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The Huddled Family

Until very recent times there was always a sense of brotherhood among the people of Venice. It was the merest cliché to state that they all represented one family. Everyone noticed it. It manifested itself in an air of sociability. The popolani were the “children” of the republic, and the male patricians were their fathers; Goethe described the doge as “the grandfather of the race.” The provision of public health care, and the foundation of orphanages for fatherless children, testify to the fact that the state considered itself to be in essence one extended family. The governors of these institutions strove to create little families within the larger family. This was the Venetian way.

The degree of harmony can be overstated; there were the usual disputes and enmities that occur in any enclosed community. The Venetians were not saints. But there was none of that raucous disharmony or that partisan rancour that affected cities such as Genoa and Florence. The affections and attitudes of the people were confined within a small and insular space; it was natural and inevitable that social life would take a familial tone. The topography of the city was seen as an immense family house. James described it as a collective apartment, and remarked upon “the splendid common domicile, familiar, domestic and resonant.” It is said that Napoleon coined the description of Saint Mark’s Square as the finest drawing room in Europe. This was a family, however, that could never leave the house.

The family was itself the defining social force of Venetian society. Political and commercial alliances were built upon the foundation of family life. The phrase, l’honorevolezza della casa, the honour of the house, was often used and quoted. The success or failure of a political career depended in large part upon the influence of the patrician’s family. The same names—Vendramin, Barbo, Zen, Foscari, and Dandolo among them—appear through centuries of Venetian history. They are far more enduring than the Bacons or the Cecils. The great council was essentially a meeting of families, tied together by sets of obligations and responsibilities; it was temperamentally a place of accommodation and compromise, therefore, rather than a partisan assembly. It was not an arena for the display of principle or ideology. Individual families were not able to form factions, or excessively influence the results of elections; they survived on the foundation of mutual dependence.

In law the Venetian authorities considered the entire family to be responsible for the misdeeds of an individual member of the household. The anonymous compiler of the Cronica Venetiarum, in the middle of the fourteenth century, described particular families just as if they were individuals with certain habits and characteristics; the Dandolos were “audacious,” whereas the Barberini were “senseless … sporting themselves throughout the world.” It was said that there never had been a rich Barbo, a poor Mocenigo, or a compassionate Erizzo. The same surname will occur among lists of the senate, of the episcopal authorities, of the great traders. There was an obsession in Venice with genealogy, and in the fifteenth century Libri d’Oro or Golden Books were instituted to record patrician marriages and births.

The major agent of business in the city was the fraterna or family collective. Its ledgers would comprise household accounts and business accounts as part of the same equation. Brothers who lived together were treated as business partners unless they formally dissolved their association; family businesses were considered to be more efficient and more responsive. Fathers and sons, according to one patrician, worked for each other “with more love, more honour, more profit and less expense.” Certainly the “overheads” could be cut. There were many more bachelors in Venetian society than anywhere else in Italy. In the fifteenth century, for example, more than half the adult male patricians of the city remained single. When they died they left their property to the married brother’s children, thus keeping the business in the immediate family.

The household itself was considered to be an image of the state. It was an institution in which the individual will was obliged to submit itself to the collective decision. The husband held an impersonal authority; the wife was meant simply to breed; the children were ordained to silence and obedience. Masters and servants were bound together in a tight context of control. Without the family, there would be no state; without the state, there would be no family. The ideal of familial harmony was, therefore, very strong. The statutes of the building commissioners of Venice invoked “love and fruitful happiness between … good neighbours and dear friends.” The members of the confraternity of S. Giovanni Evangelista desired grace “through love of brotherhood,” while the stonecutters worked for “the good and welfare of all.”

We may compare the people of Venice, therefore, to the bees working together in their hives of gold. Bees are obedient to the general purpose of the hive. They compete, but they do not struggle. They are tireless in their work, but there is no obvious coercion exercised upon them other than the search for the common good. There are no civil wars. In The Feminine Monarchy or the History of the Bees, published in 1609, Charles Butler named certain characteristics of the bees; they were profitable, laborious, loyal, swift, nimble, bold, and cunning. All of those qualities have also been ascribed to the Venetian people. Pliny the Elder remarked that bees are bee-like because “they recognise only what is in the common interest.” That is also the key to the understanding of Venetian society. We may also adduce the nature of Venice from Bee Wilson’s The Hive, in which she states that the beehive “is a place where the world of nature and the world of artifice collapse into each other, which is why it is so mysterious.” This is also the mystery of the city.

