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Where We Started

Venice, a Maritime Republic

by Frederic C. Lane
Johns Hopkins University Press, 505 pp., $6.95 (paper)

Professor William McNeill of the University of Chicago is nothing if not bold. Already well known as the author of that remarkable excursion into global history, The Rise of the West, he has now published in quick succession a book-size “essay” covering seven centuries of Venetian history, and an essay-size essay covering rather more than twenty centuries of European history. Although one discusses a city and the other a continent, the two essays are in fact closely related. For each illustrates what appears to be the central theme of Professor McNeill’s world view—the role of cultural encounters as catalysts of change.

Professor McNeill’s starting point is a dissatisfaction, by no means confined to himself, with the conventional interpretation of European history as essentially a history of the development of liberty. Generations of historians have, as he says, consciously or subconsciously taken the movement toward a more perfect liberty as the organizing principle in their discussions of the European experience. Whig and Marxist historians have joined in an unholy alliance, based on their unilinear view of the historical process; and it is this unilinear view that Professor McNeill hopes to replace with an alternative conception of the over-all design of European history.

All this is to the good. Fresh thinking about the pattern of European history is badly needed, and Professor McNeill is one of the few professional historians at work today with both the knowledge and the intellectual courage to attempt to provide it. But in a curious way he somehow contrives to promise more than he manages to deliver. After the opening pages of historiographical assessment, expectations run high; but it is not clear that the general drift of the three subsequent chapters on Europe to 900, from 900 to 1500, and 1500 to today is very different from what has been written by others elsewhere, although the book is full of interesting suggestions and unexpected perspectives which by turns provoke and stimulate.

It is true that the idea of liberty has been removed from the center of the stage, but only to be replaced by the idea of “intellectual pluralism,” which tends to look like a different way of saying much the same kind of thing. Few people would doubt that diversity has been one of the most distinctive characteristics of European civilization, and that the acceptance—whether voluntary or constrained—of different points of view has been critical for the nurturing of the fragile plants of freedom and toleration in European soil. But pluralism, like Edith Cavell’s patriotism, is not enough. The unitary ideal has also been a powerful driving force in European history, and much of the inner dynamic of that history may well spring from a continuous and creative tension between the drive to unite, which tends to be checked before it becomes all-embracing, and a pluralism that tends to be checked before it produces disintegration.

For Professor McNeill, diversity within civilized communities promotes cultural innovation, and, as innovations cluster in time and space, there arise “metropolitan centers” which exercise a profound influence on outlying regions through action and reaction. His “metropolitan center” par excellence is Renaissance Italy, and suddenly we find ourselves back in a Burckhardtian world in which the Italians become the standard-bearers of modernity. But modernity now is equated with pluralism; and the century and a half after 1500 is presented as an age which sees significant attempts to react against the “professionalization and ideological pluralism…that had come to prominence in Italy during the high renaissance.”

This interpretation seems to me to place excessive emphasis both on Italian civilization as a source of pluralism (did not adherence to humanistic ideals itself encourage a high degree of conformity?) and on the extent to which it was specifically Italian influence that provoked, by way of reaction, authoritarian and reactionary tendencies in early modern Europe. Indeed there are moments when it seems that Professor McNeill’s belief in cultural diffusionism as the key to the mysteries of European history has run away with him. Did religious reaction in the Ottoman Empire really start “explicitly” from rejection of Italian cultural influence? Did the unpopularity of Italian agents and merchants in the Germany of Luther and the Spain of Ximenes really have much to do with the attitudes of these countries to Renaissance culture? In both instances too much weight seems to be placed on external influences, and too little on the inner strains and stresses of the societies in question.

In so brief a survey, Professor McNeill can do little more than hurtle through the centuries with a rapid glance here and a bright suggestion there as he runs his lonely race. But in his Venice he restricts himself in space, if not so much in time, and allows himself more opportunity to develop his theme in depth. This theme is essentially the same as that of his The Shape of European History, but is confined to the role of a single city as a purveyor of Italian culture. In view of the author’s preoccupations, it is not surprising to find Venice playing “a conspicuous part in transmitting the idea and practice of pluralism from Italian to trans-Alpine parts of Europe.” But it has always been one of the great strengths of Professor McNeill that his Europe stretches all the way to the Urals. In his earlier work on Europe’s Steppe Frontier he examined those eastern marches which seem so dim and distant to historians whose Europe is defined by the boundaries of the Common Market. In Venice he is again primarily concerned with the fringes of the traditional Europe, and in particular with Venice’s role as an intermediary between Latin Christendom and the lands of the Orthodox Church.

Once again the theme is suggestive, and once again the book never quite rises to the theme. It contains much interesting and out-of-the-way information, based on impressively wide reading; but some of the information seems insufficiently digested, and the theme tends to get lost in the search for a comprehensive picture. The attempt is a brave one, and the book will be plundered for information not easily obtained elsewhere; but I doubt whether readers will recapture the sense of excitement which Professor McNeill obviously felt for an original and potentially enthralling subject.

In treating Venice as “the hinge of Europe” Professor McNeill has found an unusual, if not always successful, way of talking about Venetian history. Frederic C. Lane’s Venice is much more conventional in its approach, as is suggested by its apt, if flat, subtitle “a maritime republic.” This does not necessarily make it any less valuable as an account of the Venetian past. An up-to-date and comprehensive history of Venice has long been needed, and Professor Lane, as the doyen of historians of Venice, was the obvious man to supply it. His volume contains a vast amount of well-condensed and useful information, and is especially helpful on the structure and workings of the city’s government, and on maritime and economic affairs, where his specialist knowledge is used to outstanding effect.

