre on the Grand Canal, 1787

i4.5 Alessandro Longhi, Carlo Goldoni, 18c. Casa Goldoni, Venice/Bridgeman

i4.6 Jan van Grevenbroeck, Venetian Noblemen in a Café, 18c. Museo Correr/Bridgeman

i4.7 Giandomenico Tiepolo, Pulcinella with Acrobats, fresco 1793. Ca’Rezzonico, Museo del Settecento/Alinari/Bridgeman

i4.8 Francesco Guardi, Three Masked Figures in Carnival Costume, c.1765. Museo Correr/Bridgeman

i4.9 Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal), Regatta on the Grand Canal, 1735–40. Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, County Durham/Bridgeman

i4.10 V. Ponga, Masked Ball in Saint Mark’s Square, 19c. Caffe Quadri, Venice/Bridgeman

i4.11 Gabriele Bella, Battle with Sticks on the Ponte Santa Fosca, 18c. Galleria Querini-Stampalia/Giraudon/Bridgeman

i4.12 Gabriele Bella, Game of Bowls in the Campo dei Gesuiti, 18c. Galleria Querini-Stampalia/Bridgeman

i4.13 Sir Claude Francis Barry Bart., RBA, The Bridge of Sighs, etching, c.1930. Private collection/Bridgeman/www.sirfrancisbarry.com

i4.14 Cover of René Jeanne, Casanova, 1927, with photographs from Andre Volkoff 1926 film. Private collection/Archives Charmet/Bridgeman

i4.15 Hugo d’Alesi, travel poster for the Chemin de fer de l’Est, Paris to Venice, 19c. Stapleton Collection/Bridgeman

Part Titles. The vignettes, engraved by Dionisio Moretti, are taken from Antonio Quadri, Il Canal Grande di Venezia (1831)


I City from the Sea

1

Origins

2

Water, Water Everywhere

3

Mirror, Mirror

<p>I City from the Sea</p>
<p>1</p> <p>Origins</p>

They voyaged into the remote and secluded waters. They came in flat-bottomed boats, moving over the shallows. They were exiles, far from their own cities or farms, fleeing from the marauding tribes of the North and the East. And they had come to this wild place, a wide and flat lagoon in which fresh water from the rivers on the mainland and salt water from the Adriatic mingled. At low tide there were mud-flats all around, cut through with streams and rivulets and small channels; at high tide there were small islands of silt and marsh-grass. There were shoals covered with reeds and wild grasses, rising just a little way above the waters. There were patches of land that were generally submerged but, at certain low tides, rose above the water. There were desolate marshes that the water only rarely covered. The salt marshes and the shore seemed from a distance to make up the same wide expanse, marked with ponds and islets. There were swamps here, too, as dark and uninviting as the waters that the tide did not reach. A line of islands, made up of sand and river debris, helped to protect the lagoon from the sea; these were covered with pine woods.

Although the lagoon was not far from the once great centres of Roman civilisation, it was remote and secluded. This was a solitary place, its silence broken only by the calls of the seabirds and the crash of the billows of the sea and the sound of the wind soughing in the rushes. At night it was the setting of a vast darkness, except in those patches where the moon illumined the restless waters. Yet in the daylight of the exiles’ approach the silver sea stretched out into a line of mist, and the cloudy sky seemed to reflect the silvery motions of the water. They were drawn into a womb of light. They found an island. And a voice, like the sound of many waters, told them to build a church on the ground they had found. This is one of the stories of origin that the Venetians told.

The lagoon itself is an ambiguous area that is neither land nor sea. It is approximately thirty-five miles (56 km) in length and seven miles (11 km) in width, taking a crescent shape along part of the coast of north-eastern Italy. It was created some six thousand years ago, emerging from the mud and silt and debris that came down into the Adriatic from seven rivers. The principal among them—the rivers Brenta, Sile and Piave—carried material from the Alps and the Apennines; a city of stone would one day rise on the minute debris of mountains. The swamps and marshes and mud-flats are protected from the sea by a long and narrow bank of sand, divided into islands by several channels; the longest of those islands is now known as the Lido. The channels make openings in the barrier, entrances known as porti, through which the sea rushes into the lagoon. There are now three such porti at the Lido, at Malamocco and at Chioggia. These tides breathe life into Venice.

It is a continually various and unsettled scene, part mud and part sand and part clay; it is changed by tides, always shifting and unstable. There is a current in the Adriatic that flows up and down from the Mediterranean, and each of the porti creates its own distinct basin or force of water. That is why the appearance of the lagoon has altered over the centuries. There is one theory that, as late as the sixth and seventh centuries, the lagoon was essentially a marsh covered by water at high tide. In the nineteenth century, according to John Ruskin, there were times at low tide when it seemed that Venice was marooned on a vast plain of dark green seaweed. The whole lagoon in fact would have become dry land five hundred years ago, were it not for the intervention of the Venetians themselves. The lagoon is now simply another part of Venice, another quarter that happens to be neither land nor sea. But it is slowly returning to the sea. The waters are growing deeper, and more salty. It is a precarious place. Saint Christopher, carrying the infant Christ across the water, was once a popular saint of the city.

There have always been inhabitants of the lagoon. The wilderness could, after all, be fruitful. From the earliest times there were small pockets of people—fishermen and fowlers ready to take advantage of the abundance of wildfowl and marine life as well as the autumnal migration of the fish from the rivers to the sea. The marshes are also a natural place for the harvesting of salt. Salt was a valuable commodity. The Venetians were always known as a mercantile people, but the first stirrings of trade in this area began even before their ancestors had arrived.

The earliest tribes are lost in the darkness of prehistory. But the first recognisable ancestors of the Venetians inhabited the region surrounding the lagoon from the eighth century BC. These were the people who dwelled in the north-eastern part of Italy as well as along the coasts of what are now Slovenia and Croatia. They were known as the Veneti or the Venetkens; Homer refers to them as the “Enetoi,” because there is no “v” sound in classical Greek. They were primarily merchants, as the Venetians would become, trading in amber and wax, honey and cheese. They set up great markets, like those which the Venetians eventually established. They traded with Greece, just as Venice would one day trade with Byzantium and the East. They specialised in the extraction of salt from coastal areas, in a way that anticipates the Venetian monopoly of salt production.

They dressed in black, which became the colour characteristically worn by patrician Venetian males. Hercules was the tribal hero of the Veneti, and became a legendary protector of Venice; he is the demigod who acquires by labour what others claim by right. The Veneti traced their descent from Antenor, who led them from the ruined city of Troy. They were well known for their skill in seamanship, and were essentially a maritime people. They submitted, in marital and familial matters, to the authority of the state. These were the people who inhabited cities such as Padua and Altino, Aquileia and Grado. These were the exiles who came for safety to the waters of the lagoon.

Before the time of flight, the Veneti were thoroughly Romanised. By the second century AD they had made a pact with the powers of Rome. In the reign of Augustus the area of the lagoon was part of the Tenth District of Italy and then in the fourth century it became part of the eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire. The lagoon was already partly settled. On one of the islands, S. Francesco del Deserto, have been found the remains of a Roman port with pottery from the first century and wall plaster of the third century.

The port was no doubt used by those vessels sailing between Aquileia and Ravenna, bearing grain from Pannonia as well as goods and supplies from more distant shores. Amphorae have been discovered here, for the carriage of wine and olive oil that had come from the eastern Mediterranean. The larger ships would dock on the island, their goods then transported to smaller ships for the shallows of the lagoon. There must have been local pilots, therefore, to guide the craft through these exiguous waters. A walkway, dating to the second century AD, has been found beneath the nave of the basilica of S. Maria Assunta on the island of Torcello. Roman remains have been found at a great depth on the island of S. Giorgio Maggiore, and material from the first and second centuries has been discovered on smaller islands. Other finds, on other islands, can be dated from the fourth to the seventh centuries. It has been suggested that the outer islands of the lagoon could have been used as a station for the Roman fleet; it is conceivable, to say no more, that villas were constructed here.

Yet there was a fundamental change in the nature of the lagoon when the exiles from the mainland began to arrive in larger and larger numbers. There was no central exodus, but rather successive waves of migration that culminated in the late sixth century. The Veneti were escaping from invaders. In 403 Alaric the Visigoth descended upon the province of Venetia; in the words of Claudian, the historian of Rome, “fame proclaimed the march of the barbarian, and filled the land with terror.” Aquileia and Verona fell, with many of their inhabitants fleeing to the safety of the islands. When the threat of Alaric had passed, some returned home. But others stayed, making a new life in the lagoon. In 446 Attila gained Roman provinces from the Danube to the Balkans and then, six years later, took Aquileia; Altino and Padua were also sacked. Once more the refugees from these disasters fled to the lagoon.

There was a pattern to their movement. The people of Altino migrated to Torcello and Burano, for example, while those from Treviso went to Rialto and Malamocco. The inhabitants of Padua sailed to Chioggia. The citizens of Aquileia moved to Grado, which was itself protected by marshes. They came with craftsmen and builders, with farmers and labourers, with patricians and plebeians; they came with the sacred vessels from their churches, and even with the stones of their public buildings so that they might build anew. But how could they build on such shifting ground? How could they build upon mud and water? It was possible, however, for wooden poles of from ten to a dozen feet in length to be sunk into the mud before reaching a layer of harder clay and dense sand that acted as a firm foundation. This was the “boundary” at the bottom of the lagoon. So there sprang up small houses known as casoni made from the wood of poles and boards, with pitched roofs of wattle and reed.

New towns, such as Heraclea and Equilio (Jesolo), were founded by the edge of the lagoon. On the islands were established village communities, with leaders consulting assemblies of the people. The Veneti may also have set up fortified encampments, in the event that the Huns or Goths decided to move against them. But the islanders were fractious and competitive; there was no unity in the lagoons. So in 466, just twenty years after the appearance of Attila, a meeting of all the Veneti of the lagoon was held at Grado. It was decided that each island would be represented by a tribune, and that the tribunes would then work together for the common good. They were, after all, facing the same dangers and difficulties—not least from the depredations of the sea. This was the first sign of the public and communal spirit that would one day manifest itself so clearly in Venice itself.

The Veneti were by the sixth century a defined presence in the region. They were paid to ferry people and goods between the ports and harbours of the mainland. They transported the soldiers of Byzantium from Grado to the river Brenta. They carried officials and merchants to Byzantium itself. Already they were known for their maritime skills. Their boats travelled up the rivers of northern Italy, trading salt and fish to the cities and villages en route.

The first description of these island people comes in a letter sent in 523 to their tribunes by a legate from the Ostrogoth kingdom then prevailing in northern Italy. Cassiodorus was asking them to transport wine and oil across the waters to Ravenna. “For you live like seabirds,” he wrote, “with your homes dispersed, like the Cyclades, across the surface of the water. The solidity of the earth on which they rest is secured only by osier and wattle; yet you do not hesitate to oppose so frail a bulwark to the wildness of the sea.” He was not quite accurate in his description; there were already some houses constructed from the stone and brick of the mainland. He went on to say that the Veneti “have one great wealth—the fish which suffices for you all. Among you there is no difference between rich and poor; your food is the same, your houses are all alike.” Again, this was not quite true. Extant testimonials suggest that, even at an early stage in the development of the lagoon, there were rich as well as poor families. Cassiodorus then added that “your energies are spent on your salt fields; in them indeed lies your prosperity.” In this, at least, he was right. And he added the significant detail of “your boats—which like horses you keep tied up at the doors of your dwellings.” By good fortune one of these boats has emerged from the mud of the lagoon. Part of a rib of oak, and a hull of lime, have been found on the island of S. Francesco del Deserto; the boat itself dates to the fifth century. It was lying at a level that, in this period, would have been submerged except at times of low tide.

Yet Venice itself was not yet born. It is not shown in a fourth-century map of the region, in which the lagoon is depicted as a sea route without people. Venetian historians claimed, however, that the city was established at midday on 25 March 421, by a poor fisherman known as Giovanni Bono or John the Good. There are advantages to this theory, since the same date has been given to the vernal equinox, the Annunciation and the supposed date of the foundation of Rome. The triple coincidence, as well as the provident arrival of John the Good, is too good to be true; but it is part of the extraordinary Venetian ability to supplant history with myth. As the German poet, Rilke, said on a visit to the city in 1920, “as with mirrors one grasps nothing but is only drawn into the secret of its elusiveness. One is filled with images all day long, but could not substantiate a single one of them. Venice is a matter of faith.”

In fact Venice emerged over a century later, after a series of invasions by the Lombards in the late 560s and early 570s. Once more the province of Venetia was overcome by alien tribes. Unlike the Huns, however, they did not wish to plunder and depart. They intended to stay and to settle. They overran what is now called in their name the region of Lombardy. Their arrival prompted a mass exodus of the Veneti. The bishop of Aquileia moved his see to the edge of the lagoon at Grado. The bishop of Padua removed himself to Malamocco, and the bishop of Oderzo sailed to Heraclea. These men were secular as well as religious leaders; they took citizens as well as congregations, ready to create new communities on the water. Burano and Murano were extensively settled, as well as smaller islands such as Ammiana and Constanziaca; these last two disappeared beneath the waves in the thirteenth century, swallowed up by the main enemy of the island people. They have never rested in their battle against the sea.

Venice was born in this flight from the Lombards. The most recent archaeological investigations have dated the first signs of human habitation to the second half of the sixth century and to the seventh century; these remains were situated in the neighbourhood of Castello, in the east of the city, and beneath Saint Mark’s Square. There is evidence, too, that in these early years work had already begun on raising the surface of the land and reclaiming earth from water. The settlers fenced the soil with planks and poles; they drained the water; they laid down building rubble, or sediment, or sand from the dunes; they erected wooden palisades to resist the sea. It is the beginning of the city.

The exiles had decided to settle on a favoured group of islands, midway in the lagoon, known collectively as the Rivoalto or the high bank. This eventually became the Rialto, the pre-eminent market-place and emporium of the city. The islands were interspersed with rivulets and water-courses but there was one larger river, a tributary of the Brenta known as the Rivoaltus; this became in time the Grand Canal. Two more solid hills or islands—their description depends entirely upon how you judge the nature of the territory—faced each other along the course of this river. This is where Venice was created. This was land where the exiles could build. It was not easy work. In 589 there are reports of catastrophic flooding throughout the entire region, the force of which was so great that the course of certain rivers was altered. The calamity would have changed the hydraulic structure of the lagoon, but its effects upon the emerging Venice are not known.

Venice did not immediately become the most important city of the lagoon. Grado was the seat of the patriarch; Torcello was the great emporium or market of the region. The ducal seat, as it became known, moved from Eraclea to Malamocco. In the period when Venice was first being settled, there were elaborate building works elsewhere. The basilica of S. Maria Assunta was then being built on Torcello; an inscription on that site is dated 639, and confirms that the church was erected within the context of Byzantine ritual and worship.

The connection with Byzantium is important. The historiographers of Venice insisted that from the beginning the Venetians asserted their independence. There is a famous legend of their leaders telling a representative from Byzantium that God Himself “has preserved us that we may live in these watery marshes, in our huts of wood and wattle. For this new Venice which we have raised in the lagoons has become a mighty habitation for us.” They could not be touched by the kings and princes of the world “unless they come by sea, where lies our strength.” This is pure myth-making. The Venetians were at the beginning a subject people. The language of the early Venetians had an admixture of Greek, for example, and as late as the last century there were still Graeco-Roman elements in the dialect of the islanders of Burano.

There is some disagreement about the date when the first military commander of the lagoon, or dux, was appointed by the Byzantines; it is most likely to have been in the early eighth century. The Venetians came to believe that he had been chosen by the island people themselves, but there is no doubt that this duke or doge reported to the emperor in Byzantium. The appointment of a military commander did not in itself bring any harmony to the lagoon; the early centuries were filled with internecine strife, between island and island or family and family; there are reports throughout the eighth century of civil war, of battles in the forests surrounding the lagoon, of doges being blinded or murdered or sent into exile. But the political institution survived the early crises; a doge reigned in Venice for more than a thousand years, 120 doges in unbroken succession.

Venice is made up of 117 separate islands that were with effort and labour eventually conjoined. There were at first scattered island parishes, some of them dominated by monastic foundations and others by small communities such as fishermen or salt producers. There would have been islands of boat-builders, too. These insular communities were grouped around a church and campanile or bell tower; the green or square in front of the church was (and is still) known as the campo or field. In the campo was a well or cistern of fresh water collected from the frequent rain. The houses were characteristically of reed and wattle construction, although the houses of the more prominent citizens may already have been constructed out of brick and tile. Some islands were dominated by powerful families, exiled from the mainland, who kept their retainers around them to cultivate their gardens or vineyards; the Orio and Gradenigo families, for example, controlled the island of S. Giovanni di Rialto. Each island had its own patron saint.

The island parishes were separated from each other by marsh or water, but waterways had been established to connect them. There was already a pattern of habitation that grew steadily more intensive and determined. The drive towards cohesion was advanced by another invader. In 810 Pepin, the son of Charlemagne, brought his forces to the lagoon in order to claim it for the Frankish Empire. He attempted to storm the ducal seat of Malamocco, and the doge fled to the islands of the Rivoalto for protection. It is said that Pepin followed in pursuit, but that his fleet became enmired in the marshes and receding waters; that he despatched rafts made of timber and brushwood, but that Venetian sailors destroyed them; and that an old woman directed them across the treacherous shallows with the old Venetian instruction, sempre diritto—just go on in the same direction. There are unmistakeable intimations here of the army of the pharaoh being overwhelmed by the Red Sea, an analogy upon which future Venetian painters would dwell. Whatever the true circumstances of the defeat, Pepin was forced to abandon his mission. So the place of ducal refuge, Venice, was proved to be the place of safety. It was inviolable, sheltered among the marshes. It was protected by the lidi from the sea, and separated from the mainland by water. After the invasion of the Franks, Venice became the ducal seat. It became the centre of the lagoon. It had begun its great career.

It prospered, too, from its secluded position. In a treaty of 814, it was agreed that Venice would remain a province under Byzantine rule but that it would also pay an annual tribute to the Frankish king whose seat was now in Italy. This may sound like a double obligation, but in fact it freed Venice from single domination. It now stood between Franks and Byzantines, between West and East, between Catholic and Orthodox; its central position allowed Venice to steer a somewhat uncertain course, sometimes leaning to one side and sometimes to the other. It also provoked many disagreements among the ruling families of the lagoon, which had different allegiances and loyalties among the parties of the mainland and of the Eastern Empire. Nevertheless the position of Venice effectively secured its independence. One of the clauses of the treaty of 814 allowed Venetian merchant ships to sail freely to and from Italian ports. The Venetians, in other words, were able to trade. They could move between East and West. Venice became, predominantly, a city of merchants.

And it grew very rapidly. Many of the inhabitants of the lagoon soon migrated to the small islands around the Rivoalto. By the end of the ninth century there were some thirty island parishes, and by the close of the millennium there were more than fifty; the effects of a fire in 976, when three hundred houses were destroyed, is a testimony to the dense population. Those parishes grouped closest to the Rivoalto became connected by bridges or canals. The ramparts were erected, the marshes drained, the dykes constructed; the swamps were reclaimed, and the ground made fertile. Some of the major streets, surviving still, were then first laid out as footpaths. Stages and landing stairs were built, some public and some private. Dams were created to prevent the silt from the rivers washing into the lagoon. A service of ferry boats was instituted. Venice became an urban mass, hot and energetic, fixed upon the mud and water. It represented a vast human and communal effort, urged on by necessity and practicality. The goal of common existence was always there. There was a desire to make or to reclaim land, to conquer the water, to unify and to protect the common soil.

Venice in the ninth and tenth centuries was a medieval city, where pigs roamed about the streets and where pastures and gardens interrupted the vista of houses and churches. There were districts with the epithet “In the Marsh” or “In the Wilderness” or “In the Seaweed.” The citizens travelled on horseback along the main street, the Merceria, and tethered their animals to the great elder trees which flourished in what is now the Piazza S. Marco or Saint Mark’s Square (otherwise simply known as the Piazza). There were flat wooden bridges, without steps, connecting the islands. There were trees along the banks of the canals. On the surrounding islands there were meadows where cattle and sheep grazed; there were vineyards and orchards; there were ponds and small lakes. On the central islands, which gradually coalesced, there were courtyards and narrow alleys that bequeathed to the calli of modern Venice their unique circuitry. In front of the houses of stone, or even of the poorer houses of wood and reeds, were short stretches of land; these became the fondamenta of the mature city, the streets running along the canals.

By the end of the first quarter of the ninth century the area around what is now Saint Mark’s Square had been completed. There was a ducal palace or castle here, together with a large ducal chapel dedicated to the Byzantine Saint Theodore. The more important families also built residences here, to be close to the centre of power. Eventually the fields were cleared to make way for a piazza; a large pool or fishing-pond was filled in, thus forming the piazzetta or little piazza in front of the ducal palace. This duopoly of sacred and secular authority held its place on the site for more than a thousand years.

It was not called Venezia until the thirteenth century. But the region of the lagoon was known as Veneto or Venetia. The Latin term for Venice was always Venetiae, thus registering its origin as a federation of islands or cities. It has nineteen different appellations, ranging from Venegia to Veniexia, thus affirming its multiple identity. It might be construed a portmanteau word, containing Venus and ice.

Venice had no single or distinct origin. The cities of the Italian mainland had been settled through prehistory, their territory defined by their burial grounds and defended by a circumambient wall. They had grown in organic fashion from a ritual centre to an expanding periphery. The reverence for the city is linked to the reverence for place and reverence for the dead who lie interred there. The earliest cities are primeval in origin. From the beginning Venice had no perimeter. It had no outline. It coalesced from a hundred different points. Venice, in a literal sense, had no roots. It had a fluid origin indeed, one written in water. It is insecurely placed in the world. That is why it has always been subject to anxiety, as in the present “Venice in Peril” campaign.

Venice has therefore sought to define itself. It has sought for origins. It has felt obliged to uncover some hidden, or reveal some absent, origin. Machiavelli wrote that “the beginnings of religions and of republics and of kingdoms must possess some goodness by means of which they gain their first reputation and their first growth.” This was the problem facing the Venetians. They had, in that sense, no “goodness.”

So they invented stories of origin, all of them involving some kind of divine dispensation—not least in the apparently “historical” fact that the Venetians were Christian exiles fleeing from pagan invaders. On the pavement of S. Maria della Salute, in Venice, is carved the inscription “unde origo inde salus” or salvation springs from origin. Thus there grew up certain exquisite and elaborate legends of the beginning. They are not to be dismissed. Legends represent the earliest form of poetry. Venice is the place of legends, particularly of religious legends, just as it has always been a city of miracles.

The people of Altino were in doubt where to flee from the pagans, until they heard a voice from the heavens declaring “Go up into the tower and look towards the stars.” When they climbed the tower, the reflections of the stars in the water made a path toward the islands of the lagoon. In another version of this story all the birds of the region were seen, with their young in their beaks, flying towards the islands. The voice out of the bright cloud, calling the exiles in their boats, has been heard at the beginning of this chapter. Eight of the earliest churches of Venice were established by divine decree. Saint Magnus was told in a vision to build a church where he first saw a flock of sheep; this was in Castello. The Virgin Mary appeared in a bright cloud, heralding the rise of S. Maria Formosa. A great assembly of birds chose the site of the church of S. Raphael. A red cloud hovered above the site of S. Salvatore near the Rialto bridge. There were other more secular legends that the Venetians had as their ancestors the Romans or even the Trojans but they, too, can be discounted. These legends, like Venice itself, have no foundation.

The city was built upon water by celestial decree. It was a miracle, in itself, to build upon the sea. Thus it became a city of miracles. It was a predestined spot, a providential site. Everywhere in the Venetian chronicles there is a great and shining image of the city. Venice became part of the history of human redemption. Its divine origin was attested by its perfect constitution, enduring for a thousand years, and even by its mercantile supremacy. In paintings by Venetian artists God the Father and the Holy Spirit preside over Saint Mark’s Square. On the Rialto bridge are carved the figures of Gabriel and the Virgin Mary at the moment of the Annunciation. Venice was idealised beyond any recalcitrant historical fact or inglorious episode.

Yet the real origins of Venice, scattered or random as they are, vouchsafe a great truth about the city. They convey certain characteristics, or certain qualities, to the nature of life there. Every organic thing wishes to give form and expression to its own nature; and so, by obscure presentiment and by the steady aggregate of communal desires, Venice took shape. The statue is latent in the marble. The Venetians had no arable land of their own, so they were obliged to earn their living by trade and industry. The city which was half land and half water devised a quintessentially “mixed” constitution in which the various forces of the state were balanced. There was a constant preoccupation, among all sections of the community, with stability and continuity. Where are those qualities more necessary than in a place shifting and uncertain? A city created by exiles became, over the centuries, a home for many and various refugees. Its empire overseas, and its incursions into mainland Italy, were all based upon the necessity for self-preservation. It always perceived itself to be a city under threat. Venice did not emerge from the union of rural peasantry. It was always urban. Venice was not, in its infancy, a feudal society. By the tenth century it was already known as “la civitas Rivoalti,” civitas implying a citizen state.

The great and enduring fact, however, was the fight against the sea. Out of this arose the need for common purpose and community of effort. There was no antagonism between the individual and the collective or, rather, the Venetian individual through the centuries subsumed himself or herself within the organism as a whole. It is an organism that, like the human organism, can be seen as a unity. It obeys its own laws of growth and change. It has an internal dynamism. It is more than the sum of its parts. Each aspect of Venetian culture and society reflects the whole.

From the ninth century three Venetian commissioners were appointed to administer and oversee the defence and reclamation of the land. An entire bureaucracy eventually emerged to control the depredations of the sea. From the beginning Venice was a state of intervention. The earliest sea-defences consisted of wooden stakes interwoven with wickerwork; at a later date rivers were diverted, and great walls of stone built against the water.

Land could not be reclaimed, nor islands joined, without the cooperation of neighbour with neighbour and community with community. Dams could not be built without the unity derived from common interest. So from the beginning Venetians were possessed by the idea of communal life. They created the first communal palace, and the first civic square, in Italy. Venice was perhaps also the first city in Europe to benefit from what has been called city-planning, with the deliberate “zoning” of industries and activities along the peripheries of the city. All this was part of the search for the common good. The battle against natural obstacles is the battle for human culture and improvement. It requires immense cohesion, and a social discipline that is best reinforced by religious observance. So emerges the concept of the state as divinely inspired.

Yet we must not discount the character and temperament of these early settlers. Their work was hard and continual, and could not have been carried on successfully without large measures of energy and optimism. These are, or were, the distinctive qualities of the Venetian people. They are, or were, proud of their city. It was one of the characteristics noted by travellers. Yet nature sometimes retaliates against those who attempt to curb it. Certain islands of the lagoon were submerged by the encroaching sea; settlements disappeared or were abandoned. There was always, somewhere in the Venetian soul, the threat of punishment and disaster.

<p>2</p> <p>Water, Water Everywhere</p>

Venice was, until the building of a railway bridge in the middle of the nineteenth century, a small island, or collection of islands. Venetians were islanders, with all the benefits and burdens that accrue to that especial status. To be insular is to be independent; but it is also to be alone. It secures a measure of safety, but it also attracts attention from those on the larger mainland. It exemplifies vulnerability, even when outward circumstances seem favourable. Yet as an island city Venice survived all the wars and invasions that have beset Italy since the eleventh century; it successfully defied both pope and emperor, French invasion and Spanish incursion, and the continual forays of the other city-states of Italy. If it had not been surrounded by water, it would have been destroyed many centuries ago.

But that separation from the mainland, from Italy and the world, has taken its own toll. Although Venice has been part of Italy since 1866, Italy has largely ignored it. It is considered as somehow extraneous. The Italians do not really think of Venice at all; it belongs to some other realm of fancy or of artifice. On the part of the Venetians the tradition of liberty, and of freedom from the fear of invasion, bred a certain insouciance. The island guaranteed the citizens their self-sufficiency, perhaps, but it also encouraged a certain self-enclosed or self-referential attitude towards the rest of the world. It is still easy, in Venice, to grow indifferent to what is happening elsewhere. Venetians themselves are not particularly concerned with the affairs of what might be called the wider community. From the remoteness, and isolation, can also spring melancholy. Venice is no longer an island, but the island temperament remains.

And of course the islanders must always look out to sea. It is their context. It is their horizon. Where would they be without the sea? The city rests on the silt at the bottom of the sea. It is as much a part of the sea as the tides and the waves. The sea flows between the wooden piles that sustain it. The sea flushes beneath it. There is something innately unsettling about living in Venice. There is salt in the air, and the atmosphere is rendered hazy by evaporation. The haze easily becomes sea mist or sea fog. The air seems to melt above the buildings. The salt and damp leave silvery traces on the whitened walls, as if they were made out of mother-of-pearl. The birds flying above them are the seagulls. And there is seaweed floating along the canals beside them.

So there are images of the sea throughout Venice. The floor of the basilica of Saint Mark gently undulates, as if the congregation were walking upon waves. The area of marble slabs, on the floor of the central crossing of that church, was known in the sixteenth century as il mare. The marble columns of Saint Mark’s are veined or striated like the waves. In the other churches of the city we might note the popularity of “dolphin capitals” and the motif of the shell. Ruskin described the imposing houses along the Grand Canal as “sea-palaces.” In maps of Venice, particularly those from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the shape of the city is reminiscent of a fish or dolphin. The islands and sand-ridges, out of which Venice was made, seemed to the first settlers like the backs or dorsi of slumbering whales; one area of modern Venice is still called Dorsoduro or hard back. On top of one of the two presiding pillars in the piazzetta, Saint Theodore is astride a crocodile. There are crabs and dolphins on the capitals of the ducal palace. It would not be wonderful to meet a leviathan, or what in Moby-Dick Herman Melville calls “strange shapes of the unwarped primal world,” swimming at times of acqua alta in Saint Mark’s Square. It would not be wonderful to see a great polyp or medusa wallowing in the Grand Canal. It is a sea city.

The first impression of Venice may also be one of the sea. Goethe saw the sea for the first time in his life when he came to the city in the autumn of 1786; he glimpsed the Adriatic from the arched window of the campanile in Saint Mark’s Square. Ruskin arrived in Venice some fifty-five years later and, in his autobiography, he writes that “the beginning of everything was in seeing the gondola-beak come actually inside the door at [the hotel] Danieli’s, when the tide was up, and the water two feet deep at the foot of the stairs.” To find the waves of the Adriatic lapping within the city—to find the sea changing the nature of the stone buildings all around him—that was the great enchantment. The moon rules Venice. It is built on ocean shells and ocean ground; it has the aspect of infinity. It is the floating world.

The sea embodies all that is changing and variable and accidental. It is the restless and wilful element. It emerges in endless variations of colour and surface pattern. The paintings of Titian and Tintoretto have been said to manifest a “sea” of light, in which shape is fluid and ambiguous; the Venetian school of painting has been characterised as one of flowing colour rather than of form and outline, a curvilinear impulse that creates its own weight and volume. All is in flux. You glimpse the movement of the sea in Venetian statuary as well as Venetian painting. The mosaics of the city favour the depiction of the various biblical legends of the sea. Thus in the basilica of Saint Mark’s can be found “The Miraculous Draught of Fishes,” “His Walking on the Water” and “The Stilling of the Tempest.” There are certain churches that might have risen out of Neptune’s kingdom. The church of the Gesuiti, or S. Maria Assunta, has a baroque interior in which great cascades of grey and green and white marble are supposed to imitate wall hangings. But they more closely resemble waves, waves flowing and crashing down the sides of the church until arrested in a moment of silence and stillness. The floor of green marble might have furnished some cave beneath the ocean, as rays of light penetrate the marine gloom of the interior.

The rhythmic intelligence of the Venetians has informed much of the architecture of the city. The oncoming sea changes the perception of structure along the Venetian canals, where the buildings seem more delicate and attenuated. The façades of the churches undulate, weightless and unstable, against the surface of the water like shells at the bottom of a rock pool on the seashore. The architecture of Venice is horizontal in mass, like the sea. From a distance, across the lagoon, the impression of the city is of flatness along the horizon. It is perpetually in motion. It is baroque and mannerist rather than classical; it shimmers, as if seen through water; it is encrusted with ornament like a coral reef.

Venetian craftsmen were well known for their work in satin, where the gleamings and shimmerings of a particular fabric were known as “watered silk.” To work in silk was known in Venice as dar’onda all’amuer, or to make waves on the sea. There is an especial type of Venetian risotto, more liquid than elsewhere, that is known as all’onda or with waves. A sponge found in the Aegean is known as enetikos or the Venetian. In the last century you could buy in the tourist shops of Venice small ornaments made from the pearl shells found in the Lido, known as fiori di mare or the flowers of the sea. They are the only flowers indigenous to Venice.

There are other deep correlations between place and spirit. Venetian society has been described as fluid and ever-changing. Of Venetian politics Sir Henry Wotton, the English ambassador to Venice in the early seventeenth century, said that it “fluctuated, like the element of which the city was built.” That is the reason why Venetian historiographers were intent upon emphasising the continuity and stability of their society. They were always aware of the motion and restlessness of the sea within Venetian polity. At the heart of la Serenissima was a horror of transience, like the Venetian sailor’s dread of the sea. As the Venetian poet of the late sixteenth century, Veronica Franco, put it, “the sea itself yearns towards this city.” This may be considered a compliment, as long as the sea does not come too close.

It has been said also that the character of the Venetian people is like the tide, six hours up and six hours down according to the proverb. In fact there is a dialect phrase that the Venetians use to describe themselves—andara alla deriva, to be adrift. The mobility and lightness of the Venetian temperament are well known. The Venetians themselves have songs and proverbs about the sea. Coltivar el mare e lasser star la terra—cultivate the sea and leave the land to itself. There were once many popular songs that opened with the same phrase, in mezo al mar. In the middle of the sea is—what? Not familiar things. Not beautiful things. In the middle of the sea, according to the songs, are strange presentiments and terrifying apparitions. Here is a smoking chimney coming out of the waves. Here is an image of a dead lover. There is no celebration of the charm or poignancy of the sea, but rather a recital of its perils and its strangeness.

There are many legends and superstitions of the sea within popular Venetian lore. It is a shifting city, between sea and land, and thus it becomes the home for liminal fantasies of death and rebirth. According to the English traveller, Fynes Morisson, there was a statue of the Virgin in Venice which was always saluted by passing ships; it was surrounded by wax candles, burning perpetually in gratitude for her saving lives at sea. It is said that the sharp prow of the Venetian gondola was a replica of the shining blade of one of the soldier saints, Saint Theodore. On the approach of a storm Venetian sailors would take up swords and place one against the other in the shape of a cross. It was also recommended that the sailor take out a knife with a black handle and cut the air in the face of the coming storm.

Yet the sea is an intimation of impermanence. All things come from, and dissolve into, the water. It is enveloping. There is no evidence that the Venetians ever really loved the sea. It was essentially the enemy. Byron declared that the Venetians did not know how to swim and were possessed by the fear “of deep or even of shallow water.” The Venetians always prided themselves on having “dominion” over the sea, but that mastery was provisional and fearful. There was a constant fear of inundation. Of course it was the path to wealth, but the consequence was that the preponderance of their trade and power was at the mercy of the sea. The sea represented evil and chaos. It was cruel, and it was also divisive. The terror of complete submersion could also be seen in part as a nervous apprehension of divine anger. That is why there were ceremonies designed to propitiate the god or gods of the water. They may have been nominally directed towards the Christian God, but there was an element of awe and fear within the Venetian state that derived from much older creeds.

The city guarded the water, too. In the ducal palace the seat of the Magistrato alle Acque, or Master of the Waters, was adorned by an inscription stating that “The city of Venice benefiting from divine Providence was founded in water surrounded by water with water for walls. Thus, whoever might dare in whatever way to bring injury to these waters must be judged enemy of his country …” It ended with the declaration that “this law has been reckoned eternal.”

Each spring, on Ascension Day, there was a ritual that became known as “the marriage to the sea”; the spouse was the doge of Venice taking for his bride the turbulent waters. After mass in Saint Mark’s the doge and his retinue rowed into the lagoon in the doge’s own boat, the Bucintoro, followed by the nobles and guilds of the city. The doge halted at the part of the Lido where the waters of the Adriatic and the lagoon meet. The patriarch of Venice then emptied a large flask of holy water into the mingling currents. The waters of the earth and the waters of the spirit became indivisible. The Bucintoro was described by Goethe as “a true monstrance,” which means the receptacle where the holy eucharist may be displayed. So it becomes a holy grail tossing upon the waters, spreading benediction with a ritual of healing.

On the prow of the ship the doge took a marriage ring of gold and threw it into the water with the words “We espouse thee, O sea, as a sign of true and perpetual dominion.” Yet what true dominion could there be in such a union? One of the attributes of the ring is fertility, so the festival can be construed as one of the oldest of all ceremonies. It might also have been an act of supplication, designed to placate the storm-tossed and minatory sea. It could also have been a maritime version of casting the runes; there is a long tradition of rings thrown into the sea as an act of divination. All these meanings converge in this ancient rite of union with the sea, performed in spring at that place where the “inside” and the “outside” embraced. At a later date one of the punishments for heresy was death by drowning, when the condemned were rowed out to sea and despatched into the waters. These maritime executions might in turn be seen as sacrifices to the sea-gods.

At the close of one of these Ascension ceremonies, in 1622, there was a violent earthquake in Venice. Just as the doge and his courtiers returned from their voyage of celebration, a slow and regular thunder beneath the earth lasted for several seconds. Everything trembled but nothing, apart from a chimney, fell. There have been other quakes in the lagoon. It is an unstable area in every sense. An earthquake is recorded in 1084, when the campanile of S. Angelo was dislodged. Towards the end of the twelfth century there were simultaneous upheavals in Saint Mark’s Square and on the island of Torcello, suggesting that there is a “fault” lying between them. There was a great earthquake on Christmas Day 1223, and then again in 1283 when the shock was followed by a great inundation. On 25 January 1384, another earthquake set all the church-bells of Venice pealing at the same time; it was followed by another shock on the following day, and these quakes were repeated at intervals over an entire fortnight. The Grand Canal was empty, but the streets were full of water.

The weather of Venice is sea-weather; the air is damp and salt-laden, conducive to fog and mist. If the climate is equable, that may in part be the position of Venice. Averroes, the twelfth-century philosopher, was the first to calculate that Venice was at a latitude of forty-five degrees, at the middle point between the equinoctial and the northern Pole. It is another example of the extraordinary balance of Venice between the geographical regions of the earth. The climate is mild, compared with much of North Italy, because it is environed by the sea. The spring is delicate and fresh, the energetic wind blowing from the Adriatic. The summer can be sultry and oppressive but, once the sun has gone down behind the Friulian mountains, the air is freshened by the breezes from the sea. The autumn is the true season for Venice. It has an autumnal air, the air of melancholy and departure. The Venetian painters, Carpaccio and Bellini, bathed their canvases in an effulgent autumnal light.

There is, especially in autumn, the possibility of rain. A subdued greyness then haunts the air, and the sky is the colour of pearl. The rain can be persistent and torrential. It soaks through the most protective clothing. It can be blinding. Then the rivers may burst their banks, and the rising waters around Venice turn to a jade green. The best description of the Venetian rain is found in Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove, where he describes “a Venice of cold lashing rain from a low black sky, of wicked wind raging through narrow passes, of general arrest and interruption, with the people engaged in all the water-life huddled, stranded and wageless.…” The city of water is blockaded by water, as if the natural elements were pursuing their vengeance against the most unnatural city.

The “wicked wind” may come from several points. An east wind blows in from the sea, refreshing in the warmer months but crueller in the colder seasons of the year. A wind from the north-east, the bora, brings the colder air from the northern region of the Adriatic. A humid wind comes from the lagoon, known as the salso because of its saltladen content. Some people say that it smells of the algae and seaweed of the surrounding waters. The salt and damp penetrate the houses of Venice; the paint flakes, and patches of plaster fall from the walls. The bricks crack and eventually crumble.

There are gusts of wind that pass very quickly, and eddies or squalls of circulating air. Sir Henry Wotton wrote of “flashing winds.” All this is of the nature of the sea. There is a south-westerly wind, too, once called garbin. It may be of this wind that Saint Bernardino of Siena wrote in 1427. He asked a correspondent, “Were you ever at Venice? Sometimes of an evening, there comes a little wind which goes over the face of the waves and makes a sound upon them, and this is called the voice of the waters. But what it signifies is the grace of God, and the breath breathed forth by Him.” Even the weather of Venice was once deemed sacred.

But the most celebrated wind is the scirocco, the warm wind that comes from the south-east and can persist for three or four days. There is a scirocco di levante and a scirocco di ponente, a hot scirocco and a cool scirocco; there is even an elusive wind called the scirocchetto. The scirocco itself has been blamed for the Venetian tendency towards sensuality and indolence; it has been accused of instilling passivity and even effeminacy within the citizens. Why should people not be moulded as much by climate as by history and tradition? The outer weather can make or unmake inner weather.

Yet some weeks of the winter can be harsh, a potent reminder of the Alps and the northern snows. The most frequent weather lament concerned the bitter cold. In the winter of 1607–08 those who went fowling in the lagoon were on occasions frozen to death, and there were reports of travellers being surrounded and killed by packs of starving wolves. At the beginning of the eighteenth century came a famous “Year of the Ice” in which provisions were brought to the frozen city by sledge. In other winters the lagoon also froze, and the Venetians could walk over to the mainland. In 1788 great bonfires were lit on the Bacino, the basin of water in front of the piazzetta; stalls and booths were erected on the ice, in the Venetian equivalent of a Frost Fair. In 1863 great sheets of ice went up and down the Grand Canal, flowing with the tide, for a month. Venice was then truly the frozen world, the ice covering the houses and palaces as well as the water. The light was blinding. Venetian houses were not built for the cold; the great windows and the stone floors of the larger dwellings made them almost intolerable during the blizzards of winter. Yet there is still something inexpressibly delightful about Venice in the snow, the whiteness creating an enchanted kingdom where what is fluid has become crystal; the quiet city then becomes wholly silent beneath the panoply of snow.

But there are winter weeks of not quite snow and not quite rain. These may become the weeks or days of fog. The iridescent mist or haze is then enveloped by the myriad fogs that creep in from the sea. The grey Istrian stone becomes an outpost of the fog, a sentinel of consolidated fog looming out of the gloom. As the Esquimaux have many words for ice, so the Venetians have many names for the fog—nebbia, nebbietta, foschia, caligo. In the midst of the nebbia, it is as if heavy rain-clouds had come to rest upon the earth and water. Nothing can be seen or heard. The fog sometimes shrouds the city so that the only sounds are those of bells and muffled footsteps; if you take the vaporetto, or water-bus, that goes around the city you disappear within the white curtain about fifty yards (about 45 m) from the shore; all that is visible of Venice are the posts carrying lights. The city only rises before you when you arrive at the next stage.

There are portents for flood. The air becomes heavy and still; the roar of the sea can be heard breaking against the Lido. The waters in the canals stir uneasily, and become more green with the influx of the sea. The tide is driven forward by the wind. The water rises to the edge of the fondamenta but then, more alarmingly, it begins to well up beneath the city itself. It spouts up through the storm drains and between the paving stones; it seeps through the foundations, rising higher and higher; it washes against the marble steps of the churches. The city is at the mercy of waves that seem to be of its own making. When the sirens sound, Venice prepares for another acqua alta.

This high water, flooding the fondamenta and the campi, making a lake of Saint Mark’s Square, invading houses and hotels, is not unusual in the city. One chronicler gave an account of a great flood in 589, although assuredly there were many before that date. They may have been so common that they deserved little notice. Other floods are recorded in 782 and in 885, when water invaded the entire city. They have been occurring ever since. In 1250 the water rose steadily for four hours and, in the testimony of a contemporary, “many were drowned in their houses or died of the cold.” It was believed that the floods were provoked by demons and bad spirits, while the only protection lay in invocations to the saints who guarded Venice. At a later date there was less recourse to supernatural help. In 1732 the area of the piazzetta, facing the lagoon, was raised by one foot (0.3 m) on a calculation that the sea at Venice rose three inches (76 mm) in every century. This was an underestimate.

The acqua alta is part of a natural cycle, occurring when wind and tide and current converge in what is for Venice a fatal embrace; the bora and the scirocco can both cause surges of storm in the sea. There is also the phenomenon of the seiche, an oscillation or standing wave in the relatively shallow waters of the Adriatic. But if Venice is sinking, it is in some measure due to the removal of water by industry from artesian wells. When the water was taken from the silt and the clay, the water table was lowered—and, with it, Venice. The deepening of waterways within the lagoon, and the reclamation of marsh-land, have also increased the danger of flooding.

There are several inundations in every century, therefore, but in recent years they have been increasing in size and frequency. In the 1920s there were 385; in the 1990s there were 2,464. In November 1966, the flood reached a height of six feet four and a half inches (1.94 m). The scirocco blew for two days, keeping the murky and polluted water locked within the lagoon. At the time some believed that it would mean the death of Venice.

When the rain came, it was collected within the stone gutters of the churches and houses; it ran through the pipes and then through conduits until it reached the underground cisterns beneath every campo. There the water filtered through a body of sand before penetrating the well shaft. It was fresh and pure. The wells, or pozzi, were ubiquitous. At the middle of the nineteenth century there were still 6,782 remaining in the city, Byzantine or Gothic in construction. An immense well was sunk in the fifteenth century, in the middle of Saint Mark’s Square. Two great public cisterns were built in the courtyard of the ducal palace, from where the water-carriers or bigolanti would carry their precious commodity. They were the peasant women of the Friuli, who wore bright skirts, white stockings and hats of straw or felt; they wandered barefoot through Venice, with their copper buckets, calling out “acqua—acqua fresca.” It was a mournful, as well as a melodious, cry.

For a city built upon water, water itself was sacred. It is what in the gospel of John is called “living water.” The well-heads themselves were highly decorated as a symbol of their significant content. They were embellished by fragments of altars, pieces of religious statuary, and the stones of ancient temples, as a token of their spiritual presence. There were accounts of miracles being performed by or beside the wells. In the plague of 1464 a monk was saved from extinction by a cup of water drawn for him by a knight from a local well. The knight was later identified as Saint Sebastian and, from that time forward, the pozzo became known as Saint Sebastian’s Well. Water is holy. The Byzantine well-heads were sculpted with a range of religious symbols, including the cross and the palm tree; they were cylinders of marble, that might have been glimpsed in any eastern city. The Gothic wellheads, which resembled the capitals of great pillars, displayed figures both naturalistic and grotesque. Yet the wells often ran dry. Venice, on water, was often in need of water. After storms the wells were marred by salt water. It was a general practice for boats to be despatched to the rivers Bottenigo and Brenta in order to pick up fresh supplies. Towards the end of the nineteenth century artesian wells were established on the mainland to guarantee a more bounteous flow.

Water was the staple of life, and so the wells became central to the social routine of each parish. The iron lid that closed the mouth of each well was opened at eight in the morning, so there were always knots of people beside it during the day. It is the most common view in photographs of “old” Venice. The well defined the intimacy and density of the parish. Water has always been the great unifier and leveller, and in many respects Venice was considered to be an egalitarian city. The well was a symbol of public beneficence, a visible token of the wise stewardship of the city.

But of course water is the life and breath of Venice’s being in quite another sense. Venice is like a hydropic body filled with water, where each part is penetrated by another. Water is the sole means of public transport. It is a miracle of fluid life. Everything in Venice is to be seen in relation to its watery form. The water enters the life of the people. They are “fluid”; they seem to resist clarity and precision. When the more affluent Venetians built villas on the mainland, they always chose sites as close as possible to the River Brenta. The Venetian painter, Tintoretto, loved to depict flowing and gushing water; it expressed something of his own spirit. In the work of Giorgione, and of his Venetian school, there are constant allusions to fresh and running water, to wells and pools and lakes. In myth and folklore water has always been associated with eyes, and with the healing of eyes. Is it any wonder, then, that Venice is the most visually seductive of all the cities of the world?

The endless presence of water also breeds anxiety. Water is unsettling. You must be more alert and watchful in your perambulations. Everything shifts. There is a sense of otherness. The often black or viscous dark green water looks cold. It cannot be drunk. It is shapeless. It has depth but no mass. As the Venetian proverb states, “water carries no stains.” This formless water has therefore been used as a metaphor for the human unconscious. In his essay, “The Visions of Zosimos,” Carl Jung relates that the spirit is hidden in water like the fish. Venice has been depicted as a fish. This wondrous water, infused with spirit, represents the cycle of birth and death. But if water is the image of the unconscious life, it thereby harbours strange visions and desires. The close affiliation of Venice and water encourages sexual desire; it has been said to loosen the muscles, by human imitation of its flow, and to enervate the blood.

Yet Venice reflects upon its own reflection in the water. It has been locked in that deep gaze for many centuries. So there has been a continuing association between Venice and the mirror. It was the first city to manufacture mirrors on a commercial scale, and by the seventeenth century was fashioning the largest mirrors in the world. The plate glass for mirrors had been created by the end of the fifteenth century. Two of the greatest of all Venetian artists, Giovanni Bellini and Titian, painted young women in the act of gazing at themselves in a mirror. In both of the paintings there is a mirror poised behind the head, and one raised towards the face. The date of both paintings has been given as 1515, only eight years after the government of Venice licensed the making of mirrors on the island of Murano. The artists were publicising Venetian commodities or, rather, they shared the Venetian preoccupation with luxury goods. Yet at the same time they were contemplating in painterly terms the contrast between the true surface and the glassy surface, a duality of which they were well aware in the world all around them. The young woman might have been Venice herself, sitting and admiring rather pensively her own reflection.

The image in the mirror may in some sense be a guarantee of identity and of wholeness. The root of narcissism lies in anxiety, and the fear of fragmentation, which may be assuaged by the sight of the reflection. The Virgin Mary, in the Book of Wisdom, is lauded as “a spotless mirror of God”; Venice always associated itself with the Virgin. But of course the image in the mirror is a false self; it is hard, abstract and elusive. It has been said that the Venetians are always aware of the image of themselves. They were once masters of the display and the masquerade. They were always acting. One of the favourite pastimes of Venetian audiences in the eighteenth century was the use of opera glasses trained upon each other.

It is a place of doubleness, and perhaps therefore of duplicity and double standards. Travelling on the newly built railway Richard Wagner was intent upon “looking down from the causeway at the image of Venice rising reflected from the waters beneath,” when his companion “suddenly lost his hat out of the railway car window when leaning out in delight.” The reflection is delightful because it seems to be as substantial and as lively as that which is reflected. When you look down upon the water, Venice seems to have no foundations except for reflections. Only its reflections are visible. Venice and Venice’s image are inseparable.

In truth there are two cities, which exist only in the act of being seen.

<p>3</p> <p>Mirror, Mirror</p>

There is in Venice an abiding attachment to the surface. It has become commonplace that in the city only the fronts of houses were worth embellishment or decoration. Most of the Gothic façades are simply that—screens that bear no relation to the organic structure of the buildings themselves. It is one of the strangest aspects of a city that in certain respects resembles an ornamental shell. The rich plaster and stucco may conceal decaying brickwork, and Ruskin speculated on the “duplicity” of Saint Mark’s where internal and external ornamentation were quite distinct. The city was built in brick but disguised by marble.

It seemed to matter not at all that behind the sumptuous façades the grand Venetian houses were often cold, dirty and uncomfortable. In similar fashion, among the owners of these houses, there was an outward show of prodigality combined with avarice and penny-pinching at home. That was the Venetian way. It was not at all usual to invite guests, for example, into the house itself; that inward space was confined to relatives and the most intimate friends. The English poet, Thomas Gray, remarked that in their domestic lives Venetians were “parsimonious to a degree of nastiness.”

Honour was important in Venetian society, as in others, but the mark of honour was what was known as bella figura; it might be interpreted as the art of keeping up appearances. One of the great engines of Venetian life was, and is still, the fear of criticism. Everything must be done according to form, and for the sake of form. That form may hide malfeasance and corruption, but it is important that it remains in place. It resembles the façade or screen of the Venetian house.

The twin imperatives of show and spectacle, design and ostentation, move through every level and every aspect of Venetian society. A sixteenth-century account of a bankrupt banker of the Rialto explained in passing that “this market and the city of Venice are naturally very inclined to love and trust in appearances.” The painters of Venice lingered over the rich surfaces of the world. The architecture of Venice had the artifice and outwardness of the theatre. Venetian music has always been concerned with outward effectiveness rather than internal coherence. The literature of Venice was oratorical in nature, whether in theatre or in popular song. No other city-state in Italy was so concerned with problems of rhetoric and style. Venetian ceilings are characteristically false ceilings, suspended somewhere beneath the beams. In the eighteenth century display and spectacle became a way of masking the decay and failure of public policy. It is a constant note, one that provides a clear insight into the identity of the city and its people.

The contemporary restoration of many buildings in Venice is a case history of seeming rather than being. In their devotion to appearances the restorers have created an unreal city, bearing little relation to its past or to its present. The architects and designers were concerned to reprise the aesthetic contours of the city; but these were imagined rather than real, the fruit of wishful thinking and nostalgia. What happened in practice is that they remodelled or modified the architectural language of the past to make it fit their own preconceptions of how Venice really ought to look. Fluting and veneer were removed; horizontal lines were straightened and strengthened; windows were altered to conform to the structure; balconies were narrowed for the sake of overall harmony; attics were taken out, and baroque fixtures replaced by Gothic. For some reason the stronger shades of red and yellow have spread in a city where they did not exist before. The style was known as ripristino. It amounted to the creation of fakes. It is an example of a general malaise of modern Venice, first recognised by the German sociologist Georg Simmel in the early part of the twentieth century. He remarked that the city represented “the tragedy of a surface that has been left by its foundation.” That does not render Venice superficial. Quite the contrary. The attention to surface, without depth, provokes a sense of mystery and of unknowability.

For many centuries Venice has been famous for its glass-making, now the preponderant industry on the island of Murano. What is the attraction of glass for the city of the sea? Glass is material sea. It is sea made solid, its translucence captured and held immobile. It is as if you could take up handfuls of the sea and turn it into brocade. Venice is the place for this. The first writer on the making of glass in Venice, Georgius Agricola, wrote in the early sixteenth century that the glass was formed out of “fusible stones” and “solidified juices,” an apt translation of Venice’s position between water and stone. Sand becomes crystal. It is not Venetian sand, however. It came from Syria and then later from Fontainebleau in France. Yet the Venetian glass-makers were the most ancient, and the most skilled, in the world.

Glass-makers had worked in the lagoon from the time of the Romans. There are finds of glass from the fourth to the seventh centuries, and a seventh- or eighth-century furnace in Torcello shows evidence of Roman manufacturing conditions. Folk tradition always asserted the continuity of glass-making on the islands, and there may indeed have been some legacy of inherited skills. Yet much of the expertise derived from Byzantine and Islamic sources. It is another example of the balance Venice maintained between two worlds.

An individual glass-maker, a certain “Domenico,” is first mentioned in a document of 982. A Venetian guild of glass-makers was established in the thirteenth century. In that same century, for fear of fires, the glass-manufacturers were transferred to the island of Murano. There they flourished. But they were in a sense imprisoned by the state. They could not move to any other part of Italy. To reveal any of the secrets of Venetian glass-making was to incur the death penalty. Any workman who escaped to the mainland was hunted down and, where possible, forcibly retrieved. It is, if nothing else, a token of the importance of the trade in the Venetian economy. Glass-making was vital to the city’s economic success. It would be absurd to suggest that the Muranese workmen believed themselves to be oppressed, or were forced to labour in any climate of fear, but the threat of state punishment is an apt token of the constant presence of the Venetian state in all aspects of Venetian life. It was by no means a free society. It was an insular, and therefore enclosed, society.

They made goblets and ewers, bottles and flasks, beads and chalices, lamps and windows, pitchers and eye-glasses, as well as a range of ornamental objects created out of cristallo, a malleable form with all the translucence and brilliancy of rock crystal. They could render a glass so fine that it was reputed to burst into fragments if it came into contact with poison. The workmen of Murano created glass that had the colour of milk, glass that mimicked the texture of ice, glass threaded with copper crystals. Types of glass resembled marble or metal or porcelain. From the fifteenth century forward, in fact, Venetian glass grew ever more elaborate and ornate. It became a luxury, at a time when Venice had become the provider of luxuries of every description. Objects became ever more useless and ever more expensive. In 1500 one contemporary noted of the Muranese glass industry that “there is no kind of precious stone that cannot be imitated by the industry of the glass-workers, a sweet contest of man and nature.”

Venice had already been involved in that contest, sweet or otherwise, for many hundreds of years. It is another reason for its perfect adaptation to the trade. An early seventeenth-century English traveller, James Howell, marvelled how a furnace fire could “convert such a small lump of dark Dust and Sand into such a precious clear Body as Crystal.” But had not Venice wrought such a transformation upon itself, from the dark dust and sand of its origins? Out of that dust and sand came a crystal city, its churches and bridges and houses billowing out and growing ever more expansive. When the travellers came to Murano, in order to observe all the arts of glass-blowing with spatula and pincer, they were peering into the nature and growth of the translucent city.

The lagoon was often described as resembling molten glass, and indeed glass became a metaphor for Venice itself. There was a saying that “the first handsome woman that ever was made was made of Venetian glass.” Glass is translucent, weightless; it is not a dense material, but is a medium for colour and light. Glass has no content. It is all surface, infolded in crests and waves, where the inner is also outer. Venetian painters learned from their fellow citizens who worked at the furnaces. They learned how to mingle colour, and how to create the impression of flux and molten form. They borrowed material in a literal sense. They mingled tiny pieces of glass with their pigments, to convey the shimmer and transparency they observed all around them. It glimmers; it is flecked by foam; it ripples and undulates; it possesses a giant translucent calm; it has currents of darker colour; it is fluid. So the glass is, like Venice, of the sea.

An early map of Venice, devised in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries; it looks small, fragile and defenceless in its watery world. (photo credit i1.1)

A perspective plan of Venice, painted with oil upon panel, displays the city at its most stately and noble. (photo credit i1.2)

The interior of the basilica of Saint Mark, glowing with the radiance of gold. The roof is a sea of gold. The mosaic work, covering forty thousand square feet, is a skein of iridescence thrown across the walls and arches. (photo credit i1.3)

A mosaic of the Virgin Mary, from the beginning of the thirteenth century, from the basilica of Saint Maria Assunta on the island of Torcello. Mosaic is the true art of Venice. (photo credit i1.4)

A mosaic of the Flood in the western portico of the basilica of Saint Mark. The fear of encroaching waters was a Venetian obsession. (photo credit i1.5)

The Stealing of the Body of Saint Mark, by Tintoretto. Only in Venice can the artist’s fieriness and extravagance be properly realised. His art is Venice in its purest and most spiritual form. (photo credit i1.6)

The Lion of Saint Mark, painted on panel in the fifteenth century. It is the image of Venice, seen everywhere in the city. The leonine symbol is one of authority and of paternalism. It is also a token of justice. (photo credit i1.7)

Monks praying to Saint Theodore, an illustration of the fourteenth century. Saint Theodore was the patron saint of Venice before being replaced by Saint Mark. He was a wholly Byzantine saint, emphasizing the city’s early affinity with that civilisation. (photo credit i1.8)

A photograph of the piazzetta San Marco, with the pillars of Saint Mark and Saint Theodore guarding the holy space. The piazzetta was redesigned in the sixteenth century as a stage set, with the pillars as the frame. (photo credit i1.9)

A religious procession in front of the basilica, completed by Gentile Bellini in 1496. Such processions had both a civic and spiritual significance. They were the living embodiment of sacred and secular governance in Venice. (photo credit i1.10)

A photograph, taken in the 1880s, of the crowds in Saint Mark’s Square. The Square became known as “the finest drawing room in Europe.” (photo credit i1.11)

The Miracle of the Cross on San Lorenzo Bridge, painted in 1500 by Gentile Bellini. Venice was itself a city of miracles. No city in Europe, with the possible exception of Rome, has witnessed so many. The survival of Venice itself, on the waters, was deemed to be a miracle. (photo credit i1.12)

The departure of the doge’s ship, the “Bucintoro,” towards the Venice Lido on Ascension Day. This scene, painted by Francesco Guardi in the 1760s, depicts the marriage of the city and the sea. The doge halted at the part of the Lido where the waters of the Adriatic and the lagoon meet. Here a large flask of holy water was emptied into the mingling currents. (photo credit i1.13)

The Healing of a Possessed by Vittore Carpaccio, painted in 1494. Here can clearly be seen the Rialto bridge spanning the Grand Canal. The artist faithfully depicts the wooden bridge, the sign of the Sturgeon Inn, the houses and institutions along both banks of the Canal. His is the poetry of urban detail, with its bricks and balconies and chimney-tops. (photo credit i1.14)


1

Origins

<p>1</p> <p>Origins</p>

They voyaged into the remote and secluded waters. They came in flat-bottomed boats, moving over the shallows. They were exiles, far from their own cities or farms, fleeing from the marauding tribes of the North and the East. And they had come to this wild place, a wide and flat lagoon in which fresh water from the rivers on the mainland and salt water from the Adriatic mingled. At low tide there were mud-flats all around, cut through with streams and rivulets and small channels; at high tide there were small islands of silt and marsh-grass. There were shoals covered with reeds and wild grasses, rising just a little way above the waters. There were patches of land that were generally submerged but, at certain low tides, rose above the water. There were desolate marshes that the water only rarely covered. The salt marshes and the shore seemed from a distance to make up the same wide expanse, marked with ponds and islets. There were swamps here, too, as dark and uninviting as the waters that the tide did not reach. A line of islands, made up of sand and river debris, helped to protect the lagoon from the sea; these were covered with pine woods.

Although the lagoon was not far from the once great centres of Roman civilisation, it was remote and secluded. This was a solitary place, its silence broken only by the calls of the seabirds and the crash of the billows of the sea and the sound of the wind soughing in the rushes. At night it was the setting of a vast darkness, except in those patches where the moon illumined the restless waters. Yet in the daylight of the exiles’ approach the silver sea stretched out into a line of mist, and the cloudy sky seemed to reflect the silvery motions of the water. They were drawn into a womb of light. They found an island. And a voice, like the sound of many waters, told them to build a church on the ground they had found. This is one of the stories of origin that the Venetians told.

The lagoon itself is an ambiguous area that is neither land nor sea. It is approximately thirty-five miles (56 km) in length and seven miles (11 km) in width, taking a crescent shape along part of the coast of north-eastern Italy. It was created some six thousand years ago, emerging from the mud and silt and debris that came down into the Adriatic from seven rivers. The principal among them—the rivers Brenta, Sile and Piave—carried material from the Alps and the Apennines; a city of stone would one day rise on the minute debris of mountains. The swamps and marshes and mud-flats are protected from the sea by a long and narrow bank of sand, divided into islands by several channels; the longest of those islands is now known as the Lido. The channels make openings in the barrier, entrances known as porti, through which the sea rushes into the lagoon. There are now three such porti at the Lido, at Malamocco and at Chioggia. These tides breathe life into Venice.

It is a continually various and unsettled scene, part mud and part sand and part clay; it is changed by tides, always shifting and unstable. There is a current in the Adriatic that flows up and down from the Mediterranean, and each of the porti creates its own distinct basin or force of water. That is why the appearance of the lagoon has altered over the centuries. There is one theory that, as late as the sixth and seventh centuries, the lagoon was essentially a marsh covered by water at high tide. In the nineteenth century, according to John Ruskin, there were times at low tide when it seemed that Venice was marooned on a vast plain of dark green seaweed. The whole lagoon in fact would have become dry land five hundred years ago, were it not for the intervention of the Venetians themselves. The lagoon is now simply another part of Venice, another quarter that happens to be neither land nor sea. But it is slowly returning to the sea. The waters are growing deeper, and more salty. It is a precarious place. Saint Christopher, carrying the infant Christ across the water, was once a popular saint of the city.

There have always been inhabitants of the lagoon. The wilderness could, after all, be fruitful. From the earliest times there were small pockets of people—fishermen and fowlers ready to take advantage of the abundance of wildfowl and marine life as well as the autumnal migration of the fish from the rivers to the sea. The marshes are also a natural place for the harvesting of salt. Salt was a valuable commodity. The Venetians were always known as a mercantile people, but the first stirrings of trade in this area began even before their ancestors had arrived.

The earliest tribes are lost in the darkness of prehistory. But the first recognisable ancestors of the Venetians inhabited the region surrounding the lagoon from the eighth century BC. These were the people who dwelled in the north-eastern part of Italy as well as along the coasts of what are now Slovenia and Croatia. They were known as the Veneti or the Venetkens; Homer refers to them as the “Enetoi,” because there is no “v” sound in classical Greek. They were primarily merchants, as the Venetians would become, trading in amber and wax, honey and cheese. They set up great markets, like those which the Venetians eventually established. They traded with Greece, just as Venice would one day trade with Byzantium and the East. They specialised in the extraction of salt from coastal areas, in a way that anticipates the Venetian monopoly of salt production.

They dressed in black, which became the colour characteristically worn by patrician Venetian males. Hercules was the tribal hero of the Veneti, and became a legendary protector of Venice; he is the demigod who acquires by labour what others claim by right. The Veneti traced their descent from Antenor, who led them from the ruined city of Troy. They were well known for their skill in seamanship, and were essentially a maritime people. They submitted, in marital and familial matters, to the authority of the state. These were the people who inhabited cities such as Padua and Altino, Aquileia and Grado. These were the exiles who came for safety to the waters of the lagoon.

Before the time of flight, the Veneti were thoroughly Romanised. By the second century AD they had made a pact with the powers of Rome. In the reign of Augustus the area of the lagoon was part of the Tenth District of Italy and then in the fourth century it became part of the eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire. The lagoon was already partly settled. On one of the islands, S. Francesco del Deserto, have been found the remains of a Roman port with pottery from the first century and wall plaster of the third century.

The port was no doubt used by those vessels sailing between Aquileia and Ravenna, bearing grain from Pannonia as well as goods and supplies from more distant shores. Amphorae have been discovered here, for the carriage of wine and olive oil that had come from the eastern Mediterranean. The larger ships would dock on the island, their goods then transported to smaller ships for the shallows of the lagoon. There must have been local pilots, therefore, to guide the craft through these exiguous waters. A walkway, dating to the second century AD, has been found beneath the nave of the basilica of S. Maria Assunta on the island of Torcello. Roman remains have been found at a great depth on the island of S. Giorgio Maggiore, and material from the first and second centuries has been discovered on smaller islands. Other finds, on other islands, can be dated from the fourth to the seventh centuries. It has been suggested that the outer islands of the lagoon could have been used as a station for the Roman fleet; it is conceivable, to say no more, that villas were constructed here.

Yet there was a fundamental change in the nature of the lagoon when the exiles from the mainland began to arrive in larger and larger numbers. There was no central exodus, but rather successive waves of migration that culminated in the late sixth century. The Veneti were escaping from invaders. In 403 Alaric the Visigoth descended upon the province of Venetia; in the words of Claudian, the historian of Rome, “fame proclaimed the march of the barbarian, and filled the land with terror.” Aquileia and Verona fell, with many of their inhabitants fleeing to the safety of the islands. When the threat of Alaric had passed, some returned home. But others stayed, making a new life in the lagoon. In 446 Attila gained Roman provinces from the Danube to the Balkans and then, six years later, took Aquileia; Altino and Padua were also sacked. Once more the refugees from these disasters fled to the lagoon.

There was a pattern to their movement. The people of Altino migrated to Torcello and Burano, for example, while those from Treviso went to Rialto and Malamocco. The inhabitants of Padua sailed to Chioggia. The citizens of Aquileia moved to Grado, which was itself protected by marshes. They came with craftsmen and builders, with farmers and labourers, with patricians and plebeians; they came with the sacred vessels from their churches, and even with the stones of their public buildings so that they might build anew. But how could they build on such shifting ground? How could they build upon mud and water? It was possible, however, for wooden poles of from ten to a dozen feet in length to be sunk into the mud before reaching a layer of harder clay and dense sand that acted as a firm foundation. This was the “boundary” at the bottom of the lagoon. So there sprang up small houses known as casoni made from the wood of poles and boards, with pitched roofs of wattle and reed.

New towns, such as Heraclea and Equilio (Jesolo), were founded by the edge of the lagoon. On the islands were established village communities, with leaders consulting assemblies of the people. The Veneti may also have set up fortified encampments, in the event that the Huns or Goths decided to move against them. But the islanders were fractious and competitive; there was no unity in the lagoons. So in 466, just twenty years after the appearance of Attila, a meeting of all the Veneti of the lagoon was held at Grado. It was decided that each island would be represented by a tribune, and that the tribunes would then work together for the common good. They were, after all, facing the same dangers and difficulties—not least from the depredations of the sea. This was the first sign of the public and communal spirit that would one day manifest itself so clearly in Venice itself.

The Veneti were by the sixth century a defined presence in the region. They were paid to ferry people and goods between the ports and harbours of the mainland. They transported the soldiers of Byzantium from Grado to the river Brenta. They carried officials and merchants to Byzantium itself. Already they were known for their maritime skills. Their boats travelled up the rivers of northern Italy, trading salt and fish to the cities and villages en route.

The first description of these island people comes in a letter sent in 523 to their tribunes by a legate from the Ostrogoth kingdom then prevailing in northern Italy. Cassiodorus was asking them to transport wine and oil across the waters to Ravenna. “For you live like seabirds,” he wrote, “with your homes dispersed, like the Cyclades, across the surface of the water. The solidity of the earth on which they rest is secured only by osier and wattle; yet you do not hesitate to oppose so frail a bulwark to the wildness of the sea.” He was not quite accurate in his description; there were already some houses constructed from the stone and brick of the mainland. He went on to say that the Veneti “have one great wealth—the fish which suffices for you all. Among you there is no difference between rich and poor; your food is the same, your houses are all alike.” Again, this was not quite true. Extant testimonials suggest that, even at an early stage in the development of the lagoon, there were rich as well as poor families. Cassiodorus then added that “your energies are spent on your salt fields; in them indeed lies your prosperity.” In this, at least, he was right. And he added the significant detail of “your boats—which like horses you keep tied up at the doors of your dwellings.” By good fortune one of these boats has emerged from the mud of the lagoon. Part of a rib of oak, and a hull of lime, have been found on the island of S. Francesco del Deserto; the boat itself dates to the fifth century. It was lying at a level that, in this period, would have been submerged except at times of low tide.

Yet Venice itself was not yet born. It is not shown in a fourth-century map of the region, in which the lagoon is depicted as a sea route without people. Venetian historians claimed, however, that the city was established at midday on 25 March 421, by a poor fisherman known as Giovanni Bono or John the Good. There are advantages to this theory, since the same date has been given to the vernal equinox, the Annunciation and the supposed date of the foundation of Rome. The triple coincidence, as well as the provident arrival of John the Good, is too good to be true; but it is part of the extraordinary Venetian ability to supplant history with myth. As the German poet, Rilke, said on a visit to the city in 1920, “as with mirrors one grasps nothing but is only drawn into the secret of its elusiveness. One is filled with images all day long, but could not substantiate a single one of them. Venice is a matter of faith.”

In fact Venice emerged over a century later, after a series of invasions by the Lombards in the late 560s and early 570s. Once more the province of Venetia was overcome by alien tribes. Unlike the Huns, however, they did not wish to plunder and depart. They intended to stay and to settle. They overran what is now called in their name the region of Lombardy. Their arrival prompted a mass exodus of the Veneti. The bishop of Aquileia moved his see to the edge of the lagoon at Grado. The bishop of Padua removed himself to Malamocco, and the bishop of Oderzo sailed to Heraclea. These men were secular as well as religious leaders; they took citizens as well as congregations, ready to create new communities on the water. Burano and Murano were extensively settled, as well as smaller islands such as Ammiana and Constanziaca; these last two disappeared beneath the waves in the thirteenth century, swallowed up by the main enemy of the island people. They have never rested in their battle against the sea.

Venice was born in this flight from the Lombards. The most recent archaeological investigations have dated the first signs of human habitation to the second half of the sixth century and to the seventh century; these remains were situated in the neighbourhood of Castello, in the east of the city, and beneath Saint Mark’s Square. There is evidence, too, that in these early years work had already begun on raising the surface of the land and reclaiming earth from water. The settlers fenced the soil with planks and poles; they drained the water; they laid down building rubble, or sediment, or sand from the dunes; they erected wooden palisades to resist the sea. It is the beginning of the city.

The exiles had decided to settle on a favoured group of islands, midway in the lagoon, known collectively as the Rivoalto or the high bank. This eventually became the Rialto, the pre-eminent market-place and emporium of the city. The islands were interspersed with rivulets and water-courses but there was one larger river, a tributary of the Brenta known as the Rivoaltus; this became in time the Grand Canal. Two more solid hills or islands—their description depends entirely upon how you judge the nature of the territory—faced each other along the course of this river. This is where Venice was created. This was land where the exiles could build. It was not easy work. In 589 there are reports of catastrophic flooding throughout the entire region, the force of which was so great that the course of certain rivers was altered. The calamity would have changed the hydraulic structure of the lagoon, but its effects upon the emerging Venice are not known.

Venice did not immediately become the most important city of the lagoon. Grado was the seat of the patriarch; Torcello was the great emporium or market of the region. The ducal seat, as it became known, moved from Eraclea to Malamocco. In the period when Venice was first being settled, there were elaborate building works elsewhere. The basilica of S. Maria Assunta was then being built on Torcello; an inscription on that site is dated 639, and confirms that the church was erected within the context of Byzantine ritual and worship.

The connection with Byzantium is important. The historiographers of Venice insisted that from the beginning the Venetians asserted their independence. There is a famous legend of their leaders telling a representative from Byzantium that God Himself “has preserved us that we may live in these watery marshes, in our huts of wood and wattle. For this new Venice which we have raised in the lagoons has become a mighty habitation for us.” They could not be touched by the kings and princes of the world “unless they come by sea, where lies our strength.” This is pure myth-making. The Venetians were at the beginning a subject people. The language of the early Venetians had an admixture of Greek, for example, and as late as the last century there were still Graeco-Roman elements in the dialect of the islanders of Burano.

There is some disagreement about the date when the first military commander of the lagoon, or dux, was appointed by the Byzantines; it is most likely to have been in the early eighth century. The Venetians came to believe that he had been chosen by the island people themselves, but there is no doubt that this duke or doge reported to the emperor in Byzantium. The appointment of a military commander did not in itself bring any harmony to the lagoon; the early centuries were filled with internecine strife, between island and island or family and family; there are reports throughout the eighth century of civil war, of battles in the forests surrounding the lagoon, of doges being blinded or murdered or sent into exile. But the political institution survived the early crises; a doge reigned in Venice for more than a thousand years, 120 doges in unbroken succession.

Venice is made up of 117 separate islands that were with effort and labour eventually conjoined. There were at first scattered island parishes, some of them dominated by monastic foundations and others by small communities such as fishermen or salt producers. There would have been islands of boat-builders, too. These insular communities were grouped around a church and campanile or bell tower; the green or square in front of the church was (and is still) known as the campo or field. In the campo was a well or cistern of fresh water collected from the frequent rain. The houses were characteristically of reed and wattle construction, although the houses of the more prominent citizens may already have been constructed out of brick and tile. Some islands were dominated by powerful families, exiled from the mainland, who kept their retainers around them to cultivate their gardens or vineyards; the Orio and Gradenigo families, for example, controlled the island of S. Giovanni di Rialto. Each island had its own patron saint.

The island parishes were separated from each other by marsh or water, but waterways had been established to connect them. There was already a pattern of habitation that grew steadily more intensive and determined. The drive towards cohesion was advanced by another invader. In 810 Pepin, the son of Charlemagne, brought his forces to the lagoon in order to claim it for the Frankish Empire. He attempted to storm the ducal seat of Malamocco, and the doge fled to the islands of the Rivoalto for protection. It is said that Pepin followed in pursuit, but that his fleet became enmired in the marshes and receding waters; that he despatched rafts made of timber and brushwood, but that Venetian sailors destroyed them; and that an old woman directed them across the treacherous shallows with the old Venetian instruction, sempre diritto—just go on in the same direction. There are unmistakeable intimations here of the army of the pharaoh being overwhelmed by the Red Sea, an analogy upon which future Venetian painters would dwell. Whatever the true circumstances of the defeat, Pepin was forced to abandon his mission. So the place of ducal refuge, Venice, was proved to be the place of safety. It was inviolable, sheltered among the marshes. It was protected by the lidi from the sea, and separated from the mainland by water. After the invasion of the Franks, Venice became the ducal seat. It became the centre of the lagoon. It had begun its great career.

It prospered, too, from its secluded position. In a treaty of 814, it was agreed that Venice would remain a province under Byzantine rule but that it would also pay an annual tribute to the Frankish king whose seat was now in Italy. This may sound like a double obligation, but in fact it freed Venice from single domination. It now stood between Franks and Byzantines, between West and East, between Catholic and Orthodox; its central position allowed Venice to steer a somewhat uncertain course, sometimes leaning to one side and sometimes to the other. It also provoked many disagreements among the ruling families of the lagoon, which had different allegiances and loyalties among the parties of the mainland and of the Eastern Empire. Nevertheless the position of Venice effectively secured its independence. One of the clauses of the treaty of 814 allowed Venetian merchant ships to sail freely to and from Italian ports. The Venetians, in other words, were able to trade. They could move between East and West. Venice became, predominantly, a city of merchants.

And it grew very rapidly. Many of the inhabitants of the lagoon soon migrated to the small islands around the Rivoalto. By the end of the ninth century there were some thirty island parishes, and by the close of the millennium there were more than fifty; the effects of a fire in 976, when three hundred houses were destroyed, is a testimony to the dense population. Those parishes grouped closest to the Rivoalto became connected by bridges or canals. The ramparts were erected, the marshes drained, the dykes constructed; the swamps were reclaimed, and the ground made fertile. Some of the major streets, surviving still, were then first laid out as footpaths. Stages and landing stairs were built, some public and some private. Dams were created to prevent the silt from the rivers washing into the lagoon. A service of ferry boats was instituted. Venice became an urban mass, hot and energetic, fixed upon the mud and water. It represented a vast human and communal effort, urged on by necessity and practicality. The goal of common existence was always there. There was a desire to make or to reclaim land, to conquer the water, to unify and to protect the common soil.

Venice in the ninth and tenth centuries was a medieval city, where pigs roamed about the streets and where pastures and gardens interrupted the vista of houses and churches. There were districts with the epithet “In the Marsh” or “In the Wilderness” or “In the Seaweed.” The citizens travelled on horseback along the main street, the Merceria, and tethered their animals to the great elder trees which flourished in what is now the Piazza S. Marco or Saint Mark’s Square (otherwise simply known as the Piazza). There were flat wooden bridges, without steps, connecting the islands. There were trees along the banks of the canals. On the surrounding islands there were meadows where cattle and sheep grazed; there were vineyards and orchards; there were ponds and small lakes. On the central islands, which gradually coalesced, there were courtyards and narrow alleys that bequeathed to the calli of modern Venice their unique circuitry. In front of the houses of stone, or even of the poorer houses of wood and reeds, were short stretches of land; these became the fondamenta of the mature city, the streets running along the canals.

By the end of the first quarter of the ninth century the area around what is now Saint Mark’s Square had been completed. There was a ducal palace or castle here, together with a large ducal chapel dedicated to the Byzantine Saint Theodore. The more important families also built residences here, to be close to the centre of power. Eventually the fields were cleared to make way for a piazza; a large pool or fishing-pond was filled in, thus forming the piazzetta or little piazza in front of the ducal palace. This duopoly of sacred and secular authority held its place on the site for more than a thousand years.

It was not called Venezia until the thirteenth century. But the region of the lagoon was known as Veneto or Venetia. The Latin term for Venice was always Venetiae, thus registering its origin as a federation of islands or cities. It has nineteen different appellations, ranging from Venegia to Veniexia, thus affirming its multiple identity. It might be construed a portmanteau word, containing Venus and ice.

Venice had no single or distinct origin. The cities of the Italian mainland had been settled through prehistory, their territory defined by their burial grounds and defended by a circumambient wall. They had grown in organic fashion from a ritual centre to an expanding periphery. The reverence for the city is linked to the reverence for place and reverence for the dead who lie interred there. The earliest cities are primeval in origin. From the beginning Venice had no perimeter. It had no outline. It coalesced from a hundred different points. Venice, in a literal sense, had no roots. It had a fluid origin indeed, one written in water. It is insecurely placed in the world. That is why it has always been subject to anxiety, as in the present “Venice in Peril” campaign.

Venice has therefore sought to define itself. It has sought for origins. It has felt obliged to uncover some hidden, or reveal some absent, origin. Machiavelli wrote that “the beginnings of religions and of republics and of kingdoms must possess some goodness by means of which they gain their first reputation and their first growth.” This was the problem facing the Venetians. They had, in that sense, no “goodness.”

So they invented stories of origin, all of them involving some kind of divine dispensation—not least in the apparently “historical” fact that the Venetians were Christian exiles fleeing from pagan invaders. On the pavement of S. Maria della Salute, in Venice, is carved the inscription “unde origo inde salus” or salvation springs from origin. Thus there grew up certain exquisite and elaborate legends of the beginning. They are not to be dismissed. Legends represent the earliest form of poetry. Venice is the place of legends, particularly of religious legends, just as it has always been a city of miracles.

The people of Altino were in doubt where to flee from the pagans, until they heard a voice from the heavens declaring “Go up into the tower and look towards the stars.” When they climbed the tower, the reflections of the stars in the water made a path toward the islands of the lagoon. In another version of this story all the birds of the region were seen, with their young in their beaks, flying towards the islands. The voice out of the bright cloud, calling the exiles in their boats, has been heard at the beginning of this chapter. Eight of the earliest churches of Venice were established by divine decree. Saint Magnus was told in a vision to build a church where he first saw a flock of sheep; this was in Castello. The Virgin Mary appeared in a bright cloud, heralding the rise of S. Maria Formosa. A great assembly of birds chose the site of the church of S. Raphael. A red cloud hovered above the site of S. Salvatore near the Rialto bridge. There were other more secular legends that the Venetians had as their ancestors the Romans or even the Trojans but they, too, can be discounted. These legends, like Venice itself, have no foundation.

The city was built upon water by celestial decree. It was a miracle, in itself, to build upon the sea. Thus it became a city of miracles. It was a predestined spot, a providential site. Everywhere in the Venetian chronicles there is a great and shining image of the city. Venice became part of the history of human redemption. Its divine origin was attested by its perfect constitution, enduring for a thousand years, and even by its mercantile supremacy. In paintings by Venetian artists God the Father and the Holy Spirit preside over Saint Mark’s Square. On the Rialto bridge are carved the figures of Gabriel and the Virgin Mary at the moment of the Annunciation. Venice was idealised beyond any recalcitrant historical fact or inglorious episode.

Yet the real origins of Venice, scattered or random as they are, vouchsafe a great truth about the city. They convey certain characteristics, or certain qualities, to the nature of life there. Every organic thing wishes to give form and expression to its own nature; and so, by obscure presentiment and by the steady aggregate of communal desires, Venice took shape. The statue is latent in the marble. The Venetians had no arable land of their own, so they were obliged to earn their living by trade and industry. The city which was half land and half water devised a quintessentially “mixed” constitution in which the various forces of the state were balanced. There was a constant preoccupation, among all sections of the community, with stability and continuity. Where are those qualities more necessary than in a place shifting and uncertain? A city created by exiles became, over the centuries, a home for many and various refugees. Its empire overseas, and its incursions into mainland Italy, were all based upon the necessity for self-preservation. It always perceived itself to be a city under threat. Venice did not emerge from the union of rural peasantry. It was always urban. Venice was not, in its infancy, a feudal society. By the tenth century it was already known as “la civitas Rivoalti,” civitas implying a citizen state.

The great and enduring fact, however, was the fight against the sea. Out of this arose the need for common purpose and community of effort. There was no antagonism between the individual and the collective or, rather, the Venetian individual through the centuries subsumed himself or herself within the organism as a whole. It is an organism that, like the human organism, can be seen as a unity. It obeys its own laws of growth and change. It has an internal dynamism. It is more than the sum of its parts. Each aspect of Venetian culture and society reflects the whole.

From the ninth century three Venetian commissioners were appointed to administer and oversee the defence and reclamation of the land. An entire bureaucracy eventually emerged to control the depredations of the sea. From the beginning Venice was a state of intervention. The earliest sea-defences consisted of wooden stakes interwoven with wickerwork; at a later date rivers were diverted, and great walls of stone built against the water.

Land could not be reclaimed, nor islands joined, without the cooperation of neighbour with neighbour and community with community. Dams could not be built without the unity derived from common interest. So from the beginning Venetians were possessed by the idea of communal life. They created the first communal palace, and the first civic square, in Italy. Venice was perhaps also the first city in Europe to benefit from what has been called city-planning, with the deliberate “zoning” of industries and activities along the peripheries of the city. All this was part of the search for the common good. The battle against natural obstacles is the battle for human culture and improvement. It requires immense cohesion, and a social discipline that is best reinforced by religious observance. So emerges the concept of the state as divinely inspired.

Yet we must not discount the character and temperament of these early settlers. Their work was hard and continual, and could not have been carried on successfully without large measures of energy and optimism. These are, or were, the distinctive qualities of the Venetian people. They are, or were, proud of their city. It was one of the characteristics noted by travellers. Yet nature sometimes retaliates against those who attempt to curb it. Certain islands of the lagoon were submerged by the encroaching sea; settlements disappeared or were abandoned. There was always, somewhere in the Venetian soul, the threat of punishment and disaster.


2

Water, Water Everywhere

<p>2</p> <p>Water, Water Everywhere</p>

Venice was, until the building of a railway bridge in the middle of the nineteenth century, a small island, or collection of islands. Venetians were islanders, with all the benefits and burdens that accrue to that especial status. To be insular is to be independent; but it is also to be alone. It secures a measure of safety, but it also attracts attention from those on the larger mainland. It exemplifies vulnerability, even when outward circumstances seem favourable. Yet as an island city Venice survived all the wars and invasions that have beset Italy since the eleventh century; it successfully defied both pope and emperor, French invasion and Spanish incursion, and the continual forays of the other city-states of Italy. If it had not been surrounded by water, it would have been destroyed many centuries ago.

But that separation from the mainland, from Italy and the world, has taken its own toll. Although Venice has been part of Italy since 1866, Italy has largely ignored it. It is considered as somehow extraneous. The Italians do not really think of Venice at all; it belongs to some other realm of fancy or of artifice. On the part of the Venetians the tradition of liberty, and of freedom from the fear of invasion, bred a certain insouciance. The island guaranteed the citizens their self-sufficiency, perhaps, but it also encouraged a certain self-enclosed or self-referential attitude towards the rest of the world. It is still easy, in Venice, to grow indifferent to what is happening elsewhere. Venetians themselves are not particularly concerned with the affairs of what might be called the wider community. From the remoteness, and isolation, can also spring melancholy. Venice is no longer an island, but the island temperament remains.

And of course the islanders must always look out to sea. It is their context. It is their horizon. Where would they be without the sea? The city rests on the silt at the bottom of the sea. It is as much a part of the sea as the tides and the waves. The sea flows between the wooden piles that sustain it. The sea flushes beneath it. There is something innately unsettling about living in Venice. There is salt in the air, and the atmosphere is rendered hazy by evaporation. The haze easily becomes sea mist or sea fog. The air seems to melt above the buildings. The salt and damp leave silvery traces on the whitened walls, as if they were made out of mother-of-pearl. The birds flying above them are the seagulls. And there is seaweed floating along the canals beside them.

So there are images of the sea throughout Venice. The floor of the basilica of Saint Mark gently undulates, as if the congregation were walking upon waves. The area of marble slabs, on the floor of the central crossing of that church, was known in the sixteenth century as il mare. The marble columns of Saint Mark’s are veined or striated like the waves. In the other churches of the city we might note the popularity of “dolphin capitals” and the motif of the shell. Ruskin described the imposing houses along the Grand Canal as “sea-palaces.” In maps of Venice, particularly those from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the shape of the city is reminiscent of a fish or dolphin. The islands and sand-ridges, out of which Venice was made, seemed to the first settlers like the backs or dorsi of slumbering whales; one area of modern Venice is still called Dorsoduro or hard back. On top of one of the two presiding pillars in the piazzetta, Saint Theodore is astride a crocodile. There are crabs and dolphins on the capitals of the ducal palace. It would not be wonderful to meet a leviathan, or what in Moby-Dick Herman Melville calls “strange shapes of the unwarped primal world,” swimming at times of acqua alta in Saint Mark’s Square. It would not be wonderful to see a great polyp or medusa wallowing in the Grand Canal. It is a sea city.

The first impression of Venice may also be one of the sea. Goethe saw the sea for the first time in his life when he came to the city in the autumn of 1786; he glimpsed the Adriatic from the arched window of the campanile in Saint Mark’s Square. Ruskin arrived in Venice some fifty-five years later and, in his autobiography, he writes that “the beginning of everything was in seeing the gondola-beak come actually inside the door at [the hotel] Danieli’s, when the tide was up, and the water two feet deep at the foot of the stairs.” To find the waves of the Adriatic lapping within the city—to find the sea changing the nature of the stone buildings all around him—that was the great enchantment. The moon rules Venice. It is built on ocean shells and ocean ground; it has the aspect of infinity. It is the floating world.

The sea embodies all that is changing and variable and accidental. It is the restless and wilful element. It emerges in endless variations of colour and surface pattern. The paintings of Titian and Tintoretto have been said to manifest a “sea” of light, in which shape is fluid and ambiguous; the Venetian school of painting has been characterised as one of flowing colour rather than of form and outline, a curvilinear impulse that creates its own weight and volume. All is in flux. You glimpse the movement of the sea in Venetian statuary as well as Venetian painting. The mosaics of the city favour the depiction of the various biblical legends of the sea. Thus in the basilica of Saint Mark’s can be found “The Miraculous Draught of Fishes,” “His Walking on the Water” and “The Stilling of the Tempest.” There are certain churches that might have risen out of Neptune’s kingdom. The church of the Gesuiti, or S. Maria Assunta, has a baroque interior in which great cascades of grey and green and white marble are supposed to imitate wall hangings. But they more closely resemble waves, waves flowing and crashing down the sides of the church until arrested in a moment of silence and stillness. The floor of green marble might have furnished some cave beneath the ocean, as rays of light penetrate the marine gloom of the interior.

The rhythmic intelligence of the Venetians has informed much of the architecture of the city. The oncoming sea changes the perception of structure along the Venetian canals, where the buildings seem more delicate and attenuated. The façades of the churches undulate, weightless and unstable, against the surface of the water like shells at the bottom of a rock pool on the seashore. The architecture of Venice is horizontal in mass, like the sea. From a distance, across the lagoon, the impression of the city is of flatness along the horizon. It is perpetually in motion. It is baroque and mannerist rather than classical; it shimmers, as if seen through water; it is encrusted with ornament like a coral reef.

Venetian craftsmen were well known for their work in satin, where the gleamings and shimmerings of a particular fabric were known as “watered silk.” To work in silk was known in Venice as dar’onda all’amuer, or to make waves on the sea. There is an especial type of Venetian risotto, more liquid than elsewhere, that is known as all’onda or with waves. A sponge found in the Aegean is known as enetikos or the Venetian. In the last century you could buy in the tourist shops of Venice small ornaments made from the pearl shells found in the Lido, known as fiori di mare or the flowers of the sea. They are the only flowers indigenous to Venice.

There are other deep correlations between place and spirit. Venetian society has been described as fluid and ever-changing. Of Venetian politics Sir Henry Wotton, the English ambassador to Venice in the early seventeenth century, said that it “fluctuated, like the element of which the city was built.” That is the reason why Venetian historiographers were intent upon emphasising the continuity and stability of their society. They were always aware of the motion and restlessness of the sea within Venetian polity. At the heart of la Serenissima was a horror of transience, like the Venetian sailor’s dread of the sea. As the Venetian poet of the late sixteenth century, Veronica Franco, put it, “the sea itself yearns towards this city.” This may be considered a compliment, as long as the sea does not come too close.

It has been said also that the character of the Venetian people is like the tide, six hours up and six hours down according to the proverb. In fact there is a dialect phrase that the Venetians use to describe themselves—andara alla deriva, to be adrift. The mobility and lightness of the Venetian temperament are well known. The Venetians themselves have songs and proverbs about the sea. Coltivar el mare e lasser star la terra—cultivate the sea and leave the land to itself. There were once many popular songs that opened with the same phrase, in mezo al mar. In the middle of the sea is—what? Not familiar things. Not beautiful things. In the middle of the sea, according to the songs, are strange presentiments and terrifying apparitions. Here is a smoking chimney coming out of the waves. Here is an image of a dead lover. There is no celebration of the charm or poignancy of the sea, but rather a recital of its perils and its strangeness.