What is that common good for which the people of Venice strive? It might be called the necessity of survival itself, the continuation of being. There need be no other goal than the maintenance and preservation of life itself. It is primordial, manifest in the cry of a child and the gasp of a dying man. “On one point alone is there agreement,” the Spanish ambassador wrote of Venetian government in the early seventeenth century, “and that is the perpetuation of ruling.” All the other motives for human action—wealth, power, glory—are subordinate to this central need. It is a principle of interrelation or interaction, based upon organic force rather than mechanical power. It is the flow of connected purposive activities that is the history of Venice. In history of course we trace separate events, and attempt to designate “causes” to them. But the central cause is beyond reach. It is part of the inner being of things. Instead we may glimpse only a network of relations, more important and more fundamental than the events or objects that are related.

The common good embodied the communal will and the communal sensitivity. Every individual was supposed to subordinate his or her interests to those of the state. If it is possible for proto-capitalism also to be a form of proto-communism, then Venice represents that condition. But these terms may be anachronistic. It may be better to subsume them within the context of the medieval collective, and with the notion of the city as a human organism created in the image of God. “Capitalism” and “communism” then become instruments of the instinctive need to battle and to survive. It was said that in a republic such as Venice, unlike a dukedom or kingdom, the common good took precedence over the role and will of individuals. The nature of the republic lies in a legal and institutional process, not in power or in personality. There was no single focus of power in Venice. It was a pluralistic force. There were no despots in the whole course of Venetian history. The city itself was always pre-eminent.

The idea of the family manifests itself in four different instincts or beliefs. The territory of the city is deemed to be a common heritage; the government of the city represents a sacred covenant; the origin of the city is to be found in family or clan; the piety of the city lies in the respect for forefathers. The citizens of Venice were born into a setting of human interdependence and natural need. This is perhaps the condition of life itself. Social life is man’s state of nature. There is no need to posit some Rousseau-esque social contract. This was also the insight vouchsafed to George Eliot who, on observing sunset in the Venetian lagoon, remarked that “it is the sort of scene in which I could most readily forget my own existence, and feel melted into the general life.”

The goals were unanimity and solidarity. The major projects of Venetian trade, for example, were collective endeavours whereby groups of merchants bound themselves together in formal treaty for the carriage of goods. The government itself took responsibility for the largest galleys. The people of Venice found their meaning in the network of guilds and parishes and scuole that formed the social life of the city. There were endless committees and councils and boards of control.

The equality of the Venetian people themselves is a matter of argument. The division of the populace into patricians, citizens and popolani might suggest that there was indeed a hierarchy of social position and social responsibility. But there is also no doubt that there were levelling tendencies at work within the Venetian polity. As early as the sixth century Cassiodorus, the Ostrogothic leader, remarked to the Venetians that “among you there is no difference between rich and poor; your food is the same, your houses are all alike.” According to tradition all the houses in the city had once been of the same height. When in the eleventh century two or three old families tried to create ruling dynasties they were rebuffed by the patriciate who said that “we did not come here to live under a lord.”

There is in fact a broad equality among merchants. Money knows no class or barrier. So Thomas Coryat noted that “their Gentlemen and greatest Senators, a man worth perhaps two millions of duckats, will come into the market, and buy their flesh, fruites, and such other things as are necessary for the maintenance of their families.” The streets of the city, and the narrowness of its bounds, meant that there was a constant mixing and mingling of classes. As merchants, too, the patricians could not divorce themselves from the common life. That is why the lowest floors of the grander houses were often let out for shops and warehouses. The laws of Venice prohibited displays of ostentatious extravagance. But frugality, or what was known as mediocritas, was in any case a Venetian instinct; many wills stipulate that the person is to be buried “with as little pomp as possible.” And then there is the natural environment. Water is a great leveller. It has been remarked, for example, that the River Thames is a great haven of social equality. On water all are at an equal level.

So there was a pronounced cordiality among all the people of Venice. An English aristocrat of the eighteenth century observed that “there is a universal politeness here in every rank; the people expect a civil deportment from their nobles towards them; and they return it with much respect and veneration; but should a noble assume an insolent arrogant manner towards his inferior, it would not be borne with.” They were all in it together. In the comedies of Goldoni servants often lose their tempers with masters. And masters never, ever, strike their servants. There were some who deplored this freedom of manners. In a dialogue entitled Discorsi Morali, of the late sixteenth century, a speaker remarked that in Venice “servants are licentious, dissolute, vicious and disrespectful” whereas those who attended princely courts were “good, loyal, sincere and well-mannered.”

There was a stated belief, then, in the concept of “freedom,” manifested in the original notion of a state that was not the servant of princes. The myth of communalism, when in reality the refugees had fled under the leadership of bishops or local lords, was very strong. For the government, freedom did not consist of private liberty, but of freedom from interference by other states.

