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The Chosen People

Venice has always been a city of myth. The collective need of the people, for reassurance and identity, has the consequence of creating a fantasy city based upon idealised self-representation. By the thirteenth century it had created a closed political order that allowed it to claim unity and inviolability. By the fourteenth century the Venetians had assumed the mantle of “the chosen people.” By the early fifteenth century Venice had fashioned itself as the “new Rome” with its own mainland empire.

But the real “myth of Venice” arose in the early sixteenth century, in the years immediately following the city’s struggles against an alliance of its enemies, known as the League of Cambrai, when the European powers were ranged against it. The defeat of Venice, followed later by the restoration of most of its territories, had a double consequence. It was felt that the city was vulnerable but that it was also invincible. From this potent mixture of anxiety and reassurance there emerged a doctrine that expressed the permanence and harmony of la Serenissima. The idea of an aggressive and victorious republic was replaced by the myth of an illustrious city of peace. It was in this period that the architecture of the city took its classical shape. The plan of the city became a metaphor for order and grandeur. The city became known primarily for its art and for its music. Ruskin believed that the myth of a nation or tribe is formulated at the time of its utmost power. But that is not necessarily the case. The myth of Venice was prompted by observable weakness that had somehow to be concealed from the outside world. Even after it had effectively forfeited its authority, it still displayed itself as a proud and powerful city.

The ingredients of this myth can be distinguished in a close reading. The Venetian state was founded by miracle and governed by providence. It was immune from external invasion. It was immutable. It had survived for a thousand years, according to a chronicle, “without ever changing.” Every other city in the world had lost its liberties, frequently or infrequently, but Venice had never once been oppressed. In 1651 James Howell wrote in A Survey of the Signorie of Venice, “Were it within the reach of humane brain to prescribe Rules for fixing a Society and Succession of people under the same Species of Government as long as the World lasts, the Republic of Venice were the fittest pattern on Earth both for direction and imitation.” Venice represented an idea that was itself eternal.

It was supposed to embody a harmonious mingling of all forms of government. It was at once democratic, with its great council, aristocratic, with its senate, and monarchical, with its doge. The idea of balance, and of stability, is of course paramount for a city resting upon the sea. Thus James Howell could write that Venice “is as dextrous in ruling men as in rowing of a gallie or gondola.” It aspired to be a veritable commonwealth of liberty. It was free from civil unrest and internecine warfare. Its political debates were conducted in an air of refinement and sagacity. It was a city, therefore, devoted to the common good. There was no room for individual ambition or private greed. The princes of other lands were ruled by the passion for self-aggrandisement and by the imperatives of temporary necessity. But, as Pope Alexander VI told the Venetian ambassador in Rome in 1502, “you are immortal insomuch as your Signoria [government] never dies.” It was compared with the phoenix, the bird that regularly renews itself. So the city was self-conscious, and confident, enough to turn itself into one continual allegory.

The rulers of Venice were acclaimed as epitomes of wisdom and fraternity. In the ceiling panels of the ducal palace they are shown at the feet of the Saviour or in the light of the Holy Spirit. It was related that there was no discord between them, all united in the cause of the republic. They were devoted and impartial in their dealings, never allowing private interests to affect their judgement. There was no room for corruption or individual ambition. Effectively they were anonymous servants of the divine order of the state. That is why they conventionally dressed in black, and in public were urged to preserve a decorous and dignified appearance. The doge was invariably of great age, confirming the notions of wisdom and experience. It was a great play. But it served its purpose, particularly in fooling foreigners.

And what of the citizens? Philippe de Commynes, an ambassador from fifteenth-century Flanders, was astonished to see the Venetians lining up to pay their taxes, at such a rate that the tax collectors could not keep pace with them. The motive here may have been fear rather than devotion. Yet this much is true: the city did indeed have the capacity to instil fervour in the hearts of its inhabitants. As early as the thirteenth century a Paduan chronicler exclaimed: “Oh happy commune of Venice, that happy city where the citizens, in their every manifestation, have the common interest so much at heart that the name of Venice is held as divine!”

It was the seat of wisdom. The ducal palace was considered to be another palace of Solomon. It was the home of justice. The sculptured image of Venice was based upon the figure of justice with the sword in one hand and the scales in her other. It was the seat of learning. It was the seat of liberty. It had never been the subject of any other power or empire; it had ceded no authority to West or East. Its inhabitants were bound together in a mutual covenant. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that liberty took a different form, in the carnivalesque society of art and theatre and sex that became notorious throughout Europe. But the later liberty was based upon the perhaps more virtuous original.

