Saturday, July 19, 2014

BOOK: Pietro Bembo, "History of Venice" (Vol. 3)

Pietro Bembo: History of Venice. Vol. 3: Books IX–XII. Edited and translated by Robert W. Ulery, jr. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 37. Harvard University Press, 2009. 9780674022867. xi + 396 pp.

(Continued from Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.

Book IX

The war against Maximilian continues; towards the end of the previous book, the Venetians re-took Padua from him, and now he's trying to get it back, with the aid of numerous allies (9.18). Both sides spend plenty of time in getting ready for the siege, but eventually Maximillian gives up on it without accomplishing anything concrete (9.30). The Venetians remain on the initiative and conquer several other towns that used to be under Maximilian's control, such as Rijeka (9.33) and Vicenza (9.40); soon afterwards, Maximilian is ready to discuss a truce with them (9.54). On the other hand, they get involved in a war against the duke of Ferrara and suffer a heavy naval defeat (9.56). Meanwhile they are still at war with the pope (and under excommunication), and they decide to submit to his demands due to being unable to fight against so many enemies at the same time (9.60–1).

Bembo quotes “a poem of remarkable antiquity carved in stone” on a tower in Feltre (which was unfortunately destroyed during the war in 1509): “Feltre, thou art condemned to the harshness of snows without ending;/ Never perhaps, after this, will I approach thee — farewell.// Above the poem was inscribed the name of Julius Caesar.” (9.8.) I'm very curious is this is a genuine piece of ancient history preserved until 1509 and then unfortunately lost, or is it simply a medieval fake intended to attract tourists or inflate the locals' egos with a purported link to Caesar. The inscription is also mentioned in Feltre's wikipedia article.

There's an amusing story in 9.27–8, on the efforts to deliver wages to the soldiers that were defending Padua. This was a nontrivial amount of gold and the question was how to get it past Maximilian's forces; the Venetians loaded several mules with bags of sand and sent them towards Padua under heavy guard, thereby giving the impression that those are carrying the gold. The majority of Maximilian's forces went off to chase them and meanwhile other Venetian horsemen, carrying the gold in smaller amounts, were able to get into Padua safely.

Bembo describes yet another scary-sounding kind of siege weapon in 9.29: “It threw a stone ball eighteen inches in diameter up as high as the rooftops in a great arc through the sky.” A slightly more desperate kind of artillery appears in 9.30: “Maximilian took the further step of having letters wrapped around arrows shot into town, in which he urged the townspeople to desert the Republic”.

In each book I wonder if the Venetian financial situation can possibly get more desperate, and it always does. Now “all magistrates should serve for six months without pay or expense [. . .] They were indeed effectively unable to extract any further taxes as the citizens had been cleaned out by such frequent contributions to the treasury” (9.37).

The Venetians are apparently on good terms with king Henry of England; perhaps because they are so far away from each other :P In 9.54 he writes to their enemies, “asking them not to make war on Venice, which if it did not exist, would surely have had to be created by mankind as a whole for the public utility and ornament of the world”. I can't help thinking that this is the sort of quote which, if it hadn't been actually written, the Venetians would have been glad to invent it; and perhaps they did. (I'm not sure which Henry was that, by the way; Book IX covers the year 1509, and according to the Wikipedia, Henry VII died in the April of that year, and was succeeded by Henry VIII.)

There is a curious tale of hot incest action in 9.59, which unfortunately ends badly: Pietro Balbo, the podestà of Padua, “ordered the arrest of one of the commoners who was using his own daughter as a concubine, and of the daughter as well, the crime having been reported by an informer. When both confessed, he had them bound and beheaded, setting fire also to the father's corpse.” Silly commoners should have known that such things are reserved for the princes and the popes :)))

Book X

You probably won't be surprised to hear that this book contains yet more warfare :) Venice is still at war with the French, the Germans, and Ferrara, but on the other hand the pope is now on their side since they made peace with him at the end of the previous book (10.10). This also means they are now able to hire mercenaries from Rome and other areas under the pope's control (10.45). A new party enters the warfare in this book, namely Hungary, who is persuaded by France and Germany to declare war on Venice (10.62), even though it was earlier even getting subsidised by it (10.2). But it appears that Hungary won't actually fight, due to the lack of money (10.62).

