In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

How Venice workedPeter Burke

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Politics in Renaissance Venice 
by Robert Finlay.
Benn, 336 pp., £13.95, June 1980, 0 510 00085 1
Show More
Show More

‘While the Athenians, Spartans and Romans did not survive for more than six hundred years, this Republic has lasted for more than a thousand, because it was founded by Christians and given the most excellent laws in the name of Christ.’ So wrote the 16th-century Venetian diarist, Marin Sanudo, about his native city. Venetians believed that their republican regime had the secret of eternal life, and they persuaded others to believe this too. After the execution of Charles I, the British government consulted the Venetian ambassador on the question of how republics survived. The traditional answer, which received its classic formulation early in the 16th century in a treatise by the patrician cardinal Gasparo Contarini, was in terms of checks and balances. Venice endured because it was harmonious, and it was harmonious because it was a judicious combination of the three possible forms of government: monarchy (represented by the Doge), aristocracy (the Senate) and democracy (the Great Council, a general assembly of adult male nobles).

This traditional image of a state and a society free from conflict, christened ‘the myth of Venice’, has received a great deal of attention from historians in the last twenty years or so. Was it true? What was the reality of 16th-century Venetian politics? There have been many short surveys, but no serious study of this important subject until Professor Robert Finlay’s new book. Political historians have preferred to study Florence, partly, perhaps, because the Florentines were always changing their constitution (Dante compared the city to an invalid in bed, always changing her position and always uncomfortable), and partly because the sources are richer. In Florence, there was an official record of who said what in important debates; in Venice, there was not. Very prudent of them: such a record of disagreements would have cast doubt on the myth of harmony and consensus.

To penetrate the surface of Venetian political reality it is necessary to go to unofficial sources, to private diaries. There are a number of these surviving from the 16th century, but the most important is the one kept by Marin Sanudo for the period 1496-1533. There are 58 massive printed volumes of it. Sanudo never knew what to leave out, and it is difficult to know how he found the time to do anything else but write. He is a mine of information, at which historians have been scratching for a long time. A mine, however, requires long, laborious and systematic digging. We should be grateful to Professor Finlay for having undertaken this task.

He has returned to the surface with an account of Venetian politics which (at first sight) bears little more resemblance to the myth than Sir Lewis Namier’s account of The Structure of English Politics at the Accession of George III bore to the Whig and Tory histories which preceded it. Most visitors to the National Gallery must remember Bellini’s portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan, the image of dignity. In the pages of Sanudo, this image is shattered and Loredan appears in undignified fury, ‘clutching his crimson satin cloak and spewing fire all about’, or screaming at one of his critics: ‘You deserve to be thrown off this balcony!’ Another diarist mentions the cartoon of the same Doge, which was posted up at the Rialto in 1505. Out of Loredan’s mouth come the words: ‘I don’t care, so long as I can fatten myself and my son Lorenzo.’

It is not only the Doge who cuts a poor figure in these pages. There are also the corrupt patricians, buying and selling votes. One group of poor nobles, so Sanudo informs us, was nicknamed the ‘Switzers’ because they sold their political services as readily as Swiss mercenaries sold their military ones. They had leaders who signalled to them in the council-chamber ‘whom they wanted to win by tipping their hats, whom they wanted to defeat by tugging their beards’. Others chanted the names of the men they wanted elected to office. It must often have been bedlam in the Great Council (despite the impression of grave dignity given by the pictures of it), with noblemen shouting and moving from their places and handing round marzipan and pistachio nuts during the speeches and votes. Sanudo himself believed in the myth of Venice, but he recorded evidence which is incompatible with it.

However, Finlay’s book is not just a debunking exercise, which would have produced an account as one-sided as the original myth. It is a serious attempt to describe a political system and show how it worked, to analyse the roles played by the Doge, the senators and the two thousand-odd members of the Great Council.

The Doge, for instance, was and is often regarded as a ‘dignified’ rather than an ‘efficient’ part of the Venetian constitution, as a mere figurehead, or, in the contemporary phrase, a ‘tavern sign’. Finlay makes the illuminating point that Venetian patricians had contradictory expectations of their Doge, wanting him to lead them and yet to remain no more than the first among equals. Conflict was thus built into the system. Venetians also expected their Doge to be an old man. The average age at election, between 1400 and 1600, was 72, and one candidate in 1618, too young at 63 to be taken seriously, was seen ‘to walk stoopingly’ in the weeks before the election, in the hope of looking older than he was. ‘This most long-lived of republics,’ comments Finlay, ‘was also history’s most successful gerontocracy.’

The division of the Venetian patricians into an outer circle, the majority of the Great Council, and an inner circle of grandees, which dominated the Senate, is well-known. So is the importance of the key informal political institution of the Venetian Republic, the broglio, the daily meeting of the nobility on Piazza San Marco, where the grandees courted the lesser patricians and solicited their votes. Professor Felix Gilbert has shown us how, during the war of the League of Cambrai (1509-17), the state’s need for money forced it to allow offices to be sold. To this account, Finlay adds some interesting new points. He shows how the Great Council could convey its displeasure with the inner circle – for example, by putting them up for office and then voting against them. He points out that when rich young men were able virtually to buy their way into the Senate, the Senate lost its political importance. By a process familiar to students of the history of the British constitution, the inner circle moved to the Council of Ten (which had no less than 71 members in 1523). These changes in the political system persisted after the war and the financial crisis which had led to them were over. In other words, conflict led to change and the constitution was more flexible than the myth of Venice suggests.

Finlay’s book may be criticised on a number of counts. It slides rather too easily from the narrow period, 1490-1530, which, thanks to Sanudo, he knows best, to the wider period, 1450-1630, which he knows rather less well. The organisation of the book is somewhat confusing. A division into two sections, concerned respectively with structure and change, might have communicated the author’s message better. The many insights are not always sufficiently developed. They are not thought through. The author does not seem to have made up his mind, for example, whether to treat electoral corruption as a positive or a negative factor, as an essential part of the system or a threat to it. He does not seem to have decided whether to argue that the Venetian political system was essentially stable, capable of absorbing conflict and of being altered in matters of detail to avoid structural changes, or whether the crisis of the early 16th century led to a real change of system. It is easy to slip from moderation into inconsistency, and Finlay sometimes loses his footing.

The book also has deliberate limitations. It does not say very much about the relation between the patricians and the rest of the population of the city and of the empire it ruled, although a knowledge of this relationship is crucial for an understanding of how the political system worked. For this reason it cannot be called the definitive work on politics in Renaissance Venice, but it is, nevertheless, a substantial, original and lively contribution to the subject.

Let us hope that Finlay’s book will fall into the hands of students of comparative politics as well as Venetophiles and historians. Even if the myth was too rosy, the Venetian political system demands attention because of its unusual stability and longevity. There was also a relatively high degree of consensus, if not in the sense of absence of conflict, then at the deeper level of willingness to compromise and to abide by the rules of the political game. And all this without a two-party system. The rules were as different from those of Westminster as a Venetian carnival, in which order is masked as chaos, is from cricket.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.