The Meaning of Venice


M. JULES LEMAîTRE once said, with characteristic irony, that he intended to spend the last half of his life in reading the books he had reviewed in the first half. Great critic that he is, he knows how to guard against warping his judgment. His frankness suggests the query, Is it wise for an editor to ask one historian to criticise the work of another historian in the same field ? Some of the results I have seen might lead me to reply, unhesitatingly, No. For there is a certain class of mind which, when it takes up the study of history, comes to accept only one point of view and one method — its own. Infallibility is the forte, and sometimes omniscience seems to be the foible, of these students. Contrasted with them, however, is the class of men who, the longer they investigate, grow both more skeptical and more inquisitive. They suspect that no history written from only one angle can be final; they admit, for instance, that the Roman Catholic and the Protestant accounts of the Reformation, or the Northern and Southern accounts of the American Civil War, cannot be identical; they even believe that books equally excellent and equally true, though mutually contradictory, may have the same theme.

As I belong to the latter class, I heartily welcome Professor Molmenti’s striking work,1 which differs fundamentally in aim and treatment from my own. An unwary critic might parade some line from Procopius to prove that he is incompetent ; but the truth is that Molmenti knows more about the history of Venice — including the line from Procopius — than any other living historian. Nearly thirty years ago he published a monograph entitled The History of Venice in its Private Life. This almost immediately won distinction for him at home, was soon translated into French, and so went on its journey through the world; for French is still the language of international intellectual contacts, as German is the international medium for erudition. Molmenti, besides writing half a dozen other books on Venetian art and artists and manners, has from time to time expanded his monograph, until now he has nearly trebled its size, and reached the definitive edition before us. He has been fortunate in securing as his English translator Mr. Horatio Brown, whose own studies in Venetian life, and whose admirable history of Venice, are relished on both sides of the Atlantic. Of his translation, no more need be said than that it reads as if written originally in English — an achievement all the more remarkable in view of Molmenti’s Italian style, which is often exuberant and sometimes ornate. The publishers, too, deserve praise for having made the book handsome, and for providing nearly four hundred rare or beautiful illustrations which really supplement the text.

Although Professor Molmenti takes Venetian private life as his main theme, and uses it as the register of political and national conditions from age to age, yet he nevertheless introduces a thread of historical narrative sufficient to bind his miscellaneous material together. This is well, because it is not the manners and customs, but the historical origins and national evolution, about which historians still dispute; and on these matters Professor Molmenti’s conclusions should have great weight. What sort of refugees fled before Attila to the mud islets of the Lagoon ? What was their relation, after they had established some sort of a communal existence, to the ruler of Italy and to the Eastern Empire ? Molmenti takes the reasonable view in both cases. He thinks that the refugees comprised all classes, although some of the patricians among them may have returned to the mainland towns after the invasion of the barbarian ceased. He thinks, further, that during the first three or four centuries the Venetians acknowledged the overlordship of their powerful neighbors on the West, or of the Byzantine Empire, but without sacrificing their virtual independence. Over this latter point there has been much debate. Students who put amazing faith in shreds of uncertain evidence, would make the Venetians mere everyday vassals; some of the local historians, on the other hand, describe Venice as an independent state from the moment the first fugitive leaped ashore on Rivo Alto.

Whatever the compact may have been on paper, — and as no official documents remain, this can only be conjectured,— the one great fact is that the Venetians did practically maintain their independence. No foreigner ever dictated laws in their city. If they paid tribute, it was to be let alone; if they were vassals, they did not lose their national initiative. In truth, between the time of Theodoric and the age ushered in by Charlemagne, the world was too chaotic for so remote and inconspicuous a community as theirs to attract much attention. They throve, after the Spartan fashion, on hardship. Obscurity was their best defense. And when at last they did excite the ambition of Charlemagne, they had grown to be strong enough to survive him. The adroitness with which during the following centuries they played one Emperor against the other, professing themselves Eastern when the West pressed too hard, and Western when the East threatened their liberty, is one of the marvels of statecraft. The policy seems obvious enough now, but to carry it out successfully for three hundred years without a break gives the measure of their ability.

Brief as are Professor Molmenti’s epitomes of the progress of events, they still serve in this way to reveal the rational point of view. Whoever desires to investigate in detail many of the critical episodes should turn to Mr. Horatio F. Brown’s studies in Venetian history,2 which comprise a score of valuable monographs, and present the conclusions of a critical student on such much-debated subjects as Bajamonte Tiepolo’s conspiracy, Marino Falier, Carmagnola, Caterina Cornaro, and the Spanish Conspiracy. The gem of Mr. Brown’s essays deals with Fra Paolo Sarpi, who has never before been so admirably portrayed in an English essay.

