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Ship of State


“Let it be everlasting”

The cry in Saint Mark’s Square was always that of “Marco! Marco!” invoking the saint of the city. On his deathbed the greatest theologian of Venice, Paolo Sarpi, breathed the words “Esto perpetua!”—let Venice last for ever! Yet by the time he murmured this blessing, in 1623, the city had become a state in more than name. It had become one by deed and example. The abstract concept of the state did not emerge until the first half of the sixteenth century, but the idea of the common good was of course very much older. The common good had created Venice in the first place.

The first mention of the commune Venetiarum can be traced to the beginning of the twelfth century, when civic dignitaries wished to supplant the power of doge and people. From this time forward we can chart the growth of a bureaucratic state with its administrators and its diplomats, its governors and its laws. The local ties of parishes and the wards known as contrade were weakened, with a decline in the number of religious ceremonies designed to celebrate them; instead there emerged the notion of a unified and united city, expressed in numerous public works and relayed by public decrees. A new form of urban life was being created, at once more efficient and impersonal. Public order was confirmed and controlled by public means. The people had once created the city; the city now created the people. Or, more exactly, the people of Venice now identified themselves in terms of the city. The private had become public. The city had become a totality. Certain criminal acts, for example, were described as being “contrary to the public will” thus conflating the people with the city. By the fifteenth century, at the latest, we may speak of the formation of the Venetian state. It was known as the “Signoria,” roughly meaning sovereignty or lordship.

So how did this city become a state and, indeed, a forerunner of the modern state? It is a perplexing question, related to complex rituals of self-awareness and communal self-respect. It emerged together with a well-supervised system of public finance, sustained by such mechanisms as credit and bills of exchange. Some of the first banks in the world were located in Venice. The first public loans were issued in that city in 1167. The Banco del Giro was established in 1619. A state cannot survive without internal stability, governed by law. The Venetians were always proud of the nature of their justice, however flawed its administration might become. Yet the law behind all laws was, in the words of one English ambassador at the beginning of the seventeenth century, “reason of state.” The state was eternal. The state was the source of all morality. It had an almost Byzantine rigour and prestige.

But there are more practical matters to consider. A state needs a broadly defined elite that will exercise power in the apparent interest of all. By the end of the thirteenth century the governance of Venice was vested in the hands of a patriciate that was legally defined. And of course the security of the constitution was intrinsically important to the security of trade. Power and commerce were inseparable. Such a general administration needs a bureaucracy, to supervise such matters as public health and public order. The bureaucracy of Venice was one of the wonders of the western world. Everything was committed to writing, as the overflowing archives of modern Venice will testify. At a time when other cities, or other nations, had only the most rudimentary internal organisation Venice was already a model of administrative expertise. The census of population was carried on more frequently, and with more efficiency, in Venice than in any other city. It was said by Jacob Burckhardt, in The Civilisation of the Renaissance, that “Venice can fairly make good its claim to be the birthplace of statistical science.” Every aspect of social and cultural life was closely ordered. Even the sale of fruits in Saint Mark’s Square, and of flowers on the steps of the basilica, was monitored and controlled. The rise of bureaucracy helped to foster accounts and treatises on the arts of government, texts that played a large part in the formation of what has become known as civic humanism. Of course in the actual practice of government and statecraft there were always large doses of opportunism and corruption, of relativism and pragmatism; but they flourished all the more for being easily concealed behind the imposing order of the public administration.

A state needs a measure of conformity among its inhabitants. The city can survive with rowdy or antagonistic citizens—in some ways, it thrives upon them—but the early Venetian state needed a measure of internal control. No city had more success in ordering its people than Venice. The doge and the various councils exercised in a literal sense the art of power. Any words of offence, or what we might now call speech crimes, were prosecuted for being “contra honorem huius civitatis”—against the honour of this state—and rewarded with a period of imprisonment. Foreigners who spoke disparagingly of la Serenissima were banished. In the secret correspondence of a Venetian diplomat, published by Alfred de Musset, was found the entry to “pay to Signor A, the sum of fifty scudi, for having killed the Signor S, who spake ill of the Republic of Venice.”

