Preferred Citation: Bouwsma, William J. A Usable Past: Essays in European Cultural History. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.

11 Venice and the Political Education of Europe


Venice and the Political Education of Europe

This essay aimed to display the continuing influence of the Italian Renaissance over the political attitudes of Europe in later centuries, as mediated by the Venetian Republic. The essay originally appeared in Renaissance Venice, ed. J. R. Hale (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), and it is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher .

Renaissance Florence has long been considered the origin in European history of a concern with politics as an autonomous study. Faced with the problems of governing a turbulent but independent republic, anxious to insure her survival in a precarious world that seemed to be ruled only by power, and nourished by the rediscovered political culture of antiquity, thoughtful Florentines, in a process that reached a climax with Machiavelli and Guicciardini, began to articulate realistic principles of political effectiveness and to define its limits. In this sense Florence contributed to the education of modern Europe as a congeries of particular powers, like Florence the products of their separate histories, whose policies would be determined by some calculation of political interest.

The role of Venice in transmitting the attitudes and the lessons of Renaissance politics to the larger European world has been less clearly recognized, partly because of the preoccupation of recent historians with Florence, partly because the Venetian contribution to political discourse was relatively late.[1] The government of Venice impressed other Europeans primarily when Italy as a whole was no longer an inspiring spectacle; for this, as well as for other reasons, Venice presented herself as a unique example of political wisdom. Furthermore her own major spokes-


men, Gasparo Contarini, Paolo Paruta, Enrico Davila, and perhaps above all Paolo Sarpi, were men not of the fifteenth but of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. This chronology, however, should not obscure the fact that Venice represented in the modern world the central political values of Renaissance republicanism, which she made available to the rest of Europe in a singularly attractive and provocative form.

The European perception of Venice was not entirely, or perhaps even primarily, the consequence of reading Venetian writers. although their works were widely studied and deeply admired. Furthermore, men saw in Venice what they wanted to see. Venice possessed, nevertheless, a definable political culture;[2] and what the Venetians had to say will therefore be helpful in understanding the general interest of Europeans elsewhere in the Venetian achievement.

The most general element in the political ideal to which Venetian writers exposed their audience was a ubiquitous secularism. They were not hostile to religion; indeed, like most of their compatriots, they were demonstrably men of faith, albeit of a kind uncongenial to the developing orthodoxy of the Counter-Reformation; and this fact doubtless contributed to the esteem for Venice among pious Gallicans and Protestants. Their secularism was expressed rather in an antipathy to speculative systems that impose an artificial coherence on all values and experience and thereby claim a right to supervise, among other matters, the political order. They were the enemies not of religion but of metaphysics, and of the notion that the conduct of human affairs should be determined by some comprehensive vision of the nature of things. Their secularism was thus the necessary condition of an autonomous politics, an autonomous culture, and the full appreciation of human freedom.

This characteristic of the Venetian mind found especially vigorous expression in the hostility to Scholasticism and to the dogmatic temperament in general that permeated Sarpi's treatment of the Council of Trent and makes him seem so clearly a predecessor of Gibbon. Sarpi displayed much the same zest as some leading figures of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in showing up the presumption in all intellectual system building, its tendency to close men off from the actualities of human experience, and its exploitation to disguise and advance a crude libido dominandi . The Venetian approach to human affairs—though Contarini was a partial exception—was earthbound and empirical. Its refusal to force the data of human experience into large systems was notably exhibited in the preference of Venetian writers for exposition through dialogues in which various points of view may find expression without explicit resolution. This familiar Renaissance form was em-


ployed by Paruta. It was also, slightly disguised, a favorite device in Sarpi's great work.

Their rejection of system was fundamental for the Venetians to the appreciation of a wide range of human concerns. If there was no universal pattern which bound all things into a single scheme, the subordination of one set of values to another, of one area of experience to another, and indeed of one class of men to another was no longer defensible, except perhaps on the most practical grounds. The implications for political life were here especially clear. Reason of state could no longer find its justification in eternal reason, and there was thus no alternative to a secular politics. The consequence was full recognition of the dignity of the lay estate and of political activity; and this tendency in Venetian discourse was, I suspect, a substantial element in its attractions for European readers. It provided another of Sarpi's major themes, but it emerged with particular clarity in Paruta's defence of civic life.[3] We may also take Paruta as an example of Venetian appreciation of the autonomy of other dimensions of human culture.

Paruta artfully set his dialogue on this subject at the final session of the Council of Trent. This setting enabled him to divide its participants into two groups: on one side, representing the systematic approach to politics, a number of learned bishops; on the other, several Venetian ambassadors. The issue was joined by one of the bishops who, having listened impatiently as the laymen discussed their embassies, their travels, and their experiences throughout Europe, belligerently denounced their worldly activities and contrasted the tedium of service to society with his own leisurely contemplation of higher things. He argued that active commitment to the service of an earthly community is inferior, both relatively in the degree of happiness it provides, and absolutely in the values it represents, to a life devoted to the eternal verities. The active life is a weariness to the flesh and filled with sinful temptations. Above all, it tempts men to prefer an earthly city to the City of God, and of course it is obvious to what city he refers. The wise man, he argued, perceives "that all men ought to be regarded as citizens of this great city of the universe, just as we have all been given one identical eternal law for our governance, one same heavenly father . . . one same head and ruler to govern us and give us everything that is good among us, God, best and greatest. No other homeland have we than nature, no other law, no other family, no other prince."[4] And Paruta's Venetians understood immediately that what was here proposed was a comprehensive ideal at every point antagonistic to their own: a life without particular foci of experience or particular attachments to persons or places; a life


