Mortimer Menpes.

Venice online

. (page 2 of 11)
Online LibraryMortimer MenpesVenice → online text (page 2 of 11)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

hordes, and they took shelter in the islands of the
lagoon. So desolate and wind-swept were these
islands that one can scarcely imagine men disput-
ing possession of them with the flocks of sea-birds.
They were impelled by no whim, however: they
were exiles driven by necessity. Here they looked
for a temporary home, lived much as the sea-birds
lived, and were quite fearless. The soil, composed
chiefly of dust, ashes, and bitumen, with here and
there a layer of salt, was rich and fertile. This
was in the fifth century of our era, of which period
there are but few Venetian records.

Still, one thing is certain : the Veneti were not
a primitive or barbarous people. Fugitives as
they were, they were for the most part of high
birth and associations. They had character and
intelligence. In their mud huts they possessed



a social distinction and a political training such as
would have graced the most sumptuous of palaces.
In quite early days they began to put their heads
together and to form a definite system of polity.
Year by year the little community was added to.
Battle and bloodshed continued on the mainland,
and men and women flocked to the islands. It is
curious to notice how rank and social distinction
assert themselves. Blood will out. Wherever
human beings are gathered together, whether on
the islands of the Adriatic or on those of the South
Seas, and however sorry their plight or great their
general misfortune, different grades will become
visible. Men and women will place themselves
one above the other, the master and the man, the
mistress and the maid such is the law of humanity
all the world over. Calamity did not in the long
run have much effect upon the higher class of
refugees, and the position of the lower classes
was not bettered. Sympathy had levelled social
distinctions for a time ; but that was not for long.
Soon, in the natural course of events, when the
little colony grew into a city, and the origin of
the Veneti had faded almost into a tradition, the
various ranks became distinct. True, they lived
as sea-birds live, one kind of food common to both,


and one kind of house sheltering both ; but the
poor man and the rich did not live in equality.

As the community grew in importance they
began to cultivate their islands and to build unto
themselves ships. By force of necessity, they be-
came expert in all matters of navigation, as agile
on the water as on land, fearless. They acquired
a better means of navigation and a wider know-
ledge of the lagoons than any other State possessed.
Then they began to be attacked. With great
courage and determination, Venice resisted all her
foes Gothic, Lombard, Byzantine, and Frank.
Her position was peculiar, vague. She acknow-
ledged a certain allegiance to the Court of Byzan-
tium ; yet by her acts she recognised the supremacy
of the kingdoms on the mainland. Neither By-
zantium nor Ravenna, and not Padua, could claim
the lagoons. Venice was marvellously diplomatic.
She drew from East and West exactly what she
wanted to make her a nation by herself. While
she pretended allegiance to several empires, she was
in reality struggling for independence. In the
stillness of the lagoon and the freedom of the sea
air, the germs of individuality grew and flourished.
They had a congenial soil and fitting nutriment.
It is wonderfully interesting to watch the progress


of the little State the diplomatic way she went to
work : how when she was weak and unable to stand
alone she feigned allegiance to a stronger Power,
yet never bound herself by written word ; how she
played one Power against the other; and how in
the end, when sufficiently strong, under the shelter
of her various foster-mothers, she struck out for
freedom boldly.

There is a letter from Cassiodorus, Prefect of
Theodoric the Great, which throws light upon the
relations of Venice with the Goths. Theodoric
endeavoured to veil his power over Venice under
the guise of alliance or of hospitality. At the
time of the famine in 520 he came to their rescue
with provisions. This gave him a certain hold
over the Venetian people. It imposed upon them
a debt which was not to be easily discharged.
A letter written by Cassiodorus in 523 is neither
more nor less than a demand to the Venetians to
bring supplies of oil, wine, and honey, which the
islands possessed, to the Goths. The letter, which
is of florid style, is one long sneer veiled in delicate
flattery. Cassiodorus explains that the Venetians
own certain ships, that they are well built, that the
sea is an easy path to them ; and he begs that the
vessels will transport the tributes of I stria to the


