When Myths Lose Power - Corso di Dottorato in Studi Storici

When Myths Lose Power: Four Decades of Venetian Historiography
Author(s): James S. Grubb
Source: The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Mar., 1986), pp. 43-94
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1881564 .
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When Myths Lose Power: FourDecades of
Venetian Historiography
James S. Grubb
University of Maryland Baltimore County
Thealwayscomplexandmany-sidedhistoricalrole of Venice,
the opportunitywhich it therebyoffers for the convergenceof
the most varied interests, have made its multiformreality a
favoredterrainof historians.Some seek to locate Venice in a
broadercontext,somesee in it a brilliantsubject,somecultivate
it merely as a traditionalstudy.
Tourist and historian alike confront the otherness of Venice. The one
finds there labyrinthine byways and backwaters, fantastic palaces, and
gently melancholic air; the other finds a story of refugee fishermen who
grew rich in trade from Flanders to China, who boasted lordship of threeeighths of Byzantium and one-fifth of Italy, who lived in freedom for a
millennium despite assaults from Lombards, Franks, Greeks, Italians,
Turks, French, Germans, and Spaniards, and who enriched the West with
a splendid cultural heritage. Venice by its beauty and power demands
response, yet, in the magical world of the lagoon, conventional strategies
of description no longer hold. For the tourist such otherness is part of
the agenda; Venice can be recalled as fine novelty or shabby oddity. To
the historian, who ill tolerates disorder and meaninglessness, Venice
presents a special problem as crucial yet eccentric.
That problem need not be insuperable, since Venice provides its own
interpretive keys. Almost since the city's foundation, self-conscious and
proud Venetians have elaborated images of the city's distinctive origins,
its particular values and special place in history, its novel constitution,
and its unique longevity. It is true that the many-layered confection
known as the myth of Venice is no single myth but an accumulation of
historical explanation and contingent propaganda. The myth is eclectic,
drawing on outside sources such as Aristotelian political thought and
classical republican theory as well as indigenous traditions. It is not
without internal discordances. Still, the prevailing vision of Venice has
Alberto Tenenti, "Studi di storia veneziana," Rivista storica italiana 75,
no. 1 (1963): 97; unless otherwise noted, the translations are mine.
[Journal of Modern History 58 (March 1986): 43-94]
X 1986 by The University of Chicago. 0022-2801/86/5801-0001$01.00
All rights reserved.
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been remarkably consistent and persuasive and has been transmitted substantially unaltered in guidebooks and histories since its full articulation
in the sixteenth century: a city founded in liberty and never thereafter
subjected to foreign domination; a maritime, commercial economy; a
unified and civic-minded patriciate, guardian of the common good; a
society intensely pious yet ecclesiastically independent; a loyal and contented populace; a constitution constrainingdisruptive forces in a thousandyear harmony and constancy of purpose; a republic of wisdom and benevolence, provider of fair justice and a high degree of toleration.2 Not
all observers have been so delighted with Venice, of course. From an
early age the myth of Venice was "bifrontal":3 for every praise, detractors
have urged a vision of a Venice tyrannical, oppressive, unstable, contentious, divided, inconstant, treacherous, covetous, impious. But antimyths have remained within the terms of discourse staked out by mythmakers and so have actually reinforced the hegemony of the myth. Image
and counterimage contend within a single arena.4
Borrowing myth and antimyth offers distinct advantages in structuring
historical interpretation. The myth itself was largely shaped by historiography, in the city's strong traditionof chronicle and history: exploration
of Venice's remote origins revealed the foundations of later greatness,
and narrationof past greatness illustratedthe Republic's eternal excellence.
Historical writing, in Venice, was ever a favored political weapon.5
2 On the myth, cf. recently Edward Muir, Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice
(Princeton, N.J., 1981), chap. 1; Franco Gaeta, "L'idea di Venezia," in Storia
della cultura veneta, ed. Girolamo Arnaldi and Manlio Pastore Stocchi, III, 3
(Vicenza, 1982), pp. 565-641; and the older studies of Gina Fasoli, "Nascita
di un mito," in Studi storici in onore di Gioacchino Volpe (Florence, 1958),
1:445-79; Franco Gaeta, "Alcune considerazioni sul mito di Venezia," Bibliotheque d'humanisme et Renaissance 23, no. 1 (1961): 58-75; David Robey
and John Easton Law, "The Venetian Myth and the 'De Republica Veneta' of
Pier Paolo Vergerio," Rinascimento 15 (1975): 3-59. On the later myth, cf.
Franco Gaeta, "Venezia da 'stato misto' ad aristocrazia 'esemplare,'" in Storia
della cultura veneta, IV, 2 (Vicenza, 1984), esp. chaps. 1, 3-4.
3 Fasoli, p. 449.
4 On the antimyth, see Nicolai Rubinstein, "Italian Reactions to Terraferma
Expansion in the Fifteenth Century," in Renaissance Venice, ed. J. R. Hale
(London, 1973), pp. 197-217; Gaeta, "Idea di Venezia," pp. 583-91 and chap.
2; Camillo Manfroni, "Gli studi storici in Venezia dal Romanin ad oggi," Nuovo
archivio veneto, n.s., 16 (1908): 352-54; Gianfranco Torcellan, "Un problema
aperto: Politica e cultura nella Venezia del '700," Studi veneziani 8 (1966): 493513; Piero del Negro, "Forme e istituzioni del discorso politico veneziano," in
Storia della cultura veneta, IV, 2, esp. chaps. 3-4.
5 Gaetano Cozzi, "Cultura politica e religione nella 'pubblica storiografia'
veneziana del '500," Studi veneziani 5-6 (1963-64): 215-94; Franco Gaeta,
"Storiografia, coscienza nazionale e politica culturale nella Venezia del Rinas-
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When Myths Lose Power
Subsequenthistorians, in turn, find in the myth ready-madestandards
by which Venetians orderedtheir experience, standardsthat indicate
deeply held, distinctly Venetianbeliefs. The positive face of the myth
plausibly accountsfor the Republic's undeniablemagnificence,power,
longevity, and stability. Better still, the componentsof the myth, as
contingentresponsesto crisis, derivedirectlyfromthe Venetianreality:
close adherenceto the myth would seem to precludeextrapolationfrom
dissimilarpasts and the anachronismof presentisthistory.
But mythsareriskyvehicles for historicalanalysis. Theydo morethan
articulatea people's "wishful thinking" about itself6 or provide afterthe-factconceptualframeworks.Mythshave affectiveforce, they convey
knowledge and also the power to act on that knowledge;they provide
meaningfulstrategiesto handleconflictandso aremoreactiveinstruments
thanpassive explicators.But, as designedfor partisandeployment,myths
selectively deform the reality they claim to articulate. They also, as
abstractprograms,lend themselvesto deploymentbeyondtheiroriginal
cultures.The mythof Venice as republicanideal was particularlypotent.
By at least the fifteenth century the myth had moved beyond simple
propaganda:Venice as "islandof delight in a worldmadebrutal"7made
the Republic a model of constitutionaland governmentalperfection.
Venice had become exemplary,the morepowerfullyso becauseas contemporarypolity it was neitherutopiannor (as ancientRomeor Athens)
too remotely situated for emulation. Antimythtoo, as it passed from
occasional diatribeinto reasoneddenigration,presentedVenice as case
study for the instructionof Europe. But as myth became exemplar it
inevitably detached from the circumstancesand intentions of its formulation,achievedautonomyas a modeldistinctfrompraxis,andbecame
illustrative of eternal verities. Since exemplary models cannot easily
admitchange, the Venetianmyth at the very momentof its elaboration
was divergingfrom Venetianexperience.
If the myththerebygains value as ideological indicator,it loses value
as historicalmarker.Forexample, in the laterthirteenthcenturyEnrico
da Riminidescribedthe Venetianconstitutionas fulfillmentof Aristotle's
cimento," in Storia della cultura veneta, III, 1 (Vicenza, 1980-81), pp. 1-91;
Eric Cochrane, Historians and Historiography in the Italian Renaissance (Chicago,
1981), pp. 60-65, 77-86, 181-82, 225-38 (and copious bibliography); Agostino
Pertusi, ed., La storiografia veneziana fino al secolo XVI: Aspetti e problemi
(Florence, 1970).
6 Ruth Benedict, "Myth," in Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (New York,
1933), 11:181.
7 J. H. Plumb, The Italian Renaissance: A Concise Survey of Its History and
Culture (New York, 1965), p. 14.
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ideal of the mixed polity combiningelements of monarchy(the doge),
aristocracy(ducal councillors and higher magistrates),and democracy
(GreatCouncil)in a stateableto resistdegenerationintotyranny,oligarchy,
or anarchy.8The imageof the mixedconstitutionsurvivedthe weakening
of the doge's authority,the transformationof the GreatCouncil into a
closed assemblyof nobles (after 1297), the eliminationof even a formal
popularvoice in government(1423), and finally the emergenceof an
oligarchiccore withinthe nobility (fifteenth-sixteenthcenturies).When
Gasparo Contarini fixed the myth in his De Magistratibus et Republica
Venetorum(published 1543), he was thereforeobliged to identify the
''popular"element with a noble and hereditaryGreatCouncil and the
aristocraticelementwith a small body of "optimates,"in a considerable
feat of mental gymnastics.9The myth of the mixed state enduredfor
centuries,even so, useful for internalpacificationandexternalexaltation.
But only the partisanor naive could findthe mythan accuratedescriptive
of the Venetianconstitution.
A second difficultywith the exemplarityof Venice has been the lack
of specificityin the myth. Exemplarof what?Therewas nevera seamless
myth to Venice; it has been accuratelydescribedas polyhedric,a single
structurebut one whose componentsdiffer markedlyin orientationand
implication.'0This was inevitable in the building up of the myth by
accretion of distinct statements, and even GasparoContariniand his
successorscouldnotremoveall ambiguity.As Venicecameto be regarded
as repositoryof constitutionalperfection and political wisdom, an abstractedideal, observershad fundamentaldisagreementsin identifying
those attributesof Venetian greatnessto be imitated. In Florence, for
example, in the turbulentdecades afterthe deathof Lorenzode' Medici
whenthe governmentsufferedchronicinstabilityandconstantoverhaul,
manycitizens soughtinspirationfor reformin the demonstrablyexcellent
constitutionof Venice. Nearlyall agreedthatthe key to Venetianstability
lay in its mixedpolity. But whichof the severalVenetiancouncils should
be reproducedin Florence?The Venetianmodel was variouslyinvoked
to advanceextremeoligarchyanda broadlybasedrepublic.11 Historians,
8 Robey and Law, pp. 9-13.
9 Felix Gilbert, "Religion and Politics in the Thought of Gasparo Contarini,"
in History: Choice and Commitment (Cambridge, Mass., 1977), pp. 247-67,
and "The Date of the Composition of Contarini's and Giannotti's Books on
Venice," Studies in the Renaissance 14 (1967): 172-84; Angelo Ventura, "Scrittori
politici e scritture di govemo," in Storia della cultura veneta, III, 3, chaps. 46; Gaeta, "Idea di Venezia," ch. 5.
'0 Franco Gaeta, review of Renzo Pecchioli, "Il mito' di Venezia e la crisi
fiorentina intorno al 1500," Studi storici, III, 3 (1962), 45-92, in Studi veneziani
4 (1962): 391.
" Pecchioli; Felix Gilbert, "The Venetian Constitution in Florentine Political
Thought," in History: Choice and Commitment (Cambridge, Mass., 1977), pp.
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When Myths Lose Power
no less, have located a variety of particular preferences in the Venetian
myth-which, if it gains in general utility, loses value in precision.
The image of an ideal Venice did not fade as the Republic ceased to
occupy a primary position in European affairs -indeed, idealization became all the more easy to sustain as located in a remote golden age. With
the fall of the Republic in 1797, there was no further need for the myth's
propagandistic function, and the myth of perfect institutions and virtuous
government could flourish as unencumbered by diplomatic imperatives.
As the myth continued to serve historical interpretation, it equally continued to serve ideology- somewhere in the glorious Venetian past were
the origins or reification of programs only remotely connected with the
city. During the long decades of Restoration and Risorgimento, Venetian
history became a weapon in the nationalist arsenal-fot had not Venice
alone of the free communes not been subsumed by Hapsburgmonarchies?
Like the operas of Verdi and Puccini, Venetian historical writing could
proclaim, through allusion, principles which could not be voiced openly.
So Samuele Romanin, compiling in the mid-nineteenth century a massive
documentary history of Venice, ostensibly defended the memory of the
Republic against the calumnies of French historians since the Napoleonic
period. But his glorification of Venetian liberty and Venetian resistance
to foreign tyranny was, in equal measure, a hymn to the anti-Austrian
uprisings of 1848.12 Liberation and unification hardly exhausted Venice's
utility. To Carlo Cattaneo, looking beyond the inevitable success of the
nationalist movement to plan the future Italian state, Venice exemplified
benevolent federalism, allowing provincial self-administrationand cultural
pluralism while firmly safeguarding overall freedom and unity.13 The
vexed Roman question found deliberate echo in the works of Rinaldo
Fulin and Pompeo Molmenti, praising Venice's liberal toleration and
resistance to the Counter-Reformation papacy. 14 Even when the methodology of German scientific history was diffused by von Ranke and
others, the goal of rigorously objective presentation made little headway
against an ingrained Italian tradition of politically committed, metaphoric
history. On the national level this tradition was to receive powerful
impetus both by the economic-juridical school of Gaetano Salvemini and
179-214; Gaeta, "Idea di Venezia," pp. 595-96 and chap. 4; Nicolai Rubinstein,
"Politics and Constitution in Florence at the End of the Fifteenth Century," in
Italian Renaissance Studies, ed. E. F. Jacob (London, 1960), pp. 148-83.
Manfroni (n. 4 above), pp. 352-53.
Carlo Cattaneo, La citta' considerata come principio ideale delle istorie
italiane (written 1858; Florence, 1931), pp. 129-30.
14 Gino Benzoni, "I teologi minori dell'Interdetto," Archivio veneto, 5th ser.,
90 (1970): 31, and review of Aldo Stella, Chiesa e stato nelle relazioni dei nunzi
pontefici a Venezia (Vatican City, 1964), in Studi veneziani 8 (1966): 560-78.
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others, one wing of which explicitly used medieval studies to drive home
socialist principles, and by Benedetto Croce, whose declaration that
''every true history is contemporary history" denied the possibility of
impartiality and justified attualita as necessary stimulus to historical
writing. 15 In Venice, skepticism of value-free history was reinforced by
intense local patriotism, which renders objectivity a secondary virtue.
If the Venetian Historical Commission (Deputazione Veneta di Storia
Patria) announced itself "free from all preconceptions, assiduous of the
truth, free from all partisanship," in its "rigid impartiality" the Deputazione was nonetheless dedicated to establishing a Venice of freedom,
pacifism, and equity-"because that is the truth."16
Given such a distinguished ancestry, it is no surprise that the myth of
Venice has survived to set the terms of historical debate, nor that myth
and antimyth have persisted as vehicles for decidedly non-Venetian concerns. What is surprising is the openness with which historians acknowledge a presentist basis for Venetian research, and the wide variety of
ideologies advanced by the Venetian experience. The liberal patriot Enrico
Besta, for example, writing in 1899 after a long spell of Italian political
and economic disappointment, was irritated by those who looked to England and France as models for reform of the constitution. If what was
wanted was political longevity and economic wisdom, could not these
qualities be found in the instructive case of the Venetian Republicwhich, moreover, could furnish examples better suited to Italy? And so
his study of the Venetian Senate was an open attempt to derive those
universally valid principles that could lead an Italian parliament to comparable success.'7 A generation later a very different lesson came from
Venice. Giovanni Soranzo equally looked for sources of grandeur in the
Venetian Republic, but he opened his study with speeches by Mussolini
and Fascist dignitaries and made of "distinctive" Venetian virtuesunceasing labor, love of nation, iron discipline, self-sacrifice, sternjustice,
15 Walter Maturi, "La crisi della storiografia politica italiana," Rivista storica
italiana 47 (1930): 1-19; Federico Chabod, "Studi di storia del Rinascimento,"
in Scritti sul Rinascimento (Turin, 1967), pp. 147-219; Nicola Ottokar, "Osservazioni sulle condizioni presenti della storiografia in Italia," in Studi comunali
efiorentini (Florence, 1948), pp. 91-104; Ernesto Sestan, "Salvemini storico e
maestro," Rivista storica italiana 70 (1958): 5-43; Marino Berengo, "Profilo
di Gino Luzzatto," Rivista storica italiana 76 (1964): 879-925; H. StuartHughes,
"Benedetto Croce," International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (New
York, 1968), 3:518-19; B. Croce, Storia della storiografia italiana nel secolo
Decimonono (Bari, 1921), esp. p. 237.
16 Manfroni (n. 4 above), pp. 362-65.
17 Enrico Besta, "II Senato veneziano (origine, constituzione, attribuzioni e
riti)," in Deputazione Veneta di storia patria, Miscellanea di storia Veneta, 2d
ser., vol. 5 (Venice, 1899), introduction and epilogue.
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When Myths Lose Power
docility of the populace, will to glory and triumph-direct analogiesto
the futurequalities of the new regime.18The horrorsandhumiliationof
WorldWarII led MariaAntoniaVentoto see in Venicea wise, benevolent,
ultra-Catholicaristocracygoverninga happily submissivepopulacefor
the good of all, giving the lie to those "deluded"individualswho might
favor democracyin postwarItaly.19
The mythof Venice has not fadedas interpretiveschemeor ideological
carrier, despite increasingawarenessof the myth as myth and despite
historians'archivaleruditionandsensitivityto anachronistic
deformations.Venice remainsexemplary:as metaphorin currentcrises,
as analogyfor programsfrom acrossthe political spectrum,as arenafor
extraneous academic debates. If anything, that exemplarityhas been
expandedwith the rise of the antimythto equal prominenceamongthe
Left, the arrivalof waves of non-Italianswith their own concerns, and
the proliferationof historical studies beyond the small scholarly communitiesof the past. Todaywhen grandhistoricalpassionsseem to have
cooled in favorof small-scale,dispassionate,technicalstudies,the myths
that have fueled Venetianhistoriographyare not fully spent. Given the
special status of Venice as city and history, this is perhapsinevitable;
certainly it contributespowerfully to the ongoing vitality of Venetian
Venice the good republic is the most familiar of the city's images: a
polity of proudindependenceandextraordinarypersonalfreedom,a rulership wise and responsible, a populace actively involved and fiercely
loyal. While this is little morethanreiterationof the maturemyth, it has
acquiredurgency and relevanceby Venice's perceivedrole first as defender, then last bastion, then sole beaconof republicanlibertywith the
extinction of medieval Italiancommunesat the handsof indigenousor
foreign despots. In the last centurynationalistsand liberals throughout
Europe-Sismondi, Burckhardt,AddingtonSymonds, Croce- saw in
Venice the uniqueandcritical exceptionto an Italian"crisis of liberty"
and decadence from the Renaissanceonward. Venice as free, secular,
andtolerantrepublic,stoutlyresistantto absolutism,hassincehadenduring
and internationalappeal, especially in the English-speakingworld since
WorldWarII. DistinguishedrefugeesfromFascismandNazismreinforced
stress on republicanismand civic humanismas definingqualities of the
Giovanni Soranzo, "I fattori morali della grandezza e decadenza della Repubblica Veneta," Archivio veneto, 5th ser., 1 (1927): 266-93.
