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« In Which This Supreme Art Was A Sunset »

The Glory of Venice


One day during the Renaissance — that cultural convulsion by which the modern world was born from the Middle Ages — the rulers of Venice met to debate an offer of murder. For a consideration the Archbishop of Trebizond had volunteered to poison Marsiglio da Carrara, the ruler of Padua. The minutes of the meeting survive. For the Republic of Venice, the first modern state and the most stable and efficient government in Europe between the fall of Rome and the rise of Britain, left the most massive and detailed secret files in history.

"Inasmuch," say the official minutes, "as the said archbishop offers to poison Marsiglio da Carrara by means of Francesco Pierlamberti of Lucca, and wishes to travel in person with the said Francesco that he may assure himself of the actual execution of the deed; but for this purpose he requires a poison, which he charges himself to have made by a capable poison master if the money be supplied him. Be it resolved that for making the poison, for necessary expenses, and for buying a horse for the said archbishop — for his own is dead — the sum of 50 ducats out of our treasury be given to the archbishop and his companion. Francesco Pierlamberti. Ayes 10; noes 5, doubtful 1."

Modern readers to whom the weapons of Renaissance politics are unfamiliar may be shocked to learn that for more than 500 years Venice employed an official poisoner; that at various times Venice attempted to poison the Holy Roman Emperor, the King of Hungary, two despots of Milan, the Sultan of Turkey, Charles VIII of France, Pope Pius IV and the Czar of Russia.

They may be further surprised to know that Venice invented bacterial warfare. In 1649 she sent a physician with a flask containing buboes to spread bubonic plague among the Turkish army in Crete. "Veneossissima ac resurgens vipera," a French ambassador once called her, "a very venomous and indestructible viper."

In part this passion for poison as an instrument of policy was a custom of the times (insanity from poisoning was so common that the Renaissance had a name for it — erberia). In part it was due to the republic's peculiar position — a cluster of sea islands at the head of the Adriatic, through the ages threatened by Franks, Lombards, the Papacy, Milan, Genoa (Venice's great naval rival), France, Spain, Hungary, the Byzantine empire and the furious lunges of the Ottoman Turks. In part it was a heritage of that gorgeous East for whose commerce and culture Venice, during the centuries of her greatness, was the golden gate to Europe.

For Venice was almost as much an Eastern as a Western city. The aura of Asia was over her as the fragrance of spice is said to envelop the Spice Islands, spreading far out to the sea. It gleamed in the brilliant tessellation of her piazzas and the Byzantine mosaics of her church walls. It glowed in gold, jewels and marble from that cathedral — St. Mark's, ornate like a Byzantine crown — in which the unmatable styles of Gothic and Byzantine meet, and as in a baffling marriage, blend.

Eastern violence and despotism were implicit in her government, a close oligarchy of patrician merchants run by the Council of Ten, whose motto was "Secretezza et Iterum Secretezza" ("Secrecy, and Then More Secrecy"). The council's life-and-death decisions were usually without appeal and beyond review. Its nocturnal police were the sinister Signori di Notte (Lords of the Night). Its agents, the dread Sbirri, commonly made arrests by muffling their victims' heads in their cloaks before whisking them into prison. The Orient was incarnate, too, in the doges, the dukes of the Venetian Republic, whose dignity was imperial but who more and more tended to be resplendent figureheads and presiding ornaments of the state's sumptuous pageantry.

In the 15th and 16th Centuries the long latent esthetic genius of Venice ignited from the Italian Renaissance an Oriental sunburst of color and an Oriental voluptuousness, fleshly and fluent. These combined with a vigor born of seafaring and a sense of space and tumultuous motion born of wind and waves. This whirled Venetian painting to heights rarely attained in the history of art.

The sumptuousness of the forms which was so much a part of the glory of Venice had flowered from 12 mud banks. Venice was born in the agonies of Rome's death. (It died, 14 centuries later, the oldest state on earth, in the birth pangs of modern Europe at the hands of the French Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte.) Her founders were displaced persons, Roman fugitives from the Huns. About 450 they fled, in the shipwreck of their world, to the marshy Venetian islands and joined the handful of original settlers, simple fisherman, saltmakers and perhaps a few patricians who hoped to ride out the collapse of civilization near what, in quieter times, had been their seaside villas.

On clear days the refugees could see across the Lagoon the source from which the land of their refuge had come — the blue line of the Alps. The 12 mud banks have been washed down through the ages from these mountains by the rivers of north Italy's fertile plain.