that finds no value in the daily emotional and sensory encounters of human existence; a life in which the entire moral experience provided by society has only a negative value. Their defense of civic life was mounted on many fronts, but precisely because only life in society can provide for the whole, complex range of human capabilities, which cannot legitimately be prejudged, subsumed under any single principle, and organized in hierarchies. They insisted on the claims to human affection not only of particular states, which supply the context for all other values, but of family and friends, of the arts, and even of wealth. Political life was perfect for Paruta, because of its range and its refusal to discriminate: that is, because of its secularity. The relation of these attitudes to some belief in the dignity and value of human freedom is also close. Hostility to the authoritarianism of the Counter-Reformation in matters of belief permeated the writings of Sarpi, who condoned coercion only where the social order was at stake; and the personal liberty afforded by Venice was a perennial element in the European image of the Republic. In various ways, therefore, the Venetians supplied an idealistic justification for modern patriotism.

As the reflections of Paruta have already suggested, the rejection of universal intellectual systems had a counterpart in the rejection of political universalism, and this bias in the political culture of Venice doubtless also contributed to its wider acceptability. The values attributed to Venice and the patriotism they called forth were equally applicable to other particular states, but not to a universal empire. Paruta himself devoted many pages to a criticism of ancient Roman universalism, which he judged both politically ineffectual and, in comparison with the small states of ancient Greece, artistically and intellectually sterile.[5] The same arguments were equally effective, as the Venetians were aware, against the universalism promoted by the Counter-Reformation papacy.

Venetian politics were based, therefore, on the need to defend the integrity of particular states. The Venetian interdict of 1606–1607, so widely publicized throughout Europe, was, among other things, the first of the great seventeenth-century conflicts over sovereignty; and Sarpi had argued the cause of Venice in terms well calculated to have a broad appeal. "I cannot refrain from saying," he advised his government, "that no injury penetrates more deeply into a principate than when its majesty, that is to say sovereignty, is limited and subjected to the laws of another. A prince who possesses a small part of the world is equal in this respect to one who possesses much, nor was Romulus less a prince than Trajan, nor is your Serenity now greater than your forebears when their empire had not extended beyond the lagoons. He who takes away a part of his


state from a prince makes him a lesser prince but leaves him a prince; he who imposes laws and obligations on him deprives him of the essence of a prince, even if he possesses the whole of Asia."[6] And the case for the local settlement of local issues was still another important theme in his history of the council. As he made a Gallican prelate at the council remark, "It would be a great absurdity to watch Paris burn when the Seine and Marne are full of water, in the belief that it was necessary to wait to put out the fire for water from the Tiber."[7] Venetian political culture corresponded, then, to what was more and more clearly destined to be the shape of the European community of nations.

The rejection of systems and of the notion of hierarchy posed a serious danger to political existence, however, because it deprived society, both domestic and international, of its traditional principle of order. The Florentines had discovered the solution to this problem in the idea of balance, which was destined to supplant the hierarchical principle of order at almost the same time in both science and politics. Venice largely owed her survival, in a world dominated by great powers, to a calculated exploitation of the balance of power, and her writers tended to take this for granted. The case was quite different, however, for the internal structure of states; and Venetian publicists were long concerned to account for the order and effectiveness of the Republic by describing its balanced constitution. Contarini's classic work on this subject at times justified Venetian arrangements by appealing rather mechanically to the eternal order of nature, an argument which doubtless did not weaken his case with some of his later readers.[8]

But Contarini was too much of a Venetian to remain long with metaphysics; the order with which he was really concerned was that provided by effective government. "In our city," he boasted, "no popular tumult or sedition has ever occurred";[9] and his explanation of this remarkable fact was understandably of peculiar interest for Europeans whose own societies had been demonstrably less fortunate. The secret of Venetian success, Contarini revealed, was her constitution, which held the potentially antagonistic forces of the political arena in a complementary equilibrium. "Such moderation and proportion characterize this Republic," he declared, "and such a mixture of all suitable estates, that this city by itself incorporates at once a princely sovereignty, a governance of the nobility, and a rule of citizens, so that the whole appears as balanced as equal weights."[10] And since this happy arrangement of checks and balances was severely impersonal, it pointed also to a government of laws rather than of men. But its ultimate test was utilitarian. "The whole purpose of civil life consists in this," Contarini insisted:


"that, by the easiest way possible, the citizens may share in a happy life."[11] Venice supplied, therefore, both a secular ideal and the means for its fulfillment.

Venetian constitutionalism received even wider, if less explicit, dissemination through the great work of Sarpi, which submits the papacy, as a species of governance, to searching scrutiny and finds it wanting largely because of its failure to realize the admirable principles exhibited by the Venetian government. Sarpi argued that the church had originated as a free, spiritual, and democratic body; and he showed how it had degenerated, step by step, through the classic sequence of forms described by Machiavelli, until it had at last emerged as the naked tyranny of the contemporary papacy, a particularly odious example of government by men rather than by laws. Here too the popularity of Sarpi's masterpiece had far more than a religious meaning.