19Maria Antonia Vento, Venezia e la sua terraferma (Trapani, 1953); review
by A. A. Michieli in Archivio veneto, 5th ser., 87-88 (1954): 127-28.
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Renaissance; the emergence of Stalinism as primary menace only broadened the myth's topicality. As Frederic Lane noted in the 1965 presidential
address to the American Historical Association, the Cold War and consequent (American) "suspicion and disgust" regarding communism inspired a generation of historians (himself included) to locate in Venice
a republicanism characterized by capitalist economy, broadly based government, freedom from outside domination, guarantees of personal liberties, wide popular participation, and the like.20
Since the myth itself was already fully evolved, it remained for historians
of the good republic to work out the mechanisms of Venice's success.
The first order of business was explaining the remarkableinternal stability
of the Republic over the long duration. If the image of a well-managed
and contented society was to be sustained, it was necessary that the
patriciate, with its monopoly of political authority, be credited with
republican virtues: unity, acumen, sacrifice of private interest for the
common good, responsiveness. Brian Pullan, examining institutions directed to remedy famine, plague, ignorance, and moral turpitude, has
essentially confirmed that the Republic's domestic tranquility derived
from the patriciate's provision of justice and an adequate food supply
for the lower classes.21 Notably the majorcharitableconfraternities(scuole)
fed the honest poor and, by reserving major offices for commoners -as
the government itself reserved high administrative positions for nonnoble cittadini- provided the sort of "innocuous substitutes for political
power"22 that co-opted potentially restive subjects. Scuole also invested
in the public debt and contributed men and money to war efforts, characteristic of Venetian skill in conjoining interests of piety, charity, state
service, and social pacification.
Pullan's massively documented and persuasively argued work has not
been challenged on its own grounds. His underlying thesis, that a basically
responsible patriciate ensured domestic harmony through calculated benevolence and political consensus, has on the other hand been subjected
to severe criticism in the past few decades. One line of that criticism,
responding perhapsless to traditionalglorification of the Venetian patriciate
than to a profound American disillusionment with its own leadership
since the 1960s, has tested the truth of the myth by examining the actual
20 Frederic C. Lane, "At the Roots of Republicanism," in Venice and History:
The Collected Papers of Frederic C. Lane (Baltimore, Md., 1966), esp. p. 521.
21 Brian Pullan, Rich and Poor in Renaissance Venice (Oxford, 1971), "The
Famine in Venice and the New Poor Law, 1527-1529," Studi veneziani 5-6
(1963-64): 141-202, and "Poverty, Charity and the Reason of State: Some
Venetian Examples," ibid., 2 (1960): 17-60.
22 Reinhold C. Mueller, "Charitable Institutions, the Jewish Community, and
Venetian Society: A Discussion of the Recent Volume by Brian Pullan," Studi
veneziani 14 (1972): 37-82.
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When Myths Lose Power
behavior of Venetian nobles. On the immediate level this has been successful: Donald Queller's patriciate is irresponsible and corruptin political
conduct; Robert Finlay's patriciate is riddled with faction, fraud, and
abuses of constitutional procedure; Guido Ruggiero's patriciate is violent,
oppressive, and contemptuous of the lower classes on which it preys.23
But confrontation of the mythic with the empirical demonstrates only
that Venetian patricians, like most humans, did not live up to their highest
standards. Here revisionist history falls into the trap of measuring the
accuracy of myth: as aspiring to articulate higher realities, myths have
no truth value and transcend even consistent patterns of contrary performance. The confusion here is between myth, which cannot be false,
and reputation, which often is; between reality, which is structured by
recourse to myths, and behavior, which often is not. This line of enquiry
has admirably illustrated political praxis and day-to-day chicanery but
leaves the myth of the good republic largely unscathed-particularly as
Venetians evidently believed and acted on their myths.
A more fruitful approach has been to test the republican myth not for
incidental validity but rather for ideological intentions.24 The image of
a selfless and benevolent patriciate was promulgated not to establish an
unattainable ideal of conduct but, more profoundly, as;an act by which
that class defined its boundaries with other classes, and its privileges
within society as a whole. It is true, for example, that Gasparo Contarini's
semiofficial idealization of the mixed polity appears bland and neutral,
but only if we accept the traditional selective, deliberately irenic reading
of republican apologists. Already Contarini's identification of the popular
element with the closed, noble Great Council constituted a significant
manipulation of his sources. Nor was his the exclusive image generated
in Renaissance Venice: one of the major contributions of recent historians
such as Franco Gaeta, Angelo Ventura, and Gaetano Cozzi has been to
uncover powerful variants of the myth, tending toward exaltation of a
rigidly aristocratic social order.25Invocation of Platonic or Aristotelian
Donald E. Queller and Francis R. Swietek, "The Myth of the Venetian
Patriciate: Electoral Corruptionin Medieval Venice," in Two Studies on Venetian
Government (Geneva, 1977); Robert Finlay, Politics in Renaissance Venice (New
Brunswick, N.J., 1980); Guido Ruggiero, Violence in Early Renaissance Venice
(New Brunswick, N.J., 1980). Finlay concludes that electioneering, faction
management, and electoral abuses did not seriously impugn the long-term internal
stability of the Republic, indeed accommodated divisive pressures and channeled
dissent into consensus: political corruption as political virtue.
24 See Marino Berengo, "II Cinquecento," in La storiografia italiana negli
ultimi vent'anni (Milan, 1970), 1:501.
25 Ibid., p. 505; Gaetano Cozzi, "Domenico Morosini e il 'De bene instituta
re pubblica,'" Studi veneziani 12 (1970): 405-58; Ventura (n. 9 above), chaps.
2-6; Gaeta, "Idea di Venezia" (n. 2 above), chaps. 1, 5.
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ideas on natural aristocracy, of the noble foundations of the city, of
divine favor shown to Venetian leaders in the past, of the dangers of
division and popular tumult, of venerable ancient customs, all validated
privilege and exclusion. More candid contemporaries of Contarini,
scorning popular status and reviling the "mechanical arts" of merchants
and artisans, testified to the widening ideological gulf between rulers
and subjects. Examination of the less well known texts of Venetian mythology reveal a peculiarly Venetian theory that derived nobility strictly
from birth rather than (as a strong current of Florentine humanism had
held) from the exercise of a civic virtue available to all classes.26 Cozzi
has revealed a parallel line of thought in Venetian juridical culture, based
on a political conception of authority that privileged the sovereign will
(arbitrium) of patrician judges and blocked introduction of a Roman law
whose technical demands would have permitted the judicial competence
of appropriately trained commoners.27 Civic humanism, and to a large
extent the republican myth to which it has been closely allied, thereby
dissolves into an "ideology of a ruling class"28 when only that class has
significant access to active participation, classical models, civic mindedness, and the like. Such studies provide a clear warning to the modern
historian: acceptance of the myth of the good patriciate constitutes an
ideological choice, glossing over the evident deployment of political
hegemony for aristocratic interests29and claiming the contented deference
of those disenfranchised Venetians who were granted crumbs of the governmental cake or (lower down the social scale) well-protected guilds.30
Such revisionism has gone a step further, to document the inaccuracyand hence unsuitability as interpretative strategy-of the myth of a homogeneous and harmonious patriciate. This is not simple documentation
of that factionalism and electoral squabbling which was readily admitted
Angelo Ventura, Nobiltace popolo nella societd veneta del '400 e '500 (Bari,
1964), chap. 5.
See n. 124 below.
28 Angelo Baiocchi-, "Paolo Paruta: Ideologia e politica nel cinquecento veneziano," Studi veneziani 17-18 (1975-76): 157 ff. See also John M. Najemy,
Corporatism and Consensus in Florentine Electoral Politics, 1280-1400 (Chapel
Hill, N.C., 1982), pp. 14, 307 ff.
29 Mueller (n. 22 above), pp. 77-82; Ventura, Nobiltd e popolo, chap. 6; and
cf. below, Sec. 4.
30 Mary Neff, "A Citizen in the Service of the Patrician State: The Career of
Zaccaria de' Freschi," Studi veneziani, n.s., 5 (1981): 33; Paola De Peppo,
" 'Memorie di veneti cittadini': Alvise Dardani, Cancellier Grande," Studi veneziani, n.s., 8 (1984): 413-53; Richard MacKenney, "Arti e stato a Venezia
tra tardo Medio Evo e '600," Studi veneziani, n.s., 5 (1981): 127-43, and
"Guilds and Guildsmen in Sixteenth Century Venice," Bulletin of the Society
for Renaissance Studies, vol. 2 (1984).
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When Myths Lose Power
by partisans of aristocratic uniformity. Rather, closer examination of the
myth has shown it to have been far from monolithic. As Gaetano Cozzi
has demonstrated, the principle of equality within the ruling patriciate
gave way to restricted access to authority in the later fifteenth and early
sixteenth centuries, as increased competition for governmental positions
and the selling of offices in wartime squeezed out lesser patricians. Simultaneously, manifest inefficiency of lower magistracies and exigencies
of crisis management transferredeffective authority away from traditional
centers of power such as the Senate, Council of Forty, and State Advocates
toward the Council of Ten and College, smaller and more mobile bodies,
and these were increasingly monopolized by a few wealthy and powerful
families.3' This event and the conventional myth would seem to diverge
only if we rely exclusively on Contarini's generic image of an egalitarian
nobility. In fact, a multitude of texts gave historical and theoretical
legitimation to the rule of optimates rather than aristocrats generally.
Venetians and anti-Venetians alike described the Republic as actually or
ideally oligarchic, acknowledging hierarchies of power within the ruling
body.32 Again, the truth or falsity of the myth is not an issue but, rather,
its role as guide for the historian: if the Venetian state was conceived
not exclusively as mixed polity nor as broad aristocracy but also as
restricted oligarchy, the image of the good republic retains a less clearcut utility.
Internal divisions of the Venetian nobility have not been revealed only
to flog the positive myth of Venice-indeed, in the deft studies of Gaetano
Cozzi such divisions could serve to locate distinctive values of Venetian
greatness amid signs of latent decay.33 To Cozzi we owe credit for illuminating a new generation that came to the forefront of Venetian public
life in the critical decades 1580-1610. The first success of the "young"
(giovani), as they have been labeled since von Ranke's day,34 was to put
an end to the usurpations of the Council of Ten, that preferred instrument
of oligarchic power, and to reassert the authority of more broadly based
31 Gaetano Cozzi, "Authority and the Law in Renaissance Venice," in Hale,
ed. (n. 4 above), pp. 293-345, "Il consigliodeiXe l"authorita'suprema' (153083)," in Repubblica di Venezia e stati italiani: Politica e giustizia dal secolo
XVI a secolo XVIII, ed. Gaetano Cozzi (Turin, 1982), pp. 145-74.
32 See n. 25 above.
33 Cozzi's intent was to "far sentire dietro al quadro tradizionale del patriziato
veneto, tutto e solo sagezza politica, nel momento in cui la Repubblica e l'Italia
parevano avviarsi in decadenza, l'esistenza di anime inquiete, severe, di uomini
aperti su un momento piu alacre, attenti a seguirne la vita, e pronti a participarvi,
o a raccoglierne gli effetti" (II doge Nicolo Contarini: Ricerche sul patriziato
veneziano agli inizi del Seicento [Venice and Rome, 1958], p. xix; hereafter
cited as Nicolo Contarini).
34 Leopold von Ranke, Venezia nel Cinquecento, ed. Ugo Tucci (Rome, 1974).
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magistraciessuchas the Senate.Butto Cozzi thegiovaniwerenot simply
factional nor even exclusively political: they representrejuvenationof
fundamentalVenetiancivic, spiritual,and economic values in an effort
to reverse the stagnationof the previoushalf-century.They fought the
of the "old" (vecchi)for an activistforeignpolicy against
Turkishand Hapsburgencroachments,for an ecclesiasticalindependence
of Counter-Reformation
Rome that would permitfree exercise of their
deep Erasmianpiety, for a returnto the bold commercialspiritthat had
broughtpast glory but which was being erodedby complacencyand a
preferencefor safer, more "noble" investmentin land. Thatrevival was
given a powerfultheoreticalbolsteringby Paolo Paruta,FraPaolo Sarpi,
and a host of luminaries,proceedingfrom an extremecivic humanism
to a militantdefense of Venetianprerogatives.Cozzi writing aboutthe
leaders of the giovani is reminiscentof Johan Huizinga writing about
Erasmus:we sense the deeppersonalsympathybehindthe carefullydrawn
and meticulously supportednarrative.The clarion calls of the giovani
to a tolerantand direct evangelical faith, to a cleansed and thoroughly
Venetianchurch,to a Veniceagainsovereignin commerceanddiplomacy,
to an ancient spirit of patriciancollegiality and concordthat might yet
be restored,are amongthe most stirringimages in recentVenetianhistoriography.The myth, far fromexploded, is triumphantlyvindicated.3
In good Renaissancefashion, Venetianvirtu'requiredpublic demonstrationby testing. A jurisdictionalsquabbleovererrantpriestsandpious
bequestsputsparkto drytinder,escalatingquicklyintothe all-outInterdict
Controversyof 1605-7. Resistanceto aggressionsof Romeandits allies,
in Cozzi's exposition, was the finest hour of the later Republic, the
culminationof the resurgencebegun with the rise of the giovani three
decades before. It called forth articulationand defense of all that was
worthyandcharacteristicin Venice:ecclesiasticalindependenceagainst
Rome's "intransigentauthoritarianism,'36 an open and Erasmianspirituality against Tridentine(or Jesuit) conformismand dogmatism,the
Republicitself againstSpanishhegemonism.As Europewatched,Venice
and its championFra Paolo Sarpi fought the combined forces of the
in the interestsof a betterchurchand a free state.
In this vision Sarpi has understandablyoccupied pride of place. His
worksreeditedandcarefullyexamined,his links withadvancedscientific
35 In addition to Cozzi's Nicolo Contarini, cf. his Paolo Sarpi tra Venezia e
l'Europa (Turin, 1979), chap. 3; Federico Seneca, Il doge Leonardo Dona: La
sua vita e la sua preparazione politica prima del dogado (Padua, 1959); Paolo
Ulvioni, "Culturapolitica e cultura religiosa a Venezia nel secondo Cinquecento:
Un bilancio," Archivio storico italiano 141 (1983): 591-651.
Cozzi, Paolo Sarpi tra Venezia e l'Europa, pp. 237, 257.
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When Myths Lose Power
currents uncovered, his position in broader devotional movements noted
with precision and sympathy, his reputation as historian and controversialist firmly established, Sarpi has taken his place among the leading
European figures of his day. At the same time Sarpi emerges as quintessential Venetian, apologist and embodiment of the finest in specifically
Venetian culture.37 Through his heroic efforts and those of his giovani
colleagues, Venice returned to European prominence and exemplarity
after a period of eclipse.
Cozzi's studies were exhaustively supported, persuasively argued, and
remain compelling. They are likely to dominate thinking about late sixteenth/early seventeenth-century Venice for the foreseeable future. The
topic, however, has been largely abandoned for nearly twenty yearsand not because it was in any way completed or irrelevant. Rather, interpretation of the giovanilvecchi division, the Interdict, and Sarpi himself
suffer conceptual flaws that apparently have vitiated the entire enterprise.
Cozzi himself quit the field in the late 1960s,38 as if in acknowledgment
that the bold simplicity of his argumentnecessarily entailed the construction
of dichotomous categories that could not be supported by monographic
research. As Martin Lowry pointed out in 1971, it is difficult to locate
a coherent giovani group with the patriciate and nearly impossible to
discern a precise and consistent giovani program of reform. Identification
of Council of Ten membership as a distinct oligarchy and claims that a
giovani victory in 1582-83 marked an eclipse of the vecchi and a redistribution of power to traditional authorities cannot be sustained by prosopographic or close archival study.39 It has been plausibly argued that
a figure such as Paolo Paruta-who was not involved in the actual machinations of the giovani-was less a spokesman for any one patrician
tendency than an apologist for aristocraticrule generally. If so, the giovanil
vecchi contest is stripped of exemplarity and reduced to a squabble of
37 Gaetano Cozzi, "Paolo Sarpi: Il suo problema storico, religioso e giuridico
nella recente letteratura," Ildiritto ecclesiastico (1952), 63:52-88; Paolo Sarpi,
Opere, ed. Gaetano Cozzi and Luisa Cozzi (Milan and Naples, 1969), Pensieri,
ed. Gaetano Cozzi and Luisa Cozzi (Turin, 1976), Scritti scelti, ed. Giovanni
Da Pozzo (Turin, 1968), and La Repubblica di Venezia, la casa di Austria e gli
uscocchi, ed. Gaetano Cozzi and Luisa Cozzi, Scrittori d'Italia 231 (Bari, 1965);
and bibliography in Cozzi, Paolo Sarpi tra Venezia e l'Europa, pp. 286-92. For
a purely political-diplomatic reading, cf. Luigi Salvatorelli, "Venezia, Paolo V
e fra Paolo Sarpi," in La civilta' veneziana nell'etadbarocca (Florence, 1959),
pp. 67-95.
38 Cozzi, Paolo Sarpi tra Venezia e l'Europa, p. x. Later syntheses in ibid.,
chap. 3, and with Luisa Cozzi, "Paolo Sarpi," in Storia della cultura veneta,
IV, 2, pp. 1-36.