The key to Venice's greatness was her destitution. Everything had to be brought to the islands - vegetables, fruit, grain, cloth, wood (and later stone) for building. While the rest of Europe shattered into a thousand quarreling feudal castles, concerned chiefly with fighting and farming, Venice looked seaward and lived by the only means she had — trade.

Unlike the mass of medieval men, the Venetians were never tied to the soil. Venice knew no serfs. She scarcely knew the Middle Ages, remaining throughout those battlemented times Europe's one great city which never built a wall. So her people, despite the paternalistic despotism of their government, felt the freedom of seafarers who can never be regimented because they are always on the move. They kept for 1,000 years the independence of mind of those who daily mix with men of other nations and creeds. They kept, in form at least, the government of a republic. Other Italian city-states came under the power of individual despots and fell, after the Renaissance, in the rising surge of European nationalism. But Venice kept the flexibility of a government in which many of the people retained the right, if not the real power, to govern themselves.

At first the Venetians traded with the mainland in light, shallow boats which, with the addition of the slender beak and stern post, graceful as the curve of lifting waves, would one day become gondolas. But the open sea was the buoyant highway. Beyond its tossing horizon lay the rich bazaars of Antioch and Alexandria and the golden domes of Constantinople, opulent capital of the Byzantine Empire, of which Venice at first was a nominal dependency.

In time her galleys, powered by wind or banks of rowing slaves and grouped in convoys for protection, drove down the Dalmatian coast, into the mouth of the Nile, through the Bosphorus and her merchants planted a trading post in the Crimea.

She has been called "a joint stock company for the exploitation of the East." For 500 years Venice lived for little else. Trade was the pulse of policy and trade tempered for Venice the crusading enthusiasms of medieval Europe. Moslems and Christians alike were her customers. Trade made Venice prefer peace to war, which was itself but a reflex of trade and which she waged fiercely when she had to. Trade defined her foreign policy, which consisted in supporting her weakest neighbor until he became strong enough to threaten her, at which she abandoned him.

Discovery was a thrust of trade, which drove her merchants to some of the most famous explorations in history. It drove the three most famous of the merchants — Marco Polo and his father and uncle — to open up to the incredulous Middle Ages the wonders of Kublai Khan's China, India and unheard of Cipango (Japan). When, in the age of discovery, Columbus stumbled upon a new world, his portentous miscalculation was largely based on the dog-eared copy of Marco Polo's travels, which he kept always by him.

Her empire came to Venice not like Britain's in what has been called "moments of absentmindedness" but as a calculated commercial risk. She acquired Istria for wood for her ships. She acquired Dalmatia to control the coastal pirates. She acquired Aegean islands, the Morea and Crete in the shipwreck of Byzantium, which she helped the crusaders to conquer in order to reinforce her monopoly of Eastern trade. To secure her food supply she eventually acquired possessions on the Italian mainland, extending from Lake Como on the west to the mouth of the Po on the south.

All these territorial treasures, widely separated by the sea, were threaded together by her shuttling ships, which she standardized (for Venice knew about standardization before Henry Ford) so that her trading galleys were quickly convertible to ships of war. Her galleys were built in the Arsenal, which was the dynamo of Venetian sea power.

Dante, seeing in a vision the lake of burning pitch in Hell, could think of only one comparison:

Quale nell Arzana de' Veneziani

Bolle l'inverno la tenace pece...

As in the Arsenal at Venice,

in winter they boil the sticky pitch...

During the Renaissance, in the 14th and 15th centuries, the Arsenal was the world's biggest industrial plant, manufacturing everything from nails to cannons, turning out complete ships on its assembly line. "As one enters the gate," wrote a Spanish visitor in 1436, "there is a great street on either hand with the sea in the middle, and on one side are windows opening out of the houses of the Arsenal, and the same on the other side. And out came a galley towed by a boat, and from the windows they handed out to them, from one the cordage, from another the bread, from another the arms, and from another the ballistas and mortars, and so from all sides everything that was required. And when the galley had reached the end of the street, all the men required were on board, together with the complement of oars, and she was fully equipped from end to end. in this manner there came out 10 galleys fully armed, between the hours of 3 and 9."

In 1570, during the war with the Turks, the Arsenal turned out 100 fully outfitted galleys in 100 days. Four years later, when King Henry III of France dropped in, he was shown a galley with only the keel and ribs in position. Then he sat down to a two-hour feast. When he got up the galley, now completely constructed, equipped, armed and manned, was launched in his presence.