But the range and scope of his book are also to some extent limited by the nature of his professional interests. As a maritime historian he resolutely turns his back on the Venetian terra ferma, and passes all too briefly over the transformations wrought by the growing interest of the sixteenth-century nobility in the acquisition of landed estates. Moreover, as a historian of the Middle Ages and of the Age of Discovery, he is obviously less interested in the later stages of Venetian history, and the chronological balance of the book suffers as a consequence.

Above all, the nature and explanation of the “Venetian miracle” somehow elude the reader. Here, after all, was a society which, in the face of innumerable difficulties, maintained a high degree of commercial and cultural dynamism over a very considerable period of time. And it achieved this within an institutional and social framework so rigid as to be virtually fossilized. With its tight constitutional structure elaborately designed to exclude most of the citizenry from effective participation in government; with its self-perpetuating oligarchy, a majority of whose male adults remained unmarried so that family wealth should not be dispersed; with its instinctively conservative response to political and diplomatic changes, Venice on the face of it appeared honorably ineligible for the struggle of life. Yet it not only survived but prospered.

The challenge that faces a historian of Venice is somehow to explain how this came about. We need, for instance, to understand the workings of the social mechanisms which held the city together and helped to reduce the tensions created by the numerous formal constraints on civic life—mechanisms like the carnival, to which Professor McNeill devotes a suggestive paragraph in his book, or the Scuole Grandi, those extraordinary charitable confraternities whose history has recently been illuminated by Brian Pullan in his Rich and Poor in Renaissance Venice. It is an awareness of such things that enables us to recover something of the pulsating life of great cities, which otherwise can so easily come to look like hollow institutional shells.

But can any historian really bring a city back to life again? Eric Cochrane, in his Florence in the Forgotten Centuries, comes very close to success. This is a rich and full book, by a historian who has soaked himself in the documents and the literature of his chosen society. Cochrane’s is not the republican Florence of the early Renaissance, to which so many historians have devoted so much time and attention, but the ducal Florence of the centuries of placid and efficient Medici rule, in which not very much happened that ever reaches the general histories of Europe.

Professor Cochrane is right to draw our attention to these “forgotten centuries,” and his book amply justifies his choice. At the heart of it lies a historical problem of great interest—a problem which is also central to the work of Professors McNeill and Lane. What are the conditions that make a society creative? As Professor Cochrane points out, historians nurtured on the history of ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy have a tendency to equate the city-state with vitality and innovation, and to assume that the replacement of civic republicanism by monarchial power, as in Florence after 1527, entails certain death for the creative forces in society. But the Florence of the first dukes hardly bears out this theory, and it does not look any more suffocating a society than that of republican Venice.

Undoubtedly it was suffocating, but this may reflect as much on the character of urban life itself as on the nature of governmental institutions. Those Florentine intellectuals of the 1590s, for instance, so lovingly described by Professor Cochrane, “never stopped to think that the vitality and autonomy of their own cultural tradition might be strengthened, rather than diluted, by exposure to stimuli from the outside.” But what is it that makes a society receptive at some moments, and yet closed at others, to the stimulus of external influences? A sense of identity and of self-confidence both seem to be involved. A society in which things appear to be going relatively well has little cause to look beyond itself, except out of a dilettante interest in the exotic. “As long as Venetian institutions were working as well as they did between 1282 and 1481,” writes Professor McNeill, “there was little pressure towards change from within; as a result, Venetians encountered remarkably little outside their society that seemed worth imitating.” On the other hand, a thoroughly demoralized society may well turn in on itself in an orgy of introspection.

Somewhere between the two extremes there seems to lie a point where self-confidence is tempered by an awareness of defects to be corrected, and where a society seeks reassurance about its own identity by referring to the outer world. It is at this point that “contacts among strangers,” which Professor McNeill sees as “the main drive wheel of historical change,” assume a major significance, whereas on other occasions they may be no more meaningful than the passing of ships in the night.

Professor Cochrane’s Florence, which managed to lead a quietly satisfactory life for three centuries under the benign rule of its dukes, failed to revitalize its cultural and intellectual traditions from outside, and paid the inevitable price. The figures who dominate the later sections of his book are not in themselves especially interesting, or figures of any great stature. But ducal Florence did in its time produce or give shelter to men of great distinction, and Professor Cochrane is unusually successful both in re-creating the climate in which these men and their lesser successors flourished and in illustrating the way in which ducal patronage and the traditional patterns of Florentine life shaped, and sometimes limited, the character of their achievements.

His method is a striking one, which works better at some moments than at others. He takes a series of individual Florentines at different moments in the city’s history and builds his stage around them. He does this with an attention to detail and a skilled craftsmanship which at times approach the brilliant, and which at others begin to look almost too much of a good thing. The very repetition of the device tends in due course to reduce its effectiveness; and while Professor Cochrane’s elegant if slightly mannered style sometimes re-creates the vividness of a passage from I Promessi Sposi, it can also be irritatingly arch. The book would, I think, have been still better if it had been rather shorter and less self-indulgent, but it offers an impressive example of the way in which a sensitive historian, by immersing himself in the documentation of his period, can confer on the past the breath of life.

For Professor Cochrane enables us to see the sights and hear the sounds of his city, and to watch its citizens, distinguished and less distinguished, going about their daily business. His Galileo once again becomes a figure of flesh and blood, and a man with a range of culture and an intellectual versatility which make him very different from the “narrow, irreverent specialists” among whom Professor McNeill rather surprisingly appears to place him. On this point he might usefully have compared notes with Professor Cochrane, who is a colleague at his university. But Chicago, like other great cities before it, is no doubt a further interesting example of intellectual pluralism.

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