39 M. J. C. Lowry, "The Reform of the Council of Ten, 1582-1583: An
Unsettled Problem?" Studi veneziani 13 (1971): 275-310.
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cliques within a single caste.40 A recent essay has even denied that Sarpi
was a republican and pious patriot except insofar as it was his job to
appearso, though this portraitof Sarpi as master dissembler and irreligious
absolutist is more provocative than persuasive and is unlikely to displace
the conventional reading.41
More telling damage was done, albeit unwittingly, by William Bouwsma's Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty in 1968. Bouwsma's
long study runs entirely parallel to those of Cozzi, and his conclusions
entirely concur; the book consists of lucid and exhaustive readings of
the texts demarcating Venice and Rome. But however brilliant in its
parts, as a whole the book is not about Venice at all but, as the subtitle
declares, about "Renaissance values in the age of the Counter Reformation." Venice is all Renaissance, but a Renaissance which is abstract
ideal rather than historically specific moment: embodiment of freedom
(personal and national), toleration, humanism, empiricism, republicanism,
civic mindedness, secularism, resistance to dogmatism, activism, pluralism, self-determination, modernity. Rome as Counter-Reformation is
a throwback to the dark and medieval: scholastic, "hierocratic" (p. 47),
centralized, intolerantly orthodox, conformist, repressive, absolutist,
Tridentine, Jesuitic, reactionary, hegemonistic. The giovani are Renaissance men, the vecchi neomedieval, and the affirmation of the former
was a necessary step toward the modem world. Parutaand Sarpi, Baronius
and Bellarmine locked in mortal combat between mutually exclusive
visions of God and civil society; Venice won at least the immediate battle
and so could pass on republican ideals and virtues first to England and
finally to the United States.42 Bouwsma is writing, then, about the great
Atlantic republican tradition that, it has been pointed out,43 is not even
to be placed within the realm of the history of ideas but that resides in
Baiocchi (n. 28 above).
David Wooton, Paolo Sarpi between Renaissance and Enlightenment (Cambridge, 1983); reviews by Angelo Baiocchi in Studi veneziani, n.s., 8 (1984):
473-78; Elisabeth G. Gleason in Renaissance Quarterly, 37, 4 (1984): 622-24;
Eric Cochrane in Journal of Modern History 57 (1985): 151-53; and Felix Gilbert,
"A Republic on the Retreat," Times Literary Supplement (January 20, 1984),
p. 57.
42 William J. Bouwsma, Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty: Renaissance Values in the Age of the Counter Reformation (Berkeley, 1968), "Venice
and the Political Education of Europe," in Hale, ed. (n. 4 above), pp. 445-66,
and "The Venetian Interdict and the Problem of Order,"Archiwumhistoriifilosofii
i myali spolecznei, vol. 12 (1966).
43 Cesare Vasoli, "The Machiavellian Moment: A GrandIdeological Synthesis,"
Journal of Modern History 49 (1977): 661-70; but see also J. G. A. Pocock,
"The Machiavellian Moment Revisited: A Study in History and Ideology," Journal
of Modern History 53 (1981): 49-72.
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When Myths Lose Power
a metahistorical realm of political theory. Irrespective of the book's
intrinsic merits, its effect on specifically Venetian studies was to harness
the concerns of Cozzi to a schematization so absolute and abstract as to
be beyond verification or refutation and thus to make further concrete
historical enquiry almost pointless.
Even if it were possible to overlook Bouwsma's corrosive extrapolations,
it would be difficult to sustain the exemplarity of conflicts within and
without the Venetian republic in the 1580-1610 period. It is no longer
necessary, as it might have been a generation ago,"4 to refute the old
canards that Venetians (particularly Sarpi) were anti-Catholic or heretical
or unorthodox or crypto-Protestant; thanks to Delio Cantimori and successors we are now far more sensitive to the varieties of orthodoxy current-and permissible-within Catholicism before and after Trent. Gino
Benzoni in 1966 rightly declared that issue, a relic of Risorgimento
debates between papalists and liberal nationalists, to be obsolete.45 But
Cozzi's vision of the Interdict also rests on a vision of the CounterReformation papacy that has been substantially modified by modern
scholarship. Few today46 would maintain the "intransigent authoritarianism" of Rome, dogmatic intolerance of Trent, Spain as papal bully,
Catholic hostility to local initiative, "theocratic" ambitions of the popes,
or "dualism between Church and State."47 Fewer still would support a
juxtaposition of Tridentine and Venetian ecclesiastical policies. Recent
studies have demonstrated that, far from antagonism, there was broad
cooperation and consensus between Venice and Rome, and have warned
against reading the Interdict Controversy back into local actualizations
of the Counter-Reformation.48 Venetian prelates participated fully at
Trent and were among the first to carry out its reforms,49 even if, as
44 Edouard Pommier, "La societe venitienne et la Reforme protestanteau XVIe
siecle," Studi veneziani 1 (1959): 3-26; Angelo Ventura, review of P. Pirri,
L'interdetto di Venezia del 1606 e i gesuiti (Rome, 1959), in Studi veneziani 4
(1962): 401-14; Roberto Cessi, review of Federico Chabod, La politica di Paolo
Sarpi (Venice and Rome, 1962), in Archivio veneto, 5th ser., 71 (1962): 104-9.
45 Benzoni, review of Stella (n. 14 above).
46 Enrico De Mas, Sovranitd politica e unita cristiana nel
Seicento angloveneto (Ravenna, 1975), maintains the dichotomy between Venetian/Dutch/English
latitudinarianismand papal/Jesuit/Hapsburgintolerance; see the review by Angelo
Baiocchi in Archivio veneto, 5th ser., 143 (1977): 169-72.
47 Cozzi, Niccolo Contarini (n. 33 above), p. 98.
48 Christopher Cairns, "Diocesan Studies of the Venetian Terraferma," Studi
veneziani, n.s., 4 (1980): 79-97, and Domenico Bollani, Bishop of Brescia:
Devotion to Church and State in the Republic of Venice in the Sixteenth Century
(Nieuwkoop, 1976).
49 Hubert Jedin, "Venezia e il Concilio di Trento, '
Studi veneziani 14 (1972):
137-57; Silvio Tramontin, "La figura del vescovo secondo il concilio di Trento
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Cozzi charged,50 this meant accommodation with Roman centralization
of appointments and liturgy. Contacts with militants such as Carlo Borromeo were constant and on the whole positive.51 Venice and Rome
largely collaborated in the suppression of Protestantism and obvious
heresies, at least up to the 1590s; when thereafterthe two parted company,
the issue was less Roman doctrine than control of copyrights and unauthorized reprints.52The Inquisition was no strangeror despised intruder
in the Venetian state.53 If the Counter-Reformation was less the terrible
foe of ecclesiastical and spiritual freedom than once was thought and
was certainly no implacable foe of Venetian liberties, then its traditional
role as universal whipping boy for liberal historiography is devalued.
The Interdict Controversy holds decreased value as conflict of ideologies
(let alone world views) and reverts to acute jurisdictional conflict.
The Interdict is devalued, as well, by a look at successive events. If
Venetian positions during the bitter polemics of 1605-7 reflected a fundamental Venetian consciousness-as
they must, if the incident is to
have exemplary value-why was the Republic's leadership so quick to
effect reconciliation with the papacy once a face-saving compromise
could be worked out? If Sarpi typifies that consciousness, why did he so
quickly become a marginal figure in Venice, obliged by lack of support
to shelve plans for an anti-Roman, anti-Hapsburg league that could force
a final confrontation?After the Interdict, after all, most Venetian apologists
moved toward a position of "ideological disarmament" and were careful
ed i suoi reflessi veneziani nell'interrogatorio del Patriarca Trevisan," Studi
veneziani 10 (1968): 423-56; Luigi Pesce, Ludovico Barbo: Cura pastorale,
riforma della chiesa, spiritualita (Padua, 1969).
50 Gaetano Cozzi, "Domenico Bollani: Un vescovo veneziano tra Stato e
Chiesa," Rivista storica italiana 89 (1977): 562-89. Bollani thus appears as one
of the vecchi; but his "cedevolezza" and indifference to Venetian ecclesiastical
independence seem to have been generally shared among the Venetian patriciate.
Cozzi criticizes Cairns for asserting the compatibility of Venetian ecclesiastical
policy with Catholic Reform.
51 Giovanni Mantese, "Attuazione dei decreti tridentini a Vicenza nello spirito
di san Carlo Borromeo," and Tullio Motterle, "Iconografia de s. Carlo Borromeo
nella diocese di Vicenza," in Scritti e memorie in onore di Mons. Carlo Fanton
(Vicenza, 1982).
52 Paolo Preto, "Un aspetto della Riforma cattolica nel Veneto: L'episcopato
padovano di Niccolo Ormaneto," Studi veneziani 11 (1969): 325-63; Paul F.
Grendler, The Roman Inquisition and the Venetian Press, 1540-1605 (Princeton, N.J., 1977) (on which see Gaetano Cozzi, "Books and Society," Journal
of Modern History 51 [1979]: 90-97).
53 Nicholas S. Davidson, "Il Sant'Ufficio e la tutela del culto a Venezia nel
'500,'" Studi veneziani, n.s., 6 (1982): 87-101; Brian Pullan, The Jews of Europe and the Inquisition of Venice, 1550-1670 (Oxford, 1983).
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When Myths Lose Power
to stress Venice's age-old attachment to the Roman cause.54 There was
shortly to be a virtual repetition of the Interdict Controversy, returning
Venice to the Europeanstage. Ostensibly the giovani's target was Austrian
support for Uskok pirates in the Adriatic; again, underlying issues were
Venetian maritime sovereignty, ecclesiastical autonomy, and spiritual
renewal. But the peace of 1617, broadly welcomed by the Venetian
patriciate, was made over the strident objections of Paolo Sarpi and his
ally Nicolo Contarini.5 If the giovani represented all that which was
good in the Republic, they equally represented all that which was, by
1617, obsolete. The setting of the Uskok War was a Venice become
second-rate: attempts to revive Levantine trade failed; wars provoked
with Spain were overambitious, expensive failures; attempts to curb the
Council of Ten in 1626, nearly a repetition of the 1582 movement, failed
to arouse much support among the old and tired giovani. Cozzi has
documented all this openly and honestly, in counterpoint to the heroic
efforts of that generation in its prime. But those efforts are thereby reduced
to the level of splendid, futile anecdote, a brave fight against an overwhelming tide.
It is the familiar problem with using myth in historical writing. To
exploit the exemplary moment is to create categories that abstract events,
schematize them, and at least partially remove them from their context:
to tend, inevitably, toward the metahistorical. As research and revision
proceed those categories are revealed as too absolute, too removed from
the empirical to have more than heuristic value. The Interdict question,
seen as affirmation of Venetian spiritual, ecclesiastical, and republican
ideals, is damaged by close study of the Counter-Reformationand Venice' s
place in it. The image of Fra Paolo Sarpi as exemplar of eternal and
instructive Venetian values is damaged when confronted with the post1607 figure of the propagandist whose particular message was no longer
in great demand. The myth itself is not impugned, but its continued use
as historical road map certainly is. Yet if all exemplarity is removed,
what is the point of writing about the Interdict, or the giovanilvecchi
contest, or Venetian history generally? We are reduced to the episodic
and denied ulterior significance.
The myth of Venice as the good republic, with its attendant virtues of
freedom, domestic harmony, impartial justice, and selfless leadership,
has suffered eclipse in the past decade. Neither Pullan nor Cozzi have
returned to the scene of their former labors, nor have younger historians
54 Benzoni, "Teologi minori" (n. 14 above), p. 39; and cf. Federico Seneca,
La politica veneziana dopo l'Interdetto (Padua, 1957).
55 Gaetano Cozzi, "Nota storica" to Sarpi's La Repubblica di Venezia, la casa
di Austria e gli uscocchi (n. 37 above).
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taken up the cause. As memory of Nazism, Fascism, and the Cold War
fades in a generation of historians born since 1945, the urgency for a
model of a free society's resistance to tyranny has been blunted. Federico
Chabod's old thesis, that the end of Renaissance belief in the perfection
of the republican model marked the start of Italian decadence, no longer
has currency: the very notion of republicanism as a central and defining
feature of Renaissance Italy, even as characteristic of the territorial states
of Florence and Venice, has been soundly rejected by a rising star among
Italian scholars, Giorgio Chittolini.56 Croce's definition of history as the
"story of liberty" has been relegated to its place in liberal and antifascist
historiography and no longer commands a central position in historical
writing.57 Certainly civic humanism has lost its central position in the
Renaissance curriculum. Critics of an extreme republican image have
shown us how ethnocentric it can be, mirroring a specific, largely American, conservative ideology. The logical implications of an exemplary
Venetian Republic, with blue-blood paternalism on the one hand and
happily powerless masses on the other, are dubious lessons for our own
day-especially if we take seriously Ventura's demonstration of the patriciate's systematic abuses of justice, tax evasion, fiscal corruption,
abuse of office, and in general thorough exploitation of class privilege
at the expense of underlings.58 It is a noble myth, and with its decline
Venice loses some of its sparkle; but it is difficult to sustain as model
for future historical interpretation.
Counterpointto the Venice of splendors is the Venice of eternal scaffolding
and tattered palaces. Even Cozzi's vision of the glorious moment was
imbedded in a Venice declining in dignity and losing trade and diplomatic
Ernesto Sestan, "Rinascimento e crisi italiana del Cinquecento nel pensiero
di Federico Chabod," Rivista storica italiana 72 (1960): 676-86; Giorgio Chittolini, "Alcune considerazioni sulla storia politico-istituzionale del tardo Medioevo: Alle origini degli 'stati regionali,' " Annali dell'Istituto Italo-Germanico in Trento 2 (1976): 401-19.
57 Benedetto Croce, History as the Story of Liberty (New York, 1962), and
History: Its Theory and Practice (New York, 1960).
58 See Alberto Tenenti, "La serenissime Republique,'" in Venise au temps des
galeres, ed. Jacques Goimard (Paris, 1968), pp. 161-64, for an example of such
paternalism. On ethnocentrism, see the review of Bouwsma by Renzo Pecchioli
in Studi veneziani 13 (1971): 693-708; Cesare Vasoli' s introduction to the Italian
translation of Bouwsma (Bologna, 1977); Eric Cochrane and Julius Kirshner,
.'Deconstructing Lane's Venice," Journal of Modern History 47 (1975): 33234; Renzo Pecchioli, Dal "Mito" di Venezia all' 'ideologia americana' (Venice,
1983) (and review of Donald Weinstein in Journal of Modern History 57 [1985]:
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When Myths Lose Power
significance. If he chose to accentuate the positive, most recent historians
have not: the antimyth of a decadent Venice has, since the second War,
vied with that of the good Republic for historiographic eminence. Fernand
Braudel and collaborators candidly acknowledged the presentist impulse
that gave rise to the decadence discussion, in the profound pessimism
of a Europe irremediably emarginated by the superpowers: "Beyond the
specific case of Venice, the question of decadence endlessly poses its
insidious and formidable problems to us historians. Do we, men of the
later twentieth century, not live in the decadence of an entire continent,
... in today's Europe too narrowly squeezed between territorialmonsters
who wish to dominate the world-and dominate us as a bonus?""9 A
variety of voices soon joined the Annalistes. Europeans of the Left took
up the issue to reveal the structuraldysfunctions and inevitable stagnation
and collapse of a capitalist, aristocratic Republic. Economic technicians,
particularly from England and America, saw in Venice an interesting
case study in arrested and even reversed economic development, an instructive counterexample to prevailing models of economic growth.60
Yet despite diverging intentions the debate has seen a broad consensus
of method and intention: to locate flaws in Venetian economic and political
structuresand thereby assign blame for the fall from a universally presumed
golden age.
The problem of chronology was soon resolved. Roberto Cessi had
stressed disasters in the fifteenth century-the loss of the Flanders trade,
coupled with loss of colonies and markets to Turkish expansion-but
these came to be seen as ominous preludes ratherthan actual precipitants.61
The traditionalexplanation, Portuguese discovery of the Cape route around
1500 and subsequent capture of the spice trade, had already been exploded
by Lane's demonstration of almost immediate Venetian recovery.62 So
irreversible decline began only in the mid-sixteenth century and beyond;
but its essential symptoms and causes were far from clear. Here Braudel's
magisterial Mediterrane'e of 1949 made a number of suggestions, each
59 Fernand Braudel et al., "Le declin de Venise au XVIIeme siecle," in Aspetti
e cause della decadenza veneziana nel secolo XVII (Venice and Rome, 1961),
p. 80.
60 Good summaries of the latter can be found in Richard Tilden Rapp, Industry
and Economic Decline in Seventeenth-CenturyVenice (Cambridge, Mass., 1976),
pp. 1-13; Brian Pullan, Crisis and Change in the Venetian Economy in the
Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (London, 1968), pp. 3-21.
61 See Carlo Livi, Domenico Sella, and Ugo Tucci, "Un probleme d'histoire:
La decadence economique de Venise, " in Aspetti e cause, pp. 287-317.
62 Frederic C. Lane, "Venetian Shipping during the Commercial Revolution,"
American Historical Review 38 (1933): 219-39, and "The Mediterranean Spice
Trade: Further Evidence of Its Revival in the Sixteenth Century,'" ibid., 45
(1940): 581-90; both reprinted in Pullan, Crisis and Change, pp. 22-58.
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a startingpointforlatermonographs.Decadencewasby no meansVenice's
alone:the openingup of vast New Worldresources,howevermuchthese
were channeledthroughItalianbankers,displacedthe West's economic
centerof gravityto the Atlanticpowers. But Venetiansprovedincapable
of competing with those powers in its own Mediterraneanback yard.
The famous"betrayalof the bourgeoisie,"the transferof merchantcapital
to the landed investment seen as appropriateto aristocracy,certainly
hurt. So did patriciandisdain for commerce, a protectionistmercantile
policy that stifled innovation, a declining fleet and, in general, rigid
adherenceto obsolete commercialstructures.Blame did not fall solely
on the patriciate:urbanguilds exerciseda restrictiveinfluenceby driving
up laborcosts andresistingnew productsandtechniques.63Piracy, sharp
demographicloss from epidemic and emigration,foreign competition,
andthe Venetianreflexof a European-widedepressionsoundedthe death
knell of Venetian greatness by the second quarterof the seventeenth
century.Braudel'sencyclopedicsurveydid not stop there, however:he
questioned,as well, the concept of decadence.Weretherenot compensations for declining tradein the sixteenthcentury, notablyin the rapid
growth of indigenous industrieswhich employed idle capital and idle
workers?Was Venetianmercantiledecline not matchedby intensive
and lucrative-investment in agricultureandindustryon the mainland?
