The shade of the prison house may also induce secrecy. If privacy is a luxury, then the keeping of secrets may become ever more urgent or obsessive. The city of masks must, in any case, also be the city of secrets. The Venetians, despite their apparent sociability, are notoriously reticent. They do not invite casual visitors into their homes. In the portraits of Venetians there is a general air of inscrutability; they are painted for their office rather than for their person, and their actual temperament or personality is not to be divulged. They are impenetrable. It was said of one doge that “one never knows whether he loves or hates anything.” One public lecturer, from another part of Italy, found it impossible to engage his audience of young Venetian nobles in any form of political discussion. “When I ask them,” he wrote, “what people think, say, and expect about this or that movement in Italy, they all answer with one voice that they know nothing about the matter.” Was this silence the result of fear or of distrust? In a city where you could be banished on the evidence of suspicion alone, who would willingly open their mouths? After Napoleon had conquered Venice in 1797 he instigated a survey of the newly captured people. He asked, in particular, what were Venetian prejudices and opinions. The native writers of the survey could not enlighten him since, they said, such questions admitted no answer. No other city had so effectively silenced its inhabitants. There were times, in fact, when indiscretion exacted a high price. When two glass-blowers escaped to foreign capitals with the secrets of their trade, in 1745, the senate decreed that they should be assassinated by means of poison.
It was observed that, on the Rialto, the bankers and merchants customarily spoke in hushed voices. The government of the city was conducted in secrecy. We might almost describe it as an Oriental secrecy, with secret meetings, secret payments, secret audiences, secret decisions and secret deaths. When new nobles were introduced to the business of government their oath of allegiance included the promise of “faith and silence.” It is highly characteristic of Venice. One of the allegorical paintings in the doge’s palace is that of taciturnity. There is a strange figure of stone on the edifice of Saint Mark’s; it is of an old man, leaning on crutches, who has a finger to his lips. It was said that Venice was a secret oligarchy; it not only kept its secrets, but the nature of its own identity was also a secret.
The oath for the council of ten was “jura, perjura, secretum prodere noli”—swear, foreswear and reveal not the secret. There are pages in the annals of government where the words “non scribatur,” let it not be written, are to be found. Other chronicles of Venice were burned. The archives of the government were secret; the doge himself could not consult them, unless he were accompanied by an official. The keeper of the archives was a man who could neither read nor write. In an eighteenth-century text, The Chinese Spy, it is stated that “silence is the emblem of this government; everything is secret and cloaked in mystery. Political doings are covered by a thick veil of darkness. In Venice those who talk are buried alive in a tomb covered with lead.”
Thus it was said by a seventeenth-century historian that “the Venetians are apt to be jealous of all ambassadors, and to interpret all their Actions as Mysteries tending to Conspiracy.” They discussed every word and action “from whence they make great conjectures and draw mighty consequences of State.” No Venetian official could speak to a foreign diplomat, on pain of death or life imprisonment. The boxes at the opera had little “withdrawing rooms”; diplomats felt obliged to visit one of the several opera houses, if only to discover secrets which would otherwise be hidden from them. Paradoxically the mute stealth of these proceedings encouraged suspicion and conspiracy. Venice was known as the city of conspiracies.
There was a violent altercation at a meeting of the senate in 1511, which the council of ten deemed to be so shameful that it was never to be mentioned; oaths of secrecy were demanded from the members of that body. Many proposals and discussions, put before the senate, were also considered under strict vows of silence. Some dignitaries were imprisoned or sent into exile so that they could not speak out. Secrecy was for the public good. When the senate deliberated for a month over the imprisonment of a Venetian admiral, for incompetence or malfeasance, not one word reached the admiral himself until the moment he was seized and bound; his friends, who had argued passionately in his defence, had not warned him. When rumours of a great military defeat began to filter through Venice, in the early part of the sixteenth century, the council of ten refused to discuss the issue and imprisoned anyone suspected of a loose tongue.
