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Venetian Secrets

The Venetian Patriciate: Reality versus Myth

by Donald E. Queller
University of Illinois Press, 386 pp., $29.95

Venetian Humanism in an Age of Patrician Dominance

by Margaret L. King
Princeton University Press, 524 pp., $65.00

Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice: Bellini, Titian, and the Franciscans

by Rona Goffen
Yale University Press, 285 pp., $40.00

On October 30, 1500, Anton Kolb, a German living in Venice, asked the Venetian government to waive customs duties and to permit him to export a woodcut that, at Kolb’s expense, had been made “to honor the reputation of the famous city of Venice.” The woodcut was a bird’s-eye view of Venice, the work of the painter Jacopo de Barbari; the original can be seen in the Museo Correr, where it is still the wonder and delight of every visitor. The Church of Saint Geminiano, which the woodcut shows standing on the west side of the Piazza San Marco, is no longer there; Napoleon ordered its destruction so that the Piazza would become the largest ballroom of the world. Santa Maria della Salute, rebuilt in commemoration of the end of the plague in 1630, did not yet dominate the entrance to the Grand Canal, and the long front of Byzantine-Gothic houses along the Grand Canal was not interrupted by the splendor of Baroque palaces. Yet De Barbari’s Venice is still the Venice of today: in his woodcut you can find the churches you have visited, the route you took from the Piazza San Marco to the Church of San Paolo e Giovanni.

The timelessness of De Barbari’s woodcut underlines what since the fifteenth century has been regarded as Venice’s most distinguishing feature: its stability, its ability to survive unchanged the turmoil and the revolutions of the surrounding world. Venice remained an independent and sovereign power when the other Italian states had come under the control of the French and of the Spanish or Austrian Habsburgs; it was a republic when absolutism was the accepted form of government in the rest of Europe.

A huge historical and political literature has tried to explain why Venice preserved its republican independence, and taken together the explanations make up what historians have called “the myth of Venice.” Some writings ascribe Venice’s good fortune to its form of government. Those who lived in a republic enjoyed a degree of freedom and political influence which kept them obedient and contented. Other writings praised the constitutional arrangements through which the classical notion of a mixed government had been kept alive in Western Europe. In dividing political control between Doge, Senate, and Great Council, the Venetian government combined elements of all three Aristotelian forms of political rule—monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy—and all possible political classes were represented in this government. Venice also served as the perfect example for the advocates of an aristocratic form of government; it was ruled by a group of wise and responsible men who knew how to hold the balance between the dangerous extremes of tyranny and democracy. In later times, from the seventeenth century on, this view prevailed. The miracle of Venetian stability was seen in its being ruled by patricians who served unselfishly the well-being of society and state: Othello’s “Most potent, grave, and reverend signiors.”

In an excellent article, “When Myths Lose Power: Four Decades of Venetian Historiography,”* James S. Grubb analyzes the various forms the Venetian myth has taken in recent centuries; he shows how stories rooted in this myth have permeated writings on Venetian history into recent times, so that it has become no easy task to disentangle the history of Venice from the history of the Venetian myth.

The myth was largely created by the Venetians themselves, particularly during the first half of the sixteenth century, after Venice had suffered defeats in its struggle with Europe’s great powers. These catastrophes were ascribed to Venice having become lax; the profits from trade had induced luxury and moral corruption. A glorifying picture of Venice’s virtues and past greatness would, it was hoped, lead Venice back on the road to future glory. Of the books and treatises written with this purpose, one—Gasparo Contarini’s On the Venetian Republic—quickly became famous all over Europe and remained a primary source for knowledge about Venice in the following centuries.

Not just the Venetians, however, but writers throughout Europe contributed to the Venetian myth. Living under absolute rulers, deprived of political influence and intellectual freedom, they used the Venetian republic as an example of a society in which justice ruled, where everyone could live according to his convictions, and in which peace, not military expansion, was regarded as the highest good.

In the era of national states and representative government the experiences of Venetian history were no longer relevant; the myth of Venice disappeared from political discourse. It is a different question, however, whether the myth still has the power to influence our view of Venetian history and impair our understanding of the Venetian past.