The city quickly acquired Olympian characteristics. The great staircase in the ducal palace, known as the Scala dei Giganti, was surmounted by the images of Mars and Neptune. Venus was always part of the myth of Venice. The images of Jupiter and Minerva, Mercury and Apollo, are still to be seen in Saint Mark’s Square. The great paintings depicting the figures of classical mythology were created in Venice rather than in their more natural home of Rome. Mount Olympus was to be found in the heart of the city.

By the mid-seventeenth century the myth of Venice had become in England a paragon of harmony and continuity, all the more alluring in a country that had witnessed civil war and regicide. It was seen as a model of republican virtue in which patrician and citizen (for which the English read “lords” and “gentlemen”) shared authority. It also became a model for the intellectuals of the Enlightenment, who saw in its proceedings a genuine compact between rulers and ruled. It became an inspiration to the makers of the American constitution.

It is the nature of humankind to idealise, to indulge in excessive praise as well as unjust condemnation. The daily texture of life in Venice was neither harmonious nor free. The government was often corrupt and ineffectual. There were many who disparaged the city all the more fiercely because of its pretensions to grandeur. In the seventeenth century it was depicted as the home of assassins and sodomites. Far from being free, it was an oligarchy. It was a tyranny. Its symbol was the torture chamber of the council of ten. Its true emblem was the dungeon. In the late twentieth century, too, some revisionist historians emphasised the greed and oppression endemic in a ruling class based solely upon birth.

A parade of triumphalism provokes hate and resentment. There were many scholars who considered Venice’s version of its history mere trumpery. It was a fake. The Venetians, holding themselves aloof from the rest of Italy, were derided as misers and fishermen. They were as treacherous and unpredictable as the water on which they lived. The city of merchants was denounced for its insatiable cupidity. Cosimo de’ Medici described them as unblushing liars. Indeed their rulers and ambassadors were known throughout Europe for their double-dealing; they had so great a reverence for the state that they would stoop to the lowest practices in order to maintain it. There is some truth in all of these allegations. At a later date D.H. Lawrence described it as an “abhorrent, green, slippery city.” Many visitors have been unmoved by its charms, professing to find it superficial, tacky and unhealthy.

It is hard to know whether the people themselves, or the rulers, of Venice were ever gullible enough fully to subscribe to the myth of Venice. But that myth has never wholly died. In the early seventeenth century Giovanni Priuli apostrophised Venice as “a terrestrial paradise.” Two hundred and fifty years later John Ruskin, one of the many Englishmen who have been entranced by Venice, described it as “the paradise of cities.” He was speaking in a time when Venice had lost its authority, its trade and its independence. So the myth goes on. Venice still remains the exemplary city.

It is unique. There is no doubt about that. That is what led to its success. The location of the city is, obviously, singular; and, from this, everything else in its history sprang. You may see in the seed the whole created being. The union of water and earth allowed it to neglect, or to transcend, the ordinary practices of European states. It had to invent a new way of life. Venice belonged to no particular element, just as it belonged to no other authority. Goethe decided that the peculiar circumstances of the city in the lagoon required that “the Venetian is bound to develop into a new kind of being.” The Venetian political system, of incredible complexity and subtlety, designed to balance and harmonise the various councils and jurisdictions, was like no other on earth. In the endless letters of travellers the predominant note is one of wonder at its difference. Thus Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote, in the middle of the eighteenth century, that it was a “great town, very different from any other you ever saw, and a manner of living that will be quite new to you.” In 1838 the American author, James Fenimore Cooper, observed that he was “in the centre of a civilisation entirely novel.” The abiding charm of Venice lies in the fact that it is always new and always surprising. It is, somehow, always renewed by the enthusiasm and wonder of its visitors. So it is that the Italian writer of the early twentieth century, Gabriele d’Annunzio, asked “if you know of any other place in the world like Venice, in its ability of stimulating at certain moments all the powers of human life, and of exciting every desire to the point of fever?”

The Venetians were well aware of their uniqueness, too. They had a lively conviction of their own difference. They believed that their city was born as a place of refuge, from the barbarians no less than from the sea, and enjoyed the especial status it conferred upon them. They trusted in their especial, and superior, destiny. If this resulted in a certain arrogance towards other Italian city-states, then so be it. It might also lead to complacency, of course, which had less certain consequences.