And there was, at the end of the eighteenth century, the case of “the Venetian secret.” It was a secret that Sir Joshua Reynolds, for example, pursued to his death. It concerned the warm texture of Venetian painting. How did the artists fabricate that golden and glowing tone? Reynolds even scraped down one of Titian’s canvases in search of the secret. One woman, Ann Provis, declared that she possessed it. She said that it was contained in a copy of a lost text concerning the method and practice of the great Venetian painters. Miss Provis promised to reveal it, but only in exchange for ready cash. Of course it was a confidence trick. James Gillray caricatured the whole affair in a print entitled “Titianus Redivivus; – or – the seven-wise-men consulting the new Venetian oracle.”
So Venice was well known as a city of secrecy, of mystery, and of silence. Henry James described it as a place of “endless strange secrets” and in The Portrait of a Lady, partly set in Venice, there is the almost unbearable tension of what has been left unsaid. Such an atmosphere perfectly suits the Venetian genius for intrigue. Casanova said of his Venetian contemporaries that their “most prominent characteristic is to make a mystery of nothing.” In the past the Venetians made a mystery of government, or a mystery of love; now they were happy to create mystery for the sake of mystery. The gondolas were designed for secrecy, with little cabins draped by blinds or by black cloth. A Venetian writer, Giovanni Maria Memmo, wrote in 1563 that the houses of Venice “should have some secret doors where one can enter and exit without being seen by anyone.” Venice is still in part a secret city. It is a secret city of the living, unseen by the many thousands of tourists who take up the public spaces. That is why good restaurants are hard to find; the Venetians reserve them for themselves. There are still streets that seem in retreat, silent and secluded. The watery element deepens that sense of seclusion and secrecy. The canals render the streets remote and unfamiliar.
But secrecy is also the companion of anxiety and of shame. Those who preserve secrets may wish to conceal their real nature. Secrecy leads to dissimulation and play-acting. It was said that Venetians never discussed their true motives in the affairs of the world. Yet secrecy is also an aspect of power. That which is spoken can be denied or repudiated. It can be tested and contradicted. That which is unspoken remains most powerful.
The secret city takes the shape of a labyrinth. It is a maze that can elicit anxiety and even fear from the unwary traveller. It lends an element of intrigue to the simplest journey. It is a city of dead-ends, and of circuitous alleys; there are twisting calli, and hidden turnings; there are low archways and blank courtyards, where the silence is suspended like a mist. There are narrow courts that terminate in water. The natives do not lose their way, but the traveller always gets lost. It is impossible not to get lost. But then suddenly, as if by some miracle of revelation, you find that for which you have been searching—a small church, a house, a restaurant will suddenly present itself to you. The city gives you a present. But, then, it is unlikely that you will ever find that place again. Kafka would have understood Venice.
The concept of the maze or labyrinth is an ancient one. It is a component of earth magic that, according to some authorities, is designed to baffle evil spirits. The Chinese believed that demons could only ever travel in straight lines. It has also been said that the dead were deposited at the centre of the mazes. That is why they retain their power over the human imagination. The labyrinth of classical myth is that place where the young and the innocent may be trapped and killed. But the true secret of the Venetian maze is that you can never observe or understand it in its totality. You have to be within its borders to realise its power. You cannot see it properly from the outside. You have to be closed within its alleyways and canals to recognise its identity.