Sarpi's vision of the development of ecclesiastical government over the centuries brings us to a final major contribution of Venetian political culture to the rest of Europe: its increasingly sophisticated historicism, which brought into a single focus the secularism, the particularism, and the constitutionalism of the Venetian tradition. These impulses were combined with a grasp of history as a process largely transcending individual acts which, it seems to me, went substantially beyond the hints at this conception in Florentine historiography. Even Contarini's De republica Venetorum , which otherwise displayed little historical sense, had suggested the idea of temporal process in applying the familiar platitude that Venice, following the course of biological nature, might decay;[12] and Paruta, an admirer of both Thucydides and Guicciardini, coolly analyzed the evolution of curial institutions,[13] described the broad changes in Venetian policy over the centuries,[14] and dealt with Roman history as a long decline through such natural causes as her limited economic base, her defective constitution, her militarism, and her excessive greatness.[15] He also expounded the idea of the progress of civilization to account for the contemporary splendors of Venice.[16] Davila was deeply interested in the remote causes for the recent tribulations of France, finding them in her constitution.[17] And Sarpi blamed the papal tyranny not primarily on the wickedness of worldly and ambitious popes but on the general decay of political authority in the early Middle Ages. To those who attributed the Protestant revolt to the actions of a single, nefarious man, he replied that Luther "was only one of the means, and the causes were more potent and recondite."[18]

Notable among the Venetian writers was a strong sense of the autonomy of history, of the obligation to confront the data exposed by


historical research directly, without dogmatic preconceptions, and so to get at truth. During the interdict an anonymous Venetian pamphleteer had been bold enough to express a doubt that Charlemagne had truly received the Empire as a gift from the pope, and Bellarmine had angrily accused him of "heresy in history." The Venetian had not hesitated to set the matter straight; he retorted, "There cannot be heresy in history which is profane and not contained in Holy Scripture."[19] Sarpi insisted more than once that historical truth was a matter not of authority but of fact; and authority, he noted, "cannot alter things already done."[20] The famous history of his Venetian contemporary Enrico Davila also owed much of its conviction to its cool objectivity and its apparent freedom from confessional prejudice, and Davila was explicitly sensitive to the problem of bias.[21] Sarpi's bias is, of course, strongly evident, but his professedly empirical method was well calculated to make it appear the product, rather than the motive and organizing principle, of his research. He once compared the council to a great lake fed by numerous tiny rivulets and gradually spreading out over Europe; the task of the historian, in this light, was to follow each of these brooklets to its source.[22] At the same time Sarpi was not naive; he recognized the problem of selection, comparing himself to a harvester who found some fields more productive than others.[23]

But there was nothing detached about the Venetian pursuit of historical truth; and if Sarpi devoted himself to ferreting it out, he did so because he thought it useful. When a Gallican correspondent requested his opinion on the delicate question of Pope Joan, Sarpi replied that he found no solid evidence for her existence and personally doubted it; but, he went on to say, "I should not care to trouble myself to prove something that, once proved, would be of no further use to me."[24] History, for Sarpi, was not a matter for idle contemplation but an instrument of the active life celebrated by Paruta; the truth was useful, he profoundly believed, because the truth would set men free. Historical study, as the pursuit of truth, was for him the natural solvent and enemy of dogma, which sought, in the interest of an illegitimate empire over mankind, to obscure the truth. History thus became, in Sarpi's hands, the great unmasker, and therefore the one sure means of approach to a better world. By revealing the lost perfection of the past and the causes of its decay, it could display both the goal towards which contemporary reformers must struggle and the problems with which they must contend. Sarpi thus transmitted the secularism, the empiricism, and the reformist impulse of the Renaissance to the militant reformers of a later age.[25]

The popularity of the major Venetian political writers and the esteem in which they were held is one symptom of the congeniality of these


conceptions in early modern Europe. Their works were widely printed outside Italy, both in their original Latin or Italian texts and in translation; these were in addition to Venetian editions exported abroad. Contarini's De magistratibus et republica Venetorum was printed many times in Latin, and was translated into both French and English;[26] Naudé thought this "admirable work" essential for the understanding of a republic.[27] Paruta's eloquent Della perfezione della vita politica was turned into French, his more mature Discorsi politici into English and German, and his Venetian history into English;[28] Naudé described him as an "ornament of erudition,"[29] and he was widely admired as one of the great political thinkers of his time.[30] Davila's Istoria delle guerre civili di Francia was twice translated into English,[31] appeared many times in French and Spanish versions, and was also put into Latin.[32] Bolingbroke praised Davila as the equal of Livy;[33] and while he sat as vice president under Washington, John Adams composed a set of Discourses on Davila .[34] Even better known was, of course, Paolo Sarpi. His lesser writings were widely read outside of Italy, and editions of his Istoria del Concilio Tridentino multiplied rapidly. After its first appearance in an Italian version in London in 1619, it was quickly translated into Latin, French, German and English;[35] the English edition was among the few books carried to the New World by William Brewster, spiritual leader of the Plymouth colony.[36] It might have had a second English translation if Dr. Samuel Johnson had managed to carry out all the projects he devised for himself,[37] and it was twice more translated into French.[38] And Sarpi's distinction as a political sage was soon recognized. His enemies suggested this by associating him with Guicciardini;[39] among his admirers, Naudé ranked him with such ideal counselors of government as Epictetus, Socrates, Seneca, and Cato.[40] His French translator of the later seventeenth century, Amelot de la Houssaye (no blind admirer of Venice) praised him as a bon Politique and recommended his great history because of its excellent lessons for princes.[41] By the eighteenth century Sarpi's reputation for political cunning had so grown that spurious collections of political maxims circulated under his name, for example, in the Berlin of Frederick the Great, a book of worldly counsel under the title Le Prince de F. Paolo .[42] To these works, which directly transmitted the political culture of Venice to the rest of Europe, should be added various writings of Giovanni Botero, and especially of Traiano Boccalini, both widely read abroad and inclined to dwell on the virtues of Venice. Boccalini, in the first century of his Ragguagli di Parnaso , included an eloquent and diverting summary of all that had seemed most admirable in the Republic.[43]

But these books did not by themselves create an interest in Venice;


they are significant because they nourished, and can therefore help us to understand more clearly, a taste that had deeper sources. The Venetian achievement and the attitudes surrounding it corresponded to the emerging needs of the European nations. And Venice had particular advantages for bringing into focus the political conceptions of modern Europeans. For the Venetian state was not a utopia reflecting merely theoretical values but a living reality, a palpable part of their own world, superior in this respect even to the Florentine republic. She could be wondered at and admired, and the perennial admiration of travelers attracted other sorts of attention to her; her government and the kind of society that accompanied it could be studied empirically and in detail; and the degree to which it actually worked could apparently be evaluated. Venice therefore corresponded naturally to the growing taste for concreteness in political discussion that had emerged with the great Florentines.