shores of his country. By this letter one realises
that the Venetians had already a reputation as
pilots and mariners, and knew well how to thread
in and out the channels of the lagoons. Theodoric
was a generous and powerful neighbour, and the
only homage the Venetians could give the Goths
in return was their water service ; but they felt
their weakness and dependence deeply, and were
continually waiting for an opportunity to better
their position. Consequently, when the war broke
out, after Theodoric's death, between his successors
and the Greek Emperor, the Venetians struggled
to make themselves of value, and took an active
share in the operations. They sided with the
Lombards, and conveyed a large reinforcement of
Lombard mercenaries to their destination. That
was the beginning of their intimate connection
with Constantinople. Two churches were erected
in commemoration of the services of the islanders.
These were built of costly materials, probably
obtained from buildings on the mainland which
were partially destroyed by the invaders. The
Venetians were enabled to transport these treasures
in their ships.

Much to the anger of the Paduans, Venice was
growing very rapidly, and was gradually, by sheer



competence, absorbing all the coast and river trade.
Longinus paid a visit to Venice, begging that she
would procure means of transport for his people.
This was granted ; but he endeavoured to force the
Venetians to accept the suzerainty of his master,
which was immediately refused in a grand and
sovereign manner. The Venetians declared that,
amid much toil and labour, and in the face of many
hardships from Hun, Vandal, Goth, and Lombard,
God had helped and protected them in order that
they might continue to live in the watery marshes.
They proudly stated that this group of islands was
an ideal habitation, and that no power of emperor
or prince should take it from them. It was im-
possible to attack them, they maintained, unless by
the sea ; and of that they were assured masters.
This reception must have impressed Longinus. In
place of a weak little State requiring the protection
of his country, he found the Venetians a fierce and
self-reliant people. He could obtain only a very
vague promise from the diplomatic Venetians.
They would acknowledge the Emperor as over-
lord, they said, but only on their word of honour :
they would take no oath of fealty. Still, the rule
of the Lombard over Venice was of longer duration
than that of any other State.


A great trouble beset Venice at about this period.
When the first settlers began work on the islands,
each little group had a separate life, its people re-
taining as far as possible the customs, the religion,
and the constitution of their ruined homes on the
mainland. The largest townships which sprang up
on the Lido were Heraclea, Jesolo, and Malamocco.
These gradually grew together into a federation
of twelve communes, each governed by its own
tribune ; and the tribunes had regularly a general
assembly for the settlement of such business as
affected the common interests of the lagoon.
Jealousy and civil feuds, however, sprang up
among the islanders, as one after another en-
deavoured to acquire supremacy. Heraclea tried
to take the lead, and to destroy Jesolo ; but she
in her turn was attacked, and razed to the ground,
by Malamocco. The civil trouble well-nigh caused
the destruction of Venice. The tribunes intrigued ;
family rose against family, clan against clan ; and
there was terrible bloodshed. For nearly two years
and a half the Republic was in anarchy. The
constitutional evil sapped the general prosperity,
obstructed trade and industries, and brought pro-
perty to havoc. Had it continued much longer,
the people would have frittered their strength away



in private quarrels, and the State of Venice might
never have emerged ; but pressure from the main-
land was brought to bear on Venice, and it became
necessary for the various committees to consolidate
as one body and sweep away the perils that were
confronting them. The Lombards were becoming
bolder and bolder. The Monarchy grew and grew,
and at last the Republic of Venice feared that it
might desire to add the islands of the Adriatic to
its dominions.

This awoke Venice from lethargy. It was the
peril of the sea that formed and completed her.
The pressure was very severe. East and West were
beginning to ask her very plainly to choose on
which side and under whose protection she intended
to place herself, and they did not intend to wait
long for an answer. Venice, subtle and diplomatic,
put off the evil hour as long as she possibly could ;
but her policy became obvious soon. She could
no longer feign fealty first to one Empire and then
to another, and meanwhile struggle for inde-
pendence. The time had come for action. The
critical moment was at hand. Either she must put
herself under protection of the East or of the
West, or declare her independence. Any course
was dangerous, perhaps fatal. Out of the three


possible issues, Venice chose the most perilous,
severing herself from both East and West. The
result was fortunate. Thrown upon her own
resources, she saved herself by energy.