The scheme of house numbers is difficult to understand; in each sestiere, they begin at number one and then snake through every street until they finish. They reach into their thousands without the benefit of any reference to street or square. The names affixed to the streets seem in any case to be different to the names printed in the maps of the city. In fact the reality of Venice bears no relation to any of the published guides and maps. The shortest distance between two points is never a straight line. So the network of Venice induces mystery. It can arouse infantile feelings of play and game, wonder and terror. It is easy to believe that you are being followed. Your footsteps echo down the stone labyrinth. The sudden vista of an alley or a courtyard takes you by surprise; you may glimpse a shadow or a silhouette, or see someone standing in a doorway. Walking in Venice often seems as unreal as a dream or, rather, the reality is of a different order. There are times when the life of the past seems very close—almost as if it might be around the next corner. The closeness of the past is embodied in the closeness of the walls and ways all around you. Here you can sense the organic growth of the city, stone by stone. You can sense the historical process of the city unfolding before you. There is a phrase, in T.S. Eliot’s “Gerontion,” to the effect that history has many cunning passage-ways. These are the passages of Venice.
News travelled fast through the echoing calli. Venice was at the centre of news, from East to West and from West to East. In the early modern era it was the primary conduit of news in the world. The correspondence of merchants, from the thirteenth century, was a significant source of information. He who heard the news first—of an important transaction, or the scarcity of a certain commodity—would profit most. Speed was of the essence. The roads must be in good repair, if possible, and the ships swift. Venice was one of the first cities to organise a postal system, the compagnia dei corrieri, in the fourteenth century. Nevertheless it took four days for the mail to travel from Nuremberg to Venice.
It was the news and speculations that generated half the business of the Rialto. In fact Venice would not have been the centre of commerce if it had not been the centre of news. It came from all sides—from couriers on horseback, from the reports of diplomats, and from the letters of administrators. Information descended in torrents upon the market-place. Once the news was known, it was discussed. There was an inn, the Golden Ship, where Venetians would meet “to recount their Intelligences, one with another … thither also came Merchants that were strangers.” Some of the earliest coffee houses were established in Venice, for the particular reason of conveying information. The human city could itself be described as a medium for the reception and exploitation of information. Venice, the pre-eminent city, was also surely pre-eminent here.
So the Venetians ran after the latest news and the latest sensation. Yesterday’s news was of no account. The entries in the diaries of Marino Sanudo, in the early sixteenth century, were often prefaced with the phrase that “news came that.…” The Venetians listened with “elevated ears” for the latest word or information. There were reports known as notizie or avvisi read aloud to the populace, who paid a small coin known as a gazzetta for the chance of hearing the latest rumours. It is perhaps not surprising that this appetite for news was considered by some to be a contagion or a distemper. Sir Henry Wotton described “news” as “the very disease of this city.” Yet some news was more important than most. In a letter of 31 March 1610 Wotton wrote from Venice to his employer, Robert Cecil, of “the strangest piece of news … whereof here all corners are full.” It was the news of the new universe penetrated by Galileo.
One resident of Venice has been celebrated, if that is the right word, as the first of all journalists. Pietro Aretino came to Venice in 1527, in exile from the papal court at Rome, and for the next twenty-nine years threw himself into the public discourse of the city. He wrote comic plays, pornographic dialogues and religious works; but he also thrived in the world of the weekly newspapers then circulating through Venice. An early biographer described him as the “first great Adventurer of the Press.” He thrived upon the art of public self-imaging and described the affairs of the day in the language of the street. He wrote pasquinades or flysheets that were distributed everywhere in the city, and he refurbished the form of the giudizio or almanac. Local and immediate news was now the staple of the public prints. He wrote on demand. Aretino turned “news” into a commodity, in the style of any merchant of Venice. His writing smells of the turbulent city. He thrived in the city, and repaid the compliment by extravagantly praising his hosts in plays and letters. So he was tolerated. In truth he could have existed nowhere else.
