How Venice worked

Peter Burke

  • Politics in Renaissance Venice by Robert Finlay
    Benn, 336 pp, £13.95, June 1980, ISBN 0 510 00085 1

‘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.