There are many legends and superstitions of the sea within popular Venetian lore. It is a shifting city, between sea and land, and thus it becomes the home for liminal fantasies of death and rebirth. According to the English traveller, Fynes Morisson, there was a statue of the Virgin in Venice which was always saluted by passing ships; it was surrounded by wax candles, burning perpetually in gratitude for her saving lives at sea. It is said that the sharp prow of the Venetian gondola was a replica of the shining blade of one of the soldier saints, Saint Theodore. On the approach of a storm Venetian sailors would take up swords and place one against the other in the shape of a cross. It was also recommended that the sailor take out a knife with a black handle and cut the air in the face of the coming storm.

Yet the sea is an intimation of impermanence. All things come from, and dissolve into, the water. It is enveloping. There is no evidence that the Venetians ever really loved the sea. It was essentially the enemy. Byron declared that the Venetians did not know how to swim and were possessed by the fear “of deep or even of shallow water.” The Venetians always prided themselves on having “dominion” over the sea, but that mastery was provisional and fearful. There was a constant fear of inundation. Of course it was the path to wealth, but the consequence was that the preponderance of their trade and power was at the mercy of the sea. The sea represented evil and chaos. It was cruel, and it was also divisive. The terror of complete submersion could also be seen in part as a nervous apprehension of divine anger. That is why there were ceremonies designed to propitiate the god or gods of the water. They may have been nominally directed towards the Christian God, but there was an element of awe and fear within the Venetian state that derived from much older creeds.

The city guarded the water, too. In the ducal palace the seat of the Magistrato alle Acque, or Master of the Waters, was adorned by an inscription stating that “The city of Venice benefiting from divine Providence was founded in water surrounded by water with water for walls. Thus, whoever might dare in whatever way to bring injury to these waters must be judged enemy of his country …” It ended with the declaration that “this law has been reckoned eternal.”

Each spring, on Ascension Day, there was a ritual that became known as “the marriage to the sea”; the spouse was the doge of Venice taking for his bride the turbulent waters. After mass in Saint Mark’s the doge and his retinue rowed into the lagoon in the doge’s own boat, the Bucintoro, followed by the nobles and guilds of the city. The doge halted at the part of the Lido where the waters of the Adriatic and the lagoon meet. The patriarch of Venice then emptied a large flask of holy water into the mingling currents. The waters of the earth and the waters of the spirit became indivisible. The Bucintoro was described by Goethe as “a true monstrance,” which means the receptacle where the holy eucharist may be displayed. So it becomes a holy grail tossing upon the waters, spreading benediction with a ritual of healing.

On the prow of the ship the doge took a marriage ring of gold and threw it into the water with the words “We espouse thee, O sea, as a sign of true and perpetual dominion.” Yet what true dominion could there be in such a union? One of the attributes of the ring is fertility, so the festival can be construed as one of the oldest of all ceremonies. It might also have been an act of supplication, designed to placate the storm-tossed and minatory sea. It could also have been a maritime version of casting the runes; there is a long tradition of rings thrown into the sea as an act of divination. All these meanings converge in this ancient rite of union with the sea, performed in spring at that place where the “inside” and the “outside” embraced. At a later date one of the punishments for heresy was death by drowning, when the condemned were rowed out to sea and despatched into the waters. These maritime executions might in turn be seen as sacrifices to the sea-gods.

At the close of one of these Ascension ceremonies, in 1622, there was a violent earthquake in Venice. Just as the doge and his courtiers returned from their voyage of celebration, a slow and regular thunder beneath the earth lasted for several seconds. Everything trembled but nothing, apart from a chimney, fell. There have been other quakes in the lagoon. It is an unstable area in every sense. An earthquake is recorded in 1084, when the campanile of S. Angelo was dislodged. Towards the end of the twelfth century there were simultaneous upheavals in Saint Mark’s Square and on the island of Torcello, suggesting that there is a “fault” lying between them. There was a great earthquake on Christmas Day 1223, and then again in 1283 when the shock was followed by a great inundation. On 25 January 1384, another earthquake set all the church-bells of Venice pealing at the same time; it was followed by another shock on the following day, and these quakes were repeated at intervals over an entire fortnight. The Grand Canal was empty, but the streets were full of water.

The weather of Venice is sea-weather; the air is damp and salt-laden, conducive to fog and mist. If the climate is equable, that may in part be the position of Venice. Averroes, the twelfth-century philosopher, was the first to calculate that Venice was at a latitude of forty-five degrees, at the middle point between the equinoctial and the northern Pole. It is another example of the extraordinary balance of Venice between the geographical regions of the earth. The climate is mild, compared with much of North Italy, because it is environed by the sea. The spring is delicate and fresh, the energetic wind blowing from the Adriatic. The summer can be sultry and oppressive but, once the sun has gone down behind the Friulian mountains, the air is freshened by the breezes from the sea. The autumn is the true season for Venice. It has an autumnal air, the air of melancholy and departure. The Venetian painters, Carpaccio and Bellini, bathed their canvases in an effulgent autumnal light.

There is, especially in autumn, the possibility of rain. A subdued greyness then haunts the air, and the sky is the colour of pearl. The rain can be persistent and torrential. It soaks through the most protective clothing. It can be blinding. Then the rivers may burst their banks, and the rising waters around Venice turn to a jade green. The best description of the Venetian rain is found in Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove, where he describes “a Venice of cold lashing rain from a low black sky, of wicked wind raging through narrow passes, of general arrest and interruption, with the people engaged in all the water-life huddled, stranded and wageless.…” The city of water is blockaded by water, as if the natural elements were pursuing their vengeance against the most unnatural city.

The “wicked wind” may come from several points. An east wind blows in from the sea, refreshing in the warmer months but crueller in the colder seasons of the year. A wind from the north-east, the bora, brings the colder air from the northern region of the Adriatic. A humid wind comes from the lagoon, known as the salso because of its saltladen content. Some people say that it smells of the algae and seaweed of the surrounding waters. The salt and damp penetrate the houses of Venice; the paint flakes, and patches of plaster fall from the walls. The bricks crack and eventually crumble.

There are gusts of wind that pass very quickly, and eddies or squalls of circulating air. Sir Henry Wotton wrote of “flashing winds.” All this is of the nature of the sea. There is a south-westerly wind, too, once called garbin. It may be of this wind that Saint Bernardino of Siena wrote in 1427. He asked a correspondent, “Were you ever at Venice? Sometimes of an evening, there comes a little wind which goes over the face of the waves and makes a sound upon them, and this is called the voice of the waters. But what it signifies is the grace of God, and the breath breathed forth by Him.” Even the weather of Venice was once deemed sacred.

But the most celebrated wind is the scirocco, the warm wind that comes from the south-east and can persist for three or four days. There is a scirocco di levante and a scirocco di ponente, a hot scirocco and a cool scirocco; there is even an elusive wind called the scirocchetto. The scirocco itself has been blamed for the Venetian tendency towards sensuality and indolence; it has been accused of instilling passivity and even effeminacy within the citizens. Why should people not be moulded as much by climate as by history and tradition? The outer weather can make or unmake inner weather.

Yet some weeks of the winter can be harsh, a potent reminder of the Alps and the northern snows. The most frequent weather lament concerned the bitter cold. In the winter of 1607–08 those who went fowling in the lagoon were on occasions frozen to death, and there were reports of travellers being surrounded and killed by packs of starving wolves. At the beginning of the eighteenth century came a famous “Year of the Ice” in which provisions were brought to the frozen city by sledge. In other winters the lagoon also froze, and the Venetians could walk over to the mainland. In 1788 great bonfires were lit on the Bacino, the basin of water in front of the piazzetta; stalls and booths were erected on the ice, in the Venetian equivalent of a Frost Fair. In 1863 great sheets of ice went up and down the Grand Canal, flowing with the tide, for a month. Venice was then truly the frozen world, the ice covering the houses and palaces as well as the water. The light was blinding. Venetian houses were not built for the cold; the great windows and the stone floors of the larger dwellings made them almost intolerable during the blizzards of winter. Yet there is still something inexpressibly delightful about Venice in the snow, the whiteness creating an enchanted kingdom where what is fluid has become crystal; the quiet city then becomes wholly silent beneath the panoply of snow.

But there are winter weeks of not quite snow and not quite rain. These may become the weeks or days of fog. The iridescent mist or haze is then enveloped by the myriad fogs that creep in from the sea. The grey Istrian stone becomes an outpost of the fog, a sentinel of consolidated fog looming out of the gloom. As the Esquimaux have many words for ice, so the Venetians have many names for the fog—nebbia, nebbietta, foschia, caligo. In the midst of the nebbia, it is as if heavy rain-clouds had come to rest upon the earth and water. Nothing can be seen or heard. The fog sometimes shrouds the city so that the only sounds are those of bells and muffled footsteps; if you take the vaporetto, or water-bus, that goes around the city you disappear within the white curtain about fifty yards (about 45 m) from the shore; all that is visible of Venice are the posts carrying lights. The city only rises before you when you arrive at the next stage.

There are portents for flood. The air becomes heavy and still; the roar of the sea can be heard breaking against the Lido. The waters in the canals stir uneasily, and become more green with the influx of the sea. The tide is driven forward by the wind. The water rises to the edge of the fondamenta but then, more alarmingly, it begins to well up beneath the city itself. It spouts up through the storm drains and between the paving stones; it seeps through the foundations, rising higher and higher; it washes against the marble steps of the churches. The city is at the mercy of waves that seem to be of its own making. When the sirens sound, Venice prepares for another acqua alta.

This high water, flooding the fondamenta and the campi, making a lake of Saint Mark’s Square, invading houses and hotels, is not unusual in the city. One chronicler gave an account of a great flood in 589, although assuredly there were many before that date. They may have been so common that they deserved little notice. Other floods are recorded in 782 and in 885, when water invaded the entire city. They have been occurring ever since. In 1250 the water rose steadily for four hours and, in the testimony of a contemporary, “many were drowned in their houses or died of the cold.” It was believed that the floods were provoked by demons and bad spirits, while the only protection lay in invocations to the saints who guarded Venice. At a later date there was less recourse to supernatural help. In 1732 the area of the piazzetta, facing the lagoon, was raised by one foot (0.3 m) on a calculation that the sea at Venice rose three inches (76 mm) in every century. This was an underestimate.

The acqua alta is part of a natural cycle, occurring when wind and tide and current converge in what is for Venice a fatal embrace; the bora and the scirocco can both cause surges of storm in the sea. There is also the phenomenon of the seiche, an oscillation or standing wave in the relatively shallow waters of the Adriatic. But if Venice is sinking, it is in some measure due to the removal of water by industry from artesian wells. When the water was taken from the silt and the clay, the water table was lowered—and, with it, Venice. The deepening of waterways within the lagoon, and the reclamation of marsh-land, have also increased the danger of flooding.

There are several inundations in every century, therefore, but in recent years they have been increasing in size and frequency. In the 1920s there were 385; in the 1990s there were 2,464. In November 1966, the flood reached a height of six feet four and a half inches (1.94 m). The scirocco blew for two days, keeping the murky and polluted water locked within the lagoon. At the time some believed that it would mean the death of Venice.

When the rain came, it was collected within the stone gutters of the churches and houses; it ran through the pipes and then through conduits until it reached the underground cisterns beneath every campo. There the water filtered through a body of sand before penetrating the well shaft. It was fresh and pure. The wells, or pozzi, were ubiquitous. At the middle of the nineteenth century there were still 6,782 remaining in the city, Byzantine or Gothic in construction. An immense well was sunk in the fifteenth century, in the middle of Saint Mark’s Square. Two great public cisterns were built in the courtyard of the ducal palace, from where the water-carriers or bigolanti would carry their precious commodity. They were the peasant women of the Friuli, who wore bright skirts, white stockings and hats of straw or felt; they wandered barefoot through Venice, with their copper buckets, calling out “acqua—acqua fresca.” It was a mournful, as well as a melodious, cry.

For a city built upon water, water itself was sacred. It is what in the gospel of John is called “living water.” The well-heads themselves were highly decorated as a symbol of their significant content. They were embellished by fragments of altars, pieces of religious statuary, and the stones of ancient temples, as a token of their spiritual presence. There were accounts of miracles being performed by or beside the wells. In the plague of 1464 a monk was saved from extinction by a cup of water drawn for him by a knight from a local well. The knight was later identified as Saint Sebastian and, from that time forward, the pozzo became known as Saint Sebastian’s Well. Water is holy. The Byzantine well-heads were sculpted with a range of religious symbols, including the cross and the palm tree; they were cylinders of marble, that might have been glimpsed in any eastern city. The Gothic wellheads, which resembled the capitals of great pillars, displayed figures both naturalistic and grotesque. Yet the wells often ran dry. Venice, on water, was often in need of water. After storms the wells were marred by salt water. It was a general practice for boats to be despatched to the rivers Bottenigo and Brenta in order to pick up fresh supplies. Towards the end of the nineteenth century artesian wells were established on the mainland to guarantee a more bounteous flow.

Water was the staple of life, and so the wells became central to the social routine of each parish. The iron lid that closed the mouth of each well was opened at eight in the morning, so there were always knots of people beside it during the day. It is the most common view in photographs of “old” Venice. The well defined the intimacy and density of the parish. Water has always been the great unifier and leveller, and in many respects Venice was considered to be an egalitarian city. The well was a symbol of public beneficence, a visible token of the wise stewardship of the city.

But of course water is the life and breath of Venice’s being in quite another sense. Venice is like a hydropic body filled with water, where each part is penetrated by another. Water is the sole means of public transport. It is a miracle of fluid life. Everything in Venice is to be seen in relation to its watery form. The water enters the life of the people. They are “fluid”; they seem to resist clarity and precision. When the more affluent Venetians built villas on the mainland, they always chose sites as close as possible to the River Brenta. The Venetian painter, Tintoretto, loved to depict flowing and gushing water; it expressed something of his own spirit. In the work of Giorgione, and of his Venetian school, there are constant allusions to fresh and running water, to wells and pools and lakes. In myth and folklore water has always been associated with eyes, and with the healing of eyes. Is it any wonder, then, that Venice is the most visually seductive of all the cities of the world?

The endless presence of water also breeds anxiety. Water is unsettling. You must be more alert and watchful in your perambulations. Everything shifts. There is a sense of otherness. The often black or viscous dark green water looks cold. It cannot be drunk. It is shapeless. It has depth but no mass. As the Venetian proverb states, “water carries no stains.” This formless water has therefore been used as a metaphor for the human unconscious. In his essay, “The Visions of Zosimos,” Carl Jung relates that the spirit is hidden in water like the fish. Venice has been depicted as a fish. This wondrous water, infused with spirit, represents the cycle of birth and death. But if water is the image of the unconscious life, it thereby harbours strange visions and desires. The close affiliation of Venice and water encourages sexual desire; it has been said to loosen the muscles, by human imitation of its flow, and to enervate the blood.

Yet Venice reflects upon its own reflection in the water. It has been locked in that deep gaze for many centuries. So there has been a continuing association between Venice and the mirror. It was the first city to manufacture mirrors on a commercial scale, and by the seventeenth century was fashioning the largest mirrors in the world. The plate glass for mirrors had been created by the end of the fifteenth century. Two of the greatest of all Venetian artists, Giovanni Bellini and Titian, painted young women in the act of gazing at themselves in a mirror. In both of the paintings there is a mirror poised behind the head, and one raised towards the face. The date of both paintings has been given as 1515, only eight years after the government of Venice licensed the making of mirrors on the island of Murano. The artists were publicising Venetian commodities or, rather, they shared the Venetian preoccupation with luxury goods. Yet at the same time they were contemplating in painterly terms the contrast between the true surface and the glassy surface, a duality of which they were well aware in the world all around them. The young woman might have been Venice herself, sitting and admiring rather pensively her own reflection.

The image in the mirror may in some sense be a guarantee of identity and of wholeness. The root of narcissism lies in anxiety, and the fear of fragmentation, which may be assuaged by the sight of the reflection. The Virgin Mary, in the Book of Wisdom, is lauded as “a spotless mirror of God”; Venice always associated itself with the Virgin. But of course the image in the mirror is a false self; it is hard, abstract and elusive. It has been said that the Venetians are always aware of the image of themselves. They were once masters of the display and the masquerade. They were always acting. One of the favourite pastimes of Venetian audiences in the eighteenth century was the use of opera glasses trained upon each other.

It is a place of doubleness, and perhaps therefore of duplicity and double standards. Travelling on the newly built railway Richard Wagner was intent upon “looking down from the causeway at the image of Venice rising reflected from the waters beneath,” when his companion “suddenly lost his hat out of the railway car window when leaning out in delight.” The reflection is delightful because it seems to be as substantial and as lively as that which is reflected. When you look down upon the water, Venice seems to have no foundations except for reflections. Only its reflections are visible. Venice and Venice’s image are inseparable.

In truth there are two cities, which exist only in the act of being seen.


3

Mirror, Mirror

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There is in Venice an abiding attachment to the surface. It has become commonplace that in the city only the fronts of houses were worth embellishment or decoration. Most of the Gothic façades are simply that—screens that bear no relation to the organic structure of the buildings themselves. It is one of the strangest aspects of a city that in certain respects resembles an ornamental shell. The rich plaster and stucco may conceal decaying brickwork, and Ruskin speculated on the “duplicity” of Saint Mark’s where internal and external ornamentation were quite distinct. The city was built in brick but disguised by marble.

It seemed to matter not at all that behind the sumptuous façades the grand Venetian houses were often cold, dirty and uncomfortable. In similar fashion, among the owners of these houses, there was an outward show of prodigality combined with avarice and penny-pinching at home. That was the Venetian way. It was not at all usual to invite guests, for example, into the house itself; that inward space was confined to relatives and the most intimate friends. The English poet, Thomas Gray, remarked that in their domestic lives Venetians were “parsimonious to a degree of nastiness.”

Honour was important in Venetian society, as in others, but the mark of honour was what was known as bella figura; it might be interpreted as the art of keeping up appearances. One of the great engines of Venetian life was, and is still, the fear of criticism. Everything must be done according to form, and for the sake of form. That form may hide malfeasance and corruption, but it is important that it remains in place. It resembles the façade or screen of the Venetian house.

The twin imperatives of show and spectacle, design and ostentation, move through every level and every aspect of Venetian society. A sixteenth-century account of a bankrupt banker of the Rialto explained in passing that “this market and the city of Venice are naturally very inclined to love and trust in appearances.” The painters of Venice lingered over the rich surfaces of the world. The architecture of Venice had the artifice and outwardness of the theatre. Venetian music has always been concerned with outward effectiveness rather than internal coherence. The literature of Venice was oratorical in nature, whether in theatre or in popular song. No other city-state in Italy was so concerned with problems of rhetoric and style. Venetian ceilings are characteristically false ceilings, suspended somewhere beneath the beams. In the eighteenth century display and spectacle became a way of masking the decay and failure of public policy. It is a constant note, one that provides a clear insight into the identity of the city and its people.

The contemporary restoration of many buildings in Venice is a case history of seeming rather than being. In their devotion to appearances the restorers have created an unreal city, bearing little relation to its past or to its present. The architects and designers were concerned to reprise the aesthetic contours of the city; but these were imagined rather than real, the fruit of wishful thinking and nostalgia. What happened in practice is that they remodelled or modified the architectural language of the past to make it fit their own preconceptions of how Venice really ought to look. Fluting and veneer were removed; horizontal lines were straightened and strengthened; windows were altered to conform to the structure; balconies were narrowed for the sake of overall harmony; attics were taken out, and baroque fixtures replaced by Gothic. For some reason the stronger shades of red and yellow have spread in a city where they did not exist before. The style was known as ripristino. It amounted to the creation of fakes. It is an example of a general malaise of modern Venice, first recognised by the German sociologist Georg Simmel in the early part of the twentieth century. He remarked that the city represented “the tragedy of a surface that has been left by its foundation.” That does not render Venice superficial. Quite the contrary. The attention to surface, without depth, provokes a sense of mystery and of unknowability.

For many centuries Venice has been famous for its glass-making, now the preponderant industry on the island of Murano. What is the attraction of glass for the city of the sea? Glass is material sea. It is sea made solid, its translucence captured and held immobile. It is as if you could take up handfuls of the sea and turn it into brocade. Venice is the place for this. The first writer on the making of glass in Venice, Georgius Agricola, wrote in the early sixteenth century that the glass was formed out of “fusible stones” and “solidified juices,” an apt translation of Venice’s position between water and stone. Sand becomes crystal. It is not Venetian sand, however. It came from Syria and then later from Fontainebleau in France. Yet the Venetian glass-makers were the most ancient, and the most skilled, in the world.

Glass-makers had worked in the lagoon from the time of the Romans. There are finds of glass from the fourth to the seventh centuries, and a seventh- or eighth-century furnace in Torcello shows evidence of Roman manufacturing conditions. Folk tradition always asserted the continuity of glass-making on the islands, and there may indeed have been some legacy of inherited skills. Yet much of the expertise derived from Byzantine and Islamic sources. It is another example of the balance Venice maintained between two worlds.

An individual glass-maker, a certain “Domenico,” is first mentioned in a document of 982. A Venetian guild of glass-makers was established in the thirteenth century. In that same century, for fear of fires, the glass-manufacturers were transferred to the island of Murano. There they flourished. But they were in a sense imprisoned by the state. They could not move to any other part of Italy. To reveal any of the secrets of Venetian glass-making was to incur the death penalty. Any workman who escaped to the mainland was hunted down and, where possible, forcibly retrieved. It is, if nothing else, a token of the importance of the trade in the Venetian economy. Glass-making was vital to the city’s economic success. It would be absurd to suggest that the Muranese workmen believed themselves to be oppressed, or were forced to labour in any climate of fear, but the threat of state punishment is an apt token of the constant presence of the Venetian state in all aspects of Venetian life. It was by no means a free society. It was an insular, and therefore enclosed, society.

They made goblets and ewers, bottles and flasks, beads and chalices, lamps and windows, pitchers and eye-glasses, as well as a range of ornamental objects created out of cristallo, a malleable form with all the translucence and brilliancy of rock crystal. They could render a glass so fine that it was reputed to burst into fragments if it came into contact with poison. The workmen of Murano created glass that had the colour of milk, glass that mimicked the texture of ice, glass threaded with copper crystals. Types of glass resembled marble or metal or porcelain. From the fifteenth century forward, in fact, Venetian glass grew ever more elaborate and ornate. It became a luxury, at a time when Venice had become the provider of luxuries of every description. Objects became ever more useless and ever more expensive. In 1500 one contemporary noted of the Muranese glass industry that “there is no kind of precious stone that cannot be imitated by the industry of the glass-workers, a sweet contest of man and nature.”

Venice had already been involved in that contest, sweet or otherwise, for many hundreds of years. It is another reason for its perfect adaptation to the trade. An early seventeenth-century English traveller, James Howell, marvelled how a furnace fire could “convert such a small lump of dark Dust and Sand into such a precious clear Body as Crystal.” But had not Venice wrought such a transformation upon itself, from the dark dust and sand of its origins? Out of that dust and sand came a crystal city, its churches and bridges and houses billowing out and growing ever more expansive. When the travellers came to Murano, in order to observe all the arts of glass-blowing with spatula and pincer, they were peering into the nature and growth of the translucent city.

The lagoon was often described as resembling molten glass, and indeed glass became a metaphor for Venice itself. There was a saying that “the first handsome woman that ever was made was made of Venetian glass.” Glass is translucent, weightless; it is not a dense material, but is a medium for colour and light. Glass has no content. It is all surface, infolded in crests and waves, where the inner is also outer. Venetian painters learned from their fellow citizens who worked at the furnaces. They learned how to mingle colour, and how to create the impression of flux and molten form. They borrowed material in a literal sense. They mingled tiny pieces of glass with their pigments, to convey the shimmer and transparency they observed all around them. It glimmers; it is flecked by foam; it ripples and undulates; it possesses a giant translucent calm; it has currents of darker colour; it is fluid. So the glass is, like Venice, of the sea.

An early map of Venice, devised in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries; it looks small, fragile and defenceless in its watery world. (photo credit i1.1)

A perspective plan of Venice, painted with oil upon panel, displays the city at its most stately and noble. (photo credit i1.2)

The interior of the basilica of Saint Mark, glowing with the radiance of gold. The roof is a sea of gold. The mosaic work, covering forty thousand square feet, is a skein of iridescence thrown across the walls and arches. (photo credit i1.3)

A mosaic of the Virgin Mary, from the beginning of the thirteenth century, from the basilica of Saint Maria Assunta on the island of Torcello. Mosaic is the true art of Venice. (photo credit i1.4)

A mosaic of the Flood in the western portico of the basilica of Saint Mark. The fear of encroaching waters was a Venetian obsession. (photo credit i1.5)

The Stealing of the Body of Saint Mark, by Tintoretto. Only in Venice can the artist’s fieriness and extravagance be properly realised. His art is Venice in its purest and most spiritual form. (photo credit i1.6)

The Lion of Saint Mark, painted on panel in the fifteenth century. It is the image of Venice, seen everywhere in the city. The leonine symbol is one of authority and of paternalism. It is also a token of justice. (photo credit i1.7)

Monks praying to Saint Theodore, an illustration of the fourteenth century. Saint Theodore was the patron saint of Venice before being replaced by Saint Mark. He was a wholly Byzantine saint, emphasizing the city’s early affinity with that civilisation. (photo credit i1.8)

A photograph of the piazzetta San Marco, with the pillars of Saint Mark and Saint Theodore guarding the holy space. The piazzetta was redesigned in the sixteenth century as a stage set, with the pillars as the frame. (photo credit i1.9)

A religious procession in front of the basilica, completed by Gentile Bellini in 1496. Such processions had both a civic and spiritual significance. They were the living embodiment of sacred and secular governance in Venice. (photo credit i1.10)

A photograph, taken in the 1880s, of the crowds in Saint Mark’s Square. The Square became known as “the finest drawing room in Europe.” (photo credit i1.11)

The Miracle of the Cross on San Lorenzo Bridge, painted in 1500 by Gentile Bellini. Venice was itself a city of miracles. No city in Europe, with the possible exception of Rome, has witnessed so many. The survival of Venice itself, on the waters, was deemed to be a miracle. (photo credit i1.12)

The departure of the doge’s ship, the “Bucintoro,” towards the Venice Lido on Ascension Day. This scene, painted by Francesco Guardi in the 1760s, depicts the marriage of the city and the sea. The doge halted at the part of the Lido where the waters of the Adriatic and the lagoon meet. Here a large flask of holy water was emptied into the mingling currents. (photo credit i1.13)

The Healing of a Possessed by Vittore Carpaccio, painted in 1494. Here can clearly be seen the Rialto bridge spanning the Grand Canal. The artist faithfully depicts the wooden bridge, the sign of the Sturgeon Inn, the houses and institutions along both banks of the Canal. His is the poetry of urban detail, with its bricks and balconies and chimney-tops. (photo credit i1.14)


II The City of Saint Mark

4

The Saint Comes

5

Refuge

6

Against Nature

7

Stones of Venice

<p>II The City of Saint Mark</p>
<p>4</p> <p>The Saint Comes</p>

There was one great transformation in the early history of Venice. In 828 an object was brought to this place that entirely changed its character and its status. It is supposed to have been the body of the great evangelist, Saint Mark himself. The essential story remained unchanged through the centuries. It concerned some Venetian merchants—a class who, from the beginning, took the lead in all the affairs of the Venetian state. Buono of Malamocco and a companion, Rustico of Torcello, had gone on a trading mission to the port of Alexandria. In that alien land they entered into a discussion with the custodians of the church of Saint Mark, who were responsible for protecting the body of the martyred saint lodged in an ancient sarcophagus. These priests bitterly resented the persecution of the Catholic community by the Saracens, and expressed the fear that their precious church might be pillaged and damaged. The Venetians listened with great sympathy, and then suggested to the priests that they might like to return with them to Venice; they might also care to bring the body of Saint Mark with them. That could be considered the price of their journey. It was a piece of business. Despite certain misgivings, the custodians agreed.

The body of Saint Mark was taken out of the sarcophagus and unwrapped from its silk shroud, the relic being substituted by another and less eminent saint. It was then placed in a chest and taken on board the Venetian ship, the merchants first ensuring that the saint’s remains were covered by a layer of pork and cabbage. When the Muslim officials asked to inspect the chest, they cried out “Kanzir, kanzir” (Oh horror) at the sight and smell of the pork. The sainted corpse was first concealed in a sail and suspended from the yardarm but, when the holy cargo had reached open sea, the saint’s body was placed on the deck surrounded by candles and thuribles. Thus the evangelist was safely conveyed to Venice, but not before a number of miracles eased his passage across the Mediterranean.

His arrival could not have been more propitious. By mysterious means Mark informed his guardians that he wished to be taken to the ducal palace rather than to the cathedral church then rising in Olivolo. He was lodged in the banqueting hall, but a chapel dedicated to his memory was erected in an open area where the basilica of Saint Mark’s now stands. It was then a grassy field, planted with trees, as well as a garden and fruit orchard. All this was removed and filled, so that the chapel of Saint Mark might rise.

The devotion to Saint Mark soon outstripped that to the previous saint, Theodore, and the great basilica was eventually raised in his name. The ducal palace needed a shrine to bolster its legitimacy, and it could be suggested that the shrine required a palace; the covenant between them instantly magnified both the status of the doge and the power of the community. If anyone were rash enough to question the account of the divine prize, according to a later Venetian historian, then “let him come to Venice and see the fair church of Monsignor S. Marco, and look in front of this fair church” at the mosaics that faithfully tell the whole story. This may not be evidence that would stand up in a court of law, but it was enough testimony for the pious and the credulous. The mosaics were only the most prominent examples of the cult of Saint Mark. On the great arch, above the right-hand singing-gallery of the basilica, can be found the scene of the embarkation of Mark’s body; there is the ship sailing for Venice; there is the reception of the body in the city. These are mosaics from the end of the twelfth century, made luminous by the decorum and formality of the Byzantine tradition. Mosaics are the filigree upon the silver surface of Venice.

From the beginning, the cult of Saint Mark was as much a secular as a sacred affair. He became the icon and emblem of Venice (together with his winged lion), but he was always associated with the doge rather than the bishop. The open theft of the relic was not an issue. There soon grew up a legend that Mark had been bishop of Aquileia, to the north of the lagoon, before ever becoming bishop of Alexandria. And in any case the fact that the transition had been made with the blessing of Mark himself proved its benefaction. God’s will had been done. Otherwise the theft would not have succeeded. It is one of those circular arguments that are very difficult to break. In the thirteenth century another layer of the story was added. It was claimed that Saint Mark, on one of his missions, sought refuge from a storm and providentially took shelter on the island of Rialto. Here, in the future Venice, an angel appeared to him and proclaimed “Pax tibi, Marce. Hic requiescet corpus tuum.” Be at peace, Mark. Your body will one day rest here. There is of course no historical record of the evangelist ever visiting the lagoon.

There are in any case many problems with the original account, not the least serious being the fanciful chain of events that led to the translatio of Mark. That there was some kind of theft seems clear. That a sacred relic was lodged in Venice is also clear. It may or may not have been the body of Saint Mark himself. It might have been any ancient body, wrapped in pious fraudulence as heavy as any shroud. It is likely that the merchants had in fact been sent to Alexandria by the doge, precisely in order to purchase the relic. Its removal to Venice would heighten the sacred authority of the doge as well as the importance of Venice itself. Venice and Mark might rival Rome and Peter. It is interesting that Mark had been secretary to Peter, and that Peter had quarrelled with Mark for being insubordinate and insufficiently devout; these were precisely the charges raised against Venice by successive popes. From the time of the translatio Venice had a most uneasy relation with Rome, never conceding the primacy of the pontiff in its religious affairs.

Many other consequences flowed from the translatio. The presence of the saint was supposed to guarantee Venice from assault or blockade, and thus lend credence to its claim of invulnerability. Venice did survive, unscathed, until the time of Napoleon. The blessing of the saint would also unify the islands of the lagoon under the leadership of Venice, a political and social transition that did indeed take place over the course of two or three centuries. There were rumours that the head of the evangelist had been left behind at Alexandria, but the Venetian accounts insist upon the wholeness of the body. Insecurity in the spirit demands completeness elsewhere. The wholeness of the relic was also an analogy for the organic interdependence of the islands of the lagoon.

It is important, too, that the saint arrived by sea. The sea had become Venice’s true element, and there was no better way of sanctifying it than by claiming it as the shining path of divine protection. The mosaics in the basilica emphasise the image of the ship upon the waves. In a later legend a trio of saints—Mark, George and Nicholas—commandeer a fishing vessel and quell a storm in the lagoon that has been brewed by demons. On his disembarkation Mark presents a gold ring to the fisherman, who in turn gives it up to the doge. Power over the sea is transferred from saint to fisherman to leader. It is one of the formative myths of Venice, engaged in its continual fight against the waters.

There is also the question of free trade, upon which Venice depended. At the time of Mark’s translatio, the Byzantine emperor had imposed a trade embargo between Christians and Saracens. But in defiance of that prohibition the two merchants had transported their holy cargo from Alexandria, perhaps clearing the way for other less precious commodities. It was a hit against the emperor and a good omen for the merchants. If you cannot farm, as the Venetians used to tell the pope, who also complained about their trade with the infidel, you must fish. And that included fishing for saints. It was said that at the time of the opening of the sarcophagus in Alexandria a delicious odour as of “sweet spices,” filled the city. Venetian traders were well known for their bartering of spices.

The relic also secured the independence of Venice. The city’s previous guardian, Saint Theodore, was of wholly Byzantine provenance. By supplanting Theodore with Mark, Venice was asserting control over its own destiny. So Saint Mark became a synonym for Venice itself. It would seem that half of the Venetian males are still christened Marco. The red flag of Mark became the Venetian standard. The winged lion is everywhere. The essential and eventual autonomy of Venice was assured by the remarkable, if not miraculous, events of 828.

There was a great fire in Venice in 976, in the course of a rebellion against the reigning doge. In that conflagration the church of Saint Mark was utterly destroyed. It would have been supposed, then, that the combustible relic would itself have been consumed in the flames. In fact it was to all appearances “lost” until 1094, when by curious chance a piece of column fell away revealing the last remains of the evangelist. It was certainly a miracle that he had withstood the great fire. And, against all the odds, he is still with us. Until recent years it was reported that his body lay beneath the high altar of Saint Mark. In the summer of 1968 Pope Paul VI handed certain relics of the evangelist to a delegation of Coptic church-leaders, but confirmed that the rest of the body was still in Venice. The thumb of Saint Mark, as well as the famous gold ring given to the fisherman, are still preserved in the treasury of the basilica. The old bones still live in the imagination of the people.

There is a further reminder of the saint throughout the city. The lion of Saint Mark is the emblem of Venice; it can be found in stone and in bronze, carved in relief or in the round. The lions are to be found on the ducal palace and the doge’s chapel; they stand in front of the shipyards of Venice; they guard various grand houses and communal spaces. Every public building in Venice once bore an image of the beast. The winged lion stands on a pillar at the harbour. The lion was a symbol of both religious and political intent. The leonine symbol is one of authority and of paternalism. It is also a token of justice. All of these associations come together in the ubiquity of the lion on Venetian stones and walls.

As a companion of the Evangelist, the spiritual connotation of the lion was clear. But the lion could also be ferocious. It could be aggressive. It was a way of symbolising the might of Venice, if it were ever roused. An inscription of the mid-fifteenth century reads: “Behold the winged lion! I pluck down earth, sea and stars.” The lion of Saint Mark was often depicted with its hind legs in water, and its front legs upon the land, an apt indication of Venice’s pretensions to lordship both of the sea and of the mainland.

<p>5</p> <p>Refuge</p>

Venice has been construed as a great ship upon the sea. Sometimes, among the restless motion of the waters, there is a sensation that the ground of Venice is also in motion like the deck of a ship. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his Journal, of his stay in Venice, that “it is as if you were always at sea.”

The image of the ship of state is a familiar one, but it has a particular pertinence in the case of a city that seems almost to float. When a doge of the early fifteenth century, Francesco Foscari, spoke of guiding the republic he reverted instinctively to the language of the sea. He discoursed upon sails and upon cordage, upon the wind and current, with all the experience of a practised sailor. It was a language that the Venetians intimately understood. The analogy was made, for example, between the building of the city and the building of a ship. When a ship was constructed, with keel and ribs of wood, it was not easy to say when the form first emerged; in similar manner, it was not easy to specify the origins of Venice.

The tip of the Dogana, or custom house, sitting on the edge of land that leads to the Grand Canal, has often been compared to the prow of a ship. On the church of S. Maria Salute, immediately behind the Dogana, a statue of the Virgin has been clothed in the uniform of a capitano da mar or admiral of the Venetian fleet. Venetian buildings have often been compared with ships, with their cylindrical forms and rectangles, ships turned into stone and permanently moored. The wooden roofs of some Venetian churches have been erected in forma di galea or as a “ship bottom roof.” The circular apertures, everywhere in Venice, are like portholes.

Yet the most important allusion can be saved to the last. The ship was once, for the early settlers, a place of refuge. The ship of Venice was, from the beginning, a haven for exiles and wanderers. It was an open city, readily assimilating all those who came within its borders. One fifteenth-century traveller noted of Venice that “most of the people are foreigners,” and in the following century a Venetian recorded that apart from the patricians and the citizens “all the rest are foreigners and very few are Venetians.” He was referring principally to the shopkeepers and artisans. In 1611 an English diplomat, Sir Dudley Carleton, described Venice as a “microcosmos rather than city.” It was created in the fashion of orbis rather than of urbis. And so it has remained for the rest of its history.

There were French and Slav, Greek and Fleming, Jew and German, Oriental and Spaniard, as well as assorted citizens from the mainland of Italy. Certain streets were named after them. All the countries of Europe and of the Levant were represented. It was something that all travellers noted, as if quite suddenly they had come upon the Tower of Babel in Saint Mark’s Square. No other port in the world held so many strange peoples. In many nineteenth-century paintings the gabardine of the Jewish merchants, the scarlet caps of the Greeks, and the turbans and robes of the Turks are seen jostling among the more severe costumes and top-hats of the Venetian gentlemen. It might be said that the Venetians fashioned their own identity in perpetual contrast to those whom they protected.

The Germans were granted their own “miniature Germany” in a complex known as the Fondaco dei Tedeschi at Rialto which contained two halls, for dining, and eighty separate rooms. The merchants were supervised and monitored by the government, but it was said that “they love the city of Venice more than their native land.” In the sixteenth century the Flemish settled in large numbers. The Greeks had their own quarter, with their own church dedicated to the Orthodox faith. After the fall of Constantinople in 1204, and the abandonment of that city to the Turks in 1453, there was a further flow of Byzantine Greeks—among them soldiers, mariners, artists and intellectuals looking for patrons. The Armenians and the Albanians had their own districts. Eventually an Armenian monastery was established on the island of S. Lazzaro, where Byron travelled to learn the Armenian language as a way of exercising his mind among the more sensual pleasures of Venice. There was a colony of Turkish merchants, established as the Fondaco dei Turchi, where a school for the teaching of Arabic was maintained. So Venice was the setting for a thriving cosmopolitan life. It was not altruism or generosity that occasioned this inviting embrace. Venice could not have survived without its immigrants. Some of them were raised to the rank of citizens; some of them intermarried with the indigenous people.

They were not all, of course, well protected. Many thousands of poor immigrants were cramped into cheap housing, sharing the corners of rooms with others of the same race or nationality. Many of them came as refugees from Balkan wars, or from impossible poverty; some of them were escaping from plague. They congregated in the poorer parishes and by the sixteenth century, as a result of the influx, Venice had become the most densely populated city in Italy. The immigrants also provided cheap labour for the city, and were even employed in the galleys of the Venetian warships. They did the work that the Venetians themselves preferred to avoid.

In the fourteenth century the Italian poet, Petrarch, celebrated Venice as the “sole shelter in our days of liberty, justice, and peace, the sole refuge of the good.” As a port, the city attracted such epithets as “shelter” and “refuge.” They were natural images. Pietro Aretino, himself an exile from Rome who had found safe haven in Venice, put it another way. In an address to the doge in 1527 he declared that “Venice embraces those whom all others shun. She raises those whom others lower. She affords a welcome to those who are persecuted elsewhere.” There were, after all, refugees who travelled to Venice for reasons other than commercial. There was a toleration in this open city that was unknown in other regions. That is why it became, from the eighteenth century forward, a resting place for what Henry James called “the deposed, the defeated, the disenchanted, the wounded, or even only the bored.” The deposed were a particular speciality of Venice. Many of the dethroned princes of Europe made their way here. At one time in 1737 there were five dispossessed monarchs living in the city, one of them being the young Charles Edward Stuart.

It was also a haven for those of broken spirit, for wanderers, and for exiles. Venice became the home of the dispossessed and the deracinated. Its watery and melancholy nature suited those who were acquainted with sorrow. It became a haven for those who were uncertain of their origin or of their true identity and for those, perhaps, who might have wished to escape from them. It was like a mother, endlessly accessible and accommodating. It was a womb of safety. The people were known for their placability and civility. Venice was a city of transit, where you might easily be lost among the press, a city on the frontier between different worlds, where those who did not “fit in” to their native habitat were graciously accepted. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for example, it became attractive to male homosexuals who were lured by the opportunities for boys and gondoliers. There came here, too, swindlers and fraudsters of every description; there were failed financiers and statesmen, shamed women and soldiers of fortune, alchemists and quacks. The rootless were attracted to the city without roots.

Venice was also a frontier between different faiths, Catholic and Orthodox, Islam and Christianity. So it attracted religious reformers of every description. A secret synod of Anabaptists was established here in the middle of the sixteenth century, and the German community harboured many Lutherans among its number. Venice always kept its distance from Rome, and protected the independence of its Church from the depredations of the pope; so it became, in theory, an arena for religious renovation. There was even a time when the English government believed the republic to be ready to join forces with the Reformation. In that, of course, it proved to be wholly mistaken.

If you had failed, then Venice was a good place to forget your failure. Here you were in a literal sense insulated from the outer world, so that its scorn or simple inattention could no longer wound you. Venice represented an escape from modernity in all of its forms. And, like any port, it offered anonymity. If you were an exile in Venice you could lose your identity; or, rather, you could acquire another identity entirely in relation to the floating city. You, too, could become fluid and elusive. Tell me who I am. But not who I was. That still holds true.

For a place that afforded refuge for the foreign or the dispossessed, it is perhaps ironic that Venice gave the world the name of the ghetto. A ghetto, a small and insular community, seems naturally to arise from Venetian circumstance; indeed the Venetian ghetto became a Venice in miniature, and will thus help us to understand the nature of the city itself.

There had been Jews in the city from the twelfth century, at the very latest, and in 1152 a population of thirteen hundred is recorded. They were not permitted to live in Venice itself, but were settled upon the adjacent island of Spinalunga; its name was changed later to Giudecca. Two centuries later they were given permission to reside in the city. A burial ground was prepared for them in the sand of the Lido, with a palisade to protect the Jewish dead from the “enormities” of the Venetians. But the Jews were always subject to the prejudice and hysteria of the larger population, prompted by superstition or greed to strip them of their wealth. They were forbidden all professions except that of medicine, and were denied all trades except that of moneylending; then they were reviled for the very business they were obliged to take up.

By the early sixteenth century their dwellings were scattered over the city; a series of military defeats in the same period, in battles with some of the Italian cities of the mainland, were believed to spring in part from the Venetian tolerance of the Christ-killers in their midst. God’s wrath was directed against His chosen city, exacerbating the anxiety that the Venetians always seemed to feel. So, on 29 March 1516, the Jews were enclosed in the first ghetto. It was located on the edge of the northern district known as Cannaregio, some distance from the sacred places of the city. It seems to have taken its name from the previous use of this remote enclave as a foundry for cannon; the word for the casting of metal was gettare. The noun for the cast is getto. Two other adjacent neighbourhoods were eventually added to its domain. It was a complex of ghettoes.

It was not an altogether novel development. The German merchants had already been consigned to their own quarters, where they could be supervised and taxed without difficulty. The Turks would soon follow. The policy of separation and enclosure had, in addition, previously been tested in the Venetian colonies of the Mediterranean. The administration of Venice was a pragmatic business. But of course that pragmatism, under other skies and in other cultures, could become brutal and murderous. The Venetians had always been preoccupied by the definition and creation of space. What could be more natural, therefore, than their invention of the ghetto? It was not, however, the most benign concept. The sacred state had, in certain respects, become a rationalised state. The combination elsewhere might prove fatal.

But the Venetian ghetto had certain special and defining features. It was, or it became, poor and overcrowded. It was surrounded by a wall, a small island with one bridge connecting it to the rest of Venice. The inhabitants of the ghetto were allowed to leave when the marangona bell in the campanile of Saint Mark’s rang at daybreak, but they were obliged to return by sunset. At that time, the drawbridge was raised. The Jews were locked in for the night. Space was so limited, and the influx of residents so large, that buildings grew higher and higher to eight or nine storeys. The buildings were divided into a number of apartments, with four or five families residing in each of them. It is reported that some people had to sleep at separate times of the day or night, since there was too little floor space. Rilke recites a story of one block in the ghetto that rose and rose ever higher until its inhabitants could finally glimpse the sea. That is a significant Venetian fable.

Yet in truth all the windows looked inwards, to the central campo or courtyard. There was to be no visual contact between Jews and Christians. It was deemed inadvisable, for example, that the Jews should be allowed to see the sacrament as it was paraded through the adjacent Christian streets. Such was the measure of the latent Venetian anxiety. So, from the outside, the unusually tall edifices were bare cliffs of stone. Guards were posted at the gates of the bridge by night and by day. The adjacent quays were walled in. Two boats were employed to patrol the immediate area. The ghetto resembled a fortress or a prison. The city itself had become a kind of prison for some of its inhabitants. The Jews were obliged to wear a sign of their race. It was at first a circle of yellow cloth, the size of a fourpenny loaf, stitched onto the breast of an outer garment; then it became a yellow hat; then a red one. Sexual congress between the two communities was forbidden. Any Jewish male discovered in flagrante with a Christian female was punished with the removal of his testicles.

By the end of the sixteenth century there were complaints that the ghetto had “become by day and night a den of thieves and harlots, troubled by rows, clashes of weapons, and threats.” But in the sixteenth century this might have been the definition of any city. Three hundred years later the French writer, Théophile Gautier, condemned it as a “fetid and purulent district.” But this was a period when much of Venice might have answered to that description. The ghetto reflected the nature of the larger city but, in this microcosm within a microcosm, it did so in an intense and garish way.

There were gambling dens in the ghetto, as there were in the larger city, where large sums were won or lost. The ghetto harboured a community of as many tongues and accents—Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Italian, German, Levantine—as the city itself. The ghetto was closely organised and controlled by the Jewish leaders, imitating the example of the Venetian patricians. On the feast of Purim the Jews put on masks and disguises in true Venetian fashion. It became known as the “Jewish Carnival.” The inhabitants of the ghetto excelled in music and in singing, as did the Venetians themselves. By the early seventeenth century there was even a musical academy within the walls. The Jews put on elaborate theatrical performances. Many Jewish women dressed themselves in the latest fashion, with velvet and plush, velveteen and lace. They had been thoroughly Venetianised, in other words, to the extent that the stricter rabbis would condemn their general dissipation and sensuality. The ghetto had become another Venice.

This was one of the secrets of the city. It reproduced itself effortlessly in all of its various districts and institutions; its nature and its structure were endlessly imitated in a perhaps unwitting act of homage. Every community within Venice, whether a trade guild or a manufactory, became a miniature republic. The image of the city was so powerful that it became a paradigm, drawing everything towards itself. A thousand cities of Venice comprised the city, just as a thousand flames may make up one fire.

The ghetto was not despised by the Jews themselves. It became a home, a haven, just as Venice itself had once been to the first settlers. It became a resting place. The Jews of Spain and Portugal, for example, were happy to find refuge there. It became a centre of Hebrew studies, and the principal site of Hebrew publishing in Europe. It was a fixed point of rabbinic culture. Despite its somewhat noisome reputation it remained for some Jews a central place of prayer and spirituality, reflecting the sacred destiny of Venice itself. It also offered a welcome defence, on a practical level, against outbreaks of anti-Semitism among the populace.

Jews and Christians would mingle in the ghetto during the day, and in fact the ghetto exercised a peculiar fascination for some members of Venetian society. The government of Venice tried to prevent its citizens from attending the Purim plays, for example, but in the face of mounting protest gave up the attempt. There was simply too much enthusiasm. Certain Venetians would also regularly attend the synagogues, when a renowned or gifted speaker was about to deliver the sermon. In turn rabbis would listen to the sermons in Venetian churches. There may in fact have existed an affinity deeper than either the Jews or Venetians would care to confess. There were many similarities. Both people were intent upon custom and ceremony; the Venetian patricians were often described as “grave” and “dignified,” in a fashion similar to Jewish elders. And the mercantile Venetians, like the Jews, were subject to vulgar prejudice. Other countries accused them of “insatiable cupidity” and of “conspiring the ruin of everyone.” The rest of the world believed that Venice was extraordinarily wealthy, even though it took great pains to conceal its wealth. Similar charges had been levelled at the Jews in all ages. There was a fellow feeling. They were both hated.

So in Venice the Jews were tolerated in a manner not evident in other European cities. There is no example of popular execration or maltreatment, although it was reported that Venetian drunks or Venetian children would sometimes dance in the Jewish graveyard on the Lido. The Jews were tolerated, perhaps, because they were profitable. You can never ignore the principle of commercial calculation running through all of Venice’s affairs. Jews were allowed to open business premises only on the payment of large fees. The trade that Jewish merchants and shopkeepers brought to Venice was of immense service to the Venetians themselves. The relatives of the Venetian Jews often sent their capital to the city. At times of crisis, not infrequent, heavy taxes were levied against the ghetto. In the first decades of the seventeenth century it has been estimated that the net revenue received from the ghetto was approximately 220,000 ducats; the sum was much higher than any collected from Venice’s overseas or mainland colonies.

Yet a more exalted association can be placed beside this talk of taxes and ducats. It is significant, for example, that both Venetians and Jews had a solemn sense of law and a sacred belief in nationhood. They both shared a preoccupation with their native territory as a common heritage. They both believed that their constitution was in essence a covenant between deity and people. They both reverenced their forefathers, and had an inordinate respect for custom and tradition. The Jews knew themselves to be mutually interdependent, part of a communal life rendered ever more sacred by a common purpose and the necessity of self-preservation. Does this not remind us of the Venetian state? The two cultures were images one of another.

The Battle of Lepanto, painted by Paolo Veronese in 1571. This work was completed just a few months after a famous victory of the Venetian forces (among others) over the Turks. Two hundred and thirty Turkish vessels were sunk or captured, with only thirteen losses for the Europeans. Lepanto was the last battle in which the use of the oar held the key. In later engagements the sails were raised. (photo credit i2.1)

Plan of the Arsenal in the seventeenth century. The Arsenal of Venice was the largest shipbuilding enterprise in the world, with its own network of docks and system of production lines. Ships were turned out from the shipbuilding yards of the Arsenal fully rigged and fitted, in the first version of the capitalist factory. (photo credit i2.2)

Detail of a Venetian warship, taken from the mausoleum of Girolamo Michiel completed in 1559. The image of the ship, and the circumambient sea, can be glimpsed everywhere in Venice. The city itself can be seen as a ship upon the waves. (photo credit i2.3)

The sign for the Marangoni family of shipbuilders, painted on panel in 1517. Shipbuilding was of course one of the principal crafts of a city surrounded by water. Ship-builders offered defence, and protection, against the watery element. (photo credit i2.4)

Jan van Grevenbroeck’s painting of a workman dredging a canal, an image of the eighteenth century. In all periods of Venetian history the government was involved in major efforts concerning health care and sanitation. (photo credit i2.5)

Jan van Grevenbroeck’s painting of an oar-maker at work in Arsenal. Oar-making was one of the many Venetian trades springing from the sea. The oar was used in the perpetual battle against the natural world and in warfare against the city’s competitors. (photo credit i2.6)

A painting of a Venetian doctor during the time of plague, by Jan van Grevenbroeck. During the time of pestilence the doctors clothed themselves in black robes, coated with wax and aromatic oils; they wore a hood and cowl over their heads, large glasses to protect their eyes, and a long beak-like nose with a filter at its end. They looked themselves like ghouls. (photo credit i2.7)

The shop of a Venetian bell-maker, at the end of the eighteenth century, painted by Jan van Grevenbroeck. Venice was a city of bells, all of them pealing together at the time of processions. They also had a more practical use. The bells rang out at precise times of day to coordinate the activities of the populace. (photo credit i2.8)

A showroom with lamps and vases. For many centuries Venice has been famous for its glass-making, now the preponderant industry on the island of Murano. What is the attraction of glass for the city of the sea? Glass is material sea. It is sea made solid, its translucence captured and held immobile. (photo credit i2.9)

Lace workers on the island of Burano, photographed at the end of the nineteenth century. Burano has been for many centuries the home of lace-making in Venice. Lace is a Venetian specialty; like the mosaic it is an art of elaboration and intricacy. (photo credit i2.10)

A Venetian courtyard at the end of the nineteenth century. Venice is a city of dead-ends, and of circuitous alleys; there are twisting calli, and hidden turnings; there are low archways and blank courtyards, where the silence is suspended like a mist. (photo credit i2.11)

A photograph of a funeral gondola, taken at the beginning of the twentieth century. Venice has always been associated with death, and the gondola itself has often been viewed as a floating hearse. (photo credit i2.12)

The new railway bridge over the lagoon, depicted in the middle of the nineteenth century. The bridge represented perhaps the most radical change in the history of Venice. It became connected to the mainland. The city was no longer an island, and had lost its hallowed status as a refuge from the world. It meant, too, that the prime significance of the water had gone forever. It became a city of mechanical, rather than of natural, time. (photo credit i2.13)

The remains of the campanile, which collapsed on 27 July 1902. It buckled and folded upon itself, neatly imploding into a large pile of rubble. It fell, as the Venetians said at the time, “like a gentleman.” There were no fatalities, except that of the caretaker’s cat. (photo credit i2.14)

An illustration taken from The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin, displaying types of the windows from the early Gothic palaces. The style was dominant in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, surviving even into the sixteenth century and giving an unmistakeable aspect to the city that still survives. Most of the well-known palaces or great houses are created in the Gothic mode. (photo credit i2.15)

<p>6</p> <p>Against Nature</p>

There were once many gardens in Venice. In the sixteenth century there were five hundred of them nestling within the city, spreading their own refreshing and aromatic life. Yet by the eighteenth century Casanova remarked that “a garden is a rarity in Venice.” In the middle of the twentieth century it was estimated that there were sixty remaining. That number may have since been revised. Yet there are still gardens, secluded and still, protected by walls and gates, creating little pockets of green in the stony life of the city. In previous centuries the smaller gardens might have shrubberies of larch or cypress or laurel. The larger gardens were planted with flower-beds and avenues of fruit-trees, complete with cages of singing birds to maintain the illusion of nature. There were also, in the largest of them, temples and fountains as well as elaborate loggias. The fugitive scent of fruit and jasmine and banksia roses trailed through the calli and the campi.

The Venetians evinced a great love for flowers, matched only by their love of buildings. There were itinerant sellers of gladiolas and tuberoses, and other blossoms harvested from the mainland. On describing these merchants in 1623, Sir Henry Wotton coined the English word florist. It entered the vocabulary effortlessly. On Saint Mark’s Day it was the custom for each young Venetian man to offer a rosebud to his sweetheart. In painted representations of Venice in the fifteenth century, there are innumerable pots of carnations cluttering the window-sills. But tastes change. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the aspidistra became the flower of Venice. There was, however, one native flower. It was the flower of the lagoon, fiore di barena, clothing the level marshes with a purple robe. It is a token of that time when Venice itself was merely a heap of wild and uncultivated nature.

On the lagoon itself there were garden islands. In the fifteenth century there were vineyards and monastery gardens. The island of Giudecca was until recent years a paradise of gardens. The island of Torcello was the home of the vine and the pomegranate, the oleander and the acacia, the fig and the elder tree; it also provided the rich soil for maize and artichoke. Once there were olive trees all over Venice. The island of Castello, where the cathedral of the city stands, was once known as Olivolo. Olive oil was a profitable commodity.

Yet in the city itself there is no sense of regeneration or rebirth that accompanies the presence of flora and foliage. It has been said that the Venetians prefer marble to vegetation. In Venice architecture must take the place of nature. It must allude to nature in a pious and consolatory manner. It is one of the secrets of Venetian building. The stone of the buildings is sculpted with leaf and branch. The hundred columns of Saint Mark’s comprise a solemn forest. The wood becomes stone. The stone becomes wood. The great houses have also been compared to coral reefs.

It needed art to re-create nature. There was a fashion among Venetian painters of the early sixteenth century for pastoral scenes. But the natural world is pictured without life. It is not worked or populated. There are sheep. There are picturesque rustic buildings. There are groves and springs. There are nymphs and shepherds in the foreground. The inner reality of rural life is not understood. The grass is depicted as if it were velvet, for example, just as in Venetian manufactories velvet was created to resemble grass.

The natural life of the city must be imagined rather than seen. It must be intuited beneath the layers of stone. Byron called Venice “the greenest isle of my imagination,” a paradox only he could sustain. George Aschenbach, the protagonist of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, sees in vision “a landscape, a tropical marshland … a kind of primaeval wilderness-world of islands, morasses and alluvial channels.” It is a vision of Venice itself in its original state. But it is a city that no one else will ever see.

And what kind of animals prowl in this city of stone? There were once sheep and oxen. There were foxes, and even wolves. There were horses and mules in the streets of Venice. In 1177 a mule carried Pope Alexander III through the streets of Venice, and in 1361 the doge and eleven patricians entered the city on horseback. The Veneti of early time had been known for their skill on horseback, and the latter-day Venetians continued their practice. Eighty horsemen were deployed in Saint Mark’s Square, in 1310, to maintain public discipline after the discovery of a conspiracy against the state. There were tournaments in the square, and at one such display in 1364 Petrarch was moved to remark that the Venetians demonstrated horsemanship and weapon-handling enough to equal “the fiercest fighters on earth.” There were horse-races across the Rialto bridge until they were banned by edict in 1359. It was a city where one of the principal sounds was that of the clangour and neighing of horses. This did not endure, however.

In 1611 the English traveller, Thomas Coryat, reported seeing only one horse in the entire city. Horses were eventually barred from the streets. There was simply not enough room, and the spread of stepped stone bridges was a further impediment. Such was their rarity that, in 1789, Mrs. Thrale noticed a line of Venetians queuing to marvel at a stuffed horse. Indeed by the eighteenth century the patricians of Venice were ridiculed for their inability to ride on anything except gondolas. It shows that a native skill may disappear from sheer lack of practice. The only horses now to be seen in the city are those with the rigid composure of metal. The four bronze chargers panting on the façade of Saint Mark’s, the spoils of war looted from Constantinople, are a token of a city where natural life is coming to an end.

Cats and dogs were, and are, popular in Venice. Once the city was filled with watch-dogs and hunting dogs for deployment in the lagoon. But over the centuries they have become more discreet. They are relatively small and domestic. They consort well with the spaces of the city. The dogs in particular enjoy the savour of old stone. They have a distinct sense of territory, as Venetians also do. The Venetian painters loved dogs. Carpaccio enjoyed their company on canvas. In one of his most famous paintings, now to be found in S. Giorgio degli Schiavoni, a small terrier looks up expectantly at Saint Jerome (or perhaps Saint Augustine) lost in divine rapture. Nature looks on, bemused, at the supernatural. But he also paints dogs on guard, dogs asleep, dogs on verandas and dogs on gondolas. They were not reserved for patricians. Almost all of the numbers of the local newspaper in the eighteenth century, the Gazzetta Veneta, contain advertisements for lost dogs. The Venetians embraced them because they were one of the tokens of the larger natural world that they had forfeited in their struggle for survival. In the modern vaporetti, the dogs are all safely muzzled.

The cats were celebrated as the “little lions” of Venetian life. They are part of the territory. They are naturally lazy. They are naturally observant, and can spend much of their day simply looking on. Yet cats, unlike most breeds of dogs, do not like water. They can still be found in feral groups, scattered across the city. They haunt the fish-market. They can be seen on ledges, on steps, under bridges and in the squares. The square of S. Lorenzo is particularly graced by cats. They are useful, of course, in catching the rats. Rats are one of the curses of Venice, but one surprisingly little mentioned in the literature of the place. There is a saying in Venice that every house has a rat; by which is meant that every family has a renegade member. But it can also be taken literally.

The efficacy of cats against the pests may have prompted the Venetian superstition that he who kills a cat will die within a year, and that he who hurts a cat will suffer an accident. This did not deter the more serious cat-haters. There were once mysterious outbreaks of cat-poisoning in the republic, and a curious ritual in which a cat tethered with a board was killed by systematic head-butting from the Venetian crowd. Yet there has always been a general celebration of animal life in the republic. Late medieval and early Renaissance painting is filled with animal studies; Carpaccio and Crevelli, Tintoretto and Veronese and Bellini, depict cats and dogs and falcons and deer and pheasants. Titian painted white rabbits. In every case there was a desire to embrace a natural world which was in truth out of reach, all the more fervently loved for being elusive.

There were aviaries and cages of singing birds all over Venice, another reminder of a natural life elsewhere. Brightly coloured birds—finches, canaries and parrots—were the favourites. All these birds had, of course, to be imported. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the apothecaries of the principal shopping street, the Merceria, kept cages of nightingales to advertise their trade. John Evelyn reported that “shutting your Eyes, you would imagine your selfe in the Country, when indeede you are in the middle of the Sea.” The pursuit of nature was for the Venetians a way of forgetting the unnatural and precarious position in which they lived.

Browning loved the seagulls of Venice, although they are seldom mentioned in the annals of the city. Yet the seagulls should be named with the cranes and the wild ducks as the native birds of the lagoon. They are also part of the myth of the city, like the flight of birds that led the earliest settlers to the islands of the lagoon. There is a legend that the pigeons of Saint Mark’s Square are a direct descendant of those flocks that followed the exiles from the town of Oderzo in their flight from the barbarians. The swallows provide another blessing. They come in summer, and swoop down upon the mosquitoes that are the plague of the shallow waters.

No one can visit Venice, however, without being aware of the pigeons. Those in Saint Mark’s Square are the most pampered and preserved birds in the world, to the extent that they have acquired an absolute immunity from the passing human population. In times of frost or heavy rain they will literally form a pile, one upon the other, creating and maintaining warmth in their huddled masses. They know that they are not at risk from predators, and that they will not be disturbed. So they have developed a unique form of animal behaviour, like some remote island species on a distant sea.

They are protected by ancient custom. And custom, in Venice, is sacrosanct. It is said that on one Palm Sunday they were released from the basilica of Saint Mark, with small weights tied to their legs. Hampered in this manner, they became easy prey for the dinner-tables of the Venetians. But some of the birds still somehow managed to escape, and found refuge on the various ledges and alcoves of Saint Mark’s itself. So they were preserved by the intervention of the saint. After that, they became a cult bird. So the story goes. It is certainly true that a daily supply of grain was provided to them from the public granaries, as was the custom in Persia and in southern Russia, and that it became an offence to injure or molest them in any way.

There are now forty thousand “doves of Saint Mark” in the city. The vendors of corn, in the square, maintain nineteen Venetian families. The birds themselves do seem to enjoy some divine dispensation, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning referred to them as the “holy pigeons.” There have over the years been several attempts to curb their numbers, on the grounds that they constitute a menace to public health and that their excrement corrodes the precious stone of the city; there have been attempts at poisoning, at trapping, and even at contraception. All have failed. They have been flying and fluttering in Saint Mark’s Square ever since it was fashioned. Why should they depart now? And if they were to be removed, would the square itself be any nobler or safer? The case is arguable. Trafalgar Square, now that its own pigeons have been eliminated, looks like a denuded and almost empty space. The birds are part of the spirit of place. They are the grey stone come alive and rendered soft to the touch.

There were many ways in which Venice fought against nature. Its whole soul and being were devoted to the battle against the sea, and that rivalry by a process of transference affected other areas of Venetian life. It is remarkable, for example, how expert the Venetians became at “forcing” flowers. They were adept at making roses and gilliflowers blow unseasonably; they had sweet-scented roses in January. It was also common, in the first part of the twentieth century, for Venetians to dye their flowers; orange and blue roses were displayed for sale, as well as pink or purple daisies. But these are no doubt examples of a very old practice. The Venetian love of colour is well enough known. Why should it not spread from the canvas to the more transient world?

The Venetians were entranced by artificial gardens, the more complex the better. In their villas on the mainland, by the Brenta, the gardens were formed in symmetrical shapes with every variety of water sculpture in grottoes and caves. The greenhouses were filled with rare plants and with foreign flora, and the hedges were fashioned into the shapes of boats or animals. The marble statues of nymphs and goddesses were the natural or unnatural extension of the pastoral landscapes that were fashionable in the early sixteenth century. In this same period, too, there was a general and genuine interest in the practice of horticulture, in the constant striving to control and to improve the natural world. Everything was of a piece. The Venetian patricians revelled in their triumph over nature—or, rather, their native skill in manipulating it for their own purposes. It was, after all, the principal lesson of the republic’s history. The city represents in the most delicate and disquieting way the ambiguous domain between the natural and the artificial, suggesting that there may be some third entity.

<p>7</p> <p>Stones of Venice</p>

If it is a city of stone rather than earth or leaf, for example, does that make it an unreal city? Oswald Spengler believed that the development of civilisation could be marked by the transition from plant to stone, and in that sense Venice might be considered the most civilised of cities. From the beginning of the fifteenth century, when the wooden city was slowly dismantled, it became a little kingdom of stone. It has all the appearance of solidness and stability, all the stronger because of its constant companionship with water.

There is no natural stone in Venice. So it had to be bought or stolen. It is the old story of the floating city. There was a time, after the capture of Constantinople, when every boat sailing to Venice from that city was obliged to carry a consignment of stone. It was used as ballast. Yet much had to be purchased. The marble of Venice came from Carrara and from the island of Paros. Trachite stone, from the Euganean hills, was used for paving the calli and the campi. Dark or red stone was imported from Verona; it was mottled with chips or pebbles of harder stone that resembled islands surrounded by channels. The lighter stone of Verona, pink and grey, changes tone according to the seasons and to the light. It is perfectly suited to the city. Pink granite, and porphyry, came from Egypt. And there was abandoned and disused stone, stone from the old churches and houses of the lagoon islands. Stone was so precious that it was used and used again. The spoils of ruins laid the foundation for new buildings in a continual process of regeneration and reinvention. The gravestones of the Roman dead became parts of Christian churches. An altar to the sun god, taken from Aquileia, was re-employed in the baptistery of Saint Mark’s. It can truly be said that Venice was built upon antiquity. It harbours past ages.

There are also more exotic stones. The Venetians loved the coloristic effect of agate and malachite, amethyst and cornelian. The ultramarine used on the façade of the great house on the Grand Canal, known as the Ca d’Oro, was made of powdered lapis lazuli from Badakhshan. The Venetians loved coloured and richly veined stone—green porphyry and black granite, stone with red stripes on a white ground, stone with white stripes on an orange ground. In the church of Saint Mark, there are more than fifty different types of stone.

But the principal stone of Venice was quarried in Istria. Istrian stone endures heat and cold; it is easily worked and, most importantly, it resembles its sister stone, marble. Once it has been smoothed and polished, it can scarcely be distinguished from that material. It is an example of Venetian show. It was used as foundation for the great houses and churches. It was used for sculpture, for framing doors and windows, for columns and for keystones, for quays and coats of arms.

There is one important fact about the stone. It is a limestone. It comes from the action of the sea, made up by the unimaginable compound of billions of marine creatures. It represents the compacted time of the sea. It is the essence of sea. When Auden imagined a limestone landscape, he could hear the murmur of underground streams. It is indissolubly connected with the life and history of water. Marble itself is also limestone, hardened and changed so that it is more resistant to the sea air. That is why it was often used upon the façades of the churches and greater houses. So the sea has become, by metamorphosis, the stone of Venice. The stone glows with the inner translucence of the ocean. It glistens. It gleams. It shimmers. It has been described as a forest of marble, springing upward from the petrified trees within its foundations. Ruskin devotes many paragraphs, in the aptly entitled Stones of Venice, to the designs of foliage and flowers sculpted in stone; the ornamentation is so careful that the stone leaves of a vine are every one varied in position. There are branches and twisting tendrils, drifting leaves and bunches of grapes; every rib and vein of the foliage may be copied exactly. It is a way of commemorating nature, but it is also a way of mocking it.

The visitors come to Venice precisely because of its stone. For the traveller, it is a city of buildings rather than of people. Stones are the life of the city. There is a tradition of sacred stones. Stones in the form of Byzantine crosses were set into the front of palaces. Arrangements of oval stones and stone crosses are found on many churches and houses. Above the Gothic doorways are generally to be found tympana of stone, carved with angels or with saints. Stone was a way of giving form to spirit. There are stones of faith and there are stones of scripture, with passages from the Bible inscribed upon lintels and gateways; there are stones of the law, on which legal precepts and decrees were carved; there are stones of punishment, the sites of public justice and of execution; there are stones of infamy to mark places of treachery and disgrace, the words on one stone column declaring that it “was erected, in view of the public, to be a terror to others, and a warning for ever to all.” These tokens go very far back, to the primitive belief in stone as the image of God found in cultures as diverse as those of India and Celtic Europe, Melanesia and the Americas. It happens that these beliefs were perpetuated by the very special circumstances of the floating city. Precious stones were also magical stones. Rilke once described Venice as a “stone fairy tale.”

The Venetian painters lavished their wealth of colour and of invention upon stone. In Carpaccio and Veronese, in Bellini and Tintoretto, there are vistas upon vistas of stone. It is the landscape of their imagination. The public buildings of Venice elicited from them a profound veneration and respect. The staircases and columns, the hallways and turrets, are their real subject. Their sensibility lies behind Canaletto’s later meticulous rendering of the city’s architecture. Canaletto’s painting “The Stonemaker’s Yard” is a meditation upon the power and potential of stone. His canvases were generally prepared with a brick-red ground.

But Venice has a secret. It is also accurate and appropriate to describe it as a city of masonry. It is in large part built with brick, artfully faced with marble or with stucco. In the most profound sense, it is deceptive. The great palaces are constructed out of brick. The churches, and the dwellings, are of brick. It is in truth a city of baked clay, taken from the earth of the mainland. Yet it is clothed with marble and limestone in homage to the sea rather than to the earth.

The brick and stone of Venetian buildings have on occasions been compared to the flesh and bone of the human body. The glow of limestone has been likened to the glow of flesh. So the stones may live and move. The stones of Venice seem light. The buildings are aerated, ready to rise from their moorings and soar into the empyrean. When the narrator of Proust’s Time Regained stumbles in the entrance of the Hôtel des Guermantes in Paris, he is thrown back in time to the moment when he stood upon two uneven paving stones in the baptistery of Saint Mark’s; the moment of vision afforded him overwhelming happiness, obliterating time and space in a euphony of sensation between past and present. The stones of Venice brought him joy and indifference to death.

Many legends and superstitions surround the stone of Venice. In some veined marbles strange shapes appear. On a wall of Saint Mark’s, for example, two slabs of marble were sawn apart; they revealed the image of a bearded hermit with his hands folded in prayer. There is scarcely a stone in that edifice that has not been sanctified by legend or report. Here is to be found the rock from which Moses drew water. Here are stones upon which Christ walked, or upon which His blood was spilled. On the wall facing the piazzetta, beside the basilica, are two groups of porphyry images. It is believed that they are four Saracens who were turned to stone in the act of robbing the basilica of its sacred treasures.

In another part of Venice, by the Salizzada del Pignater, there is lodged above an arch a heart made of brick; if two lovers touch it, their passion will last for ever. Statues suddenly move or vanish. On the night of Good Friday the statue of Judas, in the Madonna dell’Orto, was said to rise in flight for Jerusalem; he was accompanied by the stone images of Justice and of Faith on the roof of the same church. The statue of a merchant, still to be seen in front of one Venetian house, was supposed to cry in February when the air was colder than any stone. The good and the innocent, if they placed their hands upon the breast of the merchant, would hear his heart beating. Many of the legends of the city are preoccupied with one central fear—that the stone will come alive. There are stories of stone lions bounding into life, of wizards that could turn stone into flesh, of a column by Saint Mark’s that on foggy nights secreted blood. If Venice has turned the natural world into stone, its secret longing might be to reverse the miracle and once more to become fresh and yielding. Stone represents the longing to die, a tendency and a yearning to be found in every city. God created the natural world, as the Venetians were taught, but humankind made the city. After his murder of Abel, Cain became the founder of cities. Cities represent the primal curse, and the abandonment of natural ties. Venice is their avatar.

Giovanni Bellini’s portrait of the early-sixteenth-century doge, Leonardo Loredan. Note the sumptuousness of the dress and the strict serenity and reticence of his gaze. This severity was part of the official imagery of the Venetian state. (photo credit i3.1)

A seventeenth-century painting, attributed to Joseph Heintz, depicting an audience with the doge in one of the chambers of the ducal palace. The government of Venice had perfected the art of self-presentation. Every political act had its own ceremonial. All the actions and decisions of the state were hallowed by tradition and sanctioned by divine authority. (photo credit i3.2)

Three eighteenth-century Venetian lawyers, depicted by Pietro Uberti. They were dressed for the part, and indeed every Venetian was clothed according to rank and status. The lawyers had an especial place in Venetian life, where it was believed that the people were more fond of talking than of doing. There was a saying to the effect that a Venetian law only lasted for seven days before being forgotten. (photo credit i3.3)

An early-fifteenth-century tempera by Jacobello del Fiore depicting justice and the Archangels. The justice of Venice became one of the myths of Venice. It was deemed to be ancient. It was deemed to be divinely inspired. It was related, in ultimate form, to the judicial salvation of humankind. (photo credit i3.4)

A photograph of the lion’s mouth in the ducal palace, where evidence of scandal or wrongdoing was posted. It was one of the many mouths that became a post-box for accusations against any Venetian. The lion’s mouth was of course a Venetian invention. It was the mouth of the city, a capacious orifice of whispers and rumours. It meant that there was a general atmosphere of surveillance, even in the most private quarters of the city. (photo credit i3.5)

An eighteenth-century engraving of Pozzi Prison of Venice. The “pozzi” were the wells of Venice and this underground dungeon, close to the waters, was named after them. It had a reputation for noisomeness, with the suggestion that it were better to be entombed alive than to be lowered into the hole. (photo credit i3.6)

Dream of Saint Ursula, painted by Vittore Carpaccio in 1495. The sacred interior is directly modelled upon Venetian interiors. Here are two double-arched windows, and two white Greek vases with a plant in each. The lower walls are covered with green cloth. There is a reading-table covered by a red cloth, and a very small three-legged stool covered with crimson cloth. On the table are a book and an hourglass. (photo credit i3.7)

The Tailor by Pietro Longhi. This eighteenth-century painting portrays one of the most important figures in Venetian patrician society. The Venetians had a keen eye for fashion and for striking colour. They manifested an almost childlike delight in dressing up. The patrician women of Venice, like the lady in the painting, in particular loved sumptuous attire. (photo credit i3.8)

The Geography Lesson by Pietro Longhi. The Venetians were expert, and famous, cartographers. They were looking for fixity and certainty, in their watery world. They were guided by the twin imperatives of trade and of travel, both of them embodied in the figure of Marco Polo. In this painting a fashionable patrician lady consults a globe with a pair of compasses in her right hand; an open atlas lies at her feet. (photo credit i3.9)

The Perfume Seller by Pietro Longhi. Perfume was one of the many luxuries in which Venice traded. It might be expected, in a most unnatural city, that everything was scented—hats, shirts, socks, handkerchiefs. Even the money was scented. Note the ladies in Carnival costume, a mantle of silk or velvet that covered the head and shoulders known as the bauta. (photo credit i3.10)

A wooden image of the Madonna of Mercy, carved and painted in the sixteenth century. Images of the Virgin were displayed everywhere in Venice. Hers was a popular devotion. There were many shrines on the corners of the calli, with a votive lamp burning before the Virgin. There was not a Venetian home, however humble, without its picture of the Virgin. (photo credit i3.11)

Madonna and Child Enthroned with Two Devout People, painted in the fourteenth century by Paolo Veneziano. This painting has the form and quality of an icon, and indeed images of the Madonna were venerated in Venice as the workers of miracles. The Virgin was also the archetypal “mother,” in whose capacious embrace the sons and daughters of Venice could rest. (photo credit i3.12)

The Coronation of the Virgin by Giovanni Battista. The cult of Mary penetrated every aspect of Venetian society. There were more than three hundred altars, in the fifteenth century, devoted to the worship of the Virgin. Venice was the Virgin, too, because she had never been assaulted. She was inviolate and immaculate, protected by the waves of the sea like a precious girdle. Mary is peace. Peace is stability. (photo credit i3.13)

The Tempest painted by Giorgio da Castelfranco, otherwise known as Giorgione, in the early fifteenth century. In his study of this quintessentially Venetian artist the English critic, Walter Pater, declared that “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” In Venice oil paint can be liquid music. (photo credit i3.14)

Young Woman at Her Toilet by Giovanni Bellini. This painting of 1515 is evidence that the Venetians believed colour or colorito to be the mother of painting. They enjoyed the bliss of its warm and capacious embrace. Colour was soft and intimate and harmonious. That is why Venetian painting has often been associated with the depiction of the female nude. The naked woman can be said to be the invention of the Venetian artists of the sixteenth century. (photo credit i3.15)

Venus of Urbino by Titian (detail). The sensuousness and voluptuousness of Venetian art are most clearly seen in the female nudes of Titian. Planes and lines are supplanted by curves. His art is alive. It captures the movement and the appearance of life. It captures the effect of the transient moment. It is ardent. It has no sense of calculation or theory. (photo credit i3.16)


4

The Saint Comes

<p>4</p> <p>The Saint Comes</p>

There was one great transformation in the early history of Venice. In 828 an object was brought to this place that entirely changed its character and its status. It is supposed to have been the body of the great evangelist, Saint Mark himself. The essential story remained unchanged through the centuries. It concerned some Venetian merchants—a class who, from the beginning, took the lead in all the affairs of the Venetian state. Buono of Malamocco and a companion, Rustico of Torcello, had gone on a trading mission to the port of Alexandria. In that alien land they entered into a discussion with the custodians of the church of Saint Mark, who were responsible for protecting the body of the martyred saint lodged in an ancient sarcophagus. These priests bitterly resented the persecution of the Catholic community by the Saracens, and expressed the fear that their precious church might be pillaged and damaged. The Venetians listened with great sympathy, and then suggested to the priests that they might like to return with them to Venice; they might also care to bring the body of Saint Mark with them. That could be considered the price of their journey. It was a piece of business. Despite certain misgivings, the custodians agreed.

The body of Saint Mark was taken out of the sarcophagus and unwrapped from its silk shroud, the relic being substituted by another and less eminent saint. It was then placed in a chest and taken on board the Venetian ship, the merchants first ensuring that the saint’s remains were covered by a layer of pork and cabbage. When the Muslim officials asked to inspect the chest, they cried out “Kanzir, kanzir” (Oh horror) at the sight and smell of the pork. The sainted corpse was first concealed in a sail and suspended from the yardarm but, when the holy cargo had reached open sea, the saint’s body was placed on the deck surrounded by candles and thuribles. Thus the evangelist was safely conveyed to Venice, but not before a number of miracles eased his passage across the Mediterranean.

His arrival could not have been more propitious. By mysterious means Mark informed his guardians that he wished to be taken to the ducal palace rather than to the cathedral church then rising in Olivolo. He was lodged in the banqueting hall, but a chapel dedicated to his memory was erected in an open area where the basilica of Saint Mark’s now stands. It was then a grassy field, planted with trees, as well as a garden and fruit orchard. All this was removed and filled, so that the chapel of Saint Mark might rise.

The devotion to Saint Mark soon outstripped that to the previous saint, Theodore, and the great basilica was eventually raised in his name. The ducal palace needed a shrine to bolster its legitimacy, and it could be suggested that the shrine required a palace; the covenant between them instantly magnified both the status of the doge and the power of the community. If anyone were rash enough to question the account of the divine prize, according to a later Venetian historian, then “let him come to Venice and see the fair church of Monsignor S. Marco, and look in front of this fair church” at the mosaics that faithfully tell the whole story. This may not be evidence that would stand up in a court of law, but it was enough testimony for the pious and the credulous. The mosaics were only the most prominent examples of the cult of Saint Mark. On the great arch, above the right-hand singing-gallery of the basilica, can be found the scene of the embarkation of Mark’s body; there is the ship sailing for Venice; there is the reception of the body in the city. These are mosaics from the end of the twelfth century, made luminous by the decorum and formality of the Byzantine tradition. Mosaics are the filigree upon the silver surface of Venice.

From the beginning, the cult of Saint Mark was as much a secular as a sacred affair. He became the icon and emblem of Venice (together with his winged lion), but he was always associated with the doge rather than the bishop. The open theft of the relic was not an issue. There soon grew up a legend that Mark had been bishop of Aquileia, to the north of the lagoon, before ever becoming bishop of Alexandria. And in any case the fact that the transition had been made with the blessing of Mark himself proved its benefaction. God’s will had been done. Otherwise the theft would not have succeeded. It is one of those circular arguments that are very difficult to break. In the thirteenth century another layer of the story was added. It was claimed that Saint Mark, on one of his missions, sought refuge from a storm and providentially took shelter on the island of Rialto. Here, in the future Venice, an angel appeared to him and proclaimed “Pax tibi, Marce. Hic requiescet corpus tuum.” Be at peace, Mark. Your body will one day rest here. There is of course no historical record of the evangelist ever visiting the lagoon.

There are in any case many problems with the original account, not the least serious being the fanciful chain of events that led to the translatio of Mark. That there was some kind of theft seems clear. That a sacred relic was lodged in Venice is also clear. It may or may not have been the body of Saint Mark himself. It might have been any ancient body, wrapped in pious fraudulence as heavy as any shroud. It is likely that the merchants had in fact been sent to Alexandria by the doge, precisely in order to purchase the relic. Its removal to Venice would heighten the sacred authority of the doge as well as the importance of Venice itself. Venice and Mark might rival Rome and Peter. It is interesting that Mark had been secretary to Peter, and that Peter had quarrelled with Mark for being insubordinate and insufficiently devout; these were precisely the charges raised against Venice by successive popes. From the time of the translatio Venice had a most uneasy relation with Rome, never conceding the primacy of the pontiff in its religious affairs.

Many other consequences flowed from the translatio. The presence of the saint was supposed to guarantee Venice from assault or blockade, and thus lend credence to its claim of invulnerability. Venice did survive, unscathed, until the time of Napoleon. The blessing of the saint would also unify the islands of the lagoon under the leadership of Venice, a political and social transition that did indeed take place over the course of two or three centuries. There were rumours that the head of the evangelist had been left behind at Alexandria, but the Venetian accounts insist upon the wholeness of the body. Insecurity in the spirit demands completeness elsewhere. The wholeness of the relic was also an analogy for the organic interdependence of the islands of the lagoon.

It is important, too, that the saint arrived by sea. The sea had become Venice’s true element, and there was no better way of sanctifying it than by claiming it as the shining path of divine protection. The mosaics in the basilica emphasise the image of the ship upon the waves. In a later legend a trio of saints—Mark, George and Nicholas—commandeer a fishing vessel and quell a storm in the lagoon that has been brewed by demons. On his disembarkation Mark presents a gold ring to the fisherman, who in turn gives it up to the doge. Power over the sea is transferred from saint to fisherman to leader. It is one of the formative myths of Venice, engaged in its continual fight against the waters.

There is also the question of free trade, upon which Venice depended. At the time of Mark’s translatio, the Byzantine emperor had imposed a trade embargo between Christians and Saracens. But in defiance of that prohibition the two merchants had transported their holy cargo from Alexandria, perhaps clearing the way for other less precious commodities. It was a hit against the emperor and a good omen for the merchants. If you cannot farm, as the Venetians used to tell the pope, who also complained about their trade with the infidel, you must fish. And that included fishing for saints. It was said that at the time of the opening of the sarcophagus in Alexandria a delicious odour as of “sweet spices,” filled the city. Venetian traders were well known for their bartering of spices.

The relic also secured the independence of Venice. The city’s previous guardian, Saint Theodore, was of wholly Byzantine provenance. By supplanting Theodore with Mark, Venice was asserting control over its own destiny. So Saint Mark became a synonym for Venice itself. It would seem that half of the Venetian males are still christened Marco. The red flag of Mark became the Venetian standard. The winged lion is everywhere. The essential and eventual autonomy of Venice was assured by the remarkable, if not miraculous, events of 828.

There was a great fire in Venice in 976, in the course of a rebellion against the reigning doge. In that conflagration the church of Saint Mark was utterly destroyed. It would have been supposed, then, that the combustible relic would itself have been consumed in the flames. In fact it was to all appearances “lost” until 1094, when by curious chance a piece of column fell away revealing the last remains of the evangelist. It was certainly a miracle that he had withstood the great fire. And, against all the odds, he is still with us. Until recent years it was reported that his body lay beneath the high altar of Saint Mark. In the summer of 1968 Pope Paul VI handed certain relics of the evangelist to a delegation of Coptic church-leaders, but confirmed that the rest of the body was still in Venice. The thumb of Saint Mark, as well as the famous gold ring given to the fisherman, are still preserved in the treasury of the basilica. The old bones still live in the imagination of the people.

There is a further reminder of the saint throughout the city. The lion of Saint Mark is the emblem of Venice; it can be found in stone and in bronze, carved in relief or in the round. The lions are to be found on the ducal palace and the doge’s chapel; they stand in front of the shipyards of Venice; they guard various grand houses and communal spaces. Every public building in Venice once bore an image of the beast. The winged lion stands on a pillar at the harbour. The lion was a symbol of both religious and political intent. The leonine symbol is one of authority and of paternalism. It is also a token of justice. All of these associations come together in the ubiquity of the lion on Venetian stones and walls.

As a companion of the Evangelist, the spiritual connotation of the lion was clear. But the lion could also be ferocious. It could be aggressive. It was a way of symbolising the might of Venice, if it were ever roused. An inscription of the mid-fifteenth century reads: “Behold the winged lion! I pluck down earth, sea and stars.” The lion of Saint Mark was often depicted with its hind legs in water, and its front legs upon the land, an apt indication of Venice’s pretensions to lordship both of the sea and of the mainland.


5

Refuge

<p>5</p> <p>Refuge</p>

Venice has been construed as a great ship upon the sea. Sometimes, among the restless motion of the waters, there is a sensation that the ground of Venice is also in motion like the deck of a ship. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his Journal, of his stay in Venice, that “it is as if you were always at sea.”

The image of the ship of state is a familiar one, but it has a particular pertinence in the case of a city that seems almost to float. When a doge of the early fifteenth century, Francesco Foscari, spoke of guiding the republic he reverted instinctively to the language of the sea. He discoursed upon sails and upon cordage, upon the wind and current, with all the experience of a practised sailor. It was a language that the Venetians intimately understood. The analogy was made, for example, between the building of the city and the building of a ship. When a ship was constructed, with keel and ribs of wood, it was not easy to say when the form first emerged; in similar manner, it was not easy to specify the origins of Venice.

The tip of the Dogana, or custom house, sitting on the edge of land that leads to the Grand Canal, has often been compared to the prow of a ship. On the church of S. Maria Salute, immediately behind the Dogana, a statue of the Virgin has been clothed in the uniform of a capitano da mar or admiral of the Venetian fleet. Venetian buildings have often been compared with ships, with their cylindrical forms and rectangles, ships turned into stone and permanently moored. The wooden roofs of some Venetian churches have been erected in forma di galea or as a “ship bottom roof.” The circular apertures, everywhere in Venice, are like portholes.

Yet the most important allusion can be saved to the last. The ship was once, for the early settlers, a place of refuge. The ship of Venice was, from the beginning, a haven for exiles and wanderers. It was an open city, readily assimilating all those who came within its borders. One fifteenth-century traveller noted of Venice that “most of the people are foreigners,” and in the following century a Venetian recorded that apart from the patricians and the citizens “all the rest are foreigners and very few are Venetians.” He was referring principally to the shopkeepers and artisans. In 1611 an English diplomat, Sir Dudley Carleton, described Venice as a “microcosmos rather than city.” It was created in the fashion of orbis rather than of urbis. And so it has remained for the rest of its history.

There were French and Slav, Greek and Fleming, Jew and German, Oriental and Spaniard, as well as assorted citizens from the mainland of Italy. Certain streets were named after them. All the countries of Europe and of the Levant were represented. It was something that all travellers noted, as if quite suddenly they had come upon the Tower of Babel in Saint Mark’s Square. No other port in the world held so many strange peoples. In many nineteenth-century paintings the gabardine of the Jewish merchants, the scarlet caps of the Greeks, and the turbans and robes of the Turks are seen jostling among the more severe costumes and top-hats of the Venetian gentlemen. It might be said that the Venetians fashioned their own identity in perpetual contrast to those whom they protected.

The Germans were granted their own “miniature Germany” in a complex known as the Fondaco dei Tedeschi at Rialto which contained two halls, for dining, and eighty separate rooms. The merchants were supervised and monitored by the government, but it was said that “they love the city of Venice more than their native land.” In the sixteenth century the Flemish settled in large numbers. The Greeks had their own quarter, with their own church dedicated to the Orthodox faith. After the fall of Constantinople in 1204, and the abandonment of that city to the Turks in 1453, there was a further flow of Byzantine Greeks—among them soldiers, mariners, artists and intellectuals looking for patrons. The Armenians and the Albanians had their own districts. Eventually an Armenian monastery was established on the island of S. Lazzaro, where Byron travelled to learn the Armenian language as a way of exercising his mind among the more sensual pleasures of Venice. There was a colony of Turkish merchants, established as the Fondaco dei Turchi, where a school for the teaching of Arabic was maintained. So Venice was the setting for a thriving cosmopolitan life. It was not altruism or generosity that occasioned this inviting embrace. Venice could not have survived without its immigrants. Some of them were raised to the rank of citizens; some of them intermarried with the indigenous people.

They were not all, of course, well protected. Many thousands of poor immigrants were cramped into cheap housing, sharing the corners of rooms with others of the same race or nationality. Many of them came as refugees from Balkan wars, or from impossible poverty; some of them were escaping from plague. They congregated in the poorer parishes and by the sixteenth century, as a result of the influx, Venice had become the most densely populated city in Italy. The immigrants also provided cheap labour for the city, and were even employed in the galleys of the Venetian warships. They did the work that the Venetians themselves preferred to avoid.

In the fourteenth century the Italian poet, Petrarch, celebrated Venice as the “sole shelter in our days of liberty, justice, and peace, the sole refuge of the good.” As a port, the city attracted such epithets as “shelter” and “refuge.” They were natural images. Pietro Aretino, himself an exile from Rome who had found safe haven in Venice, put it another way. In an address to the doge in 1527 he declared that “Venice embraces those whom all others shun. She raises those whom others lower. She affords a welcome to those who are persecuted elsewhere.” There were, after all, refugees who travelled to Venice for reasons other than commercial. There was a toleration in this open city that was unknown in other regions. That is why it became, from the eighteenth century forward, a resting place for what Henry James called “the deposed, the defeated, the disenchanted, the wounded, or even only the bored.” The deposed were a particular speciality of Venice. Many of the dethroned princes of Europe made their way here. At one time in 1737 there were five dispossessed monarchs living in the city, one of them being the young Charles Edward Stuart.

It was also a haven for those of broken spirit, for wanderers, and for exiles. Venice became the home of the dispossessed and the deracinated. Its watery and melancholy nature suited those who were acquainted with sorrow. It became a haven for those who were uncertain of their origin or of their true identity and for those, perhaps, who might have wished to escape from them. It was like a mother, endlessly accessible and accommodating. It was a womb of safety. The people were known for their placability and civility. Venice was a city of transit, where you might easily be lost among the press, a city on the frontier between different worlds, where those who did not “fit in” to their native habitat were graciously accepted. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for example, it became attractive to male homosexuals who were lured by the opportunities for boys and gondoliers. There came here, too, swindlers and fraudsters of every description; there were failed financiers and statesmen, shamed women and soldiers of fortune, alchemists and quacks. The rootless were attracted to the city without roots.

