III. VENICE TRIUMPHANT: 1096–1311

North of Ferrara and the Po lay the district of Veneto, proud of the cities of Venice, Treviso, Padua, Vicenza, and Verona.

It was in this period that Venice matured her power. Her alliance with Byzantium gave her entry to Aegean and Black Sea ports. At Constantinople, in the twelfth century, her nationals are said to have numbered over 100,000, and to have held a section of the city in terror by their insolence and their brawls. Suddenly the Greek Emperor Manuel, prodded by the jealous Genoese, turned against the Venetians in his capital, arrested a great number of them, and ordered a wholesale confiscation of their goods (1171). Venice declared war; her people labored night and day to build a fleet; and in 1171 the Doge Vitale Michieli II led 130 ships against Euboea as a first goal of strategy against the Straits. But on Euboea’s shores his troops fell sick with a disease said to have been caused by Greeks poisoning the water supply; so many thousands died that the ships could not be manned for war; the Doge led his armada back to Venice, where the plague infected and decimated the inhabitants; and at a meeting of the assembly the Doge, blamed for these misfortunes, was stabbed to death (1172).7 It is against the background of these events that we must view the Fourth Crusade, and the oligarchic revolution that transformed the constitution of Venice.

The great merchants, fearing the collapse of their commercial empire if such defeats continued, resolved to take the election of the doge, and the determination of public policy, from the general assembly, and establish a more select council, which should be better fitted to consider and transact affairs of state, and might serve as a check upon both the passions of the people and the autocracy of the doge. The three highest judges of the Republic were persuaded to appoint a commission to draw up a new constitution. Its report recommended that each of the six wards of the city-state should choose two leading men, each of whom should choose forty able men; the 480 deputies so chosen were to form the Maggior Consiglio, or Greater Council, as the general legislature of the nation. The Greater Council in turn was to choose sixty of its members as a Senate to govern commerce, finance, and foreign relations. The arrengo or popular assembly was to meet only to ratify or reject proposals of war or peace. A Privy Council of six men, elected severally from the six wards, was to govern the state in any interregnum, and its sanction was to be required to legalize any governmental action of a doge. The first Greater Council elected by this procedure chose thirty-four of its members, who chose eleven of their number, who then, in public deliberation in the cathedral of San Marco, chose the doge (1173). A cry of protest arose from-the people at losing their right of naming the head of the state; but the new doge diverted the disturbance by scattering coin among the crowd.8 In 1192, on the election of Enrico Dandolo, the Greater Council required the Doge to swear, in his coronation oath, to obey all the laws of the state. The mercantile oligarchy was now supreme.

Dandolo, already eighty-four, proved to be one of the strongest leaders in Venetian history. Through his Machiavellian diplomacy and personal heroism Venice avenged the disaster of 1171 by capturing and despoiling Constantinople in 1204; thereby Venice became the dominant power in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea, and the commercial leadership of Europe passed from Byzantium to Italy. In 1261 the Genoese aided the Greeks to regain Constantinople, and were rewarded with commercial preference there; but three years later the Venetian fleet defeated the Genoese near Sicily, and the Greek emperor was forced to restore the favored position of Venice in his capital.

The triumphant oligarchy capped these external victories with another constitutional stroke. In 1297 the Doge Pietro Gradenigo pushed through the Council a proposal that only those citizens—and their male posterity-should be eligible to the Council who had sat in it since 1293.9 The great majority of the people were excluded from office by this “Closing of the Council.” A closed caste was created; a Libro d’oro, or Golden Book, of marriages and births within this patrician caste was kept to ensure purity of blood and monopoly of power; the mercantile oligarchy decreed itself an aristocracy of birth. When the people planned a revolt against the new constitution their leaders were admitted into the hall of the Council, and were immediately hanged (1300).

It must be admitted that this frank and ruthless oligarchy governed well. Public order was better maintained, public policy more shrewdly guided, laws more stable and effective, than in the other communities of medieval Italy. Venetian laws for the regulation of physicians and apothecaries preceded similar statutes of Florence by half a century. In 1301 laws forbade unhealthy industries in residential quarters, and excluded from Venice industries that poured injurious fumes into the air. Navigation laws were rigorous and detailed. All imports and exports were subject to state supervision and control. Diplomatic reports covered trade more than politics, and economic statistics were here for the first time made a part of government.10

