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Death of Venice

A History of Venice

by John Julius Norwich
Knopf, 673 pp., $22.95

John Norwich’s book is a competent and readable account of the Venetian Republic from its hazy beginnings in the Dark Ages to its fall at the hands of Napoleon, whom Norwich seems unable to forgive. Narrative history of this sort has never been easy to write well. It is also unfashionable, and historians who possess the necessary literary gifts do not often choose to exercise them in this particular art. Norwich had few English-language competitors when he attempted this political history, although a number of British and American scholars devote themselves to Venetian studies. The distinguished economic historian Frederic C. Lane has written a rather shorter survey of Venetian history and of a very different kind.1

Thus there was plenty of room for Norwich’s book, which in a modest and well-organized way places the extraordinary history of these sea capitalists in a comprehensible scheme, and is concerned to miss none of its drama. The great set pieces of Venetian history, from the kidnaping of St. Mark’s body in medieval Egypt to the heroic defense of Crete against the Ottoman Turks in the seventeenth century, are depicted with artful economy.

There are some longueurs, mostly in mid-passage. Norwich does not conceal his distaste for “the nightmare tangle of medieval Italian politics, of Guelf and Ghibelline, Emperor and Pope, feudal baron and civic commune.” Whether or not he is right in maintaining that Venice steered clear of the rest of medieval Italy, its course was set close enough to the world of the Italian communes to make his narrative crawl rather dismally through the Italian politics of the fourteenth century. Once the tedious maneuvers that secured Venice the rule of its hinterland cities have been described, Norwich pushes briskly onward into Renaissance Italy, and shows no further sign of fatigue.

As an athletic literary performance, the book compels admiration, but much that is central to Venetian history is left out. The economic engine that supported this great and beautiful city and that brought it command of its garland of islands and fortresses in the Adriatic Sea and the Levant is condemned by Norwich to run silently and below decks. Like Ruskin, he is anxious not to dwell too much upon the avarice and cunning of the Venetian merchants. At the obligatory moments he mentions the sea contracts of the earlier Middle Ages, the building and organization of the galleys, government borrowing, Venetian money, grain, salt. But in this book the Venetian argosies plough across the seas in a manner which has more to do with poetry than with business. They work in a very thin economic climate, which at times approaches a vacuum.

Of the European and Levantine economies in which the Venetians fought desperately—and not effortlessly, as seems sometimes here to be implied—to maintain their position, hardly a word is said. Was the affirmation of Venetian political power over the neighboring Italian terra firma an attempt to compensate for deteriorating conditions of trade in the late Middle Ages, as well as to assure the Republic of secure grain supplies? What part was played by Venetian economic domination of much of northeast Italy, which was a factor from the early Middle Ages? What was the balance between trade and industry, between Venice as an entrepôt and Venice as a center of manufactures? These questions, and others that are central to the understanding of the Venetian economy, receive little or no attention in this book. The frantic Venetian attempts to regain a competitive textile industry, made at intervals from the mid-sixteenth century to the early eighteenth, are also passed by.

Norwich appears to place himself in the tradition of the conservative writers who extol the Venetian polity as an example of the balanced or mixed constitution which contains elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Although he asserts these views more by implication than by explicit argument, he seems close in some respects to the position learnedly argued by William J. Bouwsma.2

But Norwich seems to argue in an allusive and a curiously unhistorical way. He extols the Venetians as a nation that achieved equality for its citizens before the law, but that somehow managed to stand for definite principles without defining them. He describes the Venetians as a people “not of thinkers but of doers,” who lagged behind articulate Renaissance humanists of other parts of Italy, and whose gifts did not lie in abstract thought. He quotes the parallel drawn by the French historian Charles Diehl between the Venetian oligarchy and the English aristocracy, and at times he seems to see the Venetians as unreflective grandees, more or less like the English territorial magnates of the eighteenth century, knit together in a small and cohesive society in which everyone knew everyone else. Perhaps there is a parallel, but it is not argued here very rigorously. During the period of Venice’s greatness small and cohesive societies with interlocking patrician lineages were legion in Europe, and a better explanation of the peculiar genius of the Venetian constitution is needed than this.

Strangely for so strong an advocate of Venice as the model of republican balance, Norwich does not even mention the Venetian political theorists. Nor does he emphasize that his own insistence on the “mixed” nature of the Venetian constitution, as against those who denounce it as a mere oligarchy, is a classical argument that has been used in defense of the Venetian polity since the times of the early Renaissance. He quotes James Harrington, the seventeenth-century English political writer, but gives no idea of the origins of Harrington’s ideas about Venice, or of the many connections that have been detected between Renaissance views of the Venetian constitution and the republican tradition in early modern Europe.3

The Renaissance myth of Venice was above all concerned with the exemption of the Venetian state from the changes of time and chance. The Venetian constitution was said to be so ideally balanced that it would always nurture the public spirit that it needed to support it, and would never fail to exclude the factionalism that might corrupt it. The myth has often influenced students of Venice, and it may have been attractive to someone like Norwich who is committed to preserving the physical shell of the city, and thus to helping Venice to struggle against time. It is surprising that he never explicitly discusses it.