Wasthe decline absolute, impoverishingVenice, or was therenot rather
an economic stasis that could only be judged decadentrelative to the
boom of England,France, and Holland?
studiesby eminentscholarshavetendedto confirm
and extend Braudel'sleads, documentingthe basic thesis of maritimecommercialdecline while conditioningit heavilyby stresson alternative
investment.64Yet the study of Venice's economic decadencehas been
largely moribundsince the early 1970s. The field is in parta victim of
its success, having reached nearly to the limits of available data and
having generatedsuch thoroughand skilled analysis that there seems
little point in furtherexploration.The field has been the victim, as well,
of a broadconsensusthathasmutedongoingcontroversy.Differentweights
have been assigned to differentfactors, and thereremaindifferencesof
opinion regardingboth the timing and the cause of Venice's secular
decadence, but on the whole these have servedto texturethe discussion
Fernand Braudel, La Me'diterrane'eet le monde mediterraneen a l'epoque
de Phillipe II, 2 vols. (Paris, 1949); Braudel et al., pp. 82-86.
64 Surveys and bibliographies in Guido Quazza, La decadenza italiana nella
storia europea: Saggi sul Sei-Settecento (Turin, 1971), pp. 35-47; Tenenti,
"Studi di storia veneziana" (n. 1 above); Frederic C. Lane, "Recent Studies on
the Economic History of Venice," Journal of Economic History 23 (1963): 31234; Pullan, Crisis and Change, pp. 204-21.
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When Myths Lose Power
ratherthan to present alternatives. There is general agreement, for example,
that passage from a maritime and commercial to a landed and industrial
base is to be identified-as cause and symptom simultaneously-as the
crucial event in a period that saw the end of Venetian economic prominence.
But explanations for that shift have cut across ideological lines, thus
depriving the issue of polemical footing. Excoriation of the Venetian
patriciate's abandonment of honest trade for the parasitic idleness of
landed investment has come as readily from conservative as from Marxian
historians. It would require great independence and archival good fortune
to effect more than a partial modification of prevailing opinion. Too, the
original impetus for examining Venice's decline has evaporated: despite
decades of gloomy prognostication, postwar economic recovery has
demonstrated that Venice, as Europe, is not on the verge of collapse
and, indeed, has regained a measure of world stature once thought lost.
The decline of Venice as metaphor for the West has been shown to be
But there are deeper problems with the study of Venetian decline,
beyond a disinclination to consider the sort of counterevidence by which
Ernesto Sestan and RichardRapphave demonstrateddemographicrecovery
and economic stability in the supposedly decadent later seventeenth century.65The very notion of decadence, with its pejorative and judgmental
baggage, is of course a throwback to an earlier historiography that linked
foreign domination, extinction of free republics, and Italian "crisis of
liberty" with cultural and spiritual bankruptcy in a prevailing Baroque
decadence.66 The literal application of this notion to Venice, where the
Republic was certainly not extinguished, is open to question. Metaphorically it is useful only in terms of a perceived decadence of the
patriciate in renouncing commerce for unproductive investment in land
and luxury. But any discussion of decadence relies on a comparative
model of past economic good health. For Venice that model centers on
the figure of the patricianmerchant, the very image of the moderncapitalist,
operating within an economy maritime, commercial, and international
and only secondarily agricultural and regional. Any deviation from that
standard is, by definition, decay; the model precludes the capacity of its
actors to change, at least for the better. Venetian degeneration is loss of
enterprise, failure to encourage freedom of production or competition or
trade, and slide into "antieconomic" land investment. Venetian refusal
Rapp, Industry and Economic Decline (and review by Julius Kirshner in
Journal of Modern History 49 [1977]: 319-21); Ernesto Sestan, "La politica
veneziana del Seicento," in La civiltadveneziana nell'eta barocca (Florence,
1959), pp. 35-66.
" Chabod, "Studi di storia" (n. 15 above); Berengo, "Il Cinquecento" (n.
24 above), passim; Quazza, Decadenza italiana, chap. 1.
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to preserve a free market economy betrayed the special Venetian destiny
and doomed the Republic to second-rate status. But whose expectations
are these? Perhaps those of an earlier golden age, certainly those of
contemporarycapitalism, but evidently not those of the Venetian patricians
of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who actually set such suicidal
policies. If such patricians lacked the wisdom and will to continue as
traditional bourgeois capitalists-and never mind the fact that landed
investment might be more lucrative and intelligent than trade, for how
could a few thousand Venetians on a few marshy acres compete with the
vast resources of the new Atlantic nations?-then they are being judged
by standards not their own. A broad sector of the decadence discussion
has been denounced as ethnocentric and anachronistic,67but these qualities
are not confined to a few American historians. Scholars from across the
political spectrum, from Italy and all Europe as well as America, have
a vested historiographical interest in the decadence of Venice.
This is perhaps more evident in the second half of the debate, which
touches on the eighteenth century, the ideal testing ground for decadence
and for the assignment of blame. For the economic historian there is
quantitatively greater and qualitatively more reliable statistical evidence.
It has been shown that up-to-date Enlightened ideas circulated freely
throughout the Veneto; if it can also be shown that policymakers ignored
reform programs in favor of stagnant traditionalism, then the intellectual
bankruptcy and shortsighted selfishness of the ruling class is as good as
proven. And the stakes were higher for the later period: if stubborn
protection of privilege in the sixteenth century led only to depression
and emargination in the seventeenth, similar conservatism in the eighteenth
led to collapse before Napoleon's forces and the extinction of the Venetian
Republic in 1797.
The decline of the urban economy was taken almost for granted by
Marino Berengo and others from the 1950s onward. Protectionism and
foreign competition strangled international trade; indecision, vacillation,
and a refusal to lift internal barriers canceled sporadic encouragement
of shipbuilding and commerce. Incapacity of rulership to break with
outmoded forms of production threw traditionally strong industries such
as glassmaking and printing into crisis. Output and employment dropped,
artisans' standardof living declined, and as Venice became an unattractive
place to work the city suffered demographically.68 But study of the urban
John A. Marino, "La crisi di Venezia e la New Economic History," Studi
storici 19 (1978): 82-83; Cochrane and Kirshner, pp. 332-34.
Marino Berengo, La societd veneta alla fine del Settecento: Ricerche storiche
(Florence, 1956), esp. chap. 2, and "II problema politico-sociale di Venezia e
della sua terraferma," in La civiltd veneziana del Settecento (Florence, 1960),
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When Myths Lose Power
economy was only an introduction to the focus of Venetian decadence,
the increasing role of agricultural investment in sustaining the patriciate's
luxurious life-style. As Daniele Beltrami pointed out, the weakness of
commerce and industry alone cannot explain the quickening of Venetian
purchases on the mainland.69 Landed investment, rather, represented a
change in mentalite' since the sixteenth century, toward aristocratization
of a formerly mercantile patriciate that now preferred sumptuous villas
to ignoble counting houses -that aristocratization which was a decisive
feature in Italy's long stagnation.70 Investment for prestige and security
was economically sterile. As Beltrami and Berengo insisted, absentee
landlords were unconcerned with agricultural improvement, and a peasantry burdened with exorbitant rents and dues could not contemplate
improvement. The great age of reclamation and drainage, in the sixteenth
century, had ended,71 and despite the introduction of maize and rice
there were few significant reforms in agriculturaltechniques or organization
of production. The old problems were if anything exacerbated: too-small
fields, low yields, little crop rotation, inadequate pasturage, insufficient
husbandry, owner absenteeism. Under Venetian hegemony the agriculture
of the Veneto remained thoroughly backward.
esp. pp. 80-81; Bruno Caizzi, Industria e commercio della Repubblica Veneta
nel XVIII secolo (Milan, 1965); Paolo Ulvioni, "Stampatori e librai a Venezia
nel Seicento,'" Archivio veneto, 5th ser., 145 (1977): 93-134; James C. Davis,
The Decline of the Venetian Nobility as a Ruling Class (Baltimore, Md., 1962),
esp. chap. 3; Amintore Fanfani, "Il mancato rinnovamento economico," in La
civilta veneziana del Settecento, pp. 27-67.
69 Daniele Beltrami, La Penetrazione economica dei Veneziani in terraferma:
Forze di lavoro e proprieta fondiaria nelle campagne venete dei secoli XVII e
XVIII (Venice and Rome, 1961), chap. 1 (hereafter cited as Forze di lavoro);
anticipated in his Storia della popolazione di Venezia dalla fine del secolo XVI
alla caduta della Repubblica (Padua, 1954), and Saggio di storia dell'agricoltura
nella Repubblica di Venezia durante l'eta' moderna (Venice and Rome, 1955).
Beltrami's seminal argument is summarized in S. J. Woolf, "Venice and the
Terraferma: Problems of the Change from Commercial to Landed Activities,"
reprinted in Pullan, Crisis and Change, pp. 175-203.
70 Alberto Tenenti, "The Sense of Space and Time in the Venetian World of
the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries," and Ugo Tucci, "The Psychology of
the Venetian Merchant in the Sixteenth Century," in Hale, ed. (n. 4 above), pp.
17-46, 346-78; Brian Pullan, "The Occupations and Investments of the Venetian
Nobility in the Middle and Late Sixteenth Century," in Hale, ed., pp. 379-408;
Angelo Ventura, "Aspetti storico-economici della villa veneta," Bolletino del
centro internazionale di studi d'architettura Andrea Palladio 11 (1969): 65-77;
Angelo Ventura, review of Marino Berengo, Nobili e mercanti nella Lucca del
Cinquecento (Turin, 1965), in Studi storici 7 (1966): 211-20.
71 Angelo Ventura, "Considerazioni sull'agricoltura veneta e sulla accumulazione originaria del capitale nei secoli XVI e XVII,'" Studi storici, vol. 9
(1968), sec. 2.
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Although carried on largely in economic terms, assisted by a barrage
of statistics, study of eighteenth-century Venetian decadence was no
technical examination of economic regression. Its most obvious characteristic was harsh excoriation of the Venetian patriciate, variously
exploitative, corrupt, repressive, reactionary, stupid, myopic, parasitic,
morally bankrupt,ignorantor obscurantist, anti-Semitic, politically feeble,
narrow-minded, unimaginative, duplicitous, peculative, unable to discern
or actualize necessary reforms. Berengo's conclusion has been shared
by historians from across the political spectrum: "Incapable of renewing
itself, paralyzed in its every action by an obsessive 'terror of the future,'
the patriciate could only defend with police laws and repressive measures
the institutional and political immobility to which it was anchored."72
So mainlandindustries were strangledby Venetian protectionism, mainland
political rights were reduced by a policy of centralization, mainland
economies were sacrificed to the greed and blindness of the Venetian
ruling class. Particularlydesperate was the plight of the peasantry:starved,
thrown off the land by rents and taxes, unemployed or underemployed,
denied justice, forced into smuggling or social banditry.
This consensus is an indictment of aristocracy as such: eighteenthcentury Venetians lords were simply more inclined and able than their
ancestors to take to extremes the unpleasant potentials of any closed
ruling body. As we might expect given the vehement hindsight of the
argument, the discussion is only secondarily about Venice except as
indicative of broader issues. Those issues were not, however, presentist:
apparently the current Italian nobility does not require even indirect
attack. Rather, the failure of the Venetian patriciate to modernize the
economy of the Veneto was a failure to effect a crucial precondition for
the overall unity of the Veneto-a failure, in other words, to produce a
modern regional state as preparation for the Italian national state. This
theme was a response to that Fascist historiography which asserted the
"unitary tendency" of the later Venetian Republic-in reducing local
particularism, breaking down internal economic barriers, harmonizing
the interests of Venice and provinces, subordinating class and corporate
aims to those of the state-as precursor to true unification and renewal
under the Duce.73 Such thinly veiled propaganda was refuted point by
Berengo, Societa veneta, p. 10. See also Fanfani, esp. pp. 31-40; Ivo Mattozzi, "Crisi, stagnazione e mutamento nello stato veneziano sei-settecentesco:
Il caso del commercio e della produzione olearia," Studi veneziani, n.s., 4
(1980): 199-276; Angela Maria Girelli, II setificio veronese nel '700 (Milan,
1969); Ulvioni.
73 Alfredo Pino-Branca, "Riforme finanziari e inizi di tendenze unitarie nella
politica veneta di terraferma nel secolo XVI,'" Atti dell'Instituto Veneto 95, no.
3 (1934-35): 287-319; Antonio Anzilotti, "Il tramonto dello stato cittadino,"
Archivio storico italiano, 7th ser., 1 (1924): 72-105, prefigures this view.
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When Myths Lose Power
point by Marino Berengo in a pivotal 1956 study of Veneto society in
the later eighteenth century. A defining feature of Venetian decadence,
he wrote, was precisely the separation of privileged from exploitedVenetian patriciate from other classes, Venetian economy from the economies of the provinces, local nobles from local masses. The later Venetian
state, far from being a harmonious whole, was irremediably divided.
Mainland society seethed with discontent, uniting only in hostility to
Venice: hence widespread acceptance of Jacobin ideas and French troops
in 1797.74 Failure to unify the state as a function of the psychological
limitations of the ruling class, to Berengo as it had been to historians as
diverse as Gramsci, Chabod, Luzzatto, and Braudel,75 ensured the long
stagnation of early modern Venice.
Postwar Italian historiography remained preoccupied with the origins
of the Risorgimento, particularlywith locating progressive policies within
an otherwise decadent age which might be regarded as seeds of future
renewal.76 It was in that spirit that Massimo Petrocchi in 1950 published
a study of the enlightened despotism of Settecento Venice, seeing a
determined struggle of physiocrats -drawn from progressive nobles and
middle classes of the mainland-against the mercantilism of a decayed
Venetian oligarchy. Progress was made in dismantling trade barriers,
reforming agrarian tenures, reducing excessive noble and clerical land
ownership, ending guild privileges, improving agricultural techniques,
thus preparing the base for greater understanding between regional states
"within the context of an increasingly widespread and progressive Italian
political and spiritual consciousness."77 But if the mainland was enlightened, the Venetian nobility was in irresistible decline. The Republic
abolished internal customs barriers, for example, only in 1794: the Veneto
experienced a "proto-Risorgimento" in theory only.
Petrocchi's work touched off a thirty-year debate over the Venetian
Enlightenment that shattered the traditional image of a Venice decadent
and lifeless because isolated from the ferment of the rest of Europe.
Marino Berengo, protagonist of the debate, has demonstrated that with
its active publishing trade Venice was a center for the translation and
Berengo, Societac veneta, chaps. 2-3; Berengo, "Problema politico," pp.
75 Elena Fasano Guarini, "Introduzione," Potere e societa negli stati regionali
italiani del '500 e '600, ed. Elena Fasano Guarini (Bologna, 1978), p. 16; Gino
Luzzatto, "Introduzione," Aspetti e cause, p. 12; Braudel et al. (n. 59 above),
pp. 82-86.
76 Quazza (n. 64 above), p. 15. See, e.g., the essays in Federico Chabod,
L'idea di nazione (Bari, 1961).
77 Massimo Petrocchi, "Il tramonto della Repubblica di Venezia e l'assolutismo
illuminato," Deputazione veneta di storia patria, Miscellanea di studi e memorie,
7 (Venice, 1950), p. 2.
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diffusion of new ideas. The agrarian academies established throughout
the mainland, and the widespread circulation of periodicals and journals,
ensured that foreign thought was at least available to leading elements
of Venetian and provincial societies; and there was, as well, considerable
local production.78But, to Berengo, closely seconded by Angelo Ventura,
such does not imply the real penetration of the Enlightenment into the
Veneto. Ideas in circulation were rarely directed at fundamental political
reform, and if so were quickly rendered harmless and marginal.79 Even
Querini, Giorgio Pisani-who
those enlightened patricians-Angelo
challenged the entrenched oligarchy never attempted to shift power to
non-nobles or to the nobilities of mainland cities but sought only to
restore the internal collegiality of the Venetian ruling class.80 The most
important call for an enlargement of Venetian government to permit
participation by mainland subjects, made in the 1730s by the Veronese
Scipione Maffei, was only published a few months after the fall of the
Republic.8' Leading reformers such as Gianmaria Ortes were either conservative in political-social views or too timid to challenge the constitution.
Always there remained an abyss between Enlightened ideas and significant
change: reforms were partial, or watered down to protect vested interests,
or never actuated, or ignored. Provincial academies had already been
dismissed as fatuous, politically irrelevant, "consoling oases" that provided "baroque frivolity" to the powerless.82 Even obvious reforms such
as rationalization of the primitive Venetian public accounting system,
which paralyzed fiscal administrationto nobody's advantage, were resisted
as potentially granting power to non-noble technicians.83 As Ventura
78 Berengo, "Problema politico" (n. 68 above), pp. 75-77, 84-87, Giornali
veneziani del Settecento (Milan, 1962); and see Gianfranco Torcellan, "Giornalismo e cultura illuministica nel Settecento veneto," Giornale storico della
letteratura italiana 140 (1963): 234-53.
79 Paolo Preto, review of R. M. Colombo, Lo Spectator e i giornali veneziani
del Settecento (Bari, 1966), in Studi veneziani 10 (1968): 742-48.
80 Gaetano Cozzi found the political turmoil a curious echo of the giovanil
vecchi split of the later Cinquecento: "Politica e tentativi di riforma del diritto
penale veneto nel Settecento," in Sensibilitd e razionalita nel Settecento (Florence,
1967), pp. 373-421, "Fortuna, o sfortuna del diritto veneto nel Settecento," in
Repubblica di Venezia e stati italiani (n. 31 above); "Note su tribunalie procedure
penali a Venezia nel '700," Rivista storica italiana 77 (1965): 931-52.
81 As noted in Ventura, Nobiltd e popolo (n. 26 above), p. 40n.
Gino Benzoni, "Aspetti della cultura urbana nella societa veneta del '5'600-le accademie,'" Archivio veneto, 5th ser., 143 (1977): 117, 118, 128. See
his trenchant Gli affani della cultura: Intellettuali e potere nell'Italia della Controriforma (Milan, 1978); but also Brendan Dooley, "Le Accademie,'" in Storia
della cultura veneta: I1 Settecento (in press).
