Liberty and the myth of Venice

  • Themes: History, Italy

Liberty was central to the idea of Venice, but was remarkably fragile. The republic had to guard it fiercely and expound it as a tangible way of living for flawed human beings.

Procession in Piazza San Marco by Gentile Bellini, 1496.
Procession in Piazza San Marco by Gentile Bellini, 1496. Credit: Peter Barritt / Alamy Stock Photo

In 1364, the poet Francesco Petrarca (1304–74) hailed Venice as the ‘one true home of liberty’ – and with good reason. Throughout the Renaissance, this was precisely how Venetians liked to think about their city. By Petrarca’s time, they had already begun to develop a rich mythology of their history and origins which made libertas   – in the sense of political independence, rather than personal freedom – the very hallmark of Venice’s identity. Like all myths, this was anything but stable. An organic outpouring of civic self-fashioning, it developed in fits and starts, as circumstances seemed to require, and its details could vary in the retelling, sometimes wildly so. Over the centuries which followed, it found expression in civic rituals and pageants, in official and ‘popular’ histories, in music, in poetry, even in the visual arts – and for that reason, employed a vocabulary which sometimes obscured as much as it revealed. Yet that Venice’s liberty was special, even unique, no-one was ever left in any doubt.

Unlike every other Italian republic – the story went – Venice had been born in freedom. Reputedly founded by refugees on 25 March 421, it had resisted every foreign invader; and, despite much evidence to the contrary, its panegyrists maintained that it had never recognised a superior. As Paolo Sarpi (1552–1623) claimed in the early seventeenth century, Venice had only ever been ruled by her own laws. Whenever the doge appeared on public occasions, he was followed by the umbrella and sword which had reputedly been gifted by Pope Alexander III as a mark of the city’s equal status at a meeting with the Holy Roman Emperor in 1177. And that wasn’t all. As Venetians were fond of pointing out, they had never succumbed to a domestic tyrant, either. They had always governed themselves in peace and harmony. The mercantile elites who had dominated government since the late thirteenth century were kept in check by a complex system of balloting; factionalism was all but unknown; and though most people were excluded from the political process, the Venetians liked to boast that there had never been any hint of popular unrest. As a roundel on the west façade of the Palazzo Ducale proclaimed, Venice had ‘put the furies of the sea beneath its feet’ – and had grown rich and powerful in the process.

No-one denied that this liberty was owed, in part, to the sea. As the diarist Marino Sanudo (1466–1536) pointed out, the rippling waves of the lagoon had protected the city more surely than any walls and had forced its people to work together in harmony, to boot. But for Venetians, such liberty was better understood in mystical terms, as a gift from heaven. It was no accident that the Republic often described itself in official documents as ‘this holy city’. That Venice had been founded on the feast of the Annunciation was a sign that it lived under the Virgin Mary’s protection; while the ‘translation’ of St Mark’s remains from Alexandria in 827 or 828 – supposedly in fulfilment of a prophesy – was routinely trumpeted as proof that it had been marked for divine favour. As the historian Marcantonio Sabellico (1436–1506) proudly noted towards the end of the fifteenth century, the presence of the saint’s relics was a guarantee of the Republic’s endurance.

Yet, in reality, Venice’s liberty was remarkably fragile. However perfect its system of government might have seemed, however safe the lagoon may have felt, the Republic was unable either to eliminate the ambitions of unscrupulous men or avoid the envious eyes of its neighbours. Only a few years before Petrarca’s letter, Doge Marino Faliero (1274–1355) had been executed after a botched plot to set himself up as a hereditary monarch; and less than a decade later, Venice came within a whisker of being conquered by its maritime rival, Genoa. And that was just the beginning. The more time wore on, and the more prosperous Venice grew, the more acute the threats to Venice’s liberty became.

By the outbreak of the Italian Wars in 1494, Venice’s neighbours, alarmed by its territorial expansion on terraferma, were openly talking about cutting it down to size. According to Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), Italy would never know peace until Venice was destroyed. In 1508, the League of Cambrai was formed expressly to deprive it of its liberty; and in 1509, enemy cannon could be heard from St Mark’s Square. Venice was in no position to defend itself. As Sallust said of Rome, wealth had made it complacent. Divisions began to emerge within the patriarchate; electoral responsibilities were frequently evaded; and the purchase of offices became common. Though evidence of popular sentiments is scant, there is some indication that the common people were growing restive; and as refugees poured in from the countryside, fears of civil unrest became so intense that soldiers were ordered to confiscate the weapons of anyone found wandering the streets near the Palazzo Ducale. A feeling of dread fell upon the Republic. It is no coincidence that in Sebastiano del Piombo’s Death of Adonis (c.1512) – painted just a few years after the Venetian army was crushed at the battle of Agnadello – a dark cloud hangs over the city; while in Giorgione’s Tempest (c.1509–10), the brooding storm evokes a sense of nameless foreboding.

