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The Doge’s Secrets

Historians are already trying to assess the cultural consequences of the diaspora of the 1930s, and especially the effects on local traditions (of architecture, say, or economics) of the arrival in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere of so many artists and intellectuals from Central Europe. It is salutary to remember not only that the ripples have not ceased from spreading but also that some of the émigrés are still active.

The work of Felix Gilbert, who was born in Baden-Baden in 1905, has lived in the US since 1936, and has now retired from his chair at the Institute for Advanced Study, draws on two cultural traditions, German historicism and Anglo-American empiricism. He has just published another book. It is his fourth monograph in fifty-odd years as a professional historian; Gilbert is not an academic in a hurry, and he evidently likes to write essays. The Pope, His Banker, and Venice is in effect a long essay, and a fine piece of historical craftsmanship it is. It draws together a number of themes which have been life-long favorites of the author. Not the only ones; his historical interests are too diverse for that.

Gilbert’s first book, published in 1931, in German, was a study of the nineteenth-century Prussian historian J.G. Droysen. He is still very much concerned with the history of historical writing. He has published essays on such leading twentieth-century masters of the art as Friedrich Meinecke, Otto Hintze, Aby Warburg, and Federico Chabod, and also on the institutions, if that is the word, of the official historian and the professor of history, and on the historical writings of Machiavelli and Guicciardini.

These historiographical essays are not simply studies of the development of professional techniques; they are designed to place working historians—or rather, to re-place them—in their intellectual context, to relate their ideas to those of the groups to which they belonged. Gilbert’s chief criticism of the intellectual biography of Aby Warburg published ten years ago by Ernst Gombrich was precisely that it kept too close to Warburg’s notebooks and did not have enough to say about the scholar’s intellectual milieu in Hamburg and Berlin. He wrote his own essay on Warburg to redress the balance.

Warburg was apolitical. Gilbert, on the other hand, is deeply interested in politics, and in foreign policy in particular—whether he believes in its primacy or not. He has written an essay on the diplomacy of Count Ciano, the Fascist foreign minister; a study of eighteenth-century American ideas of foreign policy, To the Farewell Address;1 and a history of modern international relations, The End of the European Era.2 It might be said that Gilbert writes intellectual history like a political historian and political history like an intellectual historian, but this is much to the benefit of both fields. What particularly interests him is the influence of ideas on politics and the influence of politics on ideas. Whether he is studying historians or diplomats, he is concerned to re-place them in their social group, to uncover their attitudes and assumptions, their mentalité, as the French say. He is an admirer of Marc Bloch, one of the founders of the “history of mentalities” in France, and also of the Italian Federico Chabod, who approached the history of Italian foreign policy by way of the mentality of the leading diplomats.

Equally at home in sixteenth-century Italy and nineteenth-century Germany, in the history of scholarship and the history of diplomacy, Gilbert seems an exception to his own generalizations about the growth of historical specialization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In fact he does not dissipate his energies. His secret is to combine wide scope with an interest in precise, manageable problems, and to brood over each of these problems for many years.

He was working on Machiavelli during the 1930s. He found that he understood Machiavelli better by locating him in a group of friends who met at the beginning of the sixteenth century to discuss politics in the Rucellai Gardens in Florence. He also looked at the political assumptions of the Florentine notables of the period, as revealed in the records of the pratiche, ad hoc assemblies called by the government to sound out opinion on crucial issues. Gilbert’s conclusion, as expressed in his Machiavelli and Guicciardini,3 was that the French invasion of Italy in 1494 led to a “crisis in the assumptions about political thinking.” Men lost their faith in rational calculation as a force in politics. However unconventional and debatable his solutions, Machiavelli’s problems were the problems of the Florentine ruling class of his day.

Gilbert’s approach to the crisis of 1494 is not unlike the approach of the Renaissance scholar Hans Baron—another émigré who believes that history is “the study of politics and culture”—to what Baron calls the “crisis of the early Italian Renaissance” around the year 1400. Florence was then fighting for her political life against Milan, and it was at this moment that the Florentine chancellor, Leonardo Bruni, formulated the values of Renaissance “civic humanism,” emphasizing the superiority of the active (political) life to the contemplative one.

The same emphasis on “crisis” makes its appearance in Gilbert’s more recent work, which for some fifteen years has been focused on early sixteenth-century Venice. The critical year this time is 1509, the year of the disastrous Venetian defeat at the battle of Agnadello by the forces of the League of Cambrai, which included the emperor Maximilian, Pope Julius II, Louis XII of France, the Spanish and even the English. Venice lost her empire in northern Italy: Bergamo, Brescia, Verona, Vicenza, and even, briefly, Padua. Like Florence around the year 1400, she was fighting for her political existence.

Since the 1960s, Gilbert has been promising a full-length study of this “crisis of the League of Cambrai,” of the impact of the war, which lasted from 1509 to 1517, on the political and intellectual life of Venice. So far he has given us a few preliminary essays. “Religion and Politics in the Thought of Gasparo Contarini” takes a familiar episode, the spiritual crisis of a group of young Venetian patricians around 1511. Some of Contarini’s friends, though not Contarini himself, became hermits. Gilbert gives their story a new interpretative twist, seeing their rejection of the world and the values of civic humanism as a response to Venetian defeat.

