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The Nervous Republic


The history of Venice began, according to one legend, with Attila the Hun. In the year 452, as the nomad chieftain and his horde swept down the Italian peninsula toward Rome, a few bands of refugees along the Adriatic coast withdrew to the low, silty islands of the Venetian lagoon to shelter among the reeds until the Scourge of God had passed. Out of this havoc, on this shifty soil, their descendants gradually built a city, powerful, beautiful, and eternally nervous. For Venice, long after achieving its self-styled designation as the Se-renissima Res Publica, the Most Serene Republic, never lost either its initial give-and-take with the sea or its refugee sense of insecurity.

What serenity the city enjoyed depended, like its very physical existence, on ceaseless labor, secured by ceaseless vigilance. At the height of Venetian power, between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the Most Serene Republic’s symbolic winged lion lorded it over an empire that stretched from Constantinople to Crete, serenity was still as slippery as silt, as delicately human an artifact as everything else Venetian. The serenity of Venice was always as much myth as it was reality. And like any myth, the story of “Venice the Undisturbed” begged insistently to be retold.

In the first of five lectures dedicated to Myths of Venice, the art historian David Rosand introduces the myth of Venetian serenity by quoting “the most eloquent cultural voice of Italy, Petrarch himself,” who wrote of the city in 1364 as

the one home of liberty, peace, and justice, the one refuge of honorable men, haven for those who, battered on all sides by the storms of tyranny and war, seek to live in tranquility. Rich in gold but richer in fame, built on solid marble but standing more solid on a foundation of civic concord, surrounded by salt waters but more secure with the salt of good counsel…, Venice rejoices at the outcome, which is as it should be: the victory not of arms but of justice.1

Petrarch was dazzled above all, as Rosand observes, by the city’s climate of intellectual freedom; this passionate fourteenth-century book collector was even willing to trade in his library just for the privilege of living there. Venetian freedom, however, was always precarious; Garry Wills’s new book, Venice: Lion City, is notable above all for its poignant evocation of the city’s abiding sense of insecurity, and for the pains Wills takes to describe the sheer amount of hard work needed to keep that insecurity at bay. What he says about that hard-won, tenuous Venetian political serenity applies in fact to every aspect of this remarkable city’s existence, physical, social, political, and religious:

Venetian “serenity”…used to be attributed to the planned or fortuitous machinery of the city’s institutions. But institutions, good or bad, work only if you want them to work. And the motive for maintaining the solidarity of the Venetian project did not come from lack of unrest or from perfect devices for controlling it. It came, as much of all social esprit does, from the sense of mutual need in a situation of peril. The Venetians were performing a high-wire act, and they knew it. Usually safe at home, they were never secure there…. The base had to be solid because the far-flung outworks that rested on its were so vulnerable.

The buildings of Venice, unlike its polity, rested on anything but a solid base; they arose on endless clumps of wooden pilings, most of them driven deep into the ground centuries ago and preserved—literally pickled—in salt water. Perhaps it has always been the fragility of Venice, its evanescence, that captivates more than any other quality, for it is a city where the precariousness of life itself has made life all the more civil and all the more beautiful. Today Venice lulls its visitors by the lapping waters of its canals, the singsong cadences of its dialect, the lacework of its architecture, the soft seductiveness of its art, and the neat circumscription of the city itself; sprawl has been relegated to the mainland industrial slums of Mestre and Marghera. And now that the doge of Venice, clad in his brocaded robes and peculiar horned hat, the corno, has been replaced by one among many Italian mayors in sleek business suits, it is more tempting than ever to idealize the workings of a government that ceased to exist in 1797, a scant decade after its example inspired the framers of the United States’ Constitution to formulate their own version of the Venetians’ dynamic balance among three types of governmental systems: monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy.

Always, however, the often invoked “myth of Venice” as a free, harmonious republic has had two sides. Membership in the city’s Greater Council (Consiglio Maggiore) was permanently restricted—“locked”—in 1297 to include only a few families, about 5 percent of the population. By the sixteenth century the withering arrogance of a Venetian patrician must have been nearly insufferable, and several popes decided not to suffer it after all, putting the city under interdict—collective excommunication. A haughty Venetian ambassador, Alvise Pisani, can bear a good deal of the blame for ensuring that the papacy would join France and the Holy Roman Empire in attacking the Venetian mainland—terra ferma —in 1509: insulated at home by his artificial social status, Pisani snubbed the Rome-based banker who was directing negotiations for Pope Julius II. Merchants were excluded from government in Venice. (Two years later, that banker, Agostino Chigi, was sitting in on private sessions of various Venetian state councils to hammer out a treaty with the papacy, the perfect government of Venice suddenly adjusted to the realities of war, peace, and capitalism.)2The island of Crete still celebrates its liberation from Venetian rule in 1667 by the Ottoman Turks, one oppressor replaced by another. The winged Lion of Saint Mark that has served for centuries as the city’s symbol may hold an open Bible that says “Peace,” but the lion’s peace was always enforced tooth and claw.3

Wills’s own background as a classicist turns him back, time and again, to analogies between the “older, tougher” Venice, the “Lion City” of his title, and Periclean Athens, another maritime republic with an empire on its hands and a glittering legacy to the arts. Like democratic Athens, Venice developed a government that acknowledged how much it owed to people outside the tiny patrician class—the other 95 percent of the population: the bankers who financed the city’s military forces and its trade; the Jewish scholars who took their medical degrees from the resolutely open-minded University of Padua and practiced both their faith and their profession with relative freedom; the battery of skilled workers who made the Arsenal of Venice an industrial assembly line for ships, sails, and weaponry centuries before Henry Ford cobbled together his first Model T.

