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Wheels within Wheels

In 1605 Venice was described as “the summary of the universe,” because all that the world contained could be found somewhere within it; if the world were a ring, then Venice was its jewel. It is in some respects the model city, the ultimate city defying nature and the natural world. It is the most urban of cities, occupying a realm of meaning very different from those communities rooted on earth and soil. As such it offers lessons to other cities. Lewis Mumford, in The City in History (1961), notes that “if the civic virtues of Venice had been understood and imitated, later cities would have been better planned.” The system of transport, for example, with the fast Grand Canal cutting across the slower-moving smaller canals, was a model of its kind. The waters of the lagoon have also ensured that the city remained of a manageable size; it did not sprawl, and its only suburbs were the other islands that had an intrinsic life of their own.

It has also become a paradigm of European culture. One may claim plausibly that the first industrial revolution occurred in Venice rather than in England, with the management of shipbuilding, glass-making and mirror-making. It was the first centre of commodity capitalism, the focal point of a vast urban network that spread across Europe and the Near East; it was a city dependent upon, and also sustaining, other cities. It represented a new form of civilisation that had moved from agrarian to mercantile life. It has always been an emblematic place. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, for example, it was interpreted as the ultimate city—perverse, unnatural, reducing its population to servile status. In our own century it may also be classified as the first post-modern city, the city as game. In that sense Venice may be the harbinger of a common human destiny.

Its polity itself became a model for others. Hobbes wrote his Leviathan after an extended residence in Venice; that book has in turn been seen as an apologia for the burgeoning market economy. The political reformers of the puritan Commonwealth, in the seventeenth century, looked towards Venice as a viable model of a modern republic. So did the founding fathers of the United States.

The administration of the state was paradigmatic in another sense. It became the model for all other forms of rule and order in the city. The election procedures of the guilds were established upon the elaborate rules for the election of a doge. The meeting halls of the fraternities were based upon the halls of the ducal palace, and were similarly decorated with historical and mythical painting. The diamond lozenges on the façade of the ducal palace are locked into a mesh. Venetian madrigals of the sixteenth century are known for their complex of overlapping voices, each singer distinctly heard in a dense and undulating body of sound.

The topography of the city itself—with its small bridges, canals and narrow calli—reflects the intricacy and interlinked dependency of republican institutions. The multiplication of magistracies and agencies, in the supervision of Venice, was often described as “labyrinthine” as the streets and alleys themselves. The members of the various committees were replaced every six months or every twelve months, giving a shifting pattern to the polity much like that of the movement of the sea. Did the territory determine the polity, or did the polity form the territory? It is an unanswerable question, so deeply implicated in the origins of human behaviour that it must for ever remain unresolved.

So what was the secret of this polity that crept into every feature of Venetian social life? Dudley Carleton, the English ambassador in Venice in the early seventeenth century, had an analogy with one of the commodities the city traded. The republic “is a clock going with many wheels, and making small motions, sometimes out of order, but soon mended, and all without change or variety.” These wheels, and wheels within wheels, were the various organs of the state.

The earliest guardians of Venice, from the first settlement of the lagoon, were the tribunes of the various islands; they were elected annually. Yet this loose structure proved unworkable, and in 697 the first doge was elected; Paoluccio Anafesto was chosen and acclaimed by all the people in a general assembly on the island of Heraclea. It was believed that the spirit of republican Rome had been reborn. Yet, as in Rome, the power of certain leading families was used to destroy any incipient democratic spirit. Only the rich and powerful merited the awards of office. In the tenth and eleventh centuries there were many feuds between the aristocratic families; doges were assassinated or expelled from office. In the middle of the twelfth century a group of officials was formed to help and advise the doge. It was known as the “commune,” although it had none of the revolutionary implications of the later use of that word.

It was not enough. At the end of the twelfth century a council of the aristocratic families was formally instituted to check the activities of the doge. It was they who now elected the leader, and the doge was merely presented to the people for their “approval.” He came upon the balcony to the words “This is your doge, if so it please you.” At a later time even this acknowledgement of the power of the people was removed. There were further restrictions placed upon the nature of government. In 1297 a law was passed that allowed access to the great council only to those patrician gentlemen whose fathers or paternal grandfathers had already sat in the body. It was to be an exclusive club, and Venice became an hereditary aristocracy. By 1423 the nomenclature of the commune had been dropped, and the state was for ever after known as dominio o signoriasignifying power or lordship.

