Mrs. (Margaret Oliphant Wilson) Oliphant.

The makers of Venice; doges, conquerors, painters, and men of letters online

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feasted many a man whom they suspected, and for whom,
under their smiles and plaudits, they were already con-
cocting trouble. The curious "usage of war," thus dis-
covered by the Venetian envoys, is frankly accounted for
by a historian, who had himself been in his day a con-
dottiere, as arising from the fear the soldiers had, if the
war finished quickly, that the people might cry, ' ' Soldiers,
to the spade ! "

A curious evidence of how human expedients are lost
and come round into use again by means of that whirligig
of time which makes so many revolutions, is to be found
in Carmagnola's invention for the defense of his camp, of
a double line of the country carts which carried his pro-
visions, standing closely together with three archers,
one authority says, to each. Notwithstanding what
seems the very easy nature of his victories, and the
large use of treachery, it is evident that his military
genius impressed the imagination of his time above that
of any of his competitors. He alone, harsh and haughty
as he was, kept his forces in unity. His greatness
silenced the feudal lords, who could not venture to com-
bat it, and he had the art of command, which is a special

The peace lasted for the long period of three years,
during which time Carmagnola lived in great state and
honor in Venice, in a palace near San Eustachio which


had been bestowed upon him by the state. His wife and
children had in the former interval of peace been restored
to him, and all seemed to go at his will. A modern
biographer (Lomonaco), who does not cite any author-
ities, informs us that Carmagnola was never at home in
his adopted city, that he felt suspicions and unfriendli-
ness in the air, and that the keen consciousness of his
low origin, which seems to have set a sharp note in his
character, was more than ever present with him here.
''He specially abhorred the literary coteries," says this
doubtful authority, " calling them vain as women, punc-
tilious as boys, lying and feigning like slaves" which
things have been heard before, and are scarcely worth
putting into the fierce lips of the Piedmontese soldier,
whose rough accent of the north was probably laughed at
by the elegant Venetians, and to whom their constant
pursuit of novelty, their mental activity, politics, and
commotions of town life, were very likely nauseous and
unprofitable. He, who was conversant with more primi-
tive means of action than speeches in the Senate, or even
the discussions of the Consiglio Maggiore, might well
chafe at so much loss of time; and it was the fate of a
general of mercenaries, who had little personal motive
beyond his pay, and what he could gain by his services,
to be distrusted by his masters.

The occasion of the third war is sufficiently difficult to
discover. A Venetian cardinal Gabrielle Condulmero
had been made Pope, and had published a bull, admon-
ishing both lords and people to keep the peace, as he
intended himself to inquire into every rising and regu-
late the affairs of Italy. This declaration alarmed Philip
of Milan, to whom it seemed inevitable that a Venetian
Pope should be his enemy; and thus, with no doubt a
thousand secondary considerations on all hands, the
peninsula was once more set on fire. When it became
apparent that the current of events was setting toward
war, Carmagnola, for no given reason, but perhaps because
his old comrades and associates had begun to exercise
a renewed attraction, notwithstanding all the griefs that
had separated him from Philip, wrote to the Senate of
Venice, asking to resign his appointments in their service.
This, however, the alarmed Signoria would by no means
listen to. They forced upon him instead the command


in general of all their forces, with one thousand ducats a
month of pay, to be paid both in war and peace, and many
extraordinary privileges. It seems even to have been
contemplated as a possible thing that Milan itself, if
Philip's powers were entirely crushed, as the Venetians
hoped, might be bestowed upon Carmagnola as a reward
for the destruction of the Visconti. Nevertheless, it is
evident that Carmagnola had by this time begun a corre-
spondence with his former master, and received both
letters and messengers from Philip while conducting the
campaign against him. And that campaign was certainly
not so successful, nor was it carried on with the energy
which had marked his previous enterprises. He was
defeated before Soncino, by devices of a similar character
to those which he had himself employed, and here is said
to have lost a thousand horses. But that shedding of
innocent blood was soon forgotten in the real and terrible
disaster which followed.