She had also figured prominently in events of European resonance that demonstrated conclusively, before an international audience, her effectiveness in meeting crises of enormous danger and her capacity for survival. Her ability to resist the dreaded Turk was generally recognized, but she had also participated actively in the international conflicts of the West. In the war of the League of Cambrai she had withstood the onslaught of all Europe; and, though brought to the brink of destruction, she had nevertheless emerged as powerful as before. This miracle, indeed, had stimulated the work of Contarini, which so effectively conveyed an appreciation of the Venetian government to the rest of Europe.[44] It also transferred an impression previously confined largely to Italy, where it had already attracted the notice of Florence, to a larger world.[45]

Even more stimulating to the European imagination was the Venetian triumph over the pope in the great interdict of 1606–1607. This episode, which was followed with keen attention abroad, was the occasion for a flood of writings, for and against Venice, that circulated everywhere and in various ways called attention to the political values she claimed to incorporate; indirectly the interdict also produced Sarpi's great work on the Council of Trent. Various interdict writings were translated into French, German, and English; they were sold at the Frankfurt fair; Pierre de l'Estoile acquired them in duplicate so that he could circulate them among his friends;[46] the interdict was carefully reported and documents relating to it were extensively reproduced in the Mercure François .[47] Later writers on Venice would give special attention to the event. For Pierre d'Avity it showed Venice as "an immovable rock in the defence of the state."[48] To the duc de Rohan the Venetians in this affair "had tran-


scended themselves" and given "an example of perfect conduct to posterity."[49] James Howell devoted a special section to this "high Contestation," of which "ev'ry Corner of Christendome did ring aloud, and sounds yet to this day."[50] Even Amelot de la Houssaye devoted the whole of his second volume to the "good cause" of Venice against the pope.[51]

The capacity for survival that Venice had revealed in the course of such trials demonstrated, in short, that she had access to a general political wisdom, universal, eternal, and utterly dependable, that might be made available to others in an age of peculiar turmoil and political discontent, and therefore an age with a special need for stable principles.[52] Thus Howell opened his Survay : "Were it within the reach of humane brain to prescribe Rules for fixing a Society and Succession of people under the same Species of Government as long as the World lasts, the Republic of Venice were the fittest pattern on Earth both for direction and imitation." And, he declared, "If ever any hath brought humane government and policy to a science which consists of certitudes, the Venetian Republic is She, who is as dextrous in ruling men as in rowing of a gallie or gondola."[53] The duc de Rohan was attracted to Venice because he perceived in her the triumph of rational calculation over passion: science, perhaps, in a more modern sense.[54] Other writers, including even Bodin, made the point more obliquely by noting the gravity of Venetian political deliberation,[55] or more simply (following Contarini) by attributing the form of the Venetian government to philosophers.[56]

Venice, then, was the embodiment of political reason, a virtue that had previously been manifested chiefly by the ancients. And because of certain peculiarities claimed for her history, she could be seen as the means by which ancient political wisdom had been transmitted to the modern world.[57] For she had, as her admirers insisted, come out of the ancient world but had avoided its general collapse. She was living proof, therefore, of what men longed to believe: that ancient political virtue could find effective expression in the modern world. Thus, in a poem attributed to Marvell, Brittania, after expressing disgust with conditions at home, declares:

To the serene Venetian state I'le goe
From her sage mouth fam'd Principles to know,
With her the Prudence of the Antients read,
To teach my People in their steps to tread.
By those great Patterns such a state I'le frame
Shall darken story, Ingross loudmouthd fame.[58]


The comparisons between Venice and the admirable polities of antiquity—occasionally those of Greece but primarily that of Rome—that fill seventeenth- and eighteenth-century discussions of Venice were therefore more than routine embellishment; they made a reassuring point. Venetian historians had themselves sometimes seen a parallel, and such writers as Fougasse and Gregorio Leti were inclined to press it.[59] Fougasse's English translator, W. Shute, pushed from similarity to continuity. "It seemes in the dissolution of the last Monarchie, the Genius of it made transmigration to Venice . In her the Wisdome, Fortitude, Iustice, and Magnanimitie of old Rome doe yet move and stirre . . . All but her Ruines, and the Cause of them, (her Vice) is removed to Venice ."[60] But other writers did not hesitate to find Venice far superior to Rome, above all in meeting those ultimate criteria for governments, domestic stability and length of life. Boccalini, in describing Venice, recalled with scorn "those reformations of government, those restorations of state that, with infinite disturbance" beset the Roman Republic;[61] and Howell observed that all ancient commonwealths, including the Roman, "may be sayed to have bin but Mushrumps in point of duration if compared to the Signorie of Venice."[62] Such comparisons also reveal another dimension of the Venetian role in later political discussion. Venice helped to strengthen the cause of the Moderns against the Ancients, and thus she played a part in the gathering self-confidence of modern Europe. It is significant that Sarpi and Davila were among the modern historians whom Perrault found equal to the best historians of antiquity, Thucydides and Livy.[63] Even William Temple, if a trifle grudgingly, acknowledged Sarpi (with Boccaccio and Machiavelli) as one of "the great Wits among the moderns."[64]