If this dynamo hummed with the shipbuilding that floated Venetian power, the city hummed with the life that depended on the ships. The Rialto, the main bridge over the Grand Canal, was the hub of commercial Venice. The surrounding wharves, streets and piazzas teemed with the most cosmopolitan population in the world — Turks, Byzantine Greeks, Cretans, French, Spanish, English, Russians, Germans, even a delegation of Japanese. The docks were piled high with Venetian export goods — salt and salt fish, wooden utensils, wrought iron, damask and cloth of gold for which the city was famous, woolen goods, gold and silver filigree work and the wonderful Venetian glass from the little island of Murano, the most beautiful glass that Europe has ever produced.

Carpaccio's Healing of a Madman, 1494

The galleys, moored in the heart of the city, unloaded the spoils of Europe, Asia and Africa — silks, satins, cotton goods, furs, spices and sandalwood from as far away as Timor, and marble looted from the temples of Greece or Syria for the churches of Venice.

This tide of wealth rose on the docks of Renaissance Venice and flooded the lives of Venetians with an unparalleled prosperity. It was visible in the characteristic Venetian manner — the air of authority, luxury and indolent well-being in the city's gorgeous trappings and, above all, in the magnificent panoply of the official festivities.

One of these festivities occurred whenever a new doge was installed. on that occasion the craft guilds, each in a different costume, marched past the doge, two by two, in ostentatious parade. The furriers were dressed in ermine. The clothes of the 10 master sailors were decorated with vermilion stars. The master weavers of gold cloth were dressed in cloth of gold and garlands of pearls, and the master glassmakers in fur-trimmed scarlet. The goldsmiths wore garlands and necklaces of gold and silver, pearls, sapphires, emeralds, diamonds, topazes, jacinths, rubies. The clothmakers carried trumpets, cups of silver and jars of wine, and the comb and lantern makers carried lanterns filled with live birds.

But the most impressive festival of the Venetian year was the wedding of Venice and the sea, La Sposalizio, held on Ascension Day — originally to commemorate the victory of Doge Pietro Orseolo II over the Dalmatians in the year 1000. The doge would appear on his official barge, the Bucentaur, rowed by young merchant princes. Thousands of gondolas and other craft would follow in his wake to the Lido, the sandy spit at the edge of the Venetian Lagoon.

The Bishop of Castello rowed out to meet the doge and offered him peeled chestnuts, red wine and a bunch of red roses in a silver vase. After prayers the bishop blessed a gold ring. The doge then rose from his seat, threw the ring into the Adriatic and cried, "Desponsamus te, mare, in signum veri perpetuique dominii Serenissimae Republicae Venetae" (We wed thee, Sea, in sign of the true and perpetual domination of the Most Serene Venetian Republic). After Mass the doge held a great reception and official feast. The Piazza San Marco became the scene of a great fair, where the reveling went on uninterruptedly for eight days.

From all over Europe men came to see the city whose merchants in power and luxury were the peers of Europe's monarchs. Dante, on the long inferno of his exile from Florence, wandered beside her canals. Petrarch, humanist, sonneteer, sometimes called "the first modern man," visited Venice and in grateful memory bequeathed her his incomparable collection of ancient manuscripts and books, for which Venice built the world's first public library.

Benevenuto Cellini, swinging between murder and masterpieces of silverwork, was her guest. Pietro Aretino, "the scourge of kings" and prototype of today's columnist, penned from Venice the wittily scandalous personal attacks for which the great men of the Renaissance paid him to desist. In Venice he was safe from the daggers of outraged victims and the rack of the Inquisition, since Venice never permitted the Church a free hand on her soil. Manuel Chrysoloras and the other Eastern scholars who taught Italy to read Homer in the original entered the West through the water gate of Venice.

Few of them lingered long, for Venice was not, like Florence, a conflagration of the mind. But they brought to the splendid, worldly, commercial city of the sea the turmoil of the mind which we call the Renaissance. For like nearly everything else, the Renaissance too was imported into Venice.

Every great civilization is no more than the effort of the men who briefly compose it to arrest and perpetuate in art, in literature, in politics, in religion, their vision of the meaning of life. To medieval man the meaning of life had been salvation. He looked about him, and the logic of his judgment seemed to him irrefutable: the world being what it was, happiness here was difficult and transitory. not all but much of the energies of his mind were directed to achieving life beyond this world.

Renaissance man also looked about him and his cry of exultation was epitomized by the greatest of Renaissance poets, Shakespeare, in lines that might have been uttered at the Creation: "...This goodly frame, the earth...this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire! What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like angel! In apprehension how like a god!..."