That it does so becomes evident in reading two recently published books by American historians on Venetian history. Both books are concerned with a social phenomenon that figures prominently in the myth: the Venetian patriciate. They differ sharply, however, in their evaluation. Queller leaves no room for the traditional admiration of the Venetian patricians, but a golden haze still hovers around them in King’s book. The subtitle, Reality versus Myth, reveals the aims of Queller’s book. He regards it as a scholarly duty to refute the view that “the Venetian patriciate was extraordinarily patriotic, self-sacrificing, decorous, and wise,” and he gives an unattractive picture of Venetian political practice. His chapter headings refer, for example, to “corrupt elections,” “evasion of public responsibilities,” “uncivil behavior.” From his extensive research in the archives, Queller gives lively illustrations of Venetian fraud and corruption. People who had already voted once managed to sneak into another queue of voters so that they voted twice; votes were frequently “sold” to those eager to get elected to a particular office. Patriotic selflessness had its limits: if a man was elected to a possibly dangerous government position, or if the financial rewards were meager, every possible excuse was used to avoid taking up the post.

The Venetian councils usually are regarded as places in which mature and responsible men discussed intelligently the grave issues of state. But the records of punishments and fines that Queller has studied show that many council meetings were unruly; people wandered about the council hall interrupting speakers, shouting abuse, pushing others out of their seats, and generally creating havoc. Queller, however, does not regard the Venetian patricians as particularly depraved. What he has discovered seems to him only to show that “Venetian nobles behaved, in fact, much as ordinary men do.”

Even if one accepts that we all are sometimes inclined to less than decorous behavior, one wonders whether Queller, in his highly amusing zeal to show that the Venetian patricians were not as decorous as the myth has painted them, has not gone too far and left them without any clothes. The large number of decrees of punishments and fines for election fraud, for misadministration, for violations of law, need not be taken merely as evidence of uninterrupted patrician misbehavior. Their number and frequency may also show the high value that the council members placed on keeping the principles of the constitutional order alive. Violations of the laws were frequent, but that they were again and again enforced shows that the famous “unchangeability” of the Venetian political system was regarded as an essential feature of Venetian life, one that had to be carefully and attentively protected.

Moreover, the nature of the Venetian patriciate, chief component of a complex and artificial constitutional structure, invited uncivil behavior. In Renaissance Venice, a city of more than one hundred thousand inhabitants, political power was the monopoly of around two thousand men. They alone sat in the ruling councils, had the right to elect and to be elected to the governing boards, and to hold administrative positions in the city, on the terra firma, and in the Venetian empire of the eastern Mediterranean. They held this privileged position not through any individual achievement or merit, but only because they were members of families whose ancestors had sat in the council that ruled Venice at the end of the thirteenth century.

These two thousand men were the Venetian patriciate, the Venetian “nobles.” They were bound together by their common interest to fend off the pressure to enlarge the Great Council, which would have diminished their power; to the outsider they appeared as a unified body, and they were certainly anxious to give this impression. Within this ruling class, however, there were deep divisions. The general rule was that when a man reached twenty-five, he became a member of the Great Council, but every year a number of twenty-one-year-olds were admitted, thus creating a group of bumptious youths inclined to rebel against their cautious elders.

Between the great clans, moreover, there were tensions that were believed to go back to the early years of the republic and to continue a long-standing rivalry between “old” and “new” families. Most important were the divisions created by differences in economic status. That nine patrician families of the 136 that formed the Great Council paid two thirds of the heavy financial burden that the war of the League of Cambrai imposed upon the republic after 1510 strikingly illustrates the scale of these economic inequalities. However, the poor nobles, as Queller rightly emphasizes, had an important place in the political system. They expected to be elected to the minor governmental positions on which their livelihood much depended, while the rich, for their part, occupied the seats in the policy-directing councils and the important administration offices. This division of labor created a system of dependencies among formally equal nobles and undoubtedly invited maneuvering and bargaining. It also established within the patriciate a group of rich nobles who were the real rulers of Venice and who, dignified and remote, look down at us in the portraits of Titian and Tintoretto.

The same patricians appear in King’s book, Venetian Humanism in an Age of Patrician Dominance. To those of us who have worked in this field—King’s book is likely to have a somewhat depressing effect. The second part contains a kind of dictionary of the careers, the writings, and the correspondence of humanists who lived and worked in Venice and also of people connected with the Venetian humanist movement. In this listing of published and archival material we find that a humanist patron like Lauro Quirini was in correspondence not only with other humanist patrons such as Francesco Barbaro and Francesco Foscari but also with professional humanists like Leonardo Bruni, Francesco Filelfo, and Laurenzo Valla, not to mention the famous female humanist Isotta Nogarola. This shows how incomplete the studies of the humanists have been and how much more work needs to be done.