The notion of Venice as the supreme European representative of a generalized political wisdom meant that she could function as the standard by which all particular arrangements might be judged. For an anonymous pamphleteer during the early stages of the Puritan Revolution, a Venetian observer seemed the appropriate mouthpiece for a sensible perspective on the disturbing English scene.[65] A French writer on Venice, finding her utterly different from every other European state, compared her in this respect to China, which had by now seen long service in showing up the defects of Europe.[66]

The general character of the political wisdom attributed to Venice also meant that Europeans from various traditions, concerned with quite different problems and with conflicting aspirations, could (with the partial exception of those Frenchmen, beginning with Seyssel and Bodin, who were committed to proving the superiority of monarchy over all


other forms of government) all find inspiration in the Venetian model. They could discern in her whatever they happened to yearn for: both frugality and luxury, valor and love of peace, aristocratic responsibility and broad political participation, order and personal freedom. But whatever they chose to emphasize, they were in general agreement that Venice met certain fundamental criteria of effective government.

The first of these, as I have already suggested, was the capacity for long survival, and the durability of Venice inevitably implied other virtues. Avity declared that she had lasted "longer than any other [state] that has come to our knowledge";[67] Howell thought her closer to immortality than any other government;[68] Amelot de la Houssaye paid tribute to her long existence;[69] Harrington saw her "at this day with one thousand years upon her back . . . as young, as fresh, and free from decay, or any apperance of it, as shee was born."[70] And as Howell observed, "Length of Age argues strength of Constitution; and as in Naturall bodies, so this Rule holds good likewise in Politicall: Whence it may be inferred, that the Signorie of Venice from Her Infancy was of a strong Symmetry, well nursd, and swadled with wholsom Lawes."[71] The durability of Venice was a result of, and therefore implied, an effective government capable of maintaining domestic peace. Even Seyssel, though he felt compelled to minimize this troublesome fact, had described Venice as "the most perfect and best administered empire and state of community that one has seen or read of up to now";[72] and though Bodin emphasized (against those who admired her immutability) that Venice had altered over the years, he too was compelled to acknowledge the gradual and peaceful character of the changes she had endured.[73] Boccalini celebrated the good order of Venice; she had avoided the conflicts between rich and poor so disastrous for other societies, her nobles willingly forgave each others' injuries instead of seeking revenge, she had consistently managed to control her military leaders.[74] Howell observed that Venetians were not "of so volatil an humor, and so greedy of change as other Italians," and that Venice was therefore free "from all intestin commotions and tumults"; he also appreciated the cleanliness of her streets, an outward and visible sign of her inner devotion to order.[75] Harrington echoed these sentiments.[76] And this impression of Venice was destined for a particularly long life. The Encyclopédie , though aware of her decline in other respects, applauded in Venice "an internal tranquility that has never altered."[77]

It was usual to attribute the internal stability of Venice to the excellence of her laws, their strict enforcement, and their impartial application to all classes. In Venice alone among republics, Boccalini suggested, the


ruling group had abstained from oppressive legislation in its own interest;[78] and her reputation in this respect was celebrated by Spenser in a sonnet which praised Venice above Rome because she "farre exceedes in policie of right."[79] Boccalini praised the vigorous administration of her laws, attributing to this her perpetual youth and beauty;[80] and Bodin admitted that "an injury done by a Venetian gentleman unto the least inhabitant of the city is right severely corrected and punished."[81] Behind each of these observations, we may assume, lurks some experience with situations in which so happy a condition did not prevail.

Corresponding to the internal peace Venice seemed to represent was a peacefulness abroad that was equally attractive to many other Europeans. The interest of French observers in this quality, to be sure, sometimes was ambivalent. Bodin remarked that the Venetians were "better citizens than warriors," though he also saw their pacifism as a cause of happiness;[82] and if Amelot de la Houssaye emphasized Venetian neutralism and aversion to war, he also noted their occasional disadvantages.[83] But the Englishman Howell had no doubts about the benefits of Venetian pacifism: "Another cause of the longevity of this Republic may be alleged to be, that She hath allwayes bin more inclined to peace than war , and chosen rather to be a Spectatrix or Umpresse, than a Gamestresse." She had been, indeed, the great peacemaker of Europe: "All Christendom is beholden unto this wise Republic, in regard She hath interceded from time to time, and labourd more for the generall peace and tranquility of Christendom, and by her moderation and prudent comportment hath don better Offices in this kind then any other whatsoever."[84]

In addition to all this, Venetians were regularly seen as exemplars of all the old-fashioned political virtues; these both proved the general excellence of the Venetian system and helped to explain its strength. As Howell declared, "Ther are few Citties which have brought forth men more celebrous for all the Cardinall Virtues than Venice "; he also noted, as though it were a further proof of the vitality of Venetian society, her numerous "scientificall contemplative men, and greater Artists."[85] Fougasse treated Venetian history as a rich body of patriotic examples, presumably for imitation;[86] and Gregorio Leti also discovered in Venice instructive models of "service to country and the effects produced by love accompanied by zeal."[87] Both Amelot de la Houssaye[88] and Louis Dumay[89] defended, in addition, the piety of Venice.

