Venice was the most conservative of societies. It revered tradition. It reverenced authority. The city was always searching for an historical origin, so it worshipped origins. It venerated the past. The respect for custom permeated every level and every aspect of Venetian culture. Custom represented the inherited will and instinct of the people. Custom was the embodiment of the community. There was a formulaic phrase used in public pronouncements, to the effect that new legislation was simply following “the most ancient customs” of the city. It was a form of reassurance. Custom was also considered to transcend positive or systematic law. Experience was always more important in Venice than theory. There would never be a revolution in the city.
The social life of the people was dominated by customs. To disregard costume, in matters such as church-going or hospitality, was to invite criticism. Of all the things the Venetians most dreaded, the worst was public obloquy. That is why they were often so lavish in public acts of generosity, but frugal to the point of miserliness at home.
The artists of Venice used a common and narrow range of iconography. The architecture of the city is of course known for its traditionalism. The form of the houses, large and small, remained unaltered for many centuries. There was no change in structure or decoration. If they fell down, they were rebuilt on the same spot with the same principles and even with the same materials; the remains of the previous building were used in the construction of the new one. The foundations could always be re-employed; petrified wood did not decay or burn.
In building instructions there is a consistent theme—rebuild this room according to its original dimensions, do not let this wall be any higher than its predecessor, reconstruct this house where it was previously. Perhaps it was the fear of fluidity, of mobility—the fear of water—that instigated this stasis. Casanova said that the patricians of Venice trembled at the mere idea of novelty. Power is itself a conservative force. A Venetian historian from the early seventeenth century, Paolo Paruta, noted that states are preserved by continuing the same traditions with which they were founded. Change encourages corruption.
Even in the sphere of mercantile activity, where the city was most expert, there was a pronounced aversion to change. It is often said that the Venetians invented the art of double-entry book-keeping; in fact the technique was invented in Genoa. The Genoese minted the first gold coins, drew up the first insurance contracts, and made the first marine charts; Venice characteristically lagged fifty or more years behind. It borrowed from others. It did not create ab novo. It feared and distrusted innovation. Only the forceful intervention of Napoleon brought an end to a system that had endured for five hundred years without noticeable change. It was until 1797 the sole example of a medieval city-state. It was, after all, an island.
The Venetians were obsessed with their history. They produced the largest body of chronicles in the Italian world. Extant from the fourteenth century are more than a thousand such texts. The diaries of Marino Sanudo, detailing the most inconsequential or tedious events of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, filled fifty-eight volumes in folio. It is reported that, at the age of eight, he was making an inventory of the pictures in the ducal palace. He, like the other chroniclers, was fascinated by the life of his city—its laws, ceremonies, trades, customs, treaties, were considered to be of fundamental importance and interest. It was a parochial vision, perhaps, but an understandable one. The spirit of place spoke through him. He could only truly be himself by acting as a medium for Venice.
After the chronicles came the histories. By the middle of the fifteenth century there were volumes with titles such as De origine et gestis Venetorum. The “origin” was just as important as the “deeds.” The origin explained the deeds. In 1515 Andrea Navagero was appointed to be the first official historian of Venice, a post in which he was expected to celebrate the “constancy and invincible virtue” of the city. This was precisely the moment when the “myth of Venice” was being formulated. The concept of a state historiographer is itself an interesting one, suggesting that the task cannot be left to free enquiry. As with “official” biographers, the art lies in concealment as much as revelation.
Unfortunately Navagero did not entirely succeed in his purpose, and in his will he ordered that his notes and papers be burned. He had, perhaps, revealed too much. There then followed a succession of state historians who, like the narrative painters of the sixteenth century, united minute detail with a general celebration of Venice’s sacred history. They were always reshaping the myth to accommodate present circumstances. They were descriptive and prescriptive, with the sure belief that they were offering a practical guide of governance to those who came after them. Everything was to be explained, and understood, in terms of the historical ideal. The historiographers were convinced that to chart the history would also be to reveal its manifest destiny. Tradition is the key. In a city constantly nervous of its own survival in the sea, duration itself was considered to be worthy of honour. If it has endured, it must be laudable.