The skill of a Venetian gondolier is still a wonder to behold; on their expertise Wills quotes Mark Twain at length, that former navigator on the Mississippi dazzled by his Venetian colleagues’ professional skill. In order to capitalize on this carefully cultivated local talent, Venetian galleys, like the triremes of impe-rial Athens, were entrusted to citizen rowers rather than prisoners or slaves.4 And like Athens, Venice griev-ously wasted too many of its women, especially the patrician girls who served as pawns in dynastic marriages or were simply clapped into convents.

To illustrate, Wills examines Vittore Carpaccio’s famous painting Two Women, executed perhaps between 1493 and 1495, of two sumptuously clad Venetian matrons sitting on a balcony. For years the pair’s elaborate hairstyles and low-cut bodices led art historians to identify them as courtesans, who once comprised the largest group of professional women in the city—and one of its chief attractions. Recent research has made it clear, however, that Carpaccio’s two women are, in fact, respectable aristocratic wives. With great compassion for these sour-faced ladies toying distractedly with their pet birds and dogs, Wills brings out the sheer poison of their ennui as their husbands, portrayed in a companion panel now in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, spend the morning hunting birds on the lagoon. As Wills remarks,

The contrast between the two scenes—the sheltered and idle women waiting at home, the active men out dominating nature—is almost didactically proto-feminist in its sympathy for those left behind in their gilded cage.

Again as in Athens, another international entrepôt, many of the women who made careers on their own were forced to do so as courtesans: poets like Veronica Franco or Gaspara Stampa, who, far from reveling in their positions as professional charmers, declared that they would have chosen any other calling had they been given the choice. On the other hand, the first woman to take a university degree anywhere in the world was a Venetian aristocrat, Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, who earned her laurels as a philosopher in 1678 at the University of Padua.

Most of all, like Periclean Athens, imperial Venice understood the persuasive power that beautiful works of art and architecture could muster—hence both cities were eager looters of art as well as creators. To underscore its status as a conquering power, Venice made masterful use of its artistic booty: the four ancient Roman horses, snatched from Constantinople in 1204, that race above the portals of San Marco; the wonderful menagerie of marble lions standing outside the gates of the Arsenal; the clever collages of ancient colored stone, medieval sculptures, and Renaissance frames that make up the tombs of doges, as well as secluded chapels and proud façades. All of these are enduring proof, like Venice itself, that variety can create its own aesthetic—what the ancient Greeks and Romans called poikilia—color.

Through the eloquent imagery of carved stone, paint, inlay, jewelry, embroidery, mosaic, and blown glass, an entire world of objects rallied citizens and residents by retelling heroic stories about the vigilance of their divine protectors and the virtue of their own hardworking ancestors, the “myths of Venice” about which Rosand writes with such flair and affection. Athena in Athens may have been replaced in Venice by the Virgin Mary, Lord Poseidon by the God of Abraham, King Theseus by Saint Mark, but the tales themselves are remarkably similar, of human brawn and ingenuity pitted against the might of the elements, of hospitality to strangers, of keeping the seaways clear for trade and for conquest. At the same time, by investing so pointedly in the sheer opulence of their buildings, both Athens and Venice were able to suggest still greater reserves of military and economic might than they actually commanded. It took a mind such as that of Agostino Chigi (himself a famous patron of art) or the Greek historian Thucydides to see beyond the glitter: “If [Athens] were deserted,” Thucydides wrote, “but its temples and the foundations of its buildings were left, you would guess from the city’s showy appearance that it was twice as powerful as it was in reality.”5

  1. 1

    Francesco Petrarca, Epistolae seniles IV.3 (1364), cited in David Rosand, Myths of Venice, p. 7.

  2. 2

    See Felix Gilbert, The Pope, His Banker, and Venice (Harvard University Press, 1980).

  3. 3

    Literally it says “Peace to you, Mark, my evangelist” (Pax tibi Marce evangelista meus).

  4. 4

    A fully preserved Venetian galley, the only one known, is now being excavated from the Venetian lagoon by a complicated dredging operation; see Massimo Spampani, “Riaffiora a Venezia una galea della Serenissima” (“A Venetian Galley Surfaces Again in Venice”), Corriere della sera, August 20, 2001.

  5. 5

    Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, I.10.2. This and subsequent translations are the author’s.

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