Obey and Applaud

Thomas Cohen

  • Information and Communication in Venice: Rethinking Early Modern Politics by Filippo de Vivo
    Oxford, 312 pp, £60.00, October 2007, ISBN 978 0 19 922706 8

In 1617, Ottaviano Bon went to France as one of two Venetian ambassadors charged with negotiating a peace with the Habsburg archdukes of Graz. Having made concessions beyond their instructions, both envoys were censured on their return to Venice. The next year the two men prepared official reports, or relazioni, justifying their conduct in the name of high principles of statecraft. Then Bon, in violation of the state’s rules, leaked his apologia to members of his family, who passed copies to sympathetic backers around the city. The document spread out of control, and so did the rumours about it. Around the leak, Filippo de Vivo writes, a ‘thick web of oral communication’ sprang up among people who never saw the relazione on paper. The subsequent trial for leaking secrets uncovered some of the routes by which Bon’s apologia spread, and Information and Communication in Venice lays out an elegant flow chart displaying the movement of the news.

Venice’s privileged position at the head of the Adriatic, and near some major Alpine passes, made it an unequalled meeting place for trades, nations and cultures. Thanks to the city’s economy, intellectual resources, location and relative independence, book publishing flourished there for almost two centuries; from the late 15th century its presses served the Continent. Diplomats who came to Venice tapped into and relayed news; so did spies, political gossips and casual informants of every stripe. The city swarmed with spies, both amateur and professional. Its geographical position made it something like Berlin at the height of the Cold War: all the major powers found it handy to have ears there. A French diplomat could learn more about Spain’s next move in Venice than in Madrid. Meanwhile, the regime itself practised communication of another sort, mounting elaborate public ceremonies on land and water to dazzle and awe both locals and visitors. Architecture, painting, sculpture, mosaic, splendid vestments and music were all liable to be called on to serve the state.

Venice’s canals catch our eye; it is harder to see the islands they delimit. But premodern Venetians themselves were quite aware that they lived on little islands, each with its square, its church, its own very local business. So insular was the city that a widow could be chastely virtuous on one side of the Grand Canal and a nobleman’s mistress on the other. It was a long way from neighbourly gossip around the wellhead to diplomacy, but, as De Vivo argues, serious gossip, especially among men, was central to the play of politics. No study of the way information moved, he argues, should ignore its workings.

Few premodern European cities were so strictly controlled by laws to do with status. Venice had a caste of ruling families, closed in theory since the end of the 13th century and certainly hard to join. Only the patrician elite could sit in council, vote or choose a doge. Venice’s democracy was theirs by hereditary privilege. A caste just beneath them, the cittadini, served the state as secretaries and high civil servants. Meanwhile, the great majority of the city’s inhabitants, Italian or immigrant, were just the popolani, whose role it was to obey, watch, applaud, worship and leave the state to its own devices.

Or so went the theory. Venice cultivated a reputation – and a myth – of serenity. It was, officially, La Serenissima, a city free of conflict. There was an element of truth in the claim; the ferocious factions that bedevilled Florence and other Italian cities, and the vendettas that pitted family against family, were largely absent. But De Vivo is more interested in the myth: how it was maintained, and what were its consequences. The workings of the state were kept secret, to prevent the masses from detecting any splits among the elite and so that disagreements in council did not escape from the council chamber and flare up into disputes or civil strife. Almost all governance went on behind closed doors and senators voted in silence. Though they spoke in council, the minutes omitted the texts of their speeches. The organs of state concentrated power and initiative in the Ten and the Collegio, small bodies with executive authority that worked discreetly to steer the decisions of larger bodies: the Senate and the Great Council.

De Vivo argues that, despite its tight ruling caste and its laws of secrecy, Venice had an intense political life outside the ducal palace. Politics flooded down into the barber shops and apothecaries, where men gathered to pass time and catch up on news, spilling across barriers of status and gender. Indeed, De Vivo claims, long before the Enlightenment Venice had something akin to the 18th century’s ‘public sphere’, separate from the state but never fully autonomous. There were many ways in which news could be leaked: model speeches might get copied, and ambassadorial letters be disclosed or stolen; official couriers could be robbed and archival documents taken home to help write official histories; and, not least, there was gossip. Unofficial documents circulated not only in Venice but across Italy and in other European cities.

From 1539, a lay Inquisition investigated and punished leaks. Meanwhile, the state cultivated its own network of informers. De Vivo tells the story of a man named Verdelli who served Venice as an informant and then switched sides; the state Inquisitors found that by 1613 he was serving Savoy, Parma, Lorraine and Spain. Like many spies, he engaged in private proto-journalism, posting newsletters to anyone who would retain him. Although he had no apparent trade, Venetian counter-agents observed that he was ‘dressed in the haughtiest way’, and had ‘plenty of money’. As De Vivo notes, ‘his profession was information.’