Venice was also a frontier between different faiths, Catholic and Orthodox, Islam and Christianity. So it attracted religious reformers of every description. A secret synod of Anabaptists was established here in the middle of the sixteenth century, and the German community harboured many Lutherans among its number. Venice always kept its distance from Rome, and protected the independence of its Church from the depredations of the pope; so it became, in theory, an arena for religious renovation. There was even a time when the English government believed the republic to be ready to join forces with the Reformation. In that, of course, it proved to be wholly mistaken.

If you had failed, then Venice was a good place to forget your failure. Here you were in a literal sense insulated from the outer world, so that its scorn or simple inattention could no longer wound you. Venice represented an escape from modernity in all of its forms. And, like any port, it offered anonymity. If you were an exile in Venice you could lose your identity; or, rather, you could acquire another identity entirely in relation to the floating city. You, too, could become fluid and elusive. Tell me who I am. But not who I was. That still holds true.

For a place that afforded refuge for the foreign or the dispossessed, it is perhaps ironic that Venice gave the world the name of the ghetto. A ghetto, a small and insular community, seems naturally to arise from Venetian circumstance; indeed the Venetian ghetto became a Venice in miniature, and will thus help us to understand the nature of the city itself.

There had been Jews in the city from the twelfth century, at the very latest, and in 1152 a population of thirteen hundred is recorded. They were not permitted to live in Venice itself, but were settled upon the adjacent island of Spinalunga; its name was changed later to Giudecca. Two centuries later they were given permission to reside in the city. A burial ground was prepared for them in the sand of the Lido, with a palisade to protect the Jewish dead from the “enormities” of the Venetians. But the Jews were always subject to the prejudice and hysteria of the larger population, prompted by superstition or greed to strip them of their wealth. They were forbidden all professions except that of medicine, and were denied all trades except that of moneylending; then they were reviled for the very business they were obliged to take up.

By the early sixteenth century their dwellings were scattered over the city; a series of military defeats in the same period, in battles with some of the Italian cities of the mainland, were believed to spring in part from the Venetian tolerance of the Christ-killers in their midst. God’s wrath was directed against His chosen city, exacerbating the anxiety that the Venetians always seemed to feel. So, on 29 March 1516, the Jews were enclosed in the first ghetto. It was located on the edge of the northern district known as Cannaregio, some distance from the sacred places of the city. It seems to have taken its name from the previous use of this remote enclave as a foundry for cannon; the word for the casting of metal was gettare. The noun for the cast is getto. Two other adjacent neighbourhoods were eventually added to its domain. It was a complex of ghettoes.

It was not an altogether novel development. The German merchants had already been consigned to their own quarters, where they could be supervised and taxed without difficulty. The Turks would soon follow. The policy of separation and enclosure had, in addition, previously been tested in the Venetian colonies of the Mediterranean. The administration of Venice was a pragmatic business. But of course that pragmatism, under other skies and in other cultures, could become brutal and murderous. The Venetians had always been preoccupied by the definition and creation of space. What could be more natural, therefore, than their invention of the ghetto? It was not, however, the most benign concept. The sacred state had, in certain respects, become a rationalised state. The combination elsewhere might prove fatal.

But the Venetian ghetto had certain special and defining features. It was, or it became, poor and overcrowded. It was surrounded by a wall, a small island with one bridge connecting it to the rest of Venice. The inhabitants of the ghetto were allowed to leave when the marangona bell in the campanile of Saint Mark’s rang at daybreak, but they were obliged to return by sunset. At that time, the drawbridge was raised. The Jews were locked in for the night. Space was so limited, and the influx of residents so large, that buildings grew higher and higher to eight or nine storeys. The buildings were divided into a number of apartments, with four or five families residing in each of them. It is reported that some people had to sleep at separate times of the day or night, since there was too little floor space. Rilke recites a story of one block in the ghetto that rose and rose ever higher until its inhabitants could finally glimpse the sea. That is a significant Venetian fable.

Yet in truth all the windows looked inwards, to the central campo or courtyard. There was to be no visual contact between Jews and Christians. It was deemed inadvisable, for example, that the Jews should be allowed to see the sacrament as it was paraded through the adjacent Christian streets. Such was the measure of the latent Venetian anxiety. So, from the outside, the unusually tall edifices were bare cliffs of stone. Guards were posted at the gates of the bridge by night and by day. The adjacent quays were walled in. Two boats were employed to patrol the immediate area. The ghetto resembled a fortress or a prison. The city itself had become a kind of prison for some of its inhabitants. The Jews were obliged to wear a sign of their race. It was at first a circle of yellow cloth, the size of a fourpenny loaf, stitched onto the breast of an outer garment; then it became a yellow hat; then a red one. Sexual congress between the two communities was forbidden. Any Jewish male discovered in flagrante with a Christian female was punished with the removal of his testicles.

By the end of the sixteenth century there were complaints that the ghetto had “become by day and night a den of thieves and harlots, troubled by rows, clashes of weapons, and threats.” But in the sixteenth century this might have been the definition of any city. Three hundred years later the French writer, Théophile Gautier, condemned it as a “fetid and purulent district.” But this was a period when much of Venice might have answered to that description. The ghetto reflected the nature of the larger city but, in this microcosm within a microcosm, it did so in an intense and garish way.

There were gambling dens in the ghetto, as there were in the larger city, where large sums were won or lost. The ghetto harboured a community of as many tongues and accents—Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Italian, German, Levantine—as the city itself. The ghetto was closely organised and controlled by the Jewish leaders, imitating the example of the Venetian patricians. On the feast of Purim the Jews put on masks and disguises in true Venetian fashion. It became known as the “Jewish Carnival.” The inhabitants of the ghetto excelled in music and in singing, as did the Venetians themselves. By the early seventeenth century there was even a musical academy within the walls. The Jews put on elaborate theatrical performances. Many Jewish women dressed themselves in the latest fashion, with velvet and plush, velveteen and lace. They had been thoroughly Venetianised, in other words, to the extent that the stricter rabbis would condemn their general dissipation and sensuality. The ghetto had become another Venice.

This was one of the secrets of the city. It reproduced itself effortlessly in all of its various districts and institutions; its nature and its structure were endlessly imitated in a perhaps unwitting act of homage. Every community within Venice, whether a trade guild or a manufactory, became a miniature republic. The image of the city was so powerful that it became a paradigm, drawing everything towards itself. A thousand cities of Venice comprised the city, just as a thousand flames may make up one fire.

The ghetto was not despised by the Jews themselves. It became a home, a haven, just as Venice itself had once been to the first settlers. It became a resting place. The Jews of Spain and Portugal, for example, were happy to find refuge there. It became a centre of Hebrew studies, and the principal site of Hebrew publishing in Europe. It was a fixed point of rabbinic culture. Despite its somewhat noisome reputation it remained for some Jews a central place of prayer and spirituality, reflecting the sacred destiny of Venice itself. It also offered a welcome defence, on a practical level, against outbreaks of anti-Semitism among the populace.

Jews and Christians would mingle in the ghetto during the day, and in fact the ghetto exercised a peculiar fascination for some members of Venetian society. The government of Venice tried to prevent its citizens from attending the Purim plays, for example, but in the face of mounting protest gave up the attempt. There was simply too much enthusiasm. Certain Venetians would also regularly attend the synagogues, when a renowned or gifted speaker was about to deliver the sermon. In turn rabbis would listen to the sermons in Venetian churches. There may in fact have existed an affinity deeper than either the Jews or Venetians would care to confess. There were many similarities. Both people were intent upon custom and ceremony; the Venetian patricians were often described as “grave” and “dignified,” in a fashion similar to Jewish elders. And the mercantile Venetians, like the Jews, were subject to vulgar prejudice. Other countries accused them of “insatiable cupidity” and of “conspiring the ruin of everyone.” The rest of the world believed that Venice was extraordinarily wealthy, even though it took great pains to conceal its wealth. Similar charges had been levelled at the Jews in all ages. There was a fellow feeling. They were both hated.

So in Venice the Jews were tolerated in a manner not evident in other European cities. There is no example of popular execration or maltreatment, although it was reported that Venetian drunks or Venetian children would sometimes dance in the Jewish graveyard on the Lido. The Jews were tolerated, perhaps, because they were profitable. You can never ignore the principle of commercial calculation running through all of Venice’s affairs. Jews were allowed to open business premises only on the payment of large fees. The trade that Jewish merchants and shopkeepers brought to Venice was of immense service to the Venetians themselves. The relatives of the Venetian Jews often sent their capital to the city. At times of crisis, not infrequent, heavy taxes were levied against the ghetto. In the first decades of the seventeenth century it has been estimated that the net revenue received from the ghetto was approximately 220,000 ducats; the sum was much higher than any collected from Venice’s overseas or mainland colonies.

Yet a more exalted association can be placed beside this talk of taxes and ducats. It is significant, for example, that both Venetians and Jews had a solemn sense of law and a sacred belief in nationhood. They both shared a preoccupation with their native territory as a common heritage. They both believed that their constitution was in essence a covenant between deity and people. They both reverenced their forefathers, and had an inordinate respect for custom and tradition. The Jews knew themselves to be mutually interdependent, part of a communal life rendered ever more sacred by a common purpose and the necessity of self-preservation. Does this not remind us of the Venetian state? The two cultures were images one of another.

The Battle of Lepanto, painted by Paolo Veronese in 1571. This work was completed just a few months after a famous victory of the Venetian forces (among others) over the Turks. Two hundred and thirty Turkish vessels were sunk or captured, with only thirteen losses for the Europeans. Lepanto was the last battle in which the use of the oar held the key. In later engagements the sails were raised. (photo credit i2.1)

Plan of the Arsenal in the seventeenth century. The Arsenal of Venice was the largest shipbuilding enterprise in the world, with its own network of docks and system of production lines. Ships were turned out from the shipbuilding yards of the Arsenal fully rigged and fitted, in the first version of the capitalist factory. (photo credit i2.2)

Detail of a Venetian warship, taken from the mausoleum of Girolamo Michiel completed in 1559. The image of the ship, and the circumambient sea, can be glimpsed everywhere in Venice. The city itself can be seen as a ship upon the waves. (photo credit i2.3)

The sign for the Marangoni family of shipbuilders, painted on panel in 1517. Shipbuilding was of course one of the principal crafts of a city surrounded by water. Ship-builders offered defence, and protection, against the watery element. (photo credit i2.4)

Jan van Grevenbroeck’s painting of a workman dredging a canal, an image of the eighteenth century. In all periods of Venetian history the government was involved in major efforts concerning health care and sanitation. (photo credit i2.5)

Jan van Grevenbroeck’s painting of an oar-maker at work in Arsenal. Oar-making was one of the many Venetian trades springing from the sea. The oar was used in the perpetual battle against the natural world and in warfare against the city’s competitors. (photo credit i2.6)

A painting of a Venetian doctor during the time of plague, by Jan van Grevenbroeck. During the time of pestilence the doctors clothed themselves in black robes, coated with wax and aromatic oils; they wore a hood and cowl over their heads, large glasses to protect their eyes, and a long beak-like nose with a filter at its end. They looked themselves like ghouls. (photo credit i2.7)

The shop of a Venetian bell-maker, at the end of the eighteenth century, painted by Jan van Grevenbroeck. Venice was a city of bells, all of them pealing together at the time of processions. They also had a more practical use. The bells rang out at precise times of day to coordinate the activities of the populace. (photo credit i2.8)

A showroom with lamps and vases. For many centuries Venice has been famous for its glass-making, now the preponderant industry on the island of Murano. What is the attraction of glass for the city of the sea? Glass is material sea. It is sea made solid, its translucence captured and held immobile. (photo credit i2.9)

Lace workers on the island of Burano, photographed at the end of the nineteenth century. Burano has been for many centuries the home of lace-making in Venice. Lace is a Venetian specialty; like the mosaic it is an art of elaboration and intricacy. (photo credit i2.10)

A Venetian courtyard at the end of the nineteenth century. Venice is a city of dead-ends, and of circuitous alleys; there are twisting calli, and hidden turnings; there are low archways and blank courtyards, where the silence is suspended like a mist. (photo credit i2.11)

A photograph of a funeral gondola, taken at the beginning of the twentieth century. Venice has always been associated with death, and the gondola itself has often been viewed as a floating hearse. (photo credit i2.12)

The new railway bridge over the lagoon, depicted in the middle of the nineteenth century. The bridge represented perhaps the most radical change in the history of Venice. It became connected to the mainland. The city was no longer an island, and had lost its hallowed status as a refuge from the world. It meant, too, that the prime significance of the water had gone forever. It became a city of mechanical, rather than of natural, time. (photo credit i2.13)

The remains of the campanile, which collapsed on 27 July 1902. It buckled and folded upon itself, neatly imploding into a large pile of rubble. It fell, as the Venetians said at the time, “like a gentleman.” There were no fatalities, except that of the caretaker’s cat. (photo credit i2.14)

An illustration taken from The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin, displaying types of the windows from the early Gothic palaces. The style was dominant in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, surviving even into the sixteenth century and giving an unmistakeable aspect to the city that still survives. Most of the well-known palaces or great houses are created in the Gothic mode. (photo credit i2.15)


6

Against Nature

<p>6</p> <p>Against Nature</p>

There were once many gardens in Venice. In the sixteenth century there were five hundred of them nestling within the city, spreading their own refreshing and aromatic life. Yet by the eighteenth century Casanova remarked that “a garden is a rarity in Venice.” In the middle of the twentieth century it was estimated that there were sixty remaining. That number may have since been revised. Yet there are still gardens, secluded and still, protected by walls and gates, creating little pockets of green in the stony life of the city. In previous centuries the smaller gardens might have shrubberies of larch or cypress or laurel. The larger gardens were planted with flower-beds and avenues of fruit-trees, complete with cages of singing birds to maintain the illusion of nature. There were also, in the largest of them, temples and fountains as well as elaborate loggias. The fugitive scent of fruit and jasmine and banksia roses trailed through the calli and the campi.

The Venetians evinced a great love for flowers, matched only by their love of buildings. There were itinerant sellers of gladiolas and tuberoses, and other blossoms harvested from the mainland. On describing these merchants in 1623, Sir Henry Wotton coined the English word florist. It entered the vocabulary effortlessly. On Saint Mark’s Day it was the custom for each young Venetian man to offer a rosebud to his sweetheart. In painted representations of Venice in the fifteenth century, there are innumerable pots of carnations cluttering the window-sills. But tastes change. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the aspidistra became the flower of Venice. There was, however, one native flower. It was the flower of the lagoon, fiore di barena, clothing the level marshes with a purple robe. It is a token of that time when Venice itself was merely a heap of wild and uncultivated nature.

On the lagoon itself there were garden islands. In the fifteenth century there were vineyards and monastery gardens. The island of Giudecca was until recent years a paradise of gardens. The island of Torcello was the home of the vine and the pomegranate, the oleander and the acacia, the fig and the elder tree; it also provided the rich soil for maize and artichoke. Once there were olive trees all over Venice. The island of Castello, where the cathedral of the city stands, was once known as Olivolo. Olive oil was a profitable commodity.

Yet in the city itself there is no sense of regeneration or rebirth that accompanies the presence of flora and foliage. It has been said that the Venetians prefer marble to vegetation. In Venice architecture must take the place of nature. It must allude to nature in a pious and consolatory manner. It is one of the secrets of Venetian building. The stone of the buildings is sculpted with leaf and branch. The hundred columns of Saint Mark’s comprise a solemn forest. The wood becomes stone. The stone becomes wood. The great houses have also been compared to coral reefs.

It needed art to re-create nature. There was a fashion among Venetian painters of the early sixteenth century for pastoral scenes. But the natural world is pictured without life. It is not worked or populated. There are sheep. There are picturesque rustic buildings. There are groves and springs. There are nymphs and shepherds in the foreground. The inner reality of rural life is not understood. The grass is depicted as if it were velvet, for example, just as in Venetian manufactories velvet was created to resemble grass.

The natural life of the city must be imagined rather than seen. It must be intuited beneath the layers of stone. Byron called Venice “the greenest isle of my imagination,” a paradox only he could sustain. George Aschenbach, the protagonist of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, sees in vision “a landscape, a tropical marshland … a kind of primaeval wilderness-world of islands, morasses and alluvial channels.” It is a vision of Venice itself in its original state. But it is a city that no one else will ever see.

And what kind of animals prowl in this city of stone? There were once sheep and oxen. There were foxes, and even wolves. There were horses and mules in the streets of Venice. In 1177 a mule carried Pope Alexander III through the streets of Venice, and in 1361 the doge and eleven patricians entered the city on horseback. The Veneti of early time had been known for their skill on horseback, and the latter-day Venetians continued their practice. Eighty horsemen were deployed in Saint Mark’s Square, in 1310, to maintain public discipline after the discovery of a conspiracy against the state. There were tournaments in the square, and at one such display in 1364 Petrarch was moved to remark that the Venetians demonstrated horsemanship and weapon-handling enough to equal “the fiercest fighters on earth.” There were horse-races across the Rialto bridge until they were banned by edict in 1359. It was a city where one of the principal sounds was that of the clangour and neighing of horses. This did not endure, however.

In 1611 the English traveller, Thomas Coryat, reported seeing only one horse in the entire city. Horses were eventually barred from the streets. There was simply not enough room, and the spread of stepped stone bridges was a further impediment. Such was their rarity that, in 1789, Mrs. Thrale noticed a line of Venetians queuing to marvel at a stuffed horse. Indeed by the eighteenth century the patricians of Venice were ridiculed for their inability to ride on anything except gondolas. It shows that a native skill may disappear from sheer lack of practice. The only horses now to be seen in the city are those with the rigid composure of metal. The four bronze chargers panting on the façade of Saint Mark’s, the spoils of war looted from Constantinople, are a token of a city where natural life is coming to an end.

Cats and dogs were, and are, popular in Venice. Once the city was filled with watch-dogs and hunting dogs for deployment in the lagoon. But over the centuries they have become more discreet. They are relatively small and domestic. They consort well with the spaces of the city. The dogs in particular enjoy the savour of old stone. They have a distinct sense of territory, as Venetians also do. The Venetian painters loved dogs. Carpaccio enjoyed their company on canvas. In one of his most famous paintings, now to be found in S. Giorgio degli Schiavoni, a small terrier looks up expectantly at Saint Jerome (or perhaps Saint Augustine) lost in divine rapture. Nature looks on, bemused, at the supernatural. But he also paints dogs on guard, dogs asleep, dogs on verandas and dogs on gondolas. They were not reserved for patricians. Almost all of the numbers of the local newspaper in the eighteenth century, the Gazzetta Veneta, contain advertisements for lost dogs. The Venetians embraced them because they were one of the tokens of the larger natural world that they had forfeited in their struggle for survival. In the modern vaporetti, the dogs are all safely muzzled.

The cats were celebrated as the “little lions” of Venetian life. They are part of the territory. They are naturally lazy. They are naturally observant, and can spend much of their day simply looking on. Yet cats, unlike most breeds of dogs, do not like water. They can still be found in feral groups, scattered across the city. They haunt the fish-market. They can be seen on ledges, on steps, under bridges and in the squares. The square of S. Lorenzo is particularly graced by cats. They are useful, of course, in catching the rats. Rats are one of the curses of Venice, but one surprisingly little mentioned in the literature of the place. There is a saying in Venice that every house has a rat; by which is meant that every family has a renegade member. But it can also be taken literally.

The efficacy of cats against the pests may have prompted the Venetian superstition that he who kills a cat will die within a year, and that he who hurts a cat will suffer an accident. This did not deter the more serious cat-haters. There were once mysterious outbreaks of cat-poisoning in the republic, and a curious ritual in which a cat tethered with a board was killed by systematic head-butting from the Venetian crowd. Yet there has always been a general celebration of animal life in the republic. Late medieval and early Renaissance painting is filled with animal studies; Carpaccio and Crevelli, Tintoretto and Veronese and Bellini, depict cats and dogs and falcons and deer and pheasants. Titian painted white rabbits. In every case there was a desire to embrace a natural world which was in truth out of reach, all the more fervently loved for being elusive.

There were aviaries and cages of singing birds all over Venice, another reminder of a natural life elsewhere. Brightly coloured birds—finches, canaries and parrots—were the favourites. All these birds had, of course, to be imported. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the apothecaries of the principal shopping street, the Merceria, kept cages of nightingales to advertise their trade. John Evelyn reported that “shutting your Eyes, you would imagine your selfe in the Country, when indeede you are in the middle of the Sea.” The pursuit of nature was for the Venetians a way of forgetting the unnatural and precarious position in which they lived.

Browning loved the seagulls of Venice, although they are seldom mentioned in the annals of the city. Yet the seagulls should be named with the cranes and the wild ducks as the native birds of the lagoon. They are also part of the myth of the city, like the flight of birds that led the earliest settlers to the islands of the lagoon. There is a legend that the pigeons of Saint Mark’s Square are a direct descendant of those flocks that followed the exiles from the town of Oderzo in their flight from the barbarians. The swallows provide another blessing. They come in summer, and swoop down upon the mosquitoes that are the plague of the shallow waters.

No one can visit Venice, however, without being aware of the pigeons. Those in Saint Mark’s Square are the most pampered and preserved birds in the world, to the extent that they have acquired an absolute immunity from the passing human population. In times of frost or heavy rain they will literally form a pile, one upon the other, creating and maintaining warmth in their huddled masses. They know that they are not at risk from predators, and that they will not be disturbed. So they have developed a unique form of animal behaviour, like some remote island species on a distant sea.

They are protected by ancient custom. And custom, in Venice, is sacrosanct. It is said that on one Palm Sunday they were released from the basilica of Saint Mark, with small weights tied to their legs. Hampered in this manner, they became easy prey for the dinner-tables of the Venetians. But some of the birds still somehow managed to escape, and found refuge on the various ledges and alcoves of Saint Mark’s itself. So they were preserved by the intervention of the saint. After that, they became a cult bird. So the story goes. It is certainly true that a daily supply of grain was provided to them from the public granaries, as was the custom in Persia and in southern Russia, and that it became an offence to injure or molest them in any way.

There are now forty thousand “doves of Saint Mark” in the city. The vendors of corn, in the square, maintain nineteen Venetian families. The birds themselves do seem to enjoy some divine dispensation, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning referred to them as the “holy pigeons.” There have over the years been several attempts to curb their numbers, on the grounds that they constitute a menace to public health and that their excrement corrodes the precious stone of the city; there have been attempts at poisoning, at trapping, and even at contraception. All have failed. They have been flying and fluttering in Saint Mark’s Square ever since it was fashioned. Why should they depart now? And if they were to be removed, would the square itself be any nobler or safer? The case is arguable. Trafalgar Square, now that its own pigeons have been eliminated, looks like a denuded and almost empty space. The birds are part of the spirit of place. They are the grey stone come alive and rendered soft to the touch.

There were many ways in which Venice fought against nature. Its whole soul and being were devoted to the battle against the sea, and that rivalry by a process of transference affected other areas of Venetian life. It is remarkable, for example, how expert the Venetians became at “forcing” flowers. They were adept at making roses and gilliflowers blow unseasonably; they had sweet-scented roses in January. It was also common, in the first part of the twentieth century, for Venetians to dye their flowers; orange and blue roses were displayed for sale, as well as pink or purple daisies. But these are no doubt examples of a very old practice. The Venetian love of colour is well enough known. Why should it not spread from the canvas to the more transient world?

The Venetians were entranced by artificial gardens, the more complex the better. In their villas on the mainland, by the Brenta, the gardens were formed in symmetrical shapes with every variety of water sculpture in grottoes and caves. The greenhouses were filled with rare plants and with foreign flora, and the hedges were fashioned into the shapes of boats or animals. The marble statues of nymphs and goddesses were the natural or unnatural extension of the pastoral landscapes that were fashionable in the early sixteenth century. In this same period, too, there was a general and genuine interest in the practice of horticulture, in the constant striving to control and to improve the natural world. Everything was of a piece. The Venetian patricians revelled in their triumph over nature—or, rather, their native skill in manipulating it for their own purposes. It was, after all, the principal lesson of the republic’s history. The city represents in the most delicate and disquieting way the ambiguous domain between the natural and the artificial, suggesting that there may be some third entity.


7

Stones of Venice

<p>7</p> <p>Stones of Venice</p>

If it is a city of stone rather than earth or leaf, for example, does that make it an unreal city? Oswald Spengler believed that the development of civilisation could be marked by the transition from plant to stone, and in that sense Venice might be considered the most civilised of cities. From the beginning of the fifteenth century, when the wooden city was slowly dismantled, it became a little kingdom of stone. It has all the appearance of solidness and stability, all the stronger because of its constant companionship with water.

There is no natural stone in Venice. So it had to be bought or stolen. It is the old story of the floating city. There was a time, after the capture of Constantinople, when every boat sailing to Venice from that city was obliged to carry a consignment of stone. It was used as ballast. Yet much had to be purchased. The marble of Venice came from Carrara and from the island of Paros. Trachite stone, from the Euganean hills, was used for paving the calli and the campi. Dark or red stone was imported from Verona; it was mottled with chips or pebbles of harder stone that resembled islands surrounded by channels. The lighter stone of Verona, pink and grey, changes tone according to the seasons and to the light. It is perfectly suited to the city. Pink granite, and porphyry, came from Egypt. And there was abandoned and disused stone, stone from the old churches and houses of the lagoon islands. Stone was so precious that it was used and used again. The spoils of ruins laid the foundation for new buildings in a continual process of regeneration and reinvention. The gravestones of the Roman dead became parts of Christian churches. An altar to the sun god, taken from Aquileia, was re-employed in the baptistery of Saint Mark’s. It can truly be said that Venice was built upon antiquity. It harbours past ages.

There are also more exotic stones. The Venetians loved the coloristic effect of agate and malachite, amethyst and cornelian. The ultramarine used on the façade of the great house on the Grand Canal, known as the Ca d’Oro, was made of powdered lapis lazuli from Badakhshan. The Venetians loved coloured and richly veined stone—green porphyry and black granite, stone with red stripes on a white ground, stone with white stripes on an orange ground. In the church of Saint Mark, there are more than fifty different types of stone.

But the principal stone of Venice was quarried in Istria. Istrian stone endures heat and cold; it is easily worked and, most importantly, it resembles its sister stone, marble. Once it has been smoothed and polished, it can scarcely be distinguished from that material. It is an example of Venetian show. It was used as foundation for the great houses and churches. It was used for sculpture, for framing doors and windows, for columns and for keystones, for quays and coats of arms.

There is one important fact about the stone. It is a limestone. It comes from the action of the sea, made up by the unimaginable compound of billions of marine creatures. It represents the compacted time of the sea. It is the essence of sea. When Auden imagined a limestone landscape, he could hear the murmur of underground streams. It is indissolubly connected with the life and history of water. Marble itself is also limestone, hardened and changed so that it is more resistant to the sea air. That is why it was often used upon the façades of the churches and greater houses. So the sea has become, by metamorphosis, the stone of Venice. The stone glows with the inner translucence of the ocean. It glistens. It gleams. It shimmers. It has been described as a forest of marble, springing upward from the petrified trees within its foundations. Ruskin devotes many paragraphs, in the aptly entitled Stones of Venice, to the designs of foliage and flowers sculpted in stone; the ornamentation is so careful that the stone leaves of a vine are every one varied in position. There are branches and twisting tendrils, drifting leaves and bunches of grapes; every rib and vein of the foliage may be copied exactly. It is a way of commemorating nature, but it is also a way of mocking it.

The visitors come to Venice precisely because of its stone. For the traveller, it is a city of buildings rather than of people. Stones are the life of the city. There is a tradition of sacred stones. Stones in the form of Byzantine crosses were set into the front of palaces. Arrangements of oval stones and stone crosses are found on many churches and houses. Above the Gothic doorways are generally to be found tympana of stone, carved with angels or with saints. Stone was a way of giving form to spirit. There are stones of faith and there are stones of scripture, with passages from the Bible inscribed upon lintels and gateways; there are stones of the law, on which legal precepts and decrees were carved; there are stones of punishment, the sites of public justice and of execution; there are stones of infamy to mark places of treachery and disgrace, the words on one stone column declaring that it “was erected, in view of the public, to be a terror to others, and a warning for ever to all.” These tokens go very far back, to the primitive belief in stone as the image of God found in cultures as diverse as those of India and Celtic Europe, Melanesia and the Americas. It happens that these beliefs were perpetuated by the very special circumstances of the floating city. Precious stones were also magical stones. Rilke once described Venice as a “stone fairy tale.”

The Venetian painters lavished their wealth of colour and of invention upon stone. In Carpaccio and Veronese, in Bellini and Tintoretto, there are vistas upon vistas of stone. It is the landscape of their imagination. The public buildings of Venice elicited from them a profound veneration and respect. The staircases and columns, the hallways and turrets, are their real subject. Their sensibility lies behind Canaletto’s later meticulous rendering of the city’s architecture. Canaletto’s painting “The Stonemaker’s Yard” is a meditation upon the power and potential of stone. His canvases were generally prepared with a brick-red ground.

But Venice has a secret. It is also accurate and appropriate to describe it as a city of masonry. It is in large part built with brick, artfully faced with marble or with stucco. In the most profound sense, it is deceptive. The great palaces are constructed out of brick. The churches, and the dwellings, are of brick. It is in truth a city of baked clay, taken from the earth of the mainland. Yet it is clothed with marble and limestone in homage to the sea rather than to the earth.

The brick and stone of Venetian buildings have on occasions been compared to the flesh and bone of the human body. The glow of limestone has been likened to the glow of flesh. So the stones may live and move. The stones of Venice seem light. The buildings are aerated, ready to rise from their moorings and soar into the empyrean. When the narrator of Proust’s Time Regained stumbles in the entrance of the Hôtel des Guermantes in Paris, he is thrown back in time to the moment when he stood upon two uneven paving stones in the baptistery of Saint Mark’s; the moment of vision afforded him overwhelming happiness, obliterating time and space in a euphony of sensation between past and present. The stones of Venice brought him joy and indifference to death.

Many legends and superstitions surround the stone of Venice. In some veined marbles strange shapes appear. On a wall of Saint Mark’s, for example, two slabs of marble were sawn apart; they revealed the image of a bearded hermit with his hands folded in prayer. There is scarcely a stone in that edifice that has not been sanctified by legend or report. Here is to be found the rock from which Moses drew water. Here are stones upon which Christ walked, or upon which His blood was spilled. On the wall facing the piazzetta, beside the basilica, are two groups of porphyry images. It is believed that they are four Saracens who were turned to stone in the act of robbing the basilica of its sacred treasures.

In another part of Venice, by the Salizzada del Pignater, there is lodged above an arch a heart made of brick; if two lovers touch it, their passion will last for ever. Statues suddenly move or vanish. On the night of Good Friday the statue of Judas, in the Madonna dell’Orto, was said to rise in flight for Jerusalem; he was accompanied by the stone images of Justice and of Faith on the roof of the same church. The statue of a merchant, still to be seen in front of one Venetian house, was supposed to cry in February when the air was colder than any stone. The good and the innocent, if they placed their hands upon the breast of the merchant, would hear his heart beating. Many of the legends of the city are preoccupied with one central fear—that the stone will come alive. There are stories of stone lions bounding into life, of wizards that could turn stone into flesh, of a column by Saint Mark’s that on foggy nights secreted blood. If Venice has turned the natural world into stone, its secret longing might be to reverse the miracle and once more to become fresh and yielding. Stone represents the longing to die, a tendency and a yearning to be found in every city. God created the natural world, as the Venetians were taught, but humankind made the city. After his murder of Abel, Cain became the founder of cities. Cities represent the primal curse, and the abandonment of natural ties. Venice is their avatar.

Giovanni Bellini’s portrait of the early-sixteenth-century doge, Leonardo Loredan. Note the sumptuousness of the dress and the strict serenity and reticence of his gaze. This severity was part of the official imagery of the Venetian state. (photo credit i3.1)

A seventeenth-century painting, attributed to Joseph Heintz, depicting an audience with the doge in one of the chambers of the ducal palace. The government of Venice had perfected the art of self-presentation. Every political act had its own ceremonial. All the actions and decisions of the state were hallowed by tradition and sanctioned by divine authority. (photo credit i3.2)

Three eighteenth-century Venetian lawyers, depicted by Pietro Uberti. They were dressed for the part, and indeed every Venetian was clothed according to rank and status. The lawyers had an especial place in Venetian life, where it was believed that the people were more fond of talking than of doing. There was a saying to the effect that a Venetian law only lasted for seven days before being forgotten. (photo credit i3.3)

An early-fifteenth-century tempera by Jacobello del Fiore depicting justice and the Archangels. The justice of Venice became one of the myths of Venice. It was deemed to be ancient. It was deemed to be divinely inspired. It was related, in ultimate form, to the judicial salvation of humankind. (photo credit i3.4)

A photograph of the lion’s mouth in the ducal palace, where evidence of scandal or wrongdoing was posted. It was one of the many mouths that became a post-box for accusations against any Venetian. The lion’s mouth was of course a Venetian invention. It was the mouth of the city, a capacious orifice of whispers and rumours. It meant that there was a general atmosphere of surveillance, even in the most private quarters of the city. (photo credit i3.5)

An eighteenth-century engraving of Pozzi Prison of Venice. The “pozzi” were the wells of Venice and this underground dungeon, close to the waters, was named after them. It had a reputation for noisomeness, with the suggestion that it were better to be entombed alive than to be lowered into the hole. (photo credit i3.6)

Dream of Saint Ursula, painted by Vittore Carpaccio in 1495. The sacred interior is directly modelled upon Venetian interiors. Here are two double-arched windows, and two white Greek vases with a plant in each. The lower walls are covered with green cloth. There is a reading-table covered by a red cloth, and a very small three-legged stool covered with crimson cloth. On the table are a book and an hourglass. (photo credit i3.7)

The Tailor by Pietro Longhi. This eighteenth-century painting portrays one of the most important figures in Venetian patrician society. The Venetians had a keen eye for fashion and for striking colour. They manifested an almost childlike delight in dressing up. The patrician women of Venice, like the lady in the painting, in particular loved sumptuous attire. (photo credit i3.8)

The Geography Lesson by Pietro Longhi. The Venetians were expert, and famous, cartographers. They were looking for fixity and certainty, in their watery world. They were guided by the twin imperatives of trade and of travel, both of them embodied in the figure of Marco Polo. In this painting a fashionable patrician lady consults a globe with a pair of compasses in her right hand; an open atlas lies at her feet. (photo credit i3.9)

The Perfume Seller by Pietro Longhi. Perfume was one of the many luxuries in which Venice traded. It might be expected, in a most unnatural city, that everything was scented—hats, shirts, socks, handkerchiefs. Even the money was scented. Note the ladies in Carnival costume, a mantle of silk or velvet that covered the head and shoulders known as the bauta. (photo credit i3.10)

A wooden image of the Madonna of Mercy, carved and painted in the sixteenth century. Images of the Virgin were displayed everywhere in Venice. Hers was a popular devotion. There were many shrines on the corners of the calli, with a votive lamp burning before the Virgin. There was not a Venetian home, however humble, without its picture of the Virgin. (photo credit i3.11)

Madonna and Child Enthroned with Two Devout People, painted in the fourteenth century by Paolo Veneziano. This painting has the form and quality of an icon, and indeed images of the Madonna were venerated in Venice as the workers of miracles. The Virgin was also the archetypal “mother,” in whose capacious embrace the sons and daughters of Venice could rest. (photo credit i3.12)

The Coronation of the Virgin by Giovanni Battista. The cult of Mary penetrated every aspect of Venetian society. There were more than three hundred altars, in the fifteenth century, devoted to the worship of the Virgin. Venice was the Virgin, too, because she had never been assaulted. She was inviolate and immaculate, protected by the waves of the sea like a precious girdle. Mary is peace. Peace is stability. (photo credit i3.13)

The Tempest painted by Giorgio da Castelfranco, otherwise known as Giorgione, in the early fifteenth century. In his study of this quintessentially Venetian artist the English critic, Walter Pater, declared that “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” In Venice oil paint can be liquid music. (photo credit i3.14)

Young Woman at Her Toilet by Giovanni Bellini. This painting of 1515 is evidence that the Venetians believed colour or colorito to be the mother of painting. They enjoyed the bliss of its warm and capacious embrace. Colour was soft and intimate and harmonious. That is why Venetian painting has often been associated with the depiction of the female nude. The naked woman can be said to be the invention of the Venetian artists of the sixteenth century. (photo credit i3.15)

Venus of Urbino by Titian (detail). The sensuousness and voluptuousness of Venetian art are most clearly seen in the female nudes of Titian. Planes and lines are supplanted by curves. His art is alive. It captures the movement and the appearance of life. It captures the effect of the transient moment. It is ardent. It has no sense of calculation or theory. (photo credit i3.16)


III Ship of State

8

“Let it be everlasting”

9

The Chosen People

10

The Prison House

11

Secrets

12

Chronicles

<p>III Ship of State</p>
<p>8</p> <p>“Let it be everlasting”</p>

The cry in Saint Mark’s Square was always that of “Marco! Marco!” invoking the saint of the city. On his deathbed the greatest theologian of Venice, Paolo Sarpi, breathed the words “Esto perpetua!”—let Venice last for ever! Yet by the time he murmured this blessing, in 1623, the city had become a state in more than name. It had become one by deed and example. The abstract concept of the state did not emerge until the first half of the sixteenth century, but the idea of the common good was of course very much older. The common good had created Venice in the first place.

The first mention of the commune Venetiarum can be traced to the beginning of the twelfth century, when civic dignitaries wished to supplant the power of doge and people. From this time forward we can chart the growth of a bureaucratic state with its administrators and its diplomats, its governors and its laws. The local ties of parishes and the wards known as contrade were weakened, with a decline in the number of religious ceremonies designed to celebrate them; instead there emerged the notion of a unified and united city, expressed in numerous public works and relayed by public decrees. A new form of urban life was being created, at once more efficient and impersonal. Public order was confirmed and controlled by public means. The people had once created the city; the city now created the people. Or, more exactly, the people of Venice now identified themselves in terms of the city. The private had become public. The city had become a totality. Certain criminal acts, for example, were described as being “contrary to the public will” thus conflating the people with the city. By the fifteenth century, at the latest, we may speak of the formation of the Venetian state. It was known as the “Signoria,” roughly meaning sovereignty or lordship.

So how did this city become a state and, indeed, a forerunner of the modern state? It is a perplexing question, related to complex rituals of self-awareness and communal self-respect. It emerged together with a well-supervised system of public finance, sustained by such mechanisms as credit and bills of exchange. Some of the first banks in the world were located in Venice. The first public loans were issued in that city in 1167. The Banco del Giro was established in 1619. A state cannot survive without internal stability, governed by law. The Venetians were always proud of the nature of their justice, however flawed its administration might become. Yet the law behind all laws was, in the words of one English ambassador at the beginning of the seventeenth century, “reason of state.” The state was eternal. The state was the source of all morality. It had an almost Byzantine rigour and prestige.

But there are more practical matters to consider. A state needs a broadly defined elite that will exercise power in the apparent interest of all. By the end of the thirteenth century the governance of Venice was vested in the hands of a patriciate that was legally defined. And of course the security of the constitution was intrinsically important to the security of trade. Power and commerce were inseparable. Such a general administration needs a bureaucracy, to supervise such matters as public health and public order. The bureaucracy of Venice was one of the wonders of the western world. Everything was committed to writing, as the overflowing archives of modern Venice will testify. At a time when other cities, or other nations, had only the most rudimentary internal organisation Venice was already a model of administrative expertise. The census of population was carried on more frequently, and with more efficiency, in Venice than in any other city. It was said by Jacob Burckhardt, in The Civilisation of the Renaissance, that “Venice can fairly make good its claim to be the birthplace of statistical science.” Every aspect of social and cultural life was closely ordered. Even the sale of fruits in Saint Mark’s Square, and of flowers on the steps of the basilica, was monitored and controlled. The rise of bureaucracy helped to foster accounts and treatises on the arts of government, texts that played a large part in the formation of what has become known as civic humanism. Of course in the actual practice of government and statecraft there were always large doses of opportunism and corruption, of relativism and pragmatism; but they flourished all the more for being easily concealed behind the imposing order of the public administration.

A state needs a measure of conformity among its inhabitants. The city can survive with rowdy or antagonistic citizens—in some ways, it thrives upon them—but the early Venetian state needed a measure of internal control. No city had more success in ordering its people than Venice. The doge and the various councils exercised in a literal sense the art of power. Any words of offence, or what we might now call speech crimes, were prosecuted for being “contra honorem huius civitatis”—against the honour of this state—and rewarded with a period of imprisonment. Foreigners who spoke disparagingly of la Serenissima were banished. In the secret correspondence of a Venetian diplomat, published by Alfred de Musset, was found the entry to “pay to Signor A, the sum of fifty scudi, for having killed the Signor S, who spake ill of the Republic of Venice.”

It was the state that the Venetians were meant to serve. It was continually asserted that it had been bequeathed to them by their diligent forefathers and that they should deem it more precious than their own lives. They were in honour bound to preserve it. The key to Venice was exactly there—preservation. The city itself was from the beginning a miracle of preservation, and it felt the need to invoke that miracle again and again. In its threatened and embattled position, as the public edicts suggested, it needed a coherent and obedient body of citizens to sustain it. This is the reason for the relative tranquillity of Venice over the centuries. It springs from its origin. Power sprang from the place itself, in the constant awareness of collective survival.

But the state emerges from an awareness, and a celebration, of power. Venice became strong because its immediate neighbours were weak; there was no city to challenge its authority over the adjacent mainland. Yet eventually it became a city-state depending on its command over other cities. It was never a question of a natural territory, outlined by rivers and mountains, but a confederation of separate urban entities. It created an empire of cities in northern Italy, now won, now lost, now exchanged.

So we are presented with an image of a highly authoritarian, very well organised, and exceptionally efficient enterprise. This may not consort well with the modern picture of a beautiful and serene if on occasions drowsy city; but it is the necessary pre-condition of its contemporary form. Venice is now, and for ever will be, because of what once it was.

* * *

The Signoria thereby became the object of a secular religion, honoured and commemorated in literally hundreds of communal rituals spread through the year. A large bureaucracy was created precisely to organise and to administer these festivals. Even at the time of the siege of Venice, surrounded by Austrian troops in 1848, scarcely a month or even a week passed without the celebration of a fête or pageant. It was in the blood.

The Venetian people were temperamentally inclined to spectacle and display. The city itself was designed for elaborate ceremony and in Saint Mark’s Square, the theatre of operations, gifts were presented and greetings were exchanged. It is a measure of the order of the state that strict custom and formality guaranteed the order of the rituals. Various groups carried variously coloured candles. The banners flown had their own code; white when Venice was at peace, green when a period of truce had intervened, and red when open warfare had been declared.

The ducal processions, in particular, were viewed as the Venetian constitution in motion. They were the living embodiment of sacred and secular governance. In other cities and in other states, according to a Milanese observer in 1494, “the moment the Prince has passed all go pell-mell and without any order.” But in Venice “everyone goes in the best order imaginable.” There were engravings and paintings of the entire sequence, with each participant’s role clearly defined by attitude or by costume. In the sixteenth century Matteo Pagan executed a remarkable series of eight woodcuts, detailing every participant in the procession.

There were the eight standard bearers, followed by certain judicial officials; there were the six musicians sounding silver trumpets; there were the squires of the foreign ambassadors, followed by the ducal squires. There were more musicians, followed by minor officials such as the clerks and the notaries. And so it goes on, the procession itself fashioned into three large groupings in which religious authority and state power were weighed and balanced. It was not a procession of persons, but a procession of office-holders. In the middle walked the doge; the centre was the heart of power. Radiating out from that centre, rippling through the procession, were the classes and hierarchies in due order. The citizens walked before him, in ascending levels of rank; the nobles walked after him, in descending levels of rank. It was observed by some that the patricians were notably benevolent; they smiled a great deal. There was a general atmosphere of calm and serenity. On certain occasions in Venetian history, that was the greatest act of all.

The celebrations were not necessarily of an uplifting nature. At the festival of the Epifania, on 6 January, certain rowing men were dressed as old women; wearing carrots strapped to their noses, and trailing old stockings, they raced to the Rialto bridge. At the feast of Giovedí Grasso, in February, a bull, and several pigs as well, were ceremonially slaughtered by the guild of locksmiths in Saint Mark’s Square. In a later part of the ceremony the doge and certain senators attacked with staves, and then knocked down, some lightly built wooden castles. The ceremony was in effect the reproduction of a Venetian victory over the parent city of Aquileia. Is politics transformed into game, or is the game a form of politics?

There were other festivities when the doge visited various quarters of the city. When he entered the parish of S. Maria Formosa, for example, he was given a hat of gilded straw, a bottle of wine and several loaves of bread. At the close of the proceedings twelve wooden statues of women were taken in procession to the church, whereupon they were pelted with turnips. The ritual was said to derive from an occasion when twelve Venetian maidens were carried off by pirates before being rescued by the young men of the parish. It is all most improbable. It is more likely to represent a primitive phase of Venetian experience, when the young women of wealthy families were all married on the same day as part of a fertility ritual. But thus do folklore and festivity take on strange shapes. It was the custom in the city to call a frigid or disdainful woman “a wooden Mary.” The word marionette may spring from the same source.

There were so many Venetian festivals that, in the end, one day was chosen to commemorate several different celebrations. It had become in essence a ritual city. That is why certain pathways were chosen. Churches were sited at focal points, where theatre and piety converged. Public spaces became ceremonial axes, part of the vast geometry of the sacred city. It was a society of the spectacle. Land and water were conjoined in a variety of festivals. Visually and emotionally the various districts or sestieri were also woven together in acts of homage and of celebration; the processions represented the collective hope of the city, just as they memorialised the collective experience of the city. Ritual promised continuity and harmony. Ritual also assisted in the shaping of time within the city. It was seen to obey ceremonial law rather than the diurnal round of minutes and of hours. Ritual also helped to codify and identify the past. There were perhaps less elevated aspects of the show. The pageantry impressed foreigners and ambassadors with the solidarity and wealth of the Venetian people. These festivals, like those of modern Venice, also helped to lure tourists to the always alluring market-places of the city. The Venetians never lost a chance for making money. The same practicality lay behind the institution of the Carnival, and of course all the art and film “biennales” of more recent years.

The festivals, therefore, brought much of the city into play. The paintings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries show all the windows and balconies of the houses draped in ornate carpets. There were many elaborate “floats” and wheeled chariots displaying the cardinal virtues or the saints of the city; there were large displays of decorative architecture; there was music and singing. There were paintings and sculptures and recitations. There were stages or “scaffolds” for theatrical performances in which the political events of the day were reinterpreted in the form of allegory. At the festival of the “Sempiterni,” in 1541, a painted globe of the universe was floated upon gondolas along the Grand Canal; within the globe, a masked ball was conducted. The pageant was a method of reinventing life as a form of art. It represented the very highest form of popular consciousness, which is why all classes of Venetian society participated in it.

So the population of Venice walked in measure along the sacred routes, with each person knowing his or her own place in the general enterprise. It was hoped too that the common people, the popolani, would in the general mood of rejoicing forget that the liberties they once enjoyed had been lost irrecoverably. Spectacle was of course another way of procuring social order. The same Milanese observer of 1494 mentioned that “one single person appeared to me to direct everything, and he was obeyed by everyone without protest.” Only the great hierophantic societies, such as those of Egypt or of ancient Mexico, have achieved such order. It is one of the singular facts about Venice that its religion should have such an atavistic hold upon its people. The reason for it may lie in the peculiar merging of place with piety. The earth of Venice was sacred, miraculously saved from the waters of the world. The people of Venice were part of that earth.

The government of Venice thereby perfected the art of self-presentation. It became an exercise in style. It evolved into a unique form of rhetoric by which all the actions and decisions of the state were hallowed by tradition and sanctioned by divine authority. The especial providence of Venice was invoked, together with the concepts of glory and resolution and independence. The immortality of Venice was also assured. It could most kindly be described as a means of emphasising idealities. But it could also be criticised as a wilful disregard of realities. It might also be seen as a fog of fine sentiment, no less dense than the fog coming in from the sea, veiling the greed and ruthlessness of la Serenissima in most of her dealings with the outer world.

No other people placed so much reliance upon the devices of rhetoric. It was a city of performance. Poetry was understood, and considered, as a form of oratory. In an essentially pragmatic culture, such as that of Venice, the whole art of literary education was to inculcate the techniques of rhetoric. The artistic life of the city, in music and in painting, was attuned to expressive performance; it emphasised that which was shown rather than that which is meditated or intuited. Whether we are listening to the music of Vivaldi or gazing at the canvases of Tintoretto we are engaged with an art of “effect,” of dazzling virtuoso performance, of bravura exercise. The facility of Tintoretto, and the fluency of Vivaldi, may also be understood in terms of the rhetorical concept of copia or plenty. The textbooks of Venetian rhetoric demonstrate a native form of eloquence depending upon “moderation” and “propriety”; in the manner of the state itself “variazione” or “variety” must be used to temper extremes and avert the dominance of any one style. It was part of Venetian reserve and discretion.

In an eighteenth-century treatise, An Account of the Manners and Customs of Italy, variously attributed to Giuseppe Baretti and Samuel Sharp, it is remarked that “the Venetians value themselves much on their forcible eloquence, and think that their advocates are the only legitimate offspring of the ancient Roman orators.” An earlier legal advocate, Leonardo Giustiniani, declared in a letter of 1420 that “there is no kind of case, no type, no topic, finally no precept of the entire art [of rhetoric] in which I must not be proficient.” From the earliest times the administration of Venice was steeped in rhetoric.

That is the reason why, of all the Venetian arts of government, the most finely tuned was that of diplomacy. The ambassadors of Venice were unrivalled in the arts of graceful self-presentation, with the attendant emphasis upon appearance and demeanour. These were the elements of sprezzatura, which can be defined as the ability to create an effect while concealing the art or skill involved in so doing. Concealment, and double nature, came instinctively to the representatives of Venice.

It was the first city to maintain a continuous diplomatic presence outside the confines of Italy; it had established an embassy to the court of France in 1478. The principle and stated aim of la Serenissima was to maintain peace with all parties; only in those circumstances could trade truly flourish. War may have been good for the armament trade, but not for the convoys of spices and other goods that were carried across sea and land. When in 1340 Edward III of England desired that Venice should pledge not to lend assistance to his enemies, the doge replied: “It is not the custom of the Venetians to interfere between disputants or belligerents, except for the sake and purpose of making peace.” The Venetians were expert at the polite rebuff. From the sixteenth century their policy was one of strict neutrality, a non-committal approach to all who wished to involve Venice in the affairs of other states or cities. The Venetian system of government was established upon a coherent pattern of equivalence and balance. It seems likely that they applied the same notion to foreign affairs. In the days of political decline, however, this apparent neutrality was condemned as the cover of timidity and irresolution.

Venice’s diplomacy was described as occhiuta or many-eyed—prudent, discreet, circumlocutory, conciliatory and practical. It was cloaked by dolce maniera, a term for mildness or sweetness derived from music. But behind that mask the Venetian ambassadors probed for weakness and prejudice; they were not averse to bribery and other forms of corruption; and they watched everything, looking for grievances they might exploit; they were masters of intrigue. They played state against state, not scrupling to incite one city against another if it suited their purpose. They were dishonourable in their pursuit of Venetian honour.

The most famous diplomatic innovation of the Venetians was in fact the report that all ambassadors were obliged to present to the senate after their tour of duty was complete. These were called relazioni, utterly unlike any other ambassadorial documents, in which the diplomat was obliged “to report if he has learned anything of the country from which he comes worthy of being heard and pondered by prudent senators for the benefit of the fatherland.” His survey would include such matters as military preparedness, economic conditions, the health and character of the sovereign. No detail was considered too trivial to be overlooked, on the principle that knowledge is power.

Venice was a city of foreign ambassadors, too, who came to the city seeking for information. They were greeted with elaborate ceremony and all the panoply of state. But this was the rhetoric rather than the substance of their welcome. When Sir Henry Wotton, the English ambassador of the early seventeenth century, made a proposal for submission to the doge, he received the most nebulous possible response; the doge was forbidden by law to make any specific reply and, in the words of Wotton, could only “float in generalities.” So the ambassadors needed all the guile and patience they could muster. Wotton also noticed that the doge and his advisers favoured delay and stealth in matters of state. Ambivalence and ambiguity were the ground of their considerations. This may have been beneficial in times of peace but, in times of danger, it was a positive disadvantage. It is perhaps instructive that it was Wotton who offered the famous opinion that “an ambassador is a man of virtue sent to lie abroad for his country.” Only the atmosphere of Venice could have prompted such a conclusion.

<p>9</p> <p>The Chosen People</p>

Venice has always been a city of myth. The collective need of the people, for reassurance and identity, has the consequence of creating a fantasy city based upon idealised self-representation. By the thirteenth century it had created a closed political order that allowed it to claim unity and inviolability. By the fourteenth century the Venetians had assumed the mantle of “the chosen people.” By the early fifteenth century Venice had fashioned itself as the “new Rome” with its own mainland empire.

But the real “myth of Venice” arose in the early sixteenth century, in the years immediately following the city’s struggles against an alliance of its enemies, known as the League of Cambrai, when the European powers were ranged against it. The defeat of Venice, followed later by the restoration of most of its territories, had a double consequence. It was felt that the city was vulnerable but that it was also invincible. From this potent mixture of anxiety and reassurance there emerged a doctrine that expressed the permanence and harmony of la Serenissima. The idea of an aggressive and victorious republic was replaced by the myth of an illustrious city of peace. It was in this period that the architecture of the city took its classical shape. The plan of the city became a metaphor for order and grandeur. The city became known primarily for its art and for its music. Ruskin believed that the myth of a nation or tribe is formulated at the time of its utmost power. But that is not necessarily the case. The myth of Venice was prompted by observable weakness that had somehow to be concealed from the outside world. Even after it had effectively forfeited its authority, it still displayed itself as a proud and powerful city.

The ingredients of this myth can be distinguished in a close reading. The Venetian state was founded by miracle and governed by providence. It was immune from external invasion. It was immutable. It had survived for a thousand years, according to a chronicle, “without ever changing.” Every other city in the world had lost its liberties, frequently or infrequently, but Venice had never once been oppressed. In 1651 James Howell wrote in A Survey of the Signorie of Venice, “Were it within the reach of humane brain to prescribe Rules for fixing a Society and Succession of people under the same Species of Government as long as the World lasts, the Republic of Venice were the fittest pattern on Earth both for direction and imitation.” Venice represented an idea that was itself eternal.

It was supposed to embody a harmonious mingling of all forms of government. It was at once democratic, with its great council, aristocratic, with its senate, and monarchical, with its doge. The idea of balance, and of stability, is of course paramount for a city resting upon the sea. Thus James Howell could write that Venice “is as dextrous in ruling men as in rowing of a gallie or gondola.” It aspired to be a veritable commonwealth of liberty. It was free from civil unrest and internecine warfare. Its political debates were conducted in an air of refinement and sagacity. It was a city, therefore, devoted to the common good. There was no room for individual ambition or private greed. The princes of other lands were ruled by the passion for self-aggrandisement and by the imperatives of temporary necessity. But, as Pope Alexander VI told the Venetian ambassador in Rome in 1502, “you are immortal insomuch as your Signoria [government] never dies.” It was compared with the phoenix, the bird that regularly renews itself. So the city was self-conscious, and confident, enough to turn itself into one continual allegory.

The rulers of Venice were acclaimed as epitomes of wisdom and fraternity. In the ceiling panels of the ducal palace they are shown at the feet of the Saviour or in the light of the Holy Spirit. It was related that there was no discord between them, all united in the cause of the republic. They were devoted and impartial in their dealings, never allowing private interests to affect their judgement. There was no room for corruption or individual ambition. Effectively they were anonymous servants of the divine order of the state. That is why they conventionally dressed in black, and in public were urged to preserve a decorous and dignified appearance. The doge was invariably of great age, confirming the notions of wisdom and experience. It was a great play. But it served its purpose, particularly in fooling foreigners.

And what of the citizens? Philippe de Commynes, an ambassador from fifteenth-century Flanders, was astonished to see the Venetians lining up to pay their taxes, at such a rate that the tax collectors could not keep pace with them. The motive here may have been fear rather than devotion. Yet this much is true: the city did indeed have the capacity to instil fervour in the hearts of its inhabitants. As early as the thirteenth century a Paduan chronicler exclaimed: “Oh happy commune of Venice, that happy city where the citizens, in their every manifestation, have the common interest so much at heart that the name of Venice is held as divine!”

It was the seat of wisdom. The ducal palace was considered to be another palace of Solomon. It was the home of justice. The sculptured image of Venice was based upon the figure of justice with the sword in one hand and the scales in her other. It was the seat of learning. It was the seat of liberty. It had never been the subject of any other power or empire; it had ceded no authority to West or East. Its inhabitants were bound together in a mutual covenant. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that liberty took a different form, in the carnivalesque society of art and theatre and sex that became notorious throughout Europe. But the later liberty was based upon the perhaps more virtuous original.

The city quickly acquired Olympian characteristics. The great staircase in the ducal palace, known as the Scala dei Giganti, was surmounted by the images of Mars and Neptune. Venus was always part of the myth of Venice. The images of Jupiter and Minerva, Mercury and Apollo, are still to be seen in Saint Mark’s Square. The great paintings depicting the figures of classical mythology were created in Venice rather than in their more natural home of Rome. Mount Olympus was to be found in the heart of the city.

By the mid-seventeenth century the myth of Venice had become in England a paragon of harmony and continuity, all the more alluring in a country that had witnessed civil war and regicide. It was seen as a model of republican virtue in which patrician and citizen (for which the English read “lords” and “gentlemen”) shared authority. It also became a model for the intellectuals of the Enlightenment, who saw in its proceedings a genuine compact between rulers and ruled. It became an inspiration to the makers of the American constitution.

It is the nature of humankind to idealise, to indulge in excessive praise as well as unjust condemnation. The daily texture of life in Venice was neither harmonious nor free. The government was often corrupt and ineffectual. There were many who disparaged the city all the more fiercely because of its pretensions to grandeur. In the seventeenth century it was depicted as the home of assassins and sodomites. Far from being free, it was an oligarchy. It was a tyranny. Its symbol was the torture chamber of the council of ten. Its true emblem was the dungeon. In the late twentieth century, too, some revisionist historians emphasised the greed and oppression endemic in a ruling class based solely upon birth.

A parade of triumphalism provokes hate and resentment. There were many scholars who considered Venice’s version of its history mere trumpery. It was a fake. The Venetians, holding themselves aloof from the rest of Italy, were derided as misers and fishermen. They were as treacherous and unpredictable as the water on which they lived. The city of merchants was denounced for its insatiable cupidity. Cosimo de’ Medici described them as unblushing liars. Indeed their rulers and ambassadors were known throughout Europe for their double-dealing; they had so great a reverence for the state that they would stoop to the lowest practices in order to maintain it. There is some truth in all of these allegations. At a later date D.H. Lawrence described it as an “abhorrent, green, slippery city.” Many visitors have been unmoved by its charms, professing to find it superficial, tacky and unhealthy.

It is hard to know whether the people themselves, or the rulers, of Venice were ever gullible enough fully to subscribe to the myth of Venice. But that myth has never wholly died. In the early seventeenth century Giovanni Priuli apostrophised Venice as “a terrestrial paradise.” Two hundred and fifty years later John Ruskin, one of the many Englishmen who have been entranced by Venice, described it as “the paradise of cities.” He was speaking in a time when Venice had lost its authority, its trade and its independence. So the myth goes on. Venice still remains the exemplary city.

It is unique. There is no doubt about that. That is what led to its success. The location of the city is, obviously, singular; and, from this, everything else in its history sprang. You may see in the seed the whole created being. The union of water and earth allowed it to neglect, or to transcend, the ordinary practices of European states. It had to invent a new way of life. Venice belonged to no particular element, just as it belonged to no other authority. Goethe decided that the peculiar circumstances of the city in the lagoon required that “the Venetian is bound to develop into a new kind of being.” The Venetian political system, of incredible complexity and subtlety, designed to balance and harmonise the various councils and jurisdictions, was like no other on earth. In the endless letters of travellers the predominant note is one of wonder at its difference. Thus Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote, in the middle of the eighteenth century, that it was a “great town, very different from any other you ever saw, and a manner of living that will be quite new to you.” In 1838 the American author, James Fenimore Cooper, observed that he was “in the centre of a civilisation entirely novel.” The abiding charm of Venice lies in the fact that it is always new and always surprising. It is, somehow, always renewed by the enthusiasm and wonder of its visitors. So it is that the Italian writer of the early twentieth century, Gabriele d’Annunzio, asked “if you know of any other place in the world like Venice, in its ability of stimulating at certain moments all the powers of human life, and of exciting every desire to the point of fever?”

The Venetians were well aware of their uniqueness, too. They had a lively conviction of their own difference. They believed that their city was born as a place of refuge, from the barbarians no less than from the sea, and enjoyed the especial status it conferred upon them. They trusted in their especial, and superior, destiny. If this resulted in a certain arrogance towards other Italian city-states, then so be it. It might also lead to complacency, of course, which had less certain consequences.

So for others it enjoyed a visionary quality. It was the city of earthly beauty. It seemed so fragile, and yet it was in reality very strong. It floated upon the water like an optical illusion. Petrarch described it as representing “another world,” by which he might have meant a double image of this world. This was the effect it had upon Rilke, upon Wagner, and upon Proust. In Invisible Cities (1972) Italo Calvino describes a visionary city with the steps of marble palaces descending into the water, of bridges and canals without end, of “balconies, platforms, domes, campaniles, island gardens glowing green in the lagoon’s greyness.” Kublai Khan asks the narrator, Marco Polo, whether he has ever seen a city such as this. The Venetian replies that “I should never have imagined that a city such as this could exist.” In this context Calvino himself said, of Invisible Cities, that “every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.” Venice is in that sense the purest city of all.

It is invariably associated with dream. Henry James described his sojourn in Venice as a “beautiful dream.” “Venice,” he wrote, “is quite the Venice of one’s dreams, but it remains strangely the Venice of dreams, more than of any appreciable reality.” To those visiting the city for the first time it seems strangely familiar. In this, it resembles the landscape of dreaming. So for Proust the city “was one that I felt I had often dreamed before.” The calli are so labyrinthine that the passers-by seem suddenly to disappear. It is a common experience for visitors, after a perplexing walk, to find themselves back at the place from which they started. But this may be a dream of oppression, a dream of being beguiled into a maze. This induces fear as well as amazement. Charles Dickens, in Pictures from Italy, invoked his whole journey through the city as an oneiric adventure—“I passed into my boat again and went on in my dream”—but it is one that has the qualities of nightmare with intimations of horror and of darkness; beneath the surface of the fantasy or vision lie “dismal, awful, horrible stone cells.” It is an unreal city because it seems to have no foundations, like the landscape of a dream.

“Never did a city seem so dream-like and unreal” (William Dean Howells) … “her aspect is like a dream” (Byron) … “dream-like” (Hugo von Hofmannsthal) … “this dream-like town” (Rainer Maria Rilke) … “the life of a Venetian is like a dream” (Disraeli) … “When you are at Venice it is like being in a dream” (John Addington Symonds) … “Dreamlike and dim, but glorious” (John Ruskin) … “The city of my dreams” (George Sand) … “That waking dream of beauty” (Frances Trollope) … “We have been in a sort of half-waking dream all the time” (Mark Twain). It is perhaps significant that these testimonies all date from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They are part of a culture in which the interior life first came to prominence as an object of study. Once more the city, infinitely malleable and fluid, satisfied the cultural expectations of a new period. It breathed the spirit of the age. Sigmund Freud visited Venice on several occasions. He mentions the city in The Interpretation of Dreams as the site of one of his own most disturbing dreams. It was of a warship passing over the lagoon.

It can hardly be doubted, then, that Venice still exerts some strange power over the human imagination. To walk around the city is to enter a kind of reverie. Water instils memories of the past, made all the more real by the survival of the ancient brick and stone. The presence of water may also induce the emergence of unconscious desires and fantasies. The uterine embrace of the womb has already been mentioned. It has always been a city of luxuries, and luxuries are dreamed-of things.

The most important Venetian text of the early modern period is entitled Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499), or the strife of love of Poliphilus, as veiled in a dream. It is a recondite and anonymous work, the meaning of which remains unclear, but it is concerned in large part with the transition between illusion and reality. There are dreams, and dreams within dreams, revealed in a series of architectural conceits. In this respect, it is wholly Venetian in spirit.

The detail of Christ and the musicians from The Marriage Feast at Cana by Paolo Veronese. In sixteenth-century Venice, art and music were closely associated. Here a quartet is shown playing to the invited guests; the members of that musical group have been identified as Titian, Tintoretto, Bassano and Veronese himself. (photo credit i4.1)

An eighteenth-century painting by Gabriele Bella showing a concert given by the girls of the hospital music societies in Venice. The orphan girls in the charitable institutions of the state were given an extensive and elaborate musical training, so that their concerts became the wonder of the age. “I cannot imagine anything,” Rousseau wrote, “so voluptuous, so touching as this music.” (photo credit i4.2)

The Parlour of the San Zaccaria Convent in Venice. This painting by Francesco Guardi reveals the refined and luxurious atmosphere of the eighteenth-century convents of Venice. They were essentially homes for unmarried patrician women, accustomed to the comforts of the outer world. The convents of Venice became a form of theatre, with the nuns sitting behind gratings watching the rest of Venice cavort before them. (photo credit i4.3)

A pen and ink drawing of 1787 showing a cross-section view of a theatre on the Grand Canal. The theatre was intrinsic to Venetian life, and Venetians were known throughout Europe for their love of drama. It was a passion that touched all classes, from the gondolier to the patrician. Venetian stagecraft was also renowned for its subtlety and elaboration. (photo credit i4.4)

A portrait of the Venetian dramatist, Carlo Goldoni, by Alessandro Longhi. Goldoni was the greatest of all the city’s playwrights. His was the comedy of Venetian social life. He held a mirror up to Venetian nature. He captivated the eighteenth-century public with portraits of gondoliers and of servants, of shop-keepers and housewives. (photo credit i4.5)

An eighteenth-century watercolour of a Venetian nobleman patronising a café. Venice has always been more famous for its cafés than for its restaurants. In the eighteenth century they were calculated to number two hundred, with thirty-five in Saint Mark’s Square itself. The customers enjoyed cups of coffee and cups of chocolate, or glasses of lemonade and syrup. (photo credit i4.6)

A fresco painted by Giandomenico Tiepolo, at the end of the eighteenth century, showing Pulcinella disporting with acrobats. Pulcinella was a character from commedia dell’arte, the characteristic Venetian entertainment that first emerged in the sixteenth century, growing ever wilder and more obscene over the centuries. He wore a white costume and a black mask, and was well known for his long nose. In England he became known as Punch. (photo credit i4.7)

A pen and ink sketch, from the eighteenth century, showing three masked figures in Carnival costume. The Carnival was instituted at the end of the eleventh century, and has continued without interruption for almost seven hundred years. By the eighteenth century, at the very latest, the masks had become indispensable. Even the beggars wore masks. (photo credit i4.8)

Canaletto’s painting A Regatta on the Grand Canal. The regatta was an annual event, at the time of the Carnival, watched eagerly by all Venetians; it was formally instituted in the fourteenth century, and has continued ever since. This painting shows the one-oared light gondola race. (photo credit i4.9)

A painting of a masked ball taking place in Saint Mark’s Square during the Carnival. John Evelyn, the seventeenth-century English diarist, described such events as part of the “universal madnesse” with “the Women, Men & persons of all Conditions disguising themselves in antique dresses & extravagant Musique & a thousand gambols.” (photo credit i4.10)

A painting by Gabriele Bella showing a battle with sticks on a Venetian bridge. It was known as la guerra dei pugni or the war of the fists, fought between the inhabitants of the various territories and neighbourhoods. A team from each of these territories met for battle on a chosen bridge, while thousands of spectators lined the streets and houses beside the canal. It was a glorified fist-fight in which the object was to hurl opponents into the water and to gain possession of the bridge. (photo credit i4.11)

A game of bowls in the Campo dei Gesuiti, painted by Gabriele Bella in the eighteenth century. The square or campo was at the heart of the neighbourhood. It spread before the parish church and was once its burial ground. It was a self-contained entity, marked out by its well and carved well-head where the women of the parish came to gossip. It was a Venice in miniature. (photo credit i4.12)

An etching of the Bridge of Sighs, that led from the ducal palace to the ducal prisons. It was named after the laments of those about to be gaoled, and is the most picturesque of all penitential emblems. It was not in fact given that name until the nineteenth century; yet it serves the purpose, and the image, of Venice very well. (photo credit i4.13)

The front cover of Casanova by René Jeanne, published in 1927. Jacques Casanova is the most famous of all Venice’s favourite sons. He is the quintessential Venetian, and his memoirs demonstrate the facility with which life in the city can be turned into self-conscious and self-serving drama. “The chief business of my life has always been to indulge my senses,” he wrote. “I never knew anything of greater importance.” This might be justifiably described as a main article of the Venetian creed. (photo credit i4.14)

A poster advertising the Eastern Railway travelling from Paris to Venice at the end of the nineteenth century. The Grand Tour had given way to upper-middle-class travel with Venice as the most desirable destination of all. By the 1840s tourist guides to the city were being written; the first “Cook’s tour” of Venice was arranged in 1864. “The Venice of today,” Henry James wrote, “is a vast museum where the little wicket that admits you is perpetually turning and creaking …” (photo credit i4.15)

<p>10</p> <p>The Prison House</p>

When Byron apostrophised Venice in the fourth canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, his tone was ambiguous:

I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;A palace and a prison on each hand …

He did not know, or failed to recollect, that the palace itself also contained a prison. An American visitor in 1760, James Adams, was appalled and discomfited by the atmosphere of the city. “For God’s sake let’s see to arrange affairs,” he wrote, “and get out of this vile prison.”

Fynes Morisson, in the early seventeenth century, reported that Venetian women were “locked up at home, as if in prison.” Dickens dreams of dungeons when he floats along the canals of Venice, and meditates upon scenes of dreadful night when “the monk came at midnight to confess the political offender; the bench where he was strangled; the deadly little vault in which they tied him in a sack …” In the nineteenth century Venice became a true image of horror. The most famous adventure of the city’s favourite son, Giacomo Casanova, concerns his escape from the Venetian prison to which he had been consigned. With its slops thrown into the canal, and the scent of bilge water, the city sometimes had the smell of the prison-house.

Some of the most famous prisons in the world are to be found in Venice. The Bridge of Sighs itself, named after the laments of those about to be gaoled, is the most picturesque of all penitential emblems. It was not in fact given that name until the nineteenth century, largely by the happy inspiration of Byron; yet it serves the purpose, and the image, of Venice very well. When William Beckford rode in his gondola beneath the bridge he invoked the memory of Piranesi, the artist born in the Republic of Venice, whose enduring fame lies in his shadowy and vertiginous drawings of imaginary prisons. Despite his great success and renown in Rome, Piranesi liked to sign himself as “architetto Veneziano.” From his gondola Beckford looked up at the highest part of the prison and, snatching his pencil, “I drew chasms and subterraneous hollows, the domain of fear and torture, with chains, rocks, wheels and dreadful engines.…” These are some of the images summoned up by la Serenissima.

The most feared and hated institution of the city was a judicial committee known as the “council of ten.” It was created in 1310, as a direct result of a political conspiracy by a group of patricians, and it soon became an indispensable part of the machinery of state. By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries it had acquired a power equivalent to that of the senate itself. It concerned itself with the threat of lawlessness and unrest within the confines of the republic, and thus its remit stretched very far. It was an internal police force, small and flexible enough. It met in secret, every day of the week. Its members wore black mantles and became known as the “black inquisitors.” It employed secret agents in every part of the city, and relied also upon a network of anonymous informants. It never allowed the evidence to be given to the accused, and its witnesses could not be cross-questioned. The examinations of the accused were generally conducted in darkness, and from the room of the three leaders of the council was a staircase leading directly to the dungeons and the chambers of torture. Its verdicts did not permit any appeal. Banishment or death, by strangulation or by drowning, followed very quickly. It was, according to Rousseau, “a tribunal of blood, equally horrible to the patricians and the people.” There is no doubt an element of exaggeration in Rousseau’s account, and in those of others who liked to foster the myth of Venice as a dark and vicious place, but there can be no doubt that the reputation of the small council was the single most important element in the understanding of the Venetian polity. It symbolised the secret life of the city.

Prisons were in a real sense part of the literal and metaphorical world of the Venetians. A fourteenth-century notebook, kept by a merchant, contains a list of all the gaols of the city. The most notorious prisons in Venice were in fact part of the palace of the doge. It was ordained that the doge himself should hold the keys, with the unspoken suggestion that prisons supported the legitimacy and authority of the state. There were prisons on both sides of the Rio della Paglia that flowed past the palace; those on the ground floor were known as “the wells,” for the reason that water often collected in them, while those on the upper storey were called “the leads” after the slabs of lead that covered the roof just above them. Some of the individual dungeons had names, such as “the lion” and “the volcano.” The wells in particular had a reputation for noisomeness, with the suggestion that it were better to be entombed alive than to be lowered into these holes. But, as with most aspects of Venetian life, there is more than an element of fantasy and myth-making in these accounts. The supposed horrors of the Venetian gaols may be related to their proximity to water, but they can be construed as part of the shadow world behind the ritual and masquerade that touched every aspect of Venetian life. What depths of torture and depravity might somewhere lie concealed in this fair city? What is being masked? The answer may be—nothing at all. When the French forces invaded and overwhelmed Venice in 1797, only one prisoner was found in the wells. He had been imprisoned for sixteen years and, on re-entering Saint Mark’s Square in broad sunlight, he was struck blind and died shortly thereafter.

Casanova was imprisoned in the leads, and from the grating of his cell he saw rats of a “fearful” size wandering unconcernedly in the garret. When he asked his gaoler about the “scoundrels” imprisoned with him he was told that, on the contrary, they were respectable people who for reasons known only to the authorities “have to be sequestered from society.” It emphasised to him the “horrible despotism” to which he, too, had become a subject. Yet he escaped; he fashioned an iron bar into a spike, and cut his way out onto the rooftop. His narrative of imprisonment and flight is a central story of Venice itself.

It is generally believed that Casanova died in Bohemia on 4 June 1798, but there is an unofficial story that he secretly returned to Venice after the French Revolution and lived there in anonymity. It is also said that he practised certain necromantic rites that guaranteed him immortality. Some argue that he still lives in his uncorrupted body; others believe that he is reborn in every Venetian infant. He really does represent, therefore, the genius loci. He never really escaped, after all.

The image of the prison has often been used to conjure up the mood and setting of the city. Like the Jews in its ghetto its citizens are in a sense incarcerated, surrounded by water as if they were confined in Alcatraz. No citizen was allowed to leave Venice without official permission. That is why there is relatively little crime in the city; in a place where everyone is watching everybody else, there is nowhere to hide. The route to the mainland can easily be sealed off. The Venetian people were, in addition, heavily policed. By the fourteenth century there was one policeman for every two hundred and fifty citizens, with the laws enforced by the council of ten and the signori di notte or “lords of the night.” There were also the chiefs of the wards, and a secret force known as the sbirri. It was reported that the sbirri dealt with offenders by throwing their cloaks over them and then, having muffled them, led them directly to the prison. The elements of silence and concealment consort well with the popular image of the city. They are of a piece with coercive legislation and constant observation.

There is, or was, very little privacy in Venice. The people are packed closely together. The small communities of every parish were woven flesh to flesh. The private space is small indeed. Just as private interests were subordinated to public needs, and the individual subsumed within the larger community, so privacy itself was considered to be of little importance. All this may induce acute feelings of claustrophobia. The people cannot escape one another, let alone the clusters of islands on which they are immured.

<p>11</p> <p>Secrets</p>

The shade of the prison house may also induce secrecy. If privacy is a luxury, then the keeping of secrets may become ever more urgent or obsessive. The city of masks must, in any case, also be the city of secrets. The Venetians, despite their apparent sociability, are notoriously reticent. They do not invite casual visitors into their homes. In the portraits of Venetians there is a general air of inscrutability; they are painted for their office rather than for their person, and their actual temperament or personality is not to be divulged. They are impenetrable. It was said of one doge that “one never knows whether he loves or hates anything.” One public lecturer, from another part of Italy, found it impossible to engage his audience of young Venetian nobles in any form of political discussion. “When I ask them,” he wrote, “what people think, say, and expect about this or that movement in Italy, they all answer with one voice that they know nothing about the matter.” Was this silence the result of fear or of distrust? In a city where you could be banished on the evidence of suspicion alone, who would willingly open their mouths? After Napoleon had conquered Venice in 1797 he instigated a survey of the newly captured people. He asked, in particular, what were Venetian prejudices and opinions. The native writers of the survey could not enlighten him since, they said, such questions admitted no answer. No other city had so effectively silenced its inhabitants. There were times, in fact, when indiscretion exacted a high price. When two glass-blowers escaped to foreign capitals with the secrets of their trade, in 1745, the senate decreed that they should be assassinated by means of poison.

It was observed that, on the Rialto, the bankers and merchants customarily spoke in hushed voices. The government of the city was conducted in secrecy. We might almost describe it as an Oriental secrecy, with secret meetings, secret payments, secret audiences, secret decisions and secret deaths. When new nobles were introduced to the business of government their oath of allegiance included the promise of “faith and silence.” It is highly characteristic of Venice. One of the allegorical paintings in the doge’s palace is that of taciturnity. There is a strange figure of stone on the edifice of Saint Mark’s; it is of an old man, leaning on crutches, who has a finger to his lips. It was said that Venice was a secret oligarchy; it not only kept its secrets, but the nature of its own identity was also a secret.

The oath for the council of ten was “jura, perjura, secretum prodere noli”—swear, foreswear and reveal not the secret. There are pages in the annals of government where the words “non scribatur,” let it not be written, are to be found. Other chronicles of Venice were burned. The archives of the government were secret; the doge himself could not consult them, unless he were accompanied by an official. The keeper of the archives was a man who could neither read nor write. In an eighteenth-century text, The Chinese Spy, it is stated that “silence is the emblem of this government; everything is secret and cloaked in mystery. Political doings are covered by a thick veil of darkness. In Venice those who talk are buried alive in a tomb covered with lead.”

Thus it was said by a seventeenth-century historian that “the Venetians are apt to be jealous of all ambassadors, and to interpret all their Actions as Mysteries tending to Conspiracy.” They discussed every word and action “from whence they make great conjectures and draw mighty consequences of State.” No Venetian official could speak to a foreign diplomat, on pain of death or life imprisonment. The boxes at the opera had little “withdrawing rooms”; diplomats felt obliged to visit one of the several opera houses, if only to discover secrets which would otherwise be hidden from them. Paradoxically the mute stealth of these proceedings encouraged suspicion and conspiracy. Venice was known as the city of conspiracies.

There was a violent altercation at a meeting of the senate in 1511, which the council of ten deemed to be so shameful that it was never to be mentioned; oaths of secrecy were demanded from the members of that body. Many proposals and discussions, put before the senate, were also considered under strict vows of silence. Some dignitaries were imprisoned or sent into exile so that they could not speak out. Secrecy was for the public good. When the senate deliberated for a month over the imprisonment of a Venetian admiral, for incompetence or malfeasance, not one word reached the admiral himself until the moment he was seized and bound; his friends, who had argued passionately in his defence, had not warned him. When rumours of a great military defeat began to filter through Venice, in the early part of the sixteenth century, the council of ten refused to discuss the issue and imprisoned anyone suspected of a loose tongue.

And there was, at the end of the eighteenth century, the case of “the Venetian secret.” It was a secret that Sir Joshua Reynolds, for example, pursued to his death. It concerned the warm texture of Venetian painting. How did the artists fabricate that golden and glowing tone? Reynolds even scraped down one of Titian’s canvases in search of the secret. One woman, Ann Provis, declared that she possessed it. She said that it was contained in a copy of a lost text concerning the method and practice of the great Venetian painters. Miss Provis promised to reveal it, but only in exchange for ready cash. Of course it was a confidence trick. James Gillray caricatured the whole affair in a print entitled “Titianus Redivivus; – or – the seven-wise-men consulting the new Venetian oracle.”

So Venice was well known as a city of secrecy, of mystery, and of silence. Henry James described it as a place of “endless strange secrets” and in The Portrait of a Lady, partly set in Venice, there is the almost unbearable tension of what has been left unsaid. Such an atmosphere perfectly suits the Venetian genius for intrigue. Casanova said of his Venetian contemporaries that their “most prominent characteristic is to make a mystery of nothing.” In the past the Venetians made a mystery of government, or a mystery of love; now they were happy to create mystery for the sake of mystery. The gondolas were designed for secrecy, with little cabins draped by blinds or by black cloth. A Venetian writer, Giovanni Maria Memmo, wrote in 1563 that the houses of Venice “should have some secret doors where one can enter and exit without being seen by anyone.” Venice is still in part a secret city. It is a secret city of the living, unseen by the many thousands of tourists who take up the public spaces. That is why good restaurants are hard to find; the Venetians reserve them for themselves. There are still streets that seem in retreat, silent and secluded. The watery element deepens that sense of seclusion and secrecy. The canals render the streets remote and unfamiliar.

But secrecy is also the companion of anxiety and of shame. Those who preserve secrets may wish to conceal their real nature. Secrecy leads to dissimulation and play-acting. It was said that Venetians never discussed their true motives in the affairs of the world. Yet secrecy is also an aspect of power. That which is spoken can be denied or repudiated. It can be tested and contradicted. That which is unspoken remains most powerful.

The secret city takes the shape of a labyrinth. It is a maze that can elicit anxiety and even fear from the unwary traveller. It lends an element of intrigue to the simplest journey. It is a city of dead-ends, and of circuitous alleys; there are twisting calli, and hidden turnings; there are low archways and blank courtyards, where the silence is suspended like a mist. There are narrow courts that terminate in water. The natives do not lose their way, but the traveller always gets lost. It is impossible not to get lost. But then suddenly, as if by some miracle of revelation, you find that for which you have been searching—a small church, a house, a restaurant will suddenly present itself to you. The city gives you a present. But, then, it is unlikely that you will ever find that place again. Kafka would have understood Venice.

The concept of the maze or labyrinth is an ancient one. It is a component of earth magic that, according to some authorities, is designed to baffle evil spirits. The Chinese believed that demons could only ever travel in straight lines. It has also been said that the dead were deposited at the centre of the mazes. That is why they retain their power over the human imagination. The labyrinth of classical myth is that place where the young and the innocent may be trapped and killed. But the true secret of the Venetian maze is that you can never observe or understand it in its totality. You have to be within its borders to realise its power. You cannot see it properly from the outside. You have to be closed within its alleyways and canals to recognise its identity.

The scheme of house numbers is difficult to understand; in each sestiere, they begin at number one and then snake through every street until they finish. They reach into their thousands without the benefit of any reference to street or square. The names affixed to the streets seem in any case to be different to the names printed in the maps of the city. In fact the reality of Venice bears no relation to any of the published guides and maps. The shortest distance between two points is never a straight line. So the network of Venice induces mystery. It can arouse infantile feelings of play and game, wonder and terror. It is easy to believe that you are being followed. Your footsteps echo down the stone labyrinth. The sudden vista of an alley or a courtyard takes you by surprise; you may glimpse a shadow or a silhouette, or see someone standing in a doorway. Walking in Venice often seems as unreal as a dream or, rather, the reality is of a different order. There are times when the life of the past seems very close—almost as if it might be around the next corner. The closeness of the past is embodied in the closeness of the walls and ways all around you. Here you can sense the organic growth of the city, stone by stone. You can sense the historical process of the city unfolding before you. There is a phrase, in T.S. Eliot’s “Gerontion,” to the effect that history has many cunning passage-ways. These are the passages of Venice.

News travelled fast through the echoing calli. Venice was at the centre of news, from East to West and from West to East. In the early modern era it was the primary conduit of news in the world. The correspondence of merchants, from the thirteenth century, was a significant source of information. He who heard the news first—of an important transaction, or the scarcity of a certain commodity—would profit most. Speed was of the essence. The roads must be in good repair, if possible, and the ships swift. Venice was one of the first cities to organise a postal system, the compagnia dei corrieri, in the fourteenth century. Nevertheless it took four days for the mail to travel from Nuremberg to Venice.

It was the news and speculations that generated half the business of the Rialto. In fact Venice would not have been the centre of commerce if it had not been the centre of news. It came from all sides—from couriers on horseback, from the reports of diplomats, and from the letters of administrators. Information descended in torrents upon the market-place. Once the news was known, it was discussed. There was an inn, the Golden Ship, where Venetians would meet “to recount their Intelligences, one with another … thither also came Merchants that were strangers.” Some of the earliest coffee houses were established in Venice, for the particular reason of conveying information. The human city could itself be described as a medium for the reception and exploitation of information. Venice, the pre-eminent city, was also surely pre-eminent here.

So the Venetians ran after the latest news and the latest sensation. Yesterday’s news was of no account. The entries in the diaries of Marino Sanudo, in the early sixteenth century, were often prefaced with the phrase that “news came that.…” The Venetians listened with “elevated ears” for the latest word or information. There were reports known as notizie or avvisi read aloud to the populace, who paid a small coin known as a gazzetta for the chance of hearing the latest rumours. It is perhaps not surprising that this appetite for news was considered by some to be a contagion or a distemper. Sir Henry Wotton described “news” as “the very disease of this city.” Yet some news was more important than most. In a letter of 31 March 1610 Wotton wrote from Venice to his employer, Robert Cecil, of “the strangest piece of news … whereof here all corners are full.” It was the news of the new universe penetrated by Galileo.

One resident of Venice has been celebrated, if that is the right word, as the first of all journalists. Pietro Aretino came to Venice in 1527, in exile from the papal court at Rome, and for the next twenty-nine years threw himself into the public discourse of the city. He wrote comic plays, pornographic dialogues and religious works; but he also thrived in the world of the weekly newspapers then circulating through Venice. An early biographer described him as the “first great Adventurer of the Press.” He thrived upon the art of public self-imaging and described the affairs of the day in the language of the street. He wrote pasquinades or flysheets that were distributed everywhere in the city, and he refurbished the form of the giudizio or almanac. Local and immediate news was now the staple of the public prints. He wrote on demand. Aretino turned “news” into a commodity, in the style of any merchant of Venice. His writing smells of the turbulent city. He thrived in the city, and repaid the compliment by extravagantly praising his hosts in plays and letters. So he was tolerated. In truth he could have existed nowhere else.

It is not perhaps surprising that the first newspaper in the world, the Gazzetta, emerged in Venice at the beginning of the seventeenth century. At various times in the following century one of the first modern journalists, Gasparo Gozzi, published L’Osservatore Veneto and La Gazzetta Veneta. The latter, established in 1760, was published twice a week; its editor received news, and subscriptions, at four bureaux in the city. There were news items, advertisements, conversations overheard in Saint Mark’s Square, menus, questions and pleas by “lonely hearts.” All Venetian life is there, from the story of the drunken porter who fell to his death from an open window to a list of the rates on the exchange. It was one of a number of news-sheets and newspapers and newsletters. Many of them simply publicised private scandals and quarrels; they indulged in rumour and innuendo; they reprinted personal letters, and created a climate of acute social embarrassment for certain prominent Venetians concerned about their good name or buona fama. They were of a piece with the topical satires that were circulated through the streets, the token of a city that was obsessed with its own communal life. Yet there is one thing missing. The political debate of the city goes unnoticed and unremarked. The government of Venice was masked.

Nevertheless Venice was filled with rumour and intrigue. There were spies everywhere. The courtesans were spies. The gondoliers were spies. The state inquisitors had spies. The council of ten had spies. There were spies for the trade guilds, who informed on any craftsmen or workers infringing the rules of business. There were political spies, employed to denounce any corruption in the processes of election or of government. The spies spied on other spies, and were in turn followed and watched. There was heavy surveillance at the docks, the point of entry for people as well as goods. The abiding rule, for foreigners and other interested parties, was to stay silent. As long as you did not talk, you remained at liberty.

There is the story of Vivaldi walking in Saint Mark’s Square with a violinist from Dresden, Johann Pisendel. He suddenly broke off the conversation, and asked his friend to go home with him at once. Behind closed doors Vivaldi then told Pisendel that he had been observed by four officials. Vivaldi told his friend to remain within the house until he had discovered what offence, if any, Pisendel had committed against the majesty of Venice. It turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. But the fear had been there. The mere experience of being observed had induced it.

One of the secretaries to the council of ten was an expert in the breaking of codes and secret ciphers. Every foreign embassy or foreign household in the city had one or more resident spies. The foundations for foreign merchants, like the Fondaco dei Tedeschi for the merchants of Germany, were packed to bursting with spies; the Venetian weighers and brokers on those premises were known to work for the government in a semi-official capacity. One great lady of Venice, Elisabetta Zeno, held a salon for certain important senators; behind a screen were hidden two clerks, who for her later benefit noted down everything that was said. When the Venetians became informed of the conspiracy, they suspended the senators from any public office. Elisabetta Zeno herself was exiled for life to Capodistria. Every Venetian on foreign soil was expected to take on the role of spy as part of his or her civic duty. The prelates of Venice, when in Rome, were expected to spy upon secret papal enclaves. The Venetian merchants who travelled to other lands or other cities were especially useful; it is apposite, too, that in a mercantile state, the language of merchants was used as a code. The Turks, for example, might be described as “drugs” and the artillery as “mirrors” in a fictionalised commodity market.

Spying was a Venetian employment and pastime. People were always, and still are, watching other people in the city. The state of the houses was such that surveillance could take place through cracks in the walls or floors. The houses of the powerful were not exempt. Three youths were found to have broken through a section of the senate ceiling, so that they could listen to an address by an ambassador recently returned from the Ottoman court. There were examples of professional, and amateur, informants throughout the city. There was incentive, too; the accusers were rewarded if their information proved to be correct, and their names kept secret in the honoured Venetian fashion. The Venetians invented this particular form of harassment, known as denuncia or denontia segreta. It is still true that Venetians, if they find it necessary, will inform on one another. In a small place, humiliation is the greatest punishment of all. It was sometimes only necessary for the government to “name and shame” a culprit for the necessary sentence to have been executed.

Of course the administration of the city thrived on the undermining of personal loyalties. It was a measure of the success of the state that its people should conform to the greater good. Indeed the habit of denunciation might be seen as a thwarted or twisted expression of civic pride and civic belonging. It is embodied in the bocca di leone, the lion’s mouth, to be found in various parts of the city. The mouth, generally carved on a grotesque and offensive head, was a postbox for accusations against any Venetian. The accuser was obliged to sign the paper and include the signatures of two witnesses to his or her good name; but the information could include anything, from financial extravagance to licentiousness. Anonymous accusations were meant to be burned, but in fact could be entertained if they involved matters concerning the security of the state. This lion’s mouth was of course another Venetian invention. It was the mouth of the city, a capacious orifice of whispers and rumours. It meant that there was a general atmosphere of surveillance, even in the most private quarters of the city. There were even specific mouths, designed to implicate those who cheated on their taxes or who adulterated oil. A wife could inform upon a husband, a son upon a father. The practice was continued in Venetian dominions. In some Venetian country houses, on the mainland, there was a bocca delle denoncie segrete where informants could accuse individuals working on the estate.

Gossip and scandal were thereby the fuel of Venice. It was a network of small neighbourhoods; each one resembled any country village, in itself, but packed together on an island the atmosphere of rumour became ever more intense. “All Venice will know” became a commonplace sentiment. Casanova complained that he was “the talk of the city.” Rumour spread very rapidly, so that the street urchins knew the name of the next doge before it had been officially announced. There was a general awareness of “murmuring in the city.” The sister-in-law of one of Byron’s Venetian amoratas, according to the poet, “told the affair to half Venice and the servants … to the other half.” Rumour had a thousand tongues and, as one Venetian patrician put it, “everyone says what he pleases, dreaming up something at night and spreading it in the morning.” Rumour was the excrement of Venice. If you spread it thickly enough, anything might grow. W.D. Howells, in his Venetian Life (1866), commented that you must “figure the meanness of a chimney corner gossip added to the bitter shrewdness and witty penetration of a gifted roué, and you have some idea of Venetian scandal.” The Venetian gossips knew every trifle. The talk was sometimes known as ciaccole or chit-chat, and the word itself expresses the littleness of the discourse. The victims, of course, were excessively humiliated. Many of the popular songs of Venice were concerned with the harm wreaked by mischievous gossip and by “perjured tongues.” Some victims were inclined to call upon divine protection; a picture of a “swooning Madonna” was to be donated by one Venetian if his wife gave birth in time to avoid “malicious gossip.” When a secretary of state in Venice, Pietro Antonio Gratarol, believed that he was being ridiculed in a play by Carlo Gozzi, and had tried unsuccessfully to have it banned or censored, he fled to Padua, without the permission of the Venetian authorities, and was eventually condemned to death in his absence. But the ultimate penalty did not balance the fear of rumour and mockery. He could not bear the malicious gossip.