That Molmenti passes over Sarpi with scanty mention, devoting more space to his achievements as a scientist and historian than as a statesman, is due to the general plan of his work. But Sarpi is one of the world’s great men, the embodiment of an eternal principle, which nations can never neglect without putting themselves at the mercy of ecclesiastical domination. Under Sarpi’s guidance, Venice, a thoroughly loyal Catholic country, refused to allow the Pope to interfere in a case which was brought before one of her criminal courts. Rome, flushed by the enthusiasm of the Catholic Reaction, spurred on by the eagerness of the Jesuits and confident of the support of Spain, could not bring Venice to terms. Even the interdict which the Pope laid upon her for a year had no serious effect: it merely showed that the Pope’s threats were harmless. The significant point in this episode is that it was a Catholic nation which thus unmasked the impotence of Papal pretensions, and kept inviolate the separation of State from Church. As this had been the Venetian policy toward Romish encroachments for a thousand years, it would have been proper, even in a book constructed on Molmenti’s plan, to pay more heed to Sarpi and what he stood for.


But when we follow Molmenti along his chosen paths, we have nothing to complain of. He describes the life of the people on all its sides with great detail. We learn from him how the Venetians built their houses, what they wore and ate, how they amused themselves, and what customs they observed at birth, betrothal, marriage, and death. Some of their elaborate pageants pass before us in word-pictures. We go to the Arsenal and see the busy artisans construct and equip the famous galleys. We are told how the Venetians navigated, the volume and directions of their commerce, the extent of their industries. Molmenti analyzes minutely the government of their capital, and explains their colonial system. He surveys their literature and fine arts, their music and drama. He sketches the political constitution, the law codes and procedure, the police, the military, the various councils or committees. And when he comes to individual men and women, Molmenti neglects no type or class, from doge and dogaressa down to the gondoliers and cooks. He does for the Venetians what Green and Traill did for the English people, and Burckhardt for the Italians of the Renaissance, and by his success he demonstrates afresh that the intimate life, the habits, work, and play of human beings, have a perpetual fascination.

As Professor Molmenti divides his work into three sections, we are able to observe the changes in social life from the earlier ages, through the epoch of prime, to the decline and fall. At will, we can trace the social development in its sequence, or we can compare one generation with another. So far as Venice herself goes, this is enough; but we cannot appraise her civilization at any given era without knowing the condition of her contemporaries. Professor Molmenti might have summarized this information without adding much to the bulk of his work.

Take, for example, the question of the treatment of prisoners. Dramatists and romancers have curdled our blood with descriptions of the Pozzi and of the Piombi: and no doubt those dungeons were bad enough; but, relatively, they were better than most of the prisons of the Renaissance; and not merely that, they were better than those which philanthropist Howard found on his pilgrimages through Europe in the eighteenth century, and better than those in which the Emperor of Austria, who still lives, confined political suspects at Mantua less than sixty years ago. So of executions. Writers have argued that the Venetians must have been exceptionally cruel because they commonly resorted to strangling in capital punishment: but if we understand that strangling was regarded as the least painful form, — that the condemned begged for it, when they were consulted, — and that in other countries prisoners were boiled or buried alive, or were destroyed by one of the many diabolical instruments of torture such as are still preserved at Nuremburg, we shall have a better basis for our estimate. Or again, many persons infer from Shakespeare’s Shylock that the Venetians bore harshly on the Jews. The truth is, however, that from about 1550 the Jews in Venice enjoyed unusual privileges compared with their brethren elsewhere in Europe. The last great Venetian patriot, Daniele Manin, the hero of the glorious republic of 1849, was a Jew; the national historian of the Republic — Romania — was a Jew; yet Jews were not allowed to sit in the English Parliament until 1858, and to-day Germany, which we are urged to accept as the leader of civilization, discriminates against Jews. These instances, picked at random, warn us against drawing hasty conclusions as to the humaneness or the morals of a people.