The first part of King’s book discusses the social position of the Venetian humanists and analyzes their chief ideas. We get the impression that Venice was a center of Italian humanism and that Venetian humanism was of great intellectual significance. This very positive evaluation of Venetian humanism somewhat contradicts the traditional view that humanism came to Venice rather slowly and late and remained limited in scope and concerns. As King explains, a main aim of Venetian humanism was to reinforce the coherence of society. The Venetian humanists discussed—very appropriately—the nature of true nobility; they interpreted the Venetian constitution in terms of classical political thought; they tried to revive the political virtues of the Greek and Roman statesmen in orations given at the funerals of Venetian political leaders. They were concerned with establishing exact knowledge of the ancient world; they collected manuscripts and, after the invention of printing, Venice became a center for editing classical texts. An academy assembled around Aldus Manutius, the greatest printer and editor of the time. However, Venetian humanists were not inclined toward philosophical speculation. They took no part in the discussions about the dignity of man and his role in the universe that Marsilio Ficino and the Neoplatonists had set in motion in Florence. Far into the sixteenth century, Venetian humanism did not contribute to the central trends of the humanist movement that transformed philosophical and theological thinking.

At the University of Padua, which was under Venetian control and was where the young Venetian patricians studied, and at the two much smaller “schools” that were established in Venice—the school of San Marco and the school at the Rialto—Aristotelian scholasticism continued to dominate philosophical instruction. Venetian humanism remained tied to the practice of Venetian political and social life, and it is hard to deny that this limited its contribution to the intellectual developments of the time.

Nevertheless, as King rightly emphasizes, the amount and variety of humanist activities were impressive. Many important humanists came to Venice for shorter or longer periods, frequently called there to educate the sons of influential patricians and then settling in Venice at least for some years. The literary circles that were formed, some styling themselves as academies, met regularly in patrician houses. King quotes from the correspondence between Venetian nobles and humanists, and although there is certainly much rhetoric in the expressions of friendship and reciprocal admiration, the letters testify to a certain amount of familiarity between professional humanists and Venetian patricians.

Venetian patricians were not only patrons of humanists, as were the members of the ruling group in other Renaissance states; nobles with the great names of Morosini, Giustiniani, Contarini, etc., were themselves writers who composed treatises about politics and history in the humanist pattern. This is a unique feature of Venetian humanism, and also a unique feature of the Venetian patriciate. In explaining the literary interests of members of the Venetian patriciate and their bonds with the intellectual world, and at the same time the limitations within which these interests were pursued, we must take account of a factor that in these studies seems to me somewhat underplayed: the particular relation between Church and state.

Venice, on the borders between the Western and the Byzantine worlds, had always been able to restrict interference by the papacy into Venetian affairs. A practical consequence was that until the early part of the sixteenth century Venice claimed and exercised the right to nominate the higher ecclesiastical dignitaries in its territory. There were forty-four bishoprics in the Venetian dominion, some of them—like Padua, Verona, or Vicenza—of importance; almost without exception their bishops were members of the Venetian patriciate. In Venice civil and ecclesiastical careers were by no means strictly separated. A Venetian patrician, after having served the republic as governor, or even as naval commander, frequently became head of one of the bishoprics in the Venetian empire. The most famous case, of course, is the one of Gasparo Contarini, who after having filled some of Venice’s most important diplomatic and administrative positions, became a member of the College of Cardinals. Neither the authority of the Venetian patricians nor their concern with intellectual issues can be fully understood without giving appropriate weight to this special relationship between Church and state.

This relationship is a major theme of Rona Goffen’s excellent study, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice. The book, notwithstanding its general title, is concerned with one church, the Franciscan Santa Maria dei Frari—and the patronage of one family, the Pesaro. Although knowledge of the Venetian class structure and political practice and of Venice’s relation to intellectual trends is essential to understanding Renaissance Venice, it is almost a relief to turn from the discussion of such general questions to a clearly limited, concrete topic.