Yet in spite of its longevity Venice did decline, and the understanding of its decline must be of some importance to its historian. Norwich accepts the general tradition that sees the great crisis and turning point of later Venetian history as the War of the League of Cambrai, from 1509 to 1513, when, during its early stages, Venice faced a hostile coalition of all the major powers of Europe. This was the testing point of the new political system set up at the end of the fourteenth century, in which Venetian political force was no longer confined to the rule of the maritime empire, but extended to the mainland cities lying to the west on the terra firma. Although Venice recovered most of the lands it lost during the War of the League of Cambrai, the conflict revealed its weakness in a startling way. It was also a crisis that corresponded, approximately, with the opening of new trade routes to the Indies and the New World and with the affirmation of the already great power of the Ottoman Turks, which was later to prove fatal to Venetian rule in the Levant.

To Norwich the moment of the decline of Venice is marked by its political association henceforward with the Italian peninsula rather than with the Levant: “She had become, in essence, an Italian state.” He seems to see this as a symptom rather than the cause of its decay, and he seems at times to see the decay as moral, as well as political and economic. I am not certain that the Italianization of Venetian policies can be identified, as surely as he seems to think, as an indication of decline. The intimate association of Venice with its hinterland went back to the early Middle Ages, and assertion of dominion over the terra firma antedated the War of the League of Cambrai by more than a century. But in implying that when it occupied the terra firma Venice violated the proper limits and organization of a maritime republic, Norwich is associating himself with an ancient tradition.

The idea of historical decline has often been linked with the idea of large changes in role and function. Gibbon and Montesquieu tended to associate the decline of Rome with its “immoderate greatness,” or, more particularly, with its having too much exceeded the natural limits of a city-state. Machiavelli specifically criticized Venice for having departed from its proper role by the occupation of the terra firma. In the first book of his Discorsi, written soon after the War of the League of Cambrai, he remarked that Rome in choosing empire cut short its prospects of life, while Sparta and Venice, in choosing simply to maintain their independence, assured themselves of long life. Venice’s error, according to Machiavelli, was to have occupied large areas of mainland Italy, so that, when the trial of strength came in the War of the League of Cambrai, “in one day, she lost everything.”

An interpretation of Venetian decline that emphasized its economic activity would tend to place it much later than the War of the League of Cambrai. The critical fall in Venice’s Levantine trade may have taken place as early as the mid-fourteenth century. In the sixteenth century the trade was, certainly, seriously damaged. The convoys became fewer and poorer, and terms of trade with the Ottoman ports worsened. Yet as late as the end of the sixteenth century, the Levantine spice trade was far from dead. The economy of Venice, like that of the rest of Italy, showed astonishing resilience. But in the seventeenth century, like the rest of Italy, Venice was relentlessly squeezed by competition from northwest Europe. A similar story can be told for public finance in Venice, which Norwich labels as insolvent at the beginning of the sixteenth century, but which was in fact successfully reorganized (though not without political dispute) at the end of that century.

Some people might think another reason for postponing the date of Venetian decline to be the vigor with which it expressed an arrogant antipapalism as late as the period of the Counter-Reformation. That even at this late point in its history the energy was found to defend lay rights over the Church has often endeared Venice to liberals and Protestants. Norwich seems to be no exception. The great theorist of Venetian resistance to the papal interdict of 1606, Paolo Sarpi, is the one theorist of any kind to whom he devotes attention. However, it is not self-evident that Venice had “an instinctive tendency towards religious toleration,” as is claimed here. It may have been politic in Venice to tolerate nonconformist foreigners, but religious policy was just as sternly authoritarian as other policies.

It would be a mistake to protest too much that this book is not as a historian of the Annales school would have written it. The book is written in praise of a loved object, of the city of Venice itself. I do not think that Norwich is especially enamored of the Venetians, but their beautiful buildings, which still precariously enjoy their triumph over time, arouse in him a vital and sustained response. Generals, doges, and governors, every twist and turn of Venetian fortunes at home, at sea, and in the distant Levant, bring to his mind an architectural or monumental reminiscence. A palace recalls the sugar plantations of Cyprus; the tanned skin of a general, flayed to death by the Turks, comes to rest in a Venetian church. There are some dangers in this method, especially in the footnoting of the funerary monuments of historical figures, a practice perilously near to that of the guidebook. On the other hand, the buildings are referred to in a restrained way, and there is no false fine writing about them. When Norwich comes to the “Gothic crown” of pinnacles on St. Mark’s basilica, he is content to quote Ruskin: “as if in ecstasy, the crests of the arches break into a marble foam.” But there are dangers in this restraint as well; at times this seems the book of an enthusiast, but one who is too good-mannered to display enthusiasm.