83 Angelo Ventura, "Problema storico dei Bilanci Generali della Repubblica
Veneta,'" introduction to Bilanci Generali (dal 1756 al 1783), Commissione per
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When Myths Lose Power
concluded, there was just enough reform to prevent the spread of really
radical ideas, but in substance aristocracy held tenaciously to its sclerotic
constitution 84
Indictment of the Venetian patriciate of the Enlightenment was more
than an indictment of a rotten privileged class. It was, as well, a case
study of the Gramscian notion of the deployment and manipulation of
ideology to reinforce class hegemony. Study of the Enlightenment was
study of strategies by which a dominant class confronted potentially
revolutionary ideas, repressing the more dangerous and neutralizing or
deflecting or co-opting the less dangerous. In the politically committed
world of Italian historiography, it was not an interpretation that could
be expected to go unchallenged. Shortly after Berengo's opening salvos
a team of scholars grouped around Franco Venturi in Turin began to
revise in a more positive direction the unflattering view of the Venetian
Enlightenment, to defend at least the cultural achievements of the later
Republic. A 1965 edition of Veneto reformers was a deliberate attempt
to discredit the image of a Venice resistant to progressive ideas.85 Gianfranco Torcellan's flurry of studies insisted on the close links of Veneto
culture to that of Europe generally. His biographies of individual reformers
pointed to an intellectual renewal of Venice and mainland alike, a ferment
that transcended class and regional boundaries, a broad exchange of
ideas, a sincere and passionate drive to adapt the best foreign ideas and
to publicize them throughoutItaly and the Veneto. A society that produced
figures such as Griselini, Columbani, Fortis, Ortes, and Scola could
hardly be considered decadent, a pathetic echo of a glorious past.86
Yet there was not to be a confrontation between the image of Venetian
decadence and a new counterimage- and not just because Torcellan died
in 1966 at the age of twenty-eight. His writing was essentially tangential
to that of Berengo and Ventura, his intention to restore the intellectual
vitality of the later Venice but not to explore the deployment or actuation
of progressive thought. To Berengo the degree of intellectual creativity
and circulation was not at issue and could be conceded: indeed, the
la pubblicazione dei documenti finanziari della Repubblica di Venezia, ser. 2,
vol. 4 (Padua, 1972).
84 Angelo Ventura, review of G. Giarizzo, Gianfranco Torcellan, and Franco
Venturi, Illuministi italiani, vol. 7, Riformatori delle antiche repubbliche, dei
ducati, dello stato ponteficio e delle isole (Milan and Naples, 1965), in Studi
veneziani 11 (1969): 718-23.
Giarizzo, Torcellan, and Venturi.
Torcellan (n. 4 above), Settecento veneto e altri scritti storici (Turin, 1969),
and Unafigura della Venezia Settecentesca: Andrea Memmo, Ricerche sulla crisi
dell'aristocrazia veneziana (Venice and Rome, 1963) (hereafter cited as Andrea
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greater the spirit of rationalization the more damning the refusal of entrenched authority to effect reform. For his part Torcellan, admitting a
preference for a positive reading of Venetian culture, was little inclined
to rehabilitate the Venetian patriciateas a governing body.87 His distinction
between ideological renewal and political praxis, between a new spirit
and the will to action, between enlightenment and change acknowledged
that there was a profound distance between culture and politics in the
Settecento. Reforms were late, limited, and marginal; the ruling class's
inertia, apathy, and suspicion canceled the sincerity of the movement.
Ultimately, along with Venturi himself,88 Torcellan endorsed the scheme
of the decadence of Venice while minimizing its basis in class distinction.89
It is, as was the economic argument, a scheme that brought varied
ideological positions into substantial consensus. We would not expect
emphasis or methodology to be consistent, and they certainly are not,
but among Veneto historians the image of an immobile and hence doomed
patriciate has been widely shared. Much of this consensus is due to the
specific reading of relations of the Settecento Veneto to the Risorgimento.
To Marino Berengo the Venetian state exemplifies backwardness: feudal,
agricultural, aristocratic-the more so as having encouraged the refeudalization of the countryside. Milan represents steps toward modernity,
particularly in encouragement of an industrial/commercial capitalism.
The Venetian patriciate's failure to lead the state from feudalism to
capitalism, its failure to undertake the necessary stages in social development, rendered the Republic an anachronism and made it vulnerable
to Napoleon's brusque remedy in 1797.90 Yet the Christian Democrat
historian and politician Amintore Fanfani, writing about the same time
as Berengo, equally castigated the Venetian nobility on similar grounds
for not taking necessary steps toward reform-opening up the ruling
class, encouraging a revitalized commerce, liberalizing trade, breaking
down privileges, reforming agriculture. In short, Venetian patricians
refused to behave like a capitalist bourgeoisie and paid the price for
Torcellan, Andrea Memmo, esp. pp. 9-13.
FrancoVenturi, "Settecento Europeoe Settecento Veneziano," Studi veneziani
8 (1966): esp. 478-79.
Torcellan, Andrea Memmo, p. 15, acknowledged a debt to Cozzi's Nicolo
Contarini (n. 33 above): he shares a vision of a heroic, however doomed, attempt
at reform.
90 Berengo, Societa veneta (n. 68 above), esp. pp. 19-21, 23, 27-28. This
infuriated Roberto Cessi (review in Archivio veneto, 5th ser., 62 [1958]: 12330), whose studies of the pre-Risorgimento are among Berengo's uncited targets:
"Le origini del Risorgimento," Nuova rivista storica 38-39 (1944-45): 27183, Studi suiRisorgimento Veneto (Padua, 1965), Campoformido (Padua, 1947),
and esp. "La crisi agricola negli stati veneti a metA del secolo XVIII," Nuovo
archivio veneto, n.s., 25 (1921): 1-19.
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When Myths Lose Power
resistance to modernity by loss of their Republic.91 There have been
several points of contact between the two camps, notwithstandingconstant
carping. For example, one could hardly look to Venice or the Venetian
patriciate for renewal; mainland cities, with their own nobilities, were
no better off. But from the data of Daniele Beltrami it was clear that the
rural Veneto was flourishing at least demographically; might not the
historian locate economic vitality in the bourgeoisie of the smaller towns?
It was a hint and has remained on the level of suggestion, but it brought
together figures as diametrically opposed as Berengo and Gino Barbieri.92
This is not to gloss over very real differences. Christian Democrats have
above all consistently rejected the charge that decadence is to be blamed
on the Venetian patriciate alone. Hostile to the notion of class conflict,
even to the notion of class boundaries as impermeable, they have sought
to diffuse responsibility by pointing out that the 98 percent who were
not Venetian patricians had no better ideas than the 2 percent who were
and that local notables were just as brutal to peasants as were Venetian
landlords.93 But divergence is from a common point: they join with other
parties in accepting decadence as postulate and locating that decadence
largely in the Venetian patriciate's betrayal of commercial origins and
failure to effect a unitary, capitalist modern state.
The decadence debate has not been without its critics. Roberto Cessi
caustically dismissed Berengo's opening manifesto on grounds of substance, methodology, and ideology alike, while Giovanni Tabacco produced a deliberately more balanced portraitof a key Settecento patrician.94
Jean Georgelin has meticulously documented the administrationof several
properties in the later eighteenth century: these were apparently directly
managed, capitalist, efficient, and prosperous, their Venetian owners
thoroughly versed in the latest agricultural ideas.95 To Maurice Aymard
91 Fanfani (n. 68 above), esp. pp. 31-60.
Berengo, Societd veneta (n. 68 above), pp. 40-41; Gino Barbieri, "Tendenze
della storiografia veneta degli ultimi decenni," in Atti del Convegno: Venezia e
la terraferma attraverso le relazioni dei rettori, ed. Amelio Tagliaferri (Milan,
1981), pp. 52-54, 63. See also Beltrami, Forze di lavoro (n. 69 above), p. 21;
Maurice Aymard's review of Caizzi (n. 68 above) in Studi veneziani 11 (1969):
93 Barbieri, pp. 60-61; Fanfani (n. 68 above), p. 62; Amelio Tagliaferri, Per
una storia sociale della repubblica veneta: La rivolta di Arzignano del 1655
(Trieste, 1978), pp. 1-10, 42-46 (hereafter Arzignano); Giorgio Borelli, "Il
problema della nobilta (preliminari di una ricerca)," Economia e storia 17 (1970):
94 Cessi, review of Berengo (n. 90 above); Giovanni Tabacco, Andrea Tron
(1712-1785) e la crisi dell'aristocrazia senatoria a Venezia (Trieste, 1957),
reviewed by Cessi in Archivio veneto, 5th ser., 63 (1958): 96-100.
95 Jean Georgelin, "Une grande propriete en Venetie au XVIII siecle: Anguillara," AnnalesE.S. C. 23 (1968): 483-519, "Une bonification dans la 'Bassa'
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and Alberto Tenenti this sort of evidence suggested that the entire notion
of Venetian decadence was devalued coinage.96 But empirical research
alone cannotbanishthe image of decadence:counterexamplecannoteradicate
myth. The utility of Venice as metaphor in larger debates is too great to
warrant discarding such a serviceable and plausible scheme. It is clearly
an act of hindsight, anachronism, and judgmentalism to demand thorough
reforms from Venetian patricians and then castigate them for failure to
enact those reforms and thereby anticipate the Risorgimento or liberal state.
We may even feel sympathy for those who tried to effect change, given the
resources and possibilities provided by their culture, subjected to the extraordinarystresses of their day and the obloquy of our own. But that is
how Venetian history is made, with a large canvas and an eye to broader
issues. The logic of Venetian historiography demands that those patricians
suffer by measurement with expectations not their own.
The causeway linking Venice to the mainland is of recent construction:
the Venice of myth was a purely maritime Republic. Chroniclers and
jurists alike traced its finest and distinctive qualities to its foundation in
the midst of the sea: beauty, trade, peace-loving spirit, even social homogeneity and concern for justice.97 When mythmakers looked beyond
the lagoon for illustration of Venetian greatness, they looked overseas
to the power of the Venetian fleet and the wealth of Venetian merchants.
Rituals that carried Venetian self-perceptions, notably the yearly marriage
of the doge to the sea as sign of Venice's maritime dominion, were all
derived from past naval triumphs.98
When in the early fifteenth century Venetian authority was extended
to the Italian mainland, from Friuli to Bergamo, the maritime myth proved
ill equipped to articulate a radically altered Republic. The civic humanist
Francesco Barbaroadvanced a notion of Venice as guarantorof the libertas
of mainland subjects against tyrants such as the Visconti of Milan, but
as Venice made permanent its own rule this view became awkward and
frioulane (1779-1809)," Studi veneziani 13 (1971): 623-46, and "Passariano
e la civilta delle ville venete," Ateneo veneto 13 (1975): 143-50.
96 Aymard (n. 92 above); Tenenti, "Studi di storia veneziana" (n. 1 above).
97 Innocenzo Cervelli, Machiavelli e la crisi dello stato veneziano (Naples,
1974), chap. 6; Fasoli (n. 2 above); Gaeta, "Alcune considerazioni" (n. 2 above);
Bouwsma, "Venice and the Defense" (n. 42 above), pp. 53-70; Muir (n. 2
above), pp. 14-15; Aldo Mazzacane, "Lo stato e il dominio nei giuristi veneti
duranteil 'secolo della terraferma,'" in Storia della cultura veneta, III, 1 (Vicenza,
1979), ch. 5.
Muir, chaps. 2-4.
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When Myths Lose Power
was never taken up in detail by later apologists.99 The Venetian stato,
as Innocenzo Cervelli has demonstrated, continued to be defined as urban
polity alone, leaving relations between city and mainlandprovinces without
theoretical definition.1?? Certainly the mature myth, working toward a
theory of sovereignty and freedom from even nominal subordination to
the Empire, ignored the inconvenient fact that from 1435 onward Venice
owed title to most of its mainland dominion to possession of an imperial
vicariate.101 Gasparo Contarini offered a few offhand rationalizations:
that Venice had merely accepted mainland invitations to expel foreign
tyrants, that in doing so Venice was only reuniting the Roman province
of Venetia, and that in the resulting societas mainland peoples retained
full liberties and laws in a sort of federal state.102But the nature of that
societas was not then explained, and Contarini's suggestions were never
elaborated into anything like a coherent definition of Venetian authority
on the mainland. Venice as territorial dominion remained the weakest
element in the Venetian myth, a sign of the inadequacy of myth as accurate
descriptive. It was a subject only slightly less ignored by the mature
antimyth, despite propagandistic allusions to Venetian lust for conquest,
illegality of authority, and oppression of subject peoples.103
As Venetian historiography has taken its lead from Venetian myth,
the mainland dominion has been assigned a marginal position in Venetian
historical writing. This has been reinforced by the urbanocentrism of
Italian historiography since at least the time of Carlo Cattaneo over a
century ago, which privileged the metropolitan center as the vital force
in the peninsula's history. Mainland expansion itself was treated within
the context of military-diplomatic relations between Venice, local despots,
and neighboring states, but attention ceased at the moment of Venetian
triumph. If the post- 1404 composite ordering of the urban Republic with
I For example,
Remigio Sabbadini, ed., Centotrentalettere inedite di Francesco
Barbaro (Salerno, 1884), pp. 78, 81, 94, 102, 113; Angelo Maria Quirini, ed.,
Francisci Barbari et aliorum ad ipsum Epistolae (Brescia, 1743), pp. 47, 112;
Evangelista Manelmi, Commentariolum. .. de obsidione Brixiae (Brescia, 1728),
p. 42.
100 Cervelli, chaps, 2, 6, 8; and cf. Cozzi, "Domenico Morosini" (n. 25
above), p. 416 ff.
101Mazzacane, chaps. 5-6; Gina Fasoli, "Lineamentidi politica e di legislazione
feudale veneziana in terraferma," Rivista di storia del diritto Italiano, vol. 25
(1952), sec. 2.
102 (Gasparo Contarini), De Magistratibus et Repubblica Venetorum Libri
Quinque Authore Gaspare Contareno Patricio Veneto (Venice, 1551), pp. 113 15, 132; cf. Gaeta, "Idea di Venezia," pp. 637-38.
103 Gaeta, "Idea di Venezia" (n. 2 above), pp. 584-87 and chap. 2; Cervelli,
chaps. 3, 5, 7; Rubinstein, "Italian Reactions" (n. 4 above).
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formerly free city-states has been studied at all, it has been so only as
necessitating creation of a few minor magistracies in the Venetian administration, with scant attention paid to actual relations between center and
periphery.104Only a few disgruntled erudites from the mainland, concerned
to denounce Venetian political and economic repression of their cities,
examined that governance, and their intentions were more polemical than
scientific or systematic. 105Before the modern era only two full-length
works focused on Venetian territorial dominion, and neither achieved
great influence. Alfredo Pino-Branca's pioneering study of the Venetian
administration of Padua in the early fifteenth century may have been
tainted by Fascist undertones or may simply have been premature.106
Maria Antonia Vento's bizarre encomium of Venetian aristocratic and
Catholic paternalism, published in 1954 in Sicily, has been sedulously
and probably rightly ignored.
That historiographic imbalance was dramatically corrected with Marino
Berengo's La societa veneta alla fine del Settecento in 1956. Berengo
was trained in Florence and therefore free from the myths that then
dominated Venetian higher education; writing of a period in which Venetian
overseas trade was considered moribund, he was free to redirect attention
to the Republic's regional identity. He could draw, too, on the data of
Daniele Beltrami, who had placed unprecedented stress on the Venetian
patriciate's activities on the mainland. Berengo's original and forceful
argument, ranging far beyond its stated bounds of the later eighteenth
century, created a new field and presented a model of Venetian territorial
governance that has since dominated that field.
Berengo's subject was the familiar one of the decadence of the Venetian
patriciate and the failure of that patriciate to effect a unitary state. That
failure was signaled by the terms of annexation of mainland cities: each
subject territory retained its municipal councils, laws, and prerogatives
For example, Bruno Dudan, Sindacato d'oltremare e di terraferma (Rome,
1935); V. Lazzarini, "Antiche leggi venete intorno ai proprietari nella terraferma," Nuovo archivio veneto, n.s., 38 (1919): 5-31; Fasoli, "Lineamenti,"
chaps. 4-7.
105 For example, Agostino Zanelli, "La devozione di Brescia a Venezia e il
principio della sua decadenza economica nel secolo XVI," Archivio storico
lombardo, 4th ser., 17 (1912): 23-100; Vincenzo Marchesi, "II dominio veneto
nel Friuli (Risposta al Prof. Pompeo Molmenti),'" Atti dell'Accademia di Udine,
3d ser., 1(1893-94); M. Borgherini, II governo di Venezia in Padova nell'ultimo
secolo della Repubblica (dal 1700 al 1797) (Padua, 1909); G. Pietro Galizzi,
"Aspetti di vita economica bergamasca sotto Venezia," Bergomum, vol. 33,
nos. 1-2 (1959).
106 Alfredo Pino-Branca, "II comune di Padova sotto la Dominante nel sec.
XV," Atti dell'Instituto Veneto, 93:325-90, 879-940, 1249-1323; 96:739-96;
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When Myths Lose Power
in an initial confirmation of local autonomies, such that the state was
from its inception "disorganic and fragmentary."'107 At the same time
Venetian patricians, incapable of conceiving an alternative to aristocratic
class rule, refused to establish a bureaucracy that would have eroded
their own authorityby ceding administrativepower to non-nobles. Instead,
local nobilities were granted hegemony within provincial cities108 and
were assisted in closing ranks by Venetian-endorsed legislation preventing
access to municipal councils by bourgeoisie or guildsmen. Feudal rights
were largely respected in line with prevailing aristocratization and refeudalization.
The requirements of the modern state were lacking from the moment
of territorial expansion. Yet Venetian rulers could no more tolerate a
local autonomy that would derogate their own authority and jeopardize
the privileged Venetian economy: without unifying the state, Venetian
decrees progressively stripped provincial councils of any real power,
imposing Venetian will on the making of law, the administration of
justice, and the exaction of taxes. To the structural disharmony of the
state there was added the hostility of local nobles at the loss of traditional
powers within their communities. Actual governance of the mainland
exacerbated class and regional tensions. Venetian annonary policy, designed to ensure a ready supply of cheap foodstuffs for the capital, trampled
local prerogatives and stripped the countryside in times of scarcity. Fiscal
policy, which favored an ungrateful local elite, drained the bourgeoisie
and peasantry. Economic policy protected Venetian trade and industry
while crippling that of the mainland. The rural populations, starved and
overtaxed, were driven by misery and injustice into riot, brigandage,
and contraband. The low quality of Venetian administration, a mixture
of incompetence, willful exploitation, and myopia, increased subjects'
resentment. Small wonder that local nobilities in particular welcomed
French troops in 1797: the Venetian patriciate, by inherent incapacity to
accept alternatives to class and urban privilege, had self-destructed.