King Pippin invited Venice to join in a war.
Venice refused, and prepared to defend herself,
trusting in the courage of her men and the intricacy
of the lagoon. From north and south King Pippin
could concentrate his forces upon Venice, and
victory seemed easy ; but he had forgotten the
natural defences of the sea-bound city. He did
not know the shoals and deeps of the sea home.
A life's study would scarcely have taught him. A
certain noble assumed the lead of the Venetian
people. He commanded them to remove their
wives, children, and goods to a little island in mid
lagoon Rialto, impregnable from land or sea.
This done, the fighting men took up positions on
the outlying islands, and awaited the attack of
the Franks. Pippin seized on Brondolo, Chioggia,
and Palestrina, and tried to press his squadron on
to the capital; but the shoals stopped him. His
ships ran aground ; his pilots missed the channels ;
and the Venetians pelted them with darts and
stones. For six months Pippin struggled; but
the Venetians kept him at bay by their network



of canals and their oozy mud-banks. They shook
off every assault. In the summer there came a
rumour that an Eastern fleet was approaching.
Pippin tried one more appeal to the Venetians,
begging them to own themselves his subjects.
"For are you not within the borders of my
kingdom ? " he said. " We are resolved to be the
subjects of the Roman Emperor," they answered,
" and not of you." The King was forced to retire.
This great victory seemed to have the effect
of consolidating the Venetians effectively. They
agreed thenceforward to work together for the
common cause. War had completed the union
of Venice. She had emerged from her trial an
independent State. There was no more internal
discord. Venetian men and Venetian lagoons had
made and saved the State. The spirit of the
waters, free, vigorous, and pungent, had passed
during the strife into the being of the people.

This triumph was really the birth hour of Venice,
and the people look back upon it with joy. The
victory over King Pippin is cherished to this day
as one of the finest events in history. The
Venetians realised the peril of the sea from this
attack. Also they realised the peril of the main-
land from the Hunnish invasion. They then


effected a compromise, and chose as the future
home of their State a group of islands mid-way
between the sea and the land, then known as
Rialto, but thenceforth to bear the proud name of
Venice. Venice in this union of her people declared
her nature, so infinitely various, rich, pliant, and
free, that to this day she awakens and in some
measure satisfies a passion such as we feel for some
person deeply beloved. Her people then struggled
to attain from infancy to manhood. For the first
time they had learned their own power, and union
gave them strength. They began to create their
Constitution, that singular monument of rigidity
and durability which endured, with hardly a break
in its structure, for ten centuries. They built with
vigour and enthusiasm that incomparably lovely
city of the sea. The aristocracy of Venice emerged.
Her empire extended, following the lines of her
commerce, in the East. St. Mark was substituted
for St. Theodore as patron saint. The crusades
were used as a means to conquer Dalmatia, and to
plant the lion in the Greek Archipelago. Venice
clashed with Genoa, and emerged victorious.
Wealth flowed into her State coffers and her
private banks. The island of Rialto proved the
advantage of its situation, and established a claim



for gratitude as the asylum of Venice in her hour
of need. The Venetians had seen that the main-
land was unsafe, and the attack of Pippin showed
that there was danger on the sea. Thus, experience
leading to the choice of the middle point, in 810
the seat of the Government was removed to Rialto
under Angelo Badoer as Doge. Rialto became
a sacrament of reconciliation between Heraclea and
Malamocco. It was the glory of Venice that of
all parts of Italy she alone remained unscathed by
the foreign ravages of the fifth century and the con-
quest of the eighth. Venice alone was left out of all
Italy's ruin. She alone escaped pure and undefiled.
This marvellous period of her history - - the
repulses of the Franks and the creation of her
State requires no embellishments ; yet the
Venetians loved to gather a mythology of persons
and events. Cannon-balls of bread, they say,
were fired into the Frankish camp in mockery of
Pippin's hope of strong Rialto surrendering. Then,
again, there are the stories of the old woman who
lured the invader to his final effort when half his
forces were lost ; of the canal Orfano, which ran
with foreign blood, and won its name from the
countless Frankish hordes that day made desolate ;
of the sword of Charles, which was flung into the


sea when the Emperor acknowledged his repulse
and cried, " As this my brand sinks out of sight,
nor ever shall rise again, so let all thoughts of
conquering Venice fade from out men's hearts, or
they will feel, as I have felt, the heavy displeasure
of God." All these stories were absolutely un-
true ; but they were born of a pardonable pride.