From at least the fourteenth century, Venice offered visitors and strangers the luxury of liberty of belief. That is why it was seen as an open city, accommodating Calvinists and Anabaptists as well as Greek Orthodox and Muslims and Jews. Bigotry does not consort easily with free trade. “Because I am a man born in a free city,” one senator told his colleagues, “I will freely express my feelings.” It is not a sentence that could have been uttered in many places at the beginning of the sixteenth century. At the end of the seventeenth century, too, a French chronicler wrote that “The Liberty of Venice makes every thing Authentick, for whatsoever the Life is, or Religion one Professes, provided you do not Talk, or Attempt anything against the State, or the Nobility, one may be sure to Live unmolested, for no Body will go about to Censure their Conduct, or to oppose the Disorders of their Neighbours.”

That is the reason why this freedom of conscience migrated into freedom of behaviour. It has always been a feature of the city, and in the fourteenth century Petrarch had condemned the “foul language and excessive licence” of the Venetians. But it became the defining feature of the city in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Venice became known for what would now be called “permissiveness,” and it was soon remarked that personal liberty was not incompatible with ordered government. This was a revelation to the rest of the world. English tourists often contrasted the atmosphere of Venice with that of London, in which city the major occupation consisted in censuring the behaviour of other people. Nothing of the kind ever happened in the city of the lagoon. There was method, however, behind the emollient atmosphere. Freedom prompted visitors into spending more and more money. There was another kind of liberty. In Venice you could leave your past and acquire a new identity.

It has often been remarked that there are very few biographies or autobiographies in Venetian literature. The individual is indeed absent in Venetian life. The children of the patrician class were taught at an early age that they must not strive to stand above their fellows. It was said that the Venetians never forgave failure by their admirals or commanders but, similarly, they never forgave success. Individual glory might imperil that of the city.

The predominant mode of portraiture in Venice was group portraiture; it has in fact been suggested that the collective portrait first emerged in the city. The great nineteenth-century historian of Venice, Pompeo Molmenti, remarked that “in Venetian painting the individual is lost in the joyous throng.” Tintoretto, for example, was fascinated by the movement and orchestration of crowds; he was rarely interested in the depiction of individual human beings, who are subordinate to the overall rhythm and unity of the composition in much the same way as the Venetian people are part of the rhythm of the state. In the paintings of Carpaccio there are always groups of people exchanging pleasantries and engaging in gossip. They are never arguing. There is never a sense that they could change anything about their lives. That is the nature of Venetian society. Venice was always a place for crowds rather than for solitary wanderers; the most common sight, in the twenty-first century, is of groups of tourists. If the individual is depicted by the Venetian portraitist he (and it is almost always he) is shown in his social and political role. There is no trace of the inner life and no attempt at psychological revelation. There is instead a careful anonymity. The expression is characteristically remote or aloof. The note is one of reserve and decorum, what was known in Venice as decoro. The individual is less important than the rank or class of that individual; the sitter is seen to be absorbed by his role in the state. It is almost invariably the case that the hands are concealed.

It is hard, therefore, to praise the famous men and women of Venice. There were great artists, but there were no great individuals such as Lorenzo de’ Medici or Pope Julius II. In literature, as well as history, Venetians were not individualised. They were not well known for their eccentricities or for their triumphs. The comedies of Goldoni are the comedies of ordinary life; they are filled with the poetry of domestic fact and local intrigue, not the exploits or adventures or sensibilities of outstanding individuals or aberrant types. They reflect a benign social order. The people of Venice were always known for their docility. They might have been easily aroused to private passion, but they were always respectful to the authorities.

Burckhardt could never have written of Venice, as he once wrote of Florence, that “the individual was led to make the utmost of the exercise and enjoyment of power” and that the leaders of the people “acquired so marked a personal character.” None of the doges or governors of Venice ever had a “personal character.” The city had never been and could never have been a feudal state; feudalism was a system that sanctioned and maintained individual lordship. Machiavelli observed that the security and happiness of the city derived from the fact that, unlike any other state, its gentlemen did not have castles, or private armies, or retainers. Venice was “a great reputable work of joint human endeavour,” Goethe wrote, “a splendid monument, not of a master, but of a people.”

This was a matter of congratulation to the people themselves. Gasparo Contarini, in his book on the state and government of Venice published in 1547, remarked that “our ancestors, from whom we received so prosperous a commonwealth, all came together to maintain, honour and increase their country without any thought of personal glory or advantage.” They remained anonymous in life and in death; their only memorial was the state itself. “Though these Venetian gentlemen are extraordinary wise when they are conjunct,” James Howell wrote in the seventeenth century, “take them single they are but as other Men.” The secret lay in their cohesiveness, one to another. Outside this context, these patricians had no identity; their private selves were taken up by their political selves. They were nothing without the state. With no “great men” Venice represents Tolstoy’s dictum that human history is governed by a million different chances and interests, bound together by what can only be called a communal instinct. Each period is an unveiling of that instinct. The author is truly overwhelmed by the complexity of this process.

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