Two characteristics of the Venetian ruling group, however, especially impressed other Europeans. The first was the absence of personal ambition on the part of even its most talented members, as shown by their


readiness to descend from positions of power to the anonymity of private life. As Amelot de la Houssaye remarked, the citizens of Venice "know how to obey."[90] A reflection of this virtue was the modesty of life that prevailed even among the wealthiest Venetians, a quality that made them so different from powerful men elsewhere.[91] The second remarkable trait of this group was its acceptance of the obligation to support the state by paying taxes. Boccalini had emphasized the point, in which he would be echoed by others: "The great marvel of Venetian Liberty, which filled the whole world with wonder, was that the same nobility who governed not only patiently paid existing taxes into the public treasury, but also, with incredible quickness and facility, often decreed new ones against themselves which were then rigorously exacted by the public collectors."[92] Of what other society in Europe, although most governments were perennially dose to bankruptcy, could this have been said?

But the peculiar virtues of Venetians themselves required explanation, as Howell recognized: "Now, ther are few or none who are greater Patriotts than the Venetian Gentlemen, their prime study is the public good and glory of their Countrey, and civil prudence is their principall trade whereunto they arrive in a high mesure; Yet as it may be easily observd, though these Gentlemen are extraordinary wise when they are conjunct , take them single they are but as other Men."[93] Even here, therefore, we have been primarily concerned with the evidence that Venice was admirable, and that she was therefore a potential source of instruction for ailing polities elsewhere. With Howell's implicit question about the causes of virtue, we may now turn to the identification by other Europeans of those more specific elements in the Venetian system that seemed to explain its peculiar capacity for survival, the maintenance of order and the encouragement of the civic virtues. The question was of the highest importance. If these could be imitated elsewhere, they might be expected to produce similar results.

We may note first the general European approval of the secular character of the Venetian state. The point is largely left implicit, or it emerges superficially as applause for the exclusion from political responsibility in Venice of the clergy or members of clerically oriented families.[94] But Howell, who had been imprisoned as a royalist and wrote of Venice during the Puritan domination of England, expressed fuller appreciation for the Venetian effort to separate politics from religion: "She hath a speciall care of the Pulpit (and Presse) that no Churchman from the meanest Priest to the Patriarch dare tamper in their Sermons with temporall and State-affairs, or the transactions and designes of the Senat; It being too well known that Churchmen are the most perilous and


pernicious Instruments in a State , if they misapply their talent, and employ it to poyson the hearts of the peeple, to intoxicate their brains, and suscitat them to sedition, and a mislike of the Government. . . . Yet they bear a very high respect unto the Church."[95] And Amelot de la Houssaye charged that much of the criticism of Sarpi came from a failure to distinguish politics and religion.[96] Venice was a lesson, therefore, for a Europe in which political order was still regularly disrupted by the imperious demands of religion: Venice revealed that the first condition of effective statecraft was that it must be secular and therefore autonomous.

Hand in hand with the separation of realms went the separateness of states; Venice was also admirable because she had insisted so strenuously on her particularity and her sovereignty. This, indeed, was the primary meaning of that Venetian freedom which was the most widely celebrated element in the myth of Venice; its attractiveness signified resistance to the idea of a universal empire and devotion to one's own fatherland. Bodin noted this aspect of Venice;[97] Fougasse thought nothing more certain than that, in this sense, Venice had been always free;[98] Voltaire was still to celebrate the perpetual independence of Venice as though it represented for him some great human value.[99]

In England the unconquerability of Venice was associated with virginity, a virtue recently given prominence by a beloved queen; and erotic language was used to embroider an interesting image. Coryat noted with satisfaction, in writing of Venice, the frustration of all those who, "being allured with her glorious beauty, have attempted to defloure her";[100] and Howell, who noted more soberly that "this Maiden city . . . had the Prerogative to be born a Christian , and Independent , whereof She Glorieth, and that not undeservedly, above all other States or Kingdomes," composed verses exploiting an obvious pun:

Venice Great Neptunes Minion, still a Mayd,
Though by the warrlikst Potentats assayd. . .
Though, Syren-like on Shore and Sea, Her Face
Enchants all those whom once She doth embrace . . .
   These following Leaves display, if well observd,
   How She so long Her Maydenhead preserved . . .
Venus and Venice are Great Queens in their degree,
Venus is Queen of Love, Venice of Policie.[101]

In what may also have some interest for the development of a poetic metaphor, these crudities were eventually refined by Wordsworth into


a famous sonnet after the extinction of the Venetian Republic by Napoleon:

. . . Venice, the eldest Child of Liberty
She was a maiden City, bright and free;
No guile seduced, no force could violate . . .

The independence of Venice was the basis for what was widely regarded as her admirably successful foreign policy. Because she was free, she could balance among the various powers of Europe, and so protect both her liberty and her peace. Howell, again, noted this with particular clarity: "Now, one of the wayes wherby the Republic of Venice hath endeavourd to preserve her Maydenhead and freedom so long, hath bin to keep the power of the potentat Princes in a counterpoise; wherby She hath often adapted her designes, and accommoded Her-self to the conditions of the times, and frequently changd thoughts, will, frends, and enemies. She hath bin allwayes usd to suspect any great power, to fear much, and confide little, to be perpetually vigilant of the operations of others, and accordingly to regular her own consultations and proceedings; wherby She hath bin often accusd of exces in circumspection."[102] Amelot de la Houssaye also remarked on this tendency in Venetian policy, though with less approval; he would have preferred a Venice more consistently allied with France.[103]

As Howell will have suggested, the Venetian talent for balancing among changing political forces abroad pointed more profoundly to a general adaptability to shifting circumstance that was seen as the necessary condition both of her survival and of her apparent invulnerability to change. She could remain "forever young" because she had learned how to master the successive challenges of political life and in this sense to triumph over time. Nothing was more attractive to anxious European observers than this aspect of the Venetian achievement. This was the major impulse behind their admiration of her constitution and of those qualities of flexibility and finesse in her policy that less friendly and less secular minds perceived as unscrupulous, opportunistic, in short Machiavellian.