So by the beginning of the fifteenth century the essential structure of Venetian government was shaped and determined. There were some constitutional changes in the sixteenth century, but the principles remained the same until the end of the republic in 1797. It was as if eighteenth-century England were still governed by the polity of Richard II and Henry IV.

This structure had evolved over many centuries and, like the mammalian life of Australia, it was a unique phenomenon born out of relative isolation. It was made up of a series of councils and official bodies, each of which participated in some kind of mystical unity like the threefold divinity of the Trinity. At the base of a complex and striated pyramid was the general assembly, which met only to ratify essential legislation. Above them lay the great council, which in theory elected the various magistracies, the members of the lesser councils, and the doge himself. The councils included “the forty,” a specialised body of patricians, and the ducal councillors. The members of these councils comprised the senate. At the top of the pile stood the doge. It would tax the reader too far to elaborate further upon the wearisome and complex organisation of the various councils and assemblies and magistracies. It was scarcely understood by the Venetians themselves.

But an insight can be gained into the labyrinthine Venetian mind by describing the process by which a doge was elected. On the morning of the election the youngest member of the Signoria, one branch of the administration, fell on his knees to pray in the basilica; then he went out into Saint Mark’s Square, and stopped the first boy whom he met. This child then became the ballotino, who drew the nomination slips from the urn in the ducal palace. In the first ballot the great council chose thirty of its members. In a second vote nine were chosen out of this original thirty. In turn the nine chose forty, each of whom had to receive seven nominations. A new ballot would then reduce this forty to twelve, who voted for twenty, who voted for nine, who voted for forty-five, who voted for eleven. These eleven then voted for forty-one. The final forty-one voters would then elect the doge. No more cumbersome and intricate procedure could have been devised. Its only purpose was to eliminate individual chicanery and special interests, but it suggests an almost obsessive preoccupation with communal solidarity.

The cohesiveness was maintained by a myriad of overlapping powers and offices; this fostered a sense of equilibrium, so important in the floating city, and of adaptability. It also afforded a measure of judicial oversight. It was government by debate and by committee. What it lacked in novelty and excitement, it made up for in prudence and continuity. It was patient, and it was thorough. That was why it endured. The rapid turnover of magistracies, most of them lasting for only six months, meant that the patricians were trained very quickly in various fields of administration. There was inevitably inefficiency and confusion, together with a bewildering number of bureaucratic procedures, but they were considered to be a price worth paying for good order. The secret of success, perhaps, lay in the curious fact that no one could really know where true power resided. There was no single authority.

Venice was in name a republic, but in practice it is best described as a plutocracy. Only one hundred familes were allowed to participate in the government; the citizens and the popolani, or lower class, were excluded. The polity also had all the features of a gerontocracy. Patricians under the age of forty were excluded from the senate; in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the average age of a doge on the day of his election was seventy-two. The doges were always older than the popes, the only other office in Italy where the leader was elected for life. This might be an advertisement for the healthy air of the republic, but it is also a reflection of the emphasis that the Venetians placed on tradition and experience. The road to leadership, being a long one, required patience and obedience; the length of service to the republic fostered conformity and compromise. It was also a precautionary measure. No doge would rule for a very long time, or acquire too much power. The military commanders, and the principal members of the government, were old. Domenico Contarini, for example, was seventy-five when he was elected general of the Venetian forces in 1526. He was not exceptional. A government of young men—we may take as an example the medieval English monarchy—creates a culture of impassioned fervour, of sudden violence and intense rivalry. None of these occurred in Venice.

There were rivalries, of course. In the last decades of the sixteenth century there were tensions between the representatives of the “old” families, dating from the first years of the republic, and of the “new” families who had arrived at a somewhat later date. The “new” families were opposed to the encroaching power of the council of ten and wished to refurbish the trade of Venice by finding new markets. There was in fact a gradual change of emphasis, in the administration of the city, but it was a slow and cumulative process. There was no descent into party or faction. Everyone depended on everyone else to maintain the smooth working of the governmental machine. No individual ambition, or familial rivalry, was allowed to undermine the safety of the state.