Another thing that repeats itself like a broken record are the increasingly desperate efforts by Venice to raise more money and manpower. People who had been exiled for manslaughter (but not premeditated murder) are offered amnesty if they agree to serve in the Venetian fleet (10.8). Civil servants could, by a one-time payment of five times their yearly salary, upgrade their temporary appointment into a permanent one; for twice as much, those with a permanent appointment could buy the right to have the job pass on to their son or nephew after the current holder's death (10.12). This strikes me as an interesting (and unorthodox) way of raising money; I find it hard to imagine something similar being done nowadays. Few people could raise that kind of money, at least not without selling their house; even just taking out a loan wouldn't be enough as they couldn't afford to pay instalments for a loan of that size.

Another curious law is mentioned in 10.16: “no citizen whose son, brother, or nephew was a priest could attend the Senate” when relations between the pope and Venice were discussed, as their association with the church might lead them to favor the pope's interests over those of Venice.

As always, there are occasional interesting anecdotes amidst the warfare. The Spanish soldiers occupying Verona (“men who by nature and training were plainly craftier and cleverer than the French and Germans”) used a trick to identify Venetian supporters by shouting pro-Venetian slogans at night and taking note of the houses from which people replied with approval. The soldiers would then return the next day and plunder the houses of such pro-Venetian townsfolk.

There's also the curious tale of the efforts to find a new captain-general of the Venetian army. They offered the post to Francesco Gonzaga; the curious thing is that this man was being held in Venice as a prisoner at the time, the Venetians having captured him after he had previously deserted from a similar post in the Venetian army and gone over to the German side. I would imagine that they would think twice before inviting him to command their army again, but I guess the endless switching of sides in these wars got everyone used to the idea that all loyalties are just temporary anyway. Admittedly, he said the Venetians could take his son as a hostage, but his wife then refused to hand the boy over, so nothing came of the whole plan (10.23–4). Later, on the pope's advice, they released him (10.53) and appointed him as their general anyway (11.2; and he eventually sent over his son as a hostage, 11.12).

Book XI

Warfare continues in this book, and by this time I was only very vaguely aware who was at war with whom at any particular moment :) It's still mostly Venice and the pope vs. France (and Germany, though the latter is starting to show some signs of being interested in concluding peace; 11.67, 11.80); and the pope manages to get England and Spain involved on his side (11.75, and see also 12.19). Even some of the participants themselves are starting to get a bit confused — the Hungarians declare that “they would not abandon their alliance with the Republic” (11.57), so I can only assume they had entirely forgotten that they had declared war upon it not long ago (see 10.62 above). :)

Even our indefatigable author seems to be getting slightly tired of all the warfare, and he decides to omit a few details in 11.44: “I have not felt it necessary to give an account of these battles.” Yay!

Bembo describes a rather hardcore law against electoral corruption, enacted in Venice in 1510: “henceforth any citizen who asked another to favor him or one of his people in casting his vote would be barred from all magistracies [. . .] for the space of ten years” (11.15). I've always been of two minds about this sort of things — on the one hand I suppose that corruption is bad, on the other hand corruption of this sort is probably the only opportunity for people to get anything from politicians at all. And I'm surprised that they made such a fuss about this, since the Venetian political system was thoroughly undemocratic anyway and all power was permanently concentrated in the hands of a small rich elite.

As usual, this book also chronicles various further desperate attempts by Venice to raise more money for their warfare. They impose a new “property tax of half a percent” (11.17). “Its six-month term having expired, the law about magistrates giving back half their pay to the Republic was extended for another six” (11.45); he says this as if he had forgotten that they had already extended it for several six-month terms and that in fact the previous extension required the magistrates to give back all of their pay, not just half of it (see book IX above). Eventually they reach this hilarious conclusion: “The only remedy that remained untried was that citizens indebted to the state should pay up and give the treasury what they owed” (11.60) :))) They also tried to strengthen this measure by kicking politicians from the senate if they failed to pay their debts, and on the other hand offering future tax breaks to those who did pay up (11.73).

I couldn't help feeling that Venice was stretching itself a bit too much at times. In 11.29 Bembo mentions that certain a Venetian naval commander, “getting nowhere with his repeated attacks of Genoa” was ordered to withdraw his fleet — to Corfu!

On the subject of odd news, there's another case of Siamese twins in 11.32 (see 1.37 for the earlier case): “a boy with two heads and four arms and hands, then four legs and feet [. . .] only one chest with one set of kidneys and the rest of the back. The child lived for an hour and a half”.

Bembo also mentions a big earthquake that struck Venice in March 1511. “A great many pregnant women miscarried and died in paroxysms of fear.” (11.42.)

