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The Death of Venice: How Venice Maintained Its Power, Until Forced to Commit Suicide

By Wojciech Góralczyk | Pajiba Storytellers | June 13, 2014 |

By Wojciech Góralczyk | Pajiba Storytellers | June 13, 2014 |

OK, here’s the thing: the head of the Venetian state was called a Doge. It’s a regional spin on Dux (or Duke) but that’s beside the point, because you’ll all be picturing that f*****g dog anyway. For a time I despaired and judged you in advance, finding you lacking and basic. But then I remembered that Venetians also named part of their land army “The Dalmatian Guard,” and there’s only so much self-sabotage I’m willing to mitigate. So have your giggles, and hopefully they won’t derail the story — because this one’s kind of sad.

Venice was the product of people’s exhaustion with rapey tourists. A long time ago, during the barbarian invasions, tribe after tribe answered the call of the great Japanese subway packer in the sky and poured into Europe, cramming their predecessors ever deeper into the continent’s nooks and crannies — the most enticing of which was the Italian peninsula. The (Western) Roman Empire minded terribly, and therefore collapsed. Simple village folk, however, did not have this luxury, so instead around the 6th century a number of them started taking refuge in a nearby lagoon whenever a new band arrived. Eventually they dropped the commute, set up shop in the swamp, and bam - a commercial powerhouse was born.

From the start, Venice was a different sort of beast. The lagoon was an ever-changing maze of winding channels, which made a direct assault on the city very difficult. The other viable option — naval blockade — tends to be tricky when you’re dealing with a maritime power. As a result, Venice was the only Italian city never to be sacked (though not for lack of trying — she was besieged by, among others, Charlemagne’s hobbit* son Pippin, the Holy Roman Emperor, and a coalition of major 16th century powers).

Secure in her natural fortress, she also found herself insulated politically. A lot of the Middle Ages had to do with the struggle between people who wanted the supreme authority in the post-Roman world to go to the Pope (Guelphs), and those who preferred a lay Emperor (Ghibbelines). The clash was most pronounced in Italy, where it lasted well into the 15th century, and took up a lot of everyone’s beauty sleep. Venice managed to sidestep the issue by falling under the outermost skirt of the one entity that did not give a crap about the pecking order in what was left of the (Western) Roman Empire — the (Eastern) one. Byzantium turned out to be a great boss — one who didn’t have time to micromanage a fledgling republic on his western frontier while possessing enough prestige to ward off potential claimants.

Having covered their bases on the outside, Venetians also took great pains to stabilize themselves internally. Italy’s political fragmentation and aversion to standing armies made coups d’etat an everyday occurrence. Given enough charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent, anyone could land themselves a city state of their own: celebrity mercenaries (Milan), bankers posing as apothecaries (Florence), even psychotic preachers (both Milan and Florence). The Venetian answer was a ridiculously convoluted and self-stabilizing oligarchy. For a small taste - here’s how they determined the make-up of their Electoral College: 30 people were voted in, then reduced by lot to 9, those 9 voted for 40 new electors, who were reduced to 12, voted for 25 electors, who were reduced to 9 again, voted for 45, who were reduced to 11, and those 11 finally voted for the 41 electors who finally picked the Doge.

Tic-inducing as it was, the system worked. In over a thousand years, whatever the outside pressures, the Venetian government never buckled. Case in point: the plot that came closest to undoing it was foiled by a granny who, annoyed by all the commotion, chucked a flower pot from her window, killing the conspirators’ standard bearer and sending them running. (Well OK, by her and a highly accomplished secret police, but unlike them, she got her rent capped in perpetuity for her trouble.)

Finally, there came the cherry on top of the cake of Venetian exceptionalism — and it was a festering corpse. That they stole. From a tomb. In the Middle Ages, people took their religion — and their relics — very seriously. Everyone who was anyone had a finger bone from one saint or another, and certain high rollers could boast a splinter from the Holy Cross or one of a number of Jesus’s foreskins. At the municipal level, the game got upped to actual saints, or rather: their final resting places. The bigger the name, the more prestige you got, and the more pilgrimage revenue you raked in. Venice managed to scrounge up Saint Zacharias, who was a respectable C-lister, but her ambition was to set herself apart from the rest of the Italian cities … which is why a group of 9th century Venetian merchants took it upon themselves to steal the corpse of Saint Mark from its tomb in Alexandria. Granted, they reportedly had to bury the poor Evangelist in pork so the Muslim guards wouldn’t find him, but it was a brilliant PR coup, and gave Venice her other name — the Republic of Saint Mark.

For a very long time, she was the Mistress of the Mediterranean — and therefore of the all-important spice trade, which famously inspired Columbus to discover Shit, This Ain’t India. She owed her position to two things: her navy and her colonies, which included nearly all of the islands in the East Mediterranean, and Morea (aka Greece’s dangly bits). Her rule over her colonies and trade posts is best described as lenient but catty. For example: when in 1362 the citizens of Crete refused to accept new taxes until they were allowed to send a delegation of 12 sages (medieval speak for experts) to present their grievances, the central government replied that it was unaware 12 such individuals were to be found on the island. A pretty bitchin’ line as far as responses go, but bitchin’ lines at inopportune times sometimes do a revolt spark — and on this occasion the Cretans went berserk.