Morals, indeed, fill a large space in these volumes. Venice was the Paris of the Renaissance in the refinements of her luxury, in her insatiable appetite for pleasure, and in voluptuousness. But here, too, we need to know contemporary standards if we would judge intelligently. Until the later centuries, Venice was undoubtedly more refined in dissipation, but not more unbridled, than the other cities of Italy and France. We must remember that, since Puritanism never taught the Venetians to wear a cloak of hypocrisy or of concealment, so it would be unhistoric to censure them for falling below an ideal which they did not profess. Unlike modern plutocrats and fashionable debauchees, they never discovered the easy way of practicing polygamy through divorce. The sexual problem hardly perplexed them, because they made no pretense of solving it by virtue: they simply let nature take her course. This attitude is in part medieval, and in part traceable to Oriental contacts. We must not forget that, until the twilight of decadence fell upon the Venetians, the licence of which they were accused did not enervate them. They held out for several centuries against the demoralizing influence of immense wealth.

In her decline Venice has so dazzled the world that it has never adequately appreciated her greatness. Unfortunately, Molmenti’s work tends to throw her history out of perspective, because he has more material for the last three centuries than for the preceding ten. His reader will remember the scandals, the foppery, the jaded sensuality, the joyless gayety, the lukewarm adulteries, of the eighteenth century, which are recorded in elaborate detail; and he will forget the strenuous

ages of preparation, the patient building up of character, and the long reign of sagacity and soberness, about which the information is more meagre or less picturesque. Yet, until Doge Tommaso Mocenigo died, in 1423, the old ideals prevailed; and not until after the death of Sarpi, in 1623, did magnificence give way to decrepitude. Thanks to innumerable reporters, whether they were foreign visitors or native diarists and satirists, we can follow that decrepitude day by day. But the real Venice, the Venice that rose to be a world-power in the Middle Age, must be sought in the chronicles of her prime. So, whoever would know the ideals and strength of the American Commonwealth must go, not to the disreputable journals of to-day which write up the vices of the dissolute rich, but to the story of the colonists of Plymouth, of the Massachusetts Bay, and of Virginia, and to the biographies of Washington and of his contemporaries.

We need to insist on this point in the case of Venice because the topical treatment, which serves Signor Molmenti admirably in most of his work, tends to exaggeration when it is employed to describe gambling, drunkenness, or other vices. The investigator, collecting all the evidence that he can, leaves on you the impression that the entire community was the slave of whatever vice he has chosen to study. In actual life, we form a saner estimate, because we may have acquaintances who are not drunkards, or we may know of drunkards who are not drunk all the time. Let not the reader of Molmenti, therefore, be too much absorbed by the chronique scandaleuse (all true) of her magnificent dissolution, but let him rather turn back to the annals of her dauntless youth and noble prime.


For it is with nations as with individuals — we should fix our attention on what is significant, on the characteristic and seminal, and not on the colorless or commonplace. Goethe, for instance, must have eaten a thousand meals a year during every one of his four-score years; and no doubt some German is laboriously compiling an account of those eighty thousand meals: but even if he could recover every bill of fare, he would probably help us very little in understanding Goethe’s genius or in explaining his conduct. So what should interest us in the history of Venice is, not those qualities which she shared with others at any given period, nor the symptoms of decay which are common to all highly-civilized peoples in their last stages, but those qualities which belonged primarily to her, which differentiated her from all her fellows, and made her of right move as queen among the nations for well-nigh five hundred years.

Viewed in this light, her history has many claims to attention. Her capital city offers the most marvelous example of the subduing of natural difficulties by human ingenuity of which we have any record. Her very existence depended upon keeping a perfect adjustment with the tides, whose maximum range was only eighteen inches, and with the alternating floods and low water of the rivers which flowed into the Lagoon. To achieve this, she had to rely upon experts, and her municipal business ran like clock-work long before other cities had taken steps to secure the most obvious necessaries, such as paving, drainage, and police. Every detail of her civic life was carefully thought out; and so of her commerce, by which she grew rich and powerful. Her trade, regulated by experts, was not left to the haphazard of individual initiative. Her fleet of merchantmen went forth and returned with the orderliness of the seasons.

In the central government itself experts swarmed to a degree which has not been matched elsewhere. Doge, procurators, senators, decemvirs, inquisitors of state, judges, ambassadors, — each underwent a searching test. By an intricate system, which nevertheless worked with little or no friction, a single individual passed in rotation from office to office, so that, by the time he had risen to be procurator or doge, he knew, by actual experience, every cog of the machinery of the State. The interlocking of responsibility and the short tenure of office — except in the case of the doge, round whom other safeguards were thrown — put a check on dishonesty. As the crying need of our various governments, especially the municipal, is for expert rule, we might do well to study the Venetian system. Venice also learned the wisdom of intrusting the administration of her affairs to commissions, and she devised a way to keep these commissions both efficient and honest.