Berengo was therefore well within the traditional field of Venetian
decadence. He even, in a way, confirmed the myth that credited Venetian
greatness to a maritime-commercial base and traced decadence to reorientationtowardthe land. On the one hand, landed investment accelerated
economic stagnation and prevented the reforms necessary to move from
feudalism into capitalism; on the other hand, the conduct of governors
Berengo, Societd veneta (n. 68 above), p. 31; cf. esp. pp. 11-42 and
chap. 2.
Cf8 Anticipated in A. Giuliani Bossetti, "La trasformazione aristocratica dei
consigli di Verona durante il dominio veneziano," Studi storici veronesi, vol. 3
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fostered the alienation and class consciousness of subjects that was to
destroy the Republic. Yet the act of placing the mainland at the center
of Venetian historiography was already an assault on Venetian myths.
Shattered forever was Venice as urbanrepublic, as maritime actor without
territorial context. Contarini's image of benign federalism, too, was
swept aside. Though much subsequent work has been hostile to Berengo,
it is certainly the case that since his Societa veneta the primary focus on
the Venetian state has been the integration of capital city and mainland
provinces. Particularly Berengo's thesis of the patriciate's congenital
incapacity to overcome the city-state mentality in favor of a modern
unitary state has become a commonplace in subsequent discussions of
the Venetian state after 1404-from a broad range of viewpoints.109
Berengo's introductory excursus on the earlier period was extended
and documented in Angelo Ventura's glittering Nobilta e popolo of 1964,
which despite frequent criticism has remained the standard work on the
subject. The format and terms of debate are largely those of Berengo,
as is the underlying theme. Ventura, however, moved the whole scheme
back by several centuries. The formation of local oligarchies is traced
back not to the early years of Venetian domination but to the later medieval
period, when mainland signori presided over the extinction of "democracies" characterized by the wide powers exercised by guilds and
bourgeoisie. It was the dubious merit of Venetian rule to have sanctioned
the formal closing of now hereditary and closed provincial elites and to
have endowed these elites with such authority as was not seized by the
Republic. This was accompanied by encouragement of an ideology justifying the hegemony of local nobilities and defining nobility strictly in
terms of a landed class. Venturademonstrates, for example, the progressive
inversion of a Renaissance view of nobility: from being an attribute of
civic virtue available to all citizens, which might be passed down by
proper ethical training of sons, nobility came to be defined as a hereditary
status backed by ethical principles scorning "vile" or ignoble activities
such as trade (chap. 5). It was an aristocracy of landed estates, feudal
jurisdictions, and sumptuous villas, backed by the trappingsof genealogy,
heraldry, and chivalry.
It was also, inevitably and invariably, corrupt. Ventura's argument
moves far beyond that of his acknowledged guides Benedetto Croce and
Federico Chabod in a devastating exposition of "the poverty of ethical
109Ruggiero Romano, "Les lions affamds,'" and Maurice Aymard, "La terre
ferme," in Goimard, ed. (n. 58 above), pp. 125-83; C. G. Mor, "Problemi
organizzativi e politica veneziana nei riguardi dei nuovi acquisti di terraferma,'"
in Umanesimo europeo e umanesimo veneziana, ed. Vittore Branca (Florence,
1963), pp. 1-10; Fanfani (n. 68 above), pp. 54-55; Beltrami, Penetrazione
economica (n. 69 above), p. 55; Alberto Tenenti, Cristoforo Da Canal: La
marine ve'nitienne avant Lepante (Paris, 1962), p. ix.
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When Myths Lose Power
and civic sentiment which characterizedItalian decadence"- a decadence
that to Ventura was political, economic, and intellectual as well as moral,
a decadence that could be attributedonly to "the suffocating predominance
of a single parasitic class" (pp. 369-70). Hegemony led, here, to perception of public office as the private patrimony of the nobility, thence
to a callous disregard for laws and basic standardsof equity in the interests
of class maintenance. We might expect, at worst, fiscal extortion, judicial
favoritism, and gross legislative bias; Ventura demonstrates all of these
and proceeds to show that even religious bequests and state pawnshops
were hijacked and looted by local aristocracies.
As local nobilities stood in relation to local societies, so Venice stood
in relation to mainland subjects. The "diaphragm" between center and
periphery remained impermeable. For Ventura, following Berengo's lead,
there were only two ways in which Venice could have effected a unitary
state. Admitting local nobles to power was inconceivable to Venetian
patricians; eradicating local nobilities and installing a bureaucracy presented insuperable practical difficulties and was in any case foreign to
the aristocratic mentality of the Venetian rulership (pp. 46-47). So
initially Venice maintained the status quo and ruled through mainland
elites, while eviscerating effective local freedom and reserving unlimited
rights of intervention. As Ventura sketches events of the fifteenth century,
intervention became increasingly frequent and comprehensive: imposing
decrees, manipulatingmunicipal statutes, orderingjudicial cases to Venice,
ignoring local rights when inconvenient. In the crisis of the League of
Cambrai, with the great forces of Italy and Europe united against the
Republic, mainland nobles welcomed foreign invaders. Differences between the invasions of 1509 and 1797 only underscoredVenetian decadence
in the earlier period. After 1509, according to Ventura, the lower and
rural classes, who had been sporadically protected by Venice against the
excesses of local notables, supported the Republic; and this time Venice
survived the crisis and reestablished mainland dominion. But offered a
second chance to construct a modem state, Venetian patricians could
conceive of no alternative to aristocratic rule that would not impinge on
their own privileges. While taking steps to discourage future defections,
the Republic returned local control to discredited local oligarchies, betraying lower-class supporters to another three centuries of oppression
and misery.
The sprawling, erratic, frequently brilliant Nobiltd e popolo has lost
none of its controversial appeal in the past two decades. Certainly it is
vulnerable to criticism.?10 The bourgeois "democratic" commune as
110Key reviews of Ventura's Nobiltd e popolo by Cecil Clough in Studi veneziani
8 (1966): 526-44; Gaetano Cozzi in Critica storica, vol. 5 (1966); Alberto
Tenenti in Studi storici 4 (1966): 401-8.
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starting point is dubious and cannot be sustained after Philip Jones's
recent manifesto."'' Heavy use of judicial documentation exaggerates
conflict and corruption, and where that evidence is lacking assumptions
become surrogates for facts. Tidy class divisions and antipathies have
not survived empirical examination. Because subjects had reason to resent
Venetian rule, it is assumed they did so actively and unanimously; in
fact there is considerable evidence suggesting widespread accommodation
with, even affection for, Venetian governance. Sweeping generalization
is often without foundation or rests on ambiguous fragments. Even if we
accept Crocean decadence as historically valid rather than as a milestone
in Italian historiography, it is hard to believe that the rule of Venetian
and local nobilities was as unfailingly dreadful as Ventura makes out,
particularly by the standards of the day. But no scholar has yet attempted
a refutation of the book in its entirety, and the Nobilta e popolo remains
the starting point for any discussion of the Venetian territorial state.
Ventura's comprehensive vision, his profound insights and intuitions,
would make such criticism difficult even for one equipped with his formidable erudition. And the book is, in the great tradition of Venetian
historical writing, irrefutable, deploying the Venetian experience in the
service of broad themes that render point-by-point revision irrelevant.
A few years after the publication of Ventura's book, Gaetano Cozzi
took up study of the early Venetian territorial state. Cozzi's several long
essays since then have been the only works comparable to Ventura's in
scope and stature, and while not directly targeting Ventura he has covered
so much of the same ground that the two may fairly be treated in comparison. Their divergent points of view were apparent from the start: if
Ventura began within the debate on decadence, in a sustained attack on
the myth of the good Republic, Cozzi had been engaged in an exploration
of the last glorious moment when good myth and Venetian reality could
be judged consonant.
Cozzi's first major contribution announced a host of interests which
were to be pursued in later monographs."2 His subject was the linkage
of Venice to the mainland, manifest in such varied topics as prehistory,
the foundation of Venice, language, painting, architecture, agriculture,
land ownership, aristocratic culture, symbolism and ritual, political ge1 Philip Jones, "Economia e societa nell'Italia medievale: La leggenda della
borghesia," Storia d'Italia, Annali, I, Dal feudalismo al capitalismo (Turin,
1978), pp. 187-372.
112 Gaetano Cozzi, "Ambiente veneziano, ambiente veneto," in L'uomo e il
suo ambiente, ed. S. Rosso-Mazzinghi (Florence, 1973), pp. 93-146. He was
to return to this multidisciplinary approach a decade later: "Politica, cultura e
religione," in Cultura e societa nel rinascimento: Tra riforme e manierismo,
ed. Vittore Branca and Carlo Orsola (Florence, 1984).
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When Myths Lose Power
ography, law, and above all the ethical-political ideals of Venetian rule
peace, justice, and piety. In the latter consideration there were strong
echoes of Benedetto Croce, informed by Cozzi's own sensitivity to the
spiritual bases of political action; but his method was most indebted to
the economic-juridical school of historical writing, especially to the jurists
Enrico Besta and Gian Piero Bognetti, who suggested less an ideology
than an approach, a commitment to an interdisciplinary history fusing
sociology, economics, political behavior, culture, and especially law as
defining elements in social relations. There is no single driving theme
to Cozzi's work, but already in topics previously treated by Ventura we
see a markedly different emphasis: the transformation of the traditional
Venetian merchant-patrician into landed aristocrat not as class division
or decadence, but as "symbiosis" of lagunar and mainland culture; the
''capillary" extension of Venetian authority over local administration
not as radical centralization but as contingent assertion of Venetian sovereignty in the face of broad local autonomies.113 To Ventura, Venetian
mainland expansion was conquest pure and simple;114 to Cozzi it represented the reuniting of a long-divided geographic and cultural unity.
And already, without idealizing Venetian rule, Cozzi maintained the
sincere and high ideals of Venetian policy and the occasional affection
of subjects.
A similar spirit informs Cozzi's study of changes in the internalworkings
of the Venetian governing class at the turn of the fifteenth and sixteenth
centuries, published the same year.115Here the theme is the progressive
affirmation of the elite magistracy of the Council of Ten at the expense
of more broadly based magistracies -Senate and Avogaria di Comuntraditionally charged with executive, legislative, and judicial direction.
Restriction of power within the patriciate was hardly new to Venetian
historiography, though Cozzi characteristically invested it with unrivaled
mastery of documentary sources and knowledge of the constitutional
prerogatives of each council. To Angelo Ventura there were larger issues
in the Ten's advance: the "oligarchic tendency" was first a refutation of
the myth of a unified patriciate and second a symptom of that concentration
of authority that denoted an abortive Venetian step toward modernity.116
Cozzi, "Ambiente" (n. 112 above), p. 103; Cozzi, "Domenico Morosini"
(n. 25 above), p. 436. The capillary metaphorcomes from Beltrami, Penetrazione
economica (n. 69 above), p. 35, and is used repeatedly in Berengo and Ventura.
114 Ventura, Nobilta epopolo (n. 26 above), pp. 32-33, 39, 41, etc.; see also
Angelo Ventura, "II dominio di Venezia nel Quattrocento," in Florence and
Venice: Comparisons and Relations (Florence, 1979), 1:172-73.
115 Cozzi, "Authority and the Law" (n. 31 above).
116 Ventura, "Dominio di Venezia," pp. 174-75, "Scrittori politici" (n. 9
above), chaps. 6-7, esp. p. 555, and introduction to Relazione degli ambasciatori
veneti al Senato (Bari, 1976).
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Cozzi had no such ulterior problematica, drily rejecting, for example,
the notion that Venetian patricians might have been guilty of failing to
create a unified state since virtually no one at the time dreamed of doing
SO. 117 His triumph of the Ten over the principle of patrician equality was
a situational response to severe crises faced by the Republic, crises that
cumbersome, contentious, and inefficient magistracies simply could not
handle. Individual Venetians might oppose the Ten's triumph; most accepted its inevitability. Indeed, the Ten served the higher purposes of
the Republic in their ability to render an impartial and quick justice even
on powerful patrician malefactors. Behind Cozzi's narration of changes
in power and law we see a warm patriotism and republican idealism
subjected to unprecedented diplomatic and military stress.118
In a pair of extended essays published in the early 1980s, Cozzi returned
to the question of Venetian relations with its subject territories, overseas
as well as mainland.119His theme was the legal and judicial administration
of the mainland: law and justice as mediation between ruler and subject.
Like Ventura, he saw a "diaphragm" between Venice and the mainland
cities. To Ventura that diaphragm consisted of the congenital incapacity
of a ruling caste to share power, coupled with a refusal to destroy local
nobilities and unify the state. Cozzi's diaphragmis more specific: mainland
judicial structures were grounded in a Roman law that was technical,
deductive, and incompatible with the empirical case law of Venice. The
pacts regulating relations between Venice and its subjects -Ventura regarded them as farcical and massively abrogated, imposed by conquering
armies 120-guaranteed the supremacy of local statutes in which there
was no room for Venetian law, and these pacts were consistently honored
by the central authority. Antithetical legal systems, reflecting different
ways of viewing justice and authority, posed a formidable obstacle to
the exercise of Venetian sovereignty. The Venetian response, to Cozzi,
was to write into the pacts the governor's attributeof arbitriumor sovereign
117 "La necessita di creare uno stato omogeneamente unitario non e invece
colta ne dal Morosini ne da altre personalita del mondo veneziano" (Cozzi,
"Domenico Morosini" [n. 25 above], p. 436).
118 Cozzi, "Authority and the Law" (n. 31 above), esp. pp. 306-7. On the
Venetian myth's view of the Ten as antioligarchic, cf. Gaeta, "Idea di Venezia"
(n. 2 above), pp. 636-37.
119 Gaetano Cozzi, "Considerazioni sull'amministrazione della giustizia nella
Repubblica di Venezia (sec. XV-XVI)," in Florence and Venice: Comparisons
andRelations (Florence, 1980), 2:101-33, and "Lapoliticadeldiritto," inStato
societa e giustizia nella repubblica veneta (sec. XV-XVIII), ed. Gaetano Cozzi
(Rome, 1981), pp. 17-152.
120 Ventura, Nobilta e popolo (n. 26 above), pp. 41-44, and "Dominio di
Venezia" (n. 114 above), p. 173.
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When Myths Lose Power
capacity to supply the law in case of statutory deficiency, to demand that
no local law be hostile to Venetian interests, and to reserve the right to
approve new statutes. Cozzi's arbitrium was a function of the cherished
Venetian ideal of equity, a function of a strong ethical and religious
principle; to Ventura arbitrium was a function of absolute power.12'
Arbitrium, to Cozzi, was a mechanism integrating subject and ruler.
There were others, all precisely and lucidly sketched: intermediate magistracies, such as the Auditori Novi, that sent appeals from local to
Venetian tribunals; the right of direct appeal (supplica) to the doge for
redress; the encouragement of arbitration "in the Venetian style" (more
veneto). And to Cozzi the capillary penetration of Venetian authority
could never be total or even without reverses. Arbitriumremained severely
limited by local statute; by local institutions such as the Veronese and
Vicentine consulate, which retained criminal jurisdiction; by restrictions
on sending broad categories of appeals to Venice; by the progressive
undercutting of the Auditori Novi; by the presence on governors' staffs
of non-Venetian judges trained in the Roman law- and these concessions
to local autonomy were protected by the highest Venetian magistracies. 122
Nor did Cozzi see the exercise of central authority as a determined bid
to strip local communes of effective power. Centralintervention, especially
that of the Council of Ten, responded to overriding crises: to make those
rapid and forceful decisions consonant with Venetian raison d'etat, certainly, but equally to maintain order, to prevent local nobilities' oppression
of lower classes, and to provide the justice that local tribunals could not
guarantee. Cozzi is no blind partisan-his Council of Ten is an admitted
plutocracy, its decisions often partial;'23but he gives no reason to doubt
the good will of Venetian rulership.
The attractiveness of Cozzi's reading reflects a preference for the irenic
over the conflictual. We should, though, be aware that Cozzi has carefully
chosen his terrain to the best advantage of his argument. He is dealing,
after all, only with the administrationof justice, in which the preservation
of local autonomy was entirely beneficial to Venice; the concentration
of routine legal cases in Venice would hardly have been of use to the
overburdened tribunals of the capital. He is not concerned with issues
such as taxation, the provision of foodstuffs, and commercial privileges
in which direct Venetian interests were at stake, and in which the Venetian
Ventura, Nobilta' epopolo, p. 5; cf. Cozzi, "Considerazioni," p. 103, and
"Politica del diritto," secs. 1, 2.
122 Cozzi, "Politica del diritto," chap. 3; "Authority and the Law" (n. 31
above), pp. 304-5; "Considerazioni," pp. 108-15. Compare Angelo Ventura,
"Politica del diritto e amminstrazione della giustizia nella repubblica veneta,"
Rivista storica italiana 94 (1982): 589-602.
Cozzi, "Considerazioni," p. 125.
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handwas likely to have been far heavier. He is no moreconcernedwith
issues such as corruption,inefficiency, or the quality of Venetiangovernance,norwith the actualconductof local nobilities, all of whichmay
havebeennearlyas unpleasantas Venturaasserts.Wherethetwo intersect,
Ventura'sharderreadingis sometimespreferable.In the early sixteenth
century, for example, there was put forwarda projectfor legal reform
that would have made Venetianlaw far more consonantwith thatof the
mainland,includingthe possibility of an extensive dose of Romanlaw.
The projectfailed despite the patronageof Doge AndreaGritti. Cozzi's
interpretationof that failure seems to indicate that the entire patriciate
feareda derogationof theprincipleof equity,a dilutionof thecharacteristic
Venetianempiricalmentalite'.Venturamore convincingly ascribes the
failureto a driveby the majorityof patriciansto blockanyfurtheraccretion
of power to thatoligarchywhich, with greatereducationalandpolitical
resources,could have controlledjudicial structures.124 It is a smallpoint
but a test case for an entire vision of the Venetianpatriciate.