It was the state that the Venetians were meant to serve. It was continually asserted that it had been bequeathed to them by their diligent forefathers and that they should deem it more precious than their own lives. They were in honour bound to preserve it. The key to Venice was exactly there—preservation. The city itself was from the beginning a miracle of preservation, and it felt the need to invoke that miracle again and again. In its threatened and embattled position, as the public edicts suggested, it needed a coherent and obedient body of citizens to sustain it. This is the reason for the relative tranquillity of Venice over the centuries. It springs from its origin. Power sprang from the place itself, in the constant awareness of collective survival.

But the state emerges from an awareness, and a celebration, of power. Venice became strong because its immediate neighbours were weak; there was no city to challenge its authority over the adjacent mainland. Yet eventually it became a city-state depending on its command over other cities. It was never a question of a natural territory, outlined by rivers and mountains, but a confederation of separate urban entities. It created an empire of cities in northern Italy, now won, now lost, now exchanged.

So we are presented with an image of a highly authoritarian, very well organised, and exceptionally efficient enterprise. This may not consort well with the modern picture of a beautiful and serene if on occasions drowsy city; but it is the necessary pre-condition of its contemporary form. Venice is now, and for ever will be, because of what once it was.


The Signoria thereby became the object of a secular religion, honoured and commemorated in literally hundreds of communal rituals spread through the year. A large bureaucracy was created precisely to organise and to administer these festivals. Even at the time of the siege of Venice, surrounded by Austrian troops in 1848, scarcely a month or even a week passed without the celebration of a fête or pageant. It was in the blood.

The Venetian people were temperamentally inclined to spectacle and display. The city itself was designed for elaborate ceremony and in Saint Mark’s Square, the theatre of operations, gifts were presented and greetings were exchanged. It is a measure of the order of the state that strict custom and formality guaranteed the order of the rituals. Various groups carried variously coloured candles. The banners flown had their own code; white when Venice was at peace, green when a period of truce had intervened, and red when open warfare had been declared.

The ducal processions, in particular, were viewed as the Venetian constitution in motion. They were the living embodiment of sacred and secular governance. In other cities and in other states, according to a Milanese observer in 1494, “the moment the Prince has passed all go pell-mell and without any order.” But in Venice “everyone goes in the best order imaginable.” There were engravings and paintings of the entire sequence, with each participant’s role clearly defined by attitude or by costume. In the sixteenth century Matteo Pagan executed a remarkable series of eight woodcuts, detailing every participant in the procession.

There were the eight standard bearers, followed by certain judicial officials; there were the six musicians sounding silver trumpets; there were the squires of the foreign ambassadors, followed by the ducal squires. There were more musicians, followed by minor officials such as the clerks and the notaries. And so it goes on, the procession itself fashioned into three large groupings in which religious authority and state power were weighed and balanced. It was not a procession of persons, but a procession of office-holders. In the middle walked the doge; the centre was the heart of power. Radiating out from that centre, rippling through the procession, were the classes and hierarchies in due order. The citizens walked before him, in ascending levels of rank; the nobles walked after him, in descending levels of rank. It was observed by some that the patricians were notably benevolent; they smiled a great deal. There was a general atmosphere of calm and serenity. On certain occasions in Venetian history, that was the greatest act of all.

The celebrations were not necessarily of an uplifting nature. At the festival of the Epifania, on 6 January, certain rowing men were dressed as old women; wearing carrots strapped to their noses, and trailing old stockings, they raced to the Rialto bridge. At the feast of Giovedí Grasso, in February, a bull, and several pigs as well, were ceremonially slaughtered by the guild of locksmiths in Saint Mark’s Square. In a later part of the ceremony the doge and certain senators attacked with staves, and then knocked down, some lightly built wooden castles. The ceremony was in effect the reproduction of a Venetian victory over the parent city of Aquileia. Is politics transformed into game, or is the game a form of politics?