Alongside the bespoke journalism of figures like Verdelli was a more public variety, seen in newsletters known as avvisi. Their authors, reportisti or menanti, sold the handwritten sheets to subscribers who paid not by the issue, but for open-ended services. The authorities, though sometimes edgy about it, tolerated the trade and sometimes tried to use it to their advantage. Reportisti read other avvisi and lifted news about distant places; they then added their own findings, often gleaned at the Rialto, where one could hear Venetians and foreigners discussing the latest rumours. The avvisi trade had many of the press’s traits, but it also had clear similarities with intelligence work.

De Vivo smudges the usual dividing lines between orality and written culture, between manuscript and print, between patronage and the market for publications, between private and public discourse. His larger argument is that things were more complicated than we might suppose. Historians used to see the rise of states and churches as representing the imposition of good order, good law, good religion and good sense on a reluctant or ruefully grateful populace. But historians of public institutions now usually agree that early modern states and churches expanded slowly, through subtle compromises with other power centres, sometimes allies, sometimes rivals. Similarly, oral culture was not written culture’s antithesis; commentary went back and forth. Ordinary people heard writings read aloud; writers wrote down things they heard said. Spying mixed with clientage, with commerce, with journalism. It served many masters and its boundaries were vague. Journalism was no less fuzzy at the edges: avviso writers were sometimes independent, sometimes kept, and often happy to send a client what he wanted to be told.

De Vivo’s central example of the confusion and mixing of official and private channels of communication is the Interdict Crisis of 1606-7, which attracted diplomatic interest far and wide. Venice, like many European powers, tussled with the Church of Rome over justice and taxes. When clerics were arrested or church lands taxed, Rome and its allies fought back, occasionally with the weapon of excommunication, or Interdict. Interdict, for believers, was a drastic step: it stopped them receiving the sacraments. Newborns would go unbaptised, and those who died – as babies often did – had no hope of salvation. Marriages went unblessed, sins unshriven, deaths unhouseled. Venice responded to the 1606 Interdict against it in novel fashion: by ignoring it, and instructing the clergy, under threat of death, to keep on working. By order of the state, mail from Rome went unopened. Meanwhile, Venice held the usual holy pageants with more than usual pomp.

The Interdict Crisis has largely been portrayed as a struggle between republican liberty and papal tyranny. But for De Vivo – who has chased down the hundreds of pamphlets, for and against the city, that poured from the presses – the crisis was more significant for bringing about a curious break with Venice’s customary ways of doing business. To discipline, encourage and embolden its populace, the usually secretive state brought in groups once excluded from politics. The pamphlet campaign thus widened the polity, at least while the struggle lasted. As De Vivo points out, this anti-papal literature wasn’t an outpouring of independent political expression. It was managed, or at least steered, by the state, which had to conceal its role because the circulation of polemics threatened the myth of ‘serenity’: Venice could take a stand against the Interdict only by subterfuge, often by publishing anonymous writings under false colophons. And by attacking the Interdict the authorities were admitting the existence of a ruling that, officially, they denied. The Interdict struggle ended in a face-saving compromise and had few lasting consequences. It wasn’t a harbinger of future liberties, or a step towards an emerging public sphere or civil society. But it does let us see more clearly than we normally do the ambiguities and compromises of early modern information culture.

De Vivo focuses on lines of transmission, patterns of exchange, pathways, regulations and markets. Perhaps motivated in part by his uneasiness with historiography that so dotes on texts and textuality that the men and women who wrote them fade from view, he doesn’t really discuss what was written or said. But postmodernism raises questions that could enrich De Vivo’s investigations of networks and lines of communication. Questions of imagery, tone, metaphor and internal structure, and of the way one utterance, aloud or on paper, resonates with others, have been raised by scholars such as Carlo Ginzburg and Natalie Zemon Davis, both always alert to the politics of utterance. How far, for instance, did a particular medium – gossip, say, or an ambassadorial report or a political pamphlet – shape or transform the contents? What forces shaped the poetics of Venetian speech and writing?

A textual question: what did Renaissance Venetians call information? Did they even have a name for it? Not quite, or so we learn from De Vivo’s bibliography. There, the titles invariably name, not the thing described but the act and effort of description: relazioni, discorsi, lettere, avvisi, avvertimenti, ragguagli, ove chiaramente si scuopre (‘where it is clearly laid out’). In all these titles, attention is being called not to what is being told but to the act of telling. The author, naming his report, conjures up his own voice and his audience. The intimate ties were then still strong between writing and its ancestor, speech.