The last decades of the fifteenth century, and the early decades of the sixteenth, were the period of greatest splendor in Venetian life. The profits of a world trade that had made its peace with the Turks, and had not yet suffered severe curtailment from the rounding of Africa or the opening of the Atlantic, poured into the islands, crowned them with churches, walled the canals with palaces, filled the palaces with precious metals and costly furniture, glorified the women with finery and jewelry, supported a brilliant galaxy of painters, and overflowed in bright festivals of tapestried gondolas, masked liaisons, and babbling waters echoing with song.
The life of the lower classes was the normal routine of toil, eased by Italian leisureliness and loquacity, and the inability of the rich to monopolize any but the most perfumed delights of love. Every humpbacked bridge, and the Grand Canal, teemed with men transporting the products of half the world. There were more slaves here than in other European cities; they were imported, chiefly from Islam, not as laborers but as domestic servants, personal guards, wet nurses, concubines. Doge Pietro Mocenigo, at the age of seventy, kept two Turkish slaves for his sexual entertainment.20 One Venetian record tells of a priest who sold a female slave to another priest, who on the following day had the contract annulled because he had found her with child.21
The upper classes, though so well served, were not idlers. Most of them, in their mature years, were active in commerce, finance, diplomacy, government, or war. The portraits we have of them show men rich in conscious personality, proud of their place, but also serious with a sense of obligation. A minority of them dressed in silks and furs, perhaps to please the artists who painted them; and a set of young bloods—La Compagnia della Scalza, “the Company of the Hose”—flaunted tight doublets, silk brocades, and striped hose embroidered with gold or silver or inset with gems. But every young patrician sobered his dress when he became a member of the Great Council; then he was required to wear a toga, for by a robe almost any male may be endowed with dignity, and any woman with mystery. Occasionally, in their magnificent palaces, or in their villa gardens at Murano or other suburbs, the nobles betrayed their secret wealth to lavishly entertain a visitor, or to celebrate some vital event in the history of their city or their family. When Cardinal Grimani, high in both the nobility and the Church, gave a reception for Ranuccio Farnese (1542), he invited three thousand guests; most of them came in cabined gondolas smoothed with velvet and eased with cushions; and he provided them with music, acrobatics, ropewalking, dancing, and dinner. Normally, however, the Venetian nobility in this period lived, ate, and dressed in moderate style, and earned some fraction of their keep.
Perhaps the middle classes were the happiest of all, and joined most lightheartedly in private and public merriment. They provided the lower hierarchy of the Church, the bureaucracy of the government, the professions of physician, attorney, and pedagogue, the management of industry and the guilds, the mathematical operations of foreign commerce, the control of local trade. They were neither so harassed as the rich to preserve a fortune, nor so worried as the poor to feed and clothe their young. Like the other classes they played cards, threw dice, and deployed chessmen across the hours, but they rarely gambled into ruin. They loved to play musical instruments, to sing and dance. As their houses or apartments were small, they made promenades and patios of the streets; these were almost free of horses and vehicles, since transport preferred the canals. So it was not unusual for the less sedate classes, of an evening or on some festal day, to form impromptu dances and choruses in the public squares. Every family had musical instruments and included some bearable voice. And when Adrian Willaert led the great double choir in St. Mark’s, the thousands who could get in to hear reversed their famous boast, and became for a moment Christians first and Venetians afterward.
The festivals of Venice, in their unrivaled setting of churches, palaces, and sea, were the most gorgeous in Europe. Every excuse was used for pomp and pageantry: the inauguration of a doge, some religious holyday or national holiday, the visit of a foreign dignitary, the conclusion of a favorable peace, the Gharingello or Women’s Holiday, the anniversary of St. Mark or the patron saint of a guild. In the fourteenth century the joust was still the crowning event of a festival; indeed, as late as 1491, when Venice received with stately ceremony the abdicated Queen of Cyprus, some troops from Crete held a joust on the frozen Grand Canal. But the joust seemed inappropriate to a naval power, and it was gradually replaced with some form of water festival, usually a regatta. The greatest feast of all the year was the Sposalizio del Mare, the solemn and colorful rite of marrying Venice—La Serenissima, the most serene—to the Adriatic. When Beatrice d’Este came to Venice in 1493 as the captivating emissary of Lodovico of Milan, the Grand Canal was adorned throughout its length like some splendid avenue in Christmas time; the ship Bucentaur, symbolizing the Venetian state and all decorated in purple and gold, sailed to meet her; a thousand boats rowed or sailed around it, each adorned with garlands and bunting; so many were the vessels, said an enthusiastic chronicler, that for a mile around the water could not be seen.