Cozzi's stress on the structuresand ideals that conjoin peoples and
Ventura'son themechanismsandideologiesthatdivideclassesandregions
representextremevisions of the Venetianmainlandexperience.The antithesis has been a fruitfulone for Venetianhistoriography.Into an area
unprovidedwith interpretativeguides they have producedtwo comprehensivepointsof view, twodistinctlinesof research,twosetsof indications
for futurestudy. Historiansare furnished,that is, with a new myth and
antimythof Venice. These are likely to prove more useful than those
mythsthathave guidedVenetianstudiesin the past, if only becausethey
are thoroughlygroundedin the evidence of the culturesthat they seek
to explain. Obviouslythe debateis not withoutpresentistovertones,but
this field of study has been mostly free of the absolutecategorizations
and ahistoricalschematismof muchearlierhistoricalwriting. Metahistorical constructionshave been toned down or at least anchoredin a
specifically Venetiandocumentation.Cozzi and Venturaactuallywrite
about Venice ratherthan find in Venice the archetypeor exemplarof
Probablymore substantialand lasting workon Venice was publishedin
the period 1950-75 than at any time since the age of Paolo Parutaand
Paolo Sarpi. The protagonistswere skilled and prolific, the issues fundamental,the debates passionate. The Venice of myth and the Venice
of richarchiveswereperfectlysuitedto pursuitof pastandcontemporary
Cozzi, "Politica del diritto," chaps. 4-5, "Considerazione," pp. 115-17;
Ventura, "Politica del diritto," esp. pp. 595-96.
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When Myths Lose Power
through historical writing. Whatever criticisms of anachronism and ideological deformation can be leveled at those protagonists, their learning,
broad vision, and eloquence command our interest. It is tempting to call
that period a golden age, unflattering though such a label would be to
our own. Certainly there have since been major changes in the way
Venetianists do business.
Debate was passionate partly because historians were concentrated on
the few exemplary topics of Interdict Controversy, decadence, Enlightenment, and mainland state. There do not now seem to be such centers
to Venetian scholarship; even a schematic listing of current historical
subjects would defy categorization. Some loss of focus is due to the
progressive detachment of the barons who advanced the main discussions.
Berengo has set his sights outside the Veneto or outside the republican
period. 125Bouwsma's RepublicanLiberty in 1968 was his last monographic
contribution to the field. Cozzi, though active as teacher, has all but
announced his retirement from further scholarship.'26 Ventura since the
late 1960s has returned to contemporary history; his contributions to the
republican period have largely refined the arguments of the 1964 Nobilta
e popolo. Most current research is done by junior scholars who lack the
experience, the authority, and, it would seem, the inclination to carry
on the grand debates in comparable fashion.
Changes in the composition of the scholarly community, now much
larger and less cohesive, have furthered the decentralization of historical
studies. Italian university openings have been drastically reduced, and
future prospects are bleak. This has sharply reduced the patronage powers
of senior historians, eroding the traditionally strong bonds between professors and advanced students and freeing students to pursue independent
lines of research. But there has actually been an increase in young historians
who hang on regardless of employment possibility, their ranks swelled
by scholars with no formal ties to universities. There has been, too, an
influx of foreigners particularly as the Anglo-Saxon community has lost
its traditional focus on Tuscany. And the new arrivals have found no
difficulty in finding outlets for publication. The past decades alone have
seen the establishment of annual conferences sponsored by Venice's Cini
Foundationand by a Trieste/Veronauniversity group, with the proceedings
published; at least one new journal (Annali Veneti: Societa'-culturaistituzioni); a stream of locally financed conferences and community
For example, Marino Berengo, Nobili e mercanti nella Lucca del Cinquecento
(Turin, 1965), Intellettuali e librai nella Milano della Restaurazione (Turin,
1980), and Lezioni su Foscolo (Florence, 1981).
126 Cozzi, Repubblica di Venezia (n. 31 above), pp. xv, xviii. A synthetic
essay will appear in La repubblica di Venezia, vol. 12 of the UTET Storia
d'Italia (in press).
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histories; the splendid Storia della Cultura Veneta series; the emergence
of the Vicentine house of Neri Pozza as a major historical publisher; and
a profusion of so-called bank books. In the latter case, surplus profits
have gone into sponsorship of architecturalrestoration, theaterproductions,
and concerts, and also into the production of lavish collaborative histories
to be given away for public relations.127
Democratization of history precludes keeping up with current work,
even in restricted subfields. The sheer quantity is daunting, and the obscurity of publishing outlets makes it easy to overlook even important
contributions. As collaborative volumes replace monographs, it is necessary to track down many limited-edition collections to follow a single
theme or author. Libraries cannot buy even a minimum of the very expensive new works, and there are long processing delays before purchases
are available. Bank books and local histories are neither sold nor widely
distributed; conference proceedings may never reach more than a regional
audience. Foreign distribution takes place largely through circulation of
rumors, offprints, and reviews, an erratic means of exchanging ideas.
Works produced outside the Veneto are inevitably several years out of
date. The proliferation of historical scholarship has produced qualitative
difficulties as well. Turf is staked out in increasingly smaller and more
isolated plots and only with difficulty connects with a historiographic
context. In order to keep in sight, aspiring historians are forced into
overproduction: it is not uncommon to find three or four major articles
per year and a book every two years from a single author. Unless that
scholar is particularly acute, such works are often hasty assemblages of
archival quotations, uninformed by serious analysis and without comparative perspectives. A disinclination to editorial control, seen as infringing academic freedom, is an invitation to prolixity, disjointed organization,
and awkward narrative.
The tendency in Venetian and Veneto scholarship has been toward
small-scale, archivally based, technical monographs. In its way this is
a welcome change. Much brilliant construction of the past decades in
fact rested on insubstantial documentation and has required considerable
underpinning or partial dismantling. To take a central example, Angelo
Ventura's relentless indictmentof patricianaggrandizementand obtuseness
inevitably, given the breadth and novelty of the work, remained on the
level of suggestion and categorical assertion. His many theses have been
For example, those published by the Banca Popolare di Verona: Culto di
S. Zeno nel veronese; Case e palazzi di Verona; Maestri della pittura veronese;
La villa nel veronese; La musica a Verona; Una citta e il suo fiume; Ritratto di
Verona; Cultura e vita civile a Verona; Chiese e monasteri nel territorio veronese;
Un lago, una civilta': Il Garda; Verona e il suo territorio.
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When Myths Lose Power
variouslytested,qualified,reinforced,ordiscardedby historiansconcerned
less with the overall polemic of decadencethanwith the accuracyof its
parts. John Easton Law has rejectedthe notion that the closure of local
oligarchies was due to Venetianpolicy and has gone on to demonstrate
thatlocal authoritywas far fromguttedat least in the fifteenthcentury.128
Michael Knaptonhas traced for Paduaand the mainlandgenerally the
mechanismsby which the Republic tappedsubjects' resourcesto meet
heightenedfiscal and militaryrequirements,thoughhe has considerably
adjusted Ventura's assumptions.129He has documented,as well, the
expandingrole of the Councilof Ten in the governanceof the territorial
state, a theme projectedbut never demonstratedby historianssuch as
CozziandVonRankeas well as Ventura.130GigiCorazzolhassubstantiated
some of Ventura's(andBerengo's) leads by carefulstudiesof the mechanisms-loans andoppressivetenures-with whichpatricianlandowners
squeezed the peasantry.'3' Reinhold Mueller has shown how Venice
strippedsubject cities of gold throughits monopolyon mintingand its
exploitation of shifting relative values between metallic currencies.'32
Several scholars, substantially accepting Ventura's thesis of an im128
John Easton Law, "Venice and the 'Closing' of the Veronese Constitution
in 1405," Studi veneziani, n.s., 1 (1977): 69-103 (on which see Gian Maria
Varanini, "Note sui consigli civici veronesi (secoli XIV-XV)," Archivio veneto,
5th ser., 112 [1979]: 5-32, 11-14), "Verona and the Venetian State in the
Fifteenth Century," Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 70, no. 125
(1979): 9-22, "Un confronto fra due stati 'rinascimentali': Venezia e il dominio
sforzesco," in Gli Sforza a Milano e i rapporti con gli stati italiani ed europei
(1450-1535) (Milan, 1982), and "Lo stato veneziano e le castellanie di Verona,"
Civis 8 (1984): 282-83.
129 Michael Knapton, "I rapporti fiscali tra Venezia e la terraferma: I1 caso
padovano nel secondo '400," Archivio veneto, 5th ser., 117 (1981): 5-65, "II
fisco nello stato veneziano di terrafermafra '300 e '500: La politica delle entrate,"
Il sistema fiscale veneto: Problemi e aspetti, XV-XVIII secolo, ed. G. Borelli,
P. Lanaro, F. Vecchiato (Verona, 1982), pp. 15-57, and "L'organizzazione
fiscale di base nello stato veneziano: Estimi e obblighi fiscali a Lisiera fra '500
e '600," in Lisiera: Immagini, documenti e problemi per la storia e cultura di
una comunita veneta: Strutture-congiunture-episodi,
ed. Claudio Povolo
(Lisiera, 1981), pp. 387-418.
130 Michael Knapton, "II Consiglio dei Dieci nel governo della terraferma:
Un' ipotesi interpretativa per il secondo '400," in Venezia e la terraferma (n.
92 above), pp. 237-60.
131 Gigi Corazzol, "Prestatori e contadini nella campagna feltrina intorno alla
meta del '500," Quaderni storici 26 (1974): 445 ff., Fitti e livelli a grano: Un
aspetto del credito rurale nel Veneto del '500 (Milan, 1979), and "Sulla diffusione
dei livelli a frumento tra il patriziato veneziano nella seconda meta del '500,"
Studi veneziani, n.s., 6 (1982): 103-28.
132 Reinhold C. Mueller, "L'imperialismo monetario veneziano nel
Quattrocento," Societa e storia 8 (1980): 277-97.
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permeablediaphragmbetweenVenice andsubjectcities, have examined
in depththe aristocratizationof local elites, class andanti-Venetiantensions, andthe triangularrelationsbetweenVenice, provincialcities, and
the forces of the countryside.133
Such workshouldnot be lightly dismissedas "fill in the gap" history.
If the currentgenerationbreakslittle new ground-a historiographyof
diminishedexpectations,so to speak-we shouldkeepin mindhow great
the gaps actuallyare. Verificationor revision is well servedby the high
technical quality of currentwork, the thoroughtraining in language,
paleography,and diplomaticand archivaltechniques.In particular,the
students of GaetanoCozzi have demonstratedadmirablecommandof
intricate Venetian and mainlandjudicial structures,and sensitivity to
difficulties in the use of judicial recordsfor social and administrative
history.'34These studentshave largely takenthe advice of Cozzi's own
model, Enrico Besta, to concentrateon individualmagistracies:135the
resultsmaylack Cozzi's broadperspective,butthey aresolidly grounded
and providevaluablematerialfor futuresynthesis.
If therehas been an overall characterto this welter of studies it is the
gradualabandonmentof traditionalmyths as ready-madestructuresfor
historical interpretation.Monographsconsistently take up old themes
but ignore the grand debates that gave context to past work. Neither
myth nor antimyth seems compelling: the historical topics that once
carriedVenetianmyths have acquiredautonomyas interestingand un133
Michael Knapton, "II Territorio vicentino nello Stato veneto del '500 e
primo '600: Nuovi equilibri politici e fiscali," Civis 8 (1984): 193-275; Alison
A. Smith, "II successo sociale e cultura di una famiglia veronese del '500,"
ibid., 8 (1984): 299-317; Joanne M. Ferraro, "Proprieta terriera e potere nello
Stato veneto: La nobilta bresciana del '400-'500," ibid., 8 (1984): 319-42, and
"Feudal-Patrician Investments in the Bresciano and the Politics of the Estimo,
1426-1641," Studi veneziani, n.s., 7 (1983): 31-57; John E. Law, "'Super
differentiis agitatis Venetiis inter districtuales et civitatem'-Venezia, Verona
e il contado nel '400," Archivio veneto, 5th ser., 151 (1981): 5-32; Ferruccio
Vendramini, Tensioni politiche nella societa' bellunese della prima meta del '500
(Belluno, 1974), and Le comunitd rurali bellunesi, sec. XV-XVI (Belluno, 1979).
134 Notably Claudio Povolo, "Aspetti e problemi dell'amministrazione della
giustizia penale nella Repubblica di Venezia: Secoli XVI-XVIII," and accompanying essays in Cozzi, ed., Stato societa' e giustizia (n. 119 above), pp. 155258, "Considerazioni su ricerche relative alla giustizia penale nell'eta moderna:
I casi di Padova, Treviso e Noale," Atti dell'Istituto Veneto 137 (1978-79):
479-98, and "Crimine e giustizia a Vicenza, secoli XVI-XVII: Fonti e problematiche per l'approfondimento di una ricerca sui rapporti politici-giudiziari
tra Venezia e la terraferma," Venezia e la terraferma (n. 92 above), pp. 411 32.
135 Besta (n. 17 above), p. 1. Cozzi's Nicolo Contarini and "Politica del
diritto" were dedicated to Besta and Gian Piero Bognetti, among others.
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When Myths Lose Power
resolved problems in their own right. We note, for example, examinations
of feudalism in the Venetian territorial state that ignore the issues of
refeudalization, transition from feudalism to capitalism, and the failure
of the Venetian patriciate to effect a modem unitary state. 136 Studies of
the Venetian Enlightenment accept the terms of debate and proceed to
work out the details of cultural politics, largely without polemic and
certainly without testing for decadence. 137 Two articles on ecclesiastical
politics in the later sixteenth century are silent on the valuation of the
Counter-Reformation that animated the works of Cozzi and Bouwsma. 138
An essay on poverty in Verona, moving from close archival study to a
broad Europeandebate, bypasses the issue of fiscal or economic oppression
by local patricians and Venetian governors. 139 Issues such as oligarchization, giovani and vecchi, and the like are secondary to the more technical
concerns of recent studies of the Venetian patriciate in the later Renais-
The free Republic, the wise government, the just laws, the harmonious
society, the benevolent federal state, the maritime economy, the paternal
rulership, the Enlightened Settecento- and their obverses -have become
rare in all but tourist guides. If the myth of Venice was so serviceable
to propagandist and historian alike for five centuries or more, why has
Giuseppe Gullino, "I patrizi veneziani di fronte alla proprieta feudale
(secoli XVI-XVII): Materiale per una ricerca," Quaderni storici 43 (1980):
162-93, "Un problema aperto: Venezia e il tardo feudalismo," Studi veneziani,
n.s., 7 (1983): 183-96. See also A. Stefanutti, "Giureconsulti friulani tra giurisdizionalismo veneziano e tradizione feudale," Archivio veneto, 5th ser., 142
(1976): 75-93.
137 BrendanDooley, "The 'Giomale de' Letteratid'Italia' (1717-40): Journalism
and 'Modern' Culture in the Early Eighteenth Century Veneto," Studi veneziani,
n.s. ,6 (1982): 229-70, "Giornalismo, universitAe organizzazione della scienza:
Tentativi di formare una accademia scientifica veneta all'inizio del Settecentro,"
Archivio veneto, 5th ser., 155 (1983): 1-39.
138 Davidson, "Sant'Ufficio" (n. 53 above); Ulvioni, "Cultura politica" (n.
35 above).
139 Paola Lanaro Sartori, "Radiografia della soglia di
poverta in una citti della
terraferma veneta: Verona alla meta del XVI secolo," Studi veneziani, n.s., 6
(1982): 45-85. Similarly on state pawnshops (contrast with Ventura, Nobilta e
popolo [n. 26 above], pp. 416-39): Gian Maria Varanini, "Tra fisco e credito:
Note sulle Camere dei Pegni nelle cittA venete del Quattrocento," and Paolo
Lanaro Sartori, 'L'attivita di prestito dei Monti di PietA in terraferma veneta:
Legalita e illeciti fra Quattrocento e primo Seicento," both in Studi storici
Luigi Simeoni 33 (1983): 215-46.
140 Alexander Cowan, "Rich and Poor among the Patriciate in Early Modern
Venice," Studi veneziani, n.s., 6 (1982): 147-60; C. R. de Hocquet, "Oligarchie
e patriciat a Venise (XIII-XV)," Studi veneziani 17-18 (1975-76): 401-10;
Federica Ambrosini, "Profilo ideologico di un patrizio veneziano del '500,"
Studi veneziani, n.s., 8 (1984): 77-107.
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it recently fallen into disfavor? Certainly the threats of Nazism, Fascism,
and Stalinism which stirred much historical writing a few decades ago
find less resonance in a generation of historians born after 1945. The
recent trend toward close monographs has exploded the broad antitheses
on which mythic history depends. As has been seen, the image of the
Counter-Reformation as obscurantist, authoritarian, medieval, and intolerant, juxtaposed against a Venice of freedom, humanism, modernity,
and toleration, could not be sustained even heuristically after case studies
in ecclesiastical history. The same could be said for such topics as republicanism, decadence, enlightened despotism, maritime capitalism,
paternalism, radical centralization, and the like. Also, the influx of foreigners has brought to the region a group of historians not raised in and
less influenced by the cultural myths of Venice. Nor have foreigners, on
the whole, been sensitive to long-standing Italian debates -origins of
the Risorgimento, the "crisis of liberty," decadence, the crisis of the
liberal state -which led past Venetianists to fasten on myths as metaphor
and exemplar. Particularly Anglo-Saxon scholars, far more than their
Italian counterparts, have been trained not to use historical myths-at
least consciously-as vehicles for ideology.
But Italians, too, have lost many of the myths that drove their predecessors. Political partisanshipseems less imperative as a force in historical
writing; as historical debates fail to split cleanly along party lines, as
left and right alike lose the capacity to coalesce historical opinion, the
myths once used for that coalescence become superfluous. Christian
Democrats, for example, are hardly moribund in this most bianco region
of Italy; they predominate in several universities, a journal (Economia
e storia), and some of the most culturally inclined banks. Largely through
such patronage they have had no difficulty attracting students. But their
success in establishing a distinct historical position is another matter.