Nevertheless gossip was accepted as evidence in the courtroom. It had a privileged status, and was generally considered to be the prerogative of women and of servants. But fruit-vendors, street-sellers and gondoliers were also called to give witness to what they had seen or heard. There were “murmurs” about this or that. The witnesses testified that “the whole courtyard was there” or that “if one person says it, everyone says it.” The most intimate secrets of a marriage were known to the community, which was generally not averse to taking sides in any marital dispute. It was quite common, too, for neighbours in such circumstances to enter the house or crowd the doorway. The Venetian idea of the “common good” was here lent a visible identity. The comedies of Goldoni are a perfect image of this unusual social life. People come and go from one house to another. Doors and windows are perpetually open. Taverns and shops are close by, so the conversation can be continued from living room to inn without any disturbance. The campo or campiello is one large domestic space. It is a curious fact that in Venice public matters were held in inviolable secrecy, while private affairs became public knowledge almost at once. Gossip may then have been a form of compensation.

Neighbours and domestics would come into court in order to testify on oath. They considered their evidence to be “public knowledge.” So the people watched one another, morning and night. They studied one another. It helped that they already knew each other by sight. At the opera, the opera glasses were characteristically trained upon the audience rather than the performance. From a certain perspective, however, the members of the audience were the performance. The Venetians are still marked by their propensity for gossip. Strangers in a familiar setting are noted and, if necessary, reported to the police. The telephone lines are always busy.

<p>12</p> <p>Chronicles</p>

Venice was the most conservative of societies. It revered tradition. It reverenced authority. The city was always searching for an historical origin, so it worshipped origins. It venerated the past. The respect for custom permeated every level and every aspect of Venetian culture. Custom represented the inherited will and instinct of the people. Custom was the embodiment of the community. There was a formulaic phrase used in public pronouncements, to the effect that new legislation was simply following “the most ancient customs” of the city. It was a form of reassurance. Custom was also considered to transcend positive or systematic law. Experience was always more important in Venice than theory. There would never be a revolution in the city.

The social life of the people was dominated by customs. To disregard costume, in matters such as church-going or hospitality, was to invite criticism. Of all the things the Venetians most dreaded, the worst was public obloquy. That is why they were often so lavish in public acts of generosity, but frugal to the point of miserliness at home.

The artists of Venice used a common and narrow range of iconography. The architecture of the city is of course known for its traditionalism. The form of the houses, large and small, remained unaltered for many centuries. There was no change in structure or decoration. If they fell down, they were rebuilt on the same spot with the same principles and even with the same materials; the remains of the previous building were used in the construction of the new one. The foundations could always be re-employed; petrified wood did not decay or burn.

In building instructions there is a consistent theme—rebuild this room according to its original dimensions, do not let this wall be any higher than its predecessor, reconstruct this house where it was previously. Perhaps it was the fear of fluidity, of mobility—the fear of water—that instigated this stasis. Casanova said that the patricians of Venice trembled at the mere idea of novelty. Power is itself a conservative force. A Venetian historian from the early seventeenth century, Paolo Paruta, noted that states are preserved by continuing the same traditions with which they were founded. Change encourages corruption.

Even in the sphere of mercantile activity, where the city was most expert, there was a pronounced aversion to change. It is often said that the Venetians invented the art of double-entry book-keeping; in fact the technique was invented in Genoa. The Genoese minted the first gold coins, drew up the first insurance contracts, and made the first marine charts; Venice characteristically lagged fifty or more years behind. It borrowed from others. It did not create ab novo. It feared and distrusted innovation. Only the forceful intervention of Napoleon brought an end to a system that had endured for five hundred years without noticeable change. It was until 1797 the sole example of a medieval city-state. It was, after all, an island.

The Venetians were obsessed with their history. They produced the largest body of chronicles in the Italian world. Extant from the fourteenth century are more than a thousand such texts. The diaries of Marino Sanudo, detailing the most inconsequential or tedious events of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, filled fifty-eight volumes in folio. It is reported that, at the age of eight, he was making an inventory of the pictures in the ducal palace. He, like the other chroniclers, was fascinated by the life of his city—its laws, ceremonies, trades, customs, treaties, were considered to be of fundamental importance and interest. It was a parochial vision, perhaps, but an understandable one. The spirit of place spoke through him. He could only truly be himself by acting as a medium for Venice.

After the chronicles came the histories. By the middle of the fifteenth century there were volumes with titles such as De origine et gestis Venetorum. The “origin” was just as important as the “deeds.” The origin explained the deeds. In 1515 Andrea Navagero was appointed to be the first official historian of Venice, a post in which he was expected to celebrate the “constancy and invincible virtue” of the city. This was precisely the moment when the “myth of Venice” was being formulated. The concept of a state historiographer is itself an interesting one, suggesting that the task cannot be left to free enquiry. As with “official” biographers, the art lies in concealment as much as revelation.

Unfortunately Navagero did not entirely succeed in his purpose, and in his will he ordered that his notes and papers be burned. He had, perhaps, revealed too much. There then followed a succession of state historians who, like the narrative painters of the sixteenth century, united minute detail with a general celebration of Venice’s sacred history. They were always reshaping the myth to accommodate present circumstances. They were descriptive and prescriptive, with the sure belief that they were offering a practical guide of governance to those who came after them. Everything was to be explained, and understood, in terms of the historical ideal. The historiographers were convinced that to chart the history would also be to reveal its manifest destiny. Tradition is the key. In a city constantly nervous of its own survival in the sea, duration itself was considered to be worthy of honour. If it has endured, it must be laudable.

The reverence for custom and tradition was not necessarily benign. The political and economic decline of the city was not wholly of its own making, but the inherent conservatism and traditionalism of the authorities impaired the possibilities of improvement and renewal. The patricians, reassured by their own claims to superiority, often made signally disastrous decisions. Their exploitation and sack of Constantinople, in the company of allies, led directly to the Turkish conquest of the city on 29 May 1453. Venetian industry was injured by the restrictive practices imposed by the government. As Joseph Addison put it, the Venetians were “tenacious of old Laws and Customs to their great Prejudice, whereas a Trading Nation must be still for new Changes and Expedients, as different Junctures and Emergencies arise.” They wished to guarantee, for example, their reputation for manufacturing luxuries. So they emphasised quality at the expense of cost and quantity. In an enlarging world economy, this was a mistake.

There was a deep reluctance among the rulers of Venice to confront a world of change. That is why the Arsenal, the shipbuilding enterprise that had for a long period been the home of technological efficiency, had become by the seventeenth century hopelessly out of date. There was no renewal, and no true renovation. It may be that Venice distrusted itself too much to be capable of change, and made a strength instead out of sheer survival. That is still its most enduring attraction.

So the city took on various historical guises to suit the imperatives of the period. It reinvented itself as Roman. In the second quarter of the sixteenth century buildings were raised in the Roman manner of public architecture. These were heralded by the triumphal gateway to the Arsenal itself; it was the first exercise in Venetian monumentality. In the 1480s shields and helmets of stone were attached to the bas-reliefs of the ducal palace. In the face of threats from two empires, of the Hapsburg Charles V and of Suleiman the Magnificent, Venice laid claim to the inheritance of the greatest of them all. Rome was the context for her particular historical mission. Even the constitution was said to be derived from Roman originals.

The patrician families of the city began to find Roman ancestors, through whom they could plausibly hope to inherit ancient virtus. The Cornaro family traced their clan to the Cornelii, and the Barbaro to Ahenobarbus. The dark gown of the governing class was known as a toga, as if the senators of Venice would be as much at home in the Forum as in Saint Mark’s Square. The historians of the city identified their founding fathers with the refugees from Troy, who were supposed to have established Rome itself. It was all a great charade, but there comes a time when a nation or nation-state will embrace the most absurd or extravagant claims in order to bolster its sense of identity. So by the sixteenth century the Venetians were calling themselves “the new Romans.”

There was in any case a fascination for antiquity. There were antiquities, begged or borrowed or stolen, everywhere in Venice. Classical sculptures and trophies were set up in public places. There were many famous antiquarians. There were also notorious forgers who could knock up a piece of Roman statuary or a classical bronze without any difficulty. In a similar spirit the governors of Venice would sometimes proclaim that a certain activity—let us say education—had been preserved “from the foundation of the city.” This was normally quite untrue, but the fraudulence betrayed the reverence for antiquity in itself.

The Venetians were primarily interested in the material remnants of the ancient cultures of Greece and of Rome; they were not interested in their intellectual prowess. Greek for the Venetians was the language of business, rather than the language of Plato. Latin was a necessary lingua franca, not an agent of revelation. In Burckhardt’s The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy there is a long section on “The Revival of Antiquity” as an agent of moral and spiritual awareness. Venice is not mentioned in this context. Burckhardt simply praises it as the home of a flourishing publishing trade and the centre of “affectation and bombast” in funerary inscriptions.

The Venetians were understandably proud of their history. “I observe,” Lady Blessington wrote in the 1820s, “that the Venetian cicerone [guide] and gondoliers often refer to the past prosperity of Venice, and always in a tone that shows a knowledge of its history, and a pride of its ancient splendour not to be expected from persons of that class.” It was, and is, a city based upon memory. It is a city of nostalgia. It lives by remembering, and representing, its past. In the same way visitors are invited to admire buildings and scenes that are so familiar that it is as if they somehow “remember” them.

It is wholly to be expected, therefore, that the Venetian archives are the second largest in the world. Only the archives of the Vatican are more extensive. Yet none are more rich or more detailed than the Venetian papers. Some date from the ninth century. Everything was written down, in the hope that older decisions and provisions might still be useful. It is the measure of the efficiency of a state that it preserves its official documentation. In that sense, Venice was very efficient. The Archivio di Stato, just one of the many official archives, contain 160 km (one hundred miles) of files and documents. When the German historian Leopold von Ranke first came upon them in the 1820s he was, like Cortez on a peak in Darien, staring at an ocean; from his encounter with the papers sprang the first exercise in what was known as “scientific history.” They are still an infinite resource for contemporary historians and sociologists, who find there stories and dramas of Venetian life in more profusion than in the scenes of the commedia dell’arte.


8

“Let it be everlasting”

<p>8</p> <p>“Let it be everlasting”</p>

The cry in Saint Mark’s Square was always that of “Marco! Marco!” invoking the saint of the city. On his deathbed the greatest theologian of Venice, Paolo Sarpi, breathed the words “Esto perpetua!”—let Venice last for ever! Yet by the time he murmured this blessing, in 1623, the city had become a state in more than name. It had become one by deed and example. The abstract concept of the state did not emerge until the first half of the sixteenth century, but the idea of the common good was of course very much older. The common good had created Venice in the first place.

The first mention of the commune Venetiarum can be traced to the beginning of the twelfth century, when civic dignitaries wished to supplant the power of doge and people. From this time forward we can chart the growth of a bureaucratic state with its administrators and its diplomats, its governors and its laws. The local ties of parishes and the wards known as contrade were weakened, with a decline in the number of religious ceremonies designed to celebrate them; instead there emerged the notion of a unified and united city, expressed in numerous public works and relayed by public decrees. A new form of urban life was being created, at once more efficient and impersonal. Public order was confirmed and controlled by public means. The people had once created the city; the city now created the people. Or, more exactly, the people of Venice now identified themselves in terms of the city. The private had become public. The city had become a totality. Certain criminal acts, for example, were described as being “contrary to the public will” thus conflating the people with the city. By the fifteenth century, at the latest, we may speak of the formation of the Venetian state. It was known as the “Signoria,” roughly meaning sovereignty or lordship.

So how did this city become a state and, indeed, a forerunner of the modern state? It is a perplexing question, related to complex rituals of self-awareness and communal self-respect. It emerged together with a well-supervised system of public finance, sustained by such mechanisms as credit and bills of exchange. Some of the first banks in the world were located in Venice. The first public loans were issued in that city in 1167. The Banco del Giro was established in 1619. A state cannot survive without internal stability, governed by law. The Venetians were always proud of the nature of their justice, however flawed its administration might become. Yet the law behind all laws was, in the words of one English ambassador at the beginning of the seventeenth century, “reason of state.” The state was eternal. The state was the source of all morality. It had an almost Byzantine rigour and prestige.

But there are more practical matters to consider. A state needs a broadly defined elite that will exercise power in the apparent interest of all. By the end of the thirteenth century the governance of Venice was vested in the hands of a patriciate that was legally defined. And of course the security of the constitution was intrinsically important to the security of trade. Power and commerce were inseparable. Such a general administration needs a bureaucracy, to supervise such matters as public health and public order. The bureaucracy of Venice was one of the wonders of the western world. Everything was committed to writing, as the overflowing archives of modern Venice will testify. At a time when other cities, or other nations, had only the most rudimentary internal organisation Venice was already a model of administrative expertise. The census of population was carried on more frequently, and with more efficiency, in Venice than in any other city. It was said by Jacob Burckhardt, in The Civilisation of the Renaissance, that “Venice can fairly make good its claim to be the birthplace of statistical science.” Every aspect of social and cultural life was closely ordered. Even the sale of fruits in Saint Mark’s Square, and of flowers on the steps of the basilica, was monitored and controlled. The rise of bureaucracy helped to foster accounts and treatises on the arts of government, texts that played a large part in the formation of what has become known as civic humanism. Of course in the actual practice of government and statecraft there were always large doses of opportunism and corruption, of relativism and pragmatism; but they flourished all the more for being easily concealed behind the imposing order of the public administration.

A state needs a measure of conformity among its inhabitants. The city can survive with rowdy or antagonistic citizens—in some ways, it thrives upon them—but the early Venetian state needed a measure of internal control. No city had more success in ordering its people than Venice. The doge and the various councils exercised in a literal sense the art of power. Any words of offence, or what we might now call speech crimes, were prosecuted for being “contra honorem huius civitatis”—against the honour of this state—and rewarded with a period of imprisonment. Foreigners who spoke disparagingly of la Serenissima were banished. In the secret correspondence of a Venetian diplomat, published by Alfred de Musset, was found the entry to “pay to Signor A, the sum of fifty scudi, for having killed the Signor S, who spake ill of the Republic of Venice.”

It was the state that the Venetians were meant to serve. It was continually asserted that it had been bequeathed to them by their diligent forefathers and that they should deem it more precious than their own lives. They were in honour bound to preserve it. The key to Venice was exactly there—preservation. The city itself was from the beginning a miracle of preservation, and it felt the need to invoke that miracle again and again. In its threatened and embattled position, as the public edicts suggested, it needed a coherent and obedient body of citizens to sustain it. This is the reason for the relative tranquillity of Venice over the centuries. It springs from its origin. Power sprang from the place itself, in the constant awareness of collective survival.

But the state emerges from an awareness, and a celebration, of power. Venice became strong because its immediate neighbours were weak; there was no city to challenge its authority over the adjacent mainland. Yet eventually it became a city-state depending on its command over other cities. It was never a question of a natural territory, outlined by rivers and mountains, but a confederation of separate urban entities. It created an empire of cities in northern Italy, now won, now lost, now exchanged.

So we are presented with an image of a highly authoritarian, very well organised, and exceptionally efficient enterprise. This may not consort well with the modern picture of a beautiful and serene if on occasions drowsy city; but it is the necessary pre-condition of its contemporary form. Venice is now, and for ever will be, because of what once it was.

* * *

The Signoria thereby became the object of a secular religion, honoured and commemorated in literally hundreds of communal rituals spread through the year. A large bureaucracy was created precisely to organise and to administer these festivals. Even at the time of the siege of Venice, surrounded by Austrian troops in 1848, scarcely a month or even a week passed without the celebration of a fête or pageant. It was in the blood.

The Venetian people were temperamentally inclined to spectacle and display. The city itself was designed for elaborate ceremony and in Saint Mark’s Square, the theatre of operations, gifts were presented and greetings were exchanged. It is a measure of the order of the state that strict custom and formality guaranteed the order of the rituals. Various groups carried variously coloured candles. The banners flown had their own code; white when Venice was at peace, green when a period of truce had intervened, and red when open warfare had been declared.

The ducal processions, in particular, were viewed as the Venetian constitution in motion. They were the living embodiment of sacred and secular governance. In other cities and in other states, according to a Milanese observer in 1494, “the moment the Prince has passed all go pell-mell and without any order.” But in Venice “everyone goes in the best order imaginable.” There were engravings and paintings of the entire sequence, with each participant’s role clearly defined by attitude or by costume. In the sixteenth century Matteo Pagan executed a remarkable series of eight woodcuts, detailing every participant in the procession.

There were the eight standard bearers, followed by certain judicial officials; there were the six musicians sounding silver trumpets; there were the squires of the foreign ambassadors, followed by the ducal squires. There were more musicians, followed by minor officials such as the clerks and the notaries. And so it goes on, the procession itself fashioned into three large groupings in which religious authority and state power were weighed and balanced. It was not a procession of persons, but a procession of office-holders. In the middle walked the doge; the centre was the heart of power. Radiating out from that centre, rippling through the procession, were the classes and hierarchies in due order. The citizens walked before him, in ascending levels of rank; the nobles walked after him, in descending levels of rank. It was observed by some that the patricians were notably benevolent; they smiled a great deal. There was a general atmosphere of calm and serenity. On certain occasions in Venetian history, that was the greatest act of all.

The celebrations were not necessarily of an uplifting nature. At the festival of the Epifania, on 6 January, certain rowing men were dressed as old women; wearing carrots strapped to their noses, and trailing old stockings, they raced to the Rialto bridge. At the feast of Giovedí Grasso, in February, a bull, and several pigs as well, were ceremonially slaughtered by the guild of locksmiths in Saint Mark’s Square. In a later part of the ceremony the doge and certain senators attacked with staves, and then knocked down, some lightly built wooden castles. The ceremony was in effect the reproduction of a Venetian victory over the parent city of Aquileia. Is politics transformed into game, or is the game a form of politics?

There were other festivities when the doge visited various quarters of the city. When he entered the parish of S. Maria Formosa, for example, he was given a hat of gilded straw, a bottle of wine and several loaves of bread. At the close of the proceedings twelve wooden statues of women were taken in procession to the church, whereupon they were pelted with turnips. The ritual was said to derive from an occasion when twelve Venetian maidens were carried off by pirates before being rescued by the young men of the parish. It is all most improbable. It is more likely to represent a primitive phase of Venetian experience, when the young women of wealthy families were all married on the same day as part of a fertility ritual. But thus do folklore and festivity take on strange shapes. It was the custom in the city to call a frigid or disdainful woman “a wooden Mary.” The word marionette may spring from the same source.

There were so many Venetian festivals that, in the end, one day was chosen to commemorate several different celebrations. It had become in essence a ritual city. That is why certain pathways were chosen. Churches were sited at focal points, where theatre and piety converged. Public spaces became ceremonial axes, part of the vast geometry of the sacred city. It was a society of the spectacle. Land and water were conjoined in a variety of festivals. Visually and emotionally the various districts or sestieri were also woven together in acts of homage and of celebration; the processions represented the collective hope of the city, just as they memorialised the collective experience of the city. Ritual promised continuity and harmony. Ritual also assisted in the shaping of time within the city. It was seen to obey ceremonial law rather than the diurnal round of minutes and of hours. Ritual also helped to codify and identify the past. There were perhaps less elevated aspects of the show. The pageantry impressed foreigners and ambassadors with the solidarity and wealth of the Venetian people. These festivals, like those of modern Venice, also helped to lure tourists to the always alluring market-places of the city. The Venetians never lost a chance for making money. The same practicality lay behind the institution of the Carnival, and of course all the art and film “biennales” of more recent years.

The festivals, therefore, brought much of the city into play. The paintings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries show all the windows and balconies of the houses draped in ornate carpets. There were many elaborate “floats” and wheeled chariots displaying the cardinal virtues or the saints of the city; there were large displays of decorative architecture; there was music and singing. There were paintings and sculptures and recitations. There were stages or “scaffolds” for theatrical performances in which the political events of the day were reinterpreted in the form of allegory. At the festival of the “Sempiterni,” in 1541, a painted globe of the universe was floated upon gondolas along the Grand Canal; within the globe, a masked ball was conducted. The pageant was a method of reinventing life as a form of art. It represented the very highest form of popular consciousness, which is why all classes of Venetian society participated in it.

So the population of Venice walked in measure along the sacred routes, with each person knowing his or her own place in the general enterprise. It was hoped too that the common people, the popolani, would in the general mood of rejoicing forget that the liberties they once enjoyed had been lost irrecoverably. Spectacle was of course another way of procuring social order. The same Milanese observer of 1494 mentioned that “one single person appeared to me to direct everything, and he was obeyed by everyone without protest.” Only the great hierophantic societies, such as those of Egypt or of ancient Mexico, have achieved such order. It is one of the singular facts about Venice that its religion should have such an atavistic hold upon its people. The reason for it may lie in the peculiar merging of place with piety. The earth of Venice was sacred, miraculously saved from the waters of the world. The people of Venice were part of that earth.

The government of Venice thereby perfected the art of self-presentation. It became an exercise in style. It evolved into a unique form of rhetoric by which all the actions and decisions of the state were hallowed by tradition and sanctioned by divine authority. The especial providence of Venice was invoked, together with the concepts of glory and resolution and independence. The immortality of Venice was also assured. It could most kindly be described as a means of emphasising idealities. But it could also be criticised as a wilful disregard of realities. It might also be seen as a fog of fine sentiment, no less dense than the fog coming in from the sea, veiling the greed and ruthlessness of la Serenissima in most of her dealings with the outer world.

No other people placed so much reliance upon the devices of rhetoric. It was a city of performance. Poetry was understood, and considered, as a form of oratory. In an essentially pragmatic culture, such as that of Venice, the whole art of literary education was to inculcate the techniques of rhetoric. The artistic life of the city, in music and in painting, was attuned to expressive performance; it emphasised that which was shown rather than that which is meditated or intuited. Whether we are listening to the music of Vivaldi or gazing at the canvases of Tintoretto we are engaged with an art of “effect,” of dazzling virtuoso performance, of bravura exercise. The facility of Tintoretto, and the fluency of Vivaldi, may also be understood in terms of the rhetorical concept of copia or plenty. The textbooks of Venetian rhetoric demonstrate a native form of eloquence depending upon “moderation” and “propriety”; in the manner of the state itself “variazione” or “variety” must be used to temper extremes and avert the dominance of any one style. It was part of Venetian reserve and discretion.

In an eighteenth-century treatise, An Account of the Manners and Customs of Italy, variously attributed to Giuseppe Baretti and Samuel Sharp, it is remarked that “the Venetians value themselves much on their forcible eloquence, and think that their advocates are the only legitimate offspring of the ancient Roman orators.” An earlier legal advocate, Leonardo Giustiniani, declared in a letter of 1420 that “there is no kind of case, no type, no topic, finally no precept of the entire art [of rhetoric] in which I must not be proficient.” From the earliest times the administration of Venice was steeped in rhetoric.

That is the reason why, of all the Venetian arts of government, the most finely tuned was that of diplomacy. The ambassadors of Venice were unrivalled in the arts of graceful self-presentation, with the attendant emphasis upon appearance and demeanour. These were the elements of sprezzatura, which can be defined as the ability to create an effect while concealing the art or skill involved in so doing. Concealment, and double nature, came instinctively to the representatives of Venice.

It was the first city to maintain a continuous diplomatic presence outside the confines of Italy; it had established an embassy to the court of France in 1478. The principle and stated aim of la Serenissima was to maintain peace with all parties; only in those circumstances could trade truly flourish. War may have been good for the armament trade, but not for the convoys of spices and other goods that were carried across sea and land. When in 1340 Edward III of England desired that Venice should pledge not to lend assistance to his enemies, the doge replied: “It is not the custom of the Venetians to interfere between disputants or belligerents, except for the sake and purpose of making peace.” The Venetians were expert at the polite rebuff. From the sixteenth century their policy was one of strict neutrality, a non-committal approach to all who wished to involve Venice in the affairs of other states or cities. The Venetian system of government was established upon a coherent pattern of equivalence and balance. It seems likely that they applied the same notion to foreign affairs. In the days of political decline, however, this apparent neutrality was condemned as the cover of timidity and irresolution.

Venice’s diplomacy was described as occhiuta or many-eyed—prudent, discreet, circumlocutory, conciliatory and practical. It was cloaked by dolce maniera, a term for mildness or sweetness derived from music. But behind that mask the Venetian ambassadors probed for weakness and prejudice; they were not averse to bribery and other forms of corruption; and they watched everything, looking for grievances they might exploit; they were masters of intrigue. They played state against state, not scrupling to incite one city against another if it suited their purpose. They were dishonourable in their pursuit of Venetian honour.

The most famous diplomatic innovation of the Venetians was in fact the report that all ambassadors were obliged to present to the senate after their tour of duty was complete. These were called relazioni, utterly unlike any other ambassadorial documents, in which the diplomat was obliged “to report if he has learned anything of the country from which he comes worthy of being heard and pondered by prudent senators for the benefit of the fatherland.” His survey would include such matters as military preparedness, economic conditions, the health and character of the sovereign. No detail was considered too trivial to be overlooked, on the principle that knowledge is power.

Venice was a city of foreign ambassadors, too, who came to the city seeking for information. They were greeted with elaborate ceremony and all the panoply of state. But this was the rhetoric rather than the substance of their welcome. When Sir Henry Wotton, the English ambassador of the early seventeenth century, made a proposal for submission to the doge, he received the most nebulous possible response; the doge was forbidden by law to make any specific reply and, in the words of Wotton, could only “float in generalities.” So the ambassadors needed all the guile and patience they could muster. Wotton also noticed that the doge and his advisers favoured delay and stealth in matters of state. Ambivalence and ambiguity were the ground of their considerations. This may have been beneficial in times of peace but, in times of danger, it was a positive disadvantage. It is perhaps instructive that it was Wotton who offered the famous opinion that “an ambassador is a man of virtue sent to lie abroad for his country.” Only the atmosphere of Venice could have prompted such a conclusion.


9

The Chosen People

<p>9</p> <p>The Chosen People</p>

Venice has always been a city of myth. The collective need of the people, for reassurance and identity, has the consequence of creating a fantasy city based upon idealised self-representation. By the thirteenth century it had created a closed political order that allowed it to claim unity and inviolability. By the fourteenth century the Venetians had assumed the mantle of “the chosen people.” By the early fifteenth century Venice had fashioned itself as the “new Rome” with its own mainland empire.

But the real “myth of Venice” arose in the early sixteenth century, in the years immediately following the city’s struggles against an alliance of its enemies, known as the League of Cambrai, when the European powers were ranged against it. The defeat of Venice, followed later by the restoration of most of its territories, had a double consequence. It was felt that the city was vulnerable but that it was also invincible. From this potent mixture of anxiety and reassurance there emerged a doctrine that expressed the permanence and harmony of la Serenissima. The idea of an aggressive and victorious republic was replaced by the myth of an illustrious city of peace. It was in this period that the architecture of the city took its classical shape. The plan of the city became a metaphor for order and grandeur. The city became known primarily for its art and for its music. Ruskin believed that the myth of a nation or tribe is formulated at the time of its utmost power. But that is not necessarily the case. The myth of Venice was prompted by observable weakness that had somehow to be concealed from the outside world. Even after it had effectively forfeited its authority, it still displayed itself as a proud and powerful city.

The ingredients of this myth can be distinguished in a close reading. The Venetian state was founded by miracle and governed by providence. It was immune from external invasion. It was immutable. It had survived for a thousand years, according to a chronicle, “without ever changing.” Every other city in the world had lost its liberties, frequently or infrequently, but Venice had never once been oppressed. In 1651 James Howell wrote in A Survey of the Signorie of Venice, “Were it within the reach of humane brain to prescribe Rules for fixing a Society and Succession of people under the same Species of Government as long as the World lasts, the Republic of Venice were the fittest pattern on Earth both for direction and imitation.” Venice represented an idea that was itself eternal.

It was supposed to embody a harmonious mingling of all forms of government. It was at once democratic, with its great council, aristocratic, with its senate, and monarchical, with its doge. The idea of balance, and of stability, is of course paramount for a city resting upon the sea. Thus James Howell could write that Venice “is as dextrous in ruling men as in rowing of a gallie or gondola.” It aspired to be a veritable commonwealth of liberty. It was free from civil unrest and internecine warfare. Its political debates were conducted in an air of refinement and sagacity. It was a city, therefore, devoted to the common good. There was no room for individual ambition or private greed. The princes of other lands were ruled by the passion for self-aggrandisement and by the imperatives of temporary necessity. But, as Pope Alexander VI told the Venetian ambassador in Rome in 1502, “you are immortal insomuch as your Signoria [government] never dies.” It was compared with the phoenix, the bird that regularly renews itself. So the city was self-conscious, and confident, enough to turn itself into one continual allegory.

The rulers of Venice were acclaimed as epitomes of wisdom and fraternity. In the ceiling panels of the ducal palace they are shown at the feet of the Saviour or in the light of the Holy Spirit. It was related that there was no discord between them, all united in the cause of the republic. They were devoted and impartial in their dealings, never allowing private interests to affect their judgement. There was no room for corruption or individual ambition. Effectively they were anonymous servants of the divine order of the state. That is why they conventionally dressed in black, and in public were urged to preserve a decorous and dignified appearance. The doge was invariably of great age, confirming the notions of wisdom and experience. It was a great play. But it served its purpose, particularly in fooling foreigners.

And what of the citizens? Philippe de Commynes, an ambassador from fifteenth-century Flanders, was astonished to see the Venetians lining up to pay their taxes, at such a rate that the tax collectors could not keep pace with them. The motive here may have been fear rather than devotion. Yet this much is true: the city did indeed have the capacity to instil fervour in the hearts of its inhabitants. As early as the thirteenth century a Paduan chronicler exclaimed: “Oh happy commune of Venice, that happy city where the citizens, in their every manifestation, have the common interest so much at heart that the name of Venice is held as divine!”

It was the seat of wisdom. The ducal palace was considered to be another palace of Solomon. It was the home of justice. The sculptured image of Venice was based upon the figure of justice with the sword in one hand and the scales in her other. It was the seat of learning. It was the seat of liberty. It had never been the subject of any other power or empire; it had ceded no authority to West or East. Its inhabitants were bound together in a mutual covenant. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that liberty took a different form, in the carnivalesque society of art and theatre and sex that became notorious throughout Europe. But the later liberty was based upon the perhaps more virtuous original.

The city quickly acquired Olympian characteristics. The great staircase in the ducal palace, known as the Scala dei Giganti, was surmounted by the images of Mars and Neptune. Venus was always part of the myth of Venice. The images of Jupiter and Minerva, Mercury and Apollo, are still to be seen in Saint Mark’s Square. The great paintings depicting the figures of classical mythology were created in Venice rather than in their more natural home of Rome. Mount Olympus was to be found in the heart of the city.

By the mid-seventeenth century the myth of Venice had become in England a paragon of harmony and continuity, all the more alluring in a country that had witnessed civil war and regicide. It was seen as a model of republican virtue in which patrician and citizen (for which the English read “lords” and “gentlemen”) shared authority. It also became a model for the intellectuals of the Enlightenment, who saw in its proceedings a genuine compact between rulers and ruled. It became an inspiration to the makers of the American constitution.

It is the nature of humankind to idealise, to indulge in excessive praise as well as unjust condemnation. The daily texture of life in Venice was neither harmonious nor free. The government was often corrupt and ineffectual. There were many who disparaged the city all the more fiercely because of its pretensions to grandeur. In the seventeenth century it was depicted as the home of assassins and sodomites. Far from being free, it was an oligarchy. It was a tyranny. Its symbol was the torture chamber of the council of ten. Its true emblem was the dungeon. In the late twentieth century, too, some revisionist historians emphasised the greed and oppression endemic in a ruling class based solely upon birth.

A parade of triumphalism provokes hate and resentment. There were many scholars who considered Venice’s version of its history mere trumpery. It was a fake. The Venetians, holding themselves aloof from the rest of Italy, were derided as misers and fishermen. They were as treacherous and unpredictable as the water on which they lived. The city of merchants was denounced for its insatiable cupidity. Cosimo de’ Medici described them as unblushing liars. Indeed their rulers and ambassadors were known throughout Europe for their double-dealing; they had so great a reverence for the state that they would stoop to the lowest practices in order to maintain it. There is some truth in all of these allegations. At a later date D.H. Lawrence described it as an “abhorrent, green, slippery city.” Many visitors have been unmoved by its charms, professing to find it superficial, tacky and unhealthy.

It is hard to know whether the people themselves, or the rulers, of Venice were ever gullible enough fully to subscribe to the myth of Venice. But that myth has never wholly died. In the early seventeenth century Giovanni Priuli apostrophised Venice as “a terrestrial paradise.” Two hundred and fifty years later John Ruskin, one of the many Englishmen who have been entranced by Venice, described it as “the paradise of cities.” He was speaking in a time when Venice had lost its authority, its trade and its independence. So the myth goes on. Venice still remains the exemplary city.

It is unique. There is no doubt about that. That is what led to its success. The location of the city is, obviously, singular; and, from this, everything else in its history sprang. You may see in the seed the whole created being. The union of water and earth allowed it to neglect, or to transcend, the ordinary practices of European states. It had to invent a new way of life. Venice belonged to no particular element, just as it belonged to no other authority. Goethe decided that the peculiar circumstances of the city in the lagoon required that “the Venetian is bound to develop into a new kind of being.” The Venetian political system, of incredible complexity and subtlety, designed to balance and harmonise the various councils and jurisdictions, was like no other on earth. In the endless letters of travellers the predominant note is one of wonder at its difference. Thus Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote, in the middle of the eighteenth century, that it was a “great town, very different from any other you ever saw, and a manner of living that will be quite new to you.” In 1838 the American author, James Fenimore Cooper, observed that he was “in the centre of a civilisation entirely novel.” The abiding charm of Venice lies in the fact that it is always new and always surprising. It is, somehow, always renewed by the enthusiasm and wonder of its visitors. So it is that the Italian writer of the early twentieth century, Gabriele d’Annunzio, asked “if you know of any other place in the world like Venice, in its ability of stimulating at certain moments all the powers of human life, and of exciting every desire to the point of fever?”

The Venetians were well aware of their uniqueness, too. They had a lively conviction of their own difference. They believed that their city was born as a place of refuge, from the barbarians no less than from the sea, and enjoyed the especial status it conferred upon them. They trusted in their especial, and superior, destiny. If this resulted in a certain arrogance towards other Italian city-states, then so be it. It might also lead to complacency, of course, which had less certain consequences.

So for others it enjoyed a visionary quality. It was the city of earthly beauty. It seemed so fragile, and yet it was in reality very strong. It floated upon the water like an optical illusion. Petrarch described it as representing “another world,” by which he might have meant a double image of this world. This was the effect it had upon Rilke, upon Wagner, and upon Proust. In Invisible Cities (1972) Italo Calvino describes a visionary city with the steps of marble palaces descending into the water, of bridges and canals without end, of “balconies, platforms, domes, campaniles, island gardens glowing green in the lagoon’s greyness.” Kublai Khan asks the narrator, Marco Polo, whether he has ever seen a city such as this. The Venetian replies that “I should never have imagined that a city such as this could exist.” In this context Calvino himself said, of Invisible Cities, that “every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.” Venice is in that sense the purest city of all.

It is invariably associated with dream. Henry James described his sojourn in Venice as a “beautiful dream.” “Venice,” he wrote, “is quite the Venice of one’s dreams, but it remains strangely the Venice of dreams, more than of any appreciable reality.” To those visiting the city for the first time it seems strangely familiar. In this, it resembles the landscape of dreaming. So for Proust the city “was one that I felt I had often dreamed before.” The calli are so labyrinthine that the passers-by seem suddenly to disappear. It is a common experience for visitors, after a perplexing walk, to find themselves back at the place from which they started. But this may be a dream of oppression, a dream of being beguiled into a maze. This induces fear as well as amazement. Charles Dickens, in Pictures from Italy, invoked his whole journey through the city as an oneiric adventure—“I passed into my boat again and went on in my dream”—but it is one that has the qualities of nightmare with intimations of horror and of darkness; beneath the surface of the fantasy or vision lie “dismal, awful, horrible stone cells.” It is an unreal city because it seems to have no foundations, like the landscape of a dream.

“Never did a city seem so dream-like and unreal” (William Dean Howells) … “her aspect is like a dream” (Byron) … “dream-like” (Hugo von Hofmannsthal) … “this dream-like town” (Rainer Maria Rilke) … “the life of a Venetian is like a dream” (Disraeli) … “When you are at Venice it is like being in a dream” (John Addington Symonds) … “Dreamlike and dim, but glorious” (John Ruskin) … “The city of my dreams” (George Sand) … “That waking dream of beauty” (Frances Trollope) … “We have been in a sort of half-waking dream all the time” (Mark Twain). It is perhaps significant that these testimonies all date from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They are part of a culture in which the interior life first came to prominence as an object of study. Once more the city, infinitely malleable and fluid, satisfied the cultural expectations of a new period. It breathed the spirit of the age. Sigmund Freud visited Venice on several occasions. He mentions the city in The Interpretation of Dreams as the site of one of his own most disturbing dreams. It was of a warship passing over the lagoon.

It can hardly be doubted, then, that Venice still exerts some strange power over the human imagination. To walk around the city is to enter a kind of reverie. Water instils memories of the past, made all the more real by the survival of the ancient brick and stone. The presence of water may also induce the emergence of unconscious desires and fantasies. The uterine embrace of the womb has already been mentioned. It has always been a city of luxuries, and luxuries are dreamed-of things.

The most important Venetian text of the early modern period is entitled Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499), or the strife of love of Poliphilus, as veiled in a dream. It is a recondite and anonymous work, the meaning of which remains unclear, but it is concerned in large part with the transition between illusion and reality. There are dreams, and dreams within dreams, revealed in a series of architectural conceits. In this respect, it is wholly Venetian in spirit.

The detail of Christ and the musicians from The Marriage Feast at Cana by Paolo Veronese. In sixteenth-century Venice, art and music were closely associated. Here a quartet is shown playing to the invited guests; the members of that musical group have been identified as Titian, Tintoretto, Bassano and Veronese himself. (photo credit i4.1)

An eighteenth-century painting by Gabriele Bella showing a concert given by the girls of the hospital music societies in Venice. The orphan girls in the charitable institutions of the state were given an extensive and elaborate musical training, so that their concerts became the wonder of the age. “I cannot imagine anything,” Rousseau wrote, “so voluptuous, so touching as this music.” (photo credit i4.2)

The Parlour of the San Zaccaria Convent in Venice. This painting by Francesco Guardi reveals the refined and luxurious atmosphere of the eighteenth-century convents of Venice. They were essentially homes for unmarried patrician women, accustomed to the comforts of the outer world. The convents of Venice became a form of theatre, with the nuns sitting behind gratings watching the rest of Venice cavort before them. (photo credit i4.3)

A pen and ink drawing of 1787 showing a cross-section view of a theatre on the Grand Canal. The theatre was intrinsic to Venetian life, and Venetians were known throughout Europe for their love of drama. It was a passion that touched all classes, from the gondolier to the patrician. Venetian stagecraft was also renowned for its subtlety and elaboration. (photo credit i4.4)

A portrait of the Venetian dramatist, Carlo Goldoni, by Alessandro Longhi. Goldoni was the greatest of all the city’s playwrights. His was the comedy of Venetian social life. He held a mirror up to Venetian nature. He captivated the eighteenth-century public with portraits of gondoliers and of servants, of shop-keepers and housewives. (photo credit i4.5)

An eighteenth-century watercolour of a Venetian nobleman patronising a café. Venice has always been more famous for its cafés than for its restaurants. In the eighteenth century they were calculated to number two hundred, with thirty-five in Saint Mark’s Square itself. The customers enjoyed cups of coffee and cups of chocolate, or glasses of lemonade and syrup. (photo credit i4.6)

A fresco painted by Giandomenico Tiepolo, at the end of the eighteenth century, showing Pulcinella disporting with acrobats. Pulcinella was a character from commedia dell’arte, the characteristic Venetian entertainment that first emerged in the sixteenth century, growing ever wilder and more obscene over the centuries. He wore a white costume and a black mask, and was well known for his long nose. In England he became known as Punch. (photo credit i4.7)

A pen and ink sketch, from the eighteenth century, showing three masked figures in Carnival costume. The Carnival was instituted at the end of the eleventh century, and has continued without interruption for almost seven hundred years. By the eighteenth century, at the very latest, the masks had become indispensable. Even the beggars wore masks. (photo credit i4.8)

Canaletto’s painting A Regatta on the Grand Canal. The regatta was an annual event, at the time of the Carnival, watched eagerly by all Venetians; it was formally instituted in the fourteenth century, and has continued ever since. This painting shows the one-oared light gondola race. (photo credit i4.9)

A painting of a masked ball taking place in Saint Mark’s Square during the Carnival. John Evelyn, the seventeenth-century English diarist, described such events as part of the “universal madnesse” with “the Women, Men & persons of all Conditions disguising themselves in antique dresses & extravagant Musique & a thousand gambols.” (photo credit i4.10)

A painting by Gabriele Bella showing a battle with sticks on a Venetian bridge. It was known as la guerra dei pugni or the war of the fists, fought between the inhabitants of the various territories and neighbourhoods. A team from each of these territories met for battle on a chosen bridge, while thousands of spectators lined the streets and houses beside the canal. It was a glorified fist-fight in which the object was to hurl opponents into the water and to gain possession of the bridge. (photo credit i4.11)

A game of bowls in the Campo dei Gesuiti, painted by Gabriele Bella in the eighteenth century. The square or campo was at the heart of the neighbourhood. It spread before the parish church and was once its burial ground. It was a self-contained entity, marked out by its well and carved well-head where the women of the parish came to gossip. It was a Venice in miniature. (photo credit i4.12)

An etching of the Bridge of Sighs, that led from the ducal palace to the ducal prisons. It was named after the laments of those about to be gaoled, and is the most picturesque of all penitential emblems. It was not in fact given that name until the nineteenth century; yet it serves the purpose, and the image, of Venice very well. (photo credit i4.13)

The front cover of Casanova by René Jeanne, published in 1927. Jacques Casanova is the most famous of all Venice’s favourite sons. He is the quintessential Venetian, and his memoirs demonstrate the facility with which life in the city can be turned into self-conscious and self-serving drama. “The chief business of my life has always been to indulge my senses,” he wrote. “I never knew anything of greater importance.” This might be justifiably described as a main article of the Venetian creed. (photo credit i4.14)

A poster advertising the Eastern Railway travelling from Paris to Venice at the end of the nineteenth century. The Grand Tour had given way to upper-middle-class travel with Venice as the most desirable destination of all. By the 1840s tourist guides to the city were being written; the first “Cook’s tour” of Venice was arranged in 1864. “The Venice of today,” Henry James wrote, “is a vast museum where the little wicket that admits you is perpetually turning and creaking …” (photo credit i4.15)


10

The Prison House

<p>10</p> <p>The Prison House</p>

When Byron apostrophised Venice in the fourth canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, his tone was ambiguous:

I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;A palace and a prison on each hand …

He did not know, or failed to recollect, that the palace itself also contained a prison. An American visitor in 1760, James Adams, was appalled and discomfited by the atmosphere of the city. “For God’s sake let’s see to arrange affairs,” he wrote, “and get out of this vile prison.”

Fynes Morisson, in the early seventeenth century, reported that Venetian women were “locked up at home, as if in prison.” Dickens dreams of dungeons when he floats along the canals of Venice, and meditates upon scenes of dreadful night when “the monk came at midnight to confess the political offender; the bench where he was strangled; the deadly little vault in which they tied him in a sack …” In the nineteenth century Venice became a true image of horror. The most famous adventure of the city’s favourite son, Giacomo Casanova, concerns his escape from the Venetian prison to which he had been consigned. With its slops thrown into the canal, and the scent of bilge water, the city sometimes had the smell of the prison-house.

Some of the most famous prisons in the world are to be found in Venice. The Bridge of Sighs itself, named after the laments of those about to be gaoled, is the most picturesque of all penitential emblems. It was not in fact given that name until the nineteenth century, largely by the happy inspiration of Byron; yet it serves the purpose, and the image, of Venice very well. When William Beckford rode in his gondola beneath the bridge he invoked the memory of Piranesi, the artist born in the Republic of Venice, whose enduring fame lies in his shadowy and vertiginous drawings of imaginary prisons. Despite his great success and renown in Rome, Piranesi liked to sign himself as “architetto Veneziano.” From his gondola Beckford looked up at the highest part of the prison and, snatching his pencil, “I drew chasms and subterraneous hollows, the domain of fear and torture, with chains, rocks, wheels and dreadful engines.…” These are some of the images summoned up by la Serenissima.

The most feared and hated institution of the city was a judicial committee known as the “council of ten.” It was created in 1310, as a direct result of a political conspiracy by a group of patricians, and it soon became an indispensable part of the machinery of state. By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries it had acquired a power equivalent to that of the senate itself. It concerned itself with the threat of lawlessness and unrest within the confines of the republic, and thus its remit stretched very far. It was an internal police force, small and flexible enough. It met in secret, every day of the week. Its members wore black mantles and became known as the “black inquisitors.” It employed secret agents in every part of the city, and relied also upon a network of anonymous informants. It never allowed the evidence to be given to the accused, and its witnesses could not be cross-questioned. The examinations of the accused were generally conducted in darkness, and from the room of the three leaders of the council was a staircase leading directly to the dungeons and the chambers of torture. Its verdicts did not permit any appeal. Banishment or death, by strangulation or by drowning, followed very quickly. It was, according to Rousseau, “a tribunal of blood, equally horrible to the patricians and the people.” There is no doubt an element of exaggeration in Rousseau’s account, and in those of others who liked to foster the myth of Venice as a dark and vicious place, but there can be no doubt that the reputation of the small council was the single most important element in the understanding of the Venetian polity. It symbolised the secret life of the city.

Prisons were in a real sense part of the literal and metaphorical world of the Venetians. A fourteenth-century notebook, kept by a merchant, contains a list of all the gaols of the city. The most notorious prisons in Venice were in fact part of the palace of the doge. It was ordained that the doge himself should hold the keys, with the unspoken suggestion that prisons supported the legitimacy and authority of the state. There were prisons on both sides of the Rio della Paglia that flowed past the palace; those on the ground floor were known as “the wells,” for the reason that water often collected in them, while those on the upper storey were called “the leads” after the slabs of lead that covered the roof just above them. Some of the individual dungeons had names, such as “the lion” and “the volcano.” The wells in particular had a reputation for noisomeness, with the suggestion that it were better to be entombed alive than to be lowered into these holes. But, as with most aspects of Venetian life, there is more than an element of fantasy and myth-making in these accounts. The supposed horrors of the Venetian gaols may be related to their proximity to water, but they can be construed as part of the shadow world behind the ritual and masquerade that touched every aspect of Venetian life. What depths of torture and depravity might somewhere lie concealed in this fair city? What is being masked? The answer may be—nothing at all. When the French forces invaded and overwhelmed Venice in 1797, only one prisoner was found in the wells. He had been imprisoned for sixteen years and, on re-entering Saint Mark’s Square in broad sunlight, he was struck blind and died shortly thereafter.

Casanova was imprisoned in the leads, and from the grating of his cell he saw rats of a “fearful” size wandering unconcernedly in the garret. When he asked his gaoler about the “scoundrels” imprisoned with him he was told that, on the contrary, they were respectable people who for reasons known only to the authorities “have to be sequestered from society.” It emphasised to him the “horrible despotism” to which he, too, had become a subject. Yet he escaped; he fashioned an iron bar into a spike, and cut his way out onto the rooftop. His narrative of imprisonment and flight is a central story of Venice itself.

It is generally believed that Casanova died in Bohemia on 4 June 1798, but there is an unofficial story that he secretly returned to Venice after the French Revolution and lived there in anonymity. It is also said that he practised certain necromantic rites that guaranteed him immortality. Some argue that he still lives in his uncorrupted body; others believe that he is reborn in every Venetian infant. He really does represent, therefore, the genius loci. He never really escaped, after all.

The image of the prison has often been used to conjure up the mood and setting of the city. Like the Jews in its ghetto its citizens are in a sense incarcerated, surrounded by water as if they were confined in Alcatraz. No citizen was allowed to leave Venice without official permission. That is why there is relatively little crime in the city; in a place where everyone is watching everybody else, there is nowhere to hide. The route to the mainland can easily be sealed off. The Venetian people were, in addition, heavily policed. By the fourteenth century there was one policeman for every two hundred and fifty citizens, with the laws enforced by the council of ten and the signori di notte or “lords of the night.” There were also the chiefs of the wards, and a secret force known as the sbirri. It was reported that the sbirri dealt with offenders by throwing their cloaks over them and then, having muffled them, led them directly to the prison. The elements of silence and concealment consort well with the popular image of the city. They are of a piece with coercive legislation and constant observation.

There is, or was, very little privacy in Venice. The people are packed closely together. The small communities of every parish were woven flesh to flesh. The private space is small indeed. Just as private interests were subordinated to public needs, and the individual subsumed within the larger community, so privacy itself was considered to be of little importance. All this may induce acute feelings of claustrophobia. The people cannot escape one another, let alone the clusters of islands on which they are immured.


11

Secrets

<p>11</p> <p>Secrets</p>

The shade of the prison house may also induce secrecy. If privacy is a luxury, then the keeping of secrets may become ever more urgent or obsessive. The city of masks must, in any case, also be the city of secrets. The Venetians, despite their apparent sociability, are notoriously reticent. They do not invite casual visitors into their homes. In the portraits of Venetians there is a general air of inscrutability; they are painted for their office rather than for their person, and their actual temperament or personality is not to be divulged. They are impenetrable. It was said of one doge that “one never knows whether he loves or hates anything.” One public lecturer, from another part of Italy, found it impossible to engage his audience of young Venetian nobles in any form of political discussion. “When I ask them,” he wrote, “what people think, say, and expect about this or that movement in Italy, they all answer with one voice that they know nothing about the matter.” Was this silence the result of fear or of distrust? In a city where you could be banished on the evidence of suspicion alone, who would willingly open their mouths? After Napoleon had conquered Venice in 1797 he instigated a survey of the newly captured people. He asked, in particular, what were Venetian prejudices and opinions. The native writers of the survey could not enlighten him since, they said, such questions admitted no answer. No other city had so effectively silenced its inhabitants. There were times, in fact, when indiscretion exacted a high price. When two glass-blowers escaped to foreign capitals with the secrets of their trade, in 1745, the senate decreed that they should be assassinated by means of poison.

It was observed that, on the Rialto, the bankers and merchants customarily spoke in hushed voices. The government of the city was conducted in secrecy. We might almost describe it as an Oriental secrecy, with secret meetings, secret payments, secret audiences, secret decisions and secret deaths. When new nobles were introduced to the business of government their oath of allegiance included the promise of “faith and silence.” It is highly characteristic of Venice. One of the allegorical paintings in the doge’s palace is that of taciturnity. There is a strange figure of stone on the edifice of Saint Mark’s; it is of an old man, leaning on crutches, who has a finger to his lips. It was said that Venice was a secret oligarchy; it not only kept its secrets, but the nature of its own identity was also a secret.

The oath for the council of ten was “jura, perjura, secretum prodere noli”—swear, foreswear and reveal not the secret. There are pages in the annals of government where the words “non scribatur,” let it not be written, are to be found. Other chronicles of Venice were burned. The archives of the government were secret; the doge himself could not consult them, unless he were accompanied by an official. The keeper of the archives was a man who could neither read nor write. In an eighteenth-century text, The Chinese Spy, it is stated that “silence is the emblem of this government; everything is secret and cloaked in mystery. Political doings are covered by a thick veil of darkness. In Venice those who talk are buried alive in a tomb covered with lead.”

Thus it was said by a seventeenth-century historian that “the Venetians are apt to be jealous of all ambassadors, and to interpret all their Actions as Mysteries tending to Conspiracy.” They discussed every word and action “from whence they make great conjectures and draw mighty consequences of State.” No Venetian official could speak to a foreign diplomat, on pain of death or life imprisonment. The boxes at the opera had little “withdrawing rooms”; diplomats felt obliged to visit one of the several opera houses, if only to discover secrets which would otherwise be hidden from them. Paradoxically the mute stealth of these proceedings encouraged suspicion and conspiracy. Venice was known as the city of conspiracies.

There was a violent altercation at a meeting of the senate in 1511, which the council of ten deemed to be so shameful that it was never to be mentioned; oaths of secrecy were demanded from the members of that body. Many proposals and discussions, put before the senate, were also considered under strict vows of silence. Some dignitaries were imprisoned or sent into exile so that they could not speak out. Secrecy was for the public good. When the senate deliberated for a month over the imprisonment of a Venetian admiral, for incompetence or malfeasance, not one word reached the admiral himself until the moment he was seized and bound; his friends, who had argued passionately in his defence, had not warned him. When rumours of a great military defeat began to filter through Venice, in the early part of the sixteenth century, the council of ten refused to discuss the issue and imprisoned anyone suspected of a loose tongue.

And there was, at the end of the eighteenth century, the case of “the Venetian secret.” It was a secret that Sir Joshua Reynolds, for example, pursued to his death. It concerned the warm texture of Venetian painting. How did the artists fabricate that golden and glowing tone? Reynolds even scraped down one of Titian’s canvases in search of the secret. One woman, Ann Provis, declared that she possessed it. She said that it was contained in a copy of a lost text concerning the method and practice of the great Venetian painters. Miss Provis promised to reveal it, but only in exchange for ready cash. Of course it was a confidence trick. James Gillray caricatured the whole affair in a print entitled “Titianus Redivivus; – or – the seven-wise-men consulting the new Venetian oracle.”

So Venice was well known as a city of secrecy, of mystery, and of silence. Henry James described it as a place of “endless strange secrets” and in The Portrait of a Lady, partly set in Venice, there is the almost unbearable tension of what has been left unsaid. Such an atmosphere perfectly suits the Venetian genius for intrigue. Casanova said of his Venetian contemporaries that their “most prominent characteristic is to make a mystery of nothing.” In the past the Venetians made a mystery of government, or a mystery of love; now they were happy to create mystery for the sake of mystery. The gondolas were designed for secrecy, with little cabins draped by blinds or by black cloth. A Venetian writer, Giovanni Maria Memmo, wrote in 1563 that the houses of Venice “should have some secret doors where one can enter and exit without being seen by anyone.” Venice is still in part a secret city. It is a secret city of the living, unseen by the many thousands of tourists who take up the public spaces. That is why good restaurants are hard to find; the Venetians reserve them for themselves. There are still streets that seem in retreat, silent and secluded. The watery element deepens that sense of seclusion and secrecy. The canals render the streets remote and unfamiliar.

But secrecy is also the companion of anxiety and of shame. Those who preserve secrets may wish to conceal their real nature. Secrecy leads to dissimulation and play-acting. It was said that Venetians never discussed their true motives in the affairs of the world. Yet secrecy is also an aspect of power. That which is spoken can be denied or repudiated. It can be tested and contradicted. That which is unspoken remains most powerful.

The secret city takes the shape of a labyrinth. It is a maze that can elicit anxiety and even fear from the unwary traveller. It lends an element of intrigue to the simplest journey. It is a city of dead-ends, and of circuitous alleys; there are twisting calli, and hidden turnings; there are low archways and blank courtyards, where the silence is suspended like a mist. There are narrow courts that terminate in water. The natives do not lose their way, but the traveller always gets lost. It is impossible not to get lost. But then suddenly, as if by some miracle of revelation, you find that for which you have been searching—a small church, a house, a restaurant will suddenly present itself to you. The city gives you a present. But, then, it is unlikely that you will ever find that place again. Kafka would have understood Venice.

The concept of the maze or labyrinth is an ancient one. It is a component of earth magic that, according to some authorities, is designed to baffle evil spirits. The Chinese believed that demons could only ever travel in straight lines. It has also been said that the dead were deposited at the centre of the mazes. That is why they retain their power over the human imagination. The labyrinth of classical myth is that place where the young and the innocent may be trapped and killed. But the true secret of the Venetian maze is that you can never observe or understand it in its totality. You have to be within its borders to realise its power. You cannot see it properly from the outside. You have to be closed within its alleyways and canals to recognise its identity.

The scheme of house numbers is difficult to understand; in each sestiere, they begin at number one and then snake through every street until they finish. They reach into their thousands without the benefit of any reference to street or square. The names affixed to the streets seem in any case to be different to the names printed in the maps of the city. In fact the reality of Venice bears no relation to any of the published guides and maps. The shortest distance between two points is never a straight line. So the network of Venice induces mystery. It can arouse infantile feelings of play and game, wonder and terror. It is easy to believe that you are being followed. Your footsteps echo down the stone labyrinth. The sudden vista of an alley or a courtyard takes you by surprise; you may glimpse a shadow or a silhouette, or see someone standing in a doorway. Walking in Venice often seems as unreal as a dream or, rather, the reality is of a different order. There are times when the life of the past seems very close—almost as if it might be around the next corner. The closeness of the past is embodied in the closeness of the walls and ways all around you. Here you can sense the organic growth of the city, stone by stone. You can sense the historical process of the city unfolding before you. There is a phrase, in T.S. Eliot’s “Gerontion,” to the effect that history has many cunning passage-ways. These are the passages of Venice.

News travelled fast through the echoing calli. Venice was at the centre of news, from East to West and from West to East. In the early modern era it was the primary conduit of news in the world. The correspondence of merchants, from the thirteenth century, was a significant source of information. He who heard the news first—of an important transaction, or the scarcity of a certain commodity—would profit most. Speed was of the essence. The roads must be in good repair, if possible, and the ships swift. Venice was one of the first cities to organise a postal system, the compagnia dei corrieri, in the fourteenth century. Nevertheless it took four days for the mail to travel from Nuremberg to Venice.

It was the news and speculations that generated half the business of the Rialto. In fact Venice would not have been the centre of commerce if it had not been the centre of news. It came from all sides—from couriers on horseback, from the reports of diplomats, and from the letters of administrators. Information descended in torrents upon the market-place. Once the news was known, it was discussed. There was an inn, the Golden Ship, where Venetians would meet “to recount their Intelligences, one with another … thither also came Merchants that were strangers.” Some of the earliest coffee houses were established in Venice, for the particular reason of conveying information. The human city could itself be described as a medium for the reception and exploitation of information. Venice, the pre-eminent city, was also surely pre-eminent here.

So the Venetians ran after the latest news and the latest sensation. Yesterday’s news was of no account. The entries in the diaries of Marino Sanudo, in the early sixteenth century, were often prefaced with the phrase that “news came that.…” The Venetians listened with “elevated ears” for the latest word or information. There were reports known as notizie or avvisi read aloud to the populace, who paid a small coin known as a gazzetta for the chance of hearing the latest rumours. It is perhaps not surprising that this appetite for news was considered by some to be a contagion or a distemper. Sir Henry Wotton described “news” as “the very disease of this city.” Yet some news was more important than most. In a letter of 31 March 1610 Wotton wrote from Venice to his employer, Robert Cecil, of “the strangest piece of news … whereof here all corners are full.” It was the news of the new universe penetrated by Galileo.

One resident of Venice has been celebrated, if that is the right word, as the first of all journalists. Pietro Aretino came to Venice in 1527, in exile from the papal court at Rome, and for the next twenty-nine years threw himself into the public discourse of the city. He wrote comic plays, pornographic dialogues and religious works; but he also thrived in the world of the weekly newspapers then circulating through Venice. An early biographer described him as the “first great Adventurer of the Press.” He thrived upon the art of public self-imaging and described the affairs of the day in the language of the street. He wrote pasquinades or flysheets that were distributed everywhere in the city, and he refurbished the form of the giudizio or almanac. Local and immediate news was now the staple of the public prints. He wrote on demand. Aretino turned “news” into a commodity, in the style of any merchant of Venice. His writing smells of the turbulent city. He thrived in the city, and repaid the compliment by extravagantly praising his hosts in plays and letters. So he was tolerated. In truth he could have existed nowhere else.

It is not perhaps surprising that the first newspaper in the world, the Gazzetta, emerged in Venice at the beginning of the seventeenth century. At various times in the following century one of the first modern journalists, Gasparo Gozzi, published L’Osservatore Veneto and La Gazzetta Veneta. The latter, established in 1760, was published twice a week; its editor received news, and subscriptions, at four bureaux in the city. There were news items, advertisements, conversations overheard in Saint Mark’s Square, menus, questions and pleas by “lonely hearts.” All Venetian life is there, from the story of the drunken porter who fell to his death from an open window to a list of the rates on the exchange. It was one of a number of news-sheets and newspapers and newsletters. Many of them simply publicised private scandals and quarrels; they indulged in rumour and innuendo; they reprinted personal letters, and created a climate of acute social embarrassment for certain prominent Venetians concerned about their good name or buona fama. They were of a piece with the topical satires that were circulated through the streets, the token of a city that was obsessed with its own communal life. Yet there is one thing missing. The political debate of the city goes unnoticed and unremarked. The government of Venice was masked.

Nevertheless Venice was filled with rumour and intrigue. There were spies everywhere. The courtesans were spies. The gondoliers were spies. The state inquisitors had spies. The council of ten had spies. There were spies for the trade guilds, who informed on any craftsmen or workers infringing the rules of business. There were political spies, employed to denounce any corruption in the processes of election or of government. The spies spied on other spies, and were in turn followed and watched. There was heavy surveillance at the docks, the point of entry for people as well as goods. The abiding rule, for foreigners and other interested parties, was to stay silent. As long as you did not talk, you remained at liberty.

There is the story of Vivaldi walking in Saint Mark’s Square with a violinist from Dresden, Johann Pisendel. He suddenly broke off the conversation, and asked his friend to go home with him at once. Behind closed doors Vivaldi then told Pisendel that he had been observed by four officials. Vivaldi told his friend to remain within the house until he had discovered what offence, if any, Pisendel had committed against the majesty of Venice. It turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. But the fear had been there. The mere experience of being observed had induced it.

One of the secretaries to the council of ten was an expert in the breaking of codes and secret ciphers. Every foreign embassy or foreign household in the city had one or more resident spies. The foundations for foreign merchants, like the Fondaco dei Tedeschi for the merchants of Germany, were packed to bursting with spies; the Venetian weighers and brokers on those premises were known to work for the government in a semi-official capacity. One great lady of Venice, Elisabetta Zeno, held a salon for certain important senators; behind a screen were hidden two clerks, who for her later benefit noted down everything that was said. When the Venetians became informed of the conspiracy, they suspended the senators from any public office. Elisabetta Zeno herself was exiled for life to Capodistria. Every Venetian on foreign soil was expected to take on the role of spy as part of his or her civic duty. The prelates of Venice, when in Rome, were expected to spy upon secret papal enclaves. The Venetian merchants who travelled to other lands or other cities were especially useful; it is apposite, too, that in a mercantile state, the language of merchants was used as a code. The Turks, for example, might be described as “drugs” and the artillery as “mirrors” in a fictionalised commodity market.

Spying was a Venetian employment and pastime. People were always, and still are, watching other people in the city. The state of the houses was such that surveillance could take place through cracks in the walls or floors. The houses of the powerful were not exempt. Three youths were found to have broken through a section of the senate ceiling, so that they could listen to an address by an ambassador recently returned from the Ottoman court. There were examples of professional, and amateur, informants throughout the city. There was incentive, too; the accusers were rewarded if their information proved to be correct, and their names kept secret in the honoured Venetian fashion. The Venetians invented this particular form of harassment, known as denuncia or denontia segreta. It is still true that Venetians, if they find it necessary, will inform on one another. In a small place, humiliation is the greatest punishment of all. It was sometimes only necessary for the government to “name and shame” a culprit for the necessary sentence to have been executed.

Of course the administration of the city thrived on the undermining of personal loyalties. It was a measure of the success of the state that its people should conform to the greater good. Indeed the habit of denunciation might be seen as a thwarted or twisted expression of civic pride and civic belonging. It is embodied in the bocca di leone, the lion’s mouth, to be found in various parts of the city. The mouth, generally carved on a grotesque and offensive head, was a postbox for accusations against any Venetian. The accuser was obliged to sign the paper and include the signatures of two witnesses to his or her good name; but the information could include anything, from financial extravagance to licentiousness. Anonymous accusations were meant to be burned, but in fact could be entertained if they involved matters concerning the security of the state. This lion’s mouth was of course another Venetian invention. It was the mouth of the city, a capacious orifice of whispers and rumours. It meant that there was a general atmosphere of surveillance, even in the most private quarters of the city. There were even specific mouths, designed to implicate those who cheated on their taxes or who adulterated oil. A wife could inform upon a husband, a son upon a father. The practice was continued in Venetian dominions. In some Venetian country houses, on the mainland, there was a bocca delle denoncie segrete where informants could accuse individuals working on the estate.

Gossip and scandal were thereby the fuel of Venice. It was a network of small neighbourhoods; each one resembled any country village, in itself, but packed together on an island the atmosphere of rumour became ever more intense. “All Venice will know” became a commonplace sentiment. Casanova complained that he was “the talk of the city.” Rumour spread very rapidly, so that the street urchins knew the name of the next doge before it had been officially announced. There was a general awareness of “murmuring in the city.” The sister-in-law of one of Byron’s Venetian amoratas, according to the poet, “told the affair to half Venice and the servants … to the other half.” Rumour had a thousand tongues and, as one Venetian patrician put it, “everyone says what he pleases, dreaming up something at night and spreading it in the morning.” Rumour was the excrement of Venice. If you spread it thickly enough, anything might grow. W.D. Howells, in his Venetian Life (1866), commented that you must “figure the meanness of a chimney corner gossip added to the bitter shrewdness and witty penetration of a gifted roué, and you have some idea of Venetian scandal.” The Venetian gossips knew every trifle. The talk was sometimes known as ciaccole or chit-chat, and the word itself expresses the littleness of the discourse. The victims, of course, were excessively humiliated. Many of the popular songs of Venice were concerned with the harm wreaked by mischievous gossip and by “perjured tongues.” Some victims were inclined to call upon divine protection; a picture of a “swooning Madonna” was to be donated by one Venetian if his wife gave birth in time to avoid “malicious gossip.” When a secretary of state in Venice, Pietro Antonio Gratarol, believed that he was being ridiculed in a play by Carlo Gozzi, and had tried unsuccessfully to have it banned or censored, he fled to Padua, without the permission of the Venetian authorities, and was eventually condemned to death in his absence. But the ultimate penalty did not balance the fear of rumour and mockery. He could not bear the malicious gossip.

Nevertheless gossip was accepted as evidence in the courtroom. It had a privileged status, and was generally considered to be the prerogative of women and of servants. But fruit-vendors, street-sellers and gondoliers were also called to give witness to what they had seen or heard. There were “murmurs” about this or that. The witnesses testified that “the whole courtyard was there” or that “if one person says it, everyone says it.” The most intimate secrets of a marriage were known to the community, which was generally not averse to taking sides in any marital dispute. It was quite common, too, for neighbours in such circumstances to enter the house or crowd the doorway. The Venetian idea of the “common good” was here lent a visible identity. The comedies of Goldoni are a perfect image of this unusual social life. People come and go from one house to another. Doors and windows are perpetually open. Taverns and shops are close by, so the conversation can be continued from living room to inn without any disturbance. The campo or campiello is one large domestic space. It is a curious fact that in Venice public matters were held in inviolable secrecy, while private affairs became public knowledge almost at once. Gossip may then have been a form of compensation.

Neighbours and domestics would come into court in order to testify on oath. They considered their evidence to be “public knowledge.” So the people watched one another, morning and night. They studied one another. It helped that they already knew each other by sight. At the opera, the opera glasses were characteristically trained upon the audience rather than the performance. From a certain perspective, however, the members of the audience were the performance. The Venetians are still marked by their propensity for gossip. Strangers in a familiar setting are noted and, if necessary, reported to the police. The telephone lines are always busy.


12

Chronicles

<p>12</p> <p>Chronicles</p>

Venice was the most conservative of societies. It revered tradition. It reverenced authority. The city was always searching for an historical origin, so it worshipped origins. It venerated the past. The respect for custom permeated every level and every aspect of Venetian culture. Custom represented the inherited will and instinct of the people. Custom was the embodiment of the community. There was a formulaic phrase used in public pronouncements, to the effect that new legislation was simply following “the most ancient customs” of the city. It was a form of reassurance. Custom was also considered to transcend positive or systematic law. Experience was always more important in Venice than theory. There would never be a revolution in the city.

The social life of the people was dominated by customs. To disregard costume, in matters such as church-going or hospitality, was to invite criticism. Of all the things the Venetians most dreaded, the worst was public obloquy. That is why they were often so lavish in public acts of generosity, but frugal to the point of miserliness at home.

The artists of Venice used a common and narrow range of iconography. The architecture of the city is of course known for its traditionalism. The form of the houses, large and small, remained unaltered for many centuries. There was no change in structure or decoration. If they fell down, they were rebuilt on the same spot with the same principles and even with the same materials; the remains of the previous building were used in the construction of the new one. The foundations could always be re-employed; petrified wood did not decay or burn.

In building instructions there is a consistent theme—rebuild this room according to its original dimensions, do not let this wall be any higher than its predecessor, reconstruct this house where it was previously. Perhaps it was the fear of fluidity, of mobility—the fear of water—that instigated this stasis. Casanova said that the patricians of Venice trembled at the mere idea of novelty. Power is itself a conservative force. A Venetian historian from the early seventeenth century, Paolo Paruta, noted that states are preserved by continuing the same traditions with which they were founded. Change encourages corruption.

Even in the sphere of mercantile activity, where the city was most expert, there was a pronounced aversion to change. It is often said that the Venetians invented the art of double-entry book-keeping; in fact the technique was invented in Genoa. The Genoese minted the first gold coins, drew up the first insurance contracts, and made the first marine charts; Venice characteristically lagged fifty or more years behind. It borrowed from others. It did not create ab novo. It feared and distrusted innovation. Only the forceful intervention of Napoleon brought an end to a system that had endured for five hundred years without noticeable change. It was until 1797 the sole example of a medieval city-state. It was, after all, an island.

The Venetians were obsessed with their history. They produced the largest body of chronicles in the Italian world. Extant from the fourteenth century are more than a thousand such texts. The diaries of Marino Sanudo, detailing the most inconsequential or tedious events of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, filled fifty-eight volumes in folio. It is reported that, at the age of eight, he was making an inventory of the pictures in the ducal palace. He, like the other chroniclers, was fascinated by the life of his city—its laws, ceremonies, trades, customs, treaties, were considered to be of fundamental importance and interest. It was a parochial vision, perhaps, but an understandable one. The spirit of place spoke through him. He could only truly be himself by acting as a medium for Venice.

After the chronicles came the histories. By the middle of the fifteenth century there were volumes with titles such as De origine et gestis Venetorum. The “origin” was just as important as the “deeds.” The origin explained the deeds. In 1515 Andrea Navagero was appointed to be the first official historian of Venice, a post in which he was expected to celebrate the “constancy and invincible virtue” of the city. This was precisely the moment when the “myth of Venice” was being formulated. The concept of a state historiographer is itself an interesting one, suggesting that the task cannot be left to free enquiry. As with “official” biographers, the art lies in concealment as much as revelation.

Unfortunately Navagero did not entirely succeed in his purpose, and in his will he ordered that his notes and papers be burned. He had, perhaps, revealed too much. There then followed a succession of state historians who, like the narrative painters of the sixteenth century, united minute detail with a general celebration of Venice’s sacred history. They were always reshaping the myth to accommodate present circumstances. They were descriptive and prescriptive, with the sure belief that they were offering a practical guide of governance to those who came after them. Everything was to be explained, and understood, in terms of the historical ideal. The historiographers were convinced that to chart the history would also be to reveal its manifest destiny. Tradition is the key. In a city constantly nervous of its own survival in the sea, duration itself was considered to be worthy of honour. If it has endured, it must be laudable.

The reverence for custom and tradition was not necessarily benign. The political and economic decline of the city was not wholly of its own making, but the inherent conservatism and traditionalism of the authorities impaired the possibilities of improvement and renewal. The patricians, reassured by their own claims to superiority, often made signally disastrous decisions. Their exploitation and sack of Constantinople, in the company of allies, led directly to the Turkish conquest of the city on 29 May 1453. Venetian industry was injured by the restrictive practices imposed by the government. As Joseph Addison put it, the Venetians were “tenacious of old Laws and Customs to their great Prejudice, whereas a Trading Nation must be still for new Changes and Expedients, as different Junctures and Emergencies arise.” They wished to guarantee, for example, their reputation for manufacturing luxuries. So they emphasised quality at the expense of cost and quantity. In an enlarging world economy, this was a mistake.

There was a deep reluctance among the rulers of Venice to confront a world of change. That is why the Arsenal, the shipbuilding enterprise that had for a long period been the home of technological efficiency, had become by the seventeenth century hopelessly out of date. There was no renewal, and no true renovation. It may be that Venice distrusted itself too much to be capable of change, and made a strength instead out of sheer survival. That is still its most enduring attraction.

So the city took on various historical guises to suit the imperatives of the period. It reinvented itself as Roman. In the second quarter of the sixteenth century buildings were raised in the Roman manner of public architecture. These were heralded by the triumphal gateway to the Arsenal itself; it was the first exercise in Venetian monumentality. In the 1480s shields and helmets of stone were attached to the bas-reliefs of the ducal palace. In the face of threats from two empires, of the Hapsburg Charles V and of Suleiman the Magnificent, Venice laid claim to the inheritance of the greatest of them all. Rome was the context for her particular historical mission. Even the constitution was said to be derived from Roman originals.

The patrician families of the city began to find Roman ancestors, through whom they could plausibly hope to inherit ancient virtus. The Cornaro family traced their clan to the Cornelii, and the Barbaro to Ahenobarbus. The dark gown of the governing class was known as a toga, as if the senators of Venice would be as much at home in the Forum as in Saint Mark’s Square. The historians of the city identified their founding fathers with the refugees from Troy, who were supposed to have established Rome itself. It was all a great charade, but there comes a time when a nation or nation-state will embrace the most absurd or extravagant claims in order to bolster its sense of identity. So by the sixteenth century the Venetians were calling themselves “the new Romans.”

There was in any case a fascination for antiquity. There were antiquities, begged or borrowed or stolen, everywhere in Venice. Classical sculptures and trophies were set up in public places. There were many famous antiquarians. There were also notorious forgers who could knock up a piece of Roman statuary or a classical bronze without any difficulty. In a similar spirit the governors of Venice would sometimes proclaim that a certain activity—let us say education—had been preserved “from the foundation of the city.” This was normally quite untrue, but the fraudulence betrayed the reverence for antiquity in itself.

The Venetians were primarily interested in the material remnants of the ancient cultures of Greece and of Rome; they were not interested in their intellectual prowess. Greek for the Venetians was the language of business, rather than the language of Plato. Latin was a necessary lingua franca, not an agent of revelation. In Burckhardt’s The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy there is a long section on “The Revival of Antiquity” as an agent of moral and spiritual awareness. Venice is not mentioned in this context. Burckhardt simply praises it as the home of a flourishing publishing trade and the centre of “affectation and bombast” in funerary inscriptions.

The Venetians were understandably proud of their history. “I observe,” Lady Blessington wrote in the 1820s, “that the Venetian cicerone [guide] and gondoliers often refer to the past prosperity of Venice, and always in a tone that shows a knowledge of its history, and a pride of its ancient splendour not to be expected from persons of that class.” It was, and is, a city based upon memory. It is a city of nostalgia. It lives by remembering, and representing, its past. In the same way visitors are invited to admire buildings and scenes that are so familiar that it is as if they somehow “remember” them.

It is wholly to be expected, therefore, that the Venetian archives are the second largest in the world. Only the archives of the Vatican are more extensive. Yet none are more rich or more detailed than the Venetian papers. Some date from the ninth century. Everything was written down, in the hope that older decisions and provisions might still be useful. It is the measure of the efficiency of a state that it preserves its official documentation. In that sense, Venice was very efficient. The Archivio di Stato, just one of the many official archives, contain 160 km (one hundred miles) of files and documents. When the German historian Leopold von Ranke first came upon them in the 1820s he was, like Cortez on a peak in Darien, staring at an ocean; from his encounter with the papers sprang the first exercise in what was known as “scientific history.” They are still an infinite resource for contemporary historians and sociologists, who find there stories and dramas of Venetian life in more profusion than in the scenes of the commedia dell’arte.


IV Republic of Commerce

13

The Merchants of Venice

14

The Endless Drama

15

Wheels within Wheels

<p>IV Republic of Commerce</p>
<p>13</p> <p>The Merchants of Venice</p>

The genius of the Venetian state lay in commerce and in industry. Trade was in its blood. The city was sustained by what has been described as the first capitalist economy, but the phrase needs refining. It represented the first great triumph of mercantilist capitalism in Europe, the commercial paradigm for seventeenth-century Amsterdam and for eighteenth-century London. In this market-place everyone came to buy or to sell; the artist and the priest, as well as the merchant, sought for profit. The system of trade defined the social and cultural systems of the city; it subsumed them. Fashion and innovation became the key concepts. Rational calculation, and the abstract relations of credit and exchange, fashioned a wholly new kind of society—a society of commodities and a society of consumers. It has been said that the modern economic spirit sprang from the experience of the city. Paris only took on an urban form, for example, when mercatores or merchants settled beside the existing schools and monasteries.

All the actions of Venice, in war and in peace, were determined by the interests of commerce. It conquered only for profit, not for glory, and calculated with cold eye the financial gain to be acquired from the pious aspirations of the Crusades or the brutal sack of Constantinople. Its diplomatic treaties are wrapped in the language of “recompense” and “reparation.” In a private document of the fifteenth century, known as the Morosini Codex, there is a formulaic sentence for disaster—“many people died and much merchandise was ruined.” The essence of trade lies in further and further expansion, but Venice itself could not grow. So it exploited territories overseas from mainland Italy to the island of Cyprus. At the height of its power, it was the third largest state in Europe. It was also the richest. That is why commercial self-interest became a foundation of national ideology.

The earliest example is that of salt. The dwellers of the lagoon, long before the immigrants from the Veneto ever arrived, had traded in that substance; the lagoon was a perfect place for salt pans, with the brine of the low-lying sea all around. But the Venetians pursued that business with a vengeance. They decided to create a monopoly in the supply of salt to the mainland. By force and by conquest Venice appropriated the other centres of salt production in the territories closest to it. Then it applied itself to the salt producers of the entire Adriatic, compelling or bribing them to close their manufactories; if any salt was produced in overseas territories (as it was in the Venetian colony of Cyprus) it was taken to Venice and stored in great warehouses from where it was despatched to consumers at monopoly prices. Effectively the city put down any hint of competition. This was the Venetian way of doing business. In similar fashion it exploited the appetite for spices that re-emerged in the twelfth century, when the Mediterranean became once more open to traffic. Within a short time it dominated the trade. In the sixteenth century, for example, it imported almost six hundred tons of pepper annually from Alexandria. It even had its own pepper officers.

The greatest source of profit lay in trade over long distances; the more the possible risk, the more the possible benefit. It has been calculated that, in the early fifteenth century, there were some 3,300 vessels within the city’s mercantile marine. The ships of the Venetians left in convoys; each year there were seven trading expeditions sailing for different destinations. One fleet travelled to the Crimea, for example, and another to Cyprus and Egypt. Venice itself owned the galleys, and rented them out to the highest bidders. It is a perfect example of the city’s commercial instinct. The freight, and the dates of travel, were arranged well in advance. Merchants at home would then invest in the journey of the travelling merchant, in return for a large proportion of any subsequent profit. There was much profit to be obtained. On the return of these argosies the quays of Venice were piled high with carpets and silks and perfumes, sacks of cloves and bags of cinnamon. Argosy is indeed the most appropriate word. It derives from the port of Ragusa (Dubrovnik in what is now Croatia), a Venetian colony in the sixteenth century.

In the fourteenth century wax and pepper, sandalwood and ginger, were despatched to Europe by Venetian merchants from the Indies and Syria, Timor and Malabar. The East did not know the market prices of the West, nor did the West know the prices of the East. But the Venetian merchant understood, and calculated, both. Metals and manufactures were despatched to the East, while cotton and spices travelled in the opposite direction. The Venetians exploited opportunities that other cities and other states did not see or to which they were indifferent. Venice is the fulcrum between what we call the medieval, and the early modern, ages.

Some of the earliest banks in the world were established in Venice. There are private banks mentioned in official records from 1270. In the thirteenth century, too, Venice created the first publicly funded national debt, known as the Monte. The Monte meant literally a “pile” of coins. Until the fourteenth century moneylenders were free to practise in the city, although they were forbidden in most other cities. In the twelfth century charging large interest was said to be “an old Venetian custom.” The counters for the money-changers, covered in cloth or carpet, were set up at the base of the campanile in Saint Mark’s Square. Truly the Venetians made a religion out of money. On the bills of exchange was often inserted the phrase, “And may Christ watch over you.” There was a public bank in the city by 1625, 107 years before the foundation of the Bank of England. Venice became the largest bullion market in the world.

The merchant of Venice was the master of Venice. The founders of Venice were merchants or, rather, they were forced to trade in order to survive. The doges themselves engaged in trade. So there is the curious anomaly that the earliest nobility of the city were wholly involved with commerce; there was no hierarchy of birth, dependent upon a feudal system of honour, but a social framework entirely fashioned out of commercial speculation. As an English ambassador wrote in 1612, “Omnes vias pecuniae norunt.” They know all the paths of money. Fortunes were not made out of landed property but out of skill in business. This accounts in part for the evident sense of equality that the Venetians experienced, one with another; in the realm of King Money, all subjects are intrinsically equal. Money knows no duty or honour.

Yet in practice it was government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich. There was no merchants’ guild in Venice, for the simple reason that the city itself was one grand guild. It was a government of merchants. Much of its commerce was in fact controlled by a relatively small number of families who had always been in business. They were characterised by their acumen as a family unit so that, for example, the Dandolos were known to be audacious and the Giustinianis were benevolent. The domestic partnership whereby brothers, or fathers and sons, traded together was known as fraterna; its account books could pass through many generations, like a piece of family furniture. Household accounts were not separated from business accounts. They amounted to the same thing. The senate was essentially a board of directors, with the doge as the chief executive officer.

The government of the city was practical and efficient; it was moderate in its spending, and vigilant over its auditing of costs. The resources of the city were managed with extreme caution. The Venetians, for example, had great skill in the drawing-up of contracts, which became almost an art form. There was not the expense of a standing army; soldiers were purchased when necessary. The council of ten were charged with the administration of the Mint. The bankers kept their coins in the offices of the state treasury.

The government could only safeguard trade by maintaining liberty and security; liberty in the removal of restrictions, and security in the domination of the sea. The originality of Venetian governance lay in its unique ability to fuse politics and economics into a new form of power. It can be called state capitalism, or communal capitalism, or corporate government. The point is that it worked. In administrative terms, it was the equivalent of the philosopher’s stone. The Venetian merchants could also take comfort from Isaiah’s disquisition on Tyre that it was “the crowning city, whose merchants are princes, whose traffickers are the honourable of the earth … and her merchandise and her hire shall be holiness to the Lord.”

The image of the merchant is central to any understanding of Venice. It was even said that all Venetians were merchants. Why should that be so? The merchant is in part a speculator, ready to take acceptable risks for the sake of future profit. He rises to a challenge, but will decline a mere escapade. He is ambitious for supremacy, and competitive if not coercive towards his rivals. But he is also thrifty, and cautious. If these are paradoxical qualities, they are part of the paradox of Venice. The love of commerce, and the desire for gain, are essential to its nature. There were many Venetian proverbs on the subject of money—money is our second blood, money makes money and lice make lice, a man without money is a corpse that walks.

Merchants calculate. They are economical with their time, as well as with their words. Within them are wells of secrecy and duplicity. They have little use for culture unless, that is, a profit can be made out of it. They are interested in peace; but they are, in essence, dispassionate observers of the affairs of the world. An opportunity, after all, can arise out of any situation. War itself can be a source of immense profits, if it is handled in the correct manner. New markets can be opened, and new resources exploited. But the Venetian merchants were more interested in the short, rather than the long, term. They shifted with the ever-shifting scene. That is why they were described as foxes in a world of lions. There is another Venetian proverb: With truth and lies you sell the merchandise.

From the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries Venice became the city of luxury goods. Luxury may be defined as a form of erotic display, a deep response to the refinements of sensation. It suggests delicacy and rarefied pleasure. One need hardly add that it encourages further and further consumption. We need many things as the staples of life, but we desire even more. Desire lies in the open mouth of the consumer. Venice has always been known as a sensual city, whether in the ubiquity of its courtesans or in the lush canvases of its painters. Both artist and prostitute reflect the underlying reality of the city in which colourful display and material value are sacrosanct. The popular festivities of Venice might also be considered to be an expression of luxury.

Venice possessed no natural resources, and so it relied upon manufacture; the only way of maintaining its supremacy was in the creation of more various and more rarefied items. Luxury was prodigality, whether in spices or perfumes or dye-stuffs or ornaments of gold and rock crystal. Venice traded in them all. It made the glass and the silk and the soap. It manufactured the marzipan as well as the wax. Venice was a centre of silk manufacture, while the neighbouring island of Burano was the home of lace-making and Murano of mirrors and glass. The manufactories of Venice created the first glass window pane, which was undoubtedly a luxury on its arrival. In 1615 it became the first western city to market coffee. The fork was also a Venetian invention, one of the panoply of luxuries that emerged upon the dining table. Venetian households, in general, were known for their ornamentation and luxurious furnishing. The whole city was a hive ever active, relying to a large extent upon rapid and small transactions. You may see the merchants in the paintings, many of them young and eager, surrounded by pens and papers and balances. Each one is in a little world of striving and risk. Lorenzo Lotto finished “Portrait of a Young Man with Account Book” by the early 1530s; from various signs and tokens it is clear that the young man, after an unhappy romance, is seeking for consolation in the perusal of household accounts. He turns the pages of a double-entry register. Never have the blessings of business been more poignantly stated.

But we can move closer to the merchant. We can glimpse more of his life. A manuscript notebook of the early fourteenth century, known as the Zibaldone da Canal, has survived. It was compiled by a merchant, of unknown name, and is filled with arithmetical and geometrical notations together with what the merchant calls “many beautiful and subtle calculations.” There are medical remedies of an eminently practical nature, together with the most egregious superstitions. He notes that cheese becomes lighter as it dries out, so that it must be weighed carefully at the end of a voyage. He estimates the profit to be earned from gold smuggled into Tunis. He calculates the length of voyages. He recommends that a traveller, on first boarding his ship, should invoke saints Oriele and Tobias. He remarks, also, that there is “a time to threaten and not to fear.” The heart of the merchant is thereby laid bare.

In Venice according to one senator, “everything is up for sale.” He was referring in particular to political office, when the state itself became the object of commercial speculation, but he was entirely correct in a wider sense. Venice became the market of the world. “Indeed it seems,” one visitor wrote in 1494, “as if the whole world flocks there, and that human beings have concentrated all their force for trading.” This notion of “force,” the energy and power released by commerce, is the perfect word for the tempest of Venetian business. To Venice came the wines of Crete and the cinnamon of the Indies, the carpets of Alexandria and the caviar of Caffa, the sugar of Cyprus and the dates of Palestine. Cloves and nutmegs arrived from the Moluccas by way of Alexandria; the camphor of Borneo was brought to the lagoon together with the pearls and sapphires of Ceylon; the shawls of Kashmir lay beside the musk of Tibet, while the ivory of Zanzibar was unloaded with the rich cloths of Bengal. The Venetian ambassadors signed commercial treaties with the soldan of Egypt and the khan of Tartary, the sultan of Aleppo and the count of Biblos. The sons of nobles became apprentices at sea. Marco Polo was a merchant.

Fernand Braudel, in Le Temps du Monde (1979), characterises Venice in 1500 as the centre of the world economy. In 1599 it was described by Lewes Lewkenor as “a common and general market to the whole world.” In Coryat’s Crudities (1611) Saint Mark’s Square itself is called the “market-place of the world.” The city dominated the Adriatic, and insisted that all of its trade passed through its own ports. Venice fought off all other claimants. It was the quintessential merchant city, the ultimate bazaar.

The early trade fairs of Europe were conducted in Venice, perhaps from the examples of Egypt and Syria. The annual fair of the Sensa, with its origins in the twelfth century, was devoted to luxury goods; there were no less than twenty-four shops, for example, reserved for the goldsmiths and the silversmiths. It took place in Saint Mark’s Square, lasted for fifteen days, and welcomed some hundred thousand visitors. There were glass-blowers and painters and armourers; in fact, craftsmen of every kind. Trade then became a carnival and an entertainment. It became the object of festive ritual, just as the harvest rites of the countryside had a spiritual as well as a secular importance.

Yet there is a sentence from Voltaire that underlines the economic significance of this trade in luxuries—“Le superflu, chose très nécessaire”; luxury was necessary because it stimulated trade. The possession of luxuries, for example, was a vital element in the attainment of status. It has been argued that the growth of luxury is largely responsible for the rise of modern capitalism, in which case Venice was a pioneer capitalist in more than one sense. In its exploitation of raw materials, in its obsession with profit, in its rational organisation of trade and manufacture, and in the size of its operations across the known world, it was the very model of capitalistic enterprise. These urban merchants and shopkeepers learned how to diversify, to create new occupations and products, to seek for simplicity in all forms of exchange.

Luxury is the stepmother of fashion. There were sudden “crazes” in the city and the great chronicler of Venice, Pompeo Molmenti, noted that “no nation ever showed itself so insatiable in the matter of fashions.” In his Treatise of Commerce (1601) John Wheeler remarked that “all the world choppeth and changeth, runneth & raveth after Marts, Markets and Merchandising, so that all thinges come into Commerce.” This was the situation of Venice. So here we may see the beginnings of what has become known as consumer demand. The consumer emerges in Venice. Fashion was the goddess of this turning world. Vivaldi was disparaged as yesterday’s composer, according to an eighteenth-century observer, “for fashion is everything in Venice, where his works have been heard for too long and where last year’s music makes no money.” At a later date Margaret Oliphant, the Scottish novelist, described it as “the sensation-loving city.” The ladies of Venice always wore the latest style, and in the street of merchants known as the Merceria there was a doll dressed in the latest Parisian mode. The shop itself became known as “The Doll of France.” Fashions created luxuries; luxuries encouraged trade; trade prompted industry.

Venice was built from gold. It was the golden city. The desire to grow rich led to an obsession with gold. It was both a solace and a treasure. It was an investment and a defence. It was glorious. It was pleasing to the eye. The Venetian protagonist of Ben Jonson’s Volpone rises with appropriate words upon his lips, “Good morning to the Day; and, next, my Gold.” In the Mint of Venice there once stood a statue of Apollo holding gold ingots. Petrarch, in an encomium upon Venice, enumerated all the wild and distant places to which its merchants travelled. “Behold,” he wrote, “what men will do for the thirst of gold!” One early fifteenth-century doge spoke of Venice as holding the “signoria dell’oro” or lordship of gold. Venice was golden in the manner of Jerusalem or of the celestial city.

Gold was one of the principal glories of Venetian painting. The artists worked with gold thread and gold dust and flakes of gold. The Virgin, in Bellini’s “Frari Triptych,” is enthroned beneath a gold mosaic; she is suffused by a golden light that seems to contain the sweet breath of eternity. This is the light that can be experienced in Venice itself. The same painter, in his “Agony in the Garden,” bathed Christ’s back with powdered gold. In his “Resurrection,” at the Scuola di S. Rocco, Tintoretto has gilded the branches of the fig tree so that the light of the miracle may be seen to touch and transfigure the natural world. Gold, believed to be engendered by the sun in the bowels of the earth, is a sacred commodity.

The most celebrated casa, or house, in Venice is surely the Ca d’Oro. Its façade, constructed between 1421 and 1437, was so embossed and gilded that it became a glittering wall of light. There were 22,075 sheets of gold leaf fixed upon its surface. It was matched in the city only by the “golden coffer” of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi and the “golden basilica” of Saint Mark’s. In the basilica itself is displayed the Pala d’Oro, the gilded altar screen encrusted with precious jewels. The fame of Venetian goldsmiths was such that their work became known as opus Veneticum. Gold was used in the decoration of Venetian glass, and was of course part of the texture of the cloth of gold worn by the doge. When dressed in gold the doge became an emblem of the city and a token of its wealth. The precious material represented dignity and moral power. Even the performers in Venetian operas were dressed in gold.