In a letter written from Venice on this occasion Beatrice described a momaria given in her honor in the Palace of the Doges. It was a dramatic spectacle, mostly in pantomime, presented by masked actors called momari, mummers. The Venetians were fond of divers such performances. They retained till 1462 the medieval “mysteries”; but popular demand caused these religious plays to be prefaced or interrupted with comic interludes of so loose and disorderly a character that they were forbidden in that year. Meanwhile the humanist movement renewed Italian acquaintance with classic comedy; Plautus and Terence were staged by the Compagnia della Scalza and other groups; and in 1506 Fra Giovanni Armonio, monk, actor, and musician, presented in Latin, in the convent of the Eremitani, Stephanium, the first modern comedy. From these beginnings Venetian comedy progressed toward Goldoni, always competing with the Harlequin and Pantaloon of the commedia dell’ arte, and at times so rivaling this in uninhibited humor that Church and state engaged in a running war with the Venetian stage.
An earthy licentiousness and profanity sat side by side, in the Venetian or Italian character, with orthodox belief and hebdomadal piety. The populace crowded St. Mark’s on Sundays and holydays, and drank homeopathic doses of the religion of terror and hope pictured in the mosaics or sculptured in statue or relief; the deliberate darkness of the pillared cavern intensified the effect of the icons and sermons; and even the prostitutes, hiding for a time the yellow handkerchief which the law required them to display as the badge of their tribe, came here, after a weary night, to cleanse themselves with prayer. The Venetian Senate favored this popular piety, and surrounded the doge and the state with all the awe of religious ritual. It imported at great cost, after the fall of Constantinople, the relics of Eastern saints, and offered to pay ten thousand ducats for the seamless coat of Christ.
And yet that same Senate, which Petrarch likened to an assembly of the gods,22 repeatedly flouted the authority of the Church, ignored the most terrible papal decrees of excommunication and interdict, offered asylum to prudent skeptics (till 1527),23 sharply reproved a friar for attacking the Jews (1512), and sought to make the Church in Venice an appanage of the state. Bishops for Venetian sees were chosen by the Senate, and were presented to Rome for confirmation; such appointments were in many cases put into effect despite papal refusal to confirm them; after 1488 none but a Venetian could be appointed to a Venetian episcopate; and no revenues could be collected or used by any ecclesiastic, in the Venetian realm, who had not been approved by the government. Churches and monasteries were subject to state supervision, but no churchman could hold a public office.24 All legacies to monastic establishments paid a tax to the state. Ecclesiastical courts were carefully watched to see to it that guilty ecclesiastics should receive the same penalties as guilty laymen. The Republic long resisted the introduction of the Inquisition; when it yielded it made all verdicts of the Venetian inquisitors subject to review and sanction by a senatorial commission; and only six sentences of death were issued in all the history of the Inquisition in Venice.25 The Republic proudly took the stand that in temporal matters it “recognized no superior except the Divine Majesty.”26 It openly accepted the principle that a general council of the bishops of the Church is above the pope, and that an appeal may be made from a pope to a future council. When Sixtus IV laid an interdict on the city (1483) the Council of Ten ordered all clergy to continue their services as usual. When Julius II renewed the interdict as part of his war against Venice, the Ten forbade the publication of the edict in Venetian territory, and had their agents in Rome affix to the doors of St. Peter’s an appeal from the Pope to a future council (1509).27 Julius won that war, and forced Venice to accept his spiritual authority as absolute.
All in all, Venetian life was more attractive in its setting than in its spirit. The government was competent, and showed high courage in adversity; but it was sometimes brutal and always selfish; it never thought of Venice as part of Italy, and seemed to care little what tragedy might befall that divided land. It developed powerful personalities—self-reliant, shrewd, acquisitive, valiant, proud; we know a hundred of them in their portraits by artists whom they had just enough refinement to patronize. It was a civilization that, compared with the Florentine, lacked subtlety and depth; that, compared with the Milanese under Lodovico, lacked finesse and grace. But it was the most colorful, sumptuous, and sensually bewitching civilization that history has ever known.