Monday, July 14, 2014

BOOK: Pietro Bembo, "History of Venice" (Vol. 2)

Pietro Bembo: History of Venice. Vol. 2: Books V–VIII. Edited and translated by Robert W. Ulery, jr. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 32. Harvard University Press, 2008. 067402284X. xi + 407 pp.

(Continued from Vol. 1.)

Book V

This book is mostly about the war against the Turks in the years around 1500. The earlier part of the war seems to take place mostly at sea; the Venetians get a big fleet ready, but they aren't terribly successful, which rather surprised me as I didn't expect that the Turks would be much good at naval warfare. (The Turks conquer Lepanto in 5.12, which also surprised me as I remembered the battle of Lepanto as a big Turkish defeat; but as it turns out, that was on a later occasion, in 1571.) Later the war is mostly at land, involving various Greek islands and coastal towns, where the Venetians seem to be slightly more successful and manage to recover some of their earlier losses.

For some reason, I found this slightly less boring than most of the warfare in the previous books; perhaps because much of the fighting takes place at sea, or perhaps because it was easier for me to get emotionally invested in the war. In the previous books, I didn't really give a damn about the minor border adjustments between the various small Italian states, but here I could easily pick a side to cheer on: the Venetians, since I really didn't want the Turks to make further territorial conquests. Of course, this reading couldn't help being a bit melancholic since I knew in advance that these efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, and the Turks did in fact end up ruling over Greece and the Balkan peninsula for several centuries. Well, at least they were pushed out of most of those territories by the early 20th century or so, although I'm afraid that Asia Minor is theirs for good.

One of the few non-war related things in this book: “there was at that time a great fight between crows and vultures in the skies over Apulia; such was the violence of the clash, and so great the flocks of birds, that their carcasses filled twelve carts.” (5.1) :)))

There's an interesting description of the Venetians' efforts to raise money for the war by introducing new taxes in 5.3. I was surprised by the haphazard nature of much of this taxation. “[A] law was passed requiring all urban and provincial magistrates to return to the Republic half of a year's salary [. . .] Men were also chosen to levy an assessment based on the wealth of each individual citizen”, though the government promised to return part of this money afterwards, so that it would be more of a forced loan than a tax.

On the subject of curious laws: “by an ancient law no office could be given to those indebted to the treasury” (5.21). This despicable idea reminds me of the even more despicable proposals of some modern-day libertarians who proposed removing the right to vote from those people who receive aid from the state or are employed by it. There's something about taxes that drives many people ridiculously insane with whining about how ‘their money’ should be spent by the government, and who should be allowed to get it. That's why I always support the idea that 100% of everyone's income should be taxed, and the state can then distribute it according to what people want or need. That would hopefully get it through their thick skulls that it isn't actually ‘their money’ and it really belongs to the common good. In any case, the worthlessness of the Venetian law mentioned here is demonstrated by the fact that their government doesn't hesitate to introduce an exception to it so they can appoint a certain Tommaso Zen as the captain of the fleet (5.21).

There's an interesting story on the loss of the town of Methoni in 1500. It was surrounded by the Turks both at land and at sea; some Venetian ships managed to get through the Turkish blockade, aiming to bring supplies to the town; “[w]hen the townsfolk saw the ships coming to their rescue, they rushed to the harbor to carry off the supplies at once into the town” (5.33). This unfortunately included most of the defenders on the city walls, and the Turkish army was therefore able to get across the wall; by the time the townsfolk realized what was going on, the town was already full of Turks and the defenders were easily overwhelmed (5.33–4).

The nearby town of Navarino also surrendered to the Turks in the wake of this defeat, but the Venetians recovered it later in the same year, which provides another interesting story in this book (5.43). A certain Demetrio, a soldier in the Venetian fleet, had a friend in the Turkish garrison in Navarino, and persuaded him to hide about 50 Venetian soldiers in his “house near the town wall until the gates of the town were should be opened at daybreak. Once the gates were open, Demetrio broke into the town with his men and taking them unawares slaughtered about 50 Turks of the garrison”. Incidentally, I was surprised by the extremely low numbers of people involved in much of this warfare. Later in the same paragraph, the Venetians send 150 horsemen to guard the town. I guess my mental image of war is mostly based on what I had read about WW1 and WW2, which is probably not a good guide to what a war might have looked like a few centuries ago.