The Venetians held their country in a singu-
larly powerful devotion. Possibly this was because
they were so closely shut in on these few little
islands, precious morsels of land snatched from
the devouring sea. Certain it is that they toiled
for the State as no other nation has toiled before
or since. They were determined that Venice
should be great, that she should be beautiful;
and century after century of Venetians devoted
their lives to this work, sinking their own interests
in hers. The Republic was before everything.
Wherever one goes in Florence, one finds traces
of great and famous men of all periods and of all
crafts painters, poets, writers, statesmen, in
every square, in every street, you are reminded of
them ; their spirits and their works live with you
wherever you may go. But in Venice, where
are they? There is the city yes: there is that;
and there are the archives, the annals of the city,



histories without number, marvellous histories ;
but the familiar figures, the great men that we
honour and look for, they are not here. Venice
herself was the centre of all their aspirations, all
their affections. She was erected as would be a
treasure-heap : all the choicest and all the best
were there. One knows but little, for example,
of the great painters the men, with beautiful
thoughts, who filled the churches and the palaces
with untold splendour, glowing sunshine. Their
works are left, and their names ; but no more. It
seems as if they must have kept one another down,
that Venice alone might shine.

If one wishes to study the history of Venice,
there is no difficulty. Historic documents without
number are accessible. Every period, every vogue,
every year, is carefully studied and commented
upon by keen observers, men of the greatest
talents. These records glow with life and energy.
In quite early days, when the Republic was in
its infancy, when there was no aristocracy, no
great and powerful State, even the fishermen
and the merchants and the salt manufacturers
had a longing to chronicle the doings of the
community. The palaces which were being built,
and the churches, all these they wished to have


chronicled for ever. Numberless historians there
were, and all nameless men of extraordinary
skill and genius. Embellishments and fables
abound ; but on the whole these histories, written
with great realism, bring back a vivid picture of
the State. No Venetian ever tires, ever did tire,
of the history of his country. It is the one subject
that is of endless interest to him. The trade of
Venice, her ceremonies, her treaties, her money,
the speeches of her orators all are chronicled.

Venice was looked upon by Italy very much as
we look upon America. She had no long and
glorious history at least, no history of anything
beyond handicraft no literature, no ancient manu-
scripts. The Florentines, on the other hand, had
a great enthusiasm for ancient history. They were
proud of their descent, and gloried in looking back
to a long Etruscan civilisation. When one visits
Florence, there is no difficulty in gathering know-
ledge concerning her great men of any period.
Their shadows walk in her streets ; their memories
will never fade. You meet them everywhere the
painters, the monks, the gallants, the statesmen,
the individualities of the men who were the makers
of Florence. The Venetians had no sympathy
with the Florentines. They could not under-



stand the Florentine desire to live with the past
rather than the present. There are very few
names which stand out prominently in the history
of Venice, names concerning which a great deal is
known ; but there are one or two stories that are
picturesque and popular, stories which are ever
fresh to the Venetians. One is of a prince, the
beheaded Doge Marino Faliero, not at all an
important incident in Venetian history, but one
that is very dear to the hearts of the people,
because of its melancholy. The prince was a man
of hasty temper and haughty nature, and could
brook no slight to his dignity. Once a bishop
kept him waiting, and that worthy, for his mis-
demeanour, received, to the astonishment of every-
one, a sound box on the ear. Before he came to
the throne, Faliero was of great service to the
State. He was offered the throne of Venice at
the age of seventy-six, and married a young and
beautiful woman. The story runs that a young
gallant called Michele Steno, having been turned
out of her presence, insulted the lady and her
husband by pinning an impudent message to the
chair of the Doge. The young man was brought
before the "Forty," excused on the plea of his
age and impetuosity, condemned to prison for


