Sunday, June 22, 2014

BOOK: Pietro Bembo, "History of Venice" (Vol. 1)

Pietro Bembo: History of Venice. Vol. 1: Books I–IV. Edited and translated by Robert W. Ulery, jr. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 28. Harvard University Press, 2007. 0674022831. xv + 358 pp.

One of the first books I bought (and read) after I started buying books of my own instead of just borrowing them from libraries was J. J. Norwich's History of Venice. I found it very interesting, but by now I have no doubt forgotten nearly everything about it, since I read it a fair bit of time ago. So I was excited to see that a history of Venice by another author now showed up in the ITRL series, written by a 16th-century humanist author (see my post about his book of poems from a few years ago); I was curious how things would have looked like from his perspective.

On the other hand, I was careful not to keep my expectations high, as I still remembered my encounter with Bruni's history of Florence earlier in the same series (see my posts from back then: 1, 2, 3). The early history of Florence was described very briefly there, whereas the times that would have been recent past from Bruni's perspective were described in much more low-level detail than I was interested in.

Bembo's History of Venice turned out to be a similar sort of book. As the introduction explains (p. ix), an earlier author had in fact written a history of Venice from its foundation down to his own day, in 1487; a few decades later, the Venetian government hired Bembo to write a sequel that would cover history from the time where the previous work finished. Thus, Bembo's work covers a period of less than 30 years (1487–1513). This is not quite ideal from my perspective; first of all, because it means he goes into more detail than I care about, and secondly because (as far as I can vaguely remember from Norwich's history that I read all those years ago), by the time covered in Bembo's book, the best years of Venice's history were already far in the past. The Byzantine empire had collapsed, and with it much of Venice's influence in the eastern Mediterranean; they still controlled various Greek islands but would soon find it harder and harder to defend them from the Turks; their status as the prime importers of oriental goods into Europe would soon be pushed into irrelevance by the discovery of direct sea routes to India, America and so on; and whereas Venice had once proudly sat on its islands and lagoons, scorning the dry land next to them, focusing entirely on the sea and the trade with the East, it was now increasingly being reduced to just another squabbling little state, one of many such states in the turbulent history of Renaissance Italy, conducting a bewildering series of wars with its neighbouring statelets, mostly involving dinky little towns and pathetic strips of territory. If I could choose which 30 years of Venetian history I could read a book about, I would probably have chosen something earlier than that :)

That being said, Bembo's book isn't as boring as I feared it would be. When he describes warfare, there's the inevitable overload of boring details about battles, campaigns and the like; but there are plenty of other, more interesting things in the book, and it was enjoyable enough when read in moderate doses.

There's an interesting biographical sketch of Bembo in the introduction; apparently he even had an affair with Lucrezia Borgia (p. x). There's also an interesting discussion on the censorship of Bembo's book; the Venetian politicians regarded it as an official history of their state and thus modified certain passages that didn't show them in a good light (p. xii).

Book I

After some introductory remarks, Bembo plunges straight into just the sort of boring description of a war that I was afraid of. A neighbouring potentate named Sigismund picks a fight with Venice over some mining and trading rights (1.3–4); this results in some warfare in Tyrol and things go back and forth for a bit without anything terribly interesting happening. Eventually Sigismund grows “weary of the expense of war” (1.29), and they conclude peace. The final outcome, after some mediation by the pope (1.55), seems to be more or less like the status quo ante.

There are a few interesting passages in this part of the book anyway. Bembo describes a new sort of siege weapon in 1.8: “Iron balls, not specially solid and filled with tar and pitch, were set alight inside and hurled from siege catapults.” Another innovation he describes are guns (1.48); unlike cannons, which his readers already knew, these guns “are made of iron and are carried by a single soldier [. . .] with the bullet loaded, they are lifted onto the shoulder and turned on the enemy”. Sounds more like modern-day RPGs :P

There's a very dramatic scene from the war in 1.25; a captain, trying to prevent his panicky soldiers from retreating across a bridge, orders it to be demolished, hoping that this will cause his men to defend their positions more fervently. “But it turned out quite contrary to what he had expected, since fear does not generally encourage rational judgement. [. . .] when they saw the bridge gone, nearly all leapt into the river and perished”.

This is something that happens a lot in this book: you can see that Bembo is originally more a writer than a historian, and therefore he manages again and again to come up with interesting and picturesque dramatic scenes even amidst events and details that would otherwise be boring.

