Oh, Venice, pure city, perfect state, where art thou? Aye, stones and waters still mark the place of your grandeur, but the Serenissima is long dead, never to return. Have no pity, wayfarer, over collapsing buildings and rising water, they are but epitaphs to the mighty Republic that stood firm for a thousand years…
Could it be otherwise? Could Venice survive in all its glory? The bitter truth is that it could live longer by transforming into a different kind of state – into a true empire for the age when only empires can compete. However, that would be the death of Venice nonetheless, because its old soul would be lost. That’s the power of inevitable fate: sometimes a man or a state faces a challenge that can only be passed by a profound change having little difference from death.
One can spend hours admiring the Venetian architecture and its “wet streets”. One can write books in folio about masterpieces of Venetian artists, sculptors and musicians. This “fiancée to the sea” is still ready to put a traveller under her spell, urging to forget about signs of decay and withering. But the real beauty of Venice could not be frozen inside stones and canvas. This splendour was one of the an ideal state — perfection of a unique clockwork in which thousands of small details were working better than hammers and anvils of more powerful empires. Dogado, Stato da Màr and Domini di Terraferma were a pyramid that stood prouder than burial-vaults of the pharaohs. The Venetian Republic left us a memory of the most stable European state that stood unbowed, unbent, unbroken until the end of the 18th century.
Venetian State was rising slowly. From 6th to 13th century it changed from a fishermen village to a town of small merchants to a wealthy city that traded all across the Adriatic and entered the Mediterranean. The era of Crusade brought floods of passengers and goods, and Venice became one of the leading powers of the region, famous for its seafarers, merchants and shipwrights. Sack of Constantinople gave Venice more than just undying glory. Treasure of a once great empire were taken to the city of St. Marc, fortified outpost around Aegean sea and in the eastern Mediterranean were seized, best sea routes were monopolized by the Venetian traders.
Even today one can see dozens of signs in Venice that remind us not only of humiliation and woe of its enemies, but also of determination and wisdom of Venetian leaders that made her the dominating mistress of seas and harbours. Competition with other Italian and world powers was dire, debt of sweat and blood was paid in full, losses and defeats were numerous too, but history of Venice is a history of victories all the same. It’s a history of triumph and strength instead of complaints and weakness, which makes that history more interesting than ways of many other states. Fortune smiles everyone in due time, but Venetians had surpassed their enemies in the subtle art of turning accidental possibilities into advantages that lasted for centuries.
Triumphs of Venice were made possible by stability of its political life, so astonishing in the age of eternal discords and bloody tumults. The Republic owed that to the closed system which came into being in 1297. City leaders had understood that they could make themselves and their stated more wealthy if they would focus on that single task and would bend the political system to their ambitions. That event is called the Serrata: the Great Council of Venice was closed for all families that weren’t there at the moment. A caste of patricians emerged, and each member of that caste perceived the state as the continuation of their own trade and family interests. These respectful families were registered in the Golden Book and they received grate privileges and great obligations. They were to rule this Republic, sacrificing everything to its glory.
Lesser patricians, merchants, doctors and lawyers were registered in Silver Book and called cittadini originari. They could serve the city as ambassadors and diplomats, pursers and judges, but they could never take place in the government. That distinction was a harmonious one. Everyone was happy with his place, because for every privilege there was a duty. Members of the Great Council received no payment for their service, but could not refuse to serve the Serenissima, however costly and bloody that could be. Cittadini originari could not define politics, but were paid handsomely and took prestigious offices, so they were content with it. Other categories of Venetian citizens also had rights and obligations. For example, the arsenalotti and glass-makers had large salaries and were honoured, but if any one of them packed his belonging and escaped to sell secrets of his trade outside Venice, that apostates and their families were hunted down and brutally killed by the assassins of the Republic. Laws were cruel but they were equally cruel to everyone from doge to the beggar.