The Pope, His Banker, and Venice centers on the same crisis, but views it from a different angle, or, rather, from a number of different angles. It is not the general study we have long been hoping for, but the result of the discovery of a series of documents concerning a loan to Venice negotiated in 1511 by the Roman banker Agostino Chigi. The story behind these documents is the subject of the book. Whether it is best presented in a study of book length is a moot point. An article in a learned journal might have been more appropriate. However, given the decision to present the discovery in book form, it must be admitted that the task has been carried out in an exemplary manner. Written with Gilbert’s customary lucidity and elegance, the book will appeal to many general readers, and tell specialists something that they did not know before.

To understand what was negotiated in 1511 and why, one needs to know a good deal about three worlds; those of Venice, Rome, and high finance. Conversely, Gilbert’s book casts light on all three. In the first place, on the pope. The impetuous, “terrible” Julius II is one of the best-known personalities of the High Renaissance. A competent biography was written by the nineteenth-century German historian Ludwig von Pastor, but the last word has not been said about what Gilbert calls the “disturbing fusion of spiritual and secular interests” in the pope’s policies. Erasmus, whose brilliant satire Julius Exclusus shows the pope knocking and blustering in vain at the gates of heaven, saw an irreconcilable conflict between the pope’s temporal role as ruler of the Papal States and his true, spiritual role as the Vicar of Christ.

On the other hand, Julius seems to have seen himself as fighting the good fight to recover lost papal rights of every sort. What emerges more clearly than ever before from Gilbert’s account of Julius’s relations with Venice (first he joined the League of Cambrai against the Venetians, and then joined them against the League) is the pope’s concern for the economic interests of the Holy See, notably the salt monopoly of Cervia and the right to navigate freely in the Adriatic. This concern has long been hidden by what Gilbert calls the “reluctance” of sixteenth-century historians “to acknowledge that actions in foreign policy might have economic motivations or be tied to financial interests,” because such interests were beneath the dignity of history.

Agostino Chigi is another familiar figure from High Renaissance Rome, his patronage of Raphael (who decorated his villa, now called the Villa Farnesina) as well known as Julius’s patronage of Michelangelo. The outlines of Chigi’s career as a banker are also familiar. However a modern biography of Chigi is lacking, and so is a serious analysis of the relation between business and politics in his years at the center of Roman affairs.

It was Chigi’s achievement to acquire, and keep, the favor of three very different popes, Alexander VI, Julius II, and Leo X. Without Chigi’s money, Julius might never have bribed his way into St. Peter’s chair. A court banker, Chigi collected taxes on the pope’s behalf (more exactly, he bought them at a discount), and administered the papal alum mines at Tolfa, one of the few known deposits of that mineral, essential at this time for dyeing cloth. When Chigi offered the Venetian government a loan of 40,000 ducats, interest-free because the Church forbade usury, the Venetians had to promise to buy some of his alum at an artificially high price.

But who exactly were the “Venetian government”? Much is known about Venetian politics in the sixteenth century, but, as in the case of Julius II or Agostino Chigi, not enough. The Venetian ruling class did their best to project a public image of a united, harmonious community in which no individuals stood out, let alone quarrelled, but all worked for the common good. Like Japanese firms and the fellows of Cambridge colleges, Venetian patricians set great store by the appearance of unanimity. It is not easy for historians to discover what went on behind this facade. Virtually the only hope of doing so lies in finding unofficial accounts of issues which split the political leadership.

One such issue was Chigi’s loan, and Gilbert, basing his account on two contemporary diaries, those of Marin Sanudo and Girolamo Priuli, makes use of the incident as a litmus paper that will show how and why the elite was divided. The leader of the group in favor of accepting the loan was Antonio Grimani, procuratore di S. Marco (one of the highest positions in the hierarchy of the Republic). Antonio Tron, another procuratore di S. Marco, led the opposition. One side argued the need for money to carry on the war, while the other side claimed that the bargain was not to the advantage of Venice and that in any case lending money at interest was wrong, whether disguised as a sale or not.

This was not the first confrontation between Grimani and Tron. Grimani, a brilliantly successful self-made businessman (not unlike Chigi) had been captain-general of the Venetian fleet at the time of its defeat at Zonchio in 1499. He was brought back to Venice in chains and condemned to exile after a trial in which Tron played a leading part. Tron’s views, so Gilbert suggests, also “had what we might call a philosophical basis, and we could apply to him the modern term ‘conservative.”’ I am not sure about the appropriateness of this term to describe someone who seems to have been a natural leader of the opposition, but it is clear that in the early sixteenth century as in the better-documented early seventeenth century, the rulers of Venice were much less united than they liked outsiders to think. QED.

This little book is a model of how to present research. The reader is given just the information needed to follow the argument. There is no irrelevant material, not a word is wasted. I noticed only one slip: the Scuole Grandi are not exactly “fraternities of artisans,” but included professional men and nobles as well. Gilbert’s scholarship is sound, his comments wise and perceptive, his touch light. But we are still awaiting his major work on the Venetian crisis.

  1. 1

    Princeton University Press, 1961.

  2. 2

    Princeton University Press, 1970; second edition, Norton, 1979.

  3. 3

    Princeton University Press, 1965.

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