The reverence for custom and tradition was not necessarily benign. The political and economic decline of the city was not wholly of its own making, but the inherent conservatism and traditionalism of the authorities impaired the possibilities of improvement and renewal. The patricians, reassured by their own claims to superiority, often made signally disastrous decisions. Their exploitation and sack of Constantinople, in the company of allies, led directly to the Turkish conquest of the city on 29 May 1453. Venetian industry was injured by the restrictive practices imposed by the government. As Joseph Addison put it, the Venetians were “tenacious of old Laws and Customs to their great Prejudice, whereas a Trading Nation must be still for new Changes and Expedients, as different Junctures and Emergencies arise.” They wished to guarantee, for example, their reputation for manufacturing luxuries. So they emphasised quality at the expense of cost and quantity. In an enlarging world economy, this was a mistake.
There was a deep reluctance among the rulers of Venice to confront a world of change. That is why the Arsenal, the shipbuilding enterprise that had for a long period been the home of technological efficiency, had become by the seventeenth century hopelessly out of date. There was no renewal, and no true renovation. It may be that Venice distrusted itself too much to be capable of change, and made a strength instead out of sheer survival. That is still its most enduring attraction.
So the city took on various historical guises to suit the imperatives of the period. It reinvented itself as Roman. In the second quarter of the sixteenth century buildings were raised in the Roman manner of public architecture. These were heralded by the triumphal gateway to the Arsenal itself; it was the first exercise in Venetian monumentality. In the 1480s shields and helmets of stone were attached to the bas-reliefs of the ducal palace. In the face of threats from two empires, of the Hapsburg Charles V and of Suleiman the Magnificent, Venice laid claim to the inheritance of the greatest of them all. Rome was the context for her particular historical mission. Even the constitution was said to be derived from Roman originals.
The patrician families of the city began to find Roman ancestors, through whom they could plausibly hope to inherit ancient virtus. The Cornaro family traced their clan to the Cornelii, and the Barbaro to Ahenobarbus. The dark gown of the governing class was known as a toga, as if the senators of Venice would be as much at home in the Forum as in Saint Mark’s Square. The historians of the city identified their founding fathers with the refugees from Troy, who were supposed to have established Rome itself. It was all a great charade, but there comes a time when a nation or nation-state will embrace the most absurd or extravagant claims in order to bolster its sense of identity. So by the sixteenth century the Venetians were calling themselves “the new Romans.”
There was in any case a fascination for antiquity. There were antiquities, begged or borrowed or stolen, everywhere in Venice. Classical sculptures and trophies were set up in public places. There were many famous antiquarians. There were also notorious forgers who could knock up a piece of Roman statuary or a classical bronze without any difficulty. In a similar spirit the governors of Venice would sometimes proclaim that a certain activity—let us say education—had been preserved “from the foundation of the city.” This was normally quite untrue, but the fraudulence betrayed the reverence for antiquity in itself.
The Venetians were primarily interested in the material remnants of the ancient cultures of Greece and of Rome; they were not interested in their intellectual prowess. Greek for the Venetians was the language of business, rather than the language of Plato. Latin was a necessary lingua franca, not an agent of revelation. In Burckhardt’s The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy there is a long section on “The Revival of Antiquity” as an agent of moral and spiritual awareness. Venice is not mentioned in this context. Burckhardt simply praises it as the home of a flourishing publishing trade and the centre of “affectation and bombast” in funerary inscriptions.
The Venetians were understandably proud of their history. “I observe,” Lady Blessington wrote in the 1820s, “that the Venetian cicerone [guide] and gondoliers often refer to the past prosperity of Venice, and always in a tone that shows a knowledge of its history, and a pride of its ancient splendour not to be expected from persons of that class.” It was, and is, a city based upon memory. It is a city of nostalgia. It lives by remembering, and representing, its past. In the same way visitors are invited to admire buildings and scenes that are so familiar that it is as if they somehow “remember” them.
It is wholly to be expected, therefore, that the Venetian archives are the second largest in the world. Only the archives of the Vatican are more extensive. Yet none are more rich or more detailed than the Venetian papers. Some date from the ninth century. Everything was written down, in the hope that older decisions and provisions might still be useful. It is the measure of the efficiency of a state that it preserves its official documentation. In that sense, Venice was very efficient. The Archivio di Stato, just one of the many official archives, contain 160 km (one hundred miles) of files and documents. When the German historian Leopold von Ranke first came upon them in the 1820s he was, like Cortez on a peak in Darien, staring at an ocean; from his encounter with the papers sprang the first exercise in what was known as “scientific history.” They are still an infinite resource for contemporary historians and sociologists, who find there stories and dramas of Venetian life in more profusion than in the scenes of the commedia dell’arte.