Corruption was general and widespread. “Every office,” Marino Sanudo wrote in October 1530, “is filled for money.” It was common for rivals vying for a particular post to come into the great council carrying bags of gold. “Loans” were offered to individual electors. There was an old Venetian saying that to give a favour is to receive a favour. There were over eight hundred offices to be filled in the city, and a major preoccupation of the patrician class lay in lobbying for position; this was especially true of the poorer members of the governing class, known as the svizzeriafter the Swiss mercenaries, who had no other source of income or status. Legislation was continually passed against electoral corruption, and the intricate procedures for the choice of even the most minor official were designed to circumvent the more obvious forms of bribery. But the elaborate precautions are themselves significant. They suggest a deep awareness of the possibility of corruption. A city that is deeply corrupted will go to extraordinary lengths to seem incorruptible.

The word for plot and chicanery, imbroglio, derives from the very topography of Venice. The brolo or broglio was the garden laid out before the ducal palace. Here the patricians would walk, and plot their latest moves. It was the place for lobbying and for intrigue, where a smile or the tug of a sleeve was the only necessary sign.

The doge, therefore, was the most senior member of the government. In the earliest times he wore a biretta or bonnet, like the ancient kings of Phrygia. He was dressed in a mantle of silk fringed with gold, and secured by golden buttons. His shoes and stockings were red. He was elected for life, but he was surrounded by restrictions and regulations. There would be no Caesar in Venice. The doge could not open his own mail. He could not receive foreign visitors in private. He could not discuss matters of policy without consulting his councillors. He could not leave the city without permission. He could not even travel in the city without gaining approval. He could not buy expensive jewellery, or own property outside Venetian territory. He could not display the ducal arms beyond the confines of the ducal palace. He was never to be called “my lord” but only “messer doge” or “sir lord.” No one was to kneel before him, or to kiss his hand. It was said that he was essentially a “tavern sign” swinging in the wind. The more true power he forfeited, the more he was loaded with pomp and ceremony.

Yet he possessed power of a kind. He was after all the figurehead of the state. Sir Henry Wotton declared that “like the sun he doth effect all his purposes in radio obliquo, not by direct authority.” He presided over all the elective councils, including those of the senate, the great council and the council of ten; he was the general supervisor of all the organs of government. He had to preside twice a week at public audiences, and his ceremonial duties were onerous. He was the symbolic representative of the Venetian state. In a literal sense he embodied the health of the nation. His dress, and demeanour, were scrutinised for any change of emphasis. When during a debate on the conduct of a difficult war the doge left his seat in order to urinate, his action caused a sensation. But part of his power lay elsewhere. He knew all the secrets of the city.

On his death the same formulaic words were pronounced. “With much displeasure we have heard of the death of the most serene prince, a man of such goodness and piety; however, we shall make another.” The signet ring was removed from his finger and broken in half. The dead doge’s family had to leave the palace within three days, and their furniture was removed. Three inquisitors were appointed to scrutinise all the actions of the doge and, if necessary, to punish his heirs for any fraudulence or wrongdoing. Only in that way could the state resist the rise of powerful families.

The doge was the patrician among the patricians. The social strucure of Venice was in essence very simple. The patricians comprised 4 per cent of the population; the citizens represented a further 6 per cent; the rest, approximately nine tenths of the population, were simply the people or popolani. Each group had its own functions, and its own privileges. It was a highly structured and deeply hierarchical society—a society of legally defined estates and orders—made up of a number of interlocking networks and affinities bound together for the greater glory of God and the city.

Yet how was it possible that 10 per cent could effectively master and control 90 per cent of the population? They bribed them; they deceived them; they created internal rivalries; they consoled them for their lack of power by weaving myths of origin and identity. It is the story of human history itself.

We may begin with the largest number of the Venetians. The popolani were made up of tradesmen, artisans and labourers, and the poor. They formed a social, rather than an economic, category; so there were differences in wealth between the popolo grande, the richer landowners and merchants, and the shopkeepers or artisans of the popolo minuto. There were so many local variations, in fact, that we cannot entertain a description of “the people” in any political sense. There was no feeling of “solidarity.” As the Spanish ambassador put it in 1618, the popolani “is made up of so many elements that I do not think it can ever start a riot, even though it is large enough to occupy and fill the whole of Venice.” The people were generally believed to be loyal and tractable, with an affection for their native city that far outweighed any tendency to protest or rebel.