It is not perhaps surprising that the first newspaper in the world, the Gazzetta, emerged in Venice at the beginning of the seventeenth century. At various times in the following century one of the first modern journalists, Gasparo Gozzi, published L’Osservatore Veneto and La Gazzetta Veneta. The latter, established in 1760, was published twice a week; its editor received news, and subscriptions, at four bureaux in the city. There were news items, advertisements, conversations overheard in Saint Mark’s Square, menus, questions and pleas by “lonely hearts.” All Venetian life is there, from the story of the drunken porter who fell to his death from an open window to a list of the rates on the exchange. It was one of a number of news-sheets and newspapers and newsletters. Many of them simply publicised private scandals and quarrels; they indulged in rumour and innuendo; they reprinted personal letters, and created a climate of acute social embarrassment for certain prominent Venetians concerned about their good name or buona fama. They were of a piece with the topical satires that were circulated through the streets, the token of a city that was obsessed with its own communal life. Yet there is one thing missing. The political debate of the city goes unnoticed and unremarked. The government of Venice was masked.
Nevertheless Venice was filled with rumour and intrigue. There were spies everywhere. The courtesans were spies. The gondoliers were spies. The state inquisitors had spies. The council of ten had spies. There were spies for the trade guilds, who informed on any craftsmen or workers infringing the rules of business. There were political spies, employed to denounce any corruption in the processes of election or of government. The spies spied on other spies, and were in turn followed and watched. There was heavy surveillance at the docks, the point of entry for people as well as goods. The abiding rule, for foreigners and other interested parties, was to stay silent. As long as you did not talk, you remained at liberty.
There is the story of Vivaldi walking in Saint Mark’s Square with a violinist from Dresden, Johann Pisendel. He suddenly broke off the conversation, and asked his friend to go home with him at once. Behind closed doors Vivaldi then told Pisendel that he had been observed by four officials. Vivaldi told his friend to remain within the house until he had discovered what offence, if any, Pisendel had committed against the majesty of Venice. It turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. But the fear had been there. The mere experience of being observed had induced it.
One of the secretaries to the council of ten was an expert in the breaking of codes and secret ciphers. Every foreign embassy or foreign household in the city had one or more resident spies. The foundations for foreign merchants, like the Fondaco dei Tedeschi for the merchants of Germany, were packed to bursting with spies; the Venetian weighers and brokers on those premises were known to work for the government in a semi-official capacity. One great lady of Venice, Elisabetta Zeno, held a salon for certain important senators; behind a screen were hidden two clerks, who for her later benefit noted down everything that was said. When the Venetians became informed of the conspiracy, they suspended the senators from any public office. Elisabetta Zeno herself was exiled for life to Capodistria. Every Venetian on foreign soil was expected to take on the role of spy as part of his or her civic duty. The prelates of Venice, when in Rome, were expected to spy upon secret papal enclaves. The Venetian merchants who travelled to other lands or other cities were especially useful; it is apposite, too, that in a mercantile state, the language of merchants was used as a code. The Turks, for example, might be described as “drugs” and the artillery as “mirrors” in a fictionalised commodity market.
Spying was a Venetian employment and pastime. People were always, and still are, watching other people in the city. The state of the houses was such that surveillance could take place through cracks in the walls or floors. The houses of the powerful were not exempt. Three youths were found to have broken through a section of the senate ceiling, so that they could listen to an address by an ambassador recently returned from the Ottoman court. There were examples of professional, and amateur, informants throughout the city. There was incentive, too; the accusers were rewarded if their information proved to be correct, and their names kept secret in the honoured Venetian fashion. The Venetians invented this particular form of harassment, known as denuncia or denontia segreta. It is still true that Venetians, if they find it necessary, will inform on one another. In a small place, humiliation is the greatest punishment of all. It was sometimes only necessary for the government to “name and shame” a culprit for the necessary sentence to have been executed.
