There is something magical and timeless about Venice. Magical because Venice itself is such an improbability: a city literally in the Adriatic Sea, 117 man-made islands built upon piles driven into marshlands of the Venetian lagoon. Magical, too, because its natural setting is so awesomely beautiful, illuminated on a sunny day by a quality of light that has inspired painters, architects, poets, and millions of tourists. Timeless because it preserves for us a world gone by, with no automobiles, where one commutes only by boat through large canals and small rios, or on foot along narrow calli and across open public spaces or campi. As Venice is today, despite real threats to its existence, so it was in 1595, when Marino Grimani was crowned the 89th Doge [duke] of Venice.
Many now-familiar sights were relatively new in 1595. The banking and commercial center—the Rialto—had been largely rebuilt in the 16th century in a sober style that reflected the serious business being transacted there, for Venice was a capitalist mercantile state whose control stretched from the Adriatic into the Mediterranean. The most dramatic change was around 1590, when the new stone Rialto Bridge replaced an old wooden one.
But if the Rialto’s restrained aesthetic eschewed ostentatious display of private wealth, the Piazza San Marco enthusiastically touted the riches, stability, and history of the Venetian state, “La Serenissima” (the most serene Republic). Save for the absence of the local parish church of St. Geminiano at the west end, the famous Piazza has not changed all that much since the Baroque. At the east end is still the most impressive symbol of Venice’s past, the Basilica of San Marco, the official chapel of the Doge. The church’s Byzantine architecture stood then as a constant reminder not only of Venice’s early history as part of the Eastern or Byzantine Roman Empire, but also of her subsequent triumphs in the Eastern Mediterranean. Still dramatically symbolizing Venice’s conquest of Constantinople in 1204 are the famous four horses over the entrance to the Basilica, brought as booty from the Eastern capital.
For centuries before the Republic fell to Napoleon in 1797, Venice, whose government was housed in the delicately beautiful Ducal Palace next to San Marco and facing the lagoon, was renowned and respected for its political stability; "One thousand years the same" was the popular motto. One factor in this stability was Venice's social structure, for nowhere in Europe were class boundaries more rigidly defined. Venice was an oligarchy, run by the nobility, and the other classes were kept in their respective places via a system of responsibilities and rewards within the structure. In any event, stability was maintained in part by crushing any and all tendencies that would threaten the absolute political power of the nobility. At the same time a second principle kept the nobility in check by precluding organized political parties or control by any faction, family, or individual. This was accomplished by means of a system of governmental checks and balances that later influenced the authors of the American constitution.
The Venetian aristocracy consisted of male nobles age 25 and over, resulting in a ruling class of about 2,500 members within a population of approximately 175,000. Collectively they formed the "Great Council" of the Serenissima, which met in the largest hall on the second floor of the Ducal Palace. Within this minority, a kind of democracy reigned, whereby each man, regardless of age or wealth, had one vote and could openly express his opinion. Every important government position was held by a member of the Great Council.
If the base of the Venetian government was the Great Council, at its pinnacle was the Doge, including Marino Grimani, who reigned from 1595 to 1605. Elected by an incredibly complicated procedure, the Doge was treated with many honors due a king and reigned until death. However, his privileges extended little beyond the right to wear the ducal hat, to officiate at innumerable meetings of all the important councils of state, and to ride in stately magnificence in the ducal barge, the Bucintoro. The Doges were invariably old men, and not likely to think revolutionary thoughts. Once elected Doge, a man could not refuse the honor and, at his investiture, he signed the promissione ducale, wherein he agreed to all sorts of restrictions on his authority, personal mobility, and family prerogatives. The Doge was not permitted to open his mail except in the presence of his councilors; he could not leave the Venetian lagoon except as Admiral. A virtual prisoner in his own palace, he could not leave it except for state reasons. Even after his death the actions he had taken as Doge were scrutinized; if he had failed to fulfill some of his sworn promises, his family—who were given 72 hours after his death to vacate the palace—could be fined. The state always held the family responsible for the actions of all its members.
For Further Reading
Norwich, John Julius. A History of Venice, 1982. New York: Knopf
Bouwsma, William James. Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty: Renaissance Values in the Age of the Counter Reformation,1968. Berkeley: University of California Press
Raymond Erickson, Professor Emeritus of Music at Queens College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, is a music historian and keyboardist. He is scheduled to perform an all-Bach harpsichord recital in Beijing's Forbidden City Concert Hall in January 2017.
Top Image: Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal) (Italian, Venice 1697–1768 Venice). Piazza San Marco (detail), late 1720s. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Mrs. Charles Wrightsman Gift, 1988 (1988.162).