There were other good reasons for the maintenance of social order and stability among the people. There was always enough cheap food, except on unusual occasions of emergency and famine, and through the centuries the wages of the workers maintained a relatively high level. There was none of the endemic distress, for example, that characterised the lower class of Paris or London. It would have been impossible to write Les Misérables in Venice.

The people could be fierce, however, but only with one another. The poorer people, the fishermen and the gondoliers and the servants and the labourers, formed two great factions across the city known as “the Castellani” (also named the “Arsenalotti”) and “the Nicolotti.” It was an ancient division, born from the enmity between the federated townships of the Veneto, Jesolo and Heraclea, from which the Venetian settlers first came. Well into the twentieth century the Nicolotti wore a black cap and a black sash around the waist, while the Castellani wore red. The Nicolotti also had their own version of political power, since from the fourteenth century they had acquired the custom of electing their own leader known as the gastaldo grande who was solemnly taken in procession to greet the doge in the ducal palace. The Arsenalotti had their own privileges. The workers of the Arsenal were deputed to stand guard when the general council was in session, and they acted as a bodyguard for the doge. By these means the popolani were drawn into the life of the state. So the Venetian people were not accustomed to, and indeed had a hatred for, political sedition.

Their territories were clearly divided, with the Castellani to the east and the Nicolotti to the west, centred around the parishes of S. Pietro di Castello and S. Nicolò dei Mendicoli. The boundaries were a clear indication of the fact that in the earliest days the city itself was a collection of independent communities. One church straddled the common frontier, S. Trovaso, but the Castellani entered by the south door and the Nicolotti by the west door. There were often street fights between the two factions, tolerated by the government on the assumption of “divide and rule”; by fighting among themselves, they minimised the chances of general urban riot against the authorities. In a series of battles, in 1639, over forty combatants were killed. But in succeeding years these encounters were gradually turned into staged games and contests such as the regattas. In true Venetian fashion aggression was softened into ritual.

The popolani had no political power, but they enjoyed a different version of hierarchy and degree in the membership of guilds or confraternities. All of the ordinary occupations of trading life had their representative organisation. There were over a hundred of them, registered in the thirteenth century, and they offered exclusive rights for dyers and coopers, masons and carpenters, rope-makers and fruiterers. There were guilds of hemp-spinners and fustian-weavers, two hundred altogether throughout the city maintaining an intricate occupational web that kept every worker in his or her place. So it was a covert way of maintaining control of the working population.

Like other medieval guilds throughout Europe, they were exclusive and hierarchical. They moved against strangers or foreigners working in the city; they laid down standards of good practice, and punished those who ignored them. They had their own officers, and their own courts; they organised the markets and, perhaps most importantly, they provided financial support for any member who was out of work for reasons of accident and illness. No male Venetian could practise his craft without joining the appropriate guild. No man could join his guild without first swearing an oath of allegiance to the city, but of course no member of the guild had any status in the political life of the republic. It is pertinent and significant that none of the most important professions, such as lawyers and merchants, had or needed to have guilds in order to protect their interests. The state performed that role for them.

The guilds maintained the “rights” of the workers, but they were also insistent upon the duties involved. They had, for example, to furnish conscripts for service in the galleys. Through the agency of the guilds, too, the state could enforce discipline within the various trades. The guilds were also brought into the devotional life of the state by becoming involved in specific religious rituals and processions. They adopted certain saints as their patrons or patronesses, before whose shrines they would light candles on days of festival. By these means the morality of state power was enshrined in popular consciousness. So were the independence and the status of the workers, as maintained by the guilds, part of some grand illusion? It all depends on the observer.

The trades of the popolani were, in a literal sense, one of the pillars of Venetian life. The two pillars of the piazzetta, holding up Saint Mark’s lion and Saint Theodore, had on their granite bases carved images of the workers of the city—the wine-sellers, the cattle-dealers, the smiths, the fishermen, the basket-makers, the butchers, the fruiterers, all had their place. These images have now been effaced by time and weather. Like their counterparts on the Venetian streets, they have disappeared. The craftsmen of Venice have now become so many tourist shows.