The Venetians had fitted out not only a land army, but
what ought to have been more in consonance with their
habits and character, an expedition by sea under the
Admiral Trevisano, whose ships, besides their crews,
are said to have carried ten thousand fighting men, for
the capture of Cremona. The fleet went up the Po to
act in concert with Carmagnola in his operations against
that city. But Philip, on his side, had also a fleet in the
Po, though inferior to the Venetian, under the command
of a Genoese, Grimaldi, arid manned in great part by
Genoese, the hereditary opponents and rivals of Venice.
The two generals on land, Sforza and Piccinino, then
both in the service of Philip, men whose ingenuity and
resource had been whetted by previous defeats, and who
had thus learned Carmagnola's tactics, amused and
occupied him by threatening his camp, which was as yet
imperfectly def ended, piutosto alleggiamento che ripari : but
in the night stole away, and under the walls of Cremona
were received in darkness and silence into Grimaldi's
ships, and flung themselves upon the Venetian fleet.
These vessels, being sea-going ships, were heavy and
difficult to manage in the river those of their adversaries
being apparently of lighter build; and Grimaldi's boats
seem to have had the advantage of the current, which
carried them "very swiftly" against the Venetians, who,


in the doubtful dawn, were astonished by the sight of the
glittering armor and banners bearing down upon them
with all the impetus of the great stream. The Venetian
admiral sent off a message to warn Carmagnola; but
before he could reach the river-bank, the two fleets, in
a disastrous jumble, had drifted out of reach. Carma-
gnola, roused at last, arrived too late, and standing on the
shore, hot with ineffectual haste, spent his wrath in
shouts of encouragement to his comrades, and in cries of
rage and dismay as he saw the tide of fortune drifting on,
carrying the ships of Philip in wild concussion against
the hapless Venetians. When things became desperate,
Trevisano, the admiral, got to shore in a little boat, and
fled, carrying with him the treasure of sixty thousand
gold pieces, which was one of the great objects of the
attack. But this was almost all that was saved from the
rout. Bigli says that seventy ships were taken, of which
twenty-eight were ships of war; but in this he is prob-
ably mistaken, as he had himself described the fleet as
one of thirty ships. "The slaughter," he adds, "was
greater than any that was ever known in Italy, more than
two thousand five hundred men being said to have perished,
in witness of which the Po ran red, a grea^t stream of
blood, for many miles." A few ships escaped by flight,
and many fugitives, no doubt, in boats and by the banks,
where they were assailed by the peasants, who, taking
advantage of their opportunity, and with many a wrong
to revenge, killed a large number. Such a disastrous
defeat had not happened to Venice for many a day.

The Venetian historian relates that Carmagnola
received the warning and appeal of the admiral with con-
tempt "as he was of a wrathful nature, di natura ira-
fonda and with a loud voice reproved the error of the
Venetians, who, despising his counsel, refused the sup-
port to the army on land which they had given to their
naval expedition; nor did he believe what the messengers
told him, but said scornfully that the admiral, fearing the
form of an armed man, had dreamed that all the enemies
in their boats were born giants." This angry speech, no
doubt, added to the keen dissatisfaction of the Venetians
in knowing that their general remained inactive on the
bank while their ships were thus cut to pieces. The
truth probably lies between the two narratives, as so


often happens; for Carmagnola might easily express his
hot impatience with the authorities who had refused to
be guided by his experience, and with the admiral who
took the first unexpected man in armor for a giant, when
the messengers roused him with their note of alarm in the
middle of the night, and yet have had no traitorous pur-
pose in his delay. He himself took the defeat profoundly
to heart, and wrote letters of such distress excusing him-
self, that the senators were compelled in the midst of
their own trouble to send ambassadors to soothe him
" to mitigate his frenzy, that they might not fall into
greater evil, and to keep him at his post" with assur-
ances that they held him free of blame. It is evident,
we think, that the whole affair had been in direct opposi-
tion to his advice, and that, instead of being in the wrong,
he felt himself able to take a very high position with the
