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 …

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