1573–1797

A Decline to Remember

Liberty Tree in St Mark's Square, anonymous

Continued from here.

In Browning’s words, ‘Venice spent what Venice earned’. Not only Venice, but the entire Mediterranean world was declining in the last decades of the 16th century. Trade was contracting and politics were subverted by the twin vampires of Rome and Madrid.

Venice had the resources to survive, but not enough to break free from the constraints of the new era. Her policy of neutrality and her centuries of diplomatic experience kept her afloat with little difficulty, but the grandchildren of the Venetian merchants and warriors found they had to resign themselves to a very different life: they could enjoy themselves, and weren’t averse to it, but beyond that opportunities were limited.

For the next two centuries, history would be largely limited to vignettes: a fire in the Doge’s Palace in 1577, occasioning Tintoretto’s gigantic Paradise and the rebuilding of the Palace. The first state-run banks appeared in 1587. The wars against the Uskoks continued until diplomacy induced the Austrians in 1617 to stop supporting them.

Along the way a really serious issue came up, one that would reflect brilliantly the maturity and decency of the Venetian state. By 1606, the Papacy was greatly weakened by its own excesses but still a dangerous power in Italian affairs. In 1606, Pope Paul V chose to make an issue over two Venetian priests, a rapist and a child molester, indicted by the Ten. Despite centuries of practice, the popes still maintained the fiction that clerics were immune to civil justice in Venice. Although this trivial affair was part of a much larger struggle, the Pope used it as a stick to beat Venice, and for the fourth time the hated city was placed under interdict and its leaders excommunicated, an affair that has gone down in history as the Great Interdict.

But Venice had a secret weapon. A scholarly Servite friar named Paolo Sarpi, devoted to Venice and to religious tolerance, was employed by the State to refute the papal arguments, which he did with an astuteness that attracted the attention of all Europe, Protestant and Catholic. The Ten, with their accustomed waggishness, took care of any recalcitrant priests. One who refused to say mass woke up one morning to find a gallows erected in front of his church. Another, claiming that he would act as the Holy Spirit moved him, was told that the Holy Spirit had already moved the Ten to hang all traitor priests who refused.

Sarpi and Venice won: the interdict was lifted in 1607, and it was the last time the popes would ever try such a thing against anyone. Rome knew how to bear grudges in those days – three times the Roman Curia sent assassins after Sarpi, though they bungled each attempt. The Jesuits, who supported the pope in the conflict and were suspected of being papal spies, were banished from the Republic territories.

Venice could still wage a war when required. The Turks gave her one of 25 years that began in 1645 and ended with the loss of Crete, Venice’s last important overseas possession. And after 1683, when the last attack on Vienna failed, exposing the Turks’ real weakness, Venice found it in her to go back on the offensive. In 1685, Francesco Morosini led a brilliant expedition that regained many of the lost territories in Greece.

Most of these, however, slipped away again in Venice’s last war with Turkey, between 1714 and 1718. As in the rest of Italy, the 17th century had been a disaster economically for Venice. The city had responded well to the changes of the 16th century, developing new industries in glass and textiles. Now even these were forced off the market by northern competitors, while the Dutch and English took over much of the dwindling Mediterranean trade.

In its decline, both the strengths and the weaknesses of Venice’s unique state revealed themselves clearly. The decomposing nobility, mincing between casino and ballroom, still kept its stranglehold over politics, and to the end prevented any reforms that would bring new blood into the government.

On the other hand, the uncanny machine of the constitution continued to sputter on: stability and justice were maintained, the provinces were happy, and despite rampant corruption the State finances remained perfectly solid right up until 1797—even after engaging in massive public works projects, including the Murazzi, the great white Istrian sea walls erected between the Lido and sea completed in 1782.

After the last Turkish war, Venice let her fleets and armies rot. Undefended, she depended on her diplomacy and neutrality to keep the world at bay. The rest of Europe, which had come to enjoy the city as a sort of adult fun-fair, was glad to leave her alone. This gayest and most cosmopolitan of all cities became a necessary stop for northerners on the Grand Tour. Besides the opera and the casino and the legendary promiscuity, they came for the sense of unreality, a vacation for the mind.

For the first and only time in her long history, sensible Venice succumbed completely to the sensual promise of her sea-borne home. The passing years were named for the appearances of sopranos at the opera. The first hot-air balloon in Italy ascended in 1784 from in front of St Mark’s. The Ten’s ridiculous spies marked it all down, but no one gave a fig.

New churches were built with garish façades glorifying not God, but minor Venetian families. Spectacle became an end in itself, and with its millennium of practice the machinery of Venetian pomp and ceremony trundled around the calendar as brilliantly as ever. Venice was full of impoverished noblemen, still forced by law to dress in silks and keep up a good front: they somehow scraped up some pennies to rent a servant for the night if someone were to call. ‘Esto perpetua’, may it last forever – as Paolo Sarpi had said on his deathbed.

But the end was closer than anyone knew. First, though, comes a last surprise echo of the old spirit: Angelo Emo, the last admiral of Venice on Venice’s last expedition. In 1790 he chastised the Barbary pirates while everyone else, including the English, was paying them tribute.

Six years later, Napoleon’s Army of Italy was marching into the Veneto. Before he ever reached the city, Napoleon destroyed Venice in a war of nerves, alternating threats and accusations while the Venetians fretted and trembled. Neither the miserable last Doge, Ludovico Manin (who had fainted when he heard of his election in 1789), nor the Ten, nor anyone else could summon up the courage to organize a defence.

Ironically their people were staging revolts and conducting guerrilla warfare across the occupied Veneto against their revolutionary ‘liberators’. Some Venetians too were ready to fight. When a French frigate, chased by the Austrians, took refuge in the Lagoon, the harbour patrol opened fire and took her, giving Napoleon the pretext for a final ultimatum.

The thousand-year Republic ended in a shameful note of opera bouffe: at the last meeting of the Maggior Consiglio, the Nobil Homini were frightened out of their pantaloons by the sound of gunshots – only the farewell fusillade of a loyal Dalmatian battalion on their way home. In panic, they voted for their own extinction and scuttled off to their palaces before the counting was even finished. In the empty chamber, Manin is reported to have handed his doge’s cap to an attendant, saying: ‘You may have this, I won’t be needing it any more.’ It wasn't long before a Liberty Tree was erected in the Piazza, although only the nobility felt like dancing.

But history carries on.

This is a preview of the content in our Venice Art & Culture app. Get the app to:
iOS App Store Google Play