two months, and banished from Venice for a year
afterwards. This slight punishment for so grave
an offence stung Faliero to the quick. He felt
that, though he occupied the Venetian throne, he
had scarcely more power than the beggar at his
gate. All his life he had been an active, energetic
man, a ruler of men ; his word had been law, and
his counsels listened to with respect and acted
upon. Now he was powerless. He was insulted
by the young nobles, and had no power to punish
them ; his authority was entirely disregarded.
This state of things grew worse and worse. Two
of his old friends also were insulted by noblemen.
At last Faliero's temper could endure no longer.
In the April of 1355 he formed a conspiracy, and
tried to assert his supremacy. Six months after
his triumphant arrival in Venice as Doge, an old
man and friendless, enraged at the insults offered
to him, he struck one mad and foolish blow for
freedom. The plot was betrayed on the eve of
the catastrophe. The conspirators were strung up
in one long ghastly line on the piazza. Faliero
himself was beheaded at the foot of the stairs
where a few short months before he had sworn the
promssione on assuming the office of Doge.




ON one occasion we arrived at Venice early in
the morning. I was frightened at the dark-
ness and the stillness, and the tall black houses
looming high above us : it seemed that brigands
must be lurking there, ready to murder us. Ab-
solute silence reigned, except for mysterious sounds
as if melodious voices were calling a refractory
dog "Puppy," "Puppy," "Puppy," we heard on
every side. It was the warning of the gondoliers
as they passed one another in the darkness. I
longed for some accustomed natural noise. If
only something would fall and make a splash !
The silence set one's nerves on edge. We hired
a gondola, and glided swiftly and silently out into
the darkness, our gondolier's ringing voice joining
the chorus of " Puppy." And so dexterously did
he handle his dainty craft that, even as we turned

corners and passed other gondolas in the pitch-

41 SA


black darkness, not a sound was made, not a splash.
1 felt like beating the water with the palms of my
hands to make a disturbance. This silent gliding
went on for about twenty minutes, until suddenly
we drew up by an enormous silver-grey palace
down a side canal, one of the largest palaces in
Venice, with broad marble steps and badly-made
deal doors. After some time the doors were
opened, and an old lady appeared, bowing and
talking in rapid Italian. She led us up the steps
and through a colossal hall of marble, all marble,
with staircases on either side leading on to spacious
landings, into a suite of rooms that seemed more
like the state apartments of a king than those of an
ordinary hotel.

One of the first things I did when I awoke in the
morning was to get out on to the roof of the
palace and look about me. I always ask to be
directed on to the roof when I arrive at a new
place. And there I remained the whole morning,
painting, deaf to the pleadings of my friends that I
should come down and eat. It was the chimneys
that fascinated me 1 From the decorative stand-
point they were quite startling. Chimneys, chim-
neys, everywhere, and such chimneys grouped
into pictures in every direction 1 There were


clusters of twos, and clusters of threes ; and
wherever there were spaces that could be used for
decoration they were used to the full. Each one
of these chimneys seemed to have its own particular
character. Some bulged out at the top in graceful
lines ; some were square and stolid ; others were
light and airy. At the base of some bloomed a
blaze of flowers from the roof gardens. Each one
was different. When I learned that a book had
been published on the chimneys of Venice I was
not in the least surprised.

When my friends were able to tear me away
from chimneys we got into our gondola and
allowed the gondolier to take us where he pleased,
to drift about in the by-canals. I wanted my
impressions of Venice to be quite haphazard.
We glided in the gondola past marble palaces
green palaces, pink palaces, blue palaces, all toned
and variegated with age. Venice struck me as
being a highly-coloured city, the most brilliantly
coloured I had ever seen. It was not, as most
cities are, merely a background for brightly-dressed

2 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Online LibraryMortimer MenpesVenice → online text (page 2 of 11)