The translator's note on p. 379 includes an interesting passage from Bembo's manuscript (censored from the early printed editions of the book by the Venetian government), where he blames the Venetian defeats in this war on the fact that their commanders tended to be old men: “it was a very bad practice to put old men in command of fleets, for they are bereft of blood and passion owing to their length of years, and so unwilling to try anything. [. . .] citizens consumed by age should be reserved for the home or the grave.” This last sentence strikes me as a bit harsh but otherwise he has a point; even a careless reader like me couldn't help wondering, while reading Bembo's descriptions of various battles, why the Venetian commanders were so cautious and showed so little initiative.

Book VI

This is one of the most interesting books so far. Earlier I was complaining that Bembo hardly ever mentions the geographical discoveries of his age, but here he talks about them at length (6.1–14). The Venetian senate heard about the Portuguese discovery of India in 1501 and immediately realised it would be a disaster for their trade (6.1). (There weren't the only ones; in 6.12 he describes how the sultan of Egypt tried, unsuccessfully, to chase the Portuguese out of the Indian ocean.)

There's a nice summary of Columbus' arguments for geographical exploration in 6.2, followed by a short history of his voyages. Bembo says that the idea of looking for new lands on the [Atlantic] Ocean was already mentioned before Columbus: “it was much earlier the idea first of the philosopher Posidonius, the pupil of Panaetius, and then of the famous physician, the great Avicenna” (6.3). There are various bits of information about the Indians with whom Columbus got in touch, including a description of maize (6.3) and a mention of “a wild and fierce people called Cannibals, who fed on the flesh of boys and men they had captured in war or raids on other islands (the women they left alone)” (6.4). The Indians “lived for the most part in a golden age. They know no boundaries to their fields; they have no courts or laws; they have no use for writing or trade; they live not for the future but from day to day.” (6.5) “Their women who have known a man covered no part of the body except the genitals, the virgins not even that” (6.7). “[T]he dried bodies of their kings and potentates are kept in their houses and held in great honor. There is even a place where they grind them up when they have become dessicated and use the dust in food and drink to honor them.” (Ib.)

Bembo also describes how the Spanish and the Portuguese asked the pope to mediate in their dispute on how to divide the New World among themselves (6.6); according to the translator's note, this resulted in the papal bull Inter caetera, whose demarcation line seems to be a predecessor of the one from the better-known Treaty of Tordesillas.

Some of the things he reports strike me as a bit dubious: “an immensely broad river — more than a hundred miles wide — which was full of islands” (6.8); though now that I looked in the wikipedia, it seems that the Amazon is actually that wide: “the mouth of the main stem is 80 kilometres” wide, and the whole estuary 240 km. An even more surprising report is the following: “The forests support an animal the size of a rabbit which is a bitter enemy of hens; the female has a pouch of skin [. . .] in which it carries its young and from which it lets them out as and when it wishes.” (6.8) I would expect that sort of animals in Australia, but that wasn't yet known in Bembo's time; this paragraph is about South America. And in a certain part of the Caribbean, men who dive for pearls are “so at home in the sea that on occasion they stay underwater for the space of half an hour” (6.10).

A particularly hideous form of female genital mutilation is described from the shores of the Red Sea: “These men sew together the reproductive organs of girls as soon as they are born, just far enough to allow urination. When they have matured, they give them in marriage stitched up in this manner, and it is the groom's first concern to sever with a knife the girl's labia thus joined and grown together: so high a value do the barbarians place on unambiguous virginity when taking a wife.” (6.11) Eeeeeek :S

Bembo also mentions Magellan's expedition (6.13–14) and includes this surprising statement: “having completed with great difficulty a three-year circumnavigation of the entire world [. . .] they found that each of their years had been longer by a day”. Surely it should be obvious that you get one day of difference for the whole circumnavigation (regardless of how many years it took you to complete it), not one day per year.

The rest of the book, from §15 onwards, again deals with the usual topics, mostly warfare. The war against the Turks is still going on and eventually they conclude peace in 6.47; another frequent cause of warfare in this book is Cesare Borgia, who is trying to secure his place on the map of Italy in the wake of the death of his father, pope Alexander. (The latter's death, by the way, is delightfully appropriate: “By a mistake on the part of a servant, Alexander swallowed a poison which he had ordered to be secretly given to Cardinal Adriano, one of his household, in whose gardens he was dining with his son Cesare Borgia”; 6.49, and Cesare nearly dies from the poison as well.)