When she decided she had outgrown the need for a Byzantine protector, in 1204 she diverted the infamous Fourth Crusade to the Empire’s capital of Constantinople and sacked the city, delivering an unparalleled clit-punch to our collective cultural heritage in the process. The aftermath of this maneuver offers a nice glimpse into the Venetian mindset. The Republic’s Doge at the time — Enrico Dandolo, a blind 90-year-old who personally led the Venetian contingent during the siege — refused the Byzantine crown for himself in order to avoid a constitutional crisis. He did, however, drive a hard bargain for the spoils of war and immortalized his negotiating prowess with the title of “Lord of a Quarter and One Half of a Quarter of the Roman Empire.”

Ironically, by crippling Byzantium, Venice had sown the seeds of her own downfall. Having never quite recovered from the Crusade, the Byzantines were powerless to resist the advance of the Ottomans. The ailing Christian Empire was replaced by a robust Muslim one that proceeded to steadily rob Venice of her Mediterranean possessions. Not that they were to matter for much longer. The circumnavigation of Africa yanked all the main trade routes away from the Mediterranean and towards the Atlantic. And just like that the Queen of Trade found herself stuck in a commercial backwater, her major sources of revenue all but dried up.

To make things worse, she was still surrounded by people she had bossed around for hundreds of years, which would jump at a chance for a payback. And so, there came the Reinvention. For the last centuries of her life, Venice channeled all her remaining strength into making it SEEM like she was still all that. The Republic invested heavily in a professional diplomatic corps, a vast network of spies, and went into a frenzy of carnival opulence. Her aim was to control the conversation. To drive home the message “We’re so rich, powerful, and secure, it’s always a party in Venice Town” and hope that she blared so loud that no one would even think of peering behind the curtain.
And it worked, amazingly well. Until it didn’t.

The end arrived with the 18th century French Tantrum Bonanza (the Revolution and its aftermath), which was several orders of magnitude above anything that could be deflected with conjurer’s tricks. Venice attempted to stay out of the whole, and when that failed, she made the fatal error of pissing off Napoleon himself. He responded with an ultimatum: the dungeons in the Doge’s Palace were to be opened and the political prisoners kept inside them — released. The Republic’s Dalmatian Guard was to be disbanded, and its fleet placed under French control. Finally, the entire ruling oligarchy was to abdicate, their insignia of power burned under a specially erected “Tree of Liberty.” In other words, Venice was told to commit suicide.

There was no question of disobeying the ultimatum. The Venetian fleet, once the most powerful in the entire Mediterranean, now numbered two seaworthy ships, give or take two, while advancements in cannon technology had long stripped “impregnable” from the city’s resume. The only question was how to obey it, as the constitution simply did not provide any procedures for dissolving the state. Which is why the Venetian Senate met as usual, dealt with its regular day-to-day business, and then simply never reconvened again.

When the famed Ducal dungeons were opened, to the French commissioners’ consternation they yielded a total of 3 political prisoners. Like many an aspect of Venetian power projection, the stories of the ruthlessness and tenacity of her secret police were also greatly exaggerated.

The Venetians’ final act was a tragic farce. On 12th May 1797 they summoned the Great Council — a 1000+ strong body that consisted of the entire ruling oligarchy, and was therefore theoretically best-equipped to lend the seppuku an air of legitimacy. The Doge presented the French ultimatum and proposed a motion by which the oligarchy surrendered all its powers to a provisional government. When he was done talking, one of the Council members took the rostrum to open the debate, at which moment shots were heard just outside the palace.

It was the Dalmatian Guard — the Croats were leaving Venice as per Napoleon’s ultimatum, and discharged their muskets in a farewell salute to their Republic. But to the patricians who had for years watched the Revolution spread across Europe, it was the sound of it finally arriving at their doorstep, guillotines and all. Panic ensued, and the debate was abandoned amid frantic calls for a vote. The Councilmen rushed the ballot box, and upon performing their duty one last time, proceeded to shed their robes of office and slip out of the Palace’s side entrances.

The final tally was 512 in favor, 20 against, and 5 abstaining, but by the time the results were in, there was hardly anyone left to hear them. The last Doge of Venice, Lodovico Manin, declared the resolution adopted to an almost empty chamber. Then he calmly gathered up his papers, removed his ducal cap and handed it to his valet with the words “Take it, I shall not be needing it again.”

Venice’s millennial life apparently didn’t even warrant a whimper. When she finally succumbed, it was with a barely audible pop, as if a gleaming bauble had burst. Her famed opulence wasn’t that of Versailles - a distilled expression of the political and cultural juggernaut that was Bourbon France - but rather a carefully crafted spectacle. And that creation might prove to be her ultimate legacy. Venice the Republic is now long dead. Venice the City is dying as we speak, steadily depopulated by the very tourism that’s keeping her solvent, and slowly sinking into her lagoon. But Venice the Illusion, with its quays, canals, and carnivals? That one might very well last forever.

* one assumes

Wojtek lives in Poland, where rainbows get burnt.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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