Once the war is over, foreign affairs get more varied and interesting. There's the melancholy story of Caterina Cornaro, a Venetian woman who got married to the king of Cyprus and now ruled the island herself after the death of her husband and their son. The Venetians successfuly pressure her into handing the island over to them and returning home (the main argument being that she couldn't defend it from a likely Turkish invasion anyway); 1.35–41. (She died in 1510; Bembo describes her splendid funeral in 10.49.) We see emperor Frederick's state visit to Italy (1.45). A Venetian senator's daughter gets married to an Illyrian prince (1.47), who, judging by his Wikipedia page, has the distinction of being the founder of the first printing house in Serbia.

Bembo reports on the birth of a “two-headed child” in 1488 (1.37); “Each of the two heads had its own neck and shoulders”.

The winter of 1490/91 was so cold that the sea around Venice froze; you could reach the town on foot and “horses were sent for sport into the central and widest canal of the city” (1.50). That gives me nostalgic memories of my childhood walk to the island in lake Bled when it froze during winter. Alas, I think it's been a long time since it last froze enough to make such a walk safe, and with the global warming who knows when it will happen again.

Occasionally we get some curious glimpses into the laws of those days. Apparently Venetian law used to punish theft more leniently if the thief was from the same household as the victim: “The result was that the boldness of slaves and lodgers increased” and they eventually dropped this distincton in 1490 (1.49). There are also some interesting paragraphs on the changes in the design of ballot-boxes to ensure that nobody can see how other people voted (1.58–60).

At some point two politicians propose what appears to be an early form of social security, but the government accuses them of trying to simply buy popularity, and sends them into a strict exile (1.61–2).

I didn't think they had slaves in Venice around the year 1500, but they are mentioned several times: 1.31 (slaves to be rewarded with freedom if they report on their masters' violations of sumptuary laws); 1.49 (theft laws for slaves to be the same as for people from outside the household).

Book II

More or less the whole book deals with a war that took place in 1494–5 and involved a number of Italian states. As usually with such things, I found the description of the war itself very boring, but the lead-up to the war and its conclusion were a bit interesting. The conflict started between the kingdom of Naples and the duchy of Milan; the latter then invited king Charles of France to get involved by convincing him he had a right to claim Naples for himself (2.3).

The war proceeds in the chaotic style typical of Italian renaissance history and after a while, Charles finds himself at war against an alliance (2.32) that consists of Naples, the papal state, and confusingly also the duchy of Milan (which grew worried after seeing Charles's successes and the growth of his influence in Italy; 2.29) and Venice (which had been friends with Charles at first).

This alliance now gets Charles worried that he might not be able to withdraw his army from Naples back to France, and besides he's running out of money anyway, so they conclude peace (2.63). “The king was induced to ratify this peace treaty all the more quickly for the further reason that a Swiss force, much greater than he himself had sought, had finally left home to assist him in the war” (2.63); he had no money to pay these mercenaries and wanted to be able to dismiss them with the good excuse that they hadn't arrived until after the war was already over.

A funny remark on the besieged French forces in Novara (2.62): “Many of them died [. . .] by drinking water, which the French and Germans are quite unaccustomed to.” I imagine that the real reason was that water contained plenty of bacteria that wouldn't normally be present in fermented drinks such as beer and wine.

Book III

The war, which I thought had been finished towards the end of the previous book, seems to be continuing after all; if for no other reason, at least because there are still French forces in various parts of Italy. There's an interesting story in 3.11–15: Pisa, finding itself under attack by Florence, offers to accept Venetian rule in exchange for protection against the attackers (which is a nice illustration of how all government is basically like a mafia protection racket, I suppose :P — and in fact things like this happen again and again in this volume; everyone and their grandmother is asking for Venetian protection). Bembo reports on the debate in the Venetian senate, which is initially favorable to the proposal but then rejects it on the basis that Pisa would be too hard for Venice to defend, since it's surrounded by enemies of Venice and can't be reached from the other Venetian territories otherwise than by going through enemy lands.

I was amused to learn that there is a town named Monopoli on the Adriatic coast (3.6). I hope their mayor looks like Uncle Pennybags :P

A captain Pietro Bembo is mentioned in 3.6 and 3.9, but our writer doesn't say whether it's a relative of his or not. The writer's father, Bernardo Bembo, shows up in 3.70, as he was a high official in the Venetian government in the 1490s.

Ferrandino, king of Naples, gets married to his half-aunt in 3.21 (he “took in marriage Giovanna, the daughter of his grandfather Ferrante and sister of his father Alfonso by another mother”). This idea becomes a little less bizarre after you read Ferrandino's wikipedia page: “At the time of marriage, Ferdinand was 27 years old and Joanna 18.”