There is the less lovely topic of land, to which the Venetians applied a form of agricultural capitalism. In the fifteenth century Venice acquired much territory on the mainland. A century later, the landscape had been transformed. The patricians had in part eschewed maritime trade, and concentrated instead upon their investments on terra firma. The labourers in the fields worked under the eyes of supervisors. The barns and the wine-presses were organised for the maximum efficiency. Land was reclaimed, systems of irrigation were introduced. The Venetians applied the techniques used for the creation of the city itself. It marked the end of feudalism, and the new exploiters of the land eventually became known as the capitalisti. At the same time the appetite for bucolic poetry, and the affection for pastoral landscapes, became more pronounced. Culture followed economics.

In the seventeenth century, as trade became ever more difficult and uncertain in a world of change, the patricians of Venice saw land itself as the major source of income. Rice and maize were exported; mulberry trees were cultivated. By the eighteenth century agriculture had become the single most profitable enterprise in Venice. There were those at the time who lamented this flight from mercantile trade to farming. It was wrong to abandon the sea, the mirror of Venice, in order to harvest the land. Or so it seemed. But the Venetians had always sought profit rather than honour. By exploiting the terra firma, they remained true to their first principle. Yet of course there were consequences. The partial withdrawal of Venice from the international world of trade inevitably led to a decline in influence and in status. The Venetians became more provincial.

The principal market of the city, however, remained that of the Rialto. It was the power station of Venice. It was the seed, the origin. It resembled the City of London, the centre of London’s energy, but on a more local and much more intense scale. Here the first settlers were supposed to have come ashore and, by the strange alchemy of the city, here the first negotiators or merchants began their trade. Commerce seems to have sprung up, fully armed, from the ground itself. It enters the public records of the city at the end of the eleventh century, when the patrician families of Gradenigo and Orio gave up their properties in the neighbourhood of the Rialto for use as a public market; the area had been a commercial centre for some time, primarily used by butchers, and the gift to the Venetian commune was a recognition of that fact. In the twelfth century the private houses in the neighbourhood were converted into shops and warehouses. It became truly a bazaar. Such was the importance of its commerce that, in 1497, the council of ten decreed it to be a sacrario or sacred precinct. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday there were ducal processions to the two principal churches of the Rialto. Trade could have no finer commendation. It had been enshrined.

The Rialto grew and grew. Outlying streets were cleared and widened; the canals were improved, and docks constructed. In the 1280s the Rialto Nuovo was erected to the west of the original market and, thirty years later, the Campo di Rialto was enlarged. There was a general desire to bring harmony and even dignity to this commercial scene; a great map of the world was placed on the wall of its principal colonnade. There was a prison, and a pillar for public proclamations. There were warehouses, too, and government offices for the administration of trade. The patricians met and mingled within a loggia or open-sided gallery at the base of the Rialto bridge. When much of the neighbourhood was destroyed by fire in 1514, it was rebuilt on the same pattern with the streets or “blocks” running parallel to each other. The essential conservatism of the Venetians required that they should preserve the old forms. The passageways of the Rialto, like a souk out of the East, had become the natural expression of trade.

The main street was lined with shops selling luxury goods, but there were areas for banking and for shipping insurance. There were separate markets for diverse commodities, and “specialist” stalls such as those for leather goods. The more expensive the items, the closer they were to the heart of the Rialto; this central spot was marked by the little church of S. Giacomo di Rialto. Taverns and brothels were on the periphery, where they were joined by rag-sellers and dealers in secondhand goods. It was an island of money-making, from the highest to the lowest. It was a little Venice within the larger Venice, a vivid instance of the commercial life.

There was already a wooden bridge linking both sides of the Grand Canal in the vicinity; it was rebuilt on two separate occasions but it could hold out no longer against the tide of improvement. The first stone of the existing bridge was laid in 1588, and the work was completed within three years. Two rows of shops and stalls lined its span of eighty-nine feet (27 m), but the higher significance of commerce was not neglected. On its side were sculpted the figures of the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. Hail, money, full of grace.

The city’s topography, therefore, was defined by its centres of trade. The larger campi became open-air markets. The Merceria, the route linking Saint Mark’s Square and the Rialto, was lined with 276 shops of every kind. It was, according to John Evelyn, “one of the most delicious streetes in the world.” There were also pedlars and street-sellers, hucksters and itinerant craftsmen; sales and auctions were held in the streets, beneath porticoes or in the shade of the churches. Shops themselves became places of assembly. It was a great carnival of commerce.

There were traders of every description. There were no less than forty trading guilds, ranging from apothecaries to weavers, from victuallers to barber surgeons. There were also hundreds of different occupations without a guild, from wet-nurses to porters and latrine-cleaners. It has been surmised that virtually the whole population of Venice worked. It was a desperate obligation for those below the level of the patrician. The existing street names of the city bear witness to the forgotten world of work and trade—a street of the sheet-metal workers, a street of soap-makers, a street of wax factories, a street of dyers. The street of the goldsmiths became, at the end of the nineteenth century, the street of the greengrocers. The tailors and the jewellers worked together in the same quarter. Jacopo Bellini, the progenitor of the great Bellini family, executed many drawings and studies of the itinerant labour of his city. He knew that these tradesmen and hucksters were the essence of Venice itself.

A large proportion of Venetians worked in the textile industry. There were the lace-makers, their eyesight ruined by their labour. Children, from the age of five, were enrolled in the trade. The exquisite refinement of the art, prized by the rich matrons of Europe, can be measured in human suffering. Other workers turned raw English wool into finished articles. The looms of the city produced damask and cloth of gold. There were weavers of tapestry and spinners of cotton. Of course women and children were part of this enormous trade. The workshop knows no gender. Despite the severe restrictions placed upon the movement and freedom of patrician women, the females of the lower orders were treated as fuel for the fire of the Venetian economy. Women were employed as printers and sail-makers, ironmongers and chimney-sweeps.

There were also female hawkers. Gaetano Zompino published Cries of Venice (1785) in which he listed sixty different varieties of hawker. Similar books were written in London and Paris, but in Venice the endless sound of human voices would have a distinct and different quality. There was no other background noise, apart from the hurrying feet of the passers-by and the calls of the gondoliers. The cries of the wood-dealer and the chair-mender and the man with the performing monkey would have echoed through the streets of stone, joyful and mournful, intense and intimate. Tomatoes a little sour, perfect for the salad! Women, you must make water with lemons! The pears that wet the beard!

In this climate everything could be raised, or lowered, to the status of a commodity. As Venice grew richer the churches became ever more ornate, as ornamented and encrusted as the jewel boxes of the great Venetian ladies; it was reported that, at the time of the creation of Venice, the Almighty had been promised “a hundred temples of gold and marble.” The reverence for show and splendour began early. That is why Venice was the showcase of the world. Information became a commodity, as Venice became the centre for the trade in printed books. Knowledge could indeed be packaged like a consignment of pepper. Albrecht Dürer, a resident of Venice for a time, executed a sketch in which books are being produced en masse as if they were loaves of bread. As a result there were more literate people in Venice than in any other part of Italy. Incipient capitalism had its uses. It is appropriate that the manufacture of spectacles, for the purpose of reading, was begun in Venice.

There was a thriving trade in human flesh. By the twelfth century the slave trade in Venice far surpassed that of other cities and other countries. The Venetians were incorrigible slave traders, and the markets of the Rialto and S. Giorgio were centres of slavery. They were eager for this particular source of income, since the profit on each item was said to be 1,000 per cent. They sold Russians and even Greek Christians to the Saracens. Men and women and children were bought or captured in the region of the Black Sea—Armenians and Georgians among them—before being despatched to Venice where they were in turn sold on to Egypt and Morocco and Crete and Cyprus. They sold boys and young women as concubines. One doge, Pietro Mocenigo, had in his seventies two young Turkish men in his entourage.

Many of them were consigned to Venetian households. No patrician family was complete without a retinue of three or four slaves; even Venetian artisans owned slaves, and used them in their shops or workshops. Venetian convents possessed slaves for domestic service. The galleys were stocked with slaves. But the city always needed a fresh supply; servile status was not inheritable. Many slaves were freed in the wills of their masters or mistresses. Marco Polo manumitted one of his slaves, Peter the Tartar, before his own death in 1324. In 1580 there were three thousand slaves in the capital. The black gondoliers in Carpaccio’s paintings of Venice are all slaves.

The solemn benefits of the Church could also be bought and sold, with the purchase of altars and windows and commemorative masses. In 1180 a stall was set up in Saint Mark’s Square for the sale of indulgences from time spent in Purgatory. Relics could be purchased. The seamless robe of the Saviour was valued at 10,000 ducats. The island of Crete was slightly cheaper. It was sold to Venice for a thousand silver marks.

Music and art, sculpture and opera, were all appraised by the criteria of profit and loss. The point was put plainly enough by the quintessentially Venetian artist of the eighteenth century, Giambattista Tiepolo, who suggested that painters should “please noble, rich people … and not other people who cannot buy paintings of great value.” Yet this could be construed as a moral, as well as an economic, imperative. Artists might, in the process of appealing to the wealthy, “be directed towards the sublime, heroic, towards perfection.” In Venice there was every reason to believe that the possession of money was compatible with the pursuit of glory. It might even be argued that the Renaissance itself, springing from the social and cultural life of the Italian cities, was the first movement towards the commodification of the western world; it was composed in part of art objects that could be ordered and purchased, that could be transferred from place to place, that were not unique to one city or one society. In Venice we can witness the rise of cultural materialism, which in turn created the first cosmopolitan culture. Music was part of the market, too, in which Vivaldi and Galuppi drove hard bargains. Opera was notably successful in Venice because, from the beginning, it was highly profitable. Speculators even made money from the leasing of boxes. It is hard to name one activity in the city that was not commercial in origin or in nature.

The painters of Venice, in their portraits and in their more expansive urban scenes, provided an inventory of costly material goods. The sitter is seen with his or her possessions, and the city is decked in ornate splendour. Bellini’s paintings depict the fine porcelain, and the sumptuous carpets, currently available in Venetian shops. These canvases were in turn placed within gilded and elaborate frames. It is not accidental that Venetian houses were known for their plenitude of pictures. Everything promised richness.

Artists came to the lagoon in order to learn the techniques of powdered gold, used in painting and in manuscript illumination. In Venice they would also find the finest pigments, brought from the East. Venetian painters, too, were well known for their skill in depicting the texture and appearance of the velvets and satins that were sold in the city itself. In a portrait of one doge, Bellini clothes him with the costly damask that had only recently been imported from the Levant. The sign of art as a commodity is the surface. In many cases the surface is without content or, more precisely, the nature of the subject is subordinated to the imperatives of surface decoration or ostentatious costliness. It is one of the attributes of capitalist enterprise that an object is no longer significant for its essence but for its exchange value. Here we may see one of the abiding characteristics of Venetian painting.

The notion of art as trade is of intrinsic importance to the cultural history of Venice. Most works were commissioned directly from the patron or patrons, and so the artists responded directly to what we might call consumer demand. There was an association, in the fifteenth century, between artistic theory and trading practice. There were manuals instructing the merchant on the right shades of dyes and spices, couched in precisely the terms that the artist would understand. In the activities of trade and art, objects become separated from the world; they are more intensely seen and judged. The consumer, too, judges by the senses.

There was also a connection between mercantile calculation and pictorial geometry; Piero della Francesca, after all, wrote A Treatise on the Abacus as well as one entitled On Perspective in Painting. When a Venetian merchant calculated the volume and appearance of his goods he was engaged in the same process as the Venetian artist. Sebastiano Serlio and Andreas Vesalius both lived in Venice, or in the Veneto, in the 1530s. One wrote a treatise on human architecture, and the other completed a treatise on the human body; the finely shaded illustrations in both books bear a striking resemblance.

A steady supply of paintings was despatched along the trade routes of the city, on both sides of the Adriatic; in a literal sense art followed commerce. The establishment of trade between Venice and the Netherlands, for example, heralded the profitable interchange between two schools of painting. When Venice and Germany joined in commerce, they also joined in art. The good citizens of Augsburg and Salzburg had many paintings of the Venetian school; the collectors of Venice possessed many works from German and Netherlandish painters.

There was also a market for “utility art,” with panel paintings used as devotional props and easel paintings as interior decoration. The material, rather than aesthetic, quality of the work was the important consideration. By the sixteenth century there were already “dealers” operating in Venice, mediating between artist and client, or between seller and purchaser. The contracts drawn up between consumer and supplier often specified the amount of gold, or expensive pigment, to be employed in any one painting. They ordained the nature, as well as the dimensions, of the work. They included a “deadline” for completion as well as penalty clauses for late delivery. Some contracts even included a clause in which the artist agreed to surpass the work of another named artist. Tintoretto, from a family of dyers, had all the skills of the merchant. He habitually undercut the prices of his rivals, thus assuring a steady supply of commissions. He worked quickly as well as cheaply. The letters of Titian are filled with money matters, with haggling and demanding and complaining. Canaletto, two centuries later, was a master of the export trade. Tiepolo concentrated upon the production of historical and allegorical painting on the very good grounds that only they provided him with a reasonable profit margin.

There was a passion for collecting in Venice; anything, from Roman coins to freaks of nature, could be taken up and placed in cabinets or cupboards. So the city could become a market in another sense. Private collecting was a Venetian phenomenon of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It created new forms of demand, and new methods of accumulation; it made the act of possession intrinsically worthwhile. The consumer could pose as the connoisseur. The sybarite could become a humanist saint. He was called a virtuoso. The first known collections were Venetian, dating from the fourteenth century. But the obsession with studioli or curiosity shops just grew and grew. The collection of the Venetian patrician Andrea Vendramin included sculptures and medals, urns and gems, lamps and shells, plants and manuscripts, costumes and mummified animals. The whole world could be purchased and displayed. Another Venetian patrician, Federigo Contarini, aspired to possess a specimen of every thing or being ever created; in this, of course, he could not be assured of success. During the course of the seventeenth century possession became more specific and specialised. There was a market for antiquities and a market for landscape paintings; there was a market in natural marvels, such as the many-headed hydra valued at six thousand ducats, and a market in ancient musical instruments. Coins and medals were also popular. The collection of Apostolo Zeno, for example, contained 5,900 medals. We must never forget, however, the commercial instinct of the Venetians. Zeno’s medals were a financial investment as well as a scholarly marvel. A collection could also be a portfolio. That is perhaps why it was an enduring, as well as a widespread, passion in the city. The last great Venetian collector, Conte Vittorio Cini, died in 1977.

Niccolò Serpetro’s Marketplace of Natural Marvels was published in Venice in 1653 with the entirely appropriate notion of placing the curiosities of nature in an imaginary piazza not unlike Saint Mark’s Square; here, amid the porticos and shops and stalls, the wonders of the world could be purchased. The market is the metaphor, and the reality. Everything is on display. The display, rather than any intrinsic worth, is the point. Serpetro’s imagined world was recreated in the late eighteenth century, when a great wooden oval was constructed in Saint Mark’s Square entirely for the display of goods. The Venetians were celebrated for their skill at window-dressing, and created the first glass shopfronts in the world. So their markets were great exhibitions. From the fairs of the twelfth century onwards, the goods of the city were paraded. At a later date works of art were put up for sale in the square, classical and contemporary works hanging side by side in the open air. It is entirely appropriate that the Venice Biennales—of art, of film and of architecture—are still flourishing at the beginning of the twenty-first century. They are continuing a great tradition of showmanship.

The first factories of capitalism were the silk manufactories of Venice. Ships were turned out from the shipbuilding yards of the Arsenal fully rigged and fitted, in the same fashion as the automobiles of a later date. Glass-making and mirror-making were full-blown industrial enterprises, in which the division of labour was matched by the economies of scale. These were family trades, too, with the son taking over from the father.

The authorities of the city also invented the concept of “zoning,” whereby industries were despatched to separate locations. It would be possible to construct a map of Venice in which every trade and industry is given a separate territory, cloth-stretchers to the west and tin-smiths to the north-east. The area of Dorsoduro was taken up by fishermen and silk-workers, while that of Castello was inhabited by sailors and by shipbuilders. This rationalisation of urban space continued well into the nineteenth century, when it was decreed that the Lido should be devoted to recreation and become a seaside resort.

The industrial power of Venice, pre-eminent in the sixteenth century, is attested by the fact that its technical innovations soon reached other parts of Europe. The manufacture of gold cloth in France was introduced by the weavers of the city. Luxury soap-making came out of Venice. The type fonts of the Venetian presses were copied in other cities. Venetian workers revolutionised the production of fine woollen cloth. The city became the unlikely setting for technological change and innovation. For more than a century it was the first industrial city in Italy and, indeed, the centre of European industry. At the peak of its development, in the third quarter of the sixteenth century, its population reached 180,000.

In the end that industry declined. The nature of any decline in the human world is interesting. As a spectacle, it is arresting; as a lesson, it is invaluable. A nation in decline is always more intriguing than a nation at the summit of its power. Sorrow and humility are always more attractive than triumph. But was this the case with Venice? There seems to have been very little sorrow, and no humility at all.

The reasons for the industrial decline of the city are many and various; they may be said to be part of changes in the human world as a whole. The discovery of new trade routes, and the emerging supremacy of Amsterdam and London in the late seventeenth century, have been cited as explanations. The merchants of England, Holland and France were able to undercut the prices of Venetian suppliers. The Venetian government refused to compromise on the quality of its luxury goods; its competitors had no such scruples. The cloths and metals of the north were cheaper. It was, in essence, the global transition from the Mediterranean to the North Atlantic. The compass of the world had changed. That is why in the seventeenth century the wool market, the staple of Venetian trade, was perilously close to collapse. The Venetians, too, were temperamentally averse to innovation; as we have already noticed, the patricians and merchants were traditionalists. The habits of control and regulation, born from the earliest communal fight of Venice to survive, could not be changed in a generation. Other economies were more open, and more flexible. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, therefore, Venetian industry had been curtailed.

Yet it cannot be said that the standards of living, among the various sections of the Venetian populace, were notably affected. Certainly it would be wrong to talk in anthropomorphic terms of “weakness” or “decay.” Perhaps, after all, talk of decline is unwarranted. There may simply be transition. Venice merely changed its nature, to deal with changing circumstances, and attained commercial success in a different guise. It is still a rich, and richly endowed, city. It is the home of biennales and of tourists. It has in effect marketed and sold its ultimate commodity—itself. Its history and memory have been transformed into luxury goods for the delectation of travellers and visitors. It traded in goods and in people; now, finally, it trades upon itself.

<p>14</p> <p>The Endless Drama</p>

Venice might be described as a series of box-like stages, opening out one into another. It is the merest cliché that it resembles a vast stage set, against which the citizens engaged in carnival and parade. The paintings of Carpaccio and of Longhi, the drawings of Jacopo Bellini, depict it as a form of sacred theatre; in the work of these Venetian artists the city is a tableau vivant, suffused with what W.D. Howells in Venetian Life described as “the pleasant improbability of the theatre.” The citizens are displayed in groups, with actions and attitudes taken from the stage or from the pageant. It has always been a place of artifice, where even the natural has a sprinkling of stage dust. It glitters. The houses and churches have the air of stage properties, sited for the convenience of the eye. The arches and the stairs are mere effects. The palace of the doge, and the basilica of Saint Mark, take their place before the proscenium of Saint Mark’s Square.

The pageant masters made full use of the square for floats and parades, mummeries and processions; on great state occasions, the theatrical possibilities of the city were exploited to the full. The square was also the stage on which acrobats and magicians performed. Puppet theatres were especially popular, in a city that was itself often described as a puppet show. Venice welcomed actors dressed in motley. There were even stages on the water, during the pageants and festivities. Stages were erected on the Grand Canal for the performance of serenatas. There were ornamental barges, too, for singers and musicians. The water was a perfect auditorium as well as a stage.

The façades of the Venetian churches were often eminently theatrical, with fantastic ornaments of stone loaded upon them; the curved mouldings vie with the contorted columns; volutes and pinnacles, capitals and cornices, are piled high in wedding-cake fashion. The church of S. Moise, built by Alessandro Tremignon in 1688, is a riot of whimsical excess. The more famous Salute invites awe rather than admiration. The religious services of Venice were theatrical in conception and execution, with music more suitable for an opera than for a sacred occasion; the congregation was an audience, chattering and gossiping through the proceedings, and the ritual was a performance. The recesses of the churches create an authentic air of mystery; the confused light and darkness, the brilliance of marble and precious stone, the air steeped in the perfume of incense, are all what Ruskin termed the “stage properties of superstition” in Venice. They are to be found in the basilica of Saint Mark, for example, which Ruskin considered to be of a theatrical nature “unexampled in any other European church.”

Yet the theatricality of Venice was sometimes a cause of complaint among Venetians themselves. When at the end of the sixteenth century new pillars were added to the square one senator, Federigo Contarini, compared them to theatre props. In the twenty-first century the newly rebuilt theatre, La Fenice, has been criticised by some Venetians as a contrived pastiche of the previous building destroyed by fire. Theatricality is everywhere.

The convents of Venice became a form of theatre, with the nuns sitting behind gratings watching the rest of Venice cavort before them; masked balls, with the characters of Pierrot and Harlequin, were performed for their delectation. The private trials of Venice were conceived in theatrical terms. During one hearing of the Inquisition the walls of the chamber were draped in black; the curtains were suddenly thrown back to reveal a strangled corpse. The deliberations of the council of ten depended upon surprise and suddenness. The head of the police in the late eighteenth century, Missier Grando, always dressed in black. The various receptions and meetings, conducted within the ducal palace, were occasions of intense theatricality. At an ambassador’s reception the doge sat wrapped in a golden cloak, with the various councillors ranged about him. Upon the death of a doge a great procession circled Saint Mark’s Square, each member carrying a large candle or torch; in front of the basilica the coffin was raised and lowered nine times while the bells of the city tolled. On Good Friday torches were lit beside the houses and palaces that lined the canals, so that all the waterways of Venice were illuminated by fiery reflections. The power of visual spectacle was more important to Venice than to any other European city.

There was a long history in Venice of collaboration between art and theatre. Jacopo Bellini was a pageant master and stage designer as well as an artist; at the time there would have been no need to distinguish his different roles. He was simply festaiuolo or organiser of festive play. The art of Veronese and of Tintoretto is in part the art of staging; theirs was an intensely theatrical vision. The work of Veronese was known as “maestoso teatro” or majestic theatre. He in turn has been associated with the great architects of Venice, Sansovino and Palladio, who share with the artist a sense of space and structure. When Sansovino redesigned the piazzetta in the sixteenth century he intuitively defined it as a stage set with a one-point perspective; from the bacino, the basin of water before it, the buildings on both sides diminish towards the “vanishing point” of the ornate clock tower. From the other direction, looking from the piazzetta towards the bacino, the two great pillars frame the watery landscape. Here some of the great set scenes of Venetian life were conducted. This was the site, for example, of the public executions. The rituals of Venice were surrounded by stage fire.

Tintoretto acquired the habit of placing small figurines, of wax or clay, in illuminated boxes. This was the brilliantly lit arena of his imagination, prior to his work on canvas. But the light is that of the stage spotlight. Tintoretto and Veronese also designed, and sketched, costumes for the stage. They needed to look no further than their canvases for inspiration. Tiepolo, too, revealed an interest in decorative costume; he also favoured exaggerated theatrical gesture and facial expression. The characters depicted in his paintings are often grouped together in the fashion of a dramatic chorus; they are earnest, purposeful and emotional. They have the bearing of actors, figures of commedia dell’arte under the impress of strong feeling.

This can only happen in a culture where no distinction is made between nature and art, between what is real and what is artificial. Or, rather, the distinction does not matter. The importance of anything lies in the gaiety and brilliance of its surface. Expression and activity are of more consequence than essence or being. That is perhaps an inevitable consequence of urban life, where everyone must signal his or her role. But it also seems peculiarly appropriate to Venice. Wagner, an adept at scenic mysteries, recognised the truth of the city at once. He remarked that “everything strikes one as a marvellous piece of stage-scenery,” and that this unreality created a “peculiar gaiety” that could not help but affect any visitor. The “chief charm,” he added, “consists in its all remaining as detached from me as if I were in the actual theatre.”

Detachment is the key. It is actually the reverse of what Coleridge once called “the willing suspension of disbelief.” We know that it is a real city, with real people, but we will proceed as if it were unreal. It was often noticed that the people of Venice were themselves detached from the world beyond their city. The government of Venice, by the eighteenth century, was considered too remote from the ordinary dealings of the world to be of any consequence. It was, you might say, trapped in its theatre. As the power of Venice declined in absolute terms, in that century, its capacity for life and display was never more exalted. The glorious past and the uncertain future were obscured by carnival and festival. This was not an isolated phase in the city’s history. During the Austrian siege of Venice in the early nineteenth century, when suffering and hardship and famine became the lot of all citizens, the people crowded on balconies and rooftops to watch the bombardment. The summits of the campanili and the towers of the churches were filled with Venetians bearing spy-glasses and telescopes so that they might more clearly see the destruction being inflicted upon their own city.

In foreign productions, as, for example, in the theatres of London, Venice was often viewed as a stage set. The Christmas pantomime at Drury Lane, in 1831, included a diorama entitled “Venice and its Adjacent Islands.” When Byron’s plays, Marino Faliero and The Two Foscari, were produced the stage sets were considered to be the most considerable element of the entertainment. When Charles Kean played Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, in 1858, the sets were praised for their realism. But what reality were they reflecting other than the theatrical image already in the public mind? This is the context for Edward Lear’s disappointment with the buildings of Venice, from which he derived “not one whit more of pleasure from seeing them there than in any of the many theatre scenes, dioramas, panoramas, and all other ramas whatever.” He knew them all already.

There is no scene in Venice that has not already been painted. There is no church, or house, or canal, that has not become the subject of an artist’s brush or pencil. Even the fruit in the market looks as if it has been stolen from a still-life. Everything has been “seen” before. The traveller seems to be walking through oils and water-colours, wandering across paper and canvas. It is no accident that Venice has also become a traditional setting for twentieth-century, and twenty-first-century, fiction or film. It is the natural home for the sensational and the melodramatic. Narratives of intrigue and mystery are commonly set in the calli and campi of the city, and Venice is the obvious setting for an international film festival. Venice is not so much a city as the representation of a city.

So what were the Venetians themselves but actors, characters against a celebrated backdrop? Henry James, in The Aspern Papers, described them as “members of an endless dramatic troupe.” There is the gondolier and the lawyer, in their characteristic costumes; there is the housewife and the beggar. All of these people live in public. They delight in self-expression. They share the same language of gesture and attitude. They talk continually. They describe and imitate one another. They watch one another against the background of little shops and houses. They live in an intense and circumscribed space. It is another example of the Venetian life of the surface, where the primacy lies with what is seen. Hence, in the last century of the republic, the sublime importance of the mask or bauta.

The transcripts of trials, now held in the abundant archives of Venice, demonstrate the extent to which instinctive and unforced drama entered social and domestic life. The demeanour, as well as the evidence, of the witnesses was recorded. One book-keeper was described as wiping his face with his handkerchief, and twisting himself about, under the strain of testimony. There were dramatic phrases in the courts. “I never wanted him. I said yes with my voice but not with my heart.” “I do not even talk with her or her friends, because they are not meat for my teeth.” It is reported that the actors who performed in the various campi were employed to coach witnesses in the arts of speech and gesture.

It is always possible to see urban life as a form of theatre. When Wordsworth described London, in the Prelude, he reached for theatrical metaphors; he wrote of “shifting pantomimic scenes” and “dramas of living Men.” London was for a him a “great Stage.” But Venice possessed these qualities in excelsis. The masquerades of the Carnival were participating in one giant dramatic performance of which the city was the centre. The spectators become part of the play, and the crowd swirls in and around this living theatre. The memoirs of that quintessential Venetian, Giacomo Casanova, demonstrate the facility with which life in the city can be turned into self-conscious and self-serving drama. The individual Venetian, without mask or cloak, can become a lithe performer. Goethe noticed a man by a quayside, telling stories in Venetian dialect to a small group of bystanders. “There was nothing obtrusive or ridiculous about his manner,” he wrote, “which was even rather sober; at the same time both the variety and precision of his gestures showed art and intelligence.”

Venetians delighted in costume. They sometimes seemed to be dressed up as actors playing in a particularly sophisticated city comedy, and in 1610 a volume of illustrations was published with the title Outfits of Venetian Men and Women. They had a keen eye for fashion and for striking colour. They manifested an almost child-like delight in dressing-up. The patrician women of Venice in particular loved sumptuous attire. Indeed they seem to have been almost obliged to do so by the state. For one feast in honour of the French ambassadors, in 1459, the senate ordered all female guests to arrive in bright clothing and to wear as many jewels as possible. The appearance of wealth, and luxury, was all that mattered.

Evelyn described the garb of Venetian women as “very odd, as seeming allwayes in Masquerade.” Fynes Morisson gave a more graphic description, noting that they “shew their naked necks and breasts, and likewise their dugges, bound up and swelling with linen.” Their hats boasted many accessories, including butterflies and flowers and stuffed birds. But this was the Venetian talent for outward show. It seems, from certain allusions, that it was not customary to change under-garments very frequently. They were scrupulous in one respect, however. They wore veils, white for the young and black for the middle-aged or the old. But the Venetian women were most notorious, and conspicuous, for their shoes or zoccoli. These were effectively stilts, as much as eighteen inches (457 mm) in height, upon which they were balanced by attendants. They looked like giants in a pantomime. Venetian women were said to be half of flesh and half of wood. The preposterous footwear has been explained by the muddiness of the streets, or by the Venetian male restriction on female roaming. It also allowed the presence of gaudy or decorative trains. It is more likely, however, to have been a fashion that got out of control. It might be mentioned, in passing, that Venetian women had the general practice of dyeing their hair yellow. One of the ingredients in the process was human urine.

But the quest for la bella figura ran among both genders and among all classes. The women of the poorer sort wore simple gowns and shawls, but they had a liking for small rings of chain which they wore around their wrists and necks. The fishermen wore large brown hooded cloaks complete with scarlet lining. The gondoliers wore white shoes and red sashes. Female servants wore frocks of dark brown or peacock blue. The beggars were self-consciously picturesque, and would often wear a cloak in imitation of the richer citizens. The working men dressed in blue tunics, with wide sleeves narrowed at the wrists, and the trousers that were first worn in Venice became known as “Venetians” or “pantaloons.” The favourite colour of the people was azure blue, translated as turchino, and known to Cassiodorus in the sixth century as the “Venetian colour.” It was possible, from the dress of each Venetian, to know his exact position in the political hierarchy.

The patricians obeyed strict rules in all matters of dress. Only the doge was permitted to wear gold. He also had the widest sleeves, since the width of the sleeve was a mark of status. The Venetian patricians wore sober black gowns as an image of their presence as perpetual guardians of the state. They were the priests of the polity. Those of higher rank dressed in scarlet or violet or purple; the members of the senate, for example, wore purple. But these, too, are grave and official colours. Over their gowns they wore hooded cloaks. They also wore black caps or bereti. Since the priests, the more important citizens, the doctors and the lawyers of Venice also wore black it is not difficult to see a city dressed in mourning. Many of the women, poor and patrician, also wore black. It was essentially a uniform or, in other words, a costume with which to express uniformity.

The long robe also impeded quick movement, so that the walk of the patrician was generally slow and deliberate. In 1611 Thomas Coryat, the English traveller, recorded how “they give a low congie to each other by very civil and courteous gestures, as by bending of their bodies and clapping their right hand upon their breasts.” So black was the colour of gravity. Black was the colour of anonymity. Black also held elements of intimidation. It represented death and justice. The predilection for black lasted a thousand years, its endurance a measure of the intense conservatism in all matters of Venetian social custom. Indeed the taste has lingered. It is not wonderful to see, in the streets of twenty-first-century Venice, young men wearing large black capes. There is still something odd, something theatrical, about the dress of contemporary Venetians.

There was one group of Venetians who showed off tremendously. The young patricians of the Renaissance city belonged to one of the numerous city clubs or calza guilds, from the Triumphanti to the Valorosi, the Immortali to the Principali. The hose or calza on the right leg was sewn with gold and silver, and besparkled with pearls and jewels; it was drawn over tightly fitting breeches and reached the hip. It was set off by a doublet of velvet worn over a flowing shirt of silk. Their long golden hair was, as often as not, dyed. And then there was the perfume. It might be expected, in a most unnatural city, that everything was scented—hats, shirts, socks, handkerchiefs. Even the money was scented.

The calza guilds were best known for their presentation of theatrical performances, for fêtes or wedding celebrations, at which the young men and young women (known as compagne) excelled. “We wore the stocking of the club,” one of them, Giacomo Contarini, wrote to his brother in January 1441, “as well as mantles of Alexandrian velvet brocaded with silver, doublets of crimson velvet with open sleeves, zones of the same colour, and squirrel fur linings, on our heads caps alla Sforzesca.” Sforzesca can be interpreted as in the style of Francesco Sforza, a celebrated condottiero or leader of mercenaries; before his success it had been the fashion in Venice to wear hats à la Carmagnola, after the name of a renowned general. It is an indication of the Venetian love of the trivial and the triumphant, all expressed in the most theatrical possible manner.

The Venetian patrician, at his noblest, had a long aquiline nose and high cheek-bones; he was the statesman as ascetic. His skin was the palest white. But a singular change can be dated precisely to 1529. In that year Venetian men began to cut their hair short, and to wear beards. Before that time they had worn their hair long, and beards were only allowed as a sign of mourning. Once one or two tentatively made the change, all the others duly followed. There were other and more general changes. By the late sixteenth century, for example, costumes became looser and fuller where once they had been stylised and close-fitting. The reasons are obscure, buried somewhere in the human appetite for novelty and transformation. It is no part of our purpose to write a history of fashion. It is important only to recognise that, for Venetian men and women, clothing was essentially dramatic costume.

In the eighteenth century criers walked through the streets of Venice, calling out the casts and performance times of the latest plays. Venetians were known throughout Europe for their love of theatre. It was a passion that touched all classes, from the gondolier to the patrician, and is nowhere more evident than in the extraordinary success of commedia dell’arte. This form of improvised comedy first emerged in the Veneto of the sixteenth century although its ancient origins, whether in classical drama or festive ritual, seem undeniable. One of its principal figures was Pantaleone or Pantalone, a Venetian name attached to the recognisably Venetian figure of a sprightly if sometimes foolish old merchant. (Venice was effectively ruled by old men.) He was dressed in a red costume and black cape with red Turkish slippers, as token of the fact that he traded with the East. Thus the sixth age of man, according to Jaques in As You Like It, is represented by “the lean and slipper’d pantaloon.” He always spoke in Venetian dialect. It has been surmised that his name comes from a corruption of pianta leone, to plant the lion, in reference to the lion of Saint Mark on the flag of Venetian merchants. His besetting vice is that of avarice, the avarice of the wealthy man who fears to lose what he has rather than that of the poor man who wishes for more. He is fearful, a pacifist who nonetheless wishes to conquer the world by trade, jealous of everything, a fanatical patriot, desperate wooer and miser, high-principled but subtle, so fearful of being gulled that he runs headlong into situations that will guarantee his gulling. He represents Venice’s uneasy conscience.

From Pantaloon, too, springs the name of pantomime; we have Venice to thank for a still popular English art. The characters of the commedia were indeed pantomimic figures, with Arlecchino in his chequerboard costume and Doctor Graziano in his black robe. The female parts were played by young men. They wore masks, and spoke in Venetian dialect mixed with Greek and Slavonic words. Arlecchino spoke in the dialect of Bergamo, the town in Lombardy from which many of the porters and labourers of Venice came. The actors were shown the scenario of the play but, as soon as they stepped onto the temporary stage, they invented the dialogue with a wit and vitality that were wholly native. They were often obscene, and always playful. They engaged in fevered and acrobatic dances to the accompaniment of the lute and guitar.

The performers of the commedia were not averse to mocking contemporaries and contemporary types. The audiences for these comedies could recognise themselves. They screamed with laughter, and applauded, and cheered, whenever a familiar allusion was made. There were courtesans among the characters of the commedia, and many courtesans among the audiences. The themes of these improvised plays—unhappy children, miserly fathers, disloyal servants—were the stuff of Venetian social life. It was a curious mixture of magniloquence and parody, loud lamentation and broad farce. These were plays about play-acting. It can be called the comedy of mercantile capitalism, similar in spirit to the “city comedies” of early seventeenth-century London. Comedy thus became the mirror of the world.

And then of course it spilled over into the perception of real people and real events. Some of the cases conducted before the courts of Venice have the ingredients of a farcical sketch. A French diplomat of the early seventeenth century mocked the grave Venetian statesmen of the period as “these pantaloons.” So there may have perhaps been something risible about the spectacle of these solemn figures all secretly pursuing profit for themselves.

The Venetian people were themselves often derided as pantaloni. Byron noticed, too, the “naivete and Pantaloon humour” of the Venetians. There is still a phrase in Venice, paga pantalon; Pantalon pays, meaning the state or the taxpayer pays. Casanova records how he donned the costume of Pierrot, “assuming the gait of a booby.” In the masquerades of the Carnival, you had to maintain the character of the person whose costume you had donned. The early visitors to the Carnival noted that the local citizens liked to dress up as the natives of other countries. A Venetian could become an actor without a moment’s hesitation.

It has sometimes been suggested that out of the songs and scenes of the commedia emerged the opera itself. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Venice became the first centre of opera in Europe. The opera and the commedia embody the spirit and attitudes of the people. They come out of the same circumstances, and fulfil the same desires. Both arts spring from the spectacle inherent in the religious and civic rituals of the people. The popularity of opera in Venice is of course well documented. Never has an art so suited the temperament of the people. The first public opera house in the world was created in Venice; in 1637 the patrician Tron family opened one within the premises of its grand house, and began to charge entrance fees for all who flocked there. A second opera house opened two years later and, within fifty years, there were seven of them. For librettists and composers there was now a flourishing trade. The post of the impresario was born. Dancers and singers were hired under contract. The structure of the opera itself became standardised, with each of the principal singers awarded five arias, and it was manufactured as quickly and as proficiently as a glass vase on Murano or a ship in the Arsenal. Between 1680 and 1743, 582 separate operas were produced and staged.

Opera flourished in Venice because, in many respects, it was an urban art. It was an art of contrast and heterogeneity in a city filled with contrasts between rich and poor, squalor and splendour; it was an art of the scenic and spectacular, in a city filled with the energetic display of festival and carnival. Opera is concerned with external life, life on display, with the great general drama of the human spirit taken up in music and in song. Opera has to do with energy and splendour, with ritual and melodrama. It was thoroughly Venetian. It also sustained the myth of Venice. There were operas in which Venice was hailed as a new Troy or a new Rome; there were operas that dramatised the origins of Venice among the exiles; many of the stage sets were of Venice itself. The audiences clapped, and whistled, and yelled. The gondoliers obtained free entrance; they applauded by stamping their feet and uttering loud cries of “Bravo!” Once they had heard a favourite aria, they would stamp their feet so loudly that the singer would be obliged to return to the stage with a reprise. After the aria was over, flowers would rain down from the boxes, together with scraps of paper on which laudatory poems had been written. There were even occasions when doves, with bells around their necks, were released within the opera house. One traveller noted the reaction of a Venetian patrician in his box. “Ah! Cara! Mi butto, mi butto!” Oh my darling, I’ll jump, I’ll jump!

Venetian stagecraft was renowned throughout Europe for its subtlety and elaboration. John Evelyn noted with approval “a variety of scenes painted and contrived with no less art of perspective, and machines for flying in the aire, and other wonderful notions; taken together, it is one of the most magnificent and expensive diversions the wit of man can invent.” This fascination with the marvels of stagecraft was of a piece with the Venetian predilection for fairy-tale plots and Oriental settings. There were shipwrecks and sea-monsters, fire-breathing dragons emerging from the depths and classical deities gently lowered from the sky. The “cloud machines” of Venice were especially praised. It was art as play.

Burckhardt, in The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, quotes one Venetian to the effect that “the fame of the scenic arrangements (apparati) brought spectators from far and near.” But he went on to note that the skill and effectiveness of these engines of display were used only for “comedies and other cheerful entertainments.” Scenic display had helped to kill tragedy. There never has been room for tragedy in Venice.

The first European theatre, specifically built for the production of plays, was erected in Venice in 1565. By the end of the seventeenth century there were eighteen public theatres, a large number catering for a population that was never more than 150,000. In the same period London possessed only six, and Paris only ten, theatres. In the sixteenth century, according to the Italian composer Girolamo Parabosco, the citizens “would climb walls, break open doors, or swim the canals to force their way into the place where some famous comedian was acting.”

The members of the audience were as much part of the play as the players. They gossiped, and laughed, and even gambled, through the course of the drama. People moved from box to box in search of conversation and entertainment. The noise of their chatter was compared to that of a bush filled with birds. The lighting was always dim, and the boxes were almost wholly dark; the desks of the musicians were illuminated by candles of Spanish wax, and the stage was lighted by lamps fed with olive oil. The spectators in the boxes spat upon the spectators in the pit. This was a custom endured with good spirit. Those in the pit were allowed to wear hats; those in the boxes were not given that privilege. The gondoliers, the favourite sons of Venice, entered free of charge, as in the opera houses. They in turn set up claques for particular actors or particular playwrights. They were often bribed to clap, or to jeer, on cue. Others merely waited at the back, with lanterns, for their masters. Between the acts vendors would pass among the people, selling oranges and biscuits, aniseed water and chestnuts, coffee and ices.

The curtain would rise upon a classical temple, a forest, or a royal palace. There would be processions and parades, banquets and battles. But there was one favourite subject. It was the city itself. The whole audience cheered any and every allusion to Venice, and they were delighted by amorous or mercenary dramas set in the streets and houses of the city. It was an intensely local drama. The spectators loved, in particular, the more reassuring emotions of family life. If a character or scene violated the decorum of real life, the audience would object in the most strenuous manner. Goethe witnessed a production which was stopped by the spectators when a young man was supposed to kill his wife with a sword; the actor then stepped forward, apologised, and confirmed that the scene would after all end happily. Were they not, after all, part of one big if not entirely happy family?

This is nowhere more evident than in the work of the most famous of all Venetian playwrights, Carlo Goldoni. His was the comedy of Venetian social life. He held a mirror up to Venetian nature. It was so congenial to him that, in one year, he completed sixteen three-act comedies; in the course of his theatrical career from 1734 to 1776, he wrote 250 plays. Like his compatriots Tintoretto and Titian and Vivaldi, he worked at high speed. He was filled with verve and energy. In the language of business, he managed a quick turnover. He began by writing formulaic dramas established upon the pattern of the commedia, and then by happy instinct migrated to the mild comedy of Venetian life. He captivated his public with portraits of gondoliers and of servants, of shopkeepers and housewives. Everything was staged on an intimate scale, with that compactness and neatness intrinsic to the Venetian character. The typical setting is the campiello or little square; the background is of familiar shops and houses. He reproduced the language and the manners of the people with the utmost fidelity. The larger world is of no consequence to his characters. In one of his comedies a Londoner talks of the canals of his city, with the suggestion that Goldoni believed London to resemble Venice. His characters do not concern themselves, either, with the politics of their city. That was a task left to others. They comprise a small group of people who steer their way through quarrels, misunderstandings, and awkward domestic moments. Households and families become unstable for a moment; then they steady themselves and sail on.

The first stage directions of The Fan, one of his most famous comedies, reveal a wholly Venetian scene.

Evarist and the Baron sit towards the front at a little table drinking coffee, Limonato serves them, Crispino is cobbling in his booth, near to him Coronato sitting beside his door, writing in a notebook. The Boots cleans the restaurant windows. Geltrude and Candida on the terrace, knitting. To the right Tognino is sweeping the square. Nina is spinning before her house door, beside her stands Moracchio holding two hunting dogs by a cord. Every now and again Timoteo puts his head out of the pharmacy; in the background Susanna, sewing before her shop.

It is a perfect miniature.

Goldoni was true to the spirit of the people, too, in his ability to see the absurd aspect of serious things. There was much mockery, and some impertinence, but no malice, in his humour. There is no violence upon his stage. Goldoni carefully refrained from the frank obscenity of the earlier commedia. His characters idle and gossip; they are lively, and witty; they talk about the latest play and the most recent scandal. They are very interested in money. But they are generally amiable and convivial. All of these qualities may be said to be characteristic of the Venetian temperament in the first half of the eighteenth century.

There is no inwardness. There are no meditations or monologues. We may call Goldoni’s drama superficial, therefore, but it is not meant to be anything else. It is a drama of surfaces. The Venetians on the stage are not properly individualised; they think, and act, like a community. They are not known for their eccentricities. They express no great passions. Everyone is affected by the same sentiments, and has much the same identity. That is why Goldoni’s comedies are couched in the genial poetry of domesticity. They do not record the exploits and sensibilities of outstanding individuals or aberrant types. All is light and graceful. Goldoni celebrated the inherent dignity of ordinary human nature.

And what, then, were the characteristics of the Venetians themselves? They were universally reported to be cheerful, with an innate gaiety and spontaneity of address. Henry James believed that they “have at once the good fortune to be conscious of few wants” and thus allowed their lives to be measured by “sunshine and leisure and conversation.” They had a freedom of manner, although it is something of a paradox that they were governed by one of the most severe systems of government in Europe. There may be some connection between public discipline and private liberty. George Sand described them as a “gay, unthinking people, so witty and so full of song.”

They were also described as frivolous, mercurial and naive. That may be the darker aspect of gaiety. They were considered, by other Italian city-states, as inept and unreliable. They were deemed to be fickle and unjust. They had a propensity to forget even the most recent and the most grave misfortunes. It may be the forgetfulness of excessive vivacity. The naivety, however, may have been characteristic of the people rather than of the patricians. By the government they were treated almost as children. Hence their trust of the state, and the climate of submissiveness in which they seemed to flourish. Addison believed that the senate of Venice encouraged sports and factions among the “common people” in order to preserve the safety of the republic.

They were, then, ambiguous. They were difficult to “read.” Ambiguity, reflecting the ambiguous status of a city on the water, may be the key. In the eighteenth century a nun could also be a prostitute. A gondolier might be a very wealthy man. A richly clad patrician might have no money. Albrecht Dürer reported that among them were “the most faithless, lying thievish rascals, such as I could scarcely believed could exist on earth; and yet if one did not know them, one would think that they were the nicest men on earth.” It could be argued that this is true of humankind in general, under whatever sky, but in a city of masks and secrets this ambiguity becomes manifold and pervasive. It becomes more intense.

It is certainly the source of the charge of duplicity that was always being levelled against them. They possessed a talent for dissimulation in their dealings with other states, and indeed with each other in the business of law and government. They disguised their greed with the semblance of honesty and piety; they hid their guile under the mask of polity. It became their nature, in the phrase of one English observer, “to sew a piece of Fox tayle to the skinne of S.Mark’s Lyon.” There were many stories of their duplicity. When the king of Hungary came to Venice, in the fifteenth century, he begged the body of Saint Paul the Hermit from the canons of the church of S. Zulian. They did not wish to offend the sovereign, and so they gave him the body of one of the Grimani family. The Hungarians then worshipped this worthless body as a holy relic.

The city of masks was adept at the art of concealment. That is why the Venetians were always polite, evincing what was known as their characteristic dolce maniera; they were celebrated for their good manners. They were formal and reserved in their public demeanour, perhaps recalling the Venetian proverb that “he who loves foreigners loves the wind.” There was a certain courtliness, from which the Venetian patrician could keep his distance. The memoirs and records suggest that they were courteous, and composed, even in their private dealings. They loved form, and surface, above everything. In company Venetians were observed to be “stiff,” relying entirely upon propriety and correctness of behaviour. Unlike other Italians, for example, they were not known for extravagance of gesture or language. There were certain significant catch-phrases adoped in the official texts of the city. Councillors were called “prudentes et cauti,” prudent and cautious; an officer of state was “sapiens et circumspectus vir,” wise and circumspect. They were pious, for example, but they were not zealots. Savonarola would not have been welcomed in Venice.

Their humour, however, was unambiguously coarse. There is a Venetian saying to the effect that, if you want to laugh, talk about shit. The statue of one famous and over-productive author, Niccolò Tommaseo, is known as el cacalibri or book-shitter. The vulgarity, as in England, has much to do with a culture of practicality and common sense. There was, for example, a certain harsh realism in their statecraft. In this “romantic” city there were few romantics. The humour is often at the expense of hypocrisy and pretence; it was often dark and, on occasions, bitter or savage. The Venetians were great deflaters of the pompous or the preening. This may have been the instinctive reaction of a population inured to the hypocrisies or pious pretences of public life. It was a way of striking back, of showing that they were not really fooled.

<p>15</p> <p>Wheels within Wheels</p>

In 1605 Venice was described as “the summary of the universe,” because all that the world contained could be found somewhere within it; if the world were a ring, then Venice was its jewel. It is in some respects the model city, the ultimate city defying nature and the natural world. It is the most urban of cities, occupying a realm of meaning very different from those communities rooted on earth and soil. As such it offers lessons to other cities. Lewis Mumford, in The City in History (1961), notes that “if the civic virtues of Venice had been understood and imitated, later cities would have been better planned.” The system of transport, for example, with the fast Grand Canal cutting across the slower-moving smaller canals, was a model of its kind. The waters of the lagoon have also ensured that the city remained of a manageable size; it did not sprawl, and its only suburbs were the other islands that had an intrinsic life of their own.

It has also become a paradigm of European culture. One may claim plausibly that the first industrial revolution occurred in Venice rather than in England, with the management of shipbuilding, glass-making and mirror-making. It was the first centre of commodity capitalism, the focal point of a vast urban network that spread across Europe and the Near East; it was a city dependent upon, and also sustaining, other cities. It represented a new form of civilisation that had moved from agrarian to mercantile life. It has always been an emblematic place. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, for example, it was interpreted as the ultimate city—perverse, unnatural, reducing its population to servile status. In our own century it may also be classified as the first post-modern city, the city as game. In that sense Venice may be the harbinger of a common human destiny.

Its polity itself became a model for others. Hobbes wrote his Leviathan after an extended residence in Venice; that book has in turn been seen as an apologia for the burgeoning market economy. The political reformers of the puritan Commonwealth, in the seventeenth century, looked towards Venice as a viable model of a modern republic. So did the founding fathers of the United States.

The administration of the state was paradigmatic in another sense. It became the model for all other forms of rule and order in the city. The election procedures of the guilds were established upon the elaborate rules for the election of a doge. The meeting halls of the fraternities were based upon the halls of the ducal palace, and were similarly decorated with historical and mythical painting. The diamond lozenges on the façade of the ducal palace are locked into a mesh. Venetian madrigals of the sixteenth century are known for their complex of overlapping voices, each singer distinctly heard in a dense and undulating body of sound.

The topography of the city itself—with its small bridges, canals and narrow calli—reflects the intricacy and interlinked dependency of republican institutions. The multiplication of magistracies and agencies, in the supervision of Venice, was often described as “labyrinthine” as the streets and alleys themselves. The members of the various committees were replaced every six months or every twelve months, giving a shifting pattern to the polity much like that of the movement of the sea. Did the territory determine the polity, or did the polity form the territory? It is an unanswerable question, so deeply implicated in the origins of human behaviour that it must for ever remain unresolved.

So what was the secret of this polity that crept into every feature of Venetian social life? Dudley Carleton, the English ambassador in Venice in the early seventeenth century, had an analogy with one of the commodities the city traded. The republic “is a clock going with many wheels, and making small motions, sometimes out of order, but soon mended, and all without change or variety.” These wheels, and wheels within wheels, were the various organs of the state.

The earliest guardians of Venice, from the first settlement of the lagoon, were the tribunes of the various islands; they were elected annually. Yet this loose structure proved unworkable, and in 697 the first doge was elected; Paoluccio Anafesto was chosen and acclaimed by all the people in a general assembly on the island of Heraclea. It was believed that the spirit of republican Rome had been reborn. Yet, as in Rome, the power of certain leading families was used to destroy any incipient democratic spirit. Only the rich and powerful merited the awards of office. In the tenth and eleventh centuries there were many feuds between the aristocratic families; doges were assassinated or expelled from office. In the middle of the twelfth century a group of officials was formed to help and advise the doge. It was known as the “commune,” although it had none of the revolutionary implications of the later use of that word.

It was not enough. At the end of the twelfth century a council of the aristocratic families was formally instituted to check the activities of the doge. It was they who now elected the leader, and the doge was merely presented to the people for their “approval.” He came upon the balcony to the words “This is your doge, if so it please you.” At a later time even this acknowledgement of the power of the people was removed. There were further restrictions placed upon the nature of government. In 1297 a law was passed that allowed access to the great council only to those patrician gentlemen whose fathers or paternal grandfathers had already sat in the body. It was to be an exclusive club, and Venice became an hereditary aristocracy. By 1423 the nomenclature of the commune had been dropped, and the state was for ever after known as dominio o signoria signifying power or lordship.

So by the beginning of the fifteenth century the essential structure of Venetian government was shaped and determined. There were some constitutional changes in the sixteenth century, but the principles remained the same until the end of the republic in 1797. It was as if eighteenth-century England were still governed by the polity of Richard II and Henry IV.

This structure had evolved over many centuries and, like the mammalian life of Australia, it was a unique phenomenon born out of relative isolation. It was made up of a series of councils and official bodies, each of which participated in some kind of mystical unity like the threefold divinity of the Trinity. At the base of a complex and striated pyramid was the general assembly, which met only to ratify essential legislation. Above them lay the great council, which in theory elected the various magistracies, the members of the lesser councils, and the doge himself. The councils included “the forty,” a specialised body of patricians, and the ducal councillors. The members of these councils comprised the senate. At the top of the pile stood the doge. It would tax the reader too far to elaborate further upon the wearisome and complex organisation of the various councils and assemblies and magistracies. It was scarcely understood by the Venetians themselves.

But an insight can be gained into the labyrinthine Venetian mind by describing the process by which a doge was elected. On the morning of the election the youngest member of the Signoria, one branch of the administration, fell on his knees to pray in the basilica; then he went out into Saint Mark’s Square, and stopped the first boy whom he met. This child then became the ballotino, who drew the nomination slips from the urn in the ducal palace. In the first ballot the great council chose thirty of its members. In a second vote nine were chosen out of this original thirty. In turn the nine chose forty, each of whom had to receive seven nominations. A new ballot would then reduce this forty to twelve, who voted for twenty, who voted for nine, who voted for forty-five, who voted for eleven. These eleven then voted for forty-one. The final forty-one voters would then elect the doge. No more cumbersome and intricate procedure could have been devised. Its only purpose was to eliminate individual chicanery and special interests, but it suggests an almost obsessive preoccupation with communal solidarity.

The cohesiveness was maintained by a myriad of overlapping powers and offices; this fostered a sense of equilibrium, so important in the floating city, and of adaptability. It also afforded a measure of judicial oversight. It was government by debate and by committee. What it lacked in novelty and excitement, it made up for in prudence and continuity. It was patient, and it was thorough. That was why it endured. The rapid turnover of magistracies, most of them lasting for only six months, meant that the patricians were trained very quickly in various fields of administration. There was inevitably inefficiency and confusion, together with a bewildering number of bureaucratic procedures, but they were considered to be a price worth paying for good order. The secret of success, perhaps, lay in the curious fact that no one could really know where true power resided. There was no single authority.

Venice was in name a republic, but in practice it is best described as a plutocracy. Only one hundred familes were allowed to participate in the government; the citizens and the popolani, or lower class, were excluded. The polity also had all the features of a gerontocracy. Patricians under the age of forty were excluded from the senate; in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the average age of a doge on the day of his election was seventy-two. The doges were always older than the popes, the only other office in Italy where the leader was elected for life. This might be an advertisement for the healthy air of the republic, but it is also a reflection of the emphasis that the Venetians placed on tradition and experience. The road to leadership, being a long one, required patience and obedience; the length of service to the republic fostered conformity and compromise. It was also a precautionary measure. No doge would rule for a very long time, or acquire too much power. The military commanders, and the principal members of the government, were old. Domenico Contarini, for example, was seventy-five when he was elected general of the Venetian forces in 1526. He was not exceptional. A government of young men—we may take as an example the medieval English monarchy—creates a culture of impassioned fervour, of sudden violence and intense rivalry. None of these occurred in Venice.

There were rivalries, of course. In the last decades of the sixteenth century there were tensions between the representatives of the “old” families, dating from the first years of the republic, and of the “new” families who had arrived at a somewhat later date. The “new” families were opposed to the encroaching power of the council of ten and wished to refurbish the trade of Venice by finding new markets. There was in fact a gradual change of emphasis, in the administration of the city, but it was a slow and cumulative process. There was no descent into party or faction. Everyone depended on everyone else to maintain the smooth working of the governmental machine. No individual ambition, or familial rivalry, was allowed to undermine the safety of the state.

Corruption was general and widespread. “Every office,” Marino Sanudo wrote in October 1530, “is filled for money.” It was common for rivals vying for a particular post to come into the great council carrying bags of gold. “Loans” were offered to individual electors. There was an old Venetian saying that to give a favour is to receive a favour. There were over eight hundred offices to be filled in the city, and a major preoccupation of the patrician class lay in lobbying for position; this was especially true of the poorer members of the governing class, known as the svizzeri after the Swiss mercenaries, who had no other source of income or status. Legislation was continually passed against electoral corruption, and the intricate procedures for the choice of even the most minor official were designed to circumvent the more obvious forms of bribery. But the elaborate precautions are themselves significant. They suggest a deep awareness of the possibility of corruption. A city that is deeply corrupted will go to extraordinary lengths to seem incorruptible.

The word for plot and chicanery, imbroglio, derives from the very topography of Venice. The brolo or broglio was the garden laid out before the ducal palace. Here the patricians would walk, and plot their latest moves. It was the place for lobbying and for intrigue, where a smile or the tug of a sleeve was the only necessary sign.

The doge, therefore, was the most senior member of the government. In the earliest times he wore a biretta or bonnet, like the ancient kings of Phrygia. He was dressed in a mantle of silk fringed with gold, and secured by golden buttons. His shoes and stockings were red. He was elected for life, but he was surrounded by restrictions and regulations. There would be no Caesar in Venice. The doge could not open his own mail. He could not receive foreign visitors in private. He could not discuss matters of policy without consulting his councillors. He could not leave the city without permission. He could not even travel in the city without gaining approval. He could not buy expensive jewellery, or own property outside Venetian territory. He could not display the ducal arms beyond the confines of the ducal palace. He was never to be called “my lord” but only “messer doge” or “sir lord.” No one was to kneel before him, or to kiss his hand. It was said that he was essentially a “tavern sign” swinging in the wind. The more true power he forfeited, the more he was loaded with pomp and ceremony.

Yet he possessed power of a kind. He was after all the figurehead of the state. Sir Henry Wotton declared that “like the sun he doth effect all his purposes in radio obliquo, not by direct authority.” He presided over all the elective councils, including those of the senate, the great council and the council of ten; he was the general supervisor of all the organs of government. He had to preside twice a week at public audiences, and his ceremonial duties were onerous. He was the symbolic representative of the Venetian state. In a literal sense he embodied the health of the nation. His dress, and demeanour, were scrutinised for any change of emphasis. When during a debate on the conduct of a difficult war the doge left his seat in order to urinate, his action caused a sensation. But part of his power lay elsewhere. He knew all the secrets of the city.

On his death the same formulaic words were pronounced. “With much displeasure we have heard of the death of the most serene prince, a man of such goodness and piety; however, we shall make another.” The signet ring was removed from his finger and broken in half. The dead doge’s family had to leave the palace within three days, and their furniture was removed. Three inquisitors were appointed to scrutinise all the actions of the doge and, if necessary, to punish his heirs for any fraudulence or wrongdoing. Only in that way could the state resist the rise of powerful families.

The doge was the patrician among the patricians. The social strucure of Venice was in essence very simple. The patricians comprised 4 per cent of the population; the citizens represented a further 6 per cent; the rest, approximately nine tenths of the population, were simply the people or popolani. Each group had its own functions, and its own privileges. It was a highly structured and deeply hierarchical society—a society of legally defined estates and orders—made up of a number of interlocking networks and affinities bound together for the greater glory of God and the city.

Yet how was it possible that 10 per cent could effectively master and control 90 per cent of the population? They bribed them; they deceived them; they created internal rivalries; they consoled them for their lack of power by weaving myths of origin and identity. It is the story of human history itself.

We may begin with the largest number of the Venetians. The popolani were made up of tradesmen, artisans and labourers, and the poor. They formed a social, rather than an economic, category; so there were differences in wealth between the popolo grande, the richer landowners and merchants, and the shopkeepers or artisans of the popolo minuto. There were so many local variations, in fact, that we cannot entertain a description of “the people” in any political sense. There was no feeling of “solidarity.” As the Spanish ambassador put it in 1618, the popolani “is made up of so many elements that I do not think it can ever start a riot, even though it is large enough to occupy and fill the whole of Venice.” The people were generally believed to be loyal and tractable, with an affection for their native city that far outweighed any tendency to protest or rebel.

There were other good reasons for the maintenance of social order and stability among the people. There was always enough cheap food, except on unusual occasions of emergency and famine, and through the centuries the wages of the workers maintained a relatively high level. There was none of the endemic distress, for example, that characterised the lower class of Paris or London. It would have been impossible to write Les Misérables in Venice.

The people could be fierce, however, but only with one another. The poorer people, the fishermen and the gondoliers and the servants and the labourers, formed two great factions across the city known as “the Castellani” (also named the “Arsenalotti”) and “the Nicolotti.” It was an ancient division, born from the enmity between the federated townships of the Veneto, Jesolo and Heraclea, from which the Venetian settlers first came. Well into the twentieth century the Nicolotti wore a black cap and a black sash around the waist, while the Castellani wore red. The Nicolotti also had their own version of political power, since from the fourteenth century they had acquired the custom of electing their own leader known as the gastaldo grande who was solemnly taken in procession to greet the doge in the ducal palace. The Arsenalotti had their own privileges. The workers of the Arsenal were deputed to stand guard when the general council was in session, and they acted as a bodyguard for the doge. By these means the popolani were drawn into the life of the state. So the Venetian people were not accustomed to, and indeed had a hatred for, political sedition.

Their territories were clearly divided, with the Castellani to the east and the Nicolotti to the west, centred around the parishes of S. Pietro di Castello and S. Nicolò dei Mendicoli. The boundaries were a clear indication of the fact that in the earliest days the city itself was a collection of independent communities. One church straddled the common frontier, S. Trovaso, but the Castellani entered by the south door and the Nicolotti by the west door. There were often street fights between the two factions, tolerated by the government on the assumption of “divide and rule”; by fighting among themselves, they minimised the chances of general urban riot against the authorities. In a series of battles, in 1639, over forty combatants were killed. But in succeeding years these encounters were gradually turned into staged games and contests such as the regattas. In true Venetian fashion aggression was softened into ritual.

The popolani had no political power, but they enjoyed a different version of hierarchy and degree in the membership of guilds or confraternities. All of the ordinary occupations of trading life had their representative organisation. There were over a hundred of them, registered in the thirteenth century, and they offered exclusive rights for dyers and coopers, masons and carpenters, rope-makers and fruiterers. There were guilds of hemp-spinners and fustian-weavers, two hundred altogether throughout the city maintaining an intricate occupational web that kept every worker in his or her place. So it was a covert way of maintaining control of the working population.

Like other medieval guilds throughout Europe, they were exclusive and hierarchical. They moved against strangers or foreigners working in the city; they laid down standards of good practice, and punished those who ignored them. They had their own officers, and their own courts; they organised the markets and, perhaps most importantly, they provided financial support for any member who was out of work for reasons of accident and illness. No male Venetian could practise his craft without joining the appropriate guild. No man could join his guild without first swearing an oath of allegiance to the city, but of course no member of the guild had any status in the political life of the republic. It is pertinent and significant that none of the most important professions, such as lawyers and merchants, had or needed to have guilds in order to protect their interests. The state performed that role for them.

The guilds maintained the “rights” of the workers, but they were also insistent upon the duties involved. They had, for example, to furnish conscripts for service in the galleys. Through the agency of the guilds, too, the state could enforce discipline within the various trades. The guilds were also brought into the devotional life of the state by becoming involved in specific religious rituals and processions. They adopted certain saints as their patrons or patronesses, before whose shrines they would light candles on days of festival. By these means the morality of state power was enshrined in popular consciousness. So were the independence and the status of the workers, as maintained by the guilds, part of some grand illusion? It all depends on the observer.

The trades of the popolani were, in a literal sense, one of the pillars of Venetian life. The two pillars of the piazzetta, holding up Saint Mark’s lion and Saint Theodore, had on their granite bases carved images of the workers of the city—the wine-sellers, the cattle-dealers, the smiths, the fishermen, the basket-makers, the butchers, the fruiterers, all had their place. These images have now been effaced by time and weather. Like their counterparts on the Venetian streets, they have disappeared. The craftsmen of Venice have now become so many tourist shows.

When the trades marched in procession to greet a new doge, they arranged themselves in predetermined order; the glass-blowers led the way, followed in turn by the smiths, the furriers, the weavers, the tailors, the wool-carders and others. In the rearguard came the fishmongers, the barbers, the goldsmiths, the comb-makers and the lantern-makers. Each trade had its own liveries, its own symbols, and its own band of musicians. It has been estimated that in the late sixteenth century the unskilled labourers and artisans of the city, below the level of guild membership, comprised some ten thousand men and women; if the members of their immediate families are taken into account, they comprised a quarter of the entire population. They were essentially the proletariat feeding Venice’s mercantile capitalism.

The class above the popolani was known as the cittadini. It was a distinction afforded by birth and by residence, and by the duty of paying certain taxes; it was not an economic group in any meaningful sense of the word. An aspirant had to prove that both his grandfather and his father had been born in Venice, and that the family had for three generations been untainted by any form of manual labour. At a later date it was sufficient for a man to have lived in the city for fifteen years and to have paid all the requisite taxes. Once this was determined the citizen was free to enter the ranks of the bureaucracy, for example, that lay behind the Venetian state machine. The cittadini were in large part the civil servants of the city, with all the virtues and vices of that group; but they provided the continuity and efficiency necessary for the business of government. Little or nothing is known of them as individuals. Throughout the history of Venice they were the anonymous and uncelebrated servants of the state. They dressed like, and copied the solemn manners of, the patricians.

At the top of this unified society stood the patricians themselves, the exclusive class or caste that governed the republic throughout its history. Never have so few ruled so peacefully over so many. They have already been described, with their black gowns and stately manner, in previous pages of this book. In the extant portraits they resemble one another in gesture and expression—or, perhaps, in the lack of those elements. Since they are depicted as possessing no interior life to speak of, they are inscrutable. It was said of one doge that no one knew whether he loved or hated anything. Yet their gravity and self-control afforded a sense of continuity and firmness in a floating world. In a world of shifting appearances, they were changeless.

There were poor as well as rich nobles, but the largest number of patricians always wished to retain the exclusivity of their rank. In the late thirteenth, and early fourteenth, centuries the great council was closed to all those outside the charmed circle; it was a form of government by virtue of inheritance. A list of the chosen families was then inscribed in a register that became known as “the golden book.” There were twenty-four of them, recorded in 1486, who had been part of Venetian life from at least the seventh century; they included the Bragadin, the Polani, the Querini and the Zorzi. By the seventeenth century there were approximately 150 families, or clans, coming together in various informal associations of interest. This multiplicity of factions ensured the stability of the state, since no one family or interest could achieve supremacy. Yet they were so relatively few in number that they knew each other very well. They knew the virtues, and the weaknesses, of all those aspiring to high office.

The last surviving relics of the patrician class are still standing. They are the great houses of Venice. Until the sixteenth century even the grandest houses of the patricians were simply known as dwellings, casa or ca’; after that date they were often given the more distinguished appellation of palazzo. Some of them indeed were palaces, of noble rooms and rich furniture. “I never saw palaces,” William Hazlitt wrote in 1824, “anywhere but at Venice.” Their façades can be seen beside both banks of the Grand Canal, while others are lost in the tapestry of alleys and smaller canals that comprise the rest of the city.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries these mansions had a utilitarian function. They were trading post as well as domicile. They represented the collective identity of the family. They represented the honour of the succeeding (male) generations. There were rules encouraging the members of the same family to retain possession of the house, a fixed point in a floating world. Some of the houses looked away from the water, and were assembled around an inner courtyard. The ground floor or central portego was used as a storeroom and as business quarters, opening onto the canals for the easy traffic in goods; there was a water-entrance, and a land-entrance. On the upper floors were the living quarters. The central hall on the first floor, the sala, opened onto suites of rooms on either side. There were also a myriad of small rooms, for the various members of the extended family, as well as “private” staircases. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the hall was made grander, its furnishings more ornate, and its interior decoration more sumptuous. This was the period when the patricians were moving from involvement in merchandise to investment in estates on the mainland.

It was in fact only in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, when Venice deemed itself to be the new imperial city, that the great houses with grand incrusted façades were built for display. The mouldings, and capitals, and filigree, were part of a public attempt to emphasise the grandeur of the city. Many were decorated with frescoes devised by artists such as Titian and Giorgione. Others, like the Ca’ d’Oro, were encrusted with precious metals. Venice looked like a city of marble and gold. It should be recalled that these were palaces rather than castles; unlike the houses of the nobility in the rest of Italy, they were not fortified or defended in any way. There was no need.


13

The Merchants of Venice

<p>13</p> <p>The Merchants of Venice</p>

The genius of the Venetian state lay in commerce and in industry. Trade was in its blood. The city was sustained by what has been described as the first capitalist economy, but the phrase needs refining. It represented the first great triumph of mercantilist capitalism in Europe, the commercial paradigm for seventeenth-century Amsterdam and for eighteenth-century London. In this market-place everyone came to buy or to sell; the artist and the priest, as well as the merchant, sought for profit. The system of trade defined the social and cultural systems of the city; it subsumed them. Fashion and innovation became the key concepts. Rational calculation, and the abstract relations of credit and exchange, fashioned a wholly new kind of society—a society of commodities and a society of consumers. It has been said that the modern economic spirit sprang from the experience of the city. Paris only took on an urban form, for example, when mercatores or merchants settled beside the existing schools and monasteries.

All the actions of Venice, in war and in peace, were determined by the interests of commerce. It conquered only for profit, not for glory, and calculated with cold eye the financial gain to be acquired from the pious aspirations of the Crusades or the brutal sack of Constantinople. Its diplomatic treaties are wrapped in the language of “recompense” and “reparation.” In a private document of the fifteenth century, known as the Morosini Codex, there is a formulaic sentence for disaster—“many people died and much merchandise was ruined.” The essence of trade lies in further and further expansion, but Venice itself could not grow. So it exploited territories overseas from mainland Italy to the island of Cyprus. At the height of its power, it was the third largest state in Europe. It was also the richest. That is why commercial self-interest became a foundation of national ideology.

The earliest example is that of salt. The dwellers of the lagoon, long before the immigrants from the Veneto ever arrived, had traded in that substance; the lagoon was a perfect place for salt pans, with the brine of the low-lying sea all around. But the Venetians pursued that business with a vengeance. They decided to create a monopoly in the supply of salt to the mainland. By force and by conquest Venice appropriated the other centres of salt production in the territories closest to it. Then it applied itself to the salt producers of the entire Adriatic, compelling or bribing them to close their manufactories; if any salt was produced in overseas territories (as it was in the Venetian colony of Cyprus) it was taken to Venice and stored in great warehouses from where it was despatched to consumers at monopoly prices. Effectively the city put down any hint of competition. This was the Venetian way of doing business. In similar fashion it exploited the appetite for spices that re-emerged in the twelfth century, when the Mediterranean became once more open to traffic. Within a short time it dominated the trade. In the sixteenth century, for example, it imported almost six hundred tons of pepper annually from Alexandria. It even had its own pepper officers.

The greatest source of profit lay in trade over long distances; the more the possible risk, the more the possible benefit. It has been calculated that, in the early fifteenth century, there were some 3,300 vessels within the city’s mercantile marine. The ships of the Venetians left in convoys; each year there were seven trading expeditions sailing for different destinations. One fleet travelled to the Crimea, for example, and another to Cyprus and Egypt. Venice itself owned the galleys, and rented them out to the highest bidders. It is a perfect example of the city’s commercial instinct. The freight, and the dates of travel, were arranged well in advance. Merchants at home would then invest in the journey of the travelling merchant, in return for a large proportion of any subsequent profit. There was much profit to be obtained. On the return of these argosies the quays of Venice were piled high with carpets and silks and perfumes, sacks of cloves and bags of cinnamon. Argosy is indeed the most appropriate word. It derives from the port of Ragusa (Dubrovnik in what is now Croatia), a Venetian colony in the sixteenth century.

In the fourteenth century wax and pepper, sandalwood and ginger, were despatched to Europe by Venetian merchants from the Indies and Syria, Timor and Malabar. The East did not know the market prices of the West, nor did the West know the prices of the East. But the Venetian merchant understood, and calculated, both. Metals and manufactures were despatched to the East, while cotton and spices travelled in the opposite direction. The Venetians exploited opportunities that other cities and other states did not see or to which they were indifferent. Venice is the fulcrum between what we call the medieval, and the early modern, ages.

Some of the earliest banks in the world were established in Venice. There are private banks mentioned in official records from 1270. In the thirteenth century, too, Venice created the first publicly funded national debt, known as the Monte. The Monte meant literally a “pile” of coins. Until the fourteenth century moneylenders were free to practise in the city, although they were forbidden in most other cities. In the twelfth century charging large interest was said to be “an old Venetian custom.” The counters for the money-changers, covered in cloth or carpet, were set up at the base of the campanile in Saint Mark’s Square. Truly the Venetians made a religion out of money. On the bills of exchange was often inserted the phrase, “And may Christ watch over you.” There was a public bank in the city by 1625, 107 years before the foundation of the Bank of England. Venice became the largest bullion market in the world.

The merchant of Venice was the master of Venice. The founders of Venice were merchants or, rather, they were forced to trade in order to survive. The doges themselves engaged in trade. So there is the curious anomaly that the earliest nobility of the city were wholly involved with commerce; there was no hierarchy of birth, dependent upon a feudal system of honour, but a social framework entirely fashioned out of commercial speculation. As an English ambassador wrote in 1612, “Omnes vias pecuniae norunt.” They know all the paths of money. Fortunes were not made out of landed property but out of skill in business. This accounts in part for the evident sense of equality that the Venetians experienced, one with another; in the realm of King Money, all subjects are intrinsically equal. Money knows no duty or honour.

Yet in practice it was government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich. There was no merchants’ guild in Venice, for the simple reason that the city itself was one grand guild. It was a government of merchants. Much of its commerce was in fact controlled by a relatively small number of families who had always been in business. They were characterised by their acumen as a family unit so that, for example, the Dandolos were known to be audacious and the Giustinianis were benevolent. The domestic partnership whereby brothers, or fathers and sons, traded together was known as fraterna; its account books could pass through many generations, like a piece of family furniture. Household accounts were not separated from business accounts. They amounted to the same thing. The senate was essentially a board of directors, with the doge as the chief executive officer.

The government of the city was practical and efficient; it was moderate in its spending, and vigilant over its auditing of costs. The resources of the city were managed with extreme caution. The Venetians, for example, had great skill in the drawing-up of contracts, which became almost an art form. There was not the expense of a standing army; soldiers were purchased when necessary. The council of ten were charged with the administration of the Mint. The bankers kept their coins in the offices of the state treasury.

The government could only safeguard trade by maintaining liberty and security; liberty in the removal of restrictions, and security in the domination of the sea. The originality of Venetian governance lay in its unique ability to fuse politics and economics into a new form of power. It can be called state capitalism, or communal capitalism, or corporate government. The point is that it worked. In administrative terms, it was the equivalent of the philosopher’s stone. The Venetian merchants could also take comfort from Isaiah’s disquisition on Tyre that it was “the crowning city, whose merchants are princes, whose traffickers are the honourable of the earth … and her merchandise and her hire shall be holiness to the Lord.”

The image of the merchant is central to any understanding of Venice. It was even said that all Venetians were merchants. Why should that be so? The merchant is in part a speculator, ready to take acceptable risks for the sake of future profit. He rises to a challenge, but will decline a mere escapade. He is ambitious for supremacy, and competitive if not coercive towards his rivals. But he is also thrifty, and cautious. If these are paradoxical qualities, they are part of the paradox of Venice. The love of commerce, and the desire for gain, are essential to its nature. There were many Venetian proverbs on the subject of money—money is our second blood, money makes money and lice make lice, a man without money is a corpse that walks.

Merchants calculate. They are economical with their time, as well as with their words. Within them are wells of secrecy and duplicity. They have little use for culture unless, that is, a profit can be made out of it. They are interested in peace; but they are, in essence, dispassionate observers of the affairs of the world. An opportunity, after all, can arise out of any situation. War itself can be a source of immense profits, if it is handled in the correct manner. New markets can be opened, and new resources exploited. But the Venetian merchants were more interested in the short, rather than the long, term. They shifted with the ever-shifting scene. That is why they were described as foxes in a world of lions. There is another Venetian proverb: With truth and lies you sell the merchandise.

From the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries Venice became the city of luxury goods. Luxury may be defined as a form of erotic display, a deep response to the refinements of sensation. It suggests delicacy and rarefied pleasure. One need hardly add that it encourages further and further consumption. We need many things as the staples of life, but we desire even more. Desire lies in the open mouth of the consumer. Venice has always been known as a sensual city, whether in the ubiquity of its courtesans or in the lush canvases of its painters. Both artist and prostitute reflect the underlying reality of the city in which colourful display and material value are sacrosanct. The popular festivities of Venice might also be considered to be an expression of luxury.

Venice possessed no natural resources, and so it relied upon manufacture; the only way of maintaining its supremacy was in the creation of more various and more rarefied items. Luxury was prodigality, whether in spices or perfumes or dye-stuffs or ornaments of gold and rock crystal. Venice traded in them all. It made the glass and the silk and the soap. It manufactured the marzipan as well as the wax. Venice was a centre of silk manufacture, while the neighbouring island of Burano was the home of lace-making and Murano of mirrors and glass. The manufactories of Venice created the first glass window pane, which was undoubtedly a luxury on its arrival. In 1615 it became the first western city to market coffee. The fork was also a Venetian invention, one of the panoply of luxuries that emerged upon the dining table. Venetian households, in general, were known for their ornamentation and luxurious furnishing. The whole city was a hive ever active, relying to a large extent upon rapid and small transactions. You may see the merchants in the paintings, many of them young and eager, surrounded by pens and papers and balances. Each one is in a little world of striving and risk. Lorenzo Lotto finished “Portrait of a Young Man with Account Book” by the early 1530s; from various signs and tokens it is clear that the young man, after an unhappy romance, is seeking for consolation in the perusal of household accounts. He turns the pages of a double-entry register. Never have the blessings of business been more poignantly stated.

But we can move closer to the merchant. We can glimpse more of his life. A manuscript notebook of the early fourteenth century, known as the Zibaldone da Canal, has survived. It was compiled by a merchant, of unknown name, and is filled with arithmetical and geometrical notations together with what the merchant calls “many beautiful and subtle calculations.” There are medical remedies of an eminently practical nature, together with the most egregious superstitions. He notes that cheese becomes lighter as it dries out, so that it must be weighed carefully at the end of a voyage. He estimates the profit to be earned from gold smuggled into Tunis. He calculates the length of voyages. He recommends that a traveller, on first boarding his ship, should invoke saints Oriele and Tobias. He remarks, also, that there is “a time to threaten and not to fear.” The heart of the merchant is thereby laid bare.

In Venice according to one senator, “everything is up for sale.” He was referring in particular to political office, when the state itself became the object of commercial speculation, but he was entirely correct in a wider sense. Venice became the market of the world. “Indeed it seems,” one visitor wrote in 1494, “as if the whole world flocks there, and that human beings have concentrated all their force for trading.” This notion of “force,” the energy and power released by commerce, is the perfect word for the tempest of Venetian business. To Venice came the wines of Crete and the cinnamon of the Indies, the carpets of Alexandria and the caviar of Caffa, the sugar of Cyprus and the dates of Palestine. Cloves and nutmegs arrived from the Moluccas by way of Alexandria; the camphor of Borneo was brought to the lagoon together with the pearls and sapphires of Ceylon; the shawls of Kashmir lay beside the musk of Tibet, while the ivory of Zanzibar was unloaded with the rich cloths of Bengal. The Venetian ambassadors signed commercial treaties with the soldan of Egypt and the khan of Tartary, the sultan of Aleppo and the count of Biblos. The sons of nobles became apprentices at sea. Marco Polo was a merchant.

Fernand Braudel, in Le Temps du Monde (1979), characterises Venice in 1500 as the centre of the world economy. In 1599 it was described by Lewes Lewkenor as “a common and general market to the whole world.” In Coryat’s Crudities (1611) Saint Mark’s Square itself is called the “market-place of the world.” The city dominated the Adriatic, and insisted that all of its trade passed through its own ports. Venice fought off all other claimants. It was the quintessential merchant city, the ultimate bazaar.

The early trade fairs of Europe were conducted in Venice, perhaps from the examples of Egypt and Syria. The annual fair of the Sensa, with its origins in the twelfth century, was devoted to luxury goods; there were no less than twenty-four shops, for example, reserved for the goldsmiths and the silversmiths. It took place in Saint Mark’s Square, lasted for fifteen days, and welcomed some hundred thousand visitors. There were glass-blowers and painters and armourers; in fact, craftsmen of every kind. Trade then became a carnival and an entertainment. It became the object of festive ritual, just as the harvest rites of the countryside had a spiritual as well as a secular importance.

Yet there is a sentence from Voltaire that underlines the economic significance of this trade in luxuries—“Le superflu, chose très nécessaire”; luxury was necessary because it stimulated trade. The possession of luxuries, for example, was a vital element in the attainment of status. It has been argued that the growth of luxury is largely responsible for the rise of modern capitalism, in which case Venice was a pioneer capitalist in more than one sense. In its exploitation of raw materials, in its obsession with profit, in its rational organisation of trade and manufacture, and in the size of its operations across the known world, it was the very model of capitalistic enterprise. These urban merchants and shopkeepers learned how to diversify, to create new occupations and products, to seek for simplicity in all forms of exchange.

Luxury is the stepmother of fashion. There were sudden “crazes” in the city and the great chronicler of Venice, Pompeo Molmenti, noted that “no nation ever showed itself so insatiable in the matter of fashions.” In his Treatise of Commerce (1601) John Wheeler remarked that “all the world choppeth and changeth, runneth & raveth after Marts, Markets and Merchandising, so that all thinges come into Commerce.” This was the situation of Venice. So here we may see the beginnings of what has become known as consumer demand. The consumer emerges in Venice. Fashion was the goddess of this turning world. Vivaldi was disparaged as yesterday’s composer, according to an eighteenth-century observer, “for fashion is everything in Venice, where his works have been heard for too long and where last year’s music makes no money.” At a later date Margaret Oliphant, the Scottish novelist, described it as “the sensation-loving city.” The ladies of Venice always wore the latest style, and in the street of merchants known as the Merceria there was a doll dressed in the latest Parisian mode. The shop itself became known as “The Doll of France.” Fashions created luxuries; luxuries encouraged trade; trade prompted industry.

Venice was built from gold. It was the golden city. The desire to grow rich led to an obsession with gold. It was both a solace and a treasure. It was an investment and a defence. It was glorious. It was pleasing to the eye. The Venetian protagonist of Ben Jonson’s Volpone rises with appropriate words upon his lips, “Good morning to the Day; and, next, my Gold.” In the Mint of Venice there once stood a statue of Apollo holding gold ingots. Petrarch, in an encomium upon Venice, enumerated all the wild and distant places to which its merchants travelled. “Behold,” he wrote, “what men will do for the thirst of gold!” One early fifteenth-century doge spoke of Venice as holding the “signoria dell’oro” or lordship of gold. Venice was golden in the manner of Jerusalem or of the celestial city.

Gold was one of the principal glories of Venetian painting. The artists worked with gold thread and gold dust and flakes of gold. The Virgin, in Bellini’s “Frari Triptych,” is enthroned beneath a gold mosaic; she is suffused by a golden light that seems to contain the sweet breath of eternity. This is the light that can be experienced in Venice itself. The same painter, in his “Agony in the Garden,” bathed Christ’s back with powdered gold. In his “Resurrection,” at the Scuola di S. Rocco, Tintoretto has gilded the branches of the fig tree so that the light of the miracle may be seen to touch and transfigure the natural world. Gold, believed to be engendered by the sun in the bowels of the earth, is a sacred commodity.

The most celebrated casa, or house, in Venice is surely the Ca d’Oro. Its façade, constructed between 1421 and 1437, was so embossed and gilded that it became a glittering wall of light. There were 22,075 sheets of gold leaf fixed upon its surface. It was matched in the city only by the “golden coffer” of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi and the “golden basilica” of Saint Mark’s. In the basilica itself is displayed the Pala d’Oro, the gilded altar screen encrusted with precious jewels. The fame of Venetian goldsmiths was such that their work became known as opus Veneticum. Gold was used in the decoration of Venetian glass, and was of course part of the texture of the cloth of gold worn by the doge. When dressed in gold the doge became an emblem of the city and a token of its wealth. The precious material represented dignity and moral power. Even the performers in Venetian operas were dressed in gold.

There is the less lovely topic of land, to which the Venetians applied a form of agricultural capitalism. In the fifteenth century Venice acquired much territory on the mainland. A century later, the landscape had been transformed. The patricians had in part eschewed maritime trade, and concentrated instead upon their investments on terra firma. The labourers in the fields worked under the eyes of supervisors. The barns and the wine-presses were organised for the maximum efficiency. Land was reclaimed, systems of irrigation were introduced. The Venetians applied the techniques used for the creation of the city itself. It marked the end of feudalism, and the new exploiters of the land eventually became known as the capitalisti. At the same time the appetite for bucolic poetry, and the affection for pastoral landscapes, became more pronounced. Culture followed economics.

In the seventeenth century, as trade became ever more difficult and uncertain in a world of change, the patricians of Venice saw land itself as the major source of income. Rice and maize were exported; mulberry trees were cultivated. By the eighteenth century agriculture had become the single most profitable enterprise in Venice. There were those at the time who lamented this flight from mercantile trade to farming. It was wrong to abandon the sea, the mirror of Venice, in order to harvest the land. Or so it seemed. But the Venetians had always sought profit rather than honour. By exploiting the terra firma, they remained true to their first principle. Yet of course there were consequences. The partial withdrawal of Venice from the international world of trade inevitably led to a decline in influence and in status. The Venetians became more provincial.

The principal market of the city, however, remained that of the Rialto. It was the power station of Venice. It was the seed, the origin. It resembled the City of London, the centre of London’s energy, but on a more local and much more intense scale. Here the first settlers were supposed to have come ashore and, by the strange alchemy of the city, here the first negotiators or merchants began their trade. Commerce seems to have sprung up, fully armed, from the ground itself. It enters the public records of the city at the end of the eleventh century, when the patrician families of Gradenigo and Orio gave up their properties in the neighbourhood of the Rialto for use as a public market; the area had been a commercial centre for some time, primarily used by butchers, and the gift to the Venetian commune was a recognition of that fact. In the twelfth century the private houses in the neighbourhood were converted into shops and warehouses. It became truly a bazaar. Such was the importance of its commerce that, in 1497, the council of ten decreed it to be a sacrario or sacred precinct. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday there were ducal processions to the two principal churches of the Rialto. Trade could have no finer commendation. It had been enshrined.

The Rialto grew and grew. Outlying streets were cleared and widened; the canals were improved, and docks constructed. In the 1280s the Rialto Nuovo was erected to the west of the original market and, thirty years later, the Campo di Rialto was enlarged. There was a general desire to bring harmony and even dignity to this commercial scene; a great map of the world was placed on the wall of its principal colonnade. There was a prison, and a pillar for public proclamations. There were warehouses, too, and government offices for the administration of trade. The patricians met and mingled within a loggia or open-sided gallery at the base of the Rialto bridge. When much of the neighbourhood was destroyed by fire in 1514, it was rebuilt on the same pattern with the streets or “blocks” running parallel to each other. The essential conservatism of the Venetians required that they should preserve the old forms. The passageways of the Rialto, like a souk out of the East, had become the natural expression of trade.

The main street was lined with shops selling luxury goods, but there were areas for banking and for shipping insurance. There were separate markets for diverse commodities, and “specialist” stalls such as those for leather goods. The more expensive the items, the closer they were to the heart of the Rialto; this central spot was marked by the little church of S. Giacomo di Rialto. Taverns and brothels were on the periphery, where they were joined by rag-sellers and dealers in secondhand goods. It was an island of money-making, from the highest to the lowest. It was a little Venice within the larger Venice, a vivid instance of the commercial life.

There was already a wooden bridge linking both sides of the Grand Canal in the vicinity; it was rebuilt on two separate occasions but it could hold out no longer against the tide of improvement. The first stone of the existing bridge was laid in 1588, and the work was completed within three years. Two rows of shops and stalls lined its span of eighty-nine feet (27 m), but the higher significance of commerce was not neglected. On its side were sculpted the figures of the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. Hail, money, full of grace.

The city’s topography, therefore, was defined by its centres of trade. The larger campi became open-air markets. The Merceria, the route linking Saint Mark’s Square and the Rialto, was lined with 276 shops of every kind. It was, according to John Evelyn, “one of the most delicious streetes in the world.” There were also pedlars and street-sellers, hucksters and itinerant craftsmen; sales and auctions were held in the streets, beneath porticoes or in the shade of the churches. Shops themselves became places of assembly. It was a great carnival of commerce.

There were traders of every description. There were no less than forty trading guilds, ranging from apothecaries to weavers, from victuallers to barber surgeons. There were also hundreds of different occupations without a guild, from wet-nurses to porters and latrine-cleaners. It has been surmised that virtually the whole population of Venice worked. It was a desperate obligation for those below the level of the patrician. The existing street names of the city bear witness to the forgotten world of work and trade—a street of the sheet-metal workers, a street of soap-makers, a street of wax factories, a street of dyers. The street of the goldsmiths became, at the end of the nineteenth century, the street of the greengrocers. The tailors and the jewellers worked together in the same quarter. Jacopo Bellini, the progenitor of the great Bellini family, executed many drawings and studies of the itinerant labour of his city. He knew that these tradesmen and hucksters were the essence of Venice itself.

A large proportion of Venetians worked in the textile industry. There were the lace-makers, their eyesight ruined by their labour. Children, from the age of five, were enrolled in the trade. The exquisite refinement of the art, prized by the rich matrons of Europe, can be measured in human suffering. Other workers turned raw English wool into finished articles. The looms of the city produced damask and cloth of gold. There were weavers of tapestry and spinners of cotton. Of course women and children were part of this enormous trade. The workshop knows no gender. Despite the severe restrictions placed upon the movement and freedom of patrician women, the females of the lower orders were treated as fuel for the fire of the Venetian economy. Women were employed as printers and sail-makers, ironmongers and chimney-sweeps.

There were also female hawkers. Gaetano Zompino published Cries of Venice (1785) in which he listed sixty different varieties of hawker. Similar books were written in London and Paris, but in Venice the endless sound of human voices would have a distinct and different quality. There was no other background noise, apart from the hurrying feet of the passers-by and the calls of the gondoliers. The cries of the wood-dealer and the chair-mender and the man with the performing monkey would have echoed through the streets of stone, joyful and mournful, intense and intimate. Tomatoes a little sour, perfect for the salad! Women, you must make water with lemons! The pears that wet the beard!

In this climate everything could be raised, or lowered, to the status of a commodity. As Venice grew richer the churches became ever more ornate, as ornamented and encrusted as the jewel boxes of the great Venetian ladies; it was reported that, at the time of the creation of Venice, the Almighty had been promised “a hundred temples of gold and marble.” The reverence for show and splendour began early. That is why Venice was the showcase of the world. Information became a commodity, as Venice became the centre for the trade in printed books. Knowledge could indeed be packaged like a consignment of pepper. Albrecht Dürer, a resident of Venice for a time, executed a sketch in which books are being produced en masse as if they were loaves of bread. As a result there were more literate people in Venice than in any other part of Italy. Incipient capitalism had its uses. It is appropriate that the manufacture of spectacles, for the purpose of reading, was begun in Venice.

There was a thriving trade in human flesh. By the twelfth century the slave trade in Venice far surpassed that of other cities and other countries. The Venetians were incorrigible slave traders, and the markets of the Rialto and S. Giorgio were centres of slavery. They were eager for this particular source of income, since the profit on each item was said to be 1,000 per cent. They sold Russians and even Greek Christians to the Saracens. Men and women and children were bought or captured in the region of the Black Sea—Armenians and Georgians among them—before being despatched to Venice where they were in turn sold on to Egypt and Morocco and Crete and Cyprus. They sold boys and young women as concubines. One doge, Pietro Mocenigo, had in his seventies two young Turkish men in his entourage.