Of course, there were rich and poor in Venice, but the rich ones had more duties and the poor ones were not so poor in comparison to other contemporary states. Paupers were considered to be an affront to the Serenissima, and measures were taken to ensure work and payment to everyone. On the other hand, all the golden merchants never boasted with their wealth. It was considered appropriate to hide one’s riches, not to spent it on embroidered clothes and jewellery. The government always supplied the commoners with food, held great ceremonies and celebrations, ensured legal system with justice for all. Every little man could feel pride for serving the Republic of Venice. He was a true citizen, not a mute cattle as commoners of other states. That’s why punishment with exile form Venice was regarded as equal to the death penalty. Venice was always strong and united unlike Genoa because there was no fierce internal struggles, no wars of the oppressed with the oppressors, no dissent with political system.
The government of Venice was formed by elections. Lots of rules and complex procedure were aimed at giving offices to the most worthy, but saved Venice from being overtaken by someone too powerful. The more influential was the appointment, the more intricate were the elections and shorter the term of service. Only doge is an exception because his title was for life. However, after 1268 his post was lacking real authority and became more like a reward for renowned old men. Doges were called “birds in gilded cages”, because their every step was full of rituals. A doge could not hoist his coat of arms and could not order his portraits. He could be depicted only kneeling before a symbol of Venice: a lion of St. Marc, St. Marc himself of a blonde woman in doge robes. A doge could not leave the Doges Palace and the Basilica, could not own land or houses outside the Republic, could not open official letters without presence of other members of the government. After a doge’s death a special commission of inquisitori checked his papers and could impose post-mortem fines if a violation of law has been found.
Venetian Republic was a state devoted to acquiring of wealth. Growing stronger, Venice made every Venetian better off. That’s why, for example, no merchant was allowed to own ships: all galleys were made in the Arsenal with state interest in mind, so it could be converted from trade to war in one day. Venice was an almighty state where everyone was forced by laws and customs to take part in common cause. Venice Über Alles! The Serenissima never chased chimeras. While other states made human sacrifices to the altar of illusions and ambitions, Venetians were busy with slow accumulation of gold and power, bending rivals step by step. No war was waged by Venice out of hatred or honour. It fought only to defend its trading interests or to seize wealth. As wars grew more costly and destructing, Venetians simply ceased to treat them as viable means of reaching political aims. More was lost than gained by force of arms. Bernardo Navagero, the republic’s ambassador in Rome in 16th century, sums up: “I have become convinced, Most Serene Prince, that wars are always to be avoided for the disadvantages they bring”. Diplomacy and money were more secure weapons than musket and cannon.
Venice survived even the horror of Italian Wars when almost every other state in Italy lost its independence. There were no bloody conspiracies, no seizure of power by an ex-condottiere, no sack of Venice by landsknechts or Spanish soldiers, no preaching of the mad Savonarola. Venice was calm and serene. Almost boring. But the sun of the Republic was doomed to fall. The era of city-states was gone. Age of empires has began. Venice could endure these new challenges only if it would become an empire. The future was reserved only for the mighty states that could send hundreds of thousands to the slaughter. Venice never aspired to such fate. It chose to die peacefully. Trade continued, captains still sailed proud galleys, citizens were well fed and content but the end was nigh.
The last two centuries of the Venetian Republic are a sad story to read. While the Myth of Venice, the Myth of a Perfect State was born, the city-state slowly withered. In France, England, Spain, Germany writers marvelled at Venetian might and beauty (and Venice made sure they do, by means of diplomacy, grandiose celebrations and military spectacles), but the Serenissima was passing into oblivion. It disappeared quietly, without storm and destruction, sack and burning. It fell at last – but what other stated can brag of more than 1000 years of stable prosperity?
Once did She hold the gorgeous East in fee:
And was the safeguard of the west: the worth
Of Venice did not fall below her birth,
Venice, the eldest Child of Liberty,
She was a maiden City, bright and free;
No guile seduced, no force could violate;
And, when she took unto herself a Mate,
She must espouse the everlasting Sea.
And what if she had seen those glories fade,
Those titles vanish, and that strength decay:
Yet shall some tribute of regret be paid
When her long life hath reached its final day:
Men are we, and must grieve when even the Shade
Of that which once was great is passed away.
(Wordsworth, On The Extinction Of The Venetian Republic, 1802)