In a welcome and all too rare diversion from the endless descriptions of warfare and diplomatic squabbling, there's a paragraph on the first appearance of syphilis (“the ‘French disease’ ”) in Venice, in 1497 (3.43).

There's an interesting anecdote in 3.70; certain people propose a plan to assassinate the French king Charles, but the Venetian government refuses it in a surprising burst of high-mindedness: “the Republic had never used such schemes against its enemies, although it could often have done so, and was not about to start now”. I was surprised by this because I always imagined the Venetian republic as a cloak-and-dagger affair ruled by secrecy and backstabbings, in which enemies of the regime disappear in the middle of the night, etc., etc. Perhaps they didn't acquire this reputation until later, or maybe they simply did't like that particular assassination plan and then used a high-minded excuse to reject it. Admittedly they rejected a similar offer earlier as well, for the assassination of Ludovico il Moro, the duke of Milan (2.65–6).

Book IV

This book starts with a peace treaty between France and Spain (4.1), which gave me hope that the amount of warfare would finally be a bit lower than in the previous books, but I was soon to be disappointed. War is still raging over Pisa (4.5), with Venice against Florence and probably others that I couldn't be bothered to keep track of. This war is eventually resolved by arbitration, but in a way which seems much more favorable to Florence than to Venice (4.59–61). A naval war with Turkey is also looming (4.50–3). Furthermore, king Charles of France dies (4.15) and his successor, Louis, decides to make war against Ludovico, the duke of Milan (4.55); the Venetians support France in this war, even though they had been her enemies in one of the previous wars a couple of years earlier. Ludovico seems to be rather unpopular and his support crumbles like a house of cards, with France and Venice easily dividing up Milanese territory amongst themselves.

Even the author himself admits that this is all very boring! “It is tiresome for me to go through the minor points of the war. Who can read every last detail without aversion, especially if, as in most cases, the reader is only looking to reach the conclusions as soon as may be?” His excuse is that he doesn't want to risk overlooking any important “public deeds of my fellow citizens” (4.46).

There are some descriptions of naval warfare against Turks and pirates, which are slightly more interesting than the warfare on land that prevails in the rest of the book (4.6–10).

There's a gruesome anecdote in 4.27: when the town of Buti was captured by the Florentines, “all the gunners had their right hands cut off so that they would no longer be able to practice their profession, and with each man's hand hung from his neck they were sent away.” Coming to Venice, they “gave their word to the Senate that once they had artificial iron hands, they would return to their trade [. . .] and, if sent back to Pisa, would avenge their injuries.”

In one of the rare non-war-related passages in this book, the Spanish ambassador presents Venice with “the king of one of the Islands of the Blessed as a gift to the Senate” (4.3). I initially imagined that this ‘king’ must be some unfortunate Indian chieftain dragged from the Caribbean by Columbus, but according to the translator's note on p. 341, Bembo here uses the term “Islands of the Blessed” (originally a fictional place in classical mythology) to mean the Canary islands. Bembo uses this opportunity to praise the geographical discoveries of his day a little, which made me realize just how extremely localized the focus of the rest of this volume had been; if someone asked me what was happening in the 1490s, surely one of my first thoughts would be that this was the decade of the great geographical discoveries, of Columbus and Vasco da Gama and the like; and yet this volume only mentions geographical discoveries in this one paragraph, and even that is about the Canary Islands and not America or India.

There's an amusing tale in 4.52 about the Turkish preparations for war against Venice. To lull the Venetians into a false sense of security, the Turkish sultan “renewed the treaty of alliance with Zancani [the Venetian ambassador], but the clauses of the treaty he gave him were written in Latin. Now there is a provision in their law that what is not written in their own language need not be fulfilled.” A Venetian living in Constantinople warns the ambassador of this, but the efforts to get the Turks to sign a Turkish text of the treaty come to nothing. I don't know if I should laugh or cry at the extent to which people go to delude themselves that their actions are better than they really are. ‘Oh no, we aren't stabbing our allies in the back, of course not — we took the precaution of signing the treaty in one language and not another, and therefore it doesn't count. . .’

I remember reading somewhere that the Venetian word doge comes from the Latin dux (which is also the source of the English duke), so I thought that Bembo's Latin text would use this word to refer to the doge, but it doesn't — he always uses princeps instead. On a semi-related note, I find it damn annoying that the first thing I think about nowadays when I see the word doge is a picture of that damn meme... :S

(Continues in Vol. 2.)

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