Many of them were consigned to Venetian households. No patrician family was complete without a retinue of three or four slaves; even Venetian artisans owned slaves, and used them in their shops or workshops. Venetian convents possessed slaves for domestic service. The galleys were stocked with slaves. But the city always needed a fresh supply; servile status was not inheritable. Many slaves were freed in the wills of their masters or mistresses. Marco Polo manumitted one of his slaves, Peter the Tartar, before his own death in 1324. In 1580 there were three thousand slaves in the capital. The black gondoliers in Carpaccio’s paintings of Venice are all slaves.

The solemn benefits of the Church could also be bought and sold, with the purchase of altars and windows and commemorative masses. In 1180 a stall was set up in Saint Mark’s Square for the sale of indulgences from time spent in Purgatory. Relics could be purchased. The seamless robe of the Saviour was valued at 10,000 ducats. The island of Crete was slightly cheaper. It was sold to Venice for a thousand silver marks.

Music and art, sculpture and opera, were all appraised by the criteria of profit and loss. The point was put plainly enough by the quintessentially Venetian artist of the eighteenth century, Giambattista Tiepolo, who suggested that painters should “please noble, rich people … and not other people who cannot buy paintings of great value.” Yet this could be construed as a moral, as well as an economic, imperative. Artists might, in the process of appealing to the wealthy, “be directed towards the sublime, heroic, towards perfection.” In Venice there was every reason to believe that the possession of money was compatible with the pursuit of glory. It might even be argued that the Renaissance itself, springing from the social and cultural life of the Italian cities, was the first movement towards the commodification of the western world; it was composed in part of art objects that could be ordered and purchased, that could be transferred from place to place, that were not unique to one city or one society. In Venice we can witness the rise of cultural materialism, which in turn created the first cosmopolitan culture. Music was part of the market, too, in which Vivaldi and Galuppi drove hard bargains. Opera was notably successful in Venice because, from the beginning, it was highly profitable. Speculators even made money from the leasing of boxes. It is hard to name one activity in the city that was not commercial in origin or in nature.

The painters of Venice, in their portraits and in their more expansive urban scenes, provided an inventory of costly material goods. The sitter is seen with his or her possessions, and the city is decked in ornate splendour. Bellini’s paintings depict the fine porcelain, and the sumptuous carpets, currently available in Venetian shops. These canvases were in turn placed within gilded and elaborate frames. It is not accidental that Venetian houses were known for their plenitude of pictures. Everything promised richness.

Artists came to the lagoon in order to learn the techniques of powdered gold, used in painting and in manuscript illumination. In Venice they would also find the finest pigments, brought from the East. Venetian painters, too, were well known for their skill in depicting the texture and appearance of the velvets and satins that were sold in the city itself. In a portrait of one doge, Bellini clothes him with the costly damask that had only recently been imported from the Levant. The sign of art as a commodity is the surface. In many cases the surface is without content or, more precisely, the nature of the subject is subordinated to the imperatives of surface decoration or ostentatious costliness. It is one of the attributes of capitalist enterprise that an object is no longer significant for its essence but for its exchange value. Here we may see one of the abiding characteristics of Venetian painting.

The notion of art as trade is of intrinsic importance to the cultural history of Venice. Most works were commissioned directly from the patron or patrons, and so the artists responded directly to what we might call consumer demand. There was an association, in the fifteenth century, between artistic theory and trading practice. There were manuals instructing the merchant on the right shades of dyes and spices, couched in precisely the terms that the artist would understand. In the activities of trade and art, objects become separated from the world; they are more intensely seen and judged. The consumer, too, judges by the senses.

There was also a connection between mercantile calculation and pictorial geometry; Piero della Francesca, after all, wrote A Treatise on the Abacus as well as one entitled On Perspective in Painting. When a Venetian merchant calculated the volume and appearance of his goods he was engaged in the same process as the Venetian artist. Sebastiano Serlio and Andreas Vesalius both lived in Venice, or in the Veneto, in the 1530s. One wrote a treatise on human architecture, and the other completed a treatise on the human body; the finely shaded illustrations in both books bear a striking resemblance.

A steady supply of paintings was despatched along the trade routes of the city, on both sides of the Adriatic; in a literal sense art followed commerce. The establishment of trade between Venice and the Netherlands, for example, heralded the profitable interchange between two schools of painting. When Venice and Germany joined in commerce, they also joined in art. The good citizens of Augsburg and Salzburg had many paintings of the Venetian school; the collectors of Venice possessed many works from German and Netherlandish painters.

There was also a market for “utility art,” with panel paintings used as devotional props and easel paintings as interior decoration. The material, rather than aesthetic, quality of the work was the important consideration. By the sixteenth century there were already “dealers” operating in Venice, mediating between artist and client, or between seller and purchaser. The contracts drawn up between consumer and supplier often specified the amount of gold, or expensive pigment, to be employed in any one painting. They ordained the nature, as well as the dimensions, of the work. They included a “deadline” for completion as well as penalty clauses for late delivery. Some contracts even included a clause in which the artist agreed to surpass the work of another named artist. Tintoretto, from a family of dyers, had all the skills of the merchant. He habitually undercut the prices of his rivals, thus assuring a steady supply of commissions. He worked quickly as well as cheaply. The letters of Titian are filled with money matters, with haggling and demanding and complaining. Canaletto, two centuries later, was a master of the export trade. Tiepolo concentrated upon the production of historical and allegorical painting on the very good grounds that only they provided him with a reasonable profit margin.

There was a passion for collecting in Venice; anything, from Roman coins to freaks of nature, could be taken up and placed in cabinets or cupboards. So the city could become a market in another sense. Private collecting was a Venetian phenomenon of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It created new forms of demand, and new methods of accumulation; it made the act of possession intrinsically worthwhile. The consumer could pose as the connoisseur. The sybarite could become a humanist saint. He was called a virtuoso. The first known collections were Venetian, dating from the fourteenth century. But the obsession with studioli or curiosity shops just grew and grew. The collection of the Venetian patrician Andrea Vendramin included sculptures and medals, urns and gems, lamps and shells, plants and manuscripts, costumes and mummified animals. The whole world could be purchased and displayed. Another Venetian patrician, Federigo Contarini, aspired to possess a specimen of every thing or being ever created; in this, of course, he could not be assured of success. During the course of the seventeenth century possession became more specific and specialised. There was a market for antiquities and a market for landscape paintings; there was a market in natural marvels, such as the many-headed hydra valued at six thousand ducats, and a market in ancient musical instruments. Coins and medals were also popular. The collection of Apostolo Zeno, for example, contained 5,900 medals. We must never forget, however, the commercial instinct of the Venetians. Zeno’s medals were a financial investment as well as a scholarly marvel. A collection could also be a portfolio. That is perhaps why it was an enduring, as well as a widespread, passion in the city. The last great Venetian collector, Conte Vittorio Cini, died in 1977.

Niccolò Serpetro’s Marketplace of Natural Marvels was published in Venice in 1653 with the entirely appropriate notion of placing the curiosities of nature in an imaginary piazza not unlike Saint Mark’s Square; here, amid the porticos and shops and stalls, the wonders of the world could be purchased. The market is the metaphor, and the reality. Everything is on display. The display, rather than any intrinsic worth, is the point. Serpetro’s imagined world was recreated in the late eighteenth century, when a great wooden oval was constructed in Saint Mark’s Square entirely for the display of goods. The Venetians were celebrated for their skill at window-dressing, and created the first glass shopfronts in the world. So their markets were great exhibitions. From the fairs of the twelfth century onwards, the goods of the city were paraded. At a later date works of art were put up for sale in the square, classical and contemporary works hanging side by side in the open air. It is entirely appropriate that the Venice Biennales—of art, of film and of architecture—are still flourishing at the beginning of the twenty-first century. They are continuing a great tradition of showmanship.

The first factories of capitalism were the silk manufactories of Venice. Ships were turned out from the shipbuilding yards of the Arsenal fully rigged and fitted, in the same fashion as the automobiles of a later date. Glass-making and mirror-making were full-blown industrial enterprises, in which the division of labour was matched by the economies of scale. These were family trades, too, with the son taking over from the father.

The authorities of the city also invented the concept of “zoning,” whereby industries were despatched to separate locations. It would be possible to construct a map of Venice in which every trade and industry is given a separate territory, cloth-stretchers to the west and tin-smiths to the north-east. The area of Dorsoduro was taken up by fishermen and silk-workers, while that of Castello was inhabited by sailors and by shipbuilders. This rationalisation of urban space continued well into the nineteenth century, when it was decreed that the Lido should be devoted to recreation and become a seaside resort.

The industrial power of Venice, pre-eminent in the sixteenth century, is attested by the fact that its technical innovations soon reached other parts of Europe. The manufacture of gold cloth in France was introduced by the weavers of the city. Luxury soap-making came out of Venice. The type fonts of the Venetian presses were copied in other cities. Venetian workers revolutionised the production of fine woollen cloth. The city became the unlikely setting for technological change and innovation. For more than a century it was the first industrial city in Italy and, indeed, the centre of European industry. At the peak of its development, in the third quarter of the sixteenth century, its population reached 180,000.

In the end that industry declined. The nature of any decline in the human world is interesting. As a spectacle, it is arresting; as a lesson, it is invaluable. A nation in decline is always more intriguing than a nation at the summit of its power. Sorrow and humility are always more attractive than triumph. But was this the case with Venice? There seems to have been very little sorrow, and no humility at all.

The reasons for the industrial decline of the city are many and various; they may be said to be part of changes in the human world as a whole. The discovery of new trade routes, and the emerging supremacy of Amsterdam and London in the late seventeenth century, have been cited as explanations. The merchants of England, Holland and France were able to undercut the prices of Venetian suppliers. The Venetian government refused to compromise on the quality of its luxury goods; its competitors had no such scruples. The cloths and metals of the north were cheaper. It was, in essence, the global transition from the Mediterranean to the North Atlantic. The compass of the world had changed. That is why in the seventeenth century the wool market, the staple of Venetian trade, was perilously close to collapse. The Venetians, too, were temperamentally averse to innovation; as we have already noticed, the patricians and merchants were traditionalists. The habits of control and regulation, born from the earliest communal fight of Venice to survive, could not be changed in a generation. Other economies were more open, and more flexible. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, therefore, Venetian industry had been curtailed.

Yet it cannot be said that the standards of living, among the various sections of the Venetian populace, were notably affected. Certainly it would be wrong to talk in anthropomorphic terms of “weakness” or “decay.” Perhaps, after all, talk of decline is unwarranted. There may simply be transition. Venice merely changed its nature, to deal with changing circumstances, and attained commercial success in a different guise. It is still a rich, and richly endowed, city. It is the home of biennales and of tourists. It has in effect marketed and sold its ultimate commodity—itself. Its history and memory have been transformed into luxury goods for the delectation of travellers and visitors. It traded in goods and in people; now, finally, it trades upon itself.


14

The Endless Drama

<p>14</p> <p>The Endless Drama</p>

Venice might be described as a series of box-like stages, opening out one into another. It is the merest cliché that it resembles a vast stage set, against which the citizens engaged in carnival and parade. The paintings of Carpaccio and of Longhi, the drawings of Jacopo Bellini, depict it as a form of sacred theatre; in the work of these Venetian artists the city is a tableau vivant, suffused with what W.D. Howells in Venetian Life described as “the pleasant improbability of the theatre.” The citizens are displayed in groups, with actions and attitudes taken from the stage or from the pageant. It has always been a place of artifice, where even the natural has a sprinkling of stage dust. It glitters. The houses and churches have the air of stage properties, sited for the convenience of the eye. The arches and the stairs are mere effects. The palace of the doge, and the basilica of Saint Mark, take their place before the proscenium of Saint Mark’s Square.

The pageant masters made full use of the square for floats and parades, mummeries and processions; on great state occasions, the theatrical possibilities of the city were exploited to the full. The square was also the stage on which acrobats and magicians performed. Puppet theatres were especially popular, in a city that was itself often described as a puppet show. Venice welcomed actors dressed in motley. There were even stages on the water, during the pageants and festivities. Stages were erected on the Grand Canal for the performance of serenatas. There were ornamental barges, too, for singers and musicians. The water was a perfect auditorium as well as a stage.

The façades of the Venetian churches were often eminently theatrical, with fantastic ornaments of stone loaded upon them; the curved mouldings vie with the contorted columns; volutes and pinnacles, capitals and cornices, are piled high in wedding-cake fashion. The church of S. Moise, built by Alessandro Tremignon in 1688, is a riot of whimsical excess. The more famous Salute invites awe rather than admiration. The religious services of Venice were theatrical in conception and execution, with music more suitable for an opera than for a sacred occasion; the congregation was an audience, chattering and gossiping through the proceedings, and the ritual was a performance. The recesses of the churches create an authentic air of mystery; the confused light and darkness, the brilliance of marble and precious stone, the air steeped in the perfume of incense, are all what Ruskin termed the “stage properties of superstition” in Venice. They are to be found in the basilica of Saint Mark, for example, which Ruskin considered to be of a theatrical nature “unexampled in any other European church.”

Yet the theatricality of Venice was sometimes a cause of complaint among Venetians themselves. When at the end of the sixteenth century new pillars were added to the square one senator, Federigo Contarini, compared them to theatre props. In the twenty-first century the newly rebuilt theatre, La Fenice, has been criticised by some Venetians as a contrived pastiche of the previous building destroyed by fire. Theatricality is everywhere.

The convents of Venice became a form of theatre, with the nuns sitting behind gratings watching the rest of Venice cavort before them; masked balls, with the characters of Pierrot and Harlequin, were performed for their delectation. The private trials of Venice were conceived in theatrical terms. During one hearing of the Inquisition the walls of the chamber were draped in black; the curtains were suddenly thrown back to reveal a strangled corpse. The deliberations of the council of ten depended upon surprise and suddenness. The head of the police in the late eighteenth century, Missier Grando, always dressed in black. The various receptions and meetings, conducted within the ducal palace, were occasions of intense theatricality. At an ambassador’s reception the doge sat wrapped in a golden cloak, with the various councillors ranged about him. Upon the death of a doge a great procession circled Saint Mark’s Square, each member carrying a large candle or torch; in front of the basilica the coffin was raised and lowered nine times while the bells of the city tolled. On Good Friday torches were lit beside the houses and palaces that lined the canals, so that all the waterways of Venice were illuminated by fiery reflections. The power of visual spectacle was more important to Venice than to any other European city.

There was a long history in Venice of collaboration between art and theatre. Jacopo Bellini was a pageant master and stage designer as well as an artist; at the time there would have been no need to distinguish his different roles. He was simply festaiuolo or organiser of festive play. The art of Veronese and of Tintoretto is in part the art of staging; theirs was an intensely theatrical vision. The work of Veronese was known as “maestoso teatro” or majestic theatre. He in turn has been associated with the great architects of Venice, Sansovino and Palladio, who share with the artist a sense of space and structure. When Sansovino redesigned the piazzetta in the sixteenth century he intuitively defined it as a stage set with a one-point perspective; from the bacino, the basin of water before it, the buildings on both sides diminish towards the “vanishing point” of the ornate clock tower. From the other direction, looking from the piazzetta towards the bacino, the two great pillars frame the watery landscape. Here some of the great set scenes of Venetian life were conducted. This was the site, for example, of the public executions. The rituals of Venice were surrounded by stage fire.

Tintoretto acquired the habit of placing small figurines, of wax or clay, in illuminated boxes. This was the brilliantly lit arena of his imagination, prior to his work on canvas. But the light is that of the stage spotlight. Tintoretto and Veronese also designed, and sketched, costumes for the stage. They needed to look no further than their canvases for inspiration. Tiepolo, too, revealed an interest in decorative costume; he also favoured exaggerated theatrical gesture and facial expression. The characters depicted in his paintings are often grouped together in the fashion of a dramatic chorus; they are earnest, purposeful and emotional. They have the bearing of actors, figures of commedia dell’arte under the impress of strong feeling.

This can only happen in a culture where no distinction is made between nature and art, between what is real and what is artificial. Or, rather, the distinction does not matter. The importance of anything lies in the gaiety and brilliance of its surface. Expression and activity are of more consequence than essence or being. That is perhaps an inevitable consequence of urban life, where everyone must signal his or her role. But it also seems peculiarly appropriate to Venice. Wagner, an adept at scenic mysteries, recognised the truth of the city at once. He remarked that “everything strikes one as a marvellous piece of stage-scenery,” and that this unreality created a “peculiar gaiety” that could not help but affect any visitor. The “chief charm,” he added, “consists in its all remaining as detached from me as if I were in the actual theatre.”

Detachment is the key. It is actually the reverse of what Coleridge once called “the willing suspension of disbelief.” We know that it is a real city, with real people, but we will proceed as if it were unreal. It was often noticed that the people of Venice were themselves detached from the world beyond their city. The government of Venice, by the eighteenth century, was considered too remote from the ordinary dealings of the world to be of any consequence. It was, you might say, trapped in its theatre. As the power of Venice declined in absolute terms, in that century, its capacity for life and display was never more exalted. The glorious past and the uncertain future were obscured by carnival and festival. This was not an isolated phase in the city’s history. During the Austrian siege of Venice in the early nineteenth century, when suffering and hardship and famine became the lot of all citizens, the people crowded on balconies and rooftops to watch the bombardment. The summits of the campanili and the towers of the churches were filled with Venetians bearing spy-glasses and telescopes so that they might more clearly see the destruction being inflicted upon their own city.

In foreign productions, as, for example, in the theatres of London, Venice was often viewed as a stage set. The Christmas pantomime at Drury Lane, in 1831, included a diorama entitled “Venice and its Adjacent Islands.” When Byron’s plays, Marino Faliero and The Two Foscari, were produced the stage sets were considered to be the most considerable element of the entertainment. When Charles Kean played Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, in 1858, the sets were praised for their realism. But what reality were they reflecting other than the theatrical image already in the public mind? This is the context for Edward Lear’s disappointment with the buildings of Venice, from which he derived “not one whit more of pleasure from seeing them there than in any of the many theatre scenes, dioramas, panoramas, and all other ramas whatever.” He knew them all already.

There is no scene in Venice that has not already been painted. There is no church, or house, or canal, that has not become the subject of an artist’s brush or pencil. Even the fruit in the market looks as if it has been stolen from a still-life. Everything has been “seen” before. The traveller seems to be walking through oils and water-colours, wandering across paper and canvas. It is no accident that Venice has also become a traditional setting for twentieth-century, and twenty-first-century, fiction or film. It is the natural home for the sensational and the melodramatic. Narratives of intrigue and mystery are commonly set in the calli and campi of the city, and Venice is the obvious setting for an international film festival. Venice is not so much a city as the representation of a city.

So what were the Venetians themselves but actors, characters against a celebrated backdrop? Henry James, in The Aspern Papers, described them as “members of an endless dramatic troupe.” There is the gondolier and the lawyer, in their characteristic costumes; there is the housewife and the beggar. All of these people live in public. They delight in self-expression. They share the same language of gesture and attitude. They talk continually. They describe and imitate one another. They watch one another against the background of little shops and houses. They live in an intense and circumscribed space. It is another example of the Venetian life of the surface, where the primacy lies with what is seen. Hence, in the last century of the republic, the sublime importance of the mask or bauta.

The transcripts of trials, now held in the abundant archives of Venice, demonstrate the extent to which instinctive and unforced drama entered social and domestic life. The demeanour, as well as the evidence, of the witnesses was recorded. One book-keeper was described as wiping his face with his handkerchief, and twisting himself about, under the strain of testimony. There were dramatic phrases in the courts. “I never wanted him. I said yes with my voice but not with my heart.” “I do not even talk with her or her friends, because they are not meat for my teeth.” It is reported that the actors who performed in the various campi were employed to coach witnesses in the arts of speech and gesture.

It is always possible to see urban life as a form of theatre. When Wordsworth described London, in the Prelude, he reached for theatrical metaphors; he wrote of “shifting pantomimic scenes” and “dramas of living Men.” London was for a him a “great Stage.” But Venice possessed these qualities in excelsis. The masquerades of the Carnival were participating in one giant dramatic performance of which the city was the centre. The spectators become part of the play, and the crowd swirls in and around this living theatre. The memoirs of that quintessential Venetian, Giacomo Casanova, demonstrate the facility with which life in the city can be turned into self-conscious and self-serving drama. The individual Venetian, without mask or cloak, can become a lithe performer. Goethe noticed a man by a quayside, telling stories in Venetian dialect to a small group of bystanders. “There was nothing obtrusive or ridiculous about his manner,” he wrote, “which was even rather sober; at the same time both the variety and precision of his gestures showed art and intelligence.”

Venetians delighted in costume. They sometimes seemed to be dressed up as actors playing in a particularly sophisticated city comedy, and in 1610 a volume of illustrations was published with the title Outfits of Venetian Men and Women. They had a keen eye for fashion and for striking colour. They manifested an almost child-like delight in dressing-up. The patrician women of Venice in particular loved sumptuous attire. Indeed they seem to have been almost obliged to do so by the state. For one feast in honour of the French ambassadors, in 1459, the senate ordered all female guests to arrive in bright clothing and to wear as many jewels as possible. The appearance of wealth, and luxury, was all that mattered.

Evelyn described the garb of Venetian women as “very odd, as seeming allwayes in Masquerade.” Fynes Morisson gave a more graphic description, noting that they “shew their naked necks and breasts, and likewise their dugges, bound up and swelling with linen.” Their hats boasted many accessories, including butterflies and flowers and stuffed birds. But this was the Venetian talent for outward show. It seems, from certain allusions, that it was not customary to change under-garments very frequently. They were scrupulous in one respect, however. They wore veils, white for the young and black for the middle-aged or the old. But the Venetian women were most notorious, and conspicuous, for their shoes or zoccoli. These were effectively stilts, as much as eighteen inches (457 mm) in height, upon which they were balanced by attendants. They looked like giants in a pantomime. Venetian women were said to be half of flesh and half of wood. The preposterous footwear has been explained by the muddiness of the streets, or by the Venetian male restriction on female roaming. It also allowed the presence of gaudy or decorative trains. It is more likely, however, to have been a fashion that got out of control. It might be mentioned, in passing, that Venetian women had the general practice of dyeing their hair yellow. One of the ingredients in the process was human urine.

But the quest for la bella figura ran among both genders and among all classes. The women of the poorer sort wore simple gowns and shawls, but they had a liking for small rings of chain which they wore around their wrists and necks. The fishermen wore large brown hooded cloaks complete with scarlet lining. The gondoliers wore white shoes and red sashes. Female servants wore frocks of dark brown or peacock blue. The beggars were self-consciously picturesque, and would often wear a cloak in imitation of the richer citizens. The working men dressed in blue tunics, with wide sleeves narrowed at the wrists, and the trousers that were first worn in Venice became known as “Venetians” or “pantaloons.” The favourite colour of the people was azure blue, translated as turchino, and known to Cassiodorus in the sixth century as the “Venetian colour.” It was possible, from the dress of each Venetian, to know his exact position in the political hierarchy.

The patricians obeyed strict rules in all matters of dress. Only the doge was permitted to wear gold. He also had the widest sleeves, since the width of the sleeve was a mark of status. The Venetian patricians wore sober black gowns as an image of their presence as perpetual guardians of the state. They were the priests of the polity. Those of higher rank dressed in scarlet or violet or purple; the members of the senate, for example, wore purple. But these, too, are grave and official colours. Over their gowns they wore hooded cloaks. They also wore black caps or bereti. Since the priests, the more important citizens, the doctors and the lawyers of Venice also wore black it is not difficult to see a city dressed in mourning. Many of the women, poor and patrician, also wore black. It was essentially a uniform or, in other words, a costume with which to express uniformity.

The long robe also impeded quick movement, so that the walk of the patrician was generally slow and deliberate. In 1611 Thomas Coryat, the English traveller, recorded how “they give a low congie to each other by very civil and courteous gestures, as by bending of their bodies and clapping their right hand upon their breasts.” So black was the colour of gravity. Black was the colour of anonymity. Black also held elements of intimidation. It represented death and justice. The predilection for black lasted a thousand years, its endurance a measure of the intense conservatism in all matters of Venetian social custom. Indeed the taste has lingered. It is not wonderful to see, in the streets of twenty-first-century Venice, young men wearing large black capes. There is still something odd, something theatrical, about the dress of contemporary Venetians.

There was one group of Venetians who showed off tremendously. The young patricians of the Renaissance city belonged to one of the numerous city clubs or calza guilds, from the Triumphanti to the Valorosi, the Immortali to the Principali. The hose or calza on the right leg was sewn with gold and silver, and besparkled with pearls and jewels; it was drawn over tightly fitting breeches and reached the hip. It was set off by a doublet of velvet worn over a flowing shirt of silk. Their long golden hair was, as often as not, dyed. And then there was the perfume. It might be expected, in a most unnatural city, that everything was scented—hats, shirts, socks, handkerchiefs. Even the money was scented.

The calza guilds were best known for their presentation of theatrical performances, for fêtes or wedding celebrations, at which the young men and young women (known as compagne) excelled. “We wore the stocking of the club,” one of them, Giacomo Contarini, wrote to his brother in January 1441, “as well as mantles of Alexandrian velvet brocaded with silver, doublets of crimson velvet with open sleeves, zones of the same colour, and squirrel fur linings, on our heads caps alla Sforzesca.” Sforzesca can be interpreted as in the style of Francesco Sforza, a celebrated condottiero or leader of mercenaries; before his success it had been the fashion in Venice to wear hats à la Carmagnola, after the name of a renowned general. It is an indication of the Venetian love of the trivial and the triumphant, all expressed in the most theatrical possible manner.

The Venetian patrician, at his noblest, had a long aquiline nose and high cheek-bones; he was the statesman as ascetic. His skin was the palest white. But a singular change can be dated precisely to 1529. In that year Venetian men began to cut their hair short, and to wear beards. Before that time they had worn their hair long, and beards were only allowed as a sign of mourning. Once one or two tentatively made the change, all the others duly followed. There were other and more general changes. By the late sixteenth century, for example, costumes became looser and fuller where once they had been stylised and close-fitting. The reasons are obscure, buried somewhere in the human appetite for novelty and transformation. It is no part of our purpose to write a history of fashion. It is important only to recognise that, for Venetian men and women, clothing was essentially dramatic costume.

In the eighteenth century criers walked through the streets of Venice, calling out the casts and performance times of the latest plays. Venetians were known throughout Europe for their love of theatre. It was a passion that touched all classes, from the gondolier to the patrician, and is nowhere more evident than in the extraordinary success of commedia dell’arte. This form of improvised comedy first emerged in the Veneto of the sixteenth century although its ancient origins, whether in classical drama or festive ritual, seem undeniable. One of its principal figures was Pantaleone or Pantalone, a Venetian name attached to the recognisably Venetian figure of a sprightly if sometimes foolish old merchant. (Venice was effectively ruled by old men.) He was dressed in a red costume and black cape with red Turkish slippers, as token of the fact that he traded with the East. Thus the sixth age of man, according to Jaques in As You Like It, is represented by “the lean and slipper’d pantaloon.” He always spoke in Venetian dialect. It has been surmised that his name comes from a corruption of pianta leone, to plant the lion, in reference to the lion of Saint Mark on the flag of Venetian merchants. His besetting vice is that of avarice, the avarice of the wealthy man who fears to lose what he has rather than that of the poor man who wishes for more. He is fearful, a pacifist who nonetheless wishes to conquer the world by trade, jealous of everything, a fanatical patriot, desperate wooer and miser, high-principled but subtle, so fearful of being gulled that he runs headlong into situations that will guarantee his gulling. He represents Venice’s uneasy conscience.

From Pantaloon, too, springs the name of pantomime; we have Venice to thank for a still popular English art. The characters of the commedia were indeed pantomimic figures, with Arlecchino in his chequerboard costume and Doctor Graziano in his black robe. The female parts were played by young men. They wore masks, and spoke in Venetian dialect mixed with Greek and Slavonic words. Arlecchino spoke in the dialect of Bergamo, the town in Lombardy from which many of the porters and labourers of Venice came. The actors were shown the scenario of the play but, as soon as they stepped onto the temporary stage, they invented the dialogue with a wit and vitality that were wholly native. They were often obscene, and always playful. They engaged in fevered and acrobatic dances to the accompaniment of the lute and guitar.

The performers of the commedia were not averse to mocking contemporaries and contemporary types. The audiences for these comedies could recognise themselves. They screamed with laughter, and applauded, and cheered, whenever a familiar allusion was made. There were courtesans among the characters of the commedia, and many courtesans among the audiences. The themes of these improvised plays—unhappy children, miserly fathers, disloyal servants—were the stuff of Venetian social life. It was a curious mixture of magniloquence and parody, loud lamentation and broad farce. These were plays about play-acting. It can be called the comedy of mercantile capitalism, similar in spirit to the “city comedies” of early seventeenth-century London. Comedy thus became the mirror of the world.

And then of course it spilled over into the perception of real people and real events. Some of the cases conducted before the courts of Venice have the ingredients of a farcical sketch. A French diplomat of the early seventeenth century mocked the grave Venetian statesmen of the period as “these pantaloons.” So there may have perhaps been something risible about the spectacle of these solemn figures all secretly pursuing profit for themselves.

The Venetian people were themselves often derided as pantaloni. Byron noticed, too, the “naivete and Pantaloon humour” of the Venetians. There is still a phrase in Venice, paga pantalon; Pantalon pays, meaning the state or the taxpayer pays. Casanova records how he donned the costume of Pierrot, “assuming the gait of a booby.” In the masquerades of the Carnival, you had to maintain the character of the person whose costume you had donned. The early visitors to the Carnival noted that the local citizens liked to dress up as the natives of other countries. A Venetian could become an actor without a moment’s hesitation.

It has sometimes been suggested that out of the songs and scenes of the commedia emerged the opera itself. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Venice became the first centre of opera in Europe. The opera and the commedia embody the spirit and attitudes of the people. They come out of the same circumstances, and fulfil the same desires. Both arts spring from the spectacle inherent in the religious and civic rituals of the people. The popularity of opera in Venice is of course well documented. Never has an art so suited the temperament of the people. The first public opera house in the world was created in Venice; in 1637 the patrician Tron family opened one within the premises of its grand house, and began to charge entrance fees for all who flocked there. A second opera house opened two years later and, within fifty years, there were seven of them. For librettists and composers there was now a flourishing trade. The post of the impresario was born. Dancers and singers were hired under contract. The structure of the opera itself became standardised, with each of the principal singers awarded five arias, and it was manufactured as quickly and as proficiently as a glass vase on Murano or a ship in the Arsenal. Between 1680 and 1743, 582 separate operas were produced and staged.

Opera flourished in Venice because, in many respects, it was an urban art. It was an art of contrast and heterogeneity in a city filled with contrasts between rich and poor, squalor and splendour; it was an art of the scenic and spectacular, in a city filled with the energetic display of festival and carnival. Opera is concerned with external life, life on display, with the great general drama of the human spirit taken up in music and in song. Opera has to do with energy and splendour, with ritual and melodrama. It was thoroughly Venetian. It also sustained the myth of Venice. There were operas in which Venice was hailed as a new Troy or a new Rome; there were operas that dramatised the origins of Venice among the exiles; many of the stage sets were of Venice itself. The audiences clapped, and whistled, and yelled. The gondoliers obtained free entrance; they applauded by stamping their feet and uttering loud cries of “Bravo!” Once they had heard a favourite aria, they would stamp their feet so loudly that the singer would be obliged to return to the stage with a reprise. After the aria was over, flowers would rain down from the boxes, together with scraps of paper on which laudatory poems had been written. There were even occasions when doves, with bells around their necks, were released within the opera house. One traveller noted the reaction of a Venetian patrician in his box. “Ah! Cara! Mi butto, mi butto!” Oh my darling, I’ll jump, I’ll jump!

Venetian stagecraft was renowned throughout Europe for its subtlety and elaboration. John Evelyn noted with approval “a variety of scenes painted and contrived with no less art of perspective, and machines for flying in the aire, and other wonderful notions; taken together, it is one of the most magnificent and expensive diversions the wit of man can invent.” This fascination with the marvels of stagecraft was of a piece with the Venetian predilection for fairy-tale plots and Oriental settings. There were shipwrecks and sea-monsters, fire-breathing dragons emerging from the depths and classical deities gently lowered from the sky. The “cloud machines” of Venice were especially praised. It was art as play.

Burckhardt, in The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, quotes one Venetian to the effect that “the fame of the scenic arrangements (apparati) brought spectators from far and near.” But he went on to note that the skill and effectiveness of these engines of display were used only for “comedies and other cheerful entertainments.” Scenic display had helped to kill tragedy. There never has been room for tragedy in Venice.

The first European theatre, specifically built for the production of plays, was erected in Venice in 1565. By the end of the seventeenth century there were eighteen public theatres, a large number catering for a population that was never more than 150,000. In the same period London possessed only six, and Paris only ten, theatres. In the sixteenth century, according to the Italian composer Girolamo Parabosco, the citizens “would climb walls, break open doors, or swim the canals to force their way into the place where some famous comedian was acting.”

The members of the audience were as much part of the play as the players. They gossiped, and laughed, and even gambled, through the course of the drama. People moved from box to box in search of conversation and entertainment. The noise of their chatter was compared to that of a bush filled with birds. The lighting was always dim, and the boxes were almost wholly dark; the desks of the musicians were illuminated by candles of Spanish wax, and the stage was lighted by lamps fed with olive oil. The spectators in the boxes spat upon the spectators in the pit. This was a custom endured with good spirit. Those in the pit were allowed to wear hats; those in the boxes were not given that privilege. The gondoliers, the favourite sons of Venice, entered free of charge, as in the opera houses. They in turn set up claques for particular actors or particular playwrights. They were often bribed to clap, or to jeer, on cue. Others merely waited at the back, with lanterns, for their masters. Between the acts vendors would pass among the people, selling oranges and biscuits, aniseed water and chestnuts, coffee and ices.

The curtain would rise upon a classical temple, a forest, or a royal palace. There would be processions and parades, banquets and battles. But there was one favourite subject. It was the city itself. The whole audience cheered any and every allusion to Venice, and they were delighted by amorous or mercenary dramas set in the streets and houses of the city. It was an intensely local drama. The spectators loved, in particular, the more reassuring emotions of family life. If a character or scene violated the decorum of real life, the audience would object in the most strenuous manner. Goethe witnessed a production which was stopped by the spectators when a young man was supposed to kill his wife with a sword; the actor then stepped forward, apologised, and confirmed that the scene would after all end happily. Were they not, after all, part of one big if not entirely happy family?

This is nowhere more evident than in the work of the most famous of all Venetian playwrights, Carlo Goldoni. His was the comedy of Venetian social life. He held a mirror up to Venetian nature. It was so congenial to him that, in one year, he completed sixteen three-act comedies; in the course of his theatrical career from 1734 to 1776, he wrote 250 plays. Like his compatriots Tintoretto and Titian and Vivaldi, he worked at high speed. He was filled with verve and energy. In the language of business, he managed a quick turnover. He began by writing formulaic dramas established upon the pattern of the commedia, and then by happy instinct migrated to the mild comedy of Venetian life. He captivated his public with portraits of gondoliers and of servants, of shopkeepers and housewives. Everything was staged on an intimate scale, with that compactness and neatness intrinsic to the Venetian character. The typical setting is the campiello or little square; the background is of familiar shops and houses. He reproduced the language and the manners of the people with the utmost fidelity. The larger world is of no consequence to his characters. In one of his comedies a Londoner talks of the canals of his city, with the suggestion that Goldoni believed London to resemble Venice. His characters do not concern themselves, either, with the politics of their city. That was a task left to others. They comprise a small group of people who steer their way through quarrels, misunderstandings, and awkward domestic moments. Households and families become unstable for a moment; then they steady themselves and sail on.

The first stage directions of The Fan, one of his most famous comedies, reveal a wholly Venetian scene.

Evarist and the Baron sit towards the front at a little table drinking coffee, Limonato serves them, Crispino is cobbling in his booth, near to him Coronato sitting beside his door, writing in a notebook. The Boots cleans the restaurant windows. Geltrude and Candida on the terrace, knitting. To the right Tognino is sweeping the square. Nina is spinning before her house door, beside her stands Moracchio holding two hunting dogs by a cord. Every now and again Timoteo puts his head out of the pharmacy; in the background Susanna, sewing before her shop.

It is a perfect miniature.

Goldoni was true to the spirit of the people, too, in his ability to see the absurd aspect of serious things. There was much mockery, and some impertinence, but no malice, in his humour. There is no violence upon his stage. Goldoni carefully refrained from the frank obscenity of the earlier commedia. His characters idle and gossip; they are lively, and witty; they talk about the latest play and the most recent scandal. They are very interested in money. But they are generally amiable and convivial. All of these qualities may be said to be characteristic of the Venetian temperament in the first half of the eighteenth century.

There is no inwardness. There are no meditations or monologues. We may call Goldoni’s drama superficial, therefore, but it is not meant to be anything else. It is a drama of surfaces. The Venetians on the stage are not properly individualised; they think, and act, like a community. They are not known for their eccentricities. They express no great passions. Everyone is affected by the same sentiments, and has much the same identity. That is why Goldoni’s comedies are couched in the genial poetry of domesticity. They do not record the exploits and sensibilities of outstanding individuals or aberrant types. All is light and graceful. Goldoni celebrated the inherent dignity of ordinary human nature.

And what, then, were the characteristics of the Venetians themselves? They were universally reported to be cheerful, with an innate gaiety and spontaneity of address. Henry James believed that they “have at once the good fortune to be conscious of few wants” and thus allowed their lives to be measured by “sunshine and leisure and conversation.” They had a freedom of manner, although it is something of a paradox that they were governed by one of the most severe systems of government in Europe. There may be some connection between public discipline and private liberty. George Sand described them as a “gay, unthinking people, so witty and so full of song.”

They were also described as frivolous, mercurial and naive. That may be the darker aspect of gaiety. They were considered, by other Italian city-states, as inept and unreliable. They were deemed to be fickle and unjust. They had a propensity to forget even the most recent and the most grave misfortunes. It may be the forgetfulness of excessive vivacity. The naivety, however, may have been characteristic of the people rather than of the patricians. By the government they were treated almost as children. Hence their trust of the state, and the climate of submissiveness in which they seemed to flourish. Addison believed that the senate of Venice encouraged sports and factions among the “common people” in order to preserve the safety of the republic.

They were, then, ambiguous. They were difficult to “read.” Ambiguity, reflecting the ambiguous status of a city on the water, may be the key. In the eighteenth century a nun could also be a prostitute. A gondolier might be a very wealthy man. A richly clad patrician might have no money. Albrecht Dürer reported that among them were “the most faithless, lying thievish rascals, such as I could scarcely believed could exist on earth; and yet if one did not know them, one would think that they were the nicest men on earth.” It could be argued that this is true of humankind in general, under whatever sky, but in a city of masks and secrets this ambiguity becomes manifold and pervasive. It becomes more intense.

It is certainly the source of the charge of duplicity that was always being levelled against them. They possessed a talent for dissimulation in their dealings with other states, and indeed with each other in the business of law and government. They disguised their greed with the semblance of honesty and piety; they hid their guile under the mask of polity. It became their nature, in the phrase of one English observer, “to sew a piece of Fox tayle to the skinne of S.Mark’s Lyon.” There were many stories of their duplicity. When the king of Hungary came to Venice, in the fifteenth century, he begged the body of Saint Paul the Hermit from the canons of the church of S. Zulian. They did not wish to offend the sovereign, and so they gave him the body of one of the Grimani family. The Hungarians then worshipped this worthless body as a holy relic.

The city of masks was adept at the art of concealment. That is why the Venetians were always polite, evincing what was known as their characteristic dolce maniera; they were celebrated for their good manners. They were formal and reserved in their public demeanour, perhaps recalling the Venetian proverb that “he who loves foreigners loves the wind.” There was a certain courtliness, from which the Venetian patrician could keep his distance. The memoirs and records suggest that they were courteous, and composed, even in their private dealings. They loved form, and surface, above everything. In company Venetians were observed to be “stiff,” relying entirely upon propriety and correctness of behaviour. Unlike other Italians, for example, they were not known for extravagance of gesture or language. There were certain significant catch-phrases adoped in the official texts of the city. Councillors were called “prudentes et cauti,” prudent and cautious; an officer of state was “sapiens et circumspectus vir,” wise and circumspect. They were pious, for example, but they were not zealots. Savonarola would not have been welcomed in Venice.

Their humour, however, was unambiguously coarse. There is a Venetian saying to the effect that, if you want to laugh, talk about shit. The statue of one famous and over-productive author, Niccolò Tommaseo, is known as el cacalibri or book-shitter. The vulgarity, as in England, has much to do with a culture of practicality and common sense. There was, for example, a certain harsh realism in their statecraft. In this “romantic” city there were few romantics. The humour is often at the expense of hypocrisy and pretence; it was often dark and, on occasions, bitter or savage. The Venetians were great deflaters of the pompous or the preening. This may have been the instinctive reaction of a population inured to the hypocrisies or pious pretences of public life. It was a way of striking back, of showing that they were not really fooled.


15

Wheels within Wheels

<p>15</p> <p>Wheels within Wheels</p>

In 1605 Venice was described as “the summary of the universe,” because all that the world contained could be found somewhere within it; if the world were a ring, then Venice was its jewel. It is in some respects the model city, the ultimate city defying nature and the natural world. It is the most urban of cities, occupying a realm of meaning very different from those communities rooted on earth and soil. As such it offers lessons to other cities. Lewis Mumford, in The City in History (1961), notes that “if the civic virtues of Venice had been understood and imitated, later cities would have been better planned.” The system of transport, for example, with the fast Grand Canal cutting across the slower-moving smaller canals, was a model of its kind. The waters of the lagoon have also ensured that the city remained of a manageable size; it did not sprawl, and its only suburbs were the other islands that had an intrinsic life of their own.

It has also become a paradigm of European culture. One may claim plausibly that the first industrial revolution occurred in Venice rather than in England, with the management of shipbuilding, glass-making and mirror-making. It was the first centre of commodity capitalism, the focal point of a vast urban network that spread across Europe and the Near East; it was a city dependent upon, and also sustaining, other cities. It represented a new form of civilisation that had moved from agrarian to mercantile life. It has always been an emblematic place. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, for example, it was interpreted as the ultimate city—perverse, unnatural, reducing its population to servile status. In our own century it may also be classified as the first post-modern city, the city as game. In that sense Venice may be the harbinger of a common human destiny.

Its polity itself became a model for others. Hobbes wrote his Leviathan after an extended residence in Venice; that book has in turn been seen as an apologia for the burgeoning market economy. The political reformers of the puritan Commonwealth, in the seventeenth century, looked towards Venice as a viable model of a modern republic. So did the founding fathers of the United States.

The administration of the state was paradigmatic in another sense. It became the model for all other forms of rule and order in the city. The election procedures of the guilds were established upon the elaborate rules for the election of a doge. The meeting halls of the fraternities were based upon the halls of the ducal palace, and were similarly decorated with historical and mythical painting. The diamond lozenges on the façade of the ducal palace are locked into a mesh. Venetian madrigals of the sixteenth century are known for their complex of overlapping voices, each singer distinctly heard in a dense and undulating body of sound.

The topography of the city itself—with its small bridges, canals and narrow calli—reflects the intricacy and interlinked dependency of republican institutions. The multiplication of magistracies and agencies, in the supervision of Venice, was often described as “labyrinthine” as the streets and alleys themselves. The members of the various committees were replaced every six months or every twelve months, giving a shifting pattern to the polity much like that of the movement of the sea. Did the territory determine the polity, or did the polity form the territory? It is an unanswerable question, so deeply implicated in the origins of human behaviour that it must for ever remain unresolved.

So what was the secret of this polity that crept into every feature of Venetian social life? Dudley Carleton, the English ambassador in Venice in the early seventeenth century, had an analogy with one of the commodities the city traded. The republic “is a clock going with many wheels, and making small motions, sometimes out of order, but soon mended, and all without change or variety.” These wheels, and wheels within wheels, were the various organs of the state.

The earliest guardians of Venice, from the first settlement of the lagoon, were the tribunes of the various islands; they were elected annually. Yet this loose structure proved unworkable, and in 697 the first doge was elected; Paoluccio Anafesto was chosen and acclaimed by all the people in a general assembly on the island of Heraclea. It was believed that the spirit of republican Rome had been reborn. Yet, as in Rome, the power of certain leading families was used to destroy any incipient democratic spirit. Only the rich and powerful merited the awards of office. In the tenth and eleventh centuries there were many feuds between the aristocratic families; doges were assassinated or expelled from office. In the middle of the twelfth century a group of officials was formed to help and advise the doge. It was known as the “commune,” although it had none of the revolutionary implications of the later use of that word.

It was not enough. At the end of the twelfth century a council of the aristocratic families was formally instituted to check the activities of the doge. It was they who now elected the leader, and the doge was merely presented to the people for their “approval.” He came upon the balcony to the words “This is your doge, if so it please you.” At a later time even this acknowledgement of the power of the people was removed. There were further restrictions placed upon the nature of government. In 1297 a law was passed that allowed access to the great council only to those patrician gentlemen whose fathers or paternal grandfathers had already sat in the body. It was to be an exclusive club, and Venice became an hereditary aristocracy. By 1423 the nomenclature of the commune had been dropped, and the state was for ever after known as dominio o signoria signifying power or lordship.

So by the beginning of the fifteenth century the essential structure of Venetian government was shaped and determined. There were some constitutional changes in the sixteenth century, but the principles remained the same until the end of the republic in 1797. It was as if eighteenth-century England were still governed by the polity of Richard II and Henry IV.

This structure had evolved over many centuries and, like the mammalian life of Australia, it was a unique phenomenon born out of relative isolation. It was made up of a series of councils and official bodies, each of which participated in some kind of mystical unity like the threefold divinity of the Trinity. At the base of a complex and striated pyramid was the general assembly, which met only to ratify essential legislation. Above them lay the great council, which in theory elected the various magistracies, the members of the lesser councils, and the doge himself. The councils included “the forty,” a specialised body of patricians, and the ducal councillors. The members of these councils comprised the senate. At the top of the pile stood the doge. It would tax the reader too far to elaborate further upon the wearisome and complex organisation of the various councils and assemblies and magistracies. It was scarcely understood by the Venetians themselves.

But an insight can be gained into the labyrinthine Venetian mind by describing the process by which a doge was elected. On the morning of the election the youngest member of the Signoria, one branch of the administration, fell on his knees to pray in the basilica; then he went out into Saint Mark’s Square, and stopped the first boy whom he met. This child then became the ballotino, who drew the nomination slips from the urn in the ducal palace. In the first ballot the great council chose thirty of its members. In a second vote nine were chosen out of this original thirty. In turn the nine chose forty, each of whom had to receive seven nominations. A new ballot would then reduce this forty to twelve, who voted for twenty, who voted for nine, who voted for forty-five, who voted for eleven. These eleven then voted for forty-one. The final forty-one voters would then elect the doge. No more cumbersome and intricate procedure could have been devised. Its only purpose was to eliminate individual chicanery and special interests, but it suggests an almost obsessive preoccupation with communal solidarity.

The cohesiveness was maintained by a myriad of overlapping powers and offices; this fostered a sense of equilibrium, so important in the floating city, and of adaptability. It also afforded a measure of judicial oversight. It was government by debate and by committee. What it lacked in novelty and excitement, it made up for in prudence and continuity. It was patient, and it was thorough. That was why it endured. The rapid turnover of magistracies, most of them lasting for only six months, meant that the patricians were trained very quickly in various fields of administration. There was inevitably inefficiency and confusion, together with a bewildering number of bureaucratic procedures, but they were considered to be a price worth paying for good order. The secret of success, perhaps, lay in the curious fact that no one could really know where true power resided. There was no single authority.

Venice was in name a republic, but in practice it is best described as a plutocracy. Only one hundred familes were allowed to participate in the government; the citizens and the popolani, or lower class, were excluded. The polity also had all the features of a gerontocracy. Patricians under the age of forty were excluded from the senate; in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the average age of a doge on the day of his election was seventy-two. The doges were always older than the popes, the only other office in Italy where the leader was elected for life. This might be an advertisement for the healthy air of the republic, but it is also a reflection of the emphasis that the Venetians placed on tradition and experience. The road to leadership, being a long one, required patience and obedience; the length of service to the republic fostered conformity and compromise. It was also a precautionary measure. No doge would rule for a very long time, or acquire too much power. The military commanders, and the principal members of the government, were old. Domenico Contarini, for example, was seventy-five when he was elected general of the Venetian forces in 1526. He was not exceptional. A government of young men—we may take as an example the medieval English monarchy—creates a culture of impassioned fervour, of sudden violence and intense rivalry. None of these occurred in Venice.

There were rivalries, of course. In the last decades of the sixteenth century there were tensions between the representatives of the “old” families, dating from the first years of the republic, and of the “new” families who had arrived at a somewhat later date. The “new” families were opposed to the encroaching power of the council of ten and wished to refurbish the trade of Venice by finding new markets. There was in fact a gradual change of emphasis, in the administration of the city, but it was a slow and cumulative process. There was no descent into party or faction. Everyone depended on everyone else to maintain the smooth working of the governmental machine. No individual ambition, or familial rivalry, was allowed to undermine the safety of the state.

Corruption was general and widespread. “Every office,” Marino Sanudo wrote in October 1530, “is filled for money.” It was common for rivals vying for a particular post to come into the great council carrying bags of gold. “Loans” were offered to individual electors. There was an old Venetian saying that to give a favour is to receive a favour. There were over eight hundred offices to be filled in the city, and a major preoccupation of the patrician class lay in lobbying for position; this was especially true of the poorer members of the governing class, known as the svizzeri after the Swiss mercenaries, who had no other source of income or status. Legislation was continually passed against electoral corruption, and the intricate procedures for the choice of even the most minor official were designed to circumvent the more obvious forms of bribery. But the elaborate precautions are themselves significant. They suggest a deep awareness of the possibility of corruption. A city that is deeply corrupted will go to extraordinary lengths to seem incorruptible.

The word for plot and chicanery, imbroglio, derives from the very topography of Venice. The brolo or broglio was the garden laid out before the ducal palace. Here the patricians would walk, and plot their latest moves. It was the place for lobbying and for intrigue, where a smile or the tug of a sleeve was the only necessary sign.

The doge, therefore, was the most senior member of the government. In the earliest times he wore a biretta or bonnet, like the ancient kings of Phrygia. He was dressed in a mantle of silk fringed with gold, and secured by golden buttons. His shoes and stockings were red. He was elected for life, but he was surrounded by restrictions and regulations. There would be no Caesar in Venice. The doge could not open his own mail. He could not receive foreign visitors in private. He could not discuss matters of policy without consulting his councillors. He could not leave the city without permission. He could not even travel in the city without gaining approval. He could not buy expensive jewellery, or own property outside Venetian territory. He could not display the ducal arms beyond the confines of the ducal palace. He was never to be called “my lord” but only “messer doge” or “sir lord.” No one was to kneel before him, or to kiss his hand. It was said that he was essentially a “tavern sign” swinging in the wind. The more true power he forfeited, the more he was loaded with pomp and ceremony.

Yet he possessed power of a kind. He was after all the figurehead of the state. Sir Henry Wotton declared that “like the sun he doth effect all his purposes in radio obliquo, not by direct authority.” He presided over all the elective councils, including those of the senate, the great council and the council of ten; he was the general supervisor of all the organs of government. He had to preside twice a week at public audiences, and his ceremonial duties were onerous. He was the symbolic representative of the Venetian state. In a literal sense he embodied the health of the nation. His dress, and demeanour, were scrutinised for any change of emphasis. When during a debate on the conduct of a difficult war the doge left his seat in order to urinate, his action caused a sensation. But part of his power lay elsewhere. He knew all the secrets of the city.

On his death the same formulaic words were pronounced. “With much displeasure we have heard of the death of the most serene prince, a man of such goodness and piety; however, we shall make another.” The signet ring was removed from his finger and broken in half. The dead doge’s family had to leave the palace within three days, and their furniture was removed. Three inquisitors were appointed to scrutinise all the actions of the doge and, if necessary, to punish his heirs for any fraudulence or wrongdoing. Only in that way could the state resist the rise of powerful families.

The doge was the patrician among the patricians. The social strucure of Venice was in essence very simple. The patricians comprised 4 per cent of the population; the citizens represented a further 6 per cent; the rest, approximately nine tenths of the population, were simply the people or popolani. Each group had its own functions, and its own privileges. It was a highly structured and deeply hierarchical society—a society of legally defined estates and orders—made up of a number of interlocking networks and affinities bound together for the greater glory of God and the city.

Yet how was it possible that 10 per cent could effectively master and control 90 per cent of the population? They bribed them; they deceived them; they created internal rivalries; they consoled them for their lack of power by weaving myths of origin and identity. It is the story of human history itself.

We may begin with the largest number of the Venetians. The popolani were made up of tradesmen, artisans and labourers, and the poor. They formed a social, rather than an economic, category; so there were differences in wealth between the popolo grande, the richer landowners and merchants, and the shopkeepers or artisans of the popolo minuto. There were so many local variations, in fact, that we cannot entertain a description of “the people” in any political sense. There was no feeling of “solidarity.” As the Spanish ambassador put it in 1618, the popolani “is made up of so many elements that I do not think it can ever start a riot, even though it is large enough to occupy and fill the whole of Venice.” The people were generally believed to be loyal and tractable, with an affection for their native city that far outweighed any tendency to protest or rebel.

There were other good reasons for the maintenance of social order and stability among the people. There was always enough cheap food, except on unusual occasions of emergency and famine, and through the centuries the wages of the workers maintained a relatively high level. There was none of the endemic distress, for example, that characterised the lower class of Paris or London. It would have been impossible to write Les Misérables in Venice.

The people could be fierce, however, but only with one another. The poorer people, the fishermen and the gondoliers and the servants and the labourers, formed two great factions across the city known as “the Castellani” (also named the “Arsenalotti”) and “the Nicolotti.” It was an ancient division, born from the enmity between the federated townships of the Veneto, Jesolo and Heraclea, from which the Venetian settlers first came. Well into the twentieth century the Nicolotti wore a black cap and a black sash around the waist, while the Castellani wore red. The Nicolotti also had their own version of political power, since from the fourteenth century they had acquired the custom of electing their own leader known as the gastaldo grande who was solemnly taken in procession to greet the doge in the ducal palace. The Arsenalotti had their own privileges. The workers of the Arsenal were deputed to stand guard when the general council was in session, and they acted as a bodyguard for the doge. By these means the popolani were drawn into the life of the state. So the Venetian people were not accustomed to, and indeed had a hatred for, political sedition.

Their territories were clearly divided, with the Castellani to the east and the Nicolotti to the west, centred around the parishes of S. Pietro di Castello and S. Nicolò dei Mendicoli. The boundaries were a clear indication of the fact that in the earliest days the city itself was a collection of independent communities. One church straddled the common frontier, S. Trovaso, but the Castellani entered by the south door and the Nicolotti by the west door. There were often street fights between the two factions, tolerated by the government on the assumption of “divide and rule”; by fighting among themselves, they minimised the chances of general urban riot against the authorities. In a series of battles, in 1639, over forty combatants were killed. But in succeeding years these encounters were gradually turned into staged games and contests such as the regattas. In true Venetian fashion aggression was softened into ritual.

The popolani had no political power, but they enjoyed a different version of hierarchy and degree in the membership of guilds or confraternities. All of the ordinary occupations of trading life had their representative organisation. There were over a hundred of them, registered in the thirteenth century, and they offered exclusive rights for dyers and coopers, masons and carpenters, rope-makers and fruiterers. There were guilds of hemp-spinners and fustian-weavers, two hundred altogether throughout the city maintaining an intricate occupational web that kept every worker in his or her place. So it was a covert way of maintaining control of the working population.

Like other medieval guilds throughout Europe, they were exclusive and hierarchical. They moved against strangers or foreigners working in the city; they laid down standards of good practice, and punished those who ignored them. They had their own officers, and their own courts; they organised the markets and, perhaps most importantly, they provided financial support for any member who was out of work for reasons of accident and illness. No male Venetian could practise his craft without joining the appropriate guild. No man could join his guild without first swearing an oath of allegiance to the city, but of course no member of the guild had any status in the political life of the republic. It is pertinent and significant that none of the most important professions, such as lawyers and merchants, had or needed to have guilds in order to protect their interests. The state performed that role for them.

The guilds maintained the “rights” of the workers, but they were also insistent upon the duties involved. They had, for example, to furnish conscripts for service in the galleys. Through the agency of the guilds, too, the state could enforce discipline within the various trades. The guilds were also brought into the devotional life of the state by becoming involved in specific religious rituals and processions. They adopted certain saints as their patrons or patronesses, before whose shrines they would light candles on days of festival. By these means the morality of state power was enshrined in popular consciousness. So were the independence and the status of the workers, as maintained by the guilds, part of some grand illusion? It all depends on the observer.

The trades of the popolani were, in a literal sense, one of the pillars of Venetian life. The two pillars of the piazzetta, holding up Saint Mark’s lion and Saint Theodore, had on their granite bases carved images of the workers of the city—the wine-sellers, the cattle-dealers, the smiths, the fishermen, the basket-makers, the butchers, the fruiterers, all had their place. These images have now been effaced by time and weather. Like their counterparts on the Venetian streets, they have disappeared. The craftsmen of Venice have now become so many tourist shows.

When the trades marched in procession to greet a new doge, they arranged themselves in predetermined order; the glass-blowers led the way, followed in turn by the smiths, the furriers, the weavers, the tailors, the wool-carders and others. In the rearguard came the fishmongers, the barbers, the goldsmiths, the comb-makers and the lantern-makers. Each trade had its own liveries, its own symbols, and its own band of musicians. It has been estimated that in the late sixteenth century the unskilled labourers and artisans of the city, below the level of guild membership, comprised some ten thousand men and women; if the members of their immediate families are taken into account, they comprised a quarter of the entire population. They were essentially the proletariat feeding Venice’s mercantile capitalism.

The class above the popolani was known as the cittadini. It was a distinction afforded by birth and by residence, and by the duty of paying certain taxes; it was not an economic group in any meaningful sense of the word. An aspirant had to prove that both his grandfather and his father had been born in Venice, and that the family had for three generations been untainted by any form of manual labour. At a later date it was sufficient for a man to have lived in the city for fifteen years and to have paid all the requisite taxes. Once this was determined the citizen was free to enter the ranks of the bureaucracy, for example, that lay behind the Venetian state machine. The cittadini were in large part the civil servants of the city, with all the virtues and vices of that group; but they provided the continuity and efficiency necessary for the business of government. Little or nothing is known of them as individuals. Throughout the history of Venice they were the anonymous and uncelebrated servants of the state. They dressed like, and copied the solemn manners of, the patricians.

At the top of this unified society stood the patricians themselves, the exclusive class or caste that governed the republic throughout its history. Never have so few ruled so peacefully over so many. They have already been described, with their black gowns and stately manner, in previous pages of this book. In the extant portraits they resemble one another in gesture and expression—or, perhaps, in the lack of those elements. Since they are depicted as possessing no interior life to speak of, they are inscrutable. It was said of one doge that no one knew whether he loved or hated anything. Yet their gravity and self-control afforded a sense of continuity and firmness in a floating world. In a world of shifting appearances, they were changeless.

There were poor as well as rich nobles, but the largest number of patricians always wished to retain the exclusivity of their rank. In the late thirteenth, and early fourteenth, centuries the great council was closed to all those outside the charmed circle; it was a form of government by virtue of inheritance. A list of the chosen families was then inscribed in a register that became known as “the golden book.” There were twenty-four of them, recorded in 1486, who had been part of Venetian life from at least the seventh century; they included the Bragadin, the Polani, the Querini and the Zorzi. By the seventeenth century there were approximately 150 families, or clans, coming together in various informal associations of interest. This multiplicity of factions ensured the stability of the state, since no one family or interest could achieve supremacy. Yet they were so relatively few in number that they knew each other very well. They knew the virtues, and the weaknesses, of all those aspiring to high office.

The last surviving relics of the patrician class are still standing. They are the great houses of Venice. Until the sixteenth century even the grandest houses of the patricians were simply known as dwellings, casa or ca’; after that date they were often given the more distinguished appellation of palazzo. Some of them indeed were palaces, of noble rooms and rich furniture. “I never saw palaces,” William Hazlitt wrote in 1824, “anywhere but at Venice.” Their façades can be seen beside both banks of the Grand Canal, while others are lost in the tapestry of alleys and smaller canals that comprise the rest of the city.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries these mansions had a utilitarian function. They were trading post as well as domicile. They represented the collective identity of the family. They represented the honour of the succeeding (male) generations. There were rules encouraging the members of the same family to retain possession of the house, a fixed point in a floating world. Some of the houses looked away from the water, and were assembled around an inner courtyard. The ground floor or central portego was used as a storeroom and as business quarters, opening onto the canals for the easy traffic in goods; there was a water-entrance, and a land-entrance. On the upper floors were the living quarters. The central hall on the first floor, the sala, opened onto suites of rooms on either side. There were also a myriad of small rooms, for the various members of the extended family, as well as “private” staircases. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the hall was made grander, its furnishings more ornate, and its interior decoration more sumptuous. This was the period when the patricians were moving from involvement in merchandise to investment in estates on the mainland.

It was in fact only in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, when Venice deemed itself to be the new imperial city, that the great houses with grand incrusted façades were built for display. The mouldings, and capitals, and filigree, were part of a public attempt to emphasise the grandeur of the city. Many were decorated with frescoes devised by artists such as Titian and Giorgione. Others, like the Ca’ d’Oro, were encrusted with precious metals. Venice looked like a city of marble and gold. It should be recalled that these were palaces rather than castles; unlike the houses of the nobility in the rest of Italy, they were not fortified or defended in any way. There was no need.


V Empire of Trade

16

The Lion City

17

Cities in Collision

18

A Call to Arms

<p>V Empire of Trade</p>
<p>16</p> <p>The Lion City</p>

As Venice grew richer, it became more powerful. A city needs a ruling authority, and the acquisition of authority invites arrogance and belligerence. It encourages the will for further power. Venice, surrounded by the sea, could not grow out of its own frontier. But it could be enlarged and enriched by its extension in other lands and in other cities. It could become an empire.

In earliest times la Serenissima, the city of the Virgin, had been given a masculine identity by its citizens. It was the Lion City. The very conditions of its existence made warfare an inevitable part of its history. There was warfare against the natural world and then warfare against its competitors. It was obliged to fight for its survival. Venice had archers and oarsmen and maritime warriors. Sea powers are natural competitors. While land powers may agree to the division of land into frontiers, the ocean has no frontier. Wherever there is sea, there are hostile ships. Throughout its long history, Venice could never rest.

The drawing books of Jacopo Bellini, composed in the mid-fifteenth century, contain many studies of cavaliers and crossbowmen preparing themselves for combat. Half of Bellini’s lifetime was spent in the battles of Venice against other powers. “This nation of sailors,” Petrarch wrote, “was so skilful in the handling of horses and weapons, so spirited and so hardy, that it surpassed all other warlike nations whether by sea or by land.” So it can indeed be construed as a masculine city. The history of Venice was conceived, and composed, as the history of patriarchal families. The government of Venice was patriarchal in all of its elements. The society of Venice was considered to be patrilinear in nature. The image of the city was wholly dependent upon the exercise of paternal authority.

The patrician youth were trained to use the bow, and to command galleys at sea. They were educated in all the knightly virtues, in a period when the chivalric code of warfare was honoured throughout Europe. The first jousts, in Saint Mark’s Square, are recorded as early as 1242. From that time forward they were staged at regular intervals. In Bellini’s drawing books, chivalric opponents dash upon each other in spectacular tournaments. On these occasions the city was given up to the celebration of militarism and the military virtues. It provided the theatre of war. Painters were employed to embellish shields and armour as well as icons and portraits. Artists, among them Bellini himself, were used to design fortifications and draw military maps. In the sacred paintings of Venice the saints are often seen wielding swords. Saint George, one of the patrons of the city, was the archetypal military saint. This is very different from the picture of Venetians as quick-witted traders or as earnest statesmen. But knightly valour was once an aspect of their culture. How else could the Venetians have created an empire?

So they knew how to use force when it was required. They were quick to strike, when the opportunity presented itself. One conquest led to another conquest. In fact, one conquest demanded another conquest. In a state that never felt itself secure, the condition of the world was always perilous. Unsuccessful generals and admirals were imprisoned, exiled, or killed. When they employed the newly invented cannon against a recalcitrant Italian town, an old chronicle reported that “one would think that God were thundering.” One cannon was named “the Venetian Woman who Casts down Every Wall and Spike.”

The first colonies of Venice were in the lagoon itself; originally the smaller islands had self-ruling or self-sustaining communities. Once each island had its monastery, and its church. But, soon enough, they all became part of Venice itself. The leaders of the city might then take comfort from the opening words of the ninety-seventh psalm: “The LORD reigneth; let the earth rejoice; let the multitude of isles be glad thereof.” The multitude of islands were swallowed up by the great city growing in their midst. Or their communities simply withered away.

Torcello, seven miles (11 km) to the north of the most serene city, was once a thriving place. Before the city of Venice ever rose from the waters, it was a great civic centre for the exiles from Venetia. They had first come in the middle of the fifth century. A cathedral of Byzantine form was raised here in the seventh century. It was built as a refuge and a strength by exiles fleeing from the mainland; the windows of the church have shutters of stone. Wealthy monasteries were founded on its fertile soil. In the tenth century it was described by the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus as “magnum emporium Torcellanorum.” Yet the success of Venice led ineluctably to the decay of Torcello. There was no room for two thriving centres of trade in the lagoon. There are some, however, who say that it was poisoned by the malarial waters of the lagoon. The sea was silted up, and the island was surrounded by stagnant ponds. There may be truth to this, but the visitation of disease added only the final blow to a long process of disintegration. Ineluctably Torcello sank in the significance of the world. In the nineteenth century a nobleman of spurious or dubious origin was dubbed as “a count of Torcello.” Now the once thriving island supports a handful of people; all around are wastes of mud-filled creeks and rivulets and what Ruskin described as “salt morass.” The brick campanile, and the mosaics within the cathedral itself, are the only remnants of its faded splendour. The civic square is covered by wild grass. Yet the silence of this island, interrupted sometimes by the soughing of the wind through the reeds or the rustle of rippling waters, is a vivid token of the primeval lagoon to which the first Veneti came. Another symbol can be found here of the Venetian world. There is a restaurant on the island, frequented by the tourists who journey to Torcello as an outdoor museum. It is really no more than that. And might it then somehow anticipate the fate of Venice itself?

On the majority of the islands could once be found a tall campanile and brick-built church; there was a small piazza, with the image of the lion on wall or pillar; there were little clusters of whitewashed houses, their gardens protected from the depredations of the salt wind by neat red fences. Then they were touched by decay more insidious than the wind. The island of Ammiana once boasted eight churches; then it was depopulated and turned into a salt farm. And where did the inhabitants go? They migrated to Venice. All of these dead towns and cities and settlements could once have been proposed as alternatives to Venice; they might have flourished and grown strong, as Venice did. If we were to follow the precepts of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, we might create the possible cities of the lagoon; the distinct customs and dialects of each island might then have created several different cities, resembling and yet not resembling Venice itself. But, then, this would be a fantasy.

Other islands, once under Venetian control, have disappeared. The island of Constanziaca was engulfed by the waters. It had once contained monasteries and churches. It became so woeful, however, that it was turned into a burial site where the bones of the dead were left to bleach in the sun. Then with all its churches and bones it simply subsided into the sea. No one knows its precise position. Other islands suffered a similar fate, among them Terra dei Mani and Terra dei Soleri. Five little islands encircling Murano have been washed away by tides and currents. There is seaweed now where once tall cypresses grew. Some islands were overcome by earthquakes or tidal waves; others were claimed by a slow and general desuetude. They could not compete against the most serene city.

The Venetian authorities turned some of these once flourishing islands into prisons or hospitals. It was one way of pushing the undesirable elements of the population to the margins. It was also an exercise in total power. The island of S. Servolo was turned into a lunatic hospital for men, while the island of S. Clemente was a mental asylum for Venetian women. Sacca Sessola was a place of exile for those suffering from consumption, while the Isola della Grazia held those who burned with fever. On the island of Poveglia were laid out huts for the lepers banished from the city. All these islands were known to the Venetians as “isole del dolore” or the islands of sorrow.

The island of S. Biagio, now called Giudecca, was once a green haven of orchards and gardens; here were a convent, a home for penitent prostitutes and a pilgrims’ hostel. But the secular world of Venice intervened. It became essentially a suburb of the city. Other islands were used as agricultural factories for the markets of the Rialto. In the second half of the fifteenth century the island now known as the Lido became an extension of Venice’s port. It became part of the economic zone that now encircled and sustained the city.

The beginning of the Venetian empire beyond the lagoon can be found in the ninth century. Venice was not as yet a leading sea-power. That position was reserved for the Spanish and for the North Africans. But it needed to control its immediate environment. It had to find, and maintain, a reliable food supply for an increasing population. It needed to secure access to water and to agricultural land. It needed to control the lifelines of its trade. So Venice turned to the mainland. The people of the sea were obliged to conquer terra firma.

Towards the close of the ninth century Venice sacked the rival cities on the Italian coast and took control of the mouths of the Adige and Po rivers. The rivers gave them access to the markets of northern Italy; within a short time the bargemen of the city were offering their wares in Pavia, the capital of Lombardy. The merchants of Venice were prominent, too, in the markets of Verona and Cremona. In the tenth century Venetian markets and warehouses were built on the banks of the rivers Sile and Piave. The Venetians occupied a castle beside the Livenza river, so that their goods could reach the German traders coming down into Italy. By 977 the Venetian traders had a colony in Limoges, and by the next century they had diffused themselves into Marseilles and Toulouse. The corn-growing areas of Treviso and Bassano were acquired. In this period, too, the Venetians began the slow process of purchasing mainland property and territory. Some of the great families of Venice, like the Badoer and Tiepolo, acquired land around Treviso. The larger monasteries purchased estates along the coastal plain. This gradual enlargement of Venetian property continued for seven centuries. The key issue, as always, was that of commerce and in particular of the supply of grain.

Once the trade with northern Italy and much of Europe was considered secure, the governors of Venice turned their attention towards the sea. The merchants already effectively controlled the trade in eastern goods, but the success of that trade demanded that the routes to the East should be strengthened and defended. The sea was to be made safe for the mass transport of goods. The principal cities of Istria, immediately across the sea from Venice, submitted. The northern part of the Adriatic became known as the Gulf of Venice. Then the Venetian navy worked downwards. By the end of the tenth century it effectively controlled the Middle Adriatic, and set about the conquest of Dalmatia (now part of modern Croatia). The islands and cities of the region surrendered to the superior force and numbers of the Venetians. Some cities, more alarmed by the depredations of the pirates who found safe haven in the small islands and inlets along the Dalmatian coast, invited the doge and his troops to enter their gates. Other cities were tormented by the demands of the petty despots, characteristically living in fortress outposts, and preferred the more benign sovereignty of Venice. Other places were simply happy to enter stable trading relations with the great sea-city. All of them were treated as allies, rather than as subjects, of Venice. Yet in truth the empire was being born. The pirates were defeated. The marauding Slavs were pushed back from the coast. In 998, the doge added the honorific of “dux of Dalmatia” to his title.

The seaway was open for increased traffic with Egypt and, more particularly, with Byzantium. Venice had already become that ancient city’s single most important trading partner, sending slaves and timber in exchange for wine, oil and wheat. In 991 Greek and Arab envoys travelled from the East to pay respect to the new doge, and a year later a treaty confirmed that Venice had been granted “most favoured” status by the Byzantine emperor. It confirmed what was already known. Venice had become the dominant trader of Europe, its commercial supremacy sustained by a vigorous and expanding navy. In return Venice offered its ships as transport for Byzantine soldiers crossing the Adriatic. The city was also, for all practical purposes, inviolable. At the time of the Magyar invasions of Lombardy, at the end of the ninth century, a stone wall was built to defend the islands of the Rialto. A great chain was placed across the water to prevent enemy ships from entering the Grand Canal. But the precautions were unnecessary. The Magyars could not reach the sea-girt city. They were beaten off in the shallow waters of the lagoon, where their ships foundered and sank. The great wall itself was demolished in the fourteenth century. It was not required.

By the eleventh century, therefore, Venice had become an autonomous and influential state. In the latter part of that century it fought with the troops of Byzantium against the Norman invaders of Sicily. The reason for the Norman adventure, as well as all the other policies and actions of Venice in this period, was very simple. No other state or city could be allowed to block the mouth of the Adriatic, thus imprisoning Venice within its own waters. This was the great fear and the abiding preoccupation.

It has become customary to describe the eleventh century as the period in which Latin Christendom emerged triumphant. This is nowhere more powerfully evinced than in the history of the Crusades. They have been construed as a direct attack upon the Muslim world, or as a form of spiritual imperialism, but the participation of Venice in the First Crusade had no such motives. The Venetians were waging economic warfare by other means. They were not concerned with the cross, or with the sword, but with the purse. The point was that rival trading cities, Genoa and Pisa in particular, were already taking part. Venice could not permit its competitors to gain an advantage in the lucrative markets of Syria and Egypt. To have a permanent presence in Antioch, or in Jerusalem, would be a source of innumerable commercial benefits. So, in the summer of 1100, a fleet of two hundred Venetian ships arrived at Joppa (Jaffa); the Venetian commanders agreed to help the crusaders on condition that the merchants of their city were given the rights of free trade in all dominions recovered from the Saracens. The terms of this practical bargain were accepted. The Venetians were then despatched to besiege the town of Caifa (Haifa) and, having achieved the surrender of that place, they returned to the lagoon before the end of the year. They were not content, however, with this single and relatively simple victory. They wished to acquire more profit from their participation in the holy cause. They established trading stations within the Syrian ports, and began a lucrative business in transporting pilgrims to the newly captured Jerusalem.

On their way to Joppa, too, they had engaged in a peculiarly Venetian piece of business. The fleet had cast anchor at the ancient Lycian town of Myra (Bari), in search of the bones of Saint Nicholas who had been bishop of that place; the saint is now better known as the progenitor of Santa Claus but, in the eleventh century, he was revered as the patron saint of sailors. The Venetians, naturally enough, wanted him. It is alleged that they arrived in the town and put to the torture four Christians, the keepers of the shrine. They learned nothing of any consequence from these unholy proceedings, however, and made do with the theft of the bones of Saint Theodore. Theodore had been the patron saint of Venice before the arrival of Mark; he was a good second-best. Yet before their departure, according to the Venetian chronicles of Andrea Morosini, a wonderful fragrance issued from a recess beneath an altar in the church itself. The scent was that of Saint Nicholas. So he was removed, too, and brought back in triumph to Venice where his bones were lodged in the monastery of Saint Nicholas on the Lido. That is the story, at least. In fact the remains of Saint Nicholas, if such they are, have remained in Bari to this day. Whether the tale reveals more of Venetian mendacity, or of Venetian greed, is an open question.

The crusading venture had been a success for Venice, and in 1108 the Venetian fleet once more sailed under the flag of the cross. It may be noted that the governors of the city were particularly interested in the seaports of the Mediterranean, and that Venetian merchants were established in Acre, Jerusalem and elsewhere. Yet the attentions of the doge and senate were not confined to the principalities and powers of the Middle East. They thought it prudent to maintain and consolidate their presence on the mainland. They took Ferrara and Fano under their control, and moved against Padua. In the process they reasserted their rights over the principal rivers of the territory. On the other side of the Adriatic, they struggled with the Hungarians over the coastal regions of Dalmatia. They now had many enemies. The cities of the mainland were jealous of Venetian wealth, and fearful of Venetian power. The Norman kingdom of Sicily had long regarded Venice as a foe. The German empire of Hohenstaufen still laid claim to northern Italy.

There emerged one other formidable enemy. In 1119 the new emperor of Constantinople decreed that the trading privileges of Venice were at an end. He ordered all Venetian residents within the boundary of his empire to remove themselves and their business. He also proposed a treaty with the king of Hungary, thereby recognising Hungarian claims to the Venetian settlements in Dalmatia. The reaction of Venice was slow but assured. The Venetian fleet raided and sacked a number of Byzantine territories; Rhodes, Chios, Samos, Lesbos and Modon were some of the objects of their vengeance. They had set out to prove that they were now the single most important sea power in an area previously deemed to be the preserve of Constantinople. The emperor signed a new trade agreement with Venice in 1126.

The Venetian empire could justify its existence with the claim that trade, and not conquest, was its purpose. It naturalised its subjects with a spirit of enlightened commercialism. The motive was one of constructive self-aggrandisement. There was no true cult of empire, as there was in nineteenth-century London or in third-century Rome. There was no interest in massiveness or monumentality for their own sake. The only concession to the appetite for glory lay in the construction of gateways at key points in the city—the Torre dell’Orologio, the Porta della Carta, and the Arco Foscari among them. The gateway to the Arsenal is in every guide to the city. These were the Venetian equivalent of the triumphal arch, all the more striking in a city without a defensive wall.

Yet the Venetians who lived and traded in Constantinople, and in the other markets of the kingdom, became increasingly unpopular. They were judged to be arrogant and greedy. Away from Venice, the Venetians became insecure and fractious. They attacked their Genoese and Pisan rivals in trade, and refused to obey Byzantine edicts. They even stole the relics of saints from the churches of Constantinople. They were generally considered by their hosts to be vulgar, mere merchants looking for bargains. In turn the Venetians despised the Greeks, as effete and indolent. Then in 1171, on the command of the emperor, all the Venetians in Constantinople and elsewhere were arrested and imprisoned. A Venetian fleet, despatched to threaten the lands of the emperor, was reduced to impotence by the onset of plague. The commander of the unsuccessful expedition, on his return to Venice, was assassinated in the streets. It was the condign justice meted out to all perceived failures. The Byzantine emperor then sent a message to the doge in which he asserted that the Venetian nation had acted with great foolishness. He noted that they were “once vagabonds sunk in the utmost poverty” who had somehow claimed the right to imperial ambitions. But their abject failure and “insolence” had rendered them “a laughing stock.”

The leaders of Venice reacted cautiously. They formed alliances with some of the emperor’s enemies, and began an insidious campaign against Byzantine territories. There were secret talks and clandestine meetings. An accord was eventually reached and in 1183, twelve years after their arrest, the Venetian merchants were finally permitted to leave the prisons; a formal peace treaty between Venice and Byzantium was signed. It had represented a great crisis, and a vivid token of the real enmity between Constantinople and Venice; one city was dying, and the other was impatiently waiting to emerge supreme. Over the next few years there were pacts and agreements and messages of mutual confidence between the two cities. But in truth there could be no end to the struggle other than a fatal one.

The new eminence of Venice was exemplified by one of those scenes of living theatre at which Venice excelled. The characters in this lavish spectacle were the leaders of Latin Christendom. One was the emperor of Germany, Frederick Barbarossa, and the other was Pope Alexander III. Barbarossa laid claim to the Lombard states, and in particular to Milan; Pope Alexander strenuously resisted the claim, and allied himself with the Italian cities. The emperor was excommunicated. Nevertheless Barbarossa, spurned by the Church, had success with the sword. The Lombard cities were taken. Milan fell, and was largely destroyed. Yet the dominion of Germany over this part of Italy was constantly being threatened by internal rebellion and by the open hostility of other Italian cities that looked to the pope for leadership. The weariness of continual warfare, and the inevitable cycle of victories and defeats, eventually disheartened both sides. The pope and the emperor contemplated the principles of an agreement. But where should they meet formally to ratify their pact?

Venice had largely kept itself aloof from the hostilities, on the very good ground that it is better to remain neutral in any battle between such powerful enemies. Venice did not in any case concern itself with the affairs of Italy if its own interests were not directly touched. So the most serene city became the most appropriate setting for the reconciliation of Barbarossa and Alexander. On 23 March 1177, the pontiff landed at the Lido and was received at the monastery of Saint Nicholas; he was no doubt shown the so-called “relics” of the saint himself. On the following day he sailed into Venice, where he was received by the doge. There were now long and difficult negotiations over the terms of the peace, with the emissaries of both sides raising objections and proposing alterations. Yet the pact was finally sealed. On 23 July the emperor was welcomed to the monastery of Saint Nicholas. On the following day he sailed to Venice, where Alexander awaited him. The pope sat in state upon the papal throne, which had been placed before the central gates of the basilica; he was surrounded by his cardinals, like some crowd scene from the sacred plays of the period. The emperor, disembarking from the glittering barge of the doge, walked in stately procession towards the pontiff. Before him walked the doge himself. Saint Mark’s Square was filled with spectators, eager to see the play unfold. When the emperor reached the papal throne he took off his scarlet cloak and, bowing to the ground, kissed the feet of the pope. Alexander, now weeping, raised up the emperor and gave him the kiss of peace. The audience now began to sing the Te Deum, and all the bells of the city rang out. It had been a great performance.

This dramatic scene was also used by Venice as an advertisement for the city’s strength and sense of justice. It was the seat of a general reconciliation. The city was the place of impartial judgement and of equity because it was subject to God alone. It played no part in the power politics of popes or emperors, except to heal the wounds caused by them. That, at least, was the message of the Venetian chroniclers in reporting these events from the summer of 1177. For that moment, when the bells pealed, Venice was the centre of the world. There were more immediate benefits also. The emperor granted trade privileges to Venice throughout his empire, and the pope gave Venice ecclesiastical dominion over Dalmatia.

The spectacle itself might have acted as an overture for the grander opera that was about to be performed. In the years that followed, Venice entered another, and greater, phase of its imperial power. It conquered and stripped Constantinople. A new scenario began with another holy war. The pope had declared a fourth crusade against the infidels and, in the early months of 1201, the French princes who had taken the cross came to Venice to plead for the ships that would transport them to the Holy Land. They were received in great state by the doge, and were asked to plead their case before the people of Venice in the basilica. So, after mass had been heard, one of their number stepped forward and declared that “no nation is so powerful on the seas as you”; after that piece of flattery, he implored the aid of the Venetian people. The princes then knelt down and wept. Immediately there were cries all around the basilica. “We grant it! We grant it!” It was a fine piece of stage management, in the best traditions of the city.

The doge, Enrico Dandolo, was already old and nearly blind. He was elected at the age of eighty-four, but he was one of those Venetian patriarchs whose tenacity and singleness of purpose were the visible proof of the city’s own ruthlessness. It was said that he had nourished a grievance against Constantinople ever since the mass imprisonment of 1171. According to one Byzantine Greek chronicler, “he boasted that so long as he failed to take revenge on them for what they had done to his people he was living under sentence of death.” It was even reported, in later chronicles, that he had been blinded by the Byzantines themselves when he had once travelled to the city as an ambassador; this is the stuff of legend only.

The carpenters of the Arsenal were set to work, engaged to build and equip enough ships to carry 4,500 horsemen and 30,000 soldiers. In return Venice demanded 84,000 silver marks. The efficiency of the shipbuilding yards was by now well known throughout Europe, and all of the ships were delivered on time. But there was one problem. The crusaders had been unable to find the money to pay for them. So a new arrangement was concluded. The Venetians would waive full payment, on condition that the crusaders would assist them in subduing the rebellious city of Zara on the Dalmatian coast. It was a diversion from the Holy Land, but the leaders of the forces of the cross considered it to be a necessary one. Three hundred ships left the lagoon in October 1202, to the chant of the Veni Creator, and sailed down the Adriatic. Zara, after a siege of five days, surrendered. Christian had turned against Christian rather than the common enemy of the Saracen. The pope, incensed by this unwelcome development, excommunicated the forces of the expedition. It is not reported that the Venetians, in particular, were in any way cowed or humbled by the papal wrath.

Once the Venetians were fully in possession of the town, they were surprised by the arrival of an unexpected guest. The son of the deposed emperor of Constantinople, Alexius Angelus, came to Dandolo in search of justice. He wished the crusaders to overthrow the usurper, on the throne of the empire, and reinstall his father. For his part he pledged to finance and otherwise assist the armies in their high purpose. It was an offer that could not be refused. It has often been surmised that Dandolo had held this aim in mind throughout all the preparations for the crusade, and that he had already determined that Constantinople rather than Syria was to be the destination of the Venetian fleet. There can be no doubt that Dandolo saw a great opportunity for advancement and enrichment in this war at the expense of Constantinople. But there are elements of adventitious chance in all the affairs of men. Dandolo could not have known that the French crusaders would be unable to honour their obligation, although it is likely that he knew in advance of the arrival of Alexius in Zara. The Venetians were always adept at taking advantage of chance and circumstance. Yet in another perspective the great events of the world seem, on close scrutiny, to be made up of a thousand singular elements and accidents and coincidences. In the midst of this swirling world it would be hard to detect a pattern. So we may say that it just happened. As a consequence of these events the power of Byzantium was extinguished, its city and empire weakened beyond repair.

The Venetian fleet, in aid of Alexius, moved against the city. On 24 June 1203, it sailed beside the walls. A French attack by land seemed to have failed and so, under the command of Dandolo, the Venetians tied their galleys together to form a united front; from the decks and turrets of the vessels, military engines discharged their fire into the city. Constantinople was in flames. Dandolo himself stood at the prow of the first ship that struck land. He was dressed in full armour, and the standard of Saint Mark flew at his side. At his urging the Venetian soldiers leapt from their vessels and scaled the ladders swung against the walls. There was some combat, but the forces of the Byzantines were overwhelmed by this swift attack from the sea. The banner of the republic was fixed on the rampart. The city was taken. The deposed emperor, on whose behalf Alexius had pleaded, was rescued from his dungeon and placed upon the throne. Alexius himself was crowned in the basilica of Saint Sophia, and took his place as co-ruler of the empire.

Yet the fatal decline of Constantinople was about to resume its inevitable course. Alexius had promised the crusaders more than he could achieve. He lacked finance and, more importantly, he had forfeited his authority among his countrymen by relying upon the forces of the crusaders to obtain the imperial crown. The citizens of Constantinople, instigated by fear and rumour, rebelled against the new emperor. Alexius was cut down, his father abandoned to his grief.

The Venetians and their allies now had to extinguish this rebellion, and bring the city under their rule. They had not come so far to be simply asked to leave. So once more, in March 1204, they laid siege to the city. On the eve of the assault Dandolo declared to his men that they must “be valiant. And with the help of Jesus Christ, milord Saint Mark, and the prowess of your bodies, you shall be tomorrow in possession of the city, and you shall all be rich.”

Once their victory was assured, the Christian armies, inflamed by greed and anger, began a general sack of the city. Constantinople was pillaged and burned. The wealthiest city of the world, filled with art and sculpture, was laid bare. Its citizens were slaughtered, the frenzy of blood-lust such that it seemed that the gates of hell had been opened. The palaces and houses of the city were ransacked. The churches were despoiled. The statues were melted down, and the pictures ripped apart. The tombs were opened, and the sacred vessels removed. It is reported that a prostitute was enthroned in the chair of the patriarch, in the basilica of Saint Sophia, from where she “hurled insults at Jesus Christ, and she sang bawdy songs, and danced immodestly in the holy place.” One chronicler claimed that the rapine exceeded any other since the creation of the world. And the Venetians were the principal agents of this despoliation. Much of the plunder found its way to Venice. The four great horses that surmount the basilica of Saint Mark’s are part of the fruit of that brutal victory.

There were other spoils. The crusaders claimed the dominions of Constantinople, and carved up its empire among the victors. Venice negotiated its portion with its customary merchant zeal, and was rewarded “the fourth part and the half of the Roman empire”; that is, it commanded three-eighths of the old empire. It already claimed Dalmatia and Croatia, and now it took possession of the Aegean coasts and islands as well as parts of the Mediterranean. It controlled Crete and Corfu as well as the islands of Modon and Coron. It took the western part of Greece and the islands of the Ionian Sea. It demanded the coast of Thrace, as well as the ports on the Hellespont. It seized Negroponte in the Aegean. While the other crusaders were unsure of their geography, the leaders of Venice knew exactly what they wanted. Many of the islands were then granted to various patrician families of Venice, who held them as fiefdoms of the republic. There was now also a large Venetian colony within Constantinople itself, which acquired a large measure of independence from the home city. There were even reports that the capital of the new empire was about to remove from Venice to Constantinople, but these were discounted. Yet one central fact was clear. The markets of the east were beckoning. All thought of the war against the infidel was forgotten and, indeed, the crusaders never did reach the Holy Land. It was the last of the crusades.

The strategy of Venice was that of a sea power intent upon strengthening its command of the sea. That is why the first great conquests were in the Levant, or eastern Mediterranean, where Venice might pose as the begetter of “an apostolic empire of the East” as a fitting successor to the Christian empire established in the East by Justinian and Constantine. It is a typical example of Venetian rhetoric masking policy. To the victors, the spoils. So the imperium of Venice was largely confined to the islands and to the coastal regions. The Venetians wanted no part of the inland empire of Byzantium, whether in Asia or in Europe. The city could never have become another Rome. Instead it settled for secure trading routes across the seas, with a series of ports under Venetian control linking the market of the lagoon to the markets of the Levant. These were not so much colonies as trading posts, stretching from Venice to the Black Sea. The nature of Venetian dominion was now clear for all to observe. The power of Constantinople was effectively gone for ever. The consequences of the Venetian adventure, however, were by no means beneficent. That which is born in fire may die in fire. A weakened Constantinople became the prey of the Turks; the newly established Latin empire endured for only sixty years; the colonial possessions of Venice also left it exposed to attack in a long sequence of wars that tested its strength. For the next seventy years the serene city would be engaged in almost constant warfare with its rebellious subjects and with its rivals, with the Saracens and with the pirates of the Mediterranean.

<p>17</p> <p>Cities in Collision</p>

There was one other significant competitor with which Venice had to deal. Genoa was known to the world as “la Superba,” Genoa the proud. Petrarch had described Venice and Genoa as “the two torches of Italy”; but fire can drive out fire. Both cities were known throughout Europe for their rapacity and acquisitiveness. The Genoese were more individualistic and inventive; the Venetians were more communal and conservative. The Genoese had a history of internecine warfare and rebellion; the Venetians were quiescent. Could they ever have lived at peace with one another?

For many centuries the merchants of Genoa competed with those of Venice in the eastern markets. But the success of the Venetians materially hindered the commerce of the rival city. It had been decreed, after the fall of Constantinople, that the Genoese were to be excluded from trade throughout the empire. But the Genoese fought back. They, too, were a seafaring people who had built up a great fleet that could challenge Venice on the seas of the known world. There were open clashes between the rival cities on the coasts of Crete and in Corfu, where the native inhabitants welcomed the arrival of the Genoese. A truce was agreed in 1218, but this was merely a prelude to further and more fatal struggles.

The tension between the two cities remained constant throughout the century, with skirmishing and assaults in all the markets where they competed; in 1258, after some particularly bloody fighting in Syria, the Venetians expelled the Genoese merchants from their quarter in Acre. There was then, for the Venetians, an unfortunate and unexpected development. In 1261 the Greeks, under the leadership of Michael Palaeologus, regained control of Constantinople. The Venetian fleet was at sea and the city was relatively unprotected. Under these auspicious circumstances the emperor’s forces mounted a rapid attack on the Latin contingent, and gained the defensive walls. Three weeks later Michael walked in glory to the basilica of Saint Sophia. He owed much of his success, however, to the Genoese who had supplied him with fifty ships; in return for their support they wished for unrestricted trade access in the markets of the city. They wanted revenge upon the Venetians for their forced departure from Acre. When the Venetians returned, they could do nothing except rescue their compatriots whose shops and dwellings had been destroyed by fire.

The Genoese were not faithful allies. Their merchants were, according to report, arrogant and avaricious. Their fleet proved unequal to a naval challenge from Venice. More importantly their representatives in Constantinople were accused of mounting a conspiracy against Paleologus himself. Ever ready to supplant a rival, Venetian envoys were sent in secret to the court of the emperor. A new trade pact was concluded. The Genoese were to be expelled from the empire, whereas Venice would be granted free privileges. In addition the Venetians were allowed to retain the former Byzantine possessions of Crete, of Negroponte, of Modon and Coron. These were sufficiently generous terms, and the emperor now understood that Venice itself was the greater power.