So for others it enjoyed a visionary quality. It was the city of earthly beauty. It seemed so fragile, and yet it was in reality very strong. It floated upon the water like an optical illusion. Petrarch described it as representing “another world,” by which he might have meant a double image of this world. This was the effect it had upon Rilke, upon Wagner, and upon Proust. In Invisible Cities (1972) Italo Calvino describes a visionary city with the steps of marble palaces descending into the water, of bridges and canals without end, of “balconies, platforms, domes, campaniles, island gardens glowing green in the lagoon’s greyness.” Kublai Khan asks the narrator, Marco Polo, whether he has ever seen a city such as this. The Venetian replies that “I should never have imagined that a city such as this could exist.” In this context Calvino himself said, of Invisible Cities, that “every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.” Venice is in that sense the purest city of all.

It is invariably associated with dream. Henry James described his sojourn in Venice as a “beautiful dream.” “Venice,” he wrote, “is quite the Venice of one’s dreams, but it remains strangely the Venice of dreams, more than of any appreciable reality.” To those visiting the city for the first time it seems strangely familiar. In this, it resembles the landscape of dreaming. So for Proust the city “was one that I felt I had often dreamed before.” The calli are so labyrinthine that the passers-by seem suddenly to disappear. It is a common experience for visitors, after a perplexing walk, to find themselves back at the place from which they started. But this may be a dream of oppression, a dream of being beguiled into a maze. This induces fear as well as amazement. Charles Dickens, in Pictures from Italy, invoked his whole journey through the city as an oneiric adventure—“I passed into my boat again and went on in my dream”—but it is one that has the qualities of nightmare with intimations of horror and of darkness; beneath the surface of the fantasy or vision lie “dismal, awful, horrible stone cells.” It is an unreal city because it seems to have no foundations, like the landscape of a dream.

“Never did a city seem so dream-like and unreal” (William Dean Howells) … “her aspect is like a dream” (Byron) … “dream-like” (Hugo von Hofmannsthal) … “this dream-like town” (Rainer Maria Rilke) … “the life of a Venetian is like a dream” (Disraeli) … “When you are at Venice it is like being in a dream” (John Addington Symonds) … “Dreamlike and dim, but glorious” (John Ruskin) … “The city of my dreams” (George Sand) … “That waking dream of beauty” (Frances Trollope) … “We have been in a sort of half-waking dream all the time” (Mark Twain). It is perhaps significant that these testimonies all date from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They are part of a culture in which the interior life first came to prominence as an object of study. Once more the city, infinitely malleable and fluid, satisfied the cultural expectations of a new period. It breathed the spirit of the age. Sigmund Freud visited Venice on several occasions. He mentions the city in The Interpretation of Dreams as the site of one of his own most disturbing dreams. It was of a warship passing over the lagoon.

It can hardly be doubted, then, that Venice still exerts some strange power over the human imagination. To walk around the city is to enter a kind of reverie. Water instils memories of the past, made all the more real by the survival of the ancient brick and stone. The presence of water may also induce the emergence of unconscious desires and fantasies. The uterine embrace of the womb has already been mentioned. It has always been a city of luxuries, and luxuries are dreamed-of things.

The most important Venetian text of the early modern period is entitled Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499), or the strife of love of Poliphilus, as veiled in a dream. It is a recondite and anonymous work, the meaning of which remains unclear, but it is concerned in large part with the transition between illusion and reality. There are dreams, and dreams within dreams, revealed in a series of architectural conceits. In this respect, it is wholly Venetian in spirit.

The detail of Christ and the musicians from The Marriage Feast at Cana by Paolo Veronese. In sixteenth-century Venice, art and music were closely associated. Here a quartet is shown playing to the invited guests; the members of that musical group have been identified as Titian, Tintoretto, Bassano and Veronese himself. (photo credit i4.1)

An eighteenth-century painting by Gabriele Bella showing a concert given by the girls of the hospital music societies in Venice. The orphan girls in the charitable institutions of the state were given an extensive and elaborate musical training, so that their concerts became the wonder of the age. “I cannot imagine anything,” Rousseau wrote, “so voluptuous, so touching as this music.” (photo credit i4.2)