The connection of the Pesaro family with Santa Maria dei Frari goes back to the thirteenth century, when a Pesaro was buried in the cloister of this church. This became a burying ground of the Pesaro family. Unlike Florence, where families usually lived in the same neighborhood and worshiped together in the neighborhood church, the various branches of a Venetian family lived throughout the city—probably a consequence of the limited space on the island—and attended churches all over town. The legendary fame of two comparatively recent saints, St. Francis and St. Dominic, gave the churches of the mendicant orders they had founded a special appeal; and people from all sections of the town came to worship in the churches of the Franciscans and the Dominicans. Moreover, the Franciscans of Santa Maria dei Frari had received from the Pope the right of burial within the church, a privilege that other churches in Venice did not possess. Consequently, the wills of those who wanted to be buried in the church, or the arrangements made by their heirs, provided the Franciscans with endowments for requiem masses and gifts.

The first great donation of the Pesaros to Santa Maria dei Frari was a chapel in the sacristy where the family members were buried. On its altar stands a famous triptych of Bellini, donated along with the chapel itself by Piero Pesaro and his three sons, Benedetto, Marco, and Nicolò. In Bellini’s painting the saints on the left are Peter and Nicholas; on the right, Benedict and Mark. Benedict, holding the Bible in his hand, looking directly out of the picture at the spectator, is the most imposing of Bellini’s saints.

Benedetto Pesaro, as it happens, was the most influential among the Pesaro donors. As commander of the Venetian fleet, he had won an important victory over the Turks, and at his death he was a Procurator of San Marco, the highest Venetian office after that of the Doge. In his will he ordered that his funeral monument—“a noble marble monument”—was to be constructed around the entrance from the church to the sacristy; his statue stands high above the door and, as Goffen correctly notes, he can be seen as resembling a resurrected Christ, the admiral’s banner he holds in his hands signifying conquest over death. His son Girolamo too became a fleet commander, achieving victories over the Turks and ending as a Procurator of San Marco. His funeral monument, now destroyed, stood directly opposite that of his father, but was less grand; in his will, in which he commissioned the construction of the monument, he ordered: “It ought to have two columns where my father’s monument had four columns.”

The most famous gift of the family to the Franciscans of Santa Maria dei Frari was Titian’s Pesaro Madonna; placed on the altar of the chapel of the Immaculate Conception, close to the burial ground of another branch of the Pesaro family, it shows on the lower right the portraits of five worshiping Pesaros, and on the left the chief donor of the painting, Bishop Jacopo of Paphos; a servant in shining armor holds in his hands a battle standard with the Pesaro arms, indicating that Jacopo, no less than his cousin Benedetto, had fought victoriously against the Turks. Still another Pesaro funeral monument was erected in the seventeenth century and honors the one Doge from the Pesaro family. Although not a work of great beauty, in its ostentatiousness and size it was clearly meant to be the apotheosis of the Pesaro family in Santa Maria dei Frari; in his last will the Doge had left the gigantic sum of 12,000 ducats to build this monument.

The chapels and monuments are overshadowed by the painting on the high altar to which our view is drawn from every part of the church: Titian’s Assunta. One of the most interesting aspects of Goffen’s book is her account of the struggle of the Franciscans for recognition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and of the connected belief in Mary’s elevation into heaven directly upon her death. She has much to say about the great importance of the cult of Mary in Venice. Venice was believed to have been founded on the day of the Annunciation and thus the celebration of the founding of the city was a major church holy day. The façade of San Marco and the Rialto bridge carried reliefs of the Annunciation, of Mary and Gabriel. Venice was Venezia Vergine. The strength of this belief in the special relation between the city of Venice and the Mother of God allowed Venetian patricians to serve in both political and ecclesiastical offices, to list on their tombs what they had done for the republic, and to claim military triumphs as special merits. As Goffen states: “In Venice piety and politics were synonymous.”

The history of Venice is one of the great themes of European historiography, yet it is difficult to fit it into the history of Europe. Certainly historians must separate facts from the myth, and the Venetian archives, still astonishingly rich despite some devastating fires in the late sixteenth century, offer them magnificent opportunities for doing so. Moreover, by means of technology, it has become possible to scrutinize previously unexplored files and to find out how not only the patricians but the thousands of people who inhabited this great trading center lived and worked.

However, Venice was a hierarchically structured society, and it is understandable that the books under review have been mainly concerned with Venetian patricians. The patricians gave Venice its character, and patrician dominance made Venice different from other Italian Renaissance cities. This feeling of uniqueness was a decisive stimulus to what Venice represented and achieved, and in writing about Venice the historian cannot and should not forget that—to use Jacob Burckhardt’s words—“Venice recognized itself as a marvelous and mysterious creation where something more than human wit had been at work.”

  1. *

    The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 58, (March 1986), pp. 43–94.

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