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.

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 …

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