Some of the Portuguese ships seem to have been very curiously decorated: “The stern of each boat was then draped with coverings of various colors, so that the spread-out fabrics reache the water and trailed in the waves.” (6.16)

The problems with taxation to finance the endless fighting, which I already mentioned earlier (see book V), continue here; there's a very interesting debate on whether the civil servants should be required to give up half their pay again. A certain Gian Antonio Minio makes some good arguments against it in the Great Council, saying that this is an unfair sort of tax which hurts only the middle and poorer classes, not the rich ones (6.22–4) — which I suspect is true, as a rich person would derive only a small fraction of his income from his salary, no matter what a position he held in the government. The doge then speaks at great length in favor of the tax (6.25–31), in a typical politician's manner — with lots of words but without really saying anything. He mostly whines about how the country simply needs money to keep financing the war, and how the rich are in fact paying their fair share of taxes, it just isn't as obvious because (unlike the middle and poorer classes) you don't see them going bankrupt and selling off their furniture to raise the money for taxes (6.29). In modern-day terminology, I suppose you could say that the doge is in favor of a flat tax rate, and he pretends not to notice that the mere fact that the rich people aren't going bankrupt from the tax while some of the poor ones are is by itself a sufficient proof that the burden of taxation is too heavy on the poor and too light on the rich. Sadly, nobody seems to have thought of a properly progressive tax rate at the time; or more likely, the rich bastards that ran Venetian politics would't have allowed it anyway. In any case, the outcome of this debate is that, in another clear proof of what a hollow sham the whole idea of deliberative politics was in Venice, Minio's reward for his parliamentary speech is a strict exile to “Arba, an island in Dalmatia” (which I guess is modern-day Rab).

Book VII

This book mostly consists of, you guessed it, yet more warfare. Maximilian, the Holy Roman Emperor, wants to travel to Rome to get properly crowned by the pope, but wants to bring a suspiciously large army along for the trip, ostensibly for his own safety. Venice refuses to let him pass through their territory; a war therefore erupts, in which Venice is also supported by Spain and France (which is making war on Maximilian for its own reasons). Venice seems to be doing reasonably well in this war at first and after a while, Maximilian makes a truce with Venice and her allies (6.41); but then the treacherous king Louis of France switches over to Maximilian's side and soon afterwards, Venice finds herself alone at war against Germany, France, Spain, and even the pope (7.51–9). The pope even uses his influence to prevent various mercenaries from accepting jobs in the Venetian army (7.66), and eventually excommunicates the doge and the entire city (7.78; the senate tries to evade this last move by the curious expedient of refusing to “accept the papal leters or admit those that brought them”).

As always, descriptions of the fighting are mostly rather boring, though occasionally I was interested to see that some of this fighting took place in the area of present-day Slovenia; for example, the town of Vipava is mentioned in 7.38, Koper in 8.26, and Postojna in 7.39. Bembo refers to this latter town as Postoina, which slightly surprised me since in more recent times the Italians called it Postumia.

One thing that came to my mind while reading this book is how incessant all this fighting really was. I am of course aware that the fact that we've currently had almost 70 years of peace in most of Europe is a bit of an anomaly; but my vague idea was that before that, one war per generation would have been a reasonable estimate. But here in Bembo's time we see that warfare was continuous; there was a new war every year, likely concluded a year or two later and then new wars would erupt in its place, often with the same players, only in a slightly different arrangement. What a horrible time it must have been to live in; and how much more remarkable it is that they managed to get the renaissance going in the midst of such chaos...

Unsurprisingly, the frequent shifts in alliances during these wars could wreak havoc on the lives of ordinary people. Bembo describes (7.65) how the Milanese government ordered their citizens to leave Venice when a war between the two countries was getting started; then the Venetian government, alarmed at the prospect of losing so many valuable traders and artisans, forbade them from leaving. Both laws prescribed confiscation as punishment for those who disobeyed, so basically people who owned property in both cities were screwed no matter what they decided to do.