When the trades marched in procession to greet a new doge, they arranged themselves in predetermined order; the glass-blowers led the way, followed in turn by the smiths, the furriers, the weavers, the tailors, the wool-carders and others. In the rearguard came the fishmongers, the barbers, the goldsmiths, the comb-makers and the lantern-makers. Each trade had its own liveries, its own symbols, and its own band of musicians. It has been estimated that in the late sixteenth century the unskilled labourers and artisans of the city, below the level of guild membership, comprised some ten thousand men and women; if the members of their immediate families are taken into account, they comprised a quarter of the entire population. They were essentially the proletariat feeding Venice’s mercantile capitalism.

The class above the popolani was known as the cittadini. It was a distinction afforded by birth and by residence, and by the duty of paying certain taxes; it was not an economic group in any meaningful sense of the word. An aspirant had to prove that both his grandfather and his father had been born in Venice, and that the family had for three generations been untainted by any form of manual labour. At a later date it was sufficient for a man to have lived in the city for fifteen years and to have paid all the requisite taxes. Once this was determined the citizen was free to enter the ranks of the bureaucracy, for example, that lay behind the Venetian state machine. The cittadini were in large part the civil servants of the city, with all the virtues and vices of that group; but they provided the continuity and efficiency necessary for the business of government. Little or nothing is known of them as individuals. Throughout the history of Venice they were the anonymous and uncelebrated servants of the state. They dressed like, and copied the solemn manners of, the patricians.

At the top of this unified society stood the patricians themselves, the exclusive class or caste that governed the republic throughout its history. Never have so few ruled so peacefully over so many. They have already been described, with their black gowns and stately manner, in previous pages of this book. In the extant portraits they resemble one another in gesture and expression—or, perhaps, in the lack of those elements. Since they are depicted as possessing no interior life to speak of, they are inscrutable. It was said of one doge that no one knew whether he loved or hated anything. Yet their gravity and self-control afforded a sense of continuity and firmness in a floating world. In a world of shifting appearances, they were changeless.

There were poor as well as rich nobles, but the largest number of patricians always wished to retain the exclusivity of their rank. In the late thirteenth, and early fourteenth, centuries the great council was closed to all those outside the charmed circle; it was a form of government by virtue of inheritance. A list of the chosen families was then inscribed in a register that became known as “the golden book.” There were twenty-four of them, recorded in 1486, who had been part of Venetian life from at least the seventh century; they included the Bragadin, the Polani, the Querini and the Zorzi. By the seventeenth century there were approximately 150 families, or clans, coming together in various informal associations of interest. This multiplicity of factions ensured the stability of the state, since no one family or interest could achieve supremacy. Yet they were so relatively few in number that they knew each other very well. They knew the virtues, and the weaknesses, of all those aspiring to high office.

The last surviving relics of the patrician class are still standing. They are the great houses of Venice. Until the sixteenth century even the grandest houses of the patricians were simply known as dwellings, casa or ca’; after that date they were often given the more distinguished appellation of palazzo. Some of them indeed were palaces, of noble rooms and rich furniture. “I never saw palaces,” William Hazlitt wrote in 1824, “anywhere but at Venice.” Their façades can be seen beside both banks of the Grand Canal, while others are lost in the tapestry of alleys and smaller canals that comprise the rest of the city.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries these mansions had a utilitarian function. They were trading post as well as domicile. They represented the collective identity of the family. They represented the honour of the succeeding (male) generations. There were rules encouraging the members of the same family to retain possession of the house, a fixed point in a floating world. Some of the houses looked away from the water, and were assembled around an inner courtyard. The ground floor or central portego was used as a storeroom and as business quarters, opening onto the canals for the easy traffic in goods; there was a water-entrance, and a land-entrance. On the upper floors were the living quarters. The central hall on the first floor, the sala, opened onto suites of rooms on either side. There were also a myriad of small rooms, for the various members of the extended family, as well as “private” staircases. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the hall was made grander, its furnishings more ornate, and its interior decoration more sumptuous. This was the period when the patricians were moving from involvement in merchandise to investment in estates on the mainland.

It was in fact only in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, when Venice deemed itself to be the new imperial city, that the great houses with grand incrusted façades were built for display. The mouldings, and capitals, and filigree, were part of a public attempt to emphasise the grandeur of the city. Many were decorated with frescoes devised by artists such as Titian and Giorgione. Others, like the Ca’ d’Oro, were encrusted with precious metals. Venice looked like a city of marble and gold. It should be recalled that these were palaces rather than castles; unlike the houses of the nobility in the rest of Italy, they were not fortified or defended in any way. There was no need.

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