Of course the administration of the city thrived on the undermining of personal loyalties. It was a measure of the success of the state that its people should conform to the greater good. Indeed the habit of denunciation might be seen as a thwarted or twisted expression of civic pride and civic belonging. It is embodied in the bocca di leone, the lion’s mouth, to be found in various parts of the city. The mouth, generally carved on a grotesque and offensive head, was a postbox for accusations against any Venetian. The accuser was obliged to sign the paper and include the signatures of two witnesses to his or her good name; but the information could include anything, from financial extravagance to licentiousness. Anonymous accusations were meant to be burned, but in fact could be entertained if they involved matters concerning the security of the state. This lion’s mouth was of course another Venetian invention. It was the mouth of the city, a capacious orifice of whispers and rumours. It meant that there was a general atmosphere of surveillance, even in the most private quarters of the city. There were even specific mouths, designed to implicate those who cheated on their taxes or who adulterated oil. A wife could inform upon a husband, a son upon a father. The practice was continued in Venetian dominions. In some Venetian country houses, on the mainland, there was a bocca delle denoncie segrete where informants could accuse individuals working on the estate.
Gossip and scandal were thereby the fuel of Venice. It was a network of small neighbourhoods; each one resembled any country village, in itself, but packed together on an island the atmosphere of rumour became ever more intense. “All Venice will know” became a commonplace sentiment. Casanova complained that he was “the talk of the city.” Rumour spread very rapidly, so that the street urchins knew the name of the next doge before it had been officially announced. There was a general awareness of “murmuring in the city.” The sister-in-law of one of Byron’s Venetian amoratas, according to the poet, “told the affair to half Venice and the servants … to the other half.” Rumour had a thousand tongues and, as one Venetian patrician put it, “everyone says what he pleases, dreaming up something at night and spreading it in the morning.” Rumour was the excrement of Venice. If you spread it thickly enough, anything might grow. W.D. Howells, in his Venetian Life (1866), commented that you must “figure the meanness of a chimney corner gossip added to the bitter shrewdness and witty penetration of a gifted roué, and you have some idea of Venetian scandal.” The Venetian gossips knew every trifle. The talk was sometimes known as ciaccole or chit-chat, and the word itself expresses the littleness of the discourse. The victims, of course, were excessively humiliated. Many of the popular songs of Venice were concerned with the harm wreaked by mischievous gossip and by “perjured tongues.” Some victims were inclined to call upon divine protection; a picture of a “swooning Madonna” was to be donated by one Venetian if his wife gave birth in time to avoid “malicious gossip.” When a secretary of state in Venice, Pietro Antonio Gratarol, believed that he was being ridiculed in a play by Carlo Gozzi, and had tried unsuccessfully to have it banned or censored, he fled to Padua, without the permission of the Venetian authorities, and was eventually condemned to death in his absence. But the ultimate penalty did not balance the fear of rumour and mockery. He could not bear the malicious gossip.
Nevertheless gossip was accepted as evidence in the courtroom. It had a privileged status, and was generally considered to be the prerogative of women and of servants. But fruit-vendors, street-sellers and gondoliers were also called to give witness to what they had seen or heard. There were “murmurs” about this or that. The witnesses testified that “the whole courtyard was there” or that “if one person says it, everyone says it.” The most intimate secrets of a marriage were known to the community, which was generally not averse to taking sides in any marital dispute. It was quite common, too, for neighbours in such circumstances to enter the house or crowd the doorway. The Venetian idea of the “common good” was here lent a visible identity. The comedies of Goldoni are a perfect image of this unusual social life. People come and go from one house to another. Doors and windows are perpetually open. Taverns and shops are close by, so the conversation can be continued from living room to inn without any disturbance. The campoor campiello is one large domestic space. It is a curious fact that in Venice public matters were held in inviolable secrecy, while private affairs became public knowledge almost at once. Gossip may then have been a form of compensation.
Neighbours and domestics would come into court in order to testify on oath. They considered their evidence to be “public knowledge.” So the people watched one another, morning and night. They studied one another. It helped that they already knew each other by sight. At the opera, the opera glasses were characteristically trained upon the audience rather than the performance. From a certain perspective, however, the members of the audience were the performance. The Venetians are still marked by their propensity for gossip. Strangers in a familiar setting are noted and, if necessary, reported to the police. The telephone lines are always busy.