The story of taxation to finance the wars also continues in this book; whereas they previously only required the magistrates to give up 50% of their pay, they now require some of them to give up 100% (7.71). The situation looks desperate enough that this is accepted without much protest. Furthermore, many citizens lend money to the republic, with the doge leading by example (7.74). One of the penalties for tax dodgers was to “be removed from public office. These offices are not only very numerous but also carry considerable emoluments, so that a large part of the citizens support themselves very handsomely on them” (7.76).

Like usually, Bembo manages to liven up his tale of endless warfare by occasional bits and pieces of more interesting information. For example, an embassy from the city of Nuremberg arrives in Venice in 1506 “to ask the senators for a copy of the laws of the Republic, declaring that they wanted to make use of those laws themselves” (7.9). The Venetians are happy to grant their request; I wonder if Nuremberg actually made any good use of those laws afterwards. Copying other nations' laws is of course a time-honored tradition, but I'm always a bit skeptical of it; what works for one nation might not work equally well for another if it has different customs and a different temperament.

Another curious tidbit from the same year: apparently people had the habit of asking for various favors from the Senate while a foreign ambassador was present, hoping that the politicians would be embarrassed to refuse the favor in the ambassador's presence; the Senate made a law forbidding this practice (7.14).

An interesting law from 1508: they forbade people from offering rewards to those who would nominate them for public office. On one hand, this is a very commendable law; on the other hand, it strikes me as highly hypocritical and bizarre — the entire political system of Venice was basically an oligarchy in which a few hundred rich people ran the city; in a system like that, why would you suddenly try to set up laws that prevent rich people from using their money to influence politics?

Bembo describes a kind of very large cannon (called a basilisk) used on some of their ships: “each piece twenty-two feet in length [. . .] They could fire an iron ball weighing a hundred pounds a distance of 2,800 paces” (7.34).

He also describes a strong earthquake on Crete in 1508 (7.44); surprisingly, this earthquake doesn't seem to have its own Wikipedia page yet :), although it is mentioned in passing in one or two articles. Another disaster is a large gunpowder explosion in the Venetian Arsenal in 1509 (7.63).

On the subject of odd news, there's the tale of an strange vessel found in the Atlantic not far from Britain in 1508: “a small vessel made of wicker [. . .] covered all over with tree bark. In it were seven men of moderate height and rather dark complexion [. . .] clothing made from fish skin dappled with spots. They wore painted crowns of straw [. . .] fed on raw flesh, and drank blood as we do wine. Their speech was unintelligible. Six of them died; one young man was taken alive ot the king in Normandy.” (7.50) I wonder what, if anything, is the truth behind this tale. Could an Eskimo boat have been carried by some storm all the way from Greenland to Britain?

I was surprised to see a very casual mention of the pope's daughter, Felice, in 7.78; she was married to the head of the powerful Orsini family. Bembo mentions her as if the fact that the pope had a daughter was the most unremarkable thing in the world! This was pope Julius II, by the way; I would have expected that sort of thing from his predecessor, Alexander Borgia, whose daughter Lucrezia is well known, but I guess that wasn't quite so exceptional in those days :] On a related note, I have now discovered that the wikipedia has a suitably pedantic article called List of sexually active popes :)))


The war of Venice vs. everyone else, which we saw starting towards the end of the previous book, is now under way, and as one might expect, Venice isn't doing too well in it. In a mixture of cowardice and incompetence, their army practically melts away upon facing the French army, to whom Venice thus loses some of its territory; in a desperate effort to end the war and gain some time to recover, they offer to restore further bits of territory to Maximilian and to the pope. In a move that I found extremely unexpected (but really shouldn't have, given the endlessly shifting nature of alliances in those days), Venice gets an offer of help from the Turkish sultan of all people! (8.42), and they seriously consider taking him up on it (8.44). The pope seems to be unable to make up his mind: on the one hand, he is worried that if Venice collapses utterly, Germany and France might turn against him next, although he is their ally at the moment (8.35); on the other hand, he keeps treating the Venetian ambassadors very arrogantly and making increasing demands from them (8.39). Maximilian seems to be content with his early gains and is not keen to pursue the war further, and king Louis of France, now that he is deprived of his German ally, seems to be willing to call it a day as well (8.37). Thus things slowly start looking up for Venice again, and towards the end of the book they even recover some of the territories they had lost earlier, such as the town of Padua (8.61).

(Continues in Vol. 3.)

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