There's an old proverb about not speaking ill of the dead, but clearly Bembo wasn't too keen on the idea. He doesn't hide his delight at the death of cardinal Alidosi: “Not long afterwards, with many a self-recrimination, he breathed his last, a man of shameful and criminal life, in whom there was no integrity and no religion, to whom nothing was ever inviolate, nothing chaste, nothing holy.” (11.53). :)))

On the occasion of promoting a certain deserving citizen to a senator, doge Loredan makes a curious speech in 11.82; I don't know whether to be touched by these quaint old-fashioned virtues, or to roll on the floor laughing: “he will find far more satisfaction in these labors of his than if he enjoyed every advantage and engaged in a life of endless pleasure with absolute freedom from care. For to be truly alive consists in this: to be useful to your country, to defend the Republic, to protect your fellow citizens, to set no value on a life without liberty, even to prefer death to servitude.”

Book XII

This book again consists mostly of warfare, and various small towns change hands once or twice, but I couldn't really be bothered to keep track of the details. There are some efforts to end at least some of the wars: the pope tries to arrange a peace treaty between Venice and Germany (12.17), though Maximilian (the German emperor) doesn't seem too keen to offer good terms to the Venetians (12.51); but they cave in to the pope's pressure and conclude peace with Maximilian after all (12.63–5, 12.98). Pope Julius dies soon afterwards, and the book ends with the election of a new pope, who by the way appoints Bembo as one of his secretaries (12.102–3).

There are of course also the inevitable new efforts to raise money, such as a new law to seize property of people who didn't pay taxes, and sell it at auctions (12.9); they would also be unable to become magistrates, and might even be sent to prison (12.14). In another example of haphazard and ad-hoc taxation, “lodgers should give the treasury a sum equal to half the income derived from letting out the houses” (12.26). And “[f]rom lack of funds, the Senate also suspended or held back from 13 November [1511] until 1 March all the pensions and payments customarily made by the Republic” (12.32).

There's an interesting passage about the siege of the fortress of Bastia (12.43). The attackers “made a breach in the wall, which was extremely thick. Within the breach they made a sort of little room, which they packed with gunpowder”. The resulting explosion blew up a stretch of the wall “and ten men standing on it, so that they looked like birds in flight” :))

There's another case of hot incest action in 10.84: “A citizen of Chioggia who had violated his three virgin daughters was burned at the stake by the podestà”. It's interesting how he emphasizes that they were virgins; because obviously if they had already been dirty sluts before dad started banging them, the whole thing would be completely unproblematic... </sarcasm>

I was pleased to see, in the index on p. 375, Istria described as an “Adriatic peninsula now in Slovenia”. Now we just need to convince the Croatians to agree with that :)))


I'm not sure what to say at the end of these three volumes. This history was not only boring (although perhaps slightly less than Bruni's history of Florence, which I read a few years ago) but also thoroughly unedifying. Not only is there almost nothing but fighting (and descriptions of various desperate efforts to raise money for it), but the belligerent parties are very fickle and unprincipled. There are no heroic personalities and events here from which you could draw inspiration or moral instruction, like you sometimes find in the work of ancient historians. There aren't even any clear good and bad sides; I'm accustomed to wars in which there are two pretty clearly distinct sides, ideally ones in which it is easy to tell which side are the good guys and which side are the bad guys. But here in Bembo's history there's nothing of that sort; at any given point, there are likely to be at least half a dozen various states involved in the war(s), in various configurations, and these arrangements are extremely unstable; you can easily be at war against someone this year, and welcome him as your ally the next year against someone who had been your ally the year before.

Well, I suppose there are some sort of lessons to be drawn from this sort of stuff after all, about cynicism and realpolitik and the like; and it isn't hard to imagine how Machiavelli got his famous cynical ideas — he lived through the entire period covered by Bembo's book.

Additionally, as far as warfare goes, the stuff described in this book is pretty unspectacular. If you expect big epic fights, large numbers of soldiers moving over large distances, you'll be sorely disappointed. It's just various more or less obscure Italian towns changing hands again and again, and the armies involved are small enough that sending a couple hundred horsemen to reinforce the defense of a city is apparently a sufficiently large number to (1) actually make a difference and (2) be worth mentioning in Bembo's history.

By the way, I'm not blaming Bembo for the story being boring; he simply had the bad luck that his chosen period consisted of almost permanent warfare. He made a decent effort to include various other bits of information to make his history a little more interesting, but obviously his manoeuvering space was limited. The thing that amazes me is how the renaissance Italians managed, amidst all this incessant warfare, to find the time to create all those works of art and literature for which that period is still so famous...

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home