There were other festivities when the doge visited various quarters of the city. When he entered the parish of S. Maria Formosa, for example, he was given a hat of gilded straw, a bottle of wine and several loaves of bread. At the close of the proceedings twelve wooden statues of women were taken in procession to the church, whereupon they were pelted with turnips. The ritual was said to derive from an occasion when twelve Venetian maidens were carried off by pirates before being rescued by the young men of the parish. It is all most improbable. It is more likely to represent a primitive phase of Venetian experience, when the young women of wealthy families were all married on the same day as part of a fertility ritual. But thus do folklore and festivity take on strange shapes. It was the custom in the city to call a frigid or disdainful woman “a wooden Mary.” The word marionette may spring from the same source.

There were so many Venetian festivals that, in the end, one day was chosen to commemorate several different celebrations. It had become in essence a ritual city. That is why certain pathways were chosen. Churches were sited at focal points, where theatre and piety converged. Public spaces became ceremonial axes, part of the vast geometry of the sacred city. It was a society of the spectacle. Land and water were conjoined in a variety of festivals. Visually and emotionally the various districts or sestieri were also woven together in acts of homage and of celebration; the processions represented the collective hope of the city, just as they memorialised the collective experience of the city. Ritual promised continuity and harmony. Ritual also assisted in the shaping of time within the city. It was seen to obey ceremonial law rather than the diurnal round of minutes and of hours. Ritual also helped to codify and identify the past. There were perhaps less elevated aspects of the show. The pageantry impressed foreigners and ambassadors with the solidarity and wealth of the Venetian people. These festivals, like those of modern Venice, also helped to lure tourists to the always alluring market-places of the city. The Venetians never lost a chance for making money. The same practicality lay behind the institution of the Carnival, and of course all the art and film “biennales” of more recent years.

The festivals, therefore, brought much of the city into play. The paintings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries show all the windows and balconies of the houses draped in ornate carpets. There were many elaborate “floats” and wheeled chariots displaying the cardinal virtues or the saints of the city; there were large displays of decorative architecture; there was music and singing. There were paintings and sculptures and recitations. There were stages or “scaffolds” for theatrical performances in which the political events of the day were reinterpreted in the form of allegory. At the festival of the “Sempiterni,” in 1541, a painted globe of the universe was floated upon gondolas along the Grand Canal; within the globe, a masked ball was conducted. The pageant was a method of reinventing life as a form of art. It represented the very highest form of popular consciousness, which is why all classes of Venetian society participated in it.

So the population of Venice walked in measure along the sacred routes, with each person knowing his or her own place in the general enterprise. It was hoped too that the common people, the popolani, would in the general mood of rejoicing forget that the liberties they once enjoyed had been lost irrecoverably. Spectacle was of course another way of procuring social order. The same Milanese observer of 1494 mentioned that “one single person appeared to me to direct everything, and he was obeyed by everyone without protest.” Only the great hierophantic societies, such as those of Egypt or of ancient Mexico, have achieved such order. It is one of the singular facts about Venice that its religion should have such an atavistic hold upon its people. The reason for it may lie in the peculiar merging of place with piety. The earth of Venice was sacred, miraculously saved from the waters of the world. The people of Venice were part of that earth.

The government of Venice thereby perfected the art of self-presentation. It became an exercise in style. It evolved into a unique form of rhetoric by which all the actions and decisions of the state were hallowed by tradition and sanctioned by divine authority. The especial providence of Venice was invoked, together with the concepts of glory and resolution and independence. The immortality of Venice was also assured. It could most kindly be described as a means of emphasising idealities. But it could also be criticised as a wilful disregard of realities. It might also be seen as a fog of fine sentiment, no less dense than the fog coming in from the sea, veiling the greed and ruthlessness of la Serenissima in most of her dealings with the outer world.

No other people placed so much reliance upon the devices of rhetoric. It was a city of performance. Poetry was understood, and considered, as a form of oratory. In an essentially pragmatic culture, such as that of Venice, the whole art of literary education was to inculcate the techniques of rhetoric. The artistic life of the city, in music and in painting, was attuned to expressive performance; it emphasised that which was shown rather than that which is meditated or intuited. Whether we are listening to the music of Vivaldi or gazing at the canvases of Tintoretto we are engaged with an art of “effect,” of dazzling virtuoso performance, of bravura exercise. The facility of Tintoretto, and the fluency of Vivaldi, may also be understood in terms of the rhetorical concept of copia or plenty. The textbooks of Venetian rhetoric demonstrate a native form of eloquence depending upon “moderation” and “propriety”; in the manner of the state itself “variazione” or “variety” must be used to temper extremes and avert the dominance of any one style. It was part of Venetian reserve and discretion.