Agriculture was almost unknown in Venice, but handicrafts were highly developed, for Venice had imported from the old cities of the Eastern Mediterranean arts and crafts half submerged by political upheavals in the West. Venetian products in iron, brass, glass, gold cloth, and silk were renowned in three continents. The building of boats for pleasure, commerce, or war was probably the greatest of Venetian industries; it reached a capitalistic stage of mass labor and corporate finance, and almost a socialistic stage through control by its chief client, the state. Picturesque galleys with lofty prows, painted sails, and as many as 180 oars bound Venice with Constantinople, Tyre, Alexandria, Lisbon, London, and a score of other cities in a golden chain of ports and trade. Goods from the valley of the Po came to Venice to be reshipped; the products of the Rhine cities came over the Alps to spread out from her quays to the Mediterranean world; the Rialto became the busiest thoroughfare in Europe, crowded with merchants, sailors, and bankers from a hundred lands. The wealth of the North could not compare with the opulence of a city where everything was geared to commerce and finance, and where one ship sent to Alexandria and back brought 1000 per cent on the investment—if it encountered no enemy, pirate, or destructive storm.11 In the thirteenth century Venice was the richest city in Europe, equaled perhaps only by those Chinese cities that her Marco Polo incredibly described.

Faith declines as wealth increases. The Venetians made much use of religion in government, and consoled the voteless with processions and paradise; but the ruling classes rarely allowed Christianity, or excommunication, to interfere with business or war. Siamo Veneziani, poi Cristiani, ran their motto: “We are Venetians; after that we are Christians.”12 Ecclesiastics were excluded from any share in the government.13 Venetian merchants sold arms and slaves, and sometimes gave military intelligence, to Moslems at war with Christians,14 A certain liberality went with this broad-minded venality: Moslems might come safely to Venice; and the Jews—especially in the Giudecca on the island of Spinalunga—might worship peacefully in their synagogues.

Dante denounced the “unbridled lasciviousness” of the Venetians,15 but we must not trust the strictures of one who cursed so ecumenically. More significant are the severe penalties prescribed in Venetian law for parents who prostituted their children, or the vainly repeated laws to check electoral corruption.16 The impression we get is of a hard and brilliant aristocracy stoically resigned to the poverty of the masses, and a populace solacing poverty with the uncornered joys of love. As early as 1094 we hear of the Carnival; in 1228 the first mention of masks; in 1296 the Senate made the last day before Lent (the French mardi gras) a public holiday. On such occasions both sexes flaunted their most expensive finery. Rich ladies crowned themselves with jeweled tiaras or hoods, or turbans woven with cloth of gold; their eyes gleamed through veils of gold or silver web; their necks held strings of pearls; their hands were gloved with chamois or silk; their feet were shod with sandals or shoes of leather, wood, or cork, embroidered in red and gold; their gowns were of fine linen, silk, or brocade, sprinkled with gems, and cut low in the neck to the scandal and fascination of their times. They wore false hair, they painted and powdered, they laced and fasted to be slim.17 They moved freely in public at any time, joined with shy allure in pleasure parties and gondola escapades, and listened willingly to troubadours importing Provence modes of song for the eternal themes of love.

The Venetians did not, in this period, go in for culture. They had a good public library, but seem to have made little use of it. No contributions to learning, no lasting poetry, appeared amid this unrivaled wealth. Schools were numerous in the thirteenth century, and we hear of private and state scholarships for poor students; but as late as the fourteenth century there were Venetian judges who could not read.18 Music was held in high esteem. Art was not yet the superb coloratura of later days; but wealth was bringing to Venice the art of many lands, taste was growing, the foundation was being laid, and old Roman skills survived, above all in glass.

We must not picture the Venice of that age as quite so lovely as Wagner or Nietzsche found it in the nineteenth century. Houses were of wood, and streets were simple earth; the Piazza di San Marco, however, was paved with brick in 1172, and the pigeons were there as early as 1256. Pretty bridges began to curve over the canals, and over the Grand Canal the traghetti already ferried many passengers. The side canals were probably less malodorous then than now, for time is needed for any full ripening. But no faults of street or stream could close the soul to the grandeur of a city lifting itself up, century by century, out of the marshes and mists of the lagoons; or the wonder of a people rising out of desolation and isolation to cover the sea with its ships, and levy tribute of wealth and beauty upon half the world.

Between Venice and the Alps lay the city and March of Treviso, of which we shall note only that its people so loved life that it won the name of Marca amorosa or gioiosa. In 1214, we are told, the city celebrated the festival of the Castello d’amore: a wooden castle was set up, and hung with carpets, drapes, and garlands; pretty Trevisan women held it, armed with scented water, fruit, and flowers; youthful cavaliers from Venice competed with gay blades from Padua in besieging the ladies, bombarding them with like weapons; the Venetians, they say, won the day by mingling ducats with their flowers; in any case the castle and its fair defenders fell.19

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