There was a good deal of discussion about the nature of the Venetian constitution, and the earlier view that it was a mixture of monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic elements maintained (somewhat like the equilibrium in Venetian relations abroad) in a perfect balance tended to give way by the later sixteenth century to the recognition that Venice was a pure aristocracy.[104] Although some observers were critical of the


limitations on the doge as a reflection on the competence of kings and therefore a threat to good political order,[105] the elimination of a democratic taint from the image of the Republic doubtless increased the attractiveness of the Venetian model for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As an aristocratic republic of the most responsible and effective type, Venice acquired a new kind of interest.[106] Much was therefore made of the general competence of her nobility, of the systematic way in which younger nobles were advanced through positions of steadily increasing responsibility, and of the contentment of the lower classes under this regime.[107]

But however it was regarded otherwise, the main point about the Venetian constitution as it was perceived abroad was that it was a regular structure ("a great and ingenious machine" in the suggestive words of Saint-Didier),[108] and that it worked. As early as Thomas Starkey, Englishmen had recognized its effectiveness in preventing tyranny;[109] Howell identified this as a factor in the survival of Venice and a safeguard against "trenching upon the Common Liberty, and doing injustice";[110] and Venice figured prominently in the constitutional discussions carried on in the England of Cromwell and the Holland of De Witt.[111] Even in the France of Louis XIV Saint-Didier was bold enough to describe at length the limits on the power of the doge, in a work that generally represented the Venetian government as perfect.[112] Other writers emphasized the virtues in the Venetian system of broad participation by citizens in the affairs of the government. Even Bodin may have hinted at this in recognizing that although Venice was "pure and simply Aristocratic," she was "yet somewhat governed by Proportion Harmonicall," language that suggests multiple participation.[113] The point was evidently important to Voltaire in his contrast between Rome and Venice: "Rome lost, by Caesar, at the end of five hundred years, its liberty acquired by Brutus. Venice has preserved hers for eleven centuries, and I hope she will always do so."[114] In the same interest some writers persisted in the old view that the Venetian constitution retained a democratic element, among them Howell,[115] Harrington,[116] Saint-Didier,[117] and perhaps even Rousseau, who declared: "It is a mistake to regard the government of Venice as a genuine aristocracy. For while the Venetian people has no part in the government, the Venetian nobility is itself a people."[118]

By permitting the representation of diverse and changing interests, the Venetian constitution kept the Republic in touch with changing conditions and needs; and in the flexibility and shrewdness of Venetian policy European writers found additional grounds for admiration and emulation. This was the general lesson to which numerous particular


examples pointed; Venice could be seen to incorporate not only eternal reason but also (however inconsistently in particular cases) practical reason, reason of state. Venice, Howell declared, had "allwayes bin one of the most politic and pragmaticall'st Republics on Earth";[119] Louis Dumay expressed somewhat the same thought in saying that she had been preserved "rather by prudence than by valour."[120] The duc de Rohan put it more baldly in celebrating the degree to which the Venetians followed "all the maxims of their true interest,"[121] and Naudé most sharply of all in describing them as "steeped in a continual Machiavelism": in Naudé's eyes a point in their favor.[122]

Some manifestations of the political astuteness attributed to Venice seem innocent enough: for example, insistence on the equality of all nobles as a means of maintaining their unity, or the requirement of a relazione from ambassadors.[123] Others, though usually mentioned with admiration, are more ambiguous: the capacity of "the sagacious Senate" for double-talk,[124] the secrecy with which official deliberations could be carried on even in large assemblies,[125] the wisdom of keeping arms out of the hands of subjects,[126] the use of ambassadors as spies, the astuteness with which residents of the city were kept divided.[127] Still others are presented as useful, but with some sense of distaste and occasionally with an argument for their necessity: skill in the exploitation of political symbolism;[128] the oppression of subject peoples on the mainland;[129] the secret denunciations, internal spying, and terrorization of the people increasingly attached to the image of Venice.[130] Of particular interest from this standpoint was the political explanation some French writers advanced for the moral permissiveness regularly attributed, with peculiar fascination, to Venice. Bodin saw it as a device on the part of the rulers of Venice to manage the populace: "to make them more mild and pliable, they give them full scope and liberty to all sorts of pleasures."[131] A century later Amelot de la Houssaye gave a similar account of the notorious indiscipline of the Venetian clergy; it served both to discredit them with the people and to keep them content and loyal to the state, in spite of their exclusion from positions of influence.[132]

In another sense, too, Venetian flexibility appealed to other Europeans; as a political model she displayed a remarkable responsiveness to what were, for them, material realities that required just such recognition as they received in Venice. French writers observed in her, with some approval, a degree of social mobility. Bodin noted that, as in England, the nobles participated in trade, and that "a Venetian gentleman may marry a base woman, or a common citizen's daughter,"[133] and Amelot de la Houssaye thought the sale of titles of nobility in Venice a good


custom since it renewed the ruling class, eased the tax burden, and increased attachment to the state.[134] The English were impressed with the commercial and financial foundations of her greatness. Howell praised her for opening up trade with the Levant, Africa, and the Indies, and for "her Bank of money," which, he asserted, "as it hath bin the Ground and Rule of all other banks, so is it the most usefull for Marchants or Gentlemen to any part of the world, nor do I see how Christendom can subsist conveniently without it."[135] John Dury lauded Venice for encouraging invention.[136] Nor did the Venetian system of poor relief, the government's sponsorship of public works, its responsibility for the provision of food to the populace, and its regulations for the control of epidemics go unnoticed.[137]

Although its importance was yet scarcely recognized, it may be worth pointing out also that the historical aspect of Venetian political culture had some relation to its pragmatism. Like the statesmen of Venice, her historians too were concerned not with eternal principles but with particular and changing circumstances, about which they sought the same kind of clear and certain knowledge of the actual world as that on which Venetian statesmen were supposed to base their decisions. History too was in this sense amoral, and Venetian historiography was admired because of its capacity to get at and effectively to reveal the truth.