The fact that the Venetian Republic was not only an oligarchy, but an almost perfect example of that form of government, renders her history of rare interest. Her growth was so entirely normal, and her longevity so extraordinary, that we can trace the rack-and-pinion interaction of cause and effect better perhaps than in the annals of any other nation. We see how, having converted the handicap of her geographical environment into her chief source of strength, she fell at last a victim to geography: for after Da Gama found the ocean route to India, nothing could preserve to her the mercantile primacy of Europe. That lost, her decline was inevitable.

In modern times, England has been the nearest parallel to Venice, enjoying by her isolation a unique opportunity to develop her industries, her carrying trade, and her empire over-seas. The time seems to have come when England’s supremacy must wane, not through the discovery of another Da Gama, but through the catching up of other nations. India and South Africa and the Far East are her Cyprus and Levant, and we may expect that one by one these imperial possessions will fall from her grasp as surely as the Venetian possessions slipped away from the Queen of the Adriatic. History may never repeat itself in details, but states, like all organizations, have their fated limits, and resemble one another in the stages of their evolution.

Historically, Venice performed the very important service of intermediary. In space, she was for centuries the chief link between Eastern and Western Christendom; in time, she bridged the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the modern European States; in politics, she perfected an oligarchy, which had many of the attributes of the ancient republics, together with a sort of absolutism diffused through an entire aristocracy instead of being concentrated in a single autocrat; in activity, she devoted herself to commerce during an era when the rest of the world made fighting its chief concern; in religion, she acknowledged the Roman creed, but she had her own patriarch and resisted, as long as her vigor held out, every Papal encroachment; in spirit, she was tolerant amid a world of fanatics; in commerce, she was so non-partisan that the ships in which she transported Crusaders to fight the Saracens, came back freighted with Saracen merchandise. Her composite nature can still be seen exemplified in her architecture, in which Roman, Byzantine, and Gothic met and designed buildings of strange and matchless beauty.

These are some of the reasons why the history of Venice concerns us today; 3 they may be deduced from a careful reading of Molmenti, even when he seems chiefly intent on describing manners. Whoever perceives that Venice has this significance, will look with all the greater astonishment on the magic city, which seems to be the embodied dream of poets and young lovers, but was really the creation of grave, far-sighted statesmen, staunch patricians, who were also merchants. Though they were very powerful, they revered beauty; though very rich, they knew how to give great dignity to their splendor. They attained to that union of the practical and the beautiful which our modern world gropes after in vain. New York City, with twenty-five times as many inhabitants as Venice at her zenith, might be swallowed up by earthquake without depriving posterity of a single original contribution of supreme value to any of the fine arts; but were any one of twenty Venetian palaces or churches to be destroyed, the world would be the poorer for all time to come.

To externize Power as Beauty; to show that a nation’s strength lies, riot in undeveloped multitudes, but in the number of its citizens who have intelligence, enterprise, and character; to count on industry and not on luck — these are among the things that Venice teaches. And in spite of the fact that her government was oligarchic, she made all her children love her with an almost personal devotion, and her subjects on the mainland preferred her rule to independence. The solution of modern problems does not lie in organizing an oligarchy after the Venetian pattern; but the State of the future, the ideal democracy, must emulate the sagacity and justice, the high average well-being, the national solidarity, the respect for reason, and the delight in beauty, which had their home in Venice, if it would do as much for its scores of millions of people, as the Venetian oligarchy did for its half million.

  1. Venice. Its Individual Growth from the Earliest Beginnings to the Fall of the Republic. By POMPEO MOLMENTI. Translated by HORATIO F. BROWN. Part I. The Middle Ages, 2 vols. Part II. The Golden Age, 2 vols. Part III. The Decadence, 2 vols. Chicago : A. C. McClurg & Co. 1906-08.
  2. Studies in Venetian History. By HORATIO F. BROWN. 2 volumes. New York : E. P. Dutton & Co. 1907.
  3. The recent, renewal of interest in this history is shown by the publication of the following works: Horatio F. Brown: Venice: An Historical Sketch of the Republic (Putnam, 1893) ; and Studies in Venetian History (Dutton, 1907) ; W. C. Hazlitt: The Venetian Republic (2 vols., Black, 1900); F. C. Hodgson: The Early History of Venice (George Allen, 1901); William R. Thayer : A Short History of Venice (Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1905); and Molmenti : Venice, (6 vols., McClurg, 1906-08). F. Marion Crawford’s Salve Venetia (2 vols., Macmillan, 1906) hardly falls within the category of history.