Venice was hence faced with a troubling question: how was it to reconcile its self-image with the true instability of its position? How, in times of crisis, was it to preserve its liberty?

Clearly, the Venetians couldn’t stop their rivals from attacking them. Regardless of what their actual intentions may have been, no propaganda in the world was going to allay the suspicions and resentments aroused by its burgeoning empire. The answer, therefore, had to lie with the Venetians themselves. If they could somehow remain united – the logic went – bound together by a shared identity and common purpose, they would, at the very least, stand a fighting chance of fending off foreign domination. But how did you unite a people against the enemy? How could you stop them splintering into factions or succumbing to a domestic tyrant, like so many other Italian states in the past?

Throughout the peninsula, humanists preoccupied with this problem looked to the Latin and Greek classics for a solution. As was natural, their preferences varied according to taste. But many derived from works like Cicero’s De officiis the view that liberty, along with domestic peace, rested above all on two foundations. The first of these was equity. No community, Cicero had argued, could govern itself in freedom unless everyone lived on the same legal footing. It was, therefore, vital to ensure that no-one received preferential treatment in the courts, and that wrongdoers were punished, irrespective of wealth or social status. This was obvious when you thought about it. Just imagine if there was no guarantee of even-handedness. There would be nothing to stop litigants from bribing judges and bartering influence – or to save the government itself from being corrupted. This also pointed towards the second foundation. Just as a people must be protected from harmful, partial influence, so the community must be governed only in the interests of the common good. By adhering to this principle, it would ensure that its weapons were used only against public enemies, and that all shared in its benefits.

If Venice was to remain free, it was hence clear that it would need to strengthen both. But how? From the mid-thirteenth century, humanists across northern Italy had come to believe that the key was virtue. Drawing on Cicero once again, they argued that since vice naturally inclined men to value the self above the social whole, neither equity nor the common good could exist without its opposite.

What specific virtues should be cultivated depended on who you asked. Some believed that there were seven of them: the four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude/magnanimity) and the three theological (faith, hope, and charity). Others preferred a smaller number, or a slightly different selection. But the challenge nevertheless remained the same. If liberty was to be preserved, you had to find a way of making citizens and rulers ‘good’.

A great many letters, speeches, and treatises were devoted to precisely this issue, but it was in the ceremonial entry to the Palazzo Ducale – known as the Porta della Carta – that it found its most arresting solution. Carved by Giovanni and Bartolomeo Bon between 1438 and 1443, this acted as a visual summa of Venetian liberty. Above the portal, visitors saw an almost life-sized statue of the current doge, Francesco Foscari, kneeling before the Lion of St Mark. Meanwhile, on either side of the portal, four female figures represented the virtues of Temperance, Charity, Prudence, and Fortitude upon which the doge’s just rule depended. The implication was hard to miss. Not only did this legitimise Foscari’s government, but it also provided viewers with a laudable example to emulate. And that was not all. As the eye follows the tracery heavenwards, the rewards of virtue – and liberty – are made plain. Above a window, St Mark himself looks out benignly from his roundel, assuring liberty’s survival, while at the very top, a personification of Justice sits on her throne, flanked by two lions. A more powerful endorsement of virtue could hardly be imagined.

This all looked and sounded very impressive. But for the Venetians, it was only half the story. While no-one denied that the virtues were a laudable ideal, they were just that – an ideal, and to the pragmatic Venetians, that was always a little suspect. As Machiavelli famously pointed out, man is by nature a craven beast, in reality as inclined to the bad as to the good. No matter how compelling your rhetoric, rituals or art, you shouldn’t bank on making people magnanimous, prudent, just or whatever, especially in times of crisis. As Paolo Paruta (1540-98) observed, empiricism, rather than idealism, was the only proper approach when government couldn’t be sure of anything.

By the end of the fifteenth century, as the threat to Venice’s freedom grew, Venetians recognised that something more was needed. Instead of extolling the virtues individuals should cultivate, panegyrists increasingly concentrated on valorising the Republic as it actually was. More particularly, they sought to craft an image of Venice, not as a place where equity and the common good might be strengthened, but as a polity which already embodied them both. This was, admittedly, not entirely new. Some aspects of this same idea can be found in rudimentary form in Venetian writings before this date. But from this point onwards, the presence – and durability – of liberty’s foundations was demonstrated with reference to three clearly delineated ideas.

The first was order. As Gasparo Contarini (1483–1542) noted, this was by far the most essential quality of any free city. Drawing on Aristotle, he argued that the ‘agreement and effective ordering of citizens’ was ‘the true basis and form of a republic’, and that, in this, Venice excelled over all other cities. This did not mean mindless ‘conformity to some abstract pattern of universal order’, as William Bouwsma has put it. Rather, Contarini had in mind the kind of practical, everyday order which was assured by sensible government, and which made socio-economic life possible. Some idea of what this looked like is given by Jacopo de’ Barbari’s View of Venice (1500).