Most of the admiration focused on Sarpi, whose Concilio Tridentino in many ways brought the Renaissance tradition of historical writing to a climax. He appeared to have solved supremely well both the scientific and the rhetorical problems of a modern historian. Amelot de la Houssaye, who thought him the equal of Thucydides, Xenophon, and Tacitus, praised his truthfulness, his responsibility to the realities of the human world, his exactness. "Everything," he declared, "is ad rem , everything is instructive, natural, without art, without disguise. He proceeds always bridle in hand, and always arrives where he is going."[138] Le Courayer praised his impartiality: "Has he not entirely filled the character of a perfect historian, who must not show either his religion or his country, but consider himself a citizen of the entire world, and make as a law for himself the simple exposition of facts, whether favourable or prejudicial to anyone whomsoever?"[139] The Encyclopédie admired the naturalness and energy of Sarpi's style and the "judicious reflections" with which he sowed his work;[140] and Samuel Johnson praised the moral qualities of his work, quoting Wotton with approval to the effect that in it "the Reader finds Liberty without Licentiousness, Piety without Hypocrisy, Freedom of Speech without Neglect of Decency, Severity without Rigour, and extensive Learning without Ostentation."[141] Both Hume[142]


and Gibbon[143] acknowledged Sarpi and Davila among their own masters and models. Thus Venetian historiography, so closely related in the Renaissance republics to the needs of political life, continued to affect the ways in which later Europeans viewed the past; this, indeed, may have been the most persistent among the legacies of Venice.

Much of what in Venice interested European observers might also have been discerned in Florence, though perhaps less readily and, because the Florentine Republic had perished, less persuasively. But one final attribute of Venice that vividly impressed the European imagination was regarded as clearly unique: the remarkable personal liberty enjoyed by all Venetians. Because it was general and took many forms, and because of the peculiar capacity of personal freedom to induce anxiety, it produced a variety of reactions, often ambivalent. Thus Saint-Didier: "The liberty of Venice permits everything, for whatever life one leads, whatever religion one professes; if one does not talk, and undertakes nothing against the state or the nobility, one can live in full security, and no one will undertake to censure one's conduct nor oppose one's personal disorder."[144] In its religious dimension the freedom of Venice won the approval of Salmasius,[145] and Milton was grateful to Sarpi for his contribution as a historian to liberty of conscience.[146] But although Saint-Didier was impressed by the religious latitude allowed in Venice, he was dubious about it: "The tolerance there is so great that they close their eyes" to all sorts of deviations.[147] Leti doubted whether liberty in Venice was good for civil life.[148]

These ambiguous reactions to the personal freedoms of Venice were all based on a failure, perhaps even a refusal, to distinguish between liberty and license. It is apparent from them that no real separation between the two yet seemed possible; personal liberty was generally supposed to merge inevitably into license; and, however fascinating either of these conditions might be, liberty was therefore always dangerous. The almost obsessive preoccupation of foreigners with the licentiousness of Venice,[149] which was given increasing substance as she became a purveyor of pleasures to the upper classes of Europe, the gaudiest stop on the Grand Tour, should thus be seen as a kind of negative tribute to the more general freedom of Venetian society. The sexual temptation that Venice represented and its very confusion with more obviously political aspects of personal liberty pointed, indeed, to the possibility that orderly and effective government might after all be consistent with permissiveness in the more private dimensions of life, though the lesson was slow to emerge. Venice, in any case, could be seen increasingly to possess all kinds of freedom, and by the second half


of the eighteenth century the appropriate distinction could at last be made. Thus the Encyclopédie , delicately distinguishing among the satisfactions of life, observed that in Venice one tasted both la liberté et les plaisirs .[150]

By this time, of course, the importance of Venice for the political education of Europe was nearing its end. Venice herself was in decline, and the discrepancy between the tawdry realities of the age of Casanova and the ideal Venice imagined by generations of admirers was increasingly difficult to ignore. Furthermore, a new source of political wisdom, a new political model, was now emerging; the philosophes were discovering in England an inspiration Venice could no longer supply. Yet the virtues Voltaire and Montesquieu discovered across the Channel were still suspiciously like those previously associated with Venice. England too was admired as a free nation, with a secular and constitutional government in which tyranny was prevented by dividing and balancing powers; and, like Venice, England seemed to be ruled by laws rather than men, gave merchants their due, based her policies on a realistic perception of the needs of her people, and afforded them a remarkable degree of personal liberty. Even the distortions in this vision of England had their origins in the Venetian model.

I do not mean to suggest that Europeans learned their politics from Venice, as a student learns, for example, his chemistry. Her pedagogy, to borrow a piquant phrase from Sarpi, was "obstetrical."[151] She kept alive, for whoever found them useful, the political attitudes and values of the Renaissance, through her own political writings and above all through her survival as living proof of their validity; and from time to time, when conditions were favorable, Europeans could recognize that these attitudes and values were also their own. In this way Venice helped to transmit the political tradition of the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, and thus she prepared the way for the fruitful recognition of the political achievement of England.

11 Venice and the Political Education of Europe

Preferred Citation: Bouwsma, William J. A Usable Past: Essays in European Cultural History. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.