One problem is that their leading representatives have largely endorsed
the position staked out by Berengo and Ventura-for example, eighteenthcentury decadence as manifest in an obtuse patriciate, economic protectionism, polarization of wealth, oppression of the peasantry, failure to
modernize economy and governance, et cetera.141 They could hardly
concede the whole field to the opposition- and yet they had no definable
position of their own, having retreated to a positivism expressed in declarations of "scientific" objectivity, hostility to ideology or "sociological"
Fanfani, "Mancato Rinnovamento" (n. 68 above); Tagliaferri (n. 93 above),
Arzignano, pp. 6-10, 42-46; introductions to vols. 1 (Tommaso Fanfani) and
4 and 5 (Amelio Tagliaferri) of the series Relazioni dei rettori Veneti in terraferma
(Milan, 1973-); Romano Molesti, "La decadenza economica veneta nel pensiero
di Antonio Zanon," Economia e storia 21 (1974): 20-31.
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When Myths Lose Power
preconceptions, impartiality, and empirical methodology. This has taken
the concrete form of publishing documents without commentary, notably
the run of Venetian governors' reports (Relazioni) from the mainland. 142
The assumption, as Giorgio Borelli put it in a 1974 study of the Veronese
patriciate, was that, having trotted out the facts, "historians today, with
almost universal agreement, are able to establish the essential features
of the economics and societies which preceded the outbreakof the Industrial
Facts could speak for themselves, unambiguously and finally. Analysis
would be superfluous, indeed harmful, as likely to impose "theoretical
anticipations" or "extrapolations" on the data. Borelli's study, therefore,
consisted of deliberately undigested anecdotes, statistics, and archival
gleanings. History was to be the "science of the particular,"acknowledging
the "complexity of reality" and refusing to impose "interpretiveschemes"
that might damage the autonomy of the case study. 144 Clearly this was
an attempt to deny classist history, but it also avoided confrontation of
interpretive problems. Misappropriation of a Braudellian longue duree
enabled him to avoid the problem of change. 145His is a patrician world
without Venetian intervention, without merchants or plebs, without laws
or cultural values, without causation, without time, without context.
Why, then, make history at all? In large part to rehabilitate local nobilities:
to suggest that they were neither rigidly closed nor hostile to commerce, 146
that they were economically "robust" and in no way stripped of political
power,147 that along with Venetian nobles-who
might be agricultural
the miseries of the
rural population. But having denied or sidestepped the need for analysis,
Amelio Tagliaferri, ed., Relazioni dei rettori veneti in terraferma, Istituto
di Storia Economica dell'Universita di Trieste (Milan, 1973-). See the scathing
review by Marino Berengo in Rivista storica italiana 86 (1974): 586-90.
143 Giorgio Borelli, Un patriziato della terraferma veneta tra XVIII e XVIII
secolo: Ricerche sulla nobiltai veronese (Milan, 1974), p. 357.
144 Borelli, "Problema della nobilita" (n. 93 above), esp. pp. 498-99. His
Patriziato is, in terms of page content, 10 percent statistical introduction and 80
percent prosopography, family biographies in alphabetical order. There is no
conclusion. See also Barbieri (n. 92 above), pp. 62-63.
145 Borelli, Patriziato, chap. 3.
146 Ibid., chaps. 3-4, "Problema della nobilt'a," passim.
Giorgio Borelli, "Patriziato della dominante e patriziati della terraferma,"
in Venezia e la terraferma (n. 92 above), pp. 79-96; Amelio Tagliaferri, "L'amministrazione veneziana in terraferma:Deroghe e limitazioni al potere giudiziario
dei rettori," Memorie storicheforogiuliesi, vol. 66 (1976).
148 Amelio Tagliaferri, "Sui redditi dei nobili veneziani in terraferma," Economia e storia 16 (1968): 509-16, a review essay of Georgelin's "Anguillara."
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suchrevisionismremainedon the level of suggestion.149Howmuchmore
could be said aboutthe Veronesepatriciatewas promptlyandpointedly
demonstratedby MarinoBerengo.150
The Venetian Left has faced ratherdifferentproblems, not the least
being the fact that the primarycontributionsof Berengo and Ventura
were made over two decades ago. The Left itself is hardlymoribund;
indeed, one difficultyhas been that as Socialists and Communistshave
won local elections, historianshave been drawninto public office and
have had no time for research. The Veneto has not been swept by the
currentFrenchvogue for abjurationandneoconservatismand,pace LawrenceStone,'51 therehas been no generalrevulsionat the supposedbankruptcyof Marxism. The trend, rather,has been towarda more refined
andaccommodatingMarxism,in historiographyas in publiclife. Rough
economicdeterminismlong ago gavewayto anexplorationof thetransition
from feudalism to capitalism, as the Precapitalist Economic Formations
cameto overshadowtheManifesto;this in turnhascededto the Gramscian
stresson ideology's role in definingandreinforcingclass hegemony.But
there are two difficulties here for Venetianhistoricalwriting. The first
a "cityof silence,"produced
is one of sources:Venice, to JacobBurckhardt
few statementscapable of supportingideological deconstruction.Thus
to illustrate the formationof class mentality Angelo Venturahas had
recourseto texts thatareeitherindirector marginal:fiscalrecords(which
areaboutaccounting),ambassadors'reports(whicharenot aboutVenice),
anda varietyof treatises,mostof whichremainedunfinished,uncirculated,
and unpublished.152 His results are persuasive,but they cannotbe conclusive. A second difficulty is that Marxianhistory has become so theoretically subtle, so technically refined, so delicately nuancedthat it is
less readily identifiableas Marxianand so has lost some of its force as
a distinct mode of analysis. Slashing diatribesagainst decadence and
exploitationhavebeenreplacedby carefullyshadedstudiesin the history
of thoughtandthe circulationof culture,fulfillingthe old predictionthat
a Gramscianstudy of ideology could well converge with a traditional
149 Tagliaferri, Arzignano, pp. 43-46; Amelio Tagliaferri, "Ordinamento amministrativo dello stato di terraferma," Veneziana e la terraferma, esp. pp. 911; Barbieri (n. 92 above), pp. 60-64. A partial exception is Amelio Tagliaferri's
L'economia veronese secondo gli estimi dal 1409 al 1635 (Milan, 1966), an able
analysis of social structurefrom fiscal records;but even here there is little inclination
to confront broader issues behind the mere fact of socioeconomic stratification.
150 Marino Berengo, "Patriziato e nobilta: I1 caso veronese," Rivista storica
italiana 87 (1975): 493-517.
151 Lawrence Stone, The Past and the Present (Boston, 1981), p. 81.
Ventura, "Problema storico" (n. 83 above), introduction to Relazioni;
"Scrittori politici" (n. 9 above), chaps. 1-6, esp. pp. 513-14, and chap. 8.
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When Myths Lose Power
Crocean history of ideas. 153 An unintended by-product has been the loss
of a distinctive methodology or even viewpoint. As the Italian Communist
leadership cooperates in national government, discusses reformism in a
positive light, and builds alliance with non-Communist parties such as
Germany's Social Democrats, 154 the distinction may furtherblur. Between
Christian Democrat empiricism and Marxian ductility it is difficult to
find a solid position from which to take a stand.
And there is some indication that Italian historians have become depoliticized. Ideological camps seem of less importance when, as now
seems to be the case, historical research is viewed as an autonomous
activity, and there is less impulse to transmitpersonal commitment through
historical writing. It is often difficult to discern the personal preferences
behind dry, technical narratives. Footnotes, once a clear indicator of the
writer's choice of ideological guides, show a blithe eclecticism of sources
and inspirations. It has become entirely possible to rehabilitate Francesco
Ercole, long on a tacit blacklist as one-time Fascist minister, even to
mention him in the same breath as Antonio Gramsci when the two men's
thought converges.'55 Particularly vivid was the experience of one recent
convention, held at Venice's Cini Foundation in 1983 and organized
around the themes of banditry, collective violence, and state judicial
repression. The subject was deliberately presentist, intended to stimulate
topical debate on class conflict, terrorism, use of the judiciary to maintain
the social order, and the like. Yet these debates never came off: paper
after paper accepted class exploitation as axiom, then turned to localized
examination of structures of violence and mechanisms of suppression.
The traditional Left in particular was irritated by the dispassionate and
technical tone of the contributions, and by the general reluctance to move
beyond the case study to a general theory of social tensions and social
controls. But neither audience nor participants seemed to demand more.
Venetian historiography, conservative and insular while dominated by
Venetian myths, has joined the Italian and Europeanscholarly communities
now that the myths are discredited or ignored. The opening up of Venice
actually occurred some years ago, with the installation of Femand Braudel
at the archives of the Frari. Since then many distinguished AnnalistesMaurice Aymard, Alberto Tenenti, Ugo Tucci-have concentrated on
Venice; so, too, have economic historians from the American school
such as Domenico Sella, James C. Davis, and Richard Rapp. But foreign
A. Momigliano, "Appunti su Federico Chabod storico," Rivista storica
italiana 72 (1960): 647.
Armando Cossutta, "Preferisco stare giraffa . . . ," La Repubblica (March
23, 1985), p. 1.
Chittolini (n. 56 above), pp. 410-1 1.
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scholarship was then brought to bear on traditional Venetian issues such
as decadence, and however important their methodological innovations
the actual contributions rarely transcendedthe limits of the myths. Outside
the fields of economic history, foreign developments in historiography
were slow and partial in reaching Venice. But that too has changed in
the past decade: as the myths no longer monopolize historical interpretation
there has been widespread borrowing of models from foreign schools,
even from schools outside history. Work on relations between Venice
and the mainland have drawn heavily, for example, on the rapidly growing
body of studies of the Lombard and Tuscan territorial states; the influence
of Ventura and Berengo has been largely superseded by that of Giorgio
Chittolini of Milan.156 The microhistory practiced in France has been
adapted to the splendidly documented communities of the Veneto. Several
villages have been subjected to analysis by professional equipes seeking
to reconstruct rural life in its demographic, agrarian, tenurial, social,
and religious components.157 Annales specialties such as demography
and price series have made a recent if belated appearance.158Braudel's
156 Antonio Menniti Ippolito, "'Provedibitur sicut melius videbitur': Milano
e Venezia nel bresciano nel primo '400," Studi veneziani, n.s., 8 (1984): 3776, "La dedizione di Brescia a Milano (1421) e Venezia (1427): Citta suddite e
distretto nello stato regionale," in Stato societa e giustizia nella repubblica
veneta, ed. Gaetano Cozzi (Rome, 1985), vol. 2. For indications to the burgeoning
literature on territorial states, see Giorgio Chittolini, "Governo ducale e poteri
locali," Gli Sforza a Milano (n. 128 above), Laformazione dello stato regionale
e le istituzioni del contado: Secoli XIV e XV (Turin, 1979), and introduction to
La crisi degli ordinamenti comunali e le origini dello stato del Rinascimento,
ed. Giorgio Chittolini (Bologna, 1979); Elena Fasano Guarini, "Gli stati dell'Italia
centro-settentrionale tra Quattro e Cinquecento: Continuita e trasformazioni,"
Societa e storia 21 (1983): 617-39.
157 Paolo Preto, ed., La valle del Chiampo: Vita civile ed economica in eta
moderna e contemporanea (Vicenza, 1981) (reviewed by Brendan Dooley in
Annali Veneti 1 [1984]: 202-3); Eremenegildo Reato, ed., Costozza: Territorio
immagini e civiltacnella storia della riviera Berico superiore (Costozza, 1983);
Lisiera (n. 129 above) (reviewed by Gian Maria Varanini in Nuova rivista storica
67 [1983]: 440-42); C. Povolo, ed., Bolzano Vicentino: Dimensioni del sociale
e vita economica in un villaggio della pianura vicentina (secoli XIV-XIX) (Bolzano
Vicentino, 1985); Dueville: Identificazione di una comunitd del passato, ed.
Claudio Povolo (Vicenza, 1985). See the methodological guides of Claudio Povolo,
Sergio Zamperetti, and Luca De Biase in Annali Veneti: Societa-cultura-istituzioni,
vol. 1 (1984).
158 On demography, see Claudio Povolo, "Evoluzione demografica della valle
nei secoli XVI-XVIII," in Preto, ed., pp. 137-206, "Tra epidemie e crisi di
sussistenza: Il ristagno demografico di una zona rurale veneta nel '700: La riviera
berica," in Reato, ed., pp. 559-644, "L'evoluzione demografica di un centro
urbano del Garda in eta moderna: Salo," in Un lago (n. 127 above), pp. 23592, and "Tre villagi del contado di Vicenza: Indagine demografica per una storia
sociale della popolazione veneta nei primi secoli dell'eta moderna,'" in Lisiera
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When Myths Lose Power
later work on material culture has at last found a Venetian echo. 59 Models
of proto-industrialization, derived from Flanders but applied worldwide,
have been adapted for the Vicentine countryside.160 Family and social
history, so long a minor field in Venetian urbanstudies, has been modestly
revived.161 And as history has been freed from myth, myth has equally
been freed from history and has emerged as a distinct subfield, whether
in its ideological implications, its manifestations in public ritual, or its
relations to Renaissance political thought.'62
If critical response from the outside has not been entirely positive, we
must acknowledge the difficulties in bringing Venetian historical studies
into alignment with scholarship at large. There is little in past Venetian
work to draw on and little in present pedagogy to provide training and
encouragement. The number of pioneers is not great, as most historians
continue to knit up the loose ends of the previous generation. Those who
would enter new fields are largely self-taught and work in isolation,
without the established traditions and critical guidance available in centers
(n. 129 above), pp. 873-1036. On prices, cf. Gabriele Lombardini, Pane e
denaro a Bassano tra il 1501 e il 1799 (Vicenza, 1963); Corazzol, Fitti (n. 131
above). In general, cf. Achille Olivieri, "Fra sperimentazione e scienze umane:
Venezia dopo un ventennio di dibattiti sulle 'Annales' (1949-1968)," Studi
veneziani 17-18 (1975-76): 447-58.
159 Isabella Palumbo-Fossati, "L'interno della case dell'artigianato e dell'artista
nella Venezia del Cinquencento," Studi veneziani, n.s., 8 (1984): 109-53.
160 S. Ciriacono, "Echecs et reussites de la proto-industrialisation dans la
Venetie: Le cas du Haut-Vicentin (XVII-XIX siecles)," in La protoindustrialisation: Theorie et realite (Lille, 1982).
161 Paolo Preto, Peste e societac a Venezia nel 1576 (Vicenza, 1978), and "La
societa veneta e le grandi epidemie di peste," Storia della cultura veneta IV,
no. 1: 377-406; Luigi Pesce, Vita socio-culturale in diocesi di Treviso nelprimo
Quattrocento, in Deputazione veneta di storia patria, Miscellanea di studi e
memorie 21 (Venice, 1983); Bianca Betto, "Linee di politica matrimoniale nella
nobilta veneziana fino al XV secolo: Alcune note genealogiche e l'esempio della
famiglia Mocenigo," Archivio storico italiana 139 (1981): 3-64, and "Strutture
familiari e sociali della nobilta e ruoli nel Medioevo: Gli esempi di Venezia e
Treviso," in Ceti dirigenti del Veneto durante il Medioevo (Venice, 1982); Stanley
Chojnacki, "Kinship Ties and Young Patricians in Fifteenth-Century Venice,"
Renaissance Quarterly 38 (1985): 240-70; Guido Ruggiero, The Boundaries of
Eros: Sex Crime and Sexuality in Renaissance Venice (New York, 1985); G.
Scarabello, Carcerati e carceri a Venezia nell'eta moderna (Rome, 1979), and
"Paure, superstizioni, infamie," Storia della cultura veneta IV, no. 2:343-76.
162 Ventura, "Scrittori politici" (n. 9 above); Cozzi, "Domenico Morosini"
(n. 25 above); Muir, Public Ritual (n. 2 above) (reviewed by Eric Cochrane in
Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 13 [1983]); Gilbert, "Religion and
Politics" (n. 9 above), and "Venetian Constitution" (n. 11 above); Gaeta, "Idea
di Venezia" (n. 2 above); Cozzi, "Pubblica storiografia" (n. 5 above); Cervelli
(n. 97 above).
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suchas Florenceor Paris. Mostarejuniorscholars,underintenseprofessional pressureto publish prolifically, technically adept but only half
familiar with methodologies borrowedwholesale from anthropology,
demography,or semiotics. Understandably,the qualityof workhas been
uneven, andfew studieshave reachedthe highest standardsof European
scholarship.It is ironic thatVenice, with one of the oldest andproudest
historiographiesin Europe, shouldbe reducedto neophytestatusin the
newer varieties of history, but we must rememberhow strong the grip
of particularlyVenetianmyths has been.
Venice now seems fully insertedinto the Europeancontext. The myth
of a unique and incomparableVenice was one of the first myths to be
discarded,done in by a Braudellianlook at the Mediterraneaneconomy
as a whole. Since then, one by one, all sectorsof Venetiansociety have
been put up for generalviewing and are routinelyconfrontedwith their
counterpartselsewhere. WilliamMcNeill, for example, while hewing to
the myths of Venetian maritimegreatness and decay, has placed the
Republic at the center of a far-rangingexaminationof the complex interactions-military, commercial,technological,spiritual,organizational,
cultural-of Latin, Greek,Turkish,andRussianworlds.163Berengoand
Venturahave insistently placed the Venetian within the Europeanexperience of the ancien r6gime. The myths are hardlygone, but they no
longerisolate Venice fromthe broadercomparisonsof historicalenquiry.
This is a positivestepfor historicalaccuracyandhas broughta welcome
leaven to Venetian studies-but it has not been accomplishedwithout
loss. In the processVenice has lost the protectivecolorationof the myth:
city of freedom, stability, toleration,justice, good government,et al.
Forfive centuriesandmoreit was psychologicallyuseful, even necessary
to the West to regardVenice as the sum total of the desirable. We, no
less, may yearnfor an island of delight in a worldmadebrutaland wish
to take comfortin the fact that such existed in the not too distantpast,
its remainsto be seen today.Themythwill neverbe discardedaltogether,
out of sheerhumanstubbornnessin clingingto visions. Venice will never
be allowed to join the ranksof other cities and states in the historian's
grab bag. And the myths, especially the good myths, will always be
persuasive: anyone who has set foot in Venice or read its chronicles
knows that Venice is indeed marvelous.It is the special challengeof the
historianto preserve and verbalize that otherness. But the Venetianist
must be sensitive, as well, to layers of myths and anachronismsthat
color and frequentlydistortthe historicalexperience.
William H. McNeill, Venice: The Hinge of Europe (Chicago, 1974).
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