This enormous woodcut, printed in six blocks, each almost a metre wide, was designed to bring honour to Venice – and is so detailed that some scholars have speculated that it may have been based on a ground survey. But it was as much an idealised depiction of the city as a literal representation. The confusing warren of alleyways, beloved of brigands and thieves, was simplified; church towers were exaggerated; and some public buildings, such as the Palazzo Ducale, were made to seem taller or more imposing than they really were, especially in relation to private residences. This made Venice seem not only more comprehensible, but also more rational and orderly – a republic united by rules and laws; a city worthy of Neptune and Mercury’s favour.

A second component was harmony. Closely connected with order, this entailed far more than the mere absence of conflict. It was also about ensuring everyone had a role, and that no-one shone more brightly than the rest. This found expression in the many, elaborately choreographed ritual processions which formed such an important part of the Venetian calendar. But it is perhaps most vividly illustrated by Gentile Bellini’s Procession in St Mark’s Square  (1496). There is a deliberate sprezzatura  to this painting. It is made to look as if we have just stumbled upon something quite natural and unstudied. But the procession has nevertheless been carefully orchestrated. The whole Venetian polity, from the lowliest member of the citizen-dominated confraternities to the highest state officials, are present. Yet a strict equity prevails. No-one stands out more than the others, even the doge. Were it not for his golden mantle and the umbrella held above his head, it would be difficult to pick him out. Each person has their proper station, each their proper dignity, and each is as valuable and necessary as the rest. And to the painting’s intended viewers, common citizens all, such harmony was doubtless a source of pride.

The final component was permanence or, rather, immortality. To counter the natural tendency to think of polities and offices on a human scale, as instruments capable of being turned to private interests, care was taken to present both Venice and its institutions as greater and more durable than any individual. Just as Contarini memorably suggested that Venice’s founders had established a Republic that would live in perpetuity, so even the most exalted magistrates were held up as mere custodians, whose powers and prerogatives would far outlive their mortal span, and whose efforts were hence naturally devoted to the greater good. A glimpse of this can be caught in Titian’s portrait of Doge Andrea Gritti (c.1548–50). Painted some years after Gritti’s death, Titian’s portrait captures the extraordinary forcefulness of his personality, yet it is overshadowed by the abstract authority of his role. Gritti’s robes, heavy with brocade, outweigh his bulky frame; his stance, perhaps modelled on Michelangelo’s Moses, is monumental; and his gaze reaches far beyond the viewer’s ken.

The greatness of the man is apparent but the transcendence of his office – and the Republic itself – even more so. This was all myth-making, too, of course, just like the idea of Venice as the ‘true home of liberty’; and, to an extent, even Venetians seem to have recognised it as such. It was as much an attempt to constitute as it was to celebrate, if not more so.

But the advantages were palpable. Rather than trying to change human nature – to make bad men good, as it were – this image of Venice provided a model of society into which the efforts of even the most imperfect citizen could be subsumed, in which all had a defined place, and in whose benefits all could share. It idealised the curtailment of private interests, while still allowing for the pursuit of private ambitions; it celebrated individual merit, while reinforcing the supremacy of the whole; and it placed all beneath the overarching good of the Republic. As such, it allowed people to identify themselves with the ideals of equity and the common good without making any specific demands of them. And in doing so, it made liberty appear not so much a remote and perfect end, but as a tangible, immediate way of living for flawed human beings.

The effects of this myth of Venice’s political history are hard, if not impossible, to gauge, and we should perhaps be suspicious of any attempt to find in it an explanation for the Republic’s extraordinary durability. Yet its impact on wider perceptions of liberty is hard to underestimate. For many contemporaries, the mere fact that Venice had preserved its liberty, when all other Italian republics had failed, seemed proof that in the myth lay a profound truth – and that the illusion had become a reality.

Within a little over a century of Petrarca’s death, Venice had come to be regarded as the very archetype of Renaissance republicanism, a living ideal of liberty, worthy not just of praise, but of emulation. When Florence expelled the Medici in 1494, it was upon Venice that Girolamo Savonarola modelled his ‘New Jerusalem’. And it was in the hope of making England more like La Serenissima that James Harrington dedicated The Commonwealth of Oceanea (1656) to Oliver Cromwell.

And perhaps this myth has lessons to teach us today, as well. Though the circumstances of the Renaissance state are far removed from those of our own, and the Venetian system of government bears little relation to its modern heirs, its outlines resonate still. As Edward Muir has memorably noted, it speaks to ‘Rousseau’s warning in the Contrat Sociale that a state, if it is to endure, must enlist not only the interests of men, but their passions as well’. It illustrates that, at root, liberty resides in the imagination of the imperfect, and that its future relies less on the virtues of citizenship than on a sense of pride, structure, and belonging.


Alexander Lee