In an eighteenth-century treatise, An Account of the Manners and Customs of Italy, variously attributed to Giuseppe Baretti and Samuel Sharp, it is remarked that “the Venetians value themselves much on their forcible eloquence, and think that their advocates are the only legitimate offspring of the ancient Roman orators.” An earlier legal advocate, Leonardo Giustiniani, declared in a letter of 1420 that “there is no kind of case, no type, no topic, finally no precept of the entire art [of rhetoric] in which I must not be proficient.” From the earliest times the administration of Venice was steeped in rhetoric.

That is the reason why, of all the Venetian arts of government, the most finely tuned was that of diplomacy. The ambassadors of Venice were unrivalled in the arts of graceful self-presentation, with the attendant emphasis upon appearance and demeanour. These were the elements of sprezzatura, which can be defined as the ability to create an effect while concealing the art or skill involved in so doing. Concealment, and double nature, came instinctively to the representatives of Venice.

It was the first city to maintain a continuous diplomatic presence outside the confines of Italy; it had established an embassy to the court of France in 1478. The principle and stated aim of la Serenissima was to maintain peace with all parties; only in those circumstances could trade truly flourish. War may have been good for the armament trade, but not for the convoys of spices and other goods that were carried across sea and land. When in 1340 Edward III of England desired that Venice should pledge not to lend assistance to his enemies, the doge replied: “It is not the custom of the Venetians to interfere between disputants or belligerents, except for the sake and purpose of making peace.” The Venetians were expert at the polite rebuff. From the sixteenth century their policy was one of strict neutrality, a non-committal approach to all who wished to involve Venice in the affairs of other states or cities. The Venetian system of government was established upon a coherent pattern of equivalence and balance. It seems likely that they applied the same notion to foreign affairs. In the days of political decline, however, this apparent neutrality was condemned as the cover of timidity and irresolution.

Venice’s diplomacy was described as occhiuta or many-eyed—prudent, discreet, circumlocutory, conciliatory and practical. It was cloaked by dolce maniera, a term for mildness or sweetness derived from music. But behind that mask the Venetian ambassadors probed for weakness and prejudice; they were not averse to bribery and other forms of corruption; and they watched everything, looking for grievances they might exploit; they were masters of intrigue. They played state against state, not scrupling to incite one city against another if it suited their purpose. They were dishonourable in their pursuit of Venetian honour.

The most famous diplomatic innovation of the Venetians was in fact the report that all ambassadors were obliged to present to the senate after their tour of duty was complete. These were called relazioni, utterly unlike any other ambassadorial documents, in which the diplomat was obliged “to report if he has learned anything of the country from which he comes worthy of being heard and pondered by prudent senators for the benefit of the fatherland.” His survey would include such matters as military preparedness, economic conditions, the health and character of the sovereign. No detail was considered too trivial to be overlooked, on the principle that knowledge is power.

Venice was a city of foreign ambassadors, too, who came to the city seeking for information. They were greeted with elaborate ceremony and all the panoply of state. But this was the rhetoric rather than the substance of their welcome. When Sir Henry Wotton, the English ambassador of the early seventeenth century, made a proposal for submission to the doge, he received the most nebulous possible response; the doge was forbidden by law to make any specific reply and, in the words of Wotton, could only “float in generalities.” So the ambassadors needed all the guile and patience they could muster. Wotton also noticed that the doge and his advisers favoured delay and stealth in matters of state. Ambivalence and ambiguity were the ground of their considerations. This may have been beneficial in times of peace but, in times of danger, it was a positive disadvantage. It is perhaps instructive that it was Wotton who offered the famous opinion that “an ambassador is a man of virtue sent to lie abroad for his country.” Only the atmosphere of Venice could have prompted such a conclusion.

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