The Venetians were becoming accustomed to empire. At the beginning of the fourteenth century the doge, Pietro Gradenigo, made a speech to the great council of patricians in which he declared that “it is the duty of every good prince, and of every worthy citizen, to enlarge the State, to increase the Republic, and to seek its welfare by every means in his power.” It was the responsibility of the state, too, to seize every favourable opportunity for aggrandisement. Gradenigo had the mainland of Italy particularly in mind, where now the Venetians were actively promoting a policy of aggressive warfare. They had once sought neutrality in the battles between pope and holy Roman emperor over the cities of Italy. They had once wanted simply to preserve their trade routes. But now the experience of imperial expansion had hardened their sinews. They had become more belligerent. The mainland of Italy was in any case changing its nature. The principal cities no longer saw themselves as vassals of superior powers, such as the papacy, but as sovereign regions or city-states. There were some eighty of them throughout the land of Italy. Some were under the control of individual families, such as the Este of Ferrara, and others were in theory republican communities. Yet the central point was their independence. Independent cities want power and territory. They compete with each other for trade and influence. They even fight each other.

In 1308 Venice fought on the mainland in order to maintain its commercial rights within Ferrara and gain control over the Po. It allied itself with Florence and Bologna in order to fight back the expansive policies of Verona, and in the process captured much mainland territory. It fought against Padua and by its victory gained the provinces of Treviso and Bassano as well as the city of Padua itself. It won Verona and Vicenza. The Italian cities that came under Venetian domination were not subjugated. Venetian civil and military commanders were dispatched to the cities, but municipal government continued in the familiar fashion. The Venetian ruling class had a genius for administration and government. Its power was neither too lax nor too onerous. There are some indications of an imperial style but in the colonies overseas the rulers were blended within the native landscape. There was no ruling ideology of conquest. There was no attempt to impose new standards of value or new principles of belief. They came not as conquerors or as missionaries but, essentially, as traders. Their true belief was in the efficacy of commerce. They were a very practical people. They were unpopular enough, but they were resented rather than hated.

It would be wrong to assume, however, that there was no internal discontent. The immediate fact of conquest was, for the conquered, hard to bear. The example of Crete is representative. The lands of the local Byzantine magnates were expropriated, and given to Venetians. There were neither finances nor resources to maintain a standing army on the island, so a number of Venetian patricians were sent out as colonisers who retained their lands as fiefdoms on condition that they defended them. These Venetians tended to inhabit the towns and cities of the island. They were accustomed to cities. Cities were their natural habitat. In due course a predominantly agricultural economy was in part turned towards urban trade, trade directed almost exclusively to the mother-city. And of course the Venetian authorities imposed heavy taxation upon every transaction. They encouraged trade for the purpose of exploiting it. Yet merchants began to flourish on the island. There was also a growing market for the wares of Cretan icon-painters. It has been estimated that 95 per cent of the icon-painters, throughout the Venetian empire, originally came from the island.

The Venetian strategy was to remodel the governance of the island on the example of Venice herself. Crete was divided into sestieri. There was a duca in the principal role, modelled on the doge. The major decisions of security and trade, however, were still the prerogative of the Venetian senate. There were more visible changes. The principal square of Candia, the capital of Crete, was renamed Piazza S. Marco. It became the meeting place and market of the island, with its own basilica and ducal palace. It was remodelled and restored to lend dignity and seriousness to the new administration. It became the stage for festivals and public celebrations. A processional way was constructed between the entrance gate of the port and the basilica. Venice was re-creating its theatre of trade and of politics in a new environment. The Byzantine palaces and monuments were reused, their symbolic meaning subtly altered to reflect Venetian hegemony. Some of them were given new, “Venetian,” façades.

Venice saw itself as the natural heir to Byzantium. There was no sudden disruption but, instead, an orderly transition. The religious traditions and the public ceremonies of the old empire were appropriated and adapted. As always Venice lived by assimilation. The example of Crete is again instructive. The ecclesiastical rites of the Latin Church, in ceremonies and processions, were moulded with the rites of the Greek Church. The Venetians adopted the cult of the local saint of the island, Titus. So there were no religious wars. The Venetians were not like the Spanish. There were endless reconciliations and compromises, simply in order to maintain the momentum of what was essentially a vast trading regime. Cretans married Venetians. Venetian merchants migrated to Crete. Cretan scholars and painters migrated to Venice. A new culture emerged, of the West and of the East. After the fall of Byzantium Crete became the centre of Hellenism in the West. There were, naturally enough, influences of opposite tendency. There are still Venetian dialect words embedded in modern Greek, among them the words for steel, armada, velvet, the acacia tree and the wedding ring. Indeed there was a revival of Greek letters under Venetian rule. It was Venice, rather than Byzantium, that preserved native Greek culture in the early modern period. Its poetry was composed by men whose political, racial, spiritual and cultural allegiances were to Venice.

There were revolts and rebellions, as a result of local grievances and factions, but the island remained in Venetian hands for more than four centuries. It can be concluded, therefore, that the Venetians were effectively the first modern colonial power.

Yet in a world dominated by war and empire, there could be no end to rivalry and struggle. In the letters and chronicles of the late fourteenth century the optimism of the Venetians is in some part replaced by intimations of gloom and melancholy; the world seems more uncertain, and the role of providence ill-defined. The loss of confidence is accompanied by the search for greater security in the world. The acquisition of empire, then, brought its own burdens. In 1364 the native inhabitants of Candia rebelled against their Venetian overseers; several Venetian patricians also joined in the revolt. The insurrection was put down, its leaders executed, but it had been a troubling moment for Venice. Petrarch was in the city when the victorious force returned to the lagoon. “We augured good news,” he wrote, “for the masts were garlanded with flowers, and on the deck were lads, crowned with green wreaths and waving flags over their heads …” Relief, as well as triumph, was the emotion of the day. A high mass was celebrated in the basilica, and a great festival was organised in the square itself. Petrarch was present on this occasion, too, and remarked upon the magnificence of the ceremonies. As the empire of Venice became more assured, so the taste for spectacle and ceremonial grew more intense.

Genoa was not quelled by its expulsion from Constantinople. Its traders were dominant in the Black Sea. It held the pre-eminent position in Syria and Palestine. There was never any chance of an enduring peace. In 1350 a Venetian admiral surprised a fleet of fourteen Genoese vessels at the port of Negroponte, and captured ten of them. The other four were allowed to flee simply because the Venetians were too occupied in plundering the cargo of the others. The Venetians and their Greek allies then confronted the Genoese fleet in the Bosphorus, but the battle proved inconclusive. In 1353 the Venetians defeated the Genoese off Sardinia, but a second Genoese fleet began a journey of destruction through the Adriatic and the Aegean. A year later a Venetian fleet was sabotaged and sunk by the Genoese in the port of Modon; the Venetian commanders and their men were taken into custody. It was a signal victory for the Genoese but, even in defeat, the Venetians proved to be expert negotiators. A truce was agreed by means of which each side promised not to attack the other.

The subsequent peace was not, for Venice, a peace at all. It was obliged to cede Dalmatia to the king of Hungary, because of that sovereign’s superior force of arms; it was impelled to withdraw its merchants from Famagusta in Cyprus when the Genoese took over that town. The Venetian fleet kept the Adriatic as its territory, but it was engaged in constant confrontation with the Genoese in the Black Sea. When Venice seized the vital island of Tenedos, controlling access to that sea, the Genoese once again declared war. The Fourth Genoese War was to prove the most terrible, and the most fatal, of all.

The hostilities began in 1378 when a Venetian admiral, Vettor Pisani, sailed west and won a great victory over the Genoese in Genoa’s own waters. But there were complications closer to home. The king of Hungary invited the Genoese to use the Dalmatian coast, opposite Venice, as their centre of operations. It was an opportunity not to be missed. Pisani was obliged to return to the Adriatic, in order to protect Venetian convoys in a gulf that the Venetians had always claimed as their own. His base was at Pola, in Istria, and at the turn of the year the vessels of the fleet were being fitted up and cleaned for future hostilities. But a battle was forced upon them before they could muster all of their ships. The Venetians first had the advantage, when the Genoese admiral was killed, but a reserve force of Genoese ships came forward unexpectedly and overwhelmed the Venetians. Hundreds were killed or captured.

With their fleet effectively out of action, it was the moment that the Venetians most feared. Their enemies closed in upon them from every side. The king of Hungary closed the routes of the northern Adriatic; the lord of Padua blocked the western trade routes on the mainland. The fleets of the Genoese were protected, and were being augmented all the time. They were even able to enter the lagoon, and burn towns along the Lido. This had never before happened in the history of the serene republic. When the Paduans and Genoese joined forces, and took the extensive port of Chioggia to the south of Venice, the armed circle around the city was complete. The Venetians were now effectively under siege. They might even be invaded. Business on the Rialto came to a halt. The salaries of public officials were suspended. The poor were told by the doge that they would find food in the homes of the rich. When threatened, the Venetians came together as a coherent body. The Venetians proposed negotiations but the Genoese replied that they would not talk to their enemies until the horses of Saint Mark’s had been bridled; by this time the bronze horses, taken from the spoliation of Constantinople, had become a symbol of Venetian pride and greed.

It was a moment of the utmost peril for the Venetian authorities, who knew that they would need the support and co-operation of all the people to avert a fatal outcome. At the insistence of the crowds they released from prison Vettor Pisani, who had been incarcerated for his defeat at Pola. He now became the popular champion and the principal defender of the city. The doge himself, Andrea Contarini, helped to train crews for the new galleys that were being built.

The plan, outlined by Pisani, was to sink barges and boats laden with stone in the deep channels around Chioggia; this was a way of cutting off the port, and its Genoese invaders, from the mainland and from the Genoese fleet still at sea. The scheme was a success. The Genoese found themselves blockaded, with dwindling supplies of food, water and gunpowder. The Venetians were also suffering from privation, but they had one advantage. They possessed hope. Even as Pisani harried and outmanoeuvred the Genoese, trying desperately to leave Chioggia, another Venetian admiral returned to port. Carlo Zeno had completed a military expedition that had captured the cargos and booty of many Genoese ships in the Mediterranean. Then he received instructions to return to the lagoon and assist his city in its trial of strength with Genoa.

It was he who helped to prevent the increasingly desperate attempts of the Genoese to fight their way out of Chioggia. There were great battles on the sands and the Genoese commander, Pietro Doria, was killed when a cannon ball struck the tower from which he was observing the proceedings. Then, in June 1380, the Genoese surrendered. There was still work to be done in the Adriatic and in the Mediterranean. But Genoa never challenged Venice again. Genoese vessels never returned to the Adriatic. In this year of defeat a Genoese friar delivered a homily to his congregation. The Genoese, he said, were like donkeys. “When many are together, and one of them is thrashed with a stick, all scatter, fleeing hither and thither.” The Venetians, on the other hand, resembled pigs. “When a multitude of pigs is confined together, and one of them is hit or beaten with a stick, all draw close and run unto him who hits it.”

The victory had enormous consequences for Venice. In the fourteenth century it became one of the principal cities of the known world. Where in previous centuries it had been aligned with the East, in cultural and mercantile terms, by the end of the fourteenth century it had emerged as a properly European power. After the war was over it went on to claim by right of conquest or dominion Durazzo and Scutari, Lepanto and Patras, Argos and Athens. These were the homes of wine and wheat. The Venetian empire of Italy also grew, or rather was accumulated, step by step. In the early years of the fifteenth century Verona and Padua despatched ambassadors to Venice to make the formal act of submission. They were followed by Ravenna and Friuli and a host of other towns and cities. From the Alps in the north to the Po in the south, from Bergamo and Crema in the west to the sea itself, Venice claimed dominion. It might even be claimed that the city had refashioned the ancient province of Venetia, from which its ancestors had come.

Governors were sent to the towns and cities under its control, and a “captain” was appointed to administer military affairs. High service on the mainland became a prelude to political authority at home. But each city was able to preserve its local privileges, as well as its customary assemblies and magistrates. Only gradually was there a movement towards more professional and bureaucratic structures, with the increasing significance of a small number of aristocratic families. The pattern of Venice was, ineluctably, beginning to repeat itself. The greater bears down upon the lesser. But the dominant city—the inclita dominante, or illustrious mistress, as it was known—did not seek to impose union on these territories. The Milanese and Florentines were far more ready to assert their authority over their subject cities. The Venetians were more cautious or, perhaps, more conservative. There was some confusion over the status of local law, as it related to Venetian law, but that was perhaps inevitable. The empire of the mainland was driven by pragmatism and expediency. There was no Venetian state. There was only a trade confederation, relying heavily upon the revenue accruing to Venice through the proceeds of indirect taxation.

The Venetians also discouraged any enterprise that might challenge the commercial supremacy of their own city, as, for example, the weaving of luxury textiles, so that according to an English observer in the 1760s “every other town in the territory of the Republick appears poor in the comparison of the mother-city.” The innate conservatism of the Venetian state, too, actively discouraged the modernisation of the general economy of the mainland territories. This led directly to Venice’s eventual financial decline. The Italians were not able to compete with the resurgent English and Dutch. The inability or unwillingness to create a state, and a modern state at that, may also have encouraged the fissiparous qualities of the Italian peninsula. In one sense the opportunity for unification and centralisation had been squandered. So Italy remained a prey to foreign powers.

Yet Venice was still secure. It was protected by the lagoon while the plains and hills of northern Italy gave it space against the rival city of Milan; the deep valleys and mountains of the Alpine region afforded it protection against northern rivals. The further the dominion spread, the more jealously it was protected. Issues of self-defence as well as commercial gain were used to justify the absorption of towns and regions. Inaction was no longer possible.

In the first quarter of the fifteenth century, therefore, Venice aligned itself with Florence in order to fight the Visconti family of Milan; this was its first departure from its policy of splendid isolation. There was much opposition to this alliance in Venice itself. Venetian merchants traded very successfully with the Milanese territories and any overreaching by Venice would require the presence of a standing army. Yet the leaders of Venice determined to form an alliance with the free republic of Florence against the tyrants of Milan. The strategy was successful and, with the removal of the Visconti family, Italy reached a state of broad equilibrium amenable to Venetian pressure. There were now no more than five territorial states with their claims and resources finely balanced—Venice, Naples, Florence, Milan and the papal state. Each ruling city and its dependent territories was given the name of lo stato or the estate. In time the word developed to mean the collective existence of a nation or people. In the beginning these stati depended upon the personality of the ruler or ruling family; eventually, of course, they would be politically and scientifically organised to merit the description of a “state.” The interests of the state then became paramount. Of these new Italian powers von Ranke, the German historian, wrote that “they were neither nations nor races; neither cities nor kingdoms; they were the first States in world.” And Venice was one of them, opening the way for the development of the modern world order.

Milan was still the dominant city of Lombardy, and Florence of Tuscany, but in the phrase of William Wordsworth only Venice did also “hold the gorgeous East in fee.” The eastern association was evident in the streets and houses of the city; even its national basilica was Oriental in inspiration. By the fifteenth century it was the richest city in Italy, with an annual budget equal to that of Spain or of England. There were many more palaces in Venice than in any other city. Its navy was arguably the finest in the world. It was also a much more stable city than any of its rivals on the mainland, with a strength and persistence that derived from its earliest instincts for survival in the battle against the sea. While the Genoese in particular were plagued by civil war and internecine rivalries, Venice remained a model of constancy despite periods of plague and of economic depression. The strength and security of its constitution rendered it powerful. The trade of the city revived, particularly in its intercourse with India and with China, and the revenues of the Rialto were never more strong. It was triumphant.

<p>18</p> <p>A Call to Arms</p>

At the height of its intervention on the mainland, Venice could maintain a force of forty thousand troops. It was estimated by the reigning doge, in 1423, that the city possessed thirty-five galleys, three hundred round ships and three thousand other vessels; they required a complement of thirty-six thousand sailors, almost a quarter of the entire population of 150,000 people. There were ships christened La Forza, La Fama and La Salute. They were used to protect the armed galleys of the trade convoys that left Venice on prearranged dates; they were used to combat pirates and to harass enemy traders. No foreign ship was safe in the waters Venice considered its own. The officers were elected from the patrician class of the city. Service at sea was an indispensable part of the education of the young patrician.

The crews were at first all free men, volunteers found in Venice or in Venetian possessions. By the beginning of the sixteenth century conscription had been introduced. This of course so lowered the status of galley labour that it became a burden to be avoided. To be an oarsman, a galeotto, was considered to be part of a “low” profession. So by the middle of the sixteenth century there was a change in the nature of these crews. It was said that they comprised drunks and debtors, criminals and other outcasts. The courts of Venice sometimes consigned the guilty to the galleys rather than the cells. By 1600 prisoners made up the principal part of the crew. The measure of their servitude can be computed by the records of the Venetian courts—eighteen months of galley service was considered equivalent to three years of close imprisonment and a period in the pillory, while seven years in the galleys was considered to be equal to twelve years of confinement. Their rations were made up of biscuit, wine, cheese, salt pork and beans. The diet was designed to feed the sanguinary humour. A Franciscan friar was always on board to rouse them. Yet there are reports of disease and of early death, of exhaustion and despair. Carlo Gozzi, in the eighteenth century, saw “some three hundred scoundrels, loaded with chains, condemned to drag their life out in a sea of miseries and torments, each of which was sufficient by itself to kill a man.” He noticed that, at the time, “an epidemic of malignant fever raged among these men.” It is not clear, however, that the changed personnel were in general any less proficient as oarsmen. They helped to win a famous victory against the Turks at Lepanto.

The maritime marvel of Venice was the Arsenal, the greatest shipbuilding concern in the world. The word itself derives from the Arabic dar sina’a, or place of construction, thus affirming the strong connection of Venice with the East. It was built at the beginning of the twelfth century, and was continually being extended and expanded until it became a wonder of technology. It was variously described as “the factory of marvels,” “the greatest piece of oeconomy in Europe” and “the eighth miracle of the world.” The epithets are a measure of the respect in which new technologies were then held. Its famous gate, made up of Roman and of Byzantine elements, was raised there in 1460. The Arsenal had become the centre of another empire. It was the engine of trade. It was the foundation of naval might. It was a token of the supremacy of industrial enterprise in the most serene city.

Eventually two and half miles (4 km) of walls, and fourteen defensive towers, surrounded sixty acres (24 ha) of working space. It was the largest industrial enterprise in the world. A population of skilled workers and labourers grew up around the site. The number of workmen has been estimated at anything between six thousand and sixteen thousand; in any event they worked in large numbers. This shipbuilding neighbourhood in the eastern part of Venice became a recognisable part of the city, with its own prejudices and customs. People lived and died, were baptised and married, within the three parishes of S. Martino, S. Ternita and S. Pietro. It is still an area of tiny houses, crowded tenements, small squares, dead-ends and narrow alleys.

The inhabitants became known as arsenalotti, and such was their importance to the state that the male population of ship-makers was also used as a bodyguard for the doge. They were also employed as fire-fighters. Only the arsenalotti were allowed to be labourers in the Mint. They alone rowed the ceremonial barge of the doge. Proud of their status, they never united with the other artisans of Venice. It is a case of divide and rule. It is also a signal example of the subtle way in which the leaders of Venice co-opted what might have been an unruly group of people within the very fabric of the city. The loyalty of the arsenalotti materially helped to secure the cohesion and the very survival of Venice.

The Arsenal was the first factory established upon the assembly line of modern industry, and thus the harbinger of the factory system of later centuries. One traveller, in 1436, described it thus:

as one enters the gate there is a great street on either side with the sea in the middle, and on one side are windows opening out of the houses of the arsenal, and the same on the other side. On this narrow strip of water floated a galley towed by a boat, and from the windows of the various houses they handed out to the workers, from one the cordage, from another the arms …

It was known as “the machine.” The armed galleys were constructed here. The relatively unarmed “round” ships, with sails instead of oars, were also made here. The key to its efficiency lay in the division, and specialisation, of labour; there were shipwrights and caulkers, rope-makers and blacksmiths, sawyers and oar-makers. Thirty galleys could be built and fitted within ten days. When the French king visited the place in 1574, a galley was built and launched in the two hours it took him to eat his dinner. The whole process of industrial collaboration, however, might be seen as an image of the Venetian polity itself. Everything is of a piece.

Dante visited the Arsenal in the early fourteenth century, and left a description of it in the twenty-first canto of the Inferno:

As in the Arsenal of the VenetiansBoils in the winter the tenacious pitch …One hammers at the prow, one at the stern,This one makes oars and that one cordage twistsAnother mends the mainsail and the mizzen.

It may not be coincidence that Dante places this vision in the eighth circle of hell, where corrupt public officials are punished eternally. The blatant sale of public offices became a problem in Venetian governance.

Eventually the Arsenal was outmoded. The development of craft technology in the seventeenth century rendered it obsolete. It continued producing galleys when no galleys were needed. It became inefficient, its labourers underpaid and underworked. Yet it did not finally close until 1960, when eleven thousand families were removed from their ancient neighbourhood. Now the factories and production lines are used to house exhibitions for the various festivals that visit Venice. It is an apt token of the nature of the city.

The Venetian army was as effective by land as the Venetian navy on the oceans. By the middle of the fifteenth century it could afford to maintain a standing force of twenty thousand troops, with extra militia ready to be called up in an emergency. By the beginning of the following century, that number had doubled. It was of mixed identity. Venetian engineers were well known for their skills in siege weaponry, but it was said that the Venetians themselves did not make good soldiers. To a large extent, therefore, the city relied upon mercenaries for its defence. Its soldiers came from Dalmatia, Croatia and Greece as well as from Germany and Gascony; there were light horse from Albania and cuirassiers from other parts of Italy. When some Venetian gunmen were captured at Buti in 1498, and their hands cut off, some of the unfortunate troops were from England and Holland.

The acquisition of a land empire, at the beginning of the fifteenth century, was the direct motive for the creation of a standing army. Yet such an army posed problems for the leaders of the city. An army could move through its streets. An army could threaten its mainland possessions. That is why no Venetian was ever made general or commander. The danger of a military coup was always present to the administration. Venetian patricians were not allowed to command, at any one time, more than twenty-five men. It was a safeguard against faction. Instead a foreign commander was always chosen, although he held his office under the watchful care of two senior patricians in the field with him. It was not an ideal arrangement, especially in the very heat of battle, but it served Venetian interests well.

The foreign generals were known as condottieri, from the Italian word for contract. They were contracted men. But they were also adventurers, and sometimes brigands, who were suited to the theatre of Venice. They aspired to the type of the classical Roman general, ferocious in war and gracious in peace; they were deemed to be no less wise than courageous, no less virtuous than judicious. And they were paid well. Venice was known as a generous, and prompt, employer. The condottieri were given ornate houses along the Grand Canal, and were granted large estates on the mainland. They seemed to be indispensable to the state, but there were some who questioned the wisdom of employing them. They could be persuaded to change sides, if large enough bribes were offered, and they could sometimes be feckless and excessively independent. Machiavelli blamed the collapse of Venice, in his lifetime, on the use of mercenaries and mercenary commanders. If the Venetians did not excel at warfare, they would soon become deficient in the arts of peace. Sir Henry Wotton, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, commented that “by the lasciviousness of their youth, by the wariness of their aged men, by their long custom of ease, and distaste of arms, and consequently by their ignorance in the management thereof” the Venetian state was in sad decline. Yet decline was always being predicted for Venice, even at the acme of its power.


16

The Lion City

<p>16</p> <p>The Lion City</p>

As Venice grew richer, it became more powerful. A city needs a ruling authority, and the acquisition of authority invites arrogance and belligerence. It encourages the will for further power. Venice, surrounded by the sea, could not grow out of its own frontier. But it could be enlarged and enriched by its extension in other lands and in other cities. It could become an empire.

In earliest times la Serenissima, the city of the Virgin, had been given a masculine identity by its citizens. It was the Lion City. The very conditions of its existence made warfare an inevitable part of its history. There was warfare against the natural world and then warfare against its competitors. It was obliged to fight for its survival. Venice had archers and oarsmen and maritime warriors. Sea powers are natural competitors. While land powers may agree to the division of land into frontiers, the ocean has no frontier. Wherever there is sea, there are hostile ships. Throughout its long history, Venice could never rest.

The drawing books of Jacopo Bellini, composed in the mid-fifteenth century, contain many studies of cavaliers and crossbowmen preparing themselves for combat. Half of Bellini’s lifetime was spent in the battles of Venice against other powers. “This nation of sailors,” Petrarch wrote, “was so skilful in the handling of horses and weapons, so spirited and so hardy, that it surpassed all other warlike nations whether by sea or by land.” So it can indeed be construed as a masculine city. The history of Venice was conceived, and composed, as the history of patriarchal families. The government of Venice was patriarchal in all of its elements. The society of Venice was considered to be patrilinear in nature. The image of the city was wholly dependent upon the exercise of paternal authority.

The patrician youth were trained to use the bow, and to command galleys at sea. They were educated in all the knightly virtues, in a period when the chivalric code of warfare was honoured throughout Europe. The first jousts, in Saint Mark’s Square, are recorded as early as 1242. From that time forward they were staged at regular intervals. In Bellini’s drawing books, chivalric opponents dash upon each other in spectacular tournaments. On these occasions the city was given up to the celebration of militarism and the military virtues. It provided the theatre of war. Painters were employed to embellish shields and armour as well as icons and portraits. Artists, among them Bellini himself, were used to design fortifications and draw military maps. In the sacred paintings of Venice the saints are often seen wielding swords. Saint George, one of the patrons of the city, was the archetypal military saint. This is very different from the picture of Venetians as quick-witted traders or as earnest statesmen. But knightly valour was once an aspect of their culture. How else could the Venetians have created an empire?

So they knew how to use force when it was required. They were quick to strike, when the opportunity presented itself. One conquest led to another conquest. In fact, one conquest demanded another conquest. In a state that never felt itself secure, the condition of the world was always perilous. Unsuccessful generals and admirals were imprisoned, exiled, or killed. When they employed the newly invented cannon against a recalcitrant Italian town, an old chronicle reported that “one would think that God were thundering.” One cannon was named “the Venetian Woman who Casts down Every Wall and Spike.”

The first colonies of Venice were in the lagoon itself; originally the smaller islands had self-ruling or self-sustaining communities. Once each island had its monastery, and its church. But, soon enough, they all became part of Venice itself. The leaders of the city might then take comfort from the opening words of the ninety-seventh psalm: “The LORD reigneth; let the earth rejoice; let the multitude of isles be glad thereof.” The multitude of islands were swallowed up by the great city growing in their midst. Or their communities simply withered away.

Torcello, seven miles (11 km) to the north of the most serene city, was once a thriving place. Before the city of Venice ever rose from the waters, it was a great civic centre for the exiles from Venetia. They had first come in the middle of the fifth century. A cathedral of Byzantine form was raised here in the seventh century. It was built as a refuge and a strength by exiles fleeing from the mainland; the windows of the church have shutters of stone. Wealthy monasteries were founded on its fertile soil. In the tenth century it was described by the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus as “magnum emporium Torcellanorum.” Yet the success of Venice led ineluctably to the decay of Torcello. There was no room for two thriving centres of trade in the lagoon. There are some, however, who say that it was poisoned by the malarial waters of the lagoon. The sea was silted up, and the island was surrounded by stagnant ponds. There may be truth to this, but the visitation of disease added only the final blow to a long process of disintegration. Ineluctably Torcello sank in the significance of the world. In the nineteenth century a nobleman of spurious or dubious origin was dubbed as “a count of Torcello.” Now the once thriving island supports a handful of people; all around are wastes of mud-filled creeks and rivulets and what Ruskin described as “salt morass.” The brick campanile, and the mosaics within the cathedral itself, are the only remnants of its faded splendour. The civic square is covered by wild grass. Yet the silence of this island, interrupted sometimes by the soughing of the wind through the reeds or the rustle of rippling waters, is a vivid token of the primeval lagoon to which the first Veneti came. Another symbol can be found here of the Venetian world. There is a restaurant on the island, frequented by the tourists who journey to Torcello as an outdoor museum. It is really no more than that. And might it then somehow anticipate the fate of Venice itself?

On the majority of the islands could once be found a tall campanile and brick-built church; there was a small piazza, with the image of the lion on wall or pillar; there were little clusters of whitewashed houses, their gardens protected from the depredations of the salt wind by neat red fences. Then they were touched by decay more insidious than the wind. The island of Ammiana once boasted eight churches; then it was depopulated and turned into a salt farm. And where did the inhabitants go? They migrated to Venice. All of these dead towns and cities and settlements could once have been proposed as alternatives to Venice; they might have flourished and grown strong, as Venice did. If we were to follow the precepts of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, we might create the possible cities of the lagoon; the distinct customs and dialects of each island might then have created several different cities, resembling and yet not resembling Venice itself. But, then, this would be a fantasy.

Other islands, once under Venetian control, have disappeared. The island of Constanziaca was engulfed by the waters. It had once contained monasteries and churches. It became so woeful, however, that it was turned into a burial site where the bones of the dead were left to bleach in the sun. Then with all its churches and bones it simply subsided into the sea. No one knows its precise position. Other islands suffered a similar fate, among them Terra dei Mani and Terra dei Soleri. Five little islands encircling Murano have been washed away by tides and currents. There is seaweed now where once tall cypresses grew. Some islands were overcome by earthquakes or tidal waves; others were claimed by a slow and general desuetude. They could not compete against the most serene city.

The Venetian authorities turned some of these once flourishing islands into prisons or hospitals. It was one way of pushing the undesirable elements of the population to the margins. It was also an exercise in total power. The island of S. Servolo was turned into a lunatic hospital for men, while the island of S. Clemente was a mental asylum for Venetian women. Sacca Sessola was a place of exile for those suffering from consumption, while the Isola della Grazia held those who burned with fever. On the island of Poveglia were laid out huts for the lepers banished from the city. All these islands were known to the Venetians as “isole del dolore” or the islands of sorrow.

The island of S. Biagio, now called Giudecca, was once a green haven of orchards and gardens; here were a convent, a home for penitent prostitutes and a pilgrims’ hostel. But the secular world of Venice intervened. It became essentially a suburb of the city. Other islands were used as agricultural factories for the markets of the Rialto. In the second half of the fifteenth century the island now known as the Lido became an extension of Venice’s port. It became part of the economic zone that now encircled and sustained the city.

The beginning of the Venetian empire beyond the lagoon can be found in the ninth century. Venice was not as yet a leading sea-power. That position was reserved for the Spanish and for the North Africans. But it needed to control its immediate environment. It had to find, and maintain, a reliable food supply for an increasing population. It needed to secure access to water and to agricultural land. It needed to control the lifelines of its trade. So Venice turned to the mainland. The people of the sea were obliged to conquer terra firma.

Towards the close of the ninth century Venice sacked the rival cities on the Italian coast and took control of the mouths of the Adige and Po rivers. The rivers gave them access to the markets of northern Italy; within a short time the bargemen of the city were offering their wares in Pavia, the capital of Lombardy. The merchants of Venice were prominent, too, in the markets of Verona and Cremona. In the tenth century Venetian markets and warehouses were built on the banks of the rivers Sile and Piave. The Venetians occupied a castle beside the Livenza river, so that their goods could reach the German traders coming down into Italy. By 977 the Venetian traders had a colony in Limoges, and by the next century they had diffused themselves into Marseilles and Toulouse. The corn-growing areas of Treviso and Bassano were acquired. In this period, too, the Venetians began the slow process of purchasing mainland property and territory. Some of the great families of Venice, like the Badoer and Tiepolo, acquired land around Treviso. The larger monasteries purchased estates along the coastal plain. This gradual enlargement of Venetian property continued for seven centuries. The key issue, as always, was that of commerce and in particular of the supply of grain.

Once the trade with northern Italy and much of Europe was considered secure, the governors of Venice turned their attention towards the sea. The merchants already effectively controlled the trade in eastern goods, but the success of that trade demanded that the routes to the East should be strengthened and defended. The sea was to be made safe for the mass transport of goods. The principal cities of Istria, immediately across the sea from Venice, submitted. The northern part of the Adriatic became known as the Gulf of Venice. Then the Venetian navy worked downwards. By the end of the tenth century it effectively controlled the Middle Adriatic, and set about the conquest of Dalmatia (now part of modern Croatia). The islands and cities of the region surrendered to the superior force and numbers of the Venetians. Some cities, more alarmed by the depredations of the pirates who found safe haven in the small islands and inlets along the Dalmatian coast, invited the doge and his troops to enter their gates. Other cities were tormented by the demands of the petty despots, characteristically living in fortress outposts, and preferred the more benign sovereignty of Venice. Other places were simply happy to enter stable trading relations with the great sea-city. All of them were treated as allies, rather than as subjects, of Venice. Yet in truth the empire was being born. The pirates were defeated. The marauding Slavs were pushed back from the coast. In 998, the doge added the honorific of “dux of Dalmatia” to his title.

The seaway was open for increased traffic with Egypt and, more particularly, with Byzantium. Venice had already become that ancient city’s single most important trading partner, sending slaves and timber in exchange for wine, oil and wheat. In 991 Greek and Arab envoys travelled from the East to pay respect to the new doge, and a year later a treaty confirmed that Venice had been granted “most favoured” status by the Byzantine emperor. It confirmed what was already known. Venice had become the dominant trader of Europe, its commercial supremacy sustained by a vigorous and expanding navy. In return Venice offered its ships as transport for Byzantine soldiers crossing the Adriatic. The city was also, for all practical purposes, inviolable. At the time of the Magyar invasions of Lombardy, at the end of the ninth century, a stone wall was built to defend the islands of the Rialto. A great chain was placed across the water to prevent enemy ships from entering the Grand Canal. But the precautions were unnecessary. The Magyars could not reach the sea-girt city. They were beaten off in the shallow waters of the lagoon, where their ships foundered and sank. The great wall itself was demolished in the fourteenth century. It was not required.

By the eleventh century, therefore, Venice had become an autonomous and influential state. In the latter part of that century it fought with the troops of Byzantium against the Norman invaders of Sicily. The reason for the Norman adventure, as well as all the other policies and actions of Venice in this period, was very simple. No other state or city could be allowed to block the mouth of the Adriatic, thus imprisoning Venice within its own waters. This was the great fear and the abiding preoccupation.

It has become customary to describe the eleventh century as the period in which Latin Christendom emerged triumphant. This is nowhere more powerfully evinced than in the history of the Crusades. They have been construed as a direct attack upon the Muslim world, or as a form of spiritual imperialism, but the participation of Venice in the First Crusade had no such motives. The Venetians were waging economic warfare by other means. They were not concerned with the cross, or with the sword, but with the purse. The point was that rival trading cities, Genoa and Pisa in particular, were already taking part. Venice could not permit its competitors to gain an advantage in the lucrative markets of Syria and Egypt. To have a permanent presence in Antioch, or in Jerusalem, would be a source of innumerable commercial benefits. So, in the summer of 1100, a fleet of two hundred Venetian ships arrived at Joppa (Jaffa); the Venetian commanders agreed to help the crusaders on condition that the merchants of their city were given the rights of free trade in all dominions recovered from the Saracens. The terms of this practical bargain were accepted. The Venetians were then despatched to besiege the town of Caifa (Haifa) and, having achieved the surrender of that place, they returned to the lagoon before the end of the year. They were not content, however, with this single and relatively simple victory. They wished to acquire more profit from their participation in the holy cause. They established trading stations within the Syrian ports, and began a lucrative business in transporting pilgrims to the newly captured Jerusalem.

On their way to Joppa, too, they had engaged in a peculiarly Venetian piece of business. The fleet had cast anchor at the ancient Lycian town of Myra (Bari), in search of the bones of Saint Nicholas who had been bishop of that place; the saint is now better known as the progenitor of Santa Claus but, in the eleventh century, he was revered as the patron saint of sailors. The Venetians, naturally enough, wanted him. It is alleged that they arrived in the town and put to the torture four Christians, the keepers of the shrine. They learned nothing of any consequence from these unholy proceedings, however, and made do with the theft of the bones of Saint Theodore. Theodore had been the patron saint of Venice before the arrival of Mark; he was a good second-best. Yet before their departure, according to the Venetian chronicles of Andrea Morosini, a wonderful fragrance issued from a recess beneath an altar in the church itself. The scent was that of Saint Nicholas. So he was removed, too, and brought back in triumph to Venice where his bones were lodged in the monastery of Saint Nicholas on the Lido. That is the story, at least. In fact the remains of Saint Nicholas, if such they are, have remained in Bari to this day. Whether the tale reveals more of Venetian mendacity, or of Venetian greed, is an open question.

The crusading venture had been a success for Venice, and in 1108 the Venetian fleet once more sailed under the flag of the cross. It may be noted that the governors of the city were particularly interested in the seaports of the Mediterranean, and that Venetian merchants were established in Acre, Jerusalem and elsewhere. Yet the attentions of the doge and senate were not confined to the principalities and powers of the Middle East. They thought it prudent to maintain and consolidate their presence on the mainland. They took Ferrara and Fano under their control, and moved against Padua. In the process they reasserted their rights over the principal rivers of the territory. On the other side of the Adriatic, they struggled with the Hungarians over the coastal regions of Dalmatia. They now had many enemies. The cities of the mainland were jealous of Venetian wealth, and fearful of Venetian power. The Norman kingdom of Sicily had long regarded Venice as a foe. The German empire of Hohenstaufen still laid claim to northern Italy.

There emerged one other formidable enemy. In 1119 the new emperor of Constantinople decreed that the trading privileges of Venice were at an end. He ordered all Venetian residents within the boundary of his empire to remove themselves and their business. He also proposed a treaty with the king of Hungary, thereby recognising Hungarian claims to the Venetian settlements in Dalmatia. The reaction of Venice was slow but assured. The Venetian fleet raided and sacked a number of Byzantine territories; Rhodes, Chios, Samos, Lesbos and Modon were some of the objects of their vengeance. They had set out to prove that they were now the single most important sea power in an area previously deemed to be the preserve of Constantinople. The emperor signed a new trade agreement with Venice in 1126.

The Venetian empire could justify its existence with the claim that trade, and not conquest, was its purpose. It naturalised its subjects with a spirit of enlightened commercialism. The motive was one of constructive self-aggrandisement. There was no true cult of empire, as there was in nineteenth-century London or in third-century Rome. There was no interest in massiveness or monumentality for their own sake. The only concession to the appetite for glory lay in the construction of gateways at key points in the city—the Torre dell’Orologio, the Porta della Carta, and the Arco Foscari among them. The gateway to the Arsenal is in every guide to the city. These were the Venetian equivalent of the triumphal arch, all the more striking in a city without a defensive wall.

Yet the Venetians who lived and traded in Constantinople, and in the other markets of the kingdom, became increasingly unpopular. They were judged to be arrogant and greedy. Away from Venice, the Venetians became insecure and fractious. They attacked their Genoese and Pisan rivals in trade, and refused to obey Byzantine edicts. They even stole the relics of saints from the churches of Constantinople. They were generally considered by their hosts to be vulgar, mere merchants looking for bargains. In turn the Venetians despised the Greeks, as effete and indolent. Then in 1171, on the command of the emperor, all the Venetians in Constantinople and elsewhere were arrested and imprisoned. A Venetian fleet, despatched to threaten the lands of the emperor, was reduced to impotence by the onset of plague. The commander of the unsuccessful expedition, on his return to Venice, was assassinated in the streets. It was the condign justice meted out to all perceived failures. The Byzantine emperor then sent a message to the doge in which he asserted that the Venetian nation had acted with great foolishness. He noted that they were “once vagabonds sunk in the utmost poverty” who had somehow claimed the right to imperial ambitions. But their abject failure and “insolence” had rendered them “a laughing stock.”

The leaders of Venice reacted cautiously. They formed alliances with some of the emperor’s enemies, and began an insidious campaign against Byzantine territories. There were secret talks and clandestine meetings. An accord was eventually reached and in 1183, twelve years after their arrest, the Venetian merchants were finally permitted to leave the prisons; a formal peace treaty between Venice and Byzantium was signed. It had represented a great crisis, and a vivid token of the real enmity between Constantinople and Venice; one city was dying, and the other was impatiently waiting to emerge supreme. Over the next few years there were pacts and agreements and messages of mutual confidence between the two cities. But in truth there could be no end to the struggle other than a fatal one.

The new eminence of Venice was exemplified by one of those scenes of living theatre at which Venice excelled. The characters in this lavish spectacle were the leaders of Latin Christendom. One was the emperor of Germany, Frederick Barbarossa, and the other was Pope Alexander III. Barbarossa laid claim to the Lombard states, and in particular to Milan; Pope Alexander strenuously resisted the claim, and allied himself with the Italian cities. The emperor was excommunicated. Nevertheless Barbarossa, spurned by the Church, had success with the sword. The Lombard cities were taken. Milan fell, and was largely destroyed. Yet the dominion of Germany over this part of Italy was constantly being threatened by internal rebellion and by the open hostility of other Italian cities that looked to the pope for leadership. The weariness of continual warfare, and the inevitable cycle of victories and defeats, eventually disheartened both sides. The pope and the emperor contemplated the principles of an agreement. But where should they meet formally to ratify their pact?

Venice had largely kept itself aloof from the hostilities, on the very good ground that it is better to remain neutral in any battle between such powerful enemies. Venice did not in any case concern itself with the affairs of Italy if its own interests were not directly touched. So the most serene city became the most appropriate setting for the reconciliation of Barbarossa and Alexander. On 23 March 1177, the pontiff landed at the Lido and was received at the monastery of Saint Nicholas; he was no doubt shown the so-called “relics” of the saint himself. On the following day he sailed into Venice, where he was received by the doge. There were now long and difficult negotiations over the terms of the peace, with the emissaries of both sides raising objections and proposing alterations. Yet the pact was finally sealed. On 23 July the emperor was welcomed to the monastery of Saint Nicholas. On the following day he sailed to Venice, where Alexander awaited him. The pope sat in state upon the papal throne, which had been placed before the central gates of the basilica; he was surrounded by his cardinals, like some crowd scene from the sacred plays of the period. The emperor, disembarking from the glittering barge of the doge, walked in stately procession towards the pontiff. Before him walked the doge himself. Saint Mark’s Square was filled with spectators, eager to see the play unfold. When the emperor reached the papal throne he took off his scarlet cloak and, bowing to the ground, kissed the feet of the pope. Alexander, now weeping, raised up the emperor and gave him the kiss of peace. The audience now began to sing the Te Deum, and all the bells of the city rang out. It had been a great performance.

This dramatic scene was also used by Venice as an advertisement for the city’s strength and sense of justice. It was the seat of a general reconciliation. The city was the place of impartial judgement and of equity because it was subject to God alone. It played no part in the power politics of popes or emperors, except to heal the wounds caused by them. That, at least, was the message of the Venetian chroniclers in reporting these events from the summer of 1177. For that moment, when the bells pealed, Venice was the centre of the world. There were more immediate benefits also. The emperor granted trade privileges to Venice throughout his empire, and the pope gave Venice ecclesiastical dominion over Dalmatia.

The spectacle itself might have acted as an overture for the grander opera that was about to be performed. In the years that followed, Venice entered another, and greater, phase of its imperial power. It conquered and stripped Constantinople. A new scenario began with another holy war. The pope had declared a fourth crusade against the infidels and, in the early months of 1201, the French princes who had taken the cross came to Venice to plead for the ships that would transport them to the Holy Land. They were received in great state by the doge, and were asked to plead their case before the people of Venice in the basilica. So, after mass had been heard, one of their number stepped forward and declared that “no nation is so powerful on the seas as you”; after that piece of flattery, he implored the aid of the Venetian people. The princes then knelt down and wept. Immediately there were cries all around the basilica. “We grant it! We grant it!” It was a fine piece of stage management, in the best traditions of the city.

The doge, Enrico Dandolo, was already old and nearly blind. He was elected at the age of eighty-four, but he was one of those Venetian patriarchs whose tenacity and singleness of purpose were the visible proof of the city’s own ruthlessness. It was said that he had nourished a grievance against Constantinople ever since the mass imprisonment of 1171. According to one Byzantine Greek chronicler, “he boasted that so long as he failed to take revenge on them for what they had done to his people he was living under sentence of death.” It was even reported, in later chronicles, that he had been blinded by the Byzantines themselves when he had once travelled to the city as an ambassador; this is the stuff of legend only.

The carpenters of the Arsenal were set to work, engaged to build and equip enough ships to carry 4,500 horsemen and 30,000 soldiers. In return Venice demanded 84,000 silver marks. The efficiency of the shipbuilding yards was by now well known throughout Europe, and all of the ships were delivered on time. But there was one problem. The crusaders had been unable to find the money to pay for them. So a new arrangement was concluded. The Venetians would waive full payment, on condition that the crusaders would assist them in subduing the rebellious city of Zara on the Dalmatian coast. It was a diversion from the Holy Land, but the leaders of the forces of the cross considered it to be a necessary one. Three hundred ships left the lagoon in October 1202, to the chant of the Veni Creator, and sailed down the Adriatic. Zara, after a siege of five days, surrendered. Christian had turned against Christian rather than the common enemy of the Saracen. The pope, incensed by this unwelcome development, excommunicated the forces of the expedition. It is not reported that the Venetians, in particular, were in any way cowed or humbled by the papal wrath.

Once the Venetians were fully in possession of the town, they were surprised by the arrival of an unexpected guest. The son of the deposed emperor of Constantinople, Alexius Angelus, came to Dandolo in search of justice. He wished the crusaders to overthrow the usurper, on the throne of the empire, and reinstall his father. For his part he pledged to finance and otherwise assist the armies in their high purpose. It was an offer that could not be refused. It has often been surmised that Dandolo had held this aim in mind throughout all the preparations for the crusade, and that he had already determined that Constantinople rather than Syria was to be the destination of the Venetian fleet. There can be no doubt that Dandolo saw a great opportunity for advancement and enrichment in this war at the expense of Constantinople. But there are elements of adventitious chance in all the affairs of men. Dandolo could not have known that the French crusaders would be unable to honour their obligation, although it is likely that he knew in advance of the arrival of Alexius in Zara. The Venetians were always adept at taking advantage of chance and circumstance. Yet in another perspective the great events of the world seem, on close scrutiny, to be made up of a thousand singular elements and accidents and coincidences. In the midst of this swirling world it would be hard to detect a pattern. So we may say that it just happened. As a consequence of these events the power of Byzantium was extinguished, its city and empire weakened beyond repair.

The Venetian fleet, in aid of Alexius, moved against the city. On 24 June 1203, it sailed beside the walls. A French attack by land seemed to have failed and so, under the command of Dandolo, the Venetians tied their galleys together to form a united front; from the decks and turrets of the vessels, military engines discharged their fire into the city. Constantinople was in flames. Dandolo himself stood at the prow of the first ship that struck land. He was dressed in full armour, and the standard of Saint Mark flew at his side. At his urging the Venetian soldiers leapt from their vessels and scaled the ladders swung against the walls. There was some combat, but the forces of the Byzantines were overwhelmed by this swift attack from the sea. The banner of the republic was fixed on the rampart. The city was taken. The deposed emperor, on whose behalf Alexius had pleaded, was rescued from his dungeon and placed upon the throne. Alexius himself was crowned in the basilica of Saint Sophia, and took his place as co-ruler of the empire.

Yet the fatal decline of Constantinople was about to resume its inevitable course. Alexius had promised the crusaders more than he could achieve. He lacked finance and, more importantly, he had forfeited his authority among his countrymen by relying upon the forces of the crusaders to obtain the imperial crown. The citizens of Constantinople, instigated by fear and rumour, rebelled against the new emperor. Alexius was cut down, his father abandoned to his grief.

The Venetians and their allies now had to extinguish this rebellion, and bring the city under their rule. They had not come so far to be simply asked to leave. So once more, in March 1204, they laid siege to the city. On the eve of the assault Dandolo declared to his men that they must “be valiant. And with the help of Jesus Christ, milord Saint Mark, and the prowess of your bodies, you shall be tomorrow in possession of the city, and you shall all be rich.”

Once their victory was assured, the Christian armies, inflamed by greed and anger, began a general sack of the city. Constantinople was pillaged and burned. The wealthiest city of the world, filled with art and sculpture, was laid bare. Its citizens were slaughtered, the frenzy of blood-lust such that it seemed that the gates of hell had been opened. The palaces and houses of the city were ransacked. The churches were despoiled. The statues were melted down, and the pictures ripped apart. The tombs were opened, and the sacred vessels removed. It is reported that a prostitute was enthroned in the chair of the patriarch, in the basilica of Saint Sophia, from where she “hurled insults at Jesus Christ, and she sang bawdy songs, and danced immodestly in the holy place.” One chronicler claimed that the rapine exceeded any other since the creation of the world. And the Venetians were the principal agents of this despoliation. Much of the plunder found its way to Venice. The four great horses that surmount the basilica of Saint Mark’s are part of the fruit of that brutal victory.

There were other spoils. The crusaders claimed the dominions of Constantinople, and carved up its empire among the victors. Venice negotiated its portion with its customary merchant zeal, and was rewarded “the fourth part and the half of the Roman empire”; that is, it commanded three-eighths of the old empire. It already claimed Dalmatia and Croatia, and now it took possession of the Aegean coasts and islands as well as parts of the Mediterranean. It controlled Crete and Corfu as well as the islands of Modon and Coron. It took the western part of Greece and the islands of the Ionian Sea. It demanded the coast of Thrace, as well as the ports on the Hellespont. It seized Negroponte in the Aegean. While the other crusaders were unsure of their geography, the leaders of Venice knew exactly what they wanted. Many of the islands were then granted to various patrician families of Venice, who held them as fiefdoms of the republic. There was now also a large Venetian colony within Constantinople itself, which acquired a large measure of independence from the home city. There were even reports that the capital of the new empire was about to remove from Venice to Constantinople, but these were discounted. Yet one central fact was clear. The markets of the east were beckoning. All thought of the war against the infidel was forgotten and, indeed, the crusaders never did reach the Holy Land. It was the last of the crusades.

The strategy of Venice was that of a sea power intent upon strengthening its command of the sea. That is why the first great conquests were in the Levant, or eastern Mediterranean, where Venice might pose as the begetter of “an apostolic empire of the East” as a fitting successor to the Christian empire established in the East by Justinian and Constantine. It is a typical example of Venetian rhetoric masking policy. To the victors, the spoils. So the imperium of Venice was largely confined to the islands and to the coastal regions. The Venetians wanted no part of the inland empire of Byzantium, whether in Asia or in Europe. The city could never have become another Rome. Instead it settled for secure trading routes across the seas, with a series of ports under Venetian control linking the market of the lagoon to the markets of the Levant. These were not so much colonies as trading posts, stretching from Venice to the Black Sea. The nature of Venetian dominion was now clear for all to observe. The power of Constantinople was effectively gone for ever. The consequences of the Venetian adventure, however, were by no means beneficent. That which is born in fire may die in fire. A weakened Constantinople became the prey of the Turks; the newly established Latin empire endured for only sixty years; the colonial possessions of Venice also left it exposed to attack in a long sequence of wars that tested its strength. For the next seventy years the serene city would be engaged in almost constant warfare with its rebellious subjects and with its rivals, with the Saracens and with the pirates of the Mediterranean.


17

Cities in Collision

<p>17</p> <p>Cities in Collision</p>

There was one other significant competitor with which Venice had to deal. Genoa was known to the world as “la Superba,” Genoa the proud. Petrarch had described Venice and Genoa as “the two torches of Italy”; but fire can drive out fire. Both cities were known throughout Europe for their rapacity and acquisitiveness. The Genoese were more individualistic and inventive; the Venetians were more communal and conservative. The Genoese had a history of internecine warfare and rebellion; the Venetians were quiescent. Could they ever have lived at peace with one another?

For many centuries the merchants of Genoa competed with those of Venice in the eastern markets. But the success of the Venetians materially hindered the commerce of the rival city. It had been decreed, after the fall of Constantinople, that the Genoese were to be excluded from trade throughout the empire. But the Genoese fought back. They, too, were a seafaring people who had built up a great fleet that could challenge Venice on the seas of the known world. There were open clashes between the rival cities on the coasts of Crete and in Corfu, where the native inhabitants welcomed the arrival of the Genoese. A truce was agreed in 1218, but this was merely a prelude to further and more fatal struggles.

The tension between the two cities remained constant throughout the century, with skirmishing and assaults in all the markets where they competed; in 1258, after some particularly bloody fighting in Syria, the Venetians expelled the Genoese merchants from their quarter in Acre. There was then, for the Venetians, an unfortunate and unexpected development. In 1261 the Greeks, under the leadership of Michael Palaeologus, regained control of Constantinople. The Venetian fleet was at sea and the city was relatively unprotected. Under these auspicious circumstances the emperor’s forces mounted a rapid attack on the Latin contingent, and gained the defensive walls. Three weeks later Michael walked in glory to the basilica of Saint Sophia. He owed much of his success, however, to the Genoese who had supplied him with fifty ships; in return for their support they wished for unrestricted trade access in the markets of the city. They wanted revenge upon the Venetians for their forced departure from Acre. When the Venetians returned, they could do nothing except rescue their compatriots whose shops and dwellings had been destroyed by fire.

The Genoese were not faithful allies. Their merchants were, according to report, arrogant and avaricious. Their fleet proved unequal to a naval challenge from Venice. More importantly their representatives in Constantinople were accused of mounting a conspiracy against Paleologus himself. Ever ready to supplant a rival, Venetian envoys were sent in secret to the court of the emperor. A new trade pact was concluded. The Genoese were to be expelled from the empire, whereas Venice would be granted free privileges. In addition the Venetians were allowed to retain the former Byzantine possessions of Crete, of Negroponte, of Modon and Coron. These were sufficiently generous terms, and the emperor now understood that Venice itself was the greater power.

The Venetians were becoming accustomed to empire. At the beginning of the fourteenth century the doge, Pietro Gradenigo, made a speech to the great council of patricians in which he declared that “it is the duty of every good prince, and of every worthy citizen, to enlarge the State, to increase the Republic, and to seek its welfare by every means in his power.” It was the responsibility of the state, too, to seize every favourable opportunity for aggrandisement. Gradenigo had the mainland of Italy particularly in mind, where now the Venetians were actively promoting a policy of aggressive warfare. They had once sought neutrality in the battles between pope and holy Roman emperor over the cities of Italy. They had once wanted simply to preserve their trade routes. But now the experience of imperial expansion had hardened their sinews. They had become more belligerent. The mainland of Italy was in any case changing its nature. The principal cities no longer saw themselves as vassals of superior powers, such as the papacy, but as sovereign regions or city-states. There were some eighty of them throughout the land of Italy. Some were under the control of individual families, such as the Este of Ferrara, and others were in theory republican communities. Yet the central point was their independence. Independent cities want power and territory. They compete with each other for trade and influence. They even fight each other.

In 1308 Venice fought on the mainland in order to maintain its commercial rights within Ferrara and gain control over the Po. It allied itself with Florence and Bologna in order to fight back the expansive policies of Verona, and in the process captured much mainland territory. It fought against Padua and by its victory gained the provinces of Treviso and Bassano as well as the city of Padua itself. It won Verona and Vicenza. The Italian cities that came under Venetian domination were not subjugated. Venetian civil and military commanders were dispatched to the cities, but municipal government continued in the familiar fashion. The Venetian ruling class had a genius for administration and government. Its power was neither too lax nor too onerous. There are some indications of an imperial style but in the colonies overseas the rulers were blended within the native landscape. There was no ruling ideology of conquest. There was no attempt to impose new standards of value or new principles of belief. They came not as conquerors or as missionaries but, essentially, as traders. Their true belief was in the efficacy of commerce. They were a very practical people. They were unpopular enough, but they were resented rather than hated.

It would be wrong to assume, however, that there was no internal discontent. The immediate fact of conquest was, for the conquered, hard to bear. The example of Crete is representative. The lands of the local Byzantine magnates were expropriated, and given to Venetians. There were neither finances nor resources to maintain a standing army on the island, so a number of Venetian patricians were sent out as colonisers who retained their lands as fiefdoms on condition that they defended them. These Venetians tended to inhabit the towns and cities of the island. They were accustomed to cities. Cities were their natural habitat. In due course a predominantly agricultural economy was in part turned towards urban trade, trade directed almost exclusively to the mother-city. And of course the Venetian authorities imposed heavy taxation upon every transaction. They encouraged trade for the purpose of exploiting it. Yet merchants began to flourish on the island. There was also a growing market for the wares of Cretan icon-painters. It has been estimated that 95 per cent of the icon-painters, throughout the Venetian empire, originally came from the island.

The Venetian strategy was to remodel the governance of the island on the example of Venice herself. Crete was divided into sestieri. There was a duca in the principal role, modelled on the doge. The major decisions of security and trade, however, were still the prerogative of the Venetian senate. There were more visible changes. The principal square of Candia, the capital of Crete, was renamed Piazza S. Marco. It became the meeting place and market of the island, with its own basilica and ducal palace. It was remodelled and restored to lend dignity and seriousness to the new administration. It became the stage for festivals and public celebrations. A processional way was constructed between the entrance gate of the port and the basilica. Venice was re-creating its theatre of trade and of politics in a new environment. The Byzantine palaces and monuments were reused, their symbolic meaning subtly altered to reflect Venetian hegemony. Some of them were given new, “Venetian,” façades.

Venice saw itself as the natural heir to Byzantium. There was no sudden disruption but, instead, an orderly transition. The religious traditions and the public ceremonies of the old empire were appropriated and adapted. As always Venice lived by assimilation. The example of Crete is again instructive. The ecclesiastical rites of the Latin Church, in ceremonies and processions, were moulded with the rites of the Greek Church. The Venetians adopted the cult of the local saint of the island, Titus. So there were no religious wars. The Venetians were not like the Spanish. There were endless reconciliations and compromises, simply in order to maintain the momentum of what was essentially a vast trading regime. Cretans married Venetians. Venetian merchants migrated to Crete. Cretan scholars and painters migrated to Venice. A new culture emerged, of the West and of the East. After the fall of Byzantium Crete became the centre of Hellenism in the West. There were, naturally enough, influences of opposite tendency. There are still Venetian dialect words embedded in modern Greek, among them the words for steel, armada, velvet, the acacia tree and the wedding ring. Indeed there was a revival of Greek letters under Venetian rule. It was Venice, rather than Byzantium, that preserved native Greek culture in the early modern period. Its poetry was composed by men whose political, racial, spiritual and cultural allegiances were to Venice.

There were revolts and rebellions, as a result of local grievances and factions, but the island remained in Venetian hands for more than four centuries. It can be concluded, therefore, that the Venetians were effectively the first modern colonial power.

Yet in a world dominated by war and empire, there could be no end to rivalry and struggle. In the letters and chronicles of the late fourteenth century the optimism of the Venetians is in some part replaced by intimations of gloom and melancholy; the world seems more uncertain, and the role of providence ill-defined. The loss of confidence is accompanied by the search for greater security in the world. The acquisition of empire, then, brought its own burdens. In 1364 the native inhabitants of Candia rebelled against their Venetian overseers; several Venetian patricians also joined in the revolt. The insurrection was put down, its leaders executed, but it had been a troubling moment for Venice. Petrarch was in the city when the victorious force returned to the lagoon. “We augured good news,” he wrote, “for the masts were garlanded with flowers, and on the deck were lads, crowned with green wreaths and waving flags over their heads …” Relief, as well as triumph, was the emotion of the day. A high mass was celebrated in the basilica, and a great festival was organised in the square itself. Petrarch was present on this occasion, too, and remarked upon the magnificence of the ceremonies. As the empire of Venice became more assured, so the taste for spectacle and ceremonial grew more intense.

Genoa was not quelled by its expulsion from Constantinople. Its traders were dominant in the Black Sea. It held the pre-eminent position in Syria and Palestine. There was never any chance of an enduring peace. In 1350 a Venetian admiral surprised a fleet of fourteen Genoese vessels at the port of Negroponte, and captured ten of them. The other four were allowed to flee simply because the Venetians were too occupied in plundering the cargo of the others. The Venetians and their Greek allies then confronted the Genoese fleet in the Bosphorus, but the battle proved inconclusive. In 1353 the Venetians defeated the Genoese off Sardinia, but a second Genoese fleet began a journey of destruction through the Adriatic and the Aegean. A year later a Venetian fleet was sabotaged and sunk by the Genoese in the port of Modon; the Venetian commanders and their men were taken into custody. It was a signal victory for the Genoese but, even in defeat, the Venetians proved to be expert negotiators. A truce was agreed by means of which each side promised not to attack the other.

The subsequent peace was not, for Venice, a peace at all. It was obliged to cede Dalmatia to the king of Hungary, because of that sovereign’s superior force of arms; it was impelled to withdraw its merchants from Famagusta in Cyprus when the Genoese took over that town. The Venetian fleet kept the Adriatic as its territory, but it was engaged in constant confrontation with the Genoese in the Black Sea. When Venice seized the vital island of Tenedos, controlling access to that sea, the Genoese once again declared war. The Fourth Genoese War was to prove the most terrible, and the most fatal, of all.

The hostilities began in 1378 when a Venetian admiral, Vettor Pisani, sailed west and won a great victory over the Genoese in Genoa’s own waters. But there were complications closer to home. The king of Hungary invited the Genoese to use the Dalmatian coast, opposite Venice, as their centre of operations. It was an opportunity not to be missed. Pisani was obliged to return to the Adriatic, in order to protect Venetian convoys in a gulf that the Venetians had always claimed as their own. His base was at Pola, in Istria, and at the turn of the year the vessels of the fleet were being fitted up and cleaned for future hostilities. But a battle was forced upon them before they could muster all of their ships. The Venetians first had the advantage, when the Genoese admiral was killed, but a reserve force of Genoese ships came forward unexpectedly and overwhelmed the Venetians. Hundreds were killed or captured.

With their fleet effectively out of action, it was the moment that the Venetians most feared. Their enemies closed in upon them from every side. The king of Hungary closed the routes of the northern Adriatic; the lord of Padua blocked the western trade routes on the mainland. The fleets of the Genoese were protected, and were being augmented all the time. They were even able to enter the lagoon, and burn towns along the Lido. This had never before happened in the history of the serene republic. When the Paduans and Genoese joined forces, and took the extensive port of Chioggia to the south of Venice, the armed circle around the city was complete. The Venetians were now effectively under siege. They might even be invaded. Business on the Rialto came to a halt. The salaries of public officials were suspended. The poor were told by the doge that they would find food in the homes of the rich. When threatened, the Venetians came together as a coherent body. The Venetians proposed negotiations but the Genoese replied that they would not talk to their enemies until the horses of Saint Mark’s had been bridled; by this time the bronze horses, taken from the spoliation of Constantinople, had become a symbol of Venetian pride and greed.

It was a moment of the utmost peril for the Venetian authorities, who knew that they would need the support and co-operation of all the people to avert a fatal outcome. At the insistence of the crowds they released from prison Vettor Pisani, who had been incarcerated for his defeat at Pola. He now became the popular champion and the principal defender of the city. The doge himself, Andrea Contarini, helped to train crews for the new galleys that were being built.

The plan, outlined by Pisani, was to sink barges and boats laden with stone in the deep channels around Chioggia; this was a way of cutting off the port, and its Genoese invaders, from the mainland and from the Genoese fleet still at sea. The scheme was a success. The Genoese found themselves blockaded, with dwindling supplies of food, water and gunpowder. The Venetians were also suffering from privation, but they had one advantage. They possessed hope. Even as Pisani harried and outmanoeuvred the Genoese, trying desperately to leave Chioggia, another Venetian admiral returned to port. Carlo Zeno had completed a military expedition that had captured the cargos and booty of many Genoese ships in the Mediterranean. Then he received instructions to return to the lagoon and assist his city in its trial of strength with Genoa.

It was he who helped to prevent the increasingly desperate attempts of the Genoese to fight their way out of Chioggia. There were great battles on the sands and the Genoese commander, Pietro Doria, was killed when a cannon ball struck the tower from which he was observing the proceedings. Then, in June 1380, the Genoese surrendered. There was still work to be done in the Adriatic and in the Mediterranean. But Genoa never challenged Venice again. Genoese vessels never returned to the Adriatic. In this year of defeat a Genoese friar delivered a homily to his congregation. The Genoese, he said, were like donkeys. “When many are together, and one of them is thrashed with a stick, all scatter, fleeing hither and thither.” The Venetians, on the other hand, resembled pigs. “When a multitude of pigs is confined together, and one of them is hit or beaten with a stick, all draw close and run unto him who hits it.”

The victory had enormous consequences for Venice. In the fourteenth century it became one of the principal cities of the known world. Where in previous centuries it had been aligned with the East, in cultural and mercantile terms, by the end of the fourteenth century it had emerged as a properly European power. After the war was over it went on to claim by right of conquest or dominion Durazzo and Scutari, Lepanto and Patras, Argos and Athens. These were the homes of wine and wheat. The Venetian empire of Italy also grew, or rather was accumulated, step by step. In the early years of the fifteenth century Verona and Padua despatched ambassadors to Venice to make the formal act of submission. They were followed by Ravenna and Friuli and a host of other towns and cities. From the Alps in the north to the Po in the south, from Bergamo and Crema in the west to the sea itself, Venice claimed dominion. It might even be claimed that the city had refashioned the ancient province of Venetia, from which its ancestors had come.

Governors were sent to the towns and cities under its control, and a “captain” was appointed to administer military affairs. High service on the mainland became a prelude to political authority at home. But each city was able to preserve its local privileges, as well as its customary assemblies and magistrates. Only gradually was there a movement towards more professional and bureaucratic structures, with the increasing significance of a small number of aristocratic families. The pattern of Venice was, ineluctably, beginning to repeat itself. The greater bears down upon the lesser. But the dominant city—the inclita dominante, or illustrious mistress, as it was known—did not seek to impose union on these territories. The Milanese and Florentines were far more ready to assert their authority over their subject cities. The Venetians were more cautious or, perhaps, more conservative. There was some confusion over the status of local law, as it related to Venetian law, but that was perhaps inevitable. The empire of the mainland was driven by pragmatism and expediency. There was no Venetian state. There was only a trade confederation, relying heavily upon the revenue accruing to Venice through the proceeds of indirect taxation.

The Venetians also discouraged any enterprise that might challenge the commercial supremacy of their own city, as, for example, the weaving of luxury textiles, so that according to an English observer in the 1760s “every other town in the territory of the Republick appears poor in the comparison of the mother-city.” The innate conservatism of the Venetian state, too, actively discouraged the modernisation of the general economy of the mainland territories. This led directly to Venice’s eventual financial decline. The Italians were not able to compete with the resurgent English and Dutch. The inability or unwillingness to create a state, and a modern state at that, may also have encouraged the fissiparous qualities of the Italian peninsula. In one sense the opportunity for unification and centralisation had been squandered. So Italy remained a prey to foreign powers.

Yet Venice was still secure. It was protected by the lagoon while the plains and hills of northern Italy gave it space against the rival city of Milan; the deep valleys and mountains of the Alpine region afforded it protection against northern rivals. The further the dominion spread, the more jealously it was protected. Issues of self-defence as well as commercial gain were used to justify the absorption of towns and regions. Inaction was no longer possible.

In the first quarter of the fifteenth century, therefore, Venice aligned itself with Florence in order to fight the Visconti family of Milan; this was its first departure from its policy of splendid isolation. There was much opposition to this alliance in Venice itself. Venetian merchants traded very successfully with the Milanese territories and any overreaching by Venice would require the presence of a standing army. Yet the leaders of Venice determined to form an alliance with the free republic of Florence against the tyrants of Milan. The strategy was successful and, with the removal of the Visconti family, Italy reached a state of broad equilibrium amenable to Venetian pressure. There were now no more than five territorial states with their claims and resources finely balanced—Venice, Naples, Florence, Milan and the papal state. Each ruling city and its dependent territories was given the name of lo stato or the estate. In time the word developed to mean the collective existence of a nation or people. In the beginning these stati depended upon the personality of the ruler or ruling family; eventually, of course, they would be politically and scientifically organised to merit the description of a “state.” The interests of the state then became paramount. Of these new Italian powers von Ranke, the German historian, wrote that “they were neither nations nor races; neither cities nor kingdoms; they were the first States in world.” And Venice was one of them, opening the way for the development of the modern world order.

Milan was still the dominant city of Lombardy, and Florence of Tuscany, but in the phrase of William Wordsworth only Venice did also “hold the gorgeous East in fee.” The eastern association was evident in the streets and houses of the city; even its national basilica was Oriental in inspiration. By the fifteenth century it was the richest city in Italy, with an annual budget equal to that of Spain or of England. There were many more palaces in Venice than in any other city. Its navy was arguably the finest in the world. It was also a much more stable city than any of its rivals on the mainland, with a strength and persistence that derived from its earliest instincts for survival in the battle against the sea. While the Genoese in particular were plagued by civil war and internecine rivalries, Venice remained a model of constancy despite periods of plague and of economic depression. The strength and security of its constitution rendered it powerful. The trade of the city revived, particularly in its intercourse with India and with China, and the revenues of the Rialto were never more strong. It was triumphant.


18

A Call to Arms

<p>18</p> <p>A Call to Arms</p>

At the height of its intervention on the mainland, Venice could maintain a force of forty thousand troops. It was estimated by the reigning doge, in 1423, that the city possessed thirty-five galleys, three hundred round ships and three thousand other vessels; they required a complement of thirty-six thousand sailors, almost a quarter of the entire population of 150,000 people. There were ships christened La Forza, La Fama and La Salute. They were used to protect the armed galleys of the trade convoys that left Venice on prearranged dates; they were used to combat pirates and to harass enemy traders. No foreign ship was safe in the waters Venice considered its own. The officers were elected from the patrician class of the city. Service at sea was an indispensable part of the education of the young patrician.

The crews were at first all free men, volunteers found in Venice or in Venetian possessions. By the beginning of the sixteenth century conscription had been introduced. This of course so lowered the status of galley labour that it became a burden to be avoided. To be an oarsman, a galeotto, was considered to be part of a “low” profession. So by the middle of the sixteenth century there was a change in the nature of these crews. It was said that they comprised drunks and debtors, criminals and other outcasts. The courts of Venice sometimes consigned the guilty to the galleys rather than the cells. By 1600 prisoners made up the principal part of the crew. The measure of their servitude can be computed by the records of the Venetian courts—eighteen months of galley service was considered equivalent to three years of close imprisonment and a period in the pillory, while seven years in the galleys was considered to be equal to twelve years of confinement. Their rations were made up of biscuit, wine, cheese, salt pork and beans. The diet was designed to feed the sanguinary humour. A Franciscan friar was always on board to rouse them. Yet there are reports of disease and of early death, of exhaustion and despair. Carlo Gozzi, in the eighteenth century, saw “some three hundred scoundrels, loaded with chains, condemned to drag their life out in a sea of miseries and torments, each of which was sufficient by itself to kill a man.” He noticed that, at the time, “an epidemic of malignant fever raged among these men.” It is not clear, however, that the changed personnel were in general any less proficient as oarsmen. They helped to win a famous victory against the Turks at Lepanto.

The maritime marvel of Venice was the Arsenal, the greatest shipbuilding concern in the world. The word itself derives from the Arabic dar sina’a, or place of construction, thus affirming the strong connection of Venice with the East. It was built at the beginning of the twelfth century, and was continually being extended and expanded until it became a wonder of technology. It was variously described as “the factory of marvels,” “the greatest piece of oeconomy in Europe” and “the eighth miracle of the world.” The epithets are a measure of the respect in which new technologies were then held. Its famous gate, made up of Roman and of Byzantine elements, was raised there in 1460. The Arsenal had become the centre of another empire. It was the engine of trade. It was the foundation of naval might. It was a token of the supremacy of industrial enterprise in the most serene city.

Eventually two and half miles (4 km) of walls, and fourteen defensive towers, surrounded sixty acres (24 ha) of working space. It was the largest industrial enterprise in the world. A population of skilled workers and labourers grew up around the site. The number of workmen has been estimated at anything between six thousand and sixteen thousand; in any event they worked in large numbers. This shipbuilding neighbourhood in the eastern part of Venice became a recognisable part of the city, with its own prejudices and customs. People lived and died, were baptised and married, within the three parishes of S. Martino, S. Ternita and S. Pietro. It is still an area of tiny houses, crowded tenements, small squares, dead-ends and narrow alleys.

The inhabitants became known as arsenalotti, and such was their importance to the state that the male population of ship-makers was also used as a bodyguard for the doge. They were also employed as fire-fighters. Only the arsenalotti were allowed to be labourers in the Mint. They alone rowed the ceremonial barge of the doge. Proud of their status, they never united with the other artisans of Venice. It is a case of divide and rule. It is also a signal example of the subtle way in which the leaders of Venice co-opted what might have been an unruly group of people within the very fabric of the city. The loyalty of the arsenalotti materially helped to secure the cohesion and the very survival of Venice.

The Arsenal was the first factory established upon the assembly line of modern industry, and thus the harbinger of the factory system of later centuries. One traveller, in 1436, described it thus:

as one enters the gate there is a great street on either side with the sea in the middle, and on one side are windows opening out of the houses of the arsenal, and the same on the other side. On this narrow strip of water floated a galley towed by a boat, and from the windows of the various houses they handed out to the workers, from one the cordage, from another the arms …

It was known as “the machine.” The armed galleys were constructed here. The relatively unarmed “round” ships, with sails instead of oars, were also made here. The key to its efficiency lay in the division, and specialisation, of labour; there were shipwrights and caulkers, rope-makers and blacksmiths, sawyers and oar-makers. Thirty galleys could be built and fitted within ten days. When the French king visited the place in 1574, a galley was built and launched in the two hours it took him to eat his dinner. The whole process of industrial collaboration, however, might be seen as an image of the Venetian polity itself. Everything is of a piece.

Dante visited the Arsenal in the early fourteenth century, and left a description of it in the twenty-first canto of the Inferno:

As in the Arsenal of the VenetiansBoils in the winter the tenacious pitch …One hammers at the prow, one at the stern,This one makes oars and that one cordage twistsAnother mends the mainsail and the mizzen.

It may not be coincidence that Dante places this vision in the eighth circle of hell, where corrupt public officials are punished eternally. The blatant sale of public offices became a problem in Venetian governance.

Eventually the Arsenal was outmoded. The development of craft technology in the seventeenth century rendered it obsolete. It continued producing galleys when no galleys were needed. It became inefficient, its labourers underpaid and underworked. Yet it did not finally close until 1960, when eleven thousand families were removed from their ancient neighbourhood. Now the factories and production lines are used to house exhibitions for the various festivals that visit Venice. It is an apt token of the nature of the city.

The Venetian army was as effective by land as the Venetian navy on the oceans. By the middle of the fifteenth century it could afford to maintain a standing force of twenty thousand troops, with extra militia ready to be called up in an emergency. By the beginning of the following century, that number had doubled. It was of mixed identity. Venetian engineers were well known for their skills in siege weaponry, but it was said that the Venetians themselves did not make good soldiers. To a large extent, therefore, the city relied upon mercenaries for its defence. Its soldiers came from Dalmatia, Croatia and Greece as well as from Germany and Gascony; there were light horse from Albania and cuirassiers from other parts of Italy. When some Venetian gunmen were captured at Buti in 1498, and their hands cut off, some of the unfortunate troops were from England and Holland.

The acquisition of a land empire, at the beginning of the fifteenth century, was the direct motive for the creation of a standing army. Yet such an army posed problems for the leaders of the city. An army could move through its streets. An army could threaten its mainland possessions. That is why no Venetian was ever made general or commander. The danger of a military coup was always present to the administration. Venetian patricians were not allowed to command, at any one time, more than twenty-five men. It was a safeguard against faction. Instead a foreign commander was always chosen, although he held his office under the watchful care of two senior patricians in the field with him. It was not an ideal arrangement, especially in the very heat of battle, but it served Venetian interests well.

The foreign generals were known as condottieri, from the Italian word for contract. They were contracted men. But they were also adventurers, and sometimes brigands, who were suited to the theatre of Venice. They aspired to the type of the classical Roman general, ferocious in war and gracious in peace; they were deemed to be no less wise than courageous, no less virtuous than judicious. And they were paid well. Venice was known as a generous, and prompt, employer. The condottieri were given ornate houses along the Grand Canal, and were granted large estates on the mainland. They seemed to be indispensable to the state, but there were some who questioned the wisdom of employing them. They could be persuaded to change sides, if large enough bribes were offered, and they could sometimes be feckless and excessively independent. Machiavelli blamed the collapse of Venice, in his lifetime, on the use of mercenaries and mercenary commanders. If the Venetians did not excel at warfare, they would soon become deficient in the arts of peace. Sir Henry Wotton, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, commented that “by the lasciviousness of their youth, by the wariness of their aged men, by their long custom of ease, and distaste of arms, and consequently by their ignorance in the management thereof” the Venetian state was in sad decline. Yet decline was always being predicted for Venice, even at the acme of its power.


VI Timeless City

19

Bells and Gondolas

20

Iustitia

21

Against the Turks

<p>VI Timeless City</p>
<p>19</p> <p>Bells and Gondolas</p>

The Venetians needed to control time, just as they controlled every other aspect of their insular world. The bells rang out at precise times of day, to co-ordinate the activities of the populace. Within the campanile itself, in Saint Mark’s Square, there was a system of five bells—the marangona that announced the beginning and end of the working day, the nona and the mezza terza that rang the hours, the trottiera that invited the patricians to vote in their various assemblies, and the maleficio that called the spectators to the latest public execution. The bells were a form of social control, creating areas of forbidden time. An edict was announced in 1310 that “no person whatsoever shall be suffered, without special licence, to walk abroad after the third bell of the night.”

In the private and public institutions of the city every phase of activity was signalled by the ringing of bells; the people were summoned for waking, for washing, for praying, for eating and for sleeping. It is another indication of the paternalism, or authoritarianism, of Venetian society. Yet since bells were intimately associated with religious devotion, it was a way of making life itself a sacred activity. It was a qualitative, as well as a quantitative, token.

Yet time seems to shift in the city. The tokens of various periods appear together, and various times modify one another. In Venice there is no true chronological time; it has been overtaken by other forces. There are occasions, indeed, when time seems to be suspended; if you enter a certain courtyard, in a shaft of sunlight, the past rises all around you. This is not necessarily a private or individual sensation. The organisations of the city were believed by the people to be “perpetual.” In their work on the public monuments of the city the Venetians were concerned to accrue various layers or levels of time, with borrowings and adaptations from earlier cultures. Theirs was never meant to be an architecture of the present, but rather of the past and present conflated. The city affords visitors a glimpse of the porousness of history.

There is indeed a different sense of time in the city, as any visitor will testify. No one can hurry in Venice; no one can “make up” time. There is no transport except by water, and there are many hindrances to a pedestrian’s rapid journey. It is a city that slows down the human world. That is another reason for the sense of enchantment or dream that it induces. There is a great will to wander and be lost. The official institution of time was also different. The beginning of the next day was dated from the hour of the evening Angelus, or six o’clock. Thus 6:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve was, for the Venetians, already Christmas Day. This system continued until the Napoleonic conquest.

The continuity of the city and of its administration impressed upon the inhabitants a different sense of time, also, calculated in centuries rather than in decades. Venice measured itself in historical rather than chronological time. The centuries are, as it were, enclosed on the island; they are imprisoned in the labyrinth of the calli. Time on the mainland has the room to spread outward, so that it becomes flatter and thinner. In Venice it echoes and re-echoes. The Irish writer Seán O’Faoláin described it as “a projection of the Schopenhauerian will, a timeless essence.”

It might be truer to say that there are continuities through time. A Venetian of the sixteenth century, if not earlier, would have no trouble in finding his or her way through the streets of the modern city. That is true of few other cities on earth. The churches, and markets, are still in the same place. The ferries still cross the Grand Canal from the same stations that they used five hundred years ago. The same religious festivals are celebrated. Of all cities, Venice is the one that most fully manifests continuity. It has become its reason for being. It is reassuring because it represents permanence and stability in a world of change; that is why its survival has become so important to variously concerned groups in England and America. Some of the cityscapes of the sixteenth century, by Carpaccio and others, can still be identified in the contemporary city. There is a famous view by Canaletto of a stonemason’s yard, by the bank of the Grand Canal where now the Accademia bridge has been erected. From the painting itself, approximately of the Campo S. Vidal and the church of S. Maria della Carità, it is possible to identify still existing houses, a small bridge and a little canal. The painting is dated to 1727, so the territory has remained stable for almost three hundred years.

The most obvious sign of continuity is also the most familiar. The gondolas have been plying the waterways of the city for a thousand years, with only the smallest modifications in shape and appearance. John Evelyn described them in the seventeenth century as “very long and narrow, having necks and tails of steel … some are adorned with carving, others lined with velvet, commonly black … while he who rowes, stands upright on the very edge of the boate, and with one oare (bending forward as if he would precipitate into the sea) rowes & turnes with incredible dexterity.”

The gondolas are first mentioned in a document at the end of the eleventh century, although they must have been in existence for many decades before that date. The word itself has been granted many derivations, from the Latin cymbula or Greek kuntelas (both meaning small boat). But the actual origins of the boat have been variously found in Malta, Turkey, and, improbably, Avignon. It found its definite, and still modern, shape by degrees. Originally it was shorter and squatter than the modern version, with a cabin placed in the middle of the boat often protected by blinds or curtains. This was the mode of transport used by the patricians of the city, who might have many gondoliers in the pay of the household. By the seventeenth century these cabins or felzi became places of assignation and intrigue, adding to the legend of Venice as a city of hidden pleasures. They were removed in the 1930s. There was one other modification in the middle of the eighteenth century, when the right side was made nine inches (225 mm) longer than the left; this adjustment increased the little boat’s speed and manoeuvrability. Then the gondola sailed on through the centuries, growing slightly longer and slimmer so that it might accommodate the growing number of tourists. It was still a boat of pleasure, but no longer reserved for the few.

There were ten thousand gondolas in the sixteenth century, many of them festooned with ornaments and carvings. This encouraged displays of showmanship and rivalry among the wealthier Venetians, who were allowed few opportunities of conspicuous consumption in public. Such a spirit was of course to be resisted by a Venetian state that curbed individualism of any sort in the name of collective brotherhood. So the ornamentation was, in a decree of 1562, forbidden. That is why the gondolas became black. Even though black was not considered by the Venetians to be an unfavourable colour, the gondolas ever since have regularly been seen as floating coffins. Shelley compared them to moths that have struggled out of the chrysalis of a coffin. James Fenimore Cooper felt that he was riding in a hearse. Wagner, fearful in a time of cholera, had to force himself to board one. Goethe called it a capacious bier. And Byron saw it:

Just like a coffin clapt in a canoe,Where none can make out what you say or do.

Byron is here describing the amours that might or might not take place in the private space of the cabin. The gondolier penetrating the interior canals of the city has also been given a phallic importance, so that in Venice sex and death are once more conflated. Henry James wrote of the experience that “each dim recognition and obscure arrest is a possible throb of your sense of being floated to your doom.…” A ride on a gondola can prompt some very powerful instincts.

The metal beak at the prow, the ferro, has a complicated history. Some believe that its six teeth represent the six sestieri of the city. It has also been considered to be a replica of the beak of a Roman galley; given the Venetian fondness for antique copy, that has the ring of truth.

The gondoliers are the most famous of the city’s native sons. Their characteristic uniform of straw hat and black-and-white striped top, together with the red or blue scarf, was really only formalised in the 1920s. But their braggadocio is very old. They seem to enjoy the sound of their own voices, on land as well as on water. They bawl; they bellow; they sing. But when they are hushed, and the only sound is that of the gondola gliding through the water, then the deep peace of Venice begins to reign.

The gondoliers have been celebrated in song and ballad from the sixteenth century. They were praised for their discretion. When the gondola was used as a place of assignation, the gondoliers were silent about their customers; if a gondolier had denounced a lady to her husband, he would have been drowned by his colleagues. They were employed to deliver sensitive letters. Foreign visitors often denounced them as foul-mouthed cheats or pimps, but they received more praise from their compatriots. They appear as good-hearted heroes, for example, in the comedies of Goldoni. Here is part of a typical setting from his play, The Good Gir “two gondoliers arrive at the same moment from opposite directions … Each insists that the other shall give way by dropping back.” There then follows a dialogue of threat and insult known to all earlier travellers to Venice. Yet their high spirits were part of the air of the city. They were incarnate of the will to live, and to survive, upon the water.

The cries and songs of the gondoliers have been endlessly recorded. In Stones of Venice Ruskin himself devotes his first appendix to “The Gondolier’s Cry.” It might be the title to an opera. “Premi!” to pass on the left, “Stali!” to pass on the right, and “Sciar!,” to come to a halt. The gondoliers love to call to one another across the water, although such marine repartee is now as much of a theatrical act as the singing of “O solo mio” or “Torno a Sorrento.” Although in the city itself they are still a powerful and sometimes disruptive force, they are now principally the delight of tourists. They have in a larger sense become part of the self-conscious mannerism of contemporary Venetian life, their costume little more than fancy dress. It has been said that no Venetian would be seen dead in a gondola, except perhaps in those that are used as ferries from one bank to another.

There are now only four hundred gondolas at work in the city. Only four are made each year. The boat cannot last for ever. After twenty or so years of service, its woodwork will warp and weaken. It is then taken to the island of Murano, where its wood is used to kindle the flames of the glass-works. It becomes part of another city industry, its energy transformed into Venetian glass.

<p>20</p> <p>Iustitia</p>

On one of the three exposed corners of the ducal palace, there is a sculpture concerning the judgement of Solomon. On the west façade of the palace is the figure of Iustitia, with the sword of justice upright in her hand; here also is the word “Venecia.” Venice and Justice have been combined in one eternal image, with the inscription “Strong and just, enthroned I put the furies of the sea beneath my feet.” Above the Porta della Carta, in the same complex of public buildings, is enthroned the virgin image of Venetia and Iustitia with sword and scales. The crowning figures of the palace are also those of Iustitia. The justice of Venice is one of the myths of Venice. It is deemed to be ancient. It is deemed to be divinely inspired. It is related, in ultimate form, to the judicial salvation of humankind.

The actual nature of Venetian law is less glorious, but perhaps more interesting. As in all aspects of the Venetian polity, it was of mixed inheritance. Elements of it came from Roman jurisprudence, and from Byzantine legislation. Other elements were taken from the Lombard and Frankish codes. Having no firm territorial foundation, Venice was forced to adapt or borrow the traditions of other peoples. It could be said that the Venetians created a patchwork coalition of various legal principles, flexible and accommodating for any circumstances. Venetian law was, above all else, efficient. A nation all at sea must first save itself.

The first code of jurisprudence was promulgated at the close of the twelfth century, and the laws were collected in the following century within the pages of five great books. The majority of statutes, as might be expected in a city of merchants, dealt with matters of wealth and property. Commercial law was the most voluminous. The five books might be said, in fact, to embody a mercantile attitude towards law. Despite the reverence for the customary image of Justice, the practice of the Venetians seems to have been largely empirical and pragmatic. The laws were often acknowledgements of what already existed in practice. Customary law, unwritten and on occasions anecdotal, seems to have been pre-eminent. It was even declared that custom might override the written law. This is in part evidence of the merchant spirit, distrusting legal niceties and quibbles. The offender must pay for dishonour done to God, and disrespect shown to the city. These were the important matters.

It was often said that Venetians were more fond of talking than of doing. Certainly it is true that no other city-state produced so much legislation. The contents of these laws are sometimes confusing, inconsistent and contradictory. They were passed and then not enacted. They were issued, or reissued, when the very same laws were already on the statute books. The leaders of Venice legislated too much. There is an air of fantasy, or of unreality, about their search for legal formulae. Some of the great council believed or thought that they remembered a certain law. When it could not actually be found, it was drawn up and entered anyway. There was a saying that “seven days suffice before time obscures a Venetian law”:

Una leze venezianaDura una settimana.

The sumptuary laws, in particular, entered the minutiae of social life where no practical supervision was possible. So they were largely ignored. They remain, however, the most bizarre example of the lengths to which the Venetian state would go to influence social conduct. If the city were a large family, as was often claimed, then it was of a harshly paternalistic kind. Thus, in 1562, it was decreed that “at any meal of meat not more than one course of roast and one kind of boiled meat may be provided. This may not include more than three kinds of meat or poultry …” The legislation was designed in part to curb the enthusiasm for large family parties, for gatherings of kin, which could be considered as a threat to the state. That is why the particular focus of legislation was directed at feasts and banquets where great numbers of people might gather. Oysters were not permitted at dinners where there were more than twenty guests. There were rules on the number of pastries and fruits that could be served; peacocks and pheasant were forbidden. The slaves who served at such banquets were invited to spy on their masters. The cooks were obliged to report in advance to the authorities what food they had been asked to prepare.

The legislation was also designed to arrest the tendency towards excessive flamboyance; the common people, faced with the extravagance of the rich, might become restless. In Venice, internal dissension had to be avoided at all costs. That is perhaps the reason for the general disregard of sumptuary legislation; it was seen only as a gesture to mollify the populace, not as a serious attempt at enforcing law.

There was also the spiritual argument. The example of vanity and greed would invoke the anger of the Almighty. At times of defeat, on sea or land, the Venetians often blamed the debased morals of certain of the citizens. This was of course a common trope in the medieval and early modern periods, but it applied all the more aptly and sharply to a city that believed itself to be chosen by God. The rules applied to the strictest regulations of dress. No man or woman could possess more than two fur cloaks. In 1696 it was forbidden for anyone to wear lace ruffles on the neck or wrists; brocade and silk clothes were forbidden, and no more than two rings could be worn upon the fingers. Three patricians were chosen as magistrates or sumptuary police, to enforce these regulations. It is not known whether they were successful in their attempts to curb extravagance and excess.

The practice of Venetian law was in theory equitable. Anyone who owned property, whether patrician or citizen or artisan, was treated in the same manner. Patricians could not plead, or expect, any especial favours. There was also a system of appeal established upon principles of fairness. Solicitations could be made to the doge himself. There was a Venetian saying, “pane in piazza e giustizia in Palazzo”; bread in the piazza and justice in the palace. Venetian justice had a reputation for strictness, on occasions to the point of barbarity, but also for impartiality. The state provided counsel for those who were poor. Even the slaves of Venice could approach the legal tribunals, and obtain redress from any grievances. In May 1372 a Venetian artisan, Antonio Avonal, and Giacobello, a tanner, whiled away the time by pricking with a long pin the slaves who passed them on their way to vespers at Saint Mark’s; they were taken before the authorities. Avonal was sentenced to three, and Giacobello to two, months in prison.

Almost uniquely in Italy, too, the lawcourts conducted their business in the vernacular. The court records are filled with the voices of ordinary Venetians, arguing, pleading, complaining about neighbours and employers and servants. The tribunals were like family courts. Venetian life was one of almost continuous litigation. In fact the sturdy tradition of the vociferous courts helped to stabilise Venice throughout its history. That is why the people of Venice were known to be “law-abiding.” Rulers and ruled knew the common ground on which they stood. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux is supposed to have told the doge, Cristoforo Moro, that “the republic would last as long as the custom continued of doing justice.”

We have the intriguing spectacle of practical success and ad hoc or muddled legal theorising. Laws were made or unmade, or ignored, or thwarted, or disobeyed. There were so many laws that no one could remember them all. The patrician judges had not received a legal education, except that which they had picked up by observation. They were politicians employed for a relatively short term. So they relied upon the promptings of conscience, conjecture, and common sense. They were, in one sense, amateurs. There must of course have been abuses of power and of principle; there must have been bribes and blackmail. That is the nature of life. Yet the pragmatic workings of the legal system, established upon custom, prevailed. The bond of equality before the law kept the city together. It is a measure of the Venetian temperament.

<p>21</p> <p>Against the Turks</p>

Even as the sun of Genoa set, in the summer of 1380, a new enemy rose over the eastern horizon in the shape of the Ottoman Turks. The Venetians had been accustomed to underestimate the challenge of the empire of the Osmanlis; they considered it to be locked up by land, and unable to threaten by sea. But then the waters of the Levant became the prey of Turkish pirates who could never be successfully put down; the gradual encroachment of the Ottoman Empire meant that Venetian trade routes were also being encircled. The Ottoman advance threatened the Venetian merchant colonies in Cyprus, Crete and Corfu; the islands had constantly to be defended with fortresses and with fleets. The two empires had their first confrontation in the waters of Gallipoli where, in 1416, the Venetian fleet routed the Turks after a long fight. The Venetian admiral later reported that the enemy had fought “like dragons”; their sea skills, then, were not to be underestimated. The proof came in 1453, when the Turkish forces overwhelmed Constantinople itself. It had been an ailing city, ever since the Venetian sack in 1204, and its defenders could not match the overwhelming forces of the Turks. The Osmanli dynasty was now knocking on the door of Europe. Constantinople, now for ever to be known as Istanbul, became the true power of the region.

There was, for the Venetians, business to be done. It would be better for them to turn putative enemies into customers. The pope might fulminate against the infidel, but the Venetians saw them as clients. A year after the fall of Constantinople a Venetian ambassador was despatched to the court of the sultan, Mehmed II, “the Conqueror,” declaring that it was the wish of the Venetian people to live in peace and amity with the emperor of the Turks. They wished, in other words, to make money out of him. The Venetians were duly given freedom of trade in all parts of the Ottoman Empire, and a new Venetian colony of merchants was established in Istanbul.