The Parlour of the San Zaccaria Convent in Venice. This painting by Francesco Guardi reveals the refined and luxurious atmosphere of the eighteenth-century convents of Venice. They were essentially homes for unmarried patrician women, accustomed to the comforts of the outer world. The convents of Venice became a form of theatre, with the nuns sitting behind gratings watching the rest of Venice cavort before them. (photo credit i4.3)

A pen and ink drawing of 1787 showing a cross-section view of a theatre on the Grand Canal. The theatre was intrinsic to Venetian life, and Venetians were known throughout Europe for their love of drama. It was a passion that touched all classes, from the gondolier to the patrician. Venetian stagecraft was also renowned for its subtlety and elaboration. (photo credit i4.4)

A portrait of the Venetian dramatist, Carlo Goldoni, by Alessandro Longhi. Goldoni was the greatest of all the city’s playwrights. His was the comedy of Venetian social life. He held a mirror up to Venetian nature. He captivated the eighteenth-century public with portraits of gondoliers and of servants, of shop-keepers and housewives. (photo credit i4.5)

An eighteenth-century watercolour of a Venetian nobleman patronising a café. Venice has always been more famous for its cafés than for its restaurants. In the eighteenth century they were calculated to number two hundred, with thirty-five in Saint Mark’s Square itself. The customers enjoyed cups of coffee and cups of chocolate, or glasses of lemonade and syrup. (photo credit i4.6)

A fresco painted by Giandomenico Tiepolo, at the end of the eighteenth century, showing Pulcinella disporting with acrobats. Pulcinella was a character from commedia dell’arte, the characteristic Venetian entertainment that first emerged in the sixteenth century, growing ever wilder and more obscene over the centuries. He wore a white costume and a black mask, and was well known for his long nose. In England he became known as Punch. (photo credit i4.7)

A pen and ink sketch, from the eighteenth century, showing three masked figures in Carnival costume. The Carnival was instituted at the end of the eleventh century, and has continued without interruption for almost seven hundred years. By the eighteenth century, at the very latest, the masks had become indispensable. Even the beggars wore masks. (photo credit i4.8)

Canaletto’s painting A Regatta on the Grand Canal. The regatta was an annual event, at the time of the Carnival, watched eagerly by all Venetians; it was formally instituted in the fourteenth century, and has continued ever since. This painting shows the one-oared light gondola race. (photo credit i4.9)

A painting of a masked ball taking place in Saint Mark’s Square during the Carnival. John Evelyn, the seventeenth-century English diarist, described such events as part of the “universal madnesse” with “the Women, Men & persons of all Conditions disguising themselves in antique dresses & extravagant Musique & a thousand gambols.” (photo credit i4.10)

A painting by Gabriele Bella showing a battle with sticks on a Venetian bridge. It was known as la guerra dei pugni or the war of the fists, fought between the inhabitants of the various territories and neighbourhoods. A team from each of these territories met for battle on a chosen bridge, while thousands of spectators lined the streets and houses beside the canal. It was a glorified fist-fight in which the object was to hurl opponents into the water and to gain possession of the bridge. (photo credit i4.11)

A game of bowls in the Campo dei Gesuiti, painted by Gabriele Bella in the eighteenth century. The square or campo was at the heart of the neighbourhood. It spread before the parish church and was once its burial ground. It was a self-contained entity, marked out by its well and carved well-head where the women of the parish came to gossip. It was a Venice in miniature. (photo credit i4.12)

An etching of the Bridge of Sighs, that led from the ducal palace to the ducal prisons. It was named after the laments of those about to be gaoled, and is the most picturesque of all penitential emblems. It was not in fact given that name until the nineteenth century; yet it serves the purpose, and the image, of Venice very well. (photo credit i4.13)

The front cover of Casanova by René Jeanne, published in 1927. Jacques Casanova is the most famous of all Venice’s favourite sons. He is the quintessential Venetian, and his memoirs demonstrate the facility with which life in the city can be turned into self-conscious and self-serving drama. “The chief business of my life has always been to indulge my senses,” he wrote. “I never knew anything of greater importance.” This might be justifiably described as a main article of the Venetian creed. (photo credit i4.14)

A poster advertising the Eastern Railway travelling from Paris to Venice at the end of the nineteenth century. The Grand Tour had given way to upper-middle-class travel with Venice as the most desirable destination of all. By the 1840s tourist guides to the city were being written; the first “Cook’s tour” of Venice was arranged in 1864. “The Venice of today,” Henry James wrote, “is a vast museum where the little wicket that admits you is perpetually turning and creaking …” (photo credit i4.15)

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