This revolutionary shift in viewpoint came slowly. There are roots of the Renaissance in the Middle Ages. Medieval traces lingered into the Renaissance. But by the 14th century the Middle Ages had grown tired. They were exhausted by their prodigious effort to create a new civilization from the debris left by fallen Rome, exhausted by the effort of the medieval mind to capture God in abstract definitions, exhausted by their piety. Men did not forsake the Church, but they sought a new authority for their yearnings and thought that they had found it in the half-effaced or forgotten literary, architectural and sculptural remains of Greece and Rome. In their longing they prospected as eagerly for these classical treasures as men now prospect for oil.

The Italian earth was full of buried statues. The monasteries were filled with buried works of classical greatness — Plato, Homer, Lucretius, Horace, Cicero, Tacitus, Apuleius — evidences of a lost world of light, reason and luxury. The ancient seed stirred in the ancient Italian soil and, like the harvest of the dragon's teeth, there burst forth, at this contact with the Hellenic and Roman past, Renaissance man.

Violence and individualism were the mode of the Renaissance. Often invididualism took the form of a criminal passion for political power. Borgias, Medici, Carraras, Visconti and Sforzas quite literally waded through blood to make themselves masters of some city and its countryside, no bigger than an American county. But there was also violence in the consuming passion with which literary men and scholars threw themselves into the study of classical Latin and Greek or devoured the ancient authors, seeking to produce a new classical literature of Ciceronian elegance and a philosophy that would blend Christianity and Plato. There was violence in the effort of individual men to pack multiple careers into one lifetime. Lorenzo de' Medici was a statesman, financier, poet, musician, Hellenist, playboy. Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini was a scholar, a poet and a politician who finally became a pope. Leonardo da Vinci was a painter of the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, a military engineer, a scientist and aeronautical experimenter.

Renaissance man aspired to be "l'uomo universale" (the universal man). "Men," said Leon Alberti with the voice of modernity, "can do all things if they will." This optimism led to monstrous excesses and magnificent achievements. It also led to an unusual human equality. In the Renaissance world of uncommon men a talented peasant was rated the superior of a dull duke and was treated as such.

This violent enfranchisement of the mind and prowess of the individual man was the meaning of the Renaissance. As creative imagination, it found a supreme expression in painting. In this art the greatness of the Renaissance and the greatness of Venice flowed together.

The imagination of Venice was practical and fully occupied by the arts of governing men, seafaring and sumptuous living. To the intellectual ferment of the Renaissance she added little. But there is a genius of place, and Venice was caught by a visual music of the sea and air. The water sucked at the mooring posts, lapping the stone stairs of the docks. Over the city, air quivered like liquid glass and blazes with lights reverberated by the sea or softened into mist which deposited salt crystals on the tinted facades of the palazzi. Sometimes the sky was tumultuous with such storms as ships sustain on the open sea. Always, in immense contrasting silence, the clouds sailed, like fleets, out to the Adriatic.

This color saturated Venice from the sky and water. And while the city went about her daily, worldly tasks of buying and selling, it entered, like the beauty born of murmuring sound, into her stony face as each palazzo, bridge and ship rode above its shadow in the still canals. This dreamy presence beside the water shimmered into incomparable life in the art of seven great painters: Gentil and Giovanni Bellini, Carpaccio, Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese.

There is an art of irreducible simplicities: tragic, as man reviews his fate in the light of the qualities of nobility, justice and compassion that are his claim to greatness; ironic, as with courage, the quality that makes it possible for him to persist at all, he reviews the absurdity of his dilemma. This is the art of Giotto and Michelangelo. But there is another art — an art of the grace of opulence, of the fully ripened character of the full-blown flesh, of the fruit sun-seasoned to bursting, of life without the implications of fate. Of this art, adult and autumnal, the Venetians were the masters.

This supreme art was a sunset. By the 17th century the conquest of Byzantium by the Turks had shut off Venetian trade with the East. With the opening of the new sea route to Asia and the New World, Venice lived more and more on small change and past greatness. She did not go down at once. Anchored on her islands, she swung with the currents of history in which she no longer played a decisive role. For two more centuries she listed, settling as a doomed ship settles until, when Napoleon arrived and Wordsworth wrote his obituary sonnet, she sank.

"Men are we," Wordsworth wrote, that is to say, the only living creatures which conserve in memory the cultures that have made us what we are. The shade of Venice's greatness has merged with history's deeper shadows. The panoply, the lavish life, the teeming trade, lie with her galleys fathoms deep in time. But the memory of the Sea-born City haunts us still, like the luminous streak left by an oar at night or Dante's tremolo del mar — the tremulous play of light and waves at sea.

Whittaker Chambers died in 1961.

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Reader Comments (2)

loved it

November 13, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterbob

More information about Whittaker Chambers is available at http://www.whittakerchambers.org/

November 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Chambers

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