The relation between Norwich and Ruskin is an interesting one, sometimes suggesting a contrast between nineteenth-century idealism and twentieth-century aestheticism. Norwich reproaches Ruskin with having seen Venice only in detail, and never as a whole; but it might be replied on Ruskin’s behalf that he saw Venice as the exemplification of general principles. Ruskin did not see Venice as the normative pattern for a conservative republic; to him the senate and the doge were almost irrelevant. Venice provided a home for his vision of a creative and organic artisan society of the Middle Ages. He described the leadership of medieval Venice as having been composed, during its great period, of “knights” and “gentlemen.” He sought constantly to distinguish these religious merchant-adventurers from the kind of grubby and avaricious businessmen who he feared would be claimed as kinfolk by the hated London industrialist “cockneys” of Victorian England.

The systematic study of the Venetian economy would have been regarded by Ruskin as a horrid irrelevance. To him the nobility of purpose of the Venetian merchants was vouched for by the purity of their architecture. So long as the vigor of Gothic style remained intact in the buildings, the moral qualities of the leadership remained in force. Ruskin saw Venice as having been invaded, in the early fifteenth century, by the un-Christian principles of the Renaissance, which corrupted simultaneously the morals of the Venetians and their architecture. Ruskin’s theory of Venetian decline is very coherent. From the death of the Doge Tommaso Mocenigo in 1423, its rulers were in his view transformed from faithful and pious gentlemen into decadent oligarchs whose pompous religion was a mere show. However, even Ruskin could not avoid the difficulty that art-historical periods always fit badly into other “periods,” and it is comforting that he had to make an exception for Venetian art, so as to allow Venice to have good painters as late as the 1520s.

If Norwich has tended to preserve some of Ruskin’s rhetorical frame while jettisoning the ideas that lay beneath it, he is not alone. Poor Ruskin, who did more than anyone else to confirm Venice as the subject of literary fantasy and to make it into a great center of genteel tourism, despised both. Ruskin wrote: “The Venice of modern fiction and drama is a thing of yesterday, a mere efflorescence of decay, a stage dream which the first ray of daylight must dissipate into dust.” He also expressed an opinion which cannot give much comfort to the international efforts to “save Venice,” of which Lord Norwich is a praiseworthy leader: “… If the present indolence and ruinous dissipation of the people continue, there will come a time when the modern houses will be abandoned and destroyed, St. Mark’s Place will be again what it was in the early ages, a green field, and the front of the Ducal Palace and the marble shafts of St. Mark’s will be rooted in wild violets and wreathed with vines. She will be beautiful again then, and I could almost wish that the time might come quickly, were it not that so many noble pictures must be destroyed first.”

Refusal to accept the death of the loved one is always a proof of affection. The French Revolution and Napoleon both receive hostile treatment from Norwich, perhaps less from innate conservatism than from resentment of their responsibility in the suppression of the Venetian Republic. In discussing the massacres of foreigners in Constantinople in the 1180s, he attributes to the Byzantines of those days a brutality and terror “unparalleled in the civilized world until the days of the French Revolution.” It is not surprising that he blames the Venetians for their inertia in failing to join the conservative coalition against the revolutionary France of 1793, which he optimistically thinks might have barred the French from Venice. For Venetian Francophile radicals he has nothing but contempt: the Tree of Liberty, erected in Piazza di San Marco after the French occupation of 1797, was for him a gaudy and tasteless farce. Perhaps it was, and it certainly led within months to the placing of Venice under the Austrian yoke. But antiquarian sentiment cannot be allowed to fix our fate in this world; it is possible both to appreciate Venice and to preserve a lingering sympathy for the Venetian Jacobins who celebrated liberty in the Piazza.

  1. 1

    Venice: A Maritime Republic (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973). William H. McNeill’s Venice, the Hinge of Europe: 1081-1797 (University of Chicago Press, 1974) is concerned with cultural and economic history that extends far outside the Venetian empire.

  2. 2

    Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty: Renaissance Values in the Age of the Counter Reformation (University of California Press, 1968).

  3. 3

    The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition, by J.G.A. Pocock (Princeton University Press, 1975).

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