But the relationship could not endure. Mehmed increased the tariffs to be paid by Venetian ships, and entered into negotiations with the merchants of Florence. Then in 1462 the Turks seized the Venetian colony of Argos. War was declared between the empires. It was considered that by strength of numbers the Turks would succeed on land, while the Venetians would maintain their old supremacy at sea. The Venetians may have been hoping for an eventual truce, from which they could secure concessions. But Mehmed had a more formidable navy than the Venetians had expected. After much fighting, the Venetian fleet was expelled from the central Aegean. It was no longer a Latin sea. The island of Negroponte, in the possession of Venice for 250 years, was occupied by the Turks. The Turks conquered the region of the Black Sea, also, and turned that sea into the pond of Istanbul. The Venetians were forced on the defensive, fighting rearguard actions much closer to home in Albania and Dalmatia.

The Florentines told the pope that it would be for the good of all if the Turks and Venetians fought each other to a state of exhaustion. Yet Venice was exhausted first. It was finally obliged to sue for peace in 1479, seventeen years after the hostilities had begun. Venice kept Crete and Corfu. The Corfiote capital was described by Sir Charles Napier in the early nineteenth century as “a town fraught with all the vice and abominations of Venice”; but the real power of Venice in the Levant was gone for ever. The Turks now held the Aegean and the Mediterranean. The grand vizier of the Turkish court told the representatives of Venice suing for peace, “You can tell your doge that he has finished wedding the sea. It is our turn now.” A contemporary diarist, Girolamo Priuli, wrote of his countrymen that “faced with the Turkish threat, they are in a worse condition than slaves.” This was hyperbole, but it reflected the disconsolate mood of the people. This was the moment when Venetian ambitions in the east effectively came to an end. The eyes of the city were now turned towards the mainland of Italy.

The equilibrium in northern Italy could not endure. There were leagues and counter-leagues drawn up between the territorial powers, too weak to strike alone against their neighbours. The peace to which Venice aspired could be upheld only by the sword. While there was still empire, there would never be any rest. There were fears among other cities that the appetite of Venice had no limit, and that the city was intent upon the conquest of all Italy north of the Apennines. The republican alliance between Venice and Florence broke apart. There were endless tirades against the city’s cupidity and duplicity. The duke of Milan, Galeazzo Sforza, declared to the Venetian delegate at a congress in 1466, “You disturb the peace and covet the states of others. If you knew the ill-will universally felt towards you, the very hair of your head would stand on end.” Niccolò Machiavelli was moved to comment that the leaders of Venice “had no respect for the Church; Italy was not large enough for them, either, and they believed that they could form a monarchical state like that of Rome.”

The world around Venice was changing. The rise of the great nation-states—of Spain, of France and of Portugal in particular—altered the terms of world trade. The strength of the Turkish Empire, and the intervention of France and Spain on the mainland of Italy, created further burdens for the most serene city. When the French king, Charles VIII, invaded Italy in 1494 he inaugurated a century of national unrest. His failure to take over the kingdom of Naples did not deter the other great states of the European world. Maximilian of the Hapsburgs, and Ferdinand of Spain, were both eager to exploit the rich cities of northern Italy. These states had large armies, fully exploiting the new technology of siege guns and gunpowder. The city-states of Italy were not prepared for the novel conditions of warfare. Milan and Naples came under foreign control. Then at the end of 1508 the great leaders of the world turned their gaze upon Venice. The French, the Hapsburgs and the Spanish joined forces with the pope in the League of Cambrai with the sole purpose of seizing the mainland dominions of the city. The French delegate condemned the Venetians as “merchants of human blood” and “traitors to the Christian faith.” The German emperor promised to quench for ever the Venetian “thirst for dominion.”

The allies met with extraordinary success. The mercenary forces of the Venetians were comprehensively beaten by the French army in a battle by the village of Agnadello, near the Po, and retired in disarray to the lagoon. The cities under erstwhile Venetian occupation surrendered to the new conquerors without a fight. Within the space of fifteen days, in the spring of 1509, Venice lost all of her mainland possessions. The response of the Venetians was, by all accounts, one of panic. Citizens wandered the streets, weeping and lamenting. The cry went up that all was lost. There were reports that the enemy would banish the people of Venice from their city, and send them wandering like the Jews over the earth. “If their city had not been surrounded by the waters,” Machiavelli wrote, “we should have beheld her end.” The doge, according to one contemporary, never spoke but “looked like a dead man.” The doge in question, Leonardo Loredan, was painted by Bellini and can now be seen in the National Gallery; he looks glorious and serene.

At the time it was widely believed that God was punishing Venice for her multiple iniquities, amongst them sodomy and elaborate dress. The nunneries had become whorehouses. The rich lived in pride and luxury. None of this was pleasing to heaven. So, as a direct result of the war, the doge and senate introduced sumptuary legislation, to curb the excesses of the rich, in the hope of reconciling their city to God. Men were forbidden to make themselves physically attractive. The nunneries were locked up. The wearing of jewellery was strictly curtailed. It was necessary, according to one diarist of the time, “to imitate our ancestors with all possible zeal and care.” This ancestor worship had one particular dimension. There were some in the city who believed that the Venetians should have remained a seafaring people, as they were in the beginning, and that the ventures onto mainland territory had constituted a singular and perhaps fatal error.

There was the threat, after the battle of Agnadello, of an imminent siege by the imperial forces; food and grain were stored in makeshift warehouses. The doge sent envoys to the court of Maximilian, offering to place all the mainland dominions of the city under imperial control. He even despatched ambassadors to the Turks, requesting aid against the imperial forces. It is a measure of the desperation of the Venetian leaders that they invoked the aid of the infidels against their coreligionists—unless, of course, the true religion of the Venetians consisted in the worship of Venice herself.

Once the initial terror had subsided, however, the city once more came together. Its tribal instinct revived. It manifested the unity for which it would become famous in the sixteenth century. The ruling class drew together in a coherent body. The richer citizens pledged their fortunes to the defence of the city. The poorer sort remained loyal. The state reasserted itself. It was able to sow discord amongst the ranks of its enemies. Some of the mainland cities, which had come under French or imperial control, discovered that they preferred the more benign Venetian rule. Venice in fact recovered Padua with the active assistance of that city’s inhabitants. There were Venetian victories on the battlefield, too, and by the beginning of 1517 it had recovered almost all of its territories. It would not forfeit them until the time of Napoleon. It had also reached an agreement with the pope, on matters of ecclesiastical power, following the precept of a Venetian cardinal to “do what he wishes and later, with time, do what you will.” In what seems a typically ambiguous and duplicitous way, the council of ten had already secretly declared the conditions of the agreement void on the grounds that they had been extracted by force. Venice once more made its way in the world.

It had forfeited much valuable territory, in the Levant and elsewhere, but not all was lost. It acquired Cyprus, which it systematically stripped of its agricultural wealth, and it maintained its control of the cities around the Po. The grain of Rimini and Ravenna, also, was indispensable to its survival. And survival was now the key. After the League of Cambrai Venice could no longer extend any further its dominant position in the peninsula. It was surrounded by too many and too formidable foes. There would be no more aggressive expansion. Instead the patricians of Venice continued their policy of buying up parcels of territory as opportunity presented itself. There was soon a definite tendency to exchange the perils of trade for the security of land. Land was a good investment, in a world of ever-increasing population and rising food prices, and concerted efforts were made to make it more and more productive. Nevertheless it represented another form of withdrawal from the world. In the process the Venetians created a new race of landed gentry. The best chance for the state itself lay in watchful neutrality, playing one combatant against another while alienating neither. The only option was that of peace. All the notorious guile and rhetoric of the Venetians were now devoted to that purpose of balancing the Turkish, French and Hapsburg empires. And the strategy was successful until the arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte almost three hundred years later. The remains of the Venetian empire—in Crete, in southern Greece, and on the mainland of Italy—were preserved.

The reassertion of Venice was aided in 1527, by the brutal sack of Rome by unpaid imperialist troops. They raped, and killed, the citizens of the imperial city; they stole its treasures, and burned what they could not steal. Throughout the region waves of plague and syphilis compounded the despair; the ravaged fields could produce no wheat. Once more Venice seized the advantage. Rome had been one of the oldest, and most formidable, adversaries of Venice. The pope who reigned there had put the city under sentence of excommunication on more than one occasion. The papal states were challenged by Venetian power. So the sacking of Rome was welcome news to the administrators of Venice. Many of the artists and architects of the papal court left Rome and migrated to the most serene city where such riot was considered impossible. The reigning doge, Andrea Gritti, had determined that Venice would rise as the new Rome. He flattered and invited composers and writers and architects. One of the refugees from Rome, Jacopo Sansovino, was hired by Gritti to remodel Saint Mark’s Square as the centre of an imperial city. Another refugee, Pietro Aretino, apostrophised Venice as the “universal fatherland.”

Sansovino restored the public areas of Venice in Roman fashion. He built a new Mint with rusticated arches and Doric columns. He built the great library, opposite the palace of the doge in the piazzetta, in the form of a classical basilica. In the same spirit he built the loggetta, at the base of the campanile, in traditionally classical form. The shacks and stalls of the traders were removed from the square, and in their place was constructed a sacred ceremonial space. Magistrates were appointed to supervise the renovation of other areas as well as the cleansing of the waters around Venice. There was new building everywhere. The quays were refashioned. The symbolism was not difficult to read. Venice proclaimed herself to be the new Rome, the true heir of the Roman republic and the Roman empire. She saw no reason to prostrate herself before the German emperor, Charles V, or the emperor of the Turks, Suleiman the Magnificent. The city itself was conceived as a monument to this new status. According to a declaration of the senate in 1535, “from a wild and uncultivated refuge it has grown, been ornamented and constructed so as to become the most beautiful and illustrious city which at present exists in the world.” It was the city of carnival and celebration. There sprang up more parades and ceremonials, more tournaments and festivals.

There were, and are, historians who assert that in this transition the Venetians themselves lost their energy and their tenacity. They became “softer.” They were “weakened.” They lost their fighting spirit when they embraced the principles of neutrality. They became addicted to the pleasures of comfortable living. It is perhaps unwise to adopt the language of human psychology in such matters. The life of generations is more robust and more impersonal than that of any individual. It is accountable to different laws. All we can say, with any approach to certainty, is that Venice was revived in the sixteenth century. And it was a truly astonishing renewal, first born out of defeat and humiliation. It says much about the ingenuity, as well as the pragmatism, of the Venetian temperament.

There was one more great test. In the first months of 1570 the Turkish forces of Suleiman the Magnificent seized the Venetian colony of Cyprus. Venice unsuccessfully appealed for assistance to the leaders of Europe. Philip II of Spain, fearing a Turkish advance in northern Africa, despatched a fleet; but it arrived too late and proved curiously unwilling to follow Venetian strategy. The demoralised Venetian fleet, under Girolamo Zane, sailed back before ever sighting Cyprus. The island was lost. One of the Venetian dignitaries was beheaded by the Turks, and another was flayed alive. His skin is still preserved in an urn in the church of SS. Giovanni e Paolo. Meanwhile Zane had been ordered to return to Venice, where he was consigned to the doge’s dungeons; he died there two years later.

A year after the capture of Cyprus, Pope Pius V devised a confederation of three European powers to contain and to confront the Turks. Venice, Spain and the papacy itself formed a new Christian League or Holy League with the avowed aim of regaining control of the Mediterranean and of banishing the Turkish fleet from the Adriatic. It was a crusade under another name. A naval battle was staged at the entrance to the Gulf of Patras. The battle of Lepanto, as it became known, resulted in a great victory for the Christian forces. There were 230 Turkish vessels that were sunk or captured, with only thirteen losses for the Europeans. Fifteen thousand Christian galley slaves, obliged to work under Turkish masters, were given their liberty. There was another singular outcome. Lepanto was the last battle in which the use of the oar held the key. In later engagements the sails were raised. It was the last battle, too, in which hand-to-hand combat was the chosen method of assault; artillery and, in particular, cannon took over.

After Lepanto, when a Venetian galley returned to its home port trailing the Turkish standard, the city gave itself up to rejoicing. At a funeral oration in Saint Mark’s, honouring the dead, it was declared that “they have taught us by their example that the Turks are not insuperable, as we had previously believed them to be.” The predominant feeling was one of relief. The Venetians thought it prudent to follow the victory with further assaults on Turkish power, but the pope and the Spanish monarch disagreed. There was an inconclusive campaign in the spring of the following year, but the spirit had gone out of the Christian League. Venice returned to diplomacy, and signed a treaty with Suleiman. Cyprus was lost for ever. Of all the Greek islands colonised by Venice, only Corfu remained free of the Turkish embrace. Yet the victory at Lepanto had emboldened the leaders of Venice. There was some talk of regaining commercial supremacy in the Mediterranean. A new generation of younger patricians came to dominate public affairs.

So by the end of the sixteenth century Venice could pride itself on having survived the encroachments of the Europeans as well as the belligerence of the Turks. It had proved to be a formidable opponent in peace as well as in war. The stability of its government, and the loyalty of its people, had remained steadfast. It was the only city in northern Italy that had not endured rebellion or suffered invasion. The pope compared it to “a great ship that fears neither fortune nor commotion of winds.” There emerged now what came to be known as “the myth of Venice.” Its antiquity and its ancient liberty were celebrated by Venetian historiographers; it clothed itself in the glory of new public buildings. The republic of Venice, free from faction and guided by sage counsellors, was deemed to be immortal. It refashioned itself as the city of peace and the city of art. Even as its overseas power entered a slow decline, so the spirit of the city manifested itself in another fashion. It is evident in the work of Bellini, of Titian, and of Tintoretto who emerged as the influence of Venice began to wane. But who can speak of decline or decay when the city produced such riches? Venice had merely changed the nature of its power. It now claimed the power to impress—to dazzle. As its imperial power declined, so its image in the world became of vital importance.


19

Bells and Gondolas

<p>19</p> <p>Bells and Gondolas</p>

The Venetians needed to control time, just as they controlled every other aspect of their insular world. The bells rang out at precise times of day, to co-ordinate the activities of the populace. Within the campanile itself, in Saint Mark’s Square, there was a system of five bells—the marangona that announced the beginning and end of the working day, the nona and the mezza terza that rang the hours, the trottiera that invited the patricians to vote in their various assemblies, and the maleficio that called the spectators to the latest public execution. The bells were a form of social control, creating areas of forbidden time. An edict was announced in 1310 that “no person whatsoever shall be suffered, without special licence, to walk abroad after the third bell of the night.”

In the private and public institutions of the city every phase of activity was signalled by the ringing of bells; the people were summoned for waking, for washing, for praying, for eating and for sleeping. It is another indication of the paternalism, or authoritarianism, of Venetian society. Yet since bells were intimately associated with religious devotion, it was a way of making life itself a sacred activity. It was a qualitative, as well as a quantitative, token.

Yet time seems to shift in the city. The tokens of various periods appear together, and various times modify one another. In Venice there is no true chronological time; it has been overtaken by other forces. There are occasions, indeed, when time seems to be suspended; if you enter a certain courtyard, in a shaft of sunlight, the past rises all around you. This is not necessarily a private or individual sensation. The organisations of the city were believed by the people to be “perpetual.” In their work on the public monuments of the city the Venetians were concerned to accrue various layers or levels of time, with borrowings and adaptations from earlier cultures. Theirs was never meant to be an architecture of the present, but rather of the past and present conflated. The city affords visitors a glimpse of the porousness of history.

There is indeed a different sense of time in the city, as any visitor will testify. No one can hurry in Venice; no one can “make up” time. There is no transport except by water, and there are many hindrances to a pedestrian’s rapid journey. It is a city that slows down the human world. That is another reason for the sense of enchantment or dream that it induces. There is a great will to wander and be lost. The official institution of time was also different. The beginning of the next day was dated from the hour of the evening Angelus, or six o’clock. Thus 6:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve was, for the Venetians, already Christmas Day. This system continued until the Napoleonic conquest.

The continuity of the city and of its administration impressed upon the inhabitants a different sense of time, also, calculated in centuries rather than in decades. Venice measured itself in historical rather than chronological time. The centuries are, as it were, enclosed on the island; they are imprisoned in the labyrinth of the calli. Time on the mainland has the room to spread outward, so that it becomes flatter and thinner. In Venice it echoes and re-echoes. The Irish writer Seán O’Faoláin described it as “a projection of the Schopenhauerian will, a timeless essence.”

It might be truer to say that there are continuities through time. A Venetian of the sixteenth century, if not earlier, would have no trouble in finding his or her way through the streets of the modern city. That is true of few other cities on earth. The churches, and markets, are still in the same place. The ferries still cross the Grand Canal from the same stations that they used five hundred years ago. The same religious festivals are celebrated. Of all cities, Venice is the one that most fully manifests continuity. It has become its reason for being. It is reassuring because it represents permanence and stability in a world of change; that is why its survival has become so important to variously concerned groups in England and America. Some of the cityscapes of the sixteenth century, by Carpaccio and others, can still be identified in the contemporary city. There is a famous view by Canaletto of a stonemason’s yard, by the bank of the Grand Canal where now the Accademia bridge has been erected. From the painting itself, approximately of the Campo S. Vidal and the church of S. Maria della Carità, it is possible to identify still existing houses, a small bridge and a little canal. The painting is dated to 1727, so the territory has remained stable for almost three hundred years.

The most obvious sign of continuity is also the most familiar. The gondolas have been plying the waterways of the city for a thousand years, with only the smallest modifications in shape and appearance. John Evelyn described them in the seventeenth century as “very long and narrow, having necks and tails of steel … some are adorned with carving, others lined with velvet, commonly black … while he who rowes, stands upright on the very edge of the boate, and with one oare (bending forward as if he would precipitate into the sea) rowes & turnes with incredible dexterity.”

The gondolas are first mentioned in a document at the end of the eleventh century, although they must have been in existence for many decades before that date. The word itself has been granted many derivations, from the Latin cymbula or Greek kuntelas (both meaning small boat). But the actual origins of the boat have been variously found in Malta, Turkey, and, improbably, Avignon. It found its definite, and still modern, shape by degrees. Originally it was shorter and squatter than the modern version, with a cabin placed in the middle of the boat often protected by blinds or curtains. This was the mode of transport used by the patricians of the city, who might have many gondoliers in the pay of the household. By the seventeenth century these cabins or felzi became places of assignation and intrigue, adding to the legend of Venice as a city of hidden pleasures. They were removed in the 1930s. There was one other modification in the middle of the eighteenth century, when the right side was made nine inches (225 mm) longer than the left; this adjustment increased the little boat’s speed and manoeuvrability. Then the gondola sailed on through the centuries, growing slightly longer and slimmer so that it might accommodate the growing number of tourists. It was still a boat of pleasure, but no longer reserved for the few.

There were ten thousand gondolas in the sixteenth century, many of them festooned with ornaments and carvings. This encouraged displays of showmanship and rivalry among the wealthier Venetians, who were allowed few opportunities of conspicuous consumption in public. Such a spirit was of course to be resisted by a Venetian state that curbed individualism of any sort in the name of collective brotherhood. So the ornamentation was, in a decree of 1562, forbidden. That is why the gondolas became black. Even though black was not considered by the Venetians to be an unfavourable colour, the gondolas ever since have regularly been seen as floating coffins. Shelley compared them to moths that have struggled out of the chrysalis of a coffin. James Fenimore Cooper felt that he was riding in a hearse. Wagner, fearful in a time of cholera, had to force himself to board one. Goethe called it a capacious bier. And Byron saw it:

Just like a coffin clapt in a canoe,Where none can make out what you say or do.

Byron is here describing the amours that might or might not take place in the private space of the cabin. The gondolier penetrating the interior canals of the city has also been given a phallic importance, so that in Venice sex and death are once more conflated. Henry James wrote of the experience that “each dim recognition and obscure arrest is a possible throb of your sense of being floated to your doom.…” A ride on a gondola can prompt some very powerful instincts.

The metal beak at the prow, the ferro, has a complicated history. Some believe that its six teeth represent the six sestieri of the city. It has also been considered to be a replica of the beak of a Roman galley; given the Venetian fondness for antique copy, that has the ring of truth.

The gondoliers are the most famous of the city’s native sons. Their characteristic uniform of straw hat and black-and-white striped top, together with the red or blue scarf, was really only formalised in the 1920s. But their braggadocio is very old. They seem to enjoy the sound of their own voices, on land as well as on water. They bawl; they bellow; they sing. But when they are hushed, and the only sound is that of the gondola gliding through the water, then the deep peace of Venice begins to reign.

The gondoliers have been celebrated in song and ballad from the sixteenth century. They were praised for their discretion. When the gondola was used as a place of assignation, the gondoliers were silent about their customers; if a gondolier had denounced a lady to her husband, he would have been drowned by his colleagues. They were employed to deliver sensitive letters. Foreign visitors often denounced them as foul-mouthed cheats or pimps, but they received more praise from their compatriots. They appear as good-hearted heroes, for example, in the comedies of Goldoni. Here is part of a typical setting from his play, The Good Gir “two gondoliers arrive at the same moment from opposite directions … Each insists that the other shall give way by dropping back.” There then follows a dialogue of threat and insult known to all earlier travellers to Venice. Yet their high spirits were part of the air of the city. They were incarnate of the will to live, and to survive, upon the water.

The cries and songs of the gondoliers have been endlessly recorded. In Stones of Venice Ruskin himself devotes his first appendix to “The Gondolier’s Cry.” It might be the title to an opera. “Premi!” to pass on the left, “Stali!” to pass on the right, and “Sciar!,” to come to a halt. The gondoliers love to call to one another across the water, although such marine repartee is now as much of a theatrical act as the singing of “O solo mio” or “Torno a Sorrento.” Although in the city itself they are still a powerful and sometimes disruptive force, they are now principally the delight of tourists. They have in a larger sense become part of the self-conscious mannerism of contemporary Venetian life, their costume little more than fancy dress. It has been said that no Venetian would be seen dead in a gondola, except perhaps in those that are used as ferries from one bank to another.

There are now only four hundred gondolas at work in the city. Only four are made each year. The boat cannot last for ever. After twenty or so years of service, its woodwork will warp and weaken. It is then taken to the island of Murano, where its wood is used to kindle the flames of the glass-works. It becomes part of another city industry, its energy transformed into Venetian glass.


20

Iustitia

<p>20</p> <p>Iustitia</p>

On one of the three exposed corners of the ducal palace, there is a sculpture concerning the judgement of Solomon. On the west façade of the palace is the figure of Iustitia, with the sword of justice upright in her hand; here also is the word “Venecia.” Venice and Justice have been combined in one eternal image, with the inscription “Strong and just, enthroned I put the furies of the sea beneath my feet.” Above the Porta della Carta, in the same complex of public buildings, is enthroned the virgin image of Venetia and Iustitia with sword and scales. The crowning figures of the palace are also those of Iustitia. The justice of Venice is one of the myths of Venice. It is deemed to be ancient. It is deemed to be divinely inspired. It is related, in ultimate form, to the judicial salvation of humankind.

The actual nature of Venetian law is less glorious, but perhaps more interesting. As in all aspects of the Venetian polity, it was of mixed inheritance. Elements of it came from Roman jurisprudence, and from Byzantine legislation. Other elements were taken from the Lombard and Frankish codes. Having no firm territorial foundation, Venice was forced to adapt or borrow the traditions of other peoples. It could be said that the Venetians created a patchwork coalition of various legal principles, flexible and accommodating for any circumstances. Venetian law was, above all else, efficient. A nation all at sea must first save itself.

The first code of jurisprudence was promulgated at the close of the twelfth century, and the laws were collected in the following century within the pages of five great books. The majority of statutes, as might be expected in a city of merchants, dealt with matters of wealth and property. Commercial law was the most voluminous. The five books might be said, in fact, to embody a mercantile attitude towards law. Despite the reverence for the customary image of Justice, the practice of the Venetians seems to have been largely empirical and pragmatic. The laws were often acknowledgements of what already existed in practice. Customary law, unwritten and on occasions anecdotal, seems to have been pre-eminent. It was even declared that custom might override the written law. This is in part evidence of the merchant spirit, distrusting legal niceties and quibbles. The offender must pay for dishonour done to God, and disrespect shown to the city. These were the important matters.

It was often said that Venetians were more fond of talking than of doing. Certainly it is true that no other city-state produced so much legislation. The contents of these laws are sometimes confusing, inconsistent and contradictory. They were passed and then not enacted. They were issued, or reissued, when the very same laws were already on the statute books. The leaders of Venice legislated too much. There is an air of fantasy, or of unreality, about their search for legal formulae. Some of the great council believed or thought that they remembered a certain law. When it could not actually be found, it was drawn up and entered anyway. There was a saying that “seven days suffice before time obscures a Venetian law”:

Una leze venezianaDura una settimana.

The sumptuary laws, in particular, entered the minutiae of social life where no practical supervision was possible. So they were largely ignored. They remain, however, the most bizarre example of the lengths to which the Venetian state would go to influence social conduct. If the city were a large family, as was often claimed, then it was of a harshly paternalistic kind. Thus, in 1562, it was decreed that “at any meal of meat not more than one course of roast and one kind of boiled meat may be provided. This may not include more than three kinds of meat or poultry …” The legislation was designed in part to curb the enthusiasm for large family parties, for gatherings of kin, which could be considered as a threat to the state. That is why the particular focus of legislation was directed at feasts and banquets where great numbers of people might gather. Oysters were not permitted at dinners where there were more than twenty guests. There were rules on the number of pastries and fruits that could be served; peacocks and pheasant were forbidden. The slaves who served at such banquets were invited to spy on their masters. The cooks were obliged to report in advance to the authorities what food they had been asked to prepare.

The legislation was also designed to arrest the tendency towards excessive flamboyance; the common people, faced with the extravagance of the rich, might become restless. In Venice, internal dissension had to be avoided at all costs. That is perhaps the reason for the general disregard of sumptuary legislation; it was seen only as a gesture to mollify the populace, not as a serious attempt at enforcing law.

There was also the spiritual argument. The example of vanity and greed would invoke the anger of the Almighty. At times of defeat, on sea or land, the Venetians often blamed the debased morals of certain of the citizens. This was of course a common trope in the medieval and early modern periods, but it applied all the more aptly and sharply to a city that believed itself to be chosen by God. The rules applied to the strictest regulations of dress. No man or woman could possess more than two fur cloaks. In 1696 it was forbidden for anyone to wear lace ruffles on the neck or wrists; brocade and silk clothes were forbidden, and no more than two rings could be worn upon the fingers. Three patricians were chosen as magistrates or sumptuary police, to enforce these regulations. It is not known whether they were successful in their attempts to curb extravagance and excess.

The practice of Venetian law was in theory equitable. Anyone who owned property, whether patrician or citizen or artisan, was treated in the same manner. Patricians could not plead, or expect, any especial favours. There was also a system of appeal established upon principles of fairness. Solicitations could be made to the doge himself. There was a Venetian saying, “pane in piazza e giustizia in Palazzo”; bread in the piazza and justice in the palace. Venetian justice had a reputation for strictness, on occasions to the point of barbarity, but also for impartiality. The state provided counsel for those who were poor. Even the slaves of Venice could approach the legal tribunals, and obtain redress from any grievances. In May 1372 a Venetian artisan, Antonio Avonal, and Giacobello, a tanner, whiled away the time by pricking with a long pin the slaves who passed them on their way to vespers at Saint Mark’s; they were taken before the authorities. Avonal was sentenced to three, and Giacobello to two, months in prison.

Almost uniquely in Italy, too, the lawcourts conducted their business in the vernacular. The court records are filled with the voices of ordinary Venetians, arguing, pleading, complaining about neighbours and employers and servants. The tribunals were like family courts. Venetian life was one of almost continuous litigation. In fact the sturdy tradition of the vociferous courts helped to stabilise Venice throughout its history. That is why the people of Venice were known to be “law-abiding.” Rulers and ruled knew the common ground on which they stood. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux is supposed to have told the doge, Cristoforo Moro, that “the republic would last as long as the custom continued of doing justice.”

We have the intriguing spectacle of practical success and ad hoc or muddled legal theorising. Laws were made or unmade, or ignored, or thwarted, or disobeyed. There were so many laws that no one could remember them all. The patrician judges had not received a legal education, except that which they had picked up by observation. They were politicians employed for a relatively short term. So they relied upon the promptings of conscience, conjecture, and common sense. They were, in one sense, amateurs. There must of course have been abuses of power and of principle; there must have been bribes and blackmail. That is the nature of life. Yet the pragmatic workings of the legal system, established upon custom, prevailed. The bond of equality before the law kept the city together. It is a measure of the Venetian temperament.


21

Against the Turks

<p>21</p> <p>Against the Turks</p>

Even as the sun of Genoa set, in the summer of 1380, a new enemy rose over the eastern horizon in the shape of the Ottoman Turks. The Venetians had been accustomed to underestimate the challenge of the empire of the Osmanlis; they considered it to be locked up by land, and unable to threaten by sea. But then the waters of the Levant became the prey of Turkish pirates who could never be successfully put down; the gradual encroachment of the Ottoman Empire meant that Venetian trade routes were also being encircled. The Ottoman advance threatened the Venetian merchant colonies in Cyprus, Crete and Corfu; the islands had constantly to be defended with fortresses and with fleets. The two empires had their first confrontation in the waters of Gallipoli where, in 1416, the Venetian fleet routed the Turks after a long fight. The Venetian admiral later reported that the enemy had fought “like dragons”; their sea skills, then, were not to be underestimated. The proof came in 1453, when the Turkish forces overwhelmed Constantinople itself. It had been an ailing city, ever since the Venetian sack in 1204, and its defenders could not match the overwhelming forces of the Turks. The Osmanli dynasty was now knocking on the door of Europe. Constantinople, now for ever to be known as Istanbul, became the true power of the region.

There was, for the Venetians, business to be done. It would be better for them to turn putative enemies into customers. The pope might fulminate against the infidel, but the Venetians saw them as clients. A year after the fall of Constantinople a Venetian ambassador was despatched to the court of the sultan, Mehmed II, “the Conqueror,” declaring that it was the wish of the Venetian people to live in peace and amity with the emperor of the Turks. They wished, in other words, to make money out of him. The Venetians were duly given freedom of trade in all parts of the Ottoman Empire, and a new Venetian colony of merchants was established in Istanbul.

But the relationship could not endure. Mehmed increased the tariffs to be paid by Venetian ships, and entered into negotiations with the merchants of Florence. Then in 1462 the Turks seized the Venetian colony of Argos. War was declared between the empires. It was considered that by strength of numbers the Turks would succeed on land, while the Venetians would maintain their old supremacy at sea. The Venetians may have been hoping for an eventual truce, from which they could secure concessions. But Mehmed had a more formidable navy than the Venetians had expected. After much fighting, the Venetian fleet was expelled from the central Aegean. It was no longer a Latin sea. The island of Negroponte, in the possession of Venice for 250 years, was occupied by the Turks. The Turks conquered the region of the Black Sea, also, and turned that sea into the pond of Istanbul. The Venetians were forced on the defensive, fighting rearguard actions much closer to home in Albania and Dalmatia.

The Florentines told the pope that it would be for the good of all if the Turks and Venetians fought each other to a state of exhaustion. Yet Venice was exhausted first. It was finally obliged to sue for peace in 1479, seventeen years after the hostilities had begun. Venice kept Crete and Corfu. The Corfiote capital was described by Sir Charles Napier in the early nineteenth century as “a town fraught with all the vice and abominations of Venice”; but the real power of Venice in the Levant was gone for ever. The Turks now held the Aegean and the Mediterranean. The grand vizier of the Turkish court told the representatives of Venice suing for peace, “You can tell your doge that he has finished wedding the sea. It is our turn now.” A contemporary diarist, Girolamo Priuli, wrote of his countrymen that “faced with the Turkish threat, they are in a worse condition than slaves.” This was hyperbole, but it reflected the disconsolate mood of the people. This was the moment when Venetian ambitions in the east effectively came to an end. The eyes of the city were now turned towards the mainland of Italy.

The equilibrium in northern Italy could not endure. There were leagues and counter-leagues drawn up between the territorial powers, too weak to strike alone against their neighbours. The peace to which Venice aspired could be upheld only by the sword. While there was still empire, there would never be any rest. There were fears among other cities that the appetite of Venice had no limit, and that the city was intent upon the conquest of all Italy north of the Apennines. The republican alliance between Venice and Florence broke apart. There were endless tirades against the city’s cupidity and duplicity. The duke of Milan, Galeazzo Sforza, declared to the Venetian delegate at a congress in 1466, “You disturb the peace and covet the states of others. If you knew the ill-will universally felt towards you, the very hair of your head would stand on end.” Niccolò Machiavelli was moved to comment that the leaders of Venice “had no respect for the Church; Italy was not large enough for them, either, and they believed that they could form a monarchical state like that of Rome.”

The world around Venice was changing. The rise of the great nation-states—of Spain, of France and of Portugal in particular—altered the terms of world trade. The strength of the Turkish Empire, and the intervention of France and Spain on the mainland of Italy, created further burdens for the most serene city. When the French king, Charles VIII, invaded Italy in 1494 he inaugurated a century of national unrest. His failure to take over the kingdom of Naples did not deter the other great states of the European world. Maximilian of the Hapsburgs, and Ferdinand of Spain, were both eager to exploit the rich cities of northern Italy. These states had large armies, fully exploiting the new technology of siege guns and gunpowder. The city-states of Italy were not prepared for the novel conditions of warfare. Milan and Naples came under foreign control. Then at the end of 1508 the great leaders of the world turned their gaze upon Venice. The French, the Hapsburgs and the Spanish joined forces with the pope in the League of Cambrai with the sole purpose of seizing the mainland dominions of the city. The French delegate condemned the Venetians as “merchants of human blood” and “traitors to the Christian faith.” The German emperor promised to quench for ever the Venetian “thirst for dominion.”

The allies met with extraordinary success. The mercenary forces of the Venetians were comprehensively beaten by the French army in a battle by the village of Agnadello, near the Po, and retired in disarray to the lagoon. The cities under erstwhile Venetian occupation surrendered to the new conquerors without a fight. Within the space of fifteen days, in the spring of 1509, Venice lost all of her mainland possessions. The response of the Venetians was, by all accounts, one of panic. Citizens wandered the streets, weeping and lamenting. The cry went up that all was lost. There were reports that the enemy would banish the people of Venice from their city, and send them wandering like the Jews over the earth. “If their city had not been surrounded by the waters,” Machiavelli wrote, “we should have beheld her end.” The doge, according to one contemporary, never spoke but “looked like a dead man.” The doge in question, Leonardo Loredan, was painted by Bellini and can now be seen in the National Gallery; he looks glorious and serene.

At the time it was widely believed that God was punishing Venice for her multiple iniquities, amongst them sodomy and elaborate dress. The nunneries had become whorehouses. The rich lived in pride and luxury. None of this was pleasing to heaven. So, as a direct result of the war, the doge and senate introduced sumptuary legislation, to curb the excesses of the rich, in the hope of reconciling their city to God. Men were forbidden to make themselves physically attractive. The nunneries were locked up. The wearing of jewellery was strictly curtailed. It was necessary, according to one diarist of the time, “to imitate our ancestors with all possible zeal and care.” This ancestor worship had one particular dimension. There were some in the city who believed that the Venetians should have remained a seafaring people, as they were in the beginning, and that the ventures onto mainland territory had constituted a singular and perhaps fatal error.

There was the threat, after the battle of Agnadello, of an imminent siege by the imperial forces; food and grain were stored in makeshift warehouses. The doge sent envoys to the court of Maximilian, offering to place all the mainland dominions of the city under imperial control. He even despatched ambassadors to the Turks, requesting aid against the imperial forces. It is a measure of the desperation of the Venetian leaders that they invoked the aid of the infidels against their coreligionists—unless, of course, the true religion of the Venetians consisted in the worship of Venice herself.

Once the initial terror had subsided, however, the city once more came together. Its tribal instinct revived. It manifested the unity for which it would become famous in the sixteenth century. The ruling class drew together in a coherent body. The richer citizens pledged their fortunes to the defence of the city. The poorer sort remained loyal. The state reasserted itself. It was able to sow discord amongst the ranks of its enemies. Some of the mainland cities, which had come under French or imperial control, discovered that they preferred the more benign Venetian rule. Venice in fact recovered Padua with the active assistance of that city’s inhabitants. There were Venetian victories on the battlefield, too, and by the beginning of 1517 it had recovered almost all of its territories. It would not forfeit them until the time of Napoleon. It had also reached an agreement with the pope, on matters of ecclesiastical power, following the precept of a Venetian cardinal to “do what he wishes and later, with time, do what you will.” In what seems a typically ambiguous and duplicitous way, the council of ten had already secretly declared the conditions of the agreement void on the grounds that they had been extracted by force. Venice once more made its way in the world.

It had forfeited much valuable territory, in the Levant and elsewhere, but not all was lost. It acquired Cyprus, which it systematically stripped of its agricultural wealth, and it maintained its control of the cities around the Po. The grain of Rimini and Ravenna, also, was indispensable to its survival. And survival was now the key. After the League of Cambrai Venice could no longer extend any further its dominant position in the peninsula. It was surrounded by too many and too formidable foes. There would be no more aggressive expansion. Instead the patricians of Venice continued their policy of buying up parcels of territory as opportunity presented itself. There was soon a definite tendency to exchange the perils of trade for the security of land. Land was a good investment, in a world of ever-increasing population and rising food prices, and concerted efforts were made to make it more and more productive. Nevertheless it represented another form of withdrawal from the world. In the process the Venetians created a new race of landed gentry. The best chance for the state itself lay in watchful neutrality, playing one combatant against another while alienating neither. The only option was that of peace. All the notorious guile and rhetoric of the Venetians were now devoted to that purpose of balancing the Turkish, French and Hapsburg empires. And the strategy was successful until the arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte almost three hundred years later. The remains of the Venetian empire—in Crete, in southern Greece, and on the mainland of Italy—were preserved.

The reassertion of Venice was aided in 1527, by the brutal sack of Rome by unpaid imperialist troops. They raped, and killed, the citizens of the imperial city; they stole its treasures, and burned what they could not steal. Throughout the region waves of plague and syphilis compounded the despair; the ravaged fields could produce no wheat. Once more Venice seized the advantage. Rome had been one of the oldest, and most formidable, adversaries of Venice. The pope who reigned there had put the city under sentence of excommunication on more than one occasion. The papal states were challenged by Venetian power. So the sacking of Rome was welcome news to the administrators of Venice. Many of the artists and architects of the papal court left Rome and migrated to the most serene city where such riot was considered impossible. The reigning doge, Andrea Gritti, had determined that Venice would rise as the new Rome. He flattered and invited composers and writers and architects. One of the refugees from Rome, Jacopo Sansovino, was hired by Gritti to remodel Saint Mark’s Square as the centre of an imperial city. Another refugee, Pietro Aretino, apostrophised Venice as the “universal fatherland.”

Sansovino restored the public areas of Venice in Roman fashion. He built a new Mint with rusticated arches and Doric columns. He built the great library, opposite the palace of the doge in the piazzetta, in the form of a classical basilica. In the same spirit he built the loggetta, at the base of the campanile, in traditionally classical form. The shacks and stalls of the traders were removed from the square, and in their place was constructed a sacred ceremonial space. Magistrates were appointed to supervise the renovation of other areas as well as the cleansing of the waters around Venice. There was new building everywhere. The quays were refashioned. The symbolism was not difficult to read. Venice proclaimed herself to be the new Rome, the true heir of the Roman republic and the Roman empire. She saw no reason to prostrate herself before the German emperor, Charles V, or the emperor of the Turks, Suleiman the Magnificent. The city itself was conceived as a monument to this new status. According to a declaration of the senate in 1535, “from a wild and uncultivated refuge it has grown, been ornamented and constructed so as to become the most beautiful and illustrious city which at present exists in the world.” It was the city of carnival and celebration. There sprang up more parades and ceremonials, more tournaments and festivals.

There were, and are, historians who assert that in this transition the Venetians themselves lost their energy and their tenacity. They became “softer.” They were “weakened.” They lost their fighting spirit when they embraced the principles of neutrality. They became addicted to the pleasures of comfortable living. It is perhaps unwise to adopt the language of human psychology in such matters. The life of generations is more robust and more impersonal than that of any individual. It is accountable to different laws. All we can say, with any approach to certainty, is that Venice was revived in the sixteenth century. And it was a truly astonishing renewal, first born out of defeat and humiliation. It says much about the ingenuity, as well as the pragmatism, of the Venetian temperament.

There was one more great test. In the first months of 1570 the Turkish forces of Suleiman the Magnificent seized the Venetian colony of Cyprus. Venice unsuccessfully appealed for assistance to the leaders of Europe. Philip II of Spain, fearing a Turkish advance in northern Africa, despatched a fleet; but it arrived too late and proved curiously unwilling to follow Venetian strategy. The demoralised Venetian fleet, under Girolamo Zane, sailed back before ever sighting Cyprus. The island was lost. One of the Venetian dignitaries was beheaded by the Turks, and another was flayed alive. His skin is still preserved in an urn in the church of SS. Giovanni e Paolo. Meanwhile Zane had been ordered to return to Venice, where he was consigned to the doge’s dungeons; he died there two years later.

A year after the capture of Cyprus, Pope Pius V devised a confederation of three European powers to contain and to confront the Turks. Venice, Spain and the papacy itself formed a new Christian League or Holy League with the avowed aim of regaining control of the Mediterranean and of banishing the Turkish fleet from the Adriatic. It was a crusade under another name. A naval battle was staged at the entrance to the Gulf of Patras. The battle of Lepanto, as it became known, resulted in a great victory for the Christian forces. There were 230 Turkish vessels that were sunk or captured, with only thirteen losses for the Europeans. Fifteen thousand Christian galley slaves, obliged to work under Turkish masters, were given their liberty. There was another singular outcome. Lepanto was the last battle in which the use of the oar held the key. In later engagements the sails were raised. It was the last battle, too, in which hand-to-hand combat was the chosen method of assault; artillery and, in particular, cannon took over.

After Lepanto, when a Venetian galley returned to its home port trailing the Turkish standard, the city gave itself up to rejoicing. At a funeral oration in Saint Mark’s, honouring the dead, it was declared that “they have taught us by their example that the Turks are not insuperable, as we had previously believed them to be.” The predominant feeling was one of relief. The Venetians thought it prudent to follow the victory with further assaults on Turkish power, but the pope and the Spanish monarch disagreed. There was an inconclusive campaign in the spring of the following year, but the spirit had gone out of the Christian League. Venice returned to diplomacy, and signed a treaty with Suleiman. Cyprus was lost for ever. Of all the Greek islands colonised by Venice, only Corfu remained free of the Turkish embrace. Yet the victory at Lepanto had emboldened the leaders of Venice. There was some talk of regaining commercial supremacy in the Mediterranean. A new generation of younger patricians came to dominate public affairs.

So by the end of the sixteenth century Venice could pride itself on having survived the encroachments of the Europeans as well as the belligerence of the Turks. It had proved to be a formidable opponent in peace as well as in war. The stability of its government, and the loyalty of its people, had remained steadfast. It was the only city in northern Italy that had not endured rebellion or suffered invasion. The pope compared it to “a great ship that fears neither fortune nor commotion of winds.” There emerged now what came to be known as “the myth of Venice.” Its antiquity and its ancient liberty were celebrated by Venetian historiographers; it clothed itself in the glory of new public buildings. The republic of Venice, free from faction and guided by sage counsellors, was deemed to be immortal. It refashioned itself as the city of peace and the city of art. Even as its overseas power entered a slow decline, so the spirit of the city manifested itself in another fashion. It is evident in the work of Bellini, of Titian, and of Tintoretto who emerged as the influence of Venice began to wane. But who can speak of decline or decay when the city produced such riches? Venice had merely changed the nature of its power. It now claimed the power to impress—to dazzle. As its imperial power declined, so its image in the world became of vital importance.


VII The Living City

22

The Body and the Building

23

Learning and Language

24

Colour and Light

25

Pilgrims and Tourists

<p>VII The Living City</p>
<p>22</p> <p>The Body and the Building</p>

The Austrian writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal once described the archetypal city as “a landscape built of pure life.” Can this pure life therefore be seen as a living force? Can Venice be shaped and governed by an instinctive existence, which is greater than the sum of its people? Is it more than just a collective?

By the sixteenth century it was already being described as a human body where “the head is the place where the shores are situated; and that part towards the sea are the arms.” The canals were the veins of this body. The heart lay in the city itself. So wrote Cristoforo Sabbadino in 1549. Venice was supposed to gaze out at the sea. The English traveller, James Howell, said that no foreign prince had ever “come nere her privy parts.” Where were these privy parts? They were presumably the ducal palace and the basilica.

Yet all these references affirm a belief, or instinct, that Venice itself is a living organism with its own laws of growth and change. Does it exist, and survive, by the agency of some inner or intrinsic force that cannot as yet be explained or described? It absorbed the islands that constituted its existence; it had an alimentary system laid out among its canals and waterways. Everything wishes to give form and expression to its own nature; the leaves of the tree aspire to their own shape. So by obscure presentiment, and by the steady aggregate of communal wishes, Venice grew. That is why every part of Venice—its topography, its constitution, its domestic institutions—reflects the whole. Its nervous functions are interdependent. Those who travel to the city for the first time seem to be made aware of a definite personality. Henry James, always susceptible to the subtleties and obliquities of personal sensibility, said that Venice “seems to personify itself, to become human and sentient and conscious of your affection.” It was for him mild and interesting and sad.

Does it subdue the lives and affections of the people who inhabit it? The city is so old, and so encrusted with habit and tradition, that the people can be said to fit within its existing rhythms. The Venetians were often described as actors playing out their various roles. In paintings of Venetian life, the city dwarfs its inhabitants so that it becomes the pre-eminent subject. It has often been said that Venice cannot be modernised. More pertinently, it will not be modernised. It resists any such attempt with every fibre of its being.

On the lower façade of the Palazzo Dario, along the Grand Canal, the owner placed an inscription in Latin announcing “Giovanni Dario to the spirit of the city.” So of what, if anything, does the genius loci consist? Is there a city god in residence? In other cities the worship of communal values was associated with the worship of place and with the worship of the dead. In the early centuries the Venetian dead were buried in the campo of the parish. Thus the passing generations trod upon the remains of their ancestors. Nothing could instil more awe in a Venetian than to stand on the spot where the parish was created. In addition the presence of the ancestors gave a true title to territorial ownership of the land. No stranger could claim the ground where the bones were buried. This may be the clue to the origin of all cities. They began as cemeteries.

It was originally a city of wood. There were so many carpenters, marangoni, that the great bell of the campanile in Saint Mark’s Square was named after them as the marangona. It was a city of wooden tenements, occasional squares, wooden churches, water-lanes, landing stairs and pontoons between islands. Yet the process that formed the modern city was already in evidence; a network of parishes, each with its own church, was slowly forming with their centres accruing together. Wooden bridges were built to connect contiguous islands, and footways were laid over marshy areas.

In the eleventh century this process was intensified; under private rather than public initiative the ponds and marshes were filled or covered, reclaiming all the available land. The burgeoning government systematised the various parishes, creating a core of population from which the city was gradually extended. In the early years of the twelfth century there were proposals for a large market in the Rialto, a great civic square beside the ducal palace, and an arsenal for the maintenance of the Venetian fleet. These public works changed the face of the city, and determined the shape that it would eventually assume. Flood, fire and earthquake shook it from time to time; in 1106 a great fire destroyed almost the whole of wooden Venice. But the process was now too powerful to be reversed. There were many other fires, but the city always rose from them renewed. The great urban project had begun, and it could not be diverted. Venice grew and grew as if it were indeed some natural force.

By the thirteenth century the Venetian state had taken charge of land reclamation. The city was defined as a public space rather than an aggregation of individual communities. The state became the master of the land and of the water. Overseers of embankments, streets and canals were appointed. They were eventually formed into a commission with officers in every parish. Only certain canals were to be used for the transport of wood. Dyers were only allowed to use the water of the lagoon, not of the canals. Thus begins the flood of Venetian urban legislation, dealing with every aspect of life in the city. A system for the management of waste was created. The streets of the city were paved for the first time with flagstones or cobbles. The first permanent bridge over the Grand Canal, at the Rialto, was erected in 1264.

This continual enlargement of the urban fabric continued well into the fourteenth century, at a time when the population had reached one hundred thousand. It was already one of the most inhabited cities of Europe. The major streets of the city were laid out; new quays and bridges were built. Work on a new hall for the great council was approved in 1340; by that date several great churches were beginning to rise, among them S. Maria dei Frari, the basilica of SS. Giovanni e Paolo, S. Maria della Carità, S. Alvise and Madonna dell’Orto. New streets were built. A public granary was instituted.

There was a diminution of activity in the middle years of that century, under the weight of fatalities caused by the Black Death, but the beginning of the fifteenth century saw a wave of new works, private and public. That is how Venice developed—in waves of activity, sudden increases in the temperature of the city, an access of fresh vitality. The temptation to speak in organic terms is strong. Some two hundred palaces, many of them still standing along the Grand Canal, were built in this period. The medieval town of wood had finally given way to a Renaissance city.

The process was finalised, was set in stone, in the sixteenth century. The appointment of Jacopo Sansovino as public architect, in 1527, was the first stage of a deliberate programme of public works to create a second Rome both magisterial and gorgeous. The first general planning act is dated from 1557; it envisaged, among other things, an embankment of Istrian stone encircling the city. Venice became what Lewis Mumford called, in The City in History, an “absolute city.” It had become the setting for the sedulous dissemination of “the myth of Venice” as an enduring and impregnable polity. The work of Palladio, in the middle of the sixteenth century, added further adornment to a city that would never willingly change again. He reinvented the shape of its sacred architecture with the conception of the churches of S. Giorgio Maggiore and Il Redentore. The city needed only one more thing—the first stone of the great bridge across the Grand Canal at the Rialto was laid on 31 May 1585. The creation of Venice was complete.

Yet despite its manifest grandeur Venice was still an intensely local city. There were divisions, and divisions within divisions. The largest was that which separated “the Saint Mark’s side” and “the Rialto side” of the Grand Canal. Then there were the six sestieri or divisions of the city that were established in twelfth century; in the late nineteenth century they were still described in popular speech as nations; there was the nation of Castello, for example, and the nation of Cannaregio. Horatio Brown, in Life on the Lagoons (1909), noted that the people of the various quarters “are different in build and type of features” one from another; their speech was different. Even the dialects might vary.

Within each district the parishes were congregated. The parish, the contrada or contrata, was the essential and fundamental unit of Venetian society; in official documents the members of the popolani identified themselves in terms of their parish. The parish had its own festivals and rituals, and the parish priest was elected by the freeholders of the neighbourhood. There were small parish markets, and the church was a refuge in times of trouble; many parishes had their own specialised trade. It was an administrative, as well as a sacred, entity. Neighbourhood rivalries between the parishes on either side were common. The identity of each separate parish was also fully formed. So in spirit, if not in structure, the city still reflected its origins in one hundred or so islands.

The square or campo was at the heart of the neighbourhood. It spread before the church and was once its burial ground. In each square—or in the calle just around the corner—was a fruiterer, a greengrocer, a general goods store, a retailer of pasta, a café, a barber’s shop, and various other tradesmen from the mercer to the carpenter. It was a self-contained entity, marked out by its well and its carved well-head where the women of the parish came to gossip. It was a Venice in miniature. If there is indeed a spirit of place within the city, it is still to be found here.

The houses were tightly packed together. The parishioners knew each other’s business. Strangers were quickly noted. The city, in other words, was criss-crossed by individual boundaries. Going from one district, or from one parish, to another was like walking into a different town. The people of one district might not know the topography of another. There were parts of the city to which many, if not most, Venetians had never been. It was not unknown for a Venetian to live his or her own life without venturing beyond the bounds of the sestiere. There were Venetians who had never entered Saint Mark’s Square. The author was told of an old lady of Cannaregio, recently deceased at the age of one hundred, who had only been to the square twice in her life.

The canals are the signs and tokens of division. They are essentially the old streams and rivers that once crossed the territory; the stretch of water dividing the island of Giudecca from the rest of the city was once the mouth of the River Brenta. There are 170 canals threading through the city, ebbing and flowing with the tide for more than sixty-two miles (99.7 km). The Grand Canal itself has a length of two miles (3.2 km). Some allow only one-way traffic, and others accommodate two-way movement; some are dead-ends or blind canals. They have influenced the nature of the people as strongly as the nature of the city. It has been said that the presence of flowing water induces tranquillity. These boundaries of water also inhibited the rapid assembly of people in riot or rebellion. The peace of Venice may derive from its canals.

If the canals are the sign of division, then the bridges are the token of unity. There are more than 450 of them in the city, linking parish with parish. Many of them have honorifics or nicknames, such as the Bridge of Fists or the Bridge of Assassins or the Bridge of the Honest Woman. They were used as battlefields and as places of assignation. The earliest bridges were simply wooden planks laid across pilings or the hulls of boats, and the first one built of stone was not constructed until the latter half of the twelfth century. In that period, too, the first great wooden bridge or pontoon was erected across the Grand Canal at the Rialto. The sixteenth century was the great age of the stone bridge, when the wooden structures were replaced by their more durable substitutes. They rose on either side to a hump in the middle, and there were no parapets or balustrades. The pedestrian, or horseman, had to be nimble and fearless. The bridge-building has not finished yet. A new bridge has just been put into place across the Grand Canal, linking the two transport centres of Piazzale Roma and Ferrovia in the west of the city.

So out of this medley of disparate parishes and districts emerges the miracle of a sovereign and recognisable city. Out of difference springs identity; out of the parts, related or unrelated, emerges the whole. It is the secret of the city’s entire life. One of the first sights that greets the traveller arriving at the bacino or pool of Venice are the two columns of Oriental granite standing guard over the piazzetta. On the column closest to the ducal palace stands the lion of Saint Mark. From a distance it looks like a splendid composition. In fact it is made up of separate parts, created in different periods and held together by iron cramps. The age of some of the pieces is not known, but the majority of them can be dated to the late twelfth century. The wings of the lion are the work of restorers, and were originally divided into feathers. So by some instinct or by some compulsion the builders of the column, joining the separate parts of the lion together, represented the creation of the city.

On the other column is poised the statue of Saint Theodore, the original patron saint of Venice. If you were to come closer to this image, you would notice that it is not in any sense the work of one hand. The head is of Parian marble, and is believed to represent Mithridates, king of Pontus; the torso is a Roman piece from the time of Hadrian the Great; the dragon, or crocodile, is in the Lombardic style from the first half of the fifteenth century. It is a glorious, and apparently haphazard, exercise in historical assembly. It deserves to be on its column. Once again it is an image of Venice itself.

The architecture of the city is heterogeneous and apparently random, combining Gothic, Greek, Tuscan, Roman and Renaissance elements; the sum of their combination can be defined as Venetian architecture. Various styles, and stylistic modes, exist simultaneously; the art of Venice lay in amalgamation. It is a reminder of how oddly sorted the appearance of Venice has always been; it is based upon random accumulation of objects and materials. It reflects thoroughly eclectic tastes. There is no consistency, and no uniformity. That is why, for the traveller, Venice can be so fatiguing. It resists interpretation. It denies the single vision. Minarets can become crosses. Byzantine columns can rise towards Corinthian capitals. Parts of one statue can be attached to another. Théophile Gautier, writing of the basilica of Saint Mark, observed that “the singular thing, which upsets any idea of proportion, is that this jumble of columns, of capitals, of bas reliefs, of enamels, of mosaics—this mingling of Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab and Gothic styles—produces the most harmonious possible whole.” There are endless fragments that, paradoxically, only make sense as part of a perceived unity.

“In this most noble city of Venice,” the architect Sebastiano Serlio wrote in 1537, “it is the custom to build in a way which is very different from all the other cities of Italy.” It is an insular architecture. It is architecture built on water. Of course it will be different. The buildings of Venice reflect the spirit and the nature of the city. They are the emanations or exhalations of the territory. Ruskin entitled his magnificent appraisal the Stones of Venice. The stones are its soul.

So the architecture of Venice is noticeable for its lightness, for its balance, and for its harmony. It represents all the aspirations of its citizens. That is why the architecture is unique and identifiable—the deep central windows, the pattern of recess and shadow, the surface ornamentation, the intricate variety of styles, the preference for curved shapes, the screens of arcades, the general emphasis upon light and space. The thrust is towards the horizontal rather than the vertical, hugging the surface of the lagoon. The façades of Venetian buildings are not load-bearing. The effect is one of magnificence without monumentality. Volume is denied, being always broken up by the effects of glittering light. The façades seem to float freely, as if the architecture itself were a magnificent illusion.

The buildings often seem to be the sum of small parts rather than being dominated by one central conception. It is in that sense a very practical architecture. Venetian builders did not seem to mind asymmetry; they placed together styles that were a century or more apart; they shortened and lengthened buildings according to the exigencies of the site. The emphasis is upon contrast, and variety, rather than uniformity. Different systems of decoration could be employed in the same space; the proportions of the various architectural “orders” were breached. This architecture is one of natural exuberance. There is nothing solemn, nothing portentous, nothing menacing.

One of the essential forms is that of the three-storeyed front decorated with pilasters; it is the basic shape of the houses along the Grand Canal. The focus of the house is towards the exterior rather than the interior. And no one seems to care about the back of the building as long as the front is sumptuous. This is the city of masks. Hence the reliance upon external pattern. It is an ornamental and pictorial architecture. It has elements of the picturesque. The surfaces were encrusted with carvings and coloured marbles, with decorative patterns spreading in all directions. It is as if lace embroidery had been turned to stone.

The first architectural style in the city can be loosely called Byzantine. It is a style of arcades and of domes, of round or inflected arches upon pillars, and of mosaics clothing the walls with beauty. The domed basilicas of Venice were based on an eastern pattern, with the dome hovering over a cube of space in perfect alignment. It was an image of infinity. The Byzantine style in Venice can be dated from the seventh to the twelfth centuries; for five hundred years the city took Constantinople as its inspiration. Then the style renewed itself in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

In the thirteen and fourteenth centuries the eyes of Venice turned towards the West rather than the East, and that attention led in turn to the rise of Venetian Gothic. It is significant that at the close of this period Venice was poised to gain a land empire on the mainland of Italy. The churches were now given vaulted naves, although they could not be built very high; the watery foundations of Venice could not sustain any great weight. There was a new interest in interplay of shapes and of materials, in the exfoliation of pillars and pilasters, in great portals, in trefoil arches, in quatrefoil tracery, and in double lancet windows. It was a style of pattern and ornamentation, again deeply congenial to the Venetian genius. Yet it was also a question of self-image, by co-opting a western imperial style, and of a new form of magnificence.

The style was dominant in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, surviving even into the sixteenth century and giving a Gothic aspect to the city that still survives. Many Gothic churches replaced their Byzantine predecessors on the same site. They were built in homage to a different God, or to a different conception of God. But it was a secular, as well as a sacred, architecture. Most of the well-known palaces or great houses are created in the Gothic mode. The basilica of Saint Mark is an example of Byzantine; the ducal palace is the embodiment of Gothic.

Ruskin despised the Renaissance architecture of Venice that followed Gothic. He considered it to be a symptom of the city’s decline and fall. The classical columns and pediments, the sheer symmetries, were alien to the life and spirit of the place. What had Venice to do with classical antiquity? What had Venice to do with the purity, the austerity, and massive uniformity, that are at the heart of the Renaissance style? The great exponents of the Renaissance style—Codussi, Sansovino and Palladio—were not themselves Venetian. They cast a foreign eye over the city. Palladio did not even like traditional Venetian architecture, believing it to lack grazia and bellezza. It has been said that the edifices of Palladio do not suit Venice. They do not fit Venice. Yet in Venice everything “fits.”

Certain features of Venetian architecture have had a continuous history. The domestic dwellings of the people, for example, have always conformed to a simple pattern. They are not the most inviting aspects of Venetian life. The ordinary Venetian house is a mysterious place. It is the very opposite of the public spaces that seem to be at the heart of the city’s life. The house is generally small, narrow and dark. It does not willingly receive guests or welcome strangers. The original timber houses of the city were of one storey, built around a central courtyard, and that sense of inwardness never left the Venetian domain. The innate conservatism of the city was such that by the thirteenth century the essential structure of all subsequent houses had been laid out.

They were simple affairs, of two or three storeys, with one or two rooms on each floor. A wooden balcony ran around the front, and on the roof was the flat enclosed space known as the altana. From here the Venetians could take the air, or observe their fellows in the streets below. There were few windows, heavily shuttered or protected by iron bars; the larger windows faced inward, towards the central courtyard. There was very little furniture, but the pieces were richly decorated and ornamented. Flat roofs were preferred. Chimneys were popular. The shutters were painted dark green. There were no Venetian blinds in Venice. And of course there were no cellars.

There were small houses with shops opening onto the street. There were rows of small terraced houses, each room or floor accommodating a family. In parts of the city two identical rows face each other across a narrow street; the effect, surprisingly, is rather like that of industrial housing in the north-east of England—except for the well in the middle of the street. In areas of working-class housing there were also often tunnel-like passageways, with arches, known as sottoportici.

If the various styles of architecture represented the spirit of the place, as a distinctive and recognisable genius loci, that may be because all of them rose directly from the same foundations. The building of Venice was an act of communal perseverance against nature. Beneath the waters of the city lie strata of mud and clay and sand. The foundations of the buildings, piles of tough oak, were driven into that ground with heavy drop-hammers. They reached a depth of between ten and sixteen feet (3 to 5 m) below water. Cross-beams were then laid down, and the interstices between the wooden piles were loaded with cement and broken stone. Then a thick surface decking of wooden planks, bedded in cement, was placed on top of the wooden structure. It became the true ground of the city. A second foundation was erected on top of what was essentially a great wooden raft, two to four feet (0.6 to 1.2 m) below the level of the tide.

From these foundations Venice rose, resting upon a petrified forest. Somehow it manages both to defy, and to make use of, nature. These great trunks of oak and larch and elm had always to be submerged; if they were exposed to the air, they would begin to rot. In their waterlogged condition they were sturdy, however, and almost imperishable. The weight they bore was immense. The campanile in Saint Mark’s Square, for example, weighs 14,400 tonnes (14,170 tons); yet the piles of wood carry it. The Rialto bridge is supported by twelve thousand piles of elm. The church of the Salute is borne up by 1,156,657 piles of oak and larch. The weight of the building itself helps to stabilise them. There is no complete rigidity. That is impossible in the lagunar waters. Yet even though the piles may shift a little, they do not collapse. Many of them have lasted for a thousand years.

There is a chant sung by the pile-drivers dating from 1069, the latest variant of which was transcribed by an Englishman in the nineteenth century:

Up with it well,Up to the top,Up with it well,Up to the summit.

The primary materials of construction are brick and timber, with stone used as a decorative rather than a structural necessity. At the waterline is placed a foundation of Istrian stone that is impermeable to water. Ruskin described that stone, quarried on the mainland (there is of course no natural stone in Venice itself), as “smooth sheets of rock, glistering like sea waves, that ring under the hammer like a brazen bell.” Above the stone is brick faced with stucco so that the church, or dwelling, also glisters. The absence of stone walls also gives an incomparable feeling of lightness to the material fabric. Venice is a floating world.

In the Galleria dell’Accademia hangs Titian’s “Presentation of the Virgin”; it is placed on a wall that was once part of the albergo or hall of a notable confraternity; in the foreground of the painting is a great staircase, which the young virgin is ascending. In fact the staircase itself leaves the picture and enters the Venetian world; just to the left of the canvas is the tower staircase of the albergo itself, which seems to obtrude into the painting. Among the crowd of people accompanying the Virgin are pictures of recognisable individuals; these are the members of the confraternity. It is typical of Venetian painting to incorporate local detail as part of the overall design. The background wall of the “Presentation” is constructed out of pink and white bricks, set in diamond pattern, as an unmistakable reference to the façade of the ducal palace.

When Carpaccio needed to depict Cologne, in his cycle of paintings concerning Saint Ursula, he simply used the image of the Arsenal in the district of Castello. Tintoretto uses Saint Mark’s Square as a setting for biblical miracles. The humble houses and shops of his paintings are directly modelled on Venetian interiors. He placed the image of his contemporary, Aretino, in the company witnessing the Crucifixion. In Veronese’s “Conversion of Saint Pantalon” the elderly man cradling the miraculously healed child is the parish priest of the church of S. Pantalon who in fact commissioned the work. There is no attempt here to honour the “individuality” of the priest; rather he becomes part of the company of the blessed, and in so doing reflects beatitude upon the city itself.

When Titian depicted the miraculous draught of fishes, from the narrative of Luke, he ensured that the boatmen took up the characteristic stance of Venetian gondoliers. It is said that in his paintings from the New Testament, Tintoretto always made the Apostles gesture like gondoliers. In his “Miracle of the Relic of the True Cross on the Rialto Bridge” Carpaccio faithfully depicted the wooden bridge, the sign of the Sturgeon Inn, the houses and institutions along both banks of the Grand Canal, and the members of the confraternity of which he was the official painter; it represents the poetry of urban detail, with its bricks and balconies and chimney-tops. More than any other painters in the world, the Venetians readily depicted the environment of their home city. Never has a city and its people obtruded so much on artistic traditions.

<p>23</p> <p>Learning and Language</p>

The Renaissance came late to Venice. That European revival in humane letters, and in classical scholarship, made a slow and fitful entry into the city. It was not necessarily on congenial soil. The Venetians have never been known for their commitment to scholarship, or to learning for its own sake; they are not inclined to abstract inquiry, or to the adumbration of theory. A humanist on the mainland, Giovanni Conversino, reported to the Venetians in 1404 that “even if you desired to be learned you would not be able to do so; everything you have you possess through drudgery, talent and danger.” The sheer necessity of survival transcended questions of abstract principle. It may be true, too, that Venice did not share in the Italian Renaissance because it had never been part of the mainland where classical art and literature once flourished. Literature was not, in a literal sense, part of its territory.

The young patricians were characteristically trained in the arts of practical statesmanship. If they learned Greek, the essential language of the new humanism, it was primarily so that they might administer the Greek colonies of Venice. What did the enlightened leaders of Venice do? They codified the state laws and compiled state papers. Humanism in general was put at the service of the administration; the leaders of “learning” were also the leaders of the senate and of the great council; their concern was to engender political values that maintained and preserved the social system of the city. They were characteristically magistrates, ambassadors, and even doges. There was a great debate in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries upon the rival claims of the active life and the contemplative life in Christian history. The Venetians always espoused the active life. God’s providence was a political matter.

If they wrote texts at all, these were concerned with specific problems and circumstances; their theoretical context, if it can be called such, was one of pride in the Venetian state. The only history with which they were concerned was their own history. There were no works that challenged political or economic orthodoxy; there were no volumes extolling the progress of the individual soul in search of beatitude; there were no testaments burning with the chaste flame of aesthetic philosophy. All was rigorous, and severe, and restrained. In Florence the movement of neo-Platonism had its fervent and almost mystical adherents. In Venice, the only interest in Plato sprang from a general respect for authority. There were of course Venetian collectors of coins, of manuscripts, and of antiquities; but they were animated by an acquisitive rather than an intellectual spirit. They were merchants rather than scholars.

When one famous scholar, Cardinal Bessarion, came to the city he was so impressed by its magnificence that he left his collection of rare books and manuscripts to the Venetian state. They were stored in crates in the ducal palace, from which some of them were stolen or sold. The rest were allowed to gather dust for eighty years. Bessarion had bequeathed his collection four years before his death in 1472, but the library for them was not erected until the 1550s. Petrarch, known as the “father of humanism,” bequeathed a selection of his library to the state in 1374. In 1635 his manuscripts were found heaped in a small room above the great door of the basilica of Saint Mark’s. Damp and decay had got to them.

There was no university in the city itself. The absence might seem a singular omission for any city-state; but there of course was no university in London, either, that other centre of trade and business. In any case it would be wrong to report an utter dearth of learning. There were schools and academies for those of an enquiring mind. The principal disciplines were those of mathematics, geography, physics, astronomy, trigonometry and astrology. Botany was an important discipline, too, with the emphasis on horticulture. There were public lecturers, freelance schoolmasters and private tutors. A school of rhetoric was established in 1460, with the aim of improving the level of public speaking in the city. There were masters of grammar in each of the six sestieri, and small schools were also established in the houses of certain patricians; it is not clear, however, how high they aspired. Certainly a large proportion of the population was literate and numerate (perhaps a quarter of the citizenry by the end of the sixteenth century) but it would be hard to claim much refinement or subtlety in a Venetian education. It was designed, really, to increase the efficiency of the state. Cultivate learning, one fifteenth-century patrician told his son, “both for the honour of your country and for the glory and amplification of our family.”

Venice was always a city of clubs and fraternities, each one of them a state in miniature with its officers and festivals. So there were in the city thirty or more “academies” where the more educated Venetians might meet and converse. There was an “Academia dei Filosofi” and an “Academia dei Nobili,” for example, both situated on the adjacent island of Giudecca; the situation was pertinent, implying that the patricians could escape from the centre of politics and commerce in order to discourse of higher matters. The geography of the lagoon was always important in the Venetian imagination. And there were “salons,” formal or informal, where scholars and intellectuals mingled with the leading patrician families. Yet the salon was the home of patronage and, in a city devoted to fashion of every kind, a marketplace for the dissemination of novel ideas or fancies. There was singing, reading of poetry, playing of musical instruments, and sometimes even dancing. It is hard to estimate, however, whether the discourse of the salon ever reached higher than the level of informed gossip.

Galileo was one of the learned Italians attracted to Venice. At the age of twenty-eight he was appointed by the Venetian authorities as principal lecturer in mathematics at the University of Padua, a Venetian colony, and he stayed in that institution for the next eighteen years. He devoted himself to the pure and applied sciences, inventing the thermometer and the telescope during his residence there, and his appeals to the Venetian administration for patronage were based upon a very practical determination. He understood the true nature of the city very well. When in 1609 he devised the first telescope, he wrote to the reigning doge that the invention “may be of inestimable service for every business by land and sea; for it is thus possible, at sea, to discover the enemy’s vessels and sail at a far greater distance than is customary.” He displayed the powers of the telescope from the top of the campanile in Saint Mark’s Square, and the Venetian officials were duly impressed. A few weeks later he was appointed professor of astronomy for life, with three times the highest pay ever granted to any lecturer in Padua.

So we may celebrate the practical genius of Venice. There were no visionaries in Venice. They produced no Machiavelli and no Plato. There was no speculation on utopias. There was no concern for dogma or theory. There was no real interest in pure or systematic knowledge as such; empirical knowledge was for the Venetians the key to truth. Experience, rather than reason, was the furnace in which solutions were to be forged. In this they were also very close to the English genius. The Venetians were well known for their adaptability and their common sense; in diplomatic negotiations they were inclined to compromise and to accommodate varying points of view. In the affairs of the world they tended to be efficient and unsentimental.

There may have been no great poetry in the city, but there were important texts on hydrostatics and geography, on hydraulics and astronomy. The Venetians also possessed a practical inventiveness, in pursuits as different as glass- and instrument-making. They invented easel-painting as well as the science of statistics. The real intellectual success of Venice, however, came in the practical manufacture of books. The first licence to print was issued in 1469. Just eighteen or nineteen years after the invention of movable-type printing by Johannes Gutenberg, the Venetian senate announced that “this peculiar invention of our time, altogether unknown to former ages, is in every way to be fostered and advanced.” In this, the senators were five years ahead of William Caxton.

The Venetian authorities had sensed a commercial opportunity, and the city soon became the centre of European printing. They created the privilege of copyright for certain printed works in 1486, so the investment of the printers was guaranteed; it was the first legislation for copyright in the world. Venetian bankers underwrote the costs of the new ventures. The paper came from Venetian territory near Lake Garda. All the conditions, for what would now be called mass production and mass marketing, were in place; indeed printing was the first form of mass production technology, creating identical objects at identical cost. It was only right, and natural, that Venice should be the pioneer of that trade. Venice, in 1474, was said to be “stuffed with books.” At the time of the Counter-Reformation, too, the authorities maintained a more liberal attitude towards censorship than the other city-states of Italy. At the beginning of the sixteenth century there were almost two hundred print shops, producing a sixth of all the books published in Europe.

Venice excelled in printing, rather than creating, literature. Its most famous printer, Aldus Manutius, was a wandering scholar from Bassanio near Rome. He came to Venice as a lecturer, and despite his great learning he was soon imbued with the commercial spirit of the city. He became aware that knowledge of the classics could be wrapped up in packages like bales of raisins; he could turn learning into a commodity. So in 1492 he formed a workshop for the production of Greek texts. In this pursuit he was aided by the Greek scholars who had fled from ruined Byzantium with the words of the past in their heads. They brought with them, too, manuscripts and commentaries. Almost by accident Venice found itself at the forefront of the revival of learning. Its commercial spirit had consequences in the sphere of the intellect.

In the summer of 1502 an edition of the plays of Sophocles was published with the colophon “Venetiis in Aldi Romani Academia,” thus inaugurating a remarkable sequence of all the important Greek authors in meticulously edited versions. The fonts—of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew—were beautiful, and are in fact still in use. The manuscripts were scrupulously copied, in type that seemed aesthetically to rival the original handwriting of the compilers. The printing shop had become an “academy” where visiting scholars were employed to edit the texts and to proof-read the sheets coming off the press. Greek scholars were also hired as compositors.

So by degrees there grew up an “Aldine circle” devoted to the dissemination of learning, in which the spoken language was largely Greek, prompting Aldus to describe Venice as another Athens. Erasmus became a part of that circle, as well as other itinerant scholars and humanists, and at a later date he recalled that some thirty-three employees slept and worked on the premises; he also found the food frugal, and the wine vinegary. Aldus mixed with the Venetian patricians who considered themselves to be patrons of learning; they believed that he added to the glory of Venice. The press of visitors became so great, however, that Aldus put up a notice before his door, at the corner of the Campo di S. Agostino: “Whoever you are, Aldus earnestly begs you to state your business in the fewest possible words and begone, unless, like Hercules to weary Atlas, you would lend a helping hand. There will always be enough work for you and all who come this way.”

Yet the turning of knowledge, and learning, into commodities had other consequences. It was said at the time that the abundance of books made men less studious. There were complaints about the “vulgarisation” attendant upon the new technology. In an age of cultural transition, there are always anxieties expressed by those who are still reliant upon the old order. The Aldine press helped to bring the classical authors within the view of a wider audience; the editions were smaller, and cheaper, than any others. For some scholars, this represented a threat to their cultural supremacy.

The printers of Venice also became masters of musical printing, map printing and medical printing, spreading information around Europe. Books on the human anatomy, and on military fortifications, were published. Works of popular piety, light literature in the vernacular, chapbooks, all issued from the city of the lagoon. Printing linked the various strata of the literate classes of Europe together; otherwise there would have been no such general response to the teachings of Luther. The publication of maps helped to create a new international trading economy. The commercialisation of knowledge, as a consequence of Renaissance humanism, indirectly led to religious reformation and the industrial revolution.

The Venetians did have a university but it was located twenty miles (32 km) away in Padua, the city having been taken in 1404. Venice itself would not have welcomed a large body of free-thinking students within its domain. It was also concerned with the loyalty of its own young men, and forbade Venetians to study anywhere other than Padua. So the patrician youth migrated to the mainland city in search of enlightenment, together with students from England, Germany, Poland and Hungary. Sir Francis Walsingham, the famous Elizabethan “spymaster,” and Sir Philip Sidney studied in Padua. Many of these foreigners were, by the sixteenth century, followers of the “reformed” religion of Luther and Zwingli; but their apostasy did not bother the Venetian authorities, who were in any case accustomed to the various faiths of the world.

Padua itself was most celebrated for its schools of law and of medicine, and became in the words of Thomas Coryat a “sweet emporium and mart town of learning.” There was a chair of agriculture, and a veterinary school. There was a famous department of anatomy, to which the Venetian authorities guaranteed a plentiful supply of corpses. By the middle of the sixteenth century Padua had become the most significant centre for scientific learning in Europe. In a world of institutional faith and individual piety, it offered a secular education. That was the reason for its success. “We despise,” one Venetian of the sixteenth century wrote, “knowledge of things of which we have no need.”

That is one of the reasons why the arts of literature, as opposed to those of painting and music, were not cultivated. There was a social and political, as well as a practical, reason for this neglect. Literature asks questions and poses problems, whereas art and music celebrate and affirm; writing may encourage disruption and even revolution, whereas art and music aspire towards harmony and balance. Francesco Sagredo was a Venetian patrician and humanist who, in the early part of the seventeenth century, became a companion and associate of Galileo. Sagredo himself had a reputation as a wit and scholar. His own testimony, therefore, may hold the clue to Venetian humanism in genera

I am a Venetian gentleman, and I have never wished to be known as a literary man. I have good relations with literary men and have always tried to protect them. But I do not expect to grow wealthy or to acquire praise and reputation from my understanding of philosophy or mathematics but rather from my integrity and my good practice in the administration of the Republic …

Distinguished writers have been drawn to Venice over the centuries, but the city has not nourished many writers of its own. The two most famous of its native sons are Marco Polo and Casanova, both of whom wrote what were essentially memoirs. Casanova offers an interesting case history of the Venetian genius. “The chief business of my life has always been to indulge my senses,” he wrote. “I never knew anything of greater importance.” This might be justifiably described as a main article of the Venetian creed. His knowledge did not lead him to any measure of self-awareness, except in the endless duplicity and theatricality of his nature. Despite his many seductions and attempts at rape, he shows no sign of conscience or manifestation of guilt; Casanova does not indulge in interior reflections of any kind. It is as if he were a character out of commedia dell’arte, doomed to continue with the same impersonation in every scene and in every play. It is perhaps no wonder that his story of his imprisonment in the dungeons of the ducal palace, and of his subsequent escape, is a central text in Venetian social history; he was in the prison of his unreflecting self. It is in any case rare to find, in Venetian literature, any attempt at analysis or self-criticism. There is just no interest in the subject, the fruit of a culture in which individualism of any kind was discouraged.

The true literature of Venice was neither tragic nor confessional. There was some epic poetry, but it is wearisome. There was in reality very little poetry of any kind, once more emphasising the low value placed upon self-expression. The real literature was popular and demotic or it was historical and journalistic. The historical tradition was grave, detailed and prosaic. The popular tradition was in love with fantasy and superstition, with wonders and apparitions, with elements of the exotic and the fanciful.

How else to explain the huge popularity of the plays of Carlo Gozzi, the most famous of which is The Love for Three Oranges in which three beautiful princesses are born out of three enchanted oranges? It was taken from an old woman’s tale to quieten children, and Gozzi said that he wrote it simply to “please so thoughtless a nation as the Venetians.” The Venetian audience applauded the first performance “frantically,” according to an Italian critic, Giuseppe Baretti, leading him to declare in The Manners and Customs of Italy that “The Venetians … do not greatly care for the labour of searching after truth, and their imagination runs too often away with them, while their judgment lies dormant.” Gozzi’s dramas were fantasias of the eighteenth century, with magicians and monsters, knights on horseback and devils in red costume. They were a curious mixture of magniloquence and parody, lamentation and farce, thus continuing the Venetian tradition of commedia dell’arte in a more sensational setting. That form is the distilled essence of literary culture in the city.

There was much interest in letters and diaries, too, as if the quotidian life of the city was of paramount importance. To keep a record—this was the Venetian style. Many Venetian patricians maintained diaries of daily events, covering many years and encompassing many volumes. They were not concerned with their individual reflections, in the manner of other diarists, but only in recording the tidings of their city. Nothing was too trivial to be beneath notice.

One of them, Marino Sanudo, wrote some forty thousand pages in minute handwriting. It was a way of celebrating, and commemorating, the city. Some of the more bizarre passages of Venetian history can also make their way into these narratives. On 31 August 1505, Sanudo wrote that

today the execution took place of the Albanian who foully murdered Zuan Marco. First, his hand was cut off at the Ponte della Late. And note that this resulted in a curious incident: while his wife was saying farewell to him, he moved forward as if he wanted to kiss her. Then he bit off her nose. It seems that she was responsible for revealing his crime to the authorities.

If there is not much poetry in Venice, there is a great deal of song. The folk songs of the city, however, bear no resemblance to the expression of high deathless passion in other folk traditions; there is no pity, and no tragedy. There is pathos and sentimentality. “Would you weep if I were dead?” a mother asks her infant child. “How could I help weeping for my own mamma, who loves me so much in her heart?” Sentimentality is the enemy of true feeling, and suits a city where the mask is pre-eminent. But the folk songs are also filled with gaiety and optimism, a joyful seizing of the day that might be related to the mercantile tradition of the city. There is also an element of shrewdness allied with the fantastical. It was once believed that cities could not create or nourish folk songs—that such songs flourished only in rural areas—but Venice disproved that pastoral myth. In these songs there is much local patriotism, but no politics; there is also satire, and obscenity. Like the Venetian liking for “sweet and sour” in food, the songs are a mixture of acid and honey.

No city in the world has produced so many proverbs as Venice. They go with the capacity of the citizens for sharp retort and instant wisdom. There were many singular expressions reflecting the life and spirit of a mercantile culture. One of them notices with pride that, “Money is our second blood.” The conservatism of the people emerges in such phrases as “Novelty pleases those who have nothing to lose,” “The first sin is to be born desperate,” and “He who loves foreigners loves the wind.” Many of them refer to the unique situation and quality of the city and its inhabitants. “Venetians first, then Christians,” “The lord of the sea is also the lord of the land,” “As soon as a law is made an evasion is found,” “Venetians are born tired and live to sleep,” “Venice is a paradise for priests and prostitutes.” To make an impression—to make a splash—is “to drown yourself in a big sea.” “He who looks for help at a gaming table will grow long hair like a bear.” “God wants us injured but not dead.” “Wine is the milk of the old.” This litany could go on for ever, but it is wise to recall another proverb, “The first sign of madness is to remember proverbs.”

It is a curiosity of Venetian culture, too, that it is the home of the “rise” tale, a version of folk literature in which a young man or woman battles against poverty and by an advantageous marriage (usually to royalty) becomes rich beyond measure. It is the fairy story of a mercantile society, dreaming of the impossible. One of these stories, the tale of Costantino and his cat, travelled through the English-speaking world as Puss in Boots.

There was always a problem with the Venetian dialect in which these folk tales were generally written. It was not considered to be a serious, or proper, language for literary art. By the end of the thirteenth century the major works of Venetians were being written in the then fashionable language of Provençal. It is a reflection of the fashion for Gothic architecture in Venice during the same period. This literary French then developed into a form of Franco-Italian, the language in which Marco Polo dictated from a Genoese prison in 1298 the memoirs of his exotic journey. It may seem strange that Venetians would write in French rather than a version of Italian, but there is a more recent example to throw light upon this curious cultural phenomenon. In the nineteenth century the upper classes of Russia conversed and wrote in French, considering their native language to be too “low” for refined speech.

In the sixteenth century, too, the Venetian language was demoted in favour of the more literary Tuscan language that had been fashioned three centuries earlier. The language of Dante, and of Florence, became the language of polite literature. The Venetian dialect was reserved for populist drama and popular song. Epics, and histories, were composed in Tuscan. The models of polite discourse were Petrarch and Boccaccio, asserting the dominance of a foreign and archaic tongue over the living vitality of the native dialect. This is perhaps not entirely unexpected. In other cultures, too, a highly stylised or liturgical language has the mastery over the demotic; written Anglo-Saxon was a very different thing from native English. The Venetian dialect was still used for public purposes, however. It was the official language of public administration and of the courts of law. The laws themselves were composed and published in Venetian.

And of course it was—and is still—in use among the people of the city. It varies between districts but, like every other European language, it is becoming standardised and flattened all the time. Is it indeed a language, or is it a dialect? This is a question about which experts differ, but spoken Venetian has very ancient roots indeed. It is a native development out of the low Latin in use in the early centuries of Roman dominion. Each region of the lagoon had an indigenous population that used the common language differently. So the sound of Venetian must surely derive from the speech of the early Veneti. Certainly it is a language older than Italian.

The sound is distinctive. It has been said that the sea-mists and northern winds have changed the timbre of Venetian voices, so that they are harsher than the liquid and sonorous accents of the rest of Italy. The sound of sixteenth-century Tuscan, for example, was described even by one Venetian as “sweeter and more pleasing, lively and fluent.” Yet Venetian, the expression of a predominantly mercantile society, is also more powerful and energetic. It can be loud, and it has been said that the Venetians have the loudest voices in all of Italy. It can be raucous, and in the fourteenth century Dante reported that a Venetian woman sounded very much like a man. It has a chantlike or sing-song quality, known as cantilena.

So its phonetics differ from those of “standard” Italian. Madre becomes mare, signore becomes sior, figlio becomes fio. Words and phrases are run together, so that the name of the church of S. Giovanni Grisostomo became Zangrisostomo. There was a habit of eliding the last syllable of proper nouns. So the patrician name of Faliero became Falier, having previously metamorphosed from Faletrus and Faledro. Santo becomes San. Bello becomes beo, and casa becomes ca’. It increases the melodic disposition of the words. In that manner sotto il portico becomes sottoportego. It is more rapid, and perhaps more alive, than other Italian dialects; it is, for example, rich in colloquialisms.

The economy of utterance has another effect. It creates what observers have called the infantine or “babyish” quality of Venetian speech. Byron described it as the language of naivety—he also compared it to the Somersetshire version of English—while the French writer George Sand said that it was destined for the mouths of infants. Two adjectives will be used instead of a superlative to express magnitude, like a child calling out “bella bella.” Plural subjects have singular verbs, so that in English it might be translated as “the boys does this” and “the girls weeps a lot.” Grammar is not the strong point of Venetian speech. Harsh consonants are elided, so that fagioli becomes fasioi. The “g” ordinarily becomes “z” as in doze rather than doge and zorno for giorno. It is in some ways a simple language, lacking sophistication. But that does not make it any the less charming.

<p>24</p> <p>Colour and Light</p>

It was known as Venezia la bella, an incomparable union of art and life. A Byzantine historian of the fifteenth century compared it to an exquisitely proportioned sculpture. In its setting upon the waters, it was born to be painted and engraved. Some have even suggested that it looked better on paper and on canvas than it ever did in the light of day. In the drawings and paintings of Venetian life, from those of Jacopo Bellini in the middle of the fifteenth century to those of Francesco Guardi in the latter part of the eighteenth century, the setting and architecture of the city take precedence over the activities of its inhabitants. The physical space, and the stone face, are preeminent. Who can remember any of the human figures in Canaletto? In the many images of the public processions of Venice, the spectators and the participants become part of the architecture; the buildings themselves seem to embody the harmony and joy of the people. The stone is a monument to human will but, in the process, the stone itself becomes revered. The presence of stone—walls, stairways, balustrades and alcoves—is very noticeable in Venetian painting.

The city might have been composed by a painter seeking symmetry and contrast, weighing the vertical against the horizontal, combining shapes and colours in the most harmonious whole. Latin elements are balanced against Greek elements, Gothic against Byzantine, in order to symbolise the sway of different empires. The sight lines are perfect, as in the stage scenery for a play or for an opera, and the perspective subtly diminished. The details and motifs are carefully mingled. The co-ordinates of the public buildings were appraised in the light of Renaissance theories of numbers, so that the vistas have a mystical or magical enchantment. It was another form of power.

Guardi’s paintings of the city are called vedute or views, emphasising the primacy of the eye in the city. Everything is for display. The first album of Venetian “views,” a series of relatively inexpensive engravings, was published in 1703. Generations of travellers noted that the absence of dust in Venice guaranteed that the great houses and churches would remain relatively bright and clean. One of the reasons why there were, and are, so many balconies and terraces in the city was to provide vantage points from which the beautiful scenario could be observed. It is sometimes hard to know whether the art imitated the reality, or whether the architecture was inspired by the paintings. In Tintoretto’s “Paradiso,” placed in splendour within the ducal palace, the figures of saints Theodore and Mark, of Moses and of Christ, are arranged one to another in the same positions as their respective principal churches in Venice. So a civic aesthetic is immortalised in paint. Public space becomes artistic space.

Venice was pictorial in another sense, with the frescoes of Tintoretto and Giorgione and others adorning the outward walls of the principal houses. There was a unique appetite in the earliest cities for wall painting, as in the frescoes of Bronze Age Knossos or in the wall paintings uncovered in the ruins of the world’s first city, Catal Huyuk in Mesopotamia. It is as if the conditions of urban living prompted the desire for colour and display. In Venice, the essential city, that desire was given full expression. A traveller from the court of Burgundy in 1495, Philippe de Commynes, noted that most of the great houses along the Grand Canal had painted façades; so he dubbed Venice urbs picta, or painted city.

In the early part of the sixteenth century Pietro Aretino described Venice as if it flowed from the brush of Titian. “Ever since it was created by God,” he wrote in 1537, “never has the city been so embellished by such a lovely picture of lights and shades … Oh how beautiful were the strokes with which the brushes of nature pushed back the air, separating it from the palaces in the same way as Titian does in painting his landscapes.” The lights and darks “created the effects of distance and relief.” The city then becomes a living painting, a work of art in its own right. Yet if a city is a work of art, does it in some sense cease to be a living city? Whistler commented that the people and buildings of Venice “seem to exist especially for one’s pictures—and to have no other reason for being!” This of course has been the fate of Venice in more recent years, and it raises questions about its ultimate authenticity.

If we conceive of the city as artefact, something made and not found, then we will understand something else about the nature of Venice. We might say that the cities of the mainland, like London or Rome, were indeed “found.” They were part of the natural world before they boasted walls and gates; they were part of the lie of the land, and their growth into cities was a product of many hundreds of generations of settlement and toil. Venice is not that kind of city. It was created. It is a magnificent invention. It is an inspired improvisation at the hands of man. It was from its beginning artificial, a product of a battle against nature itself. The houses did not grow out of the ground. They were built up, piece by piece. The cities of the mainland were always in part defensive structures. Because of the sheltered position of the city of the lagoon, the instinct for defence was displaced by the appetite for display. There was no natural evolution, therefore, but an artificial construct that can only be preserved by further intervention.

The modern restoration of the city offers an instructive lesson in the nature of the artefact. In the latter half of the nineteenth century Giambattista Meduna and his successor, Pietro Saccardo, “restored” large portions of the basilica of Saint Mark’s, including the south and west façades; curved lines were straightened, and old marble was replaced with new; the pavement of the left aisle was remade rather than renovated; columns and capitals were scraped clean. It became essentially an imitation or simulacrum of the medieval structure, so that we can say part of the great church was constructed in the 1870s and 1880s rather than the eleventh century. The architects wished to revert to some original state of the basilica; but, in a building created by accretion and assimilation, there never was any original state. The church represents a process rather than an event.

Its new campanile was constructed in the early years of the twentieth century, after the collapse of the original early-sixteenth-century tower. The new campanile may look genuine, to the casual observer, but it is in essence a fake; it is a facsimile designed to maintain the illusion of the tourist that he or she is walking through an ancient city. This architectural quietism never in practice works. Nothing can be rebuilt “as it was”; the very fact of rebuilding precludes that possibility. The larger houses of the city have been restored to look more authentically “Venetian,” as already noted, with brighter colours and more regular ornamentation. Such restoration is connected with a loss of nerve, and a loss of identity. After the fall of the republic at the hands of Napoleon, in 1797, the city lost its authority in the world. Its economy was eclipsed with its power. Over the past two centuries it has attempted to create a phantom of its glorious past. It has become in part a fantasy city.

The process has been called, in somewhat ugly terms, the “aesthetification” or “commodification” of Venice. The nineteenth-century French architect, Eugène Viollet-le-duc, suggested that to restore a building is “to reconstitute it in a more complete state than it could have been at any given moment.” Thus we have the fullness of the public (rather than the local and private) Venice, more complete than it was in any one period, inviolate, idealised, conceptual, transcending the general inflictions of time. It has never looked more medieval than it does now. Yet in another sense it resembles a visage swollen and unreal after too many face-lifts.

The light of Venice is as important as its space and form. The light on the water casts illumination upwards and outwards. The sunlight plays upon the walls and ceilings, with an incessant rippling effect; it stirs the air and makes everything dance. What is solid is diffused. Buildings shimmer against the surface of the water. Stone becomes colour on the water. It can make the battered marble and the weather-stained brick, the slime on the surface of the canal, seem marvellous. There is a sparkling light, on winter days. But the characteristic of Venice is a pale soft light, like a drifting haze, powdered, part wave and part cloud. It is a pearly iridescent light wreathed in mist. It is drawn from the horizon and the sea as much as from the sun. It lends everything unity.

That is why Venetian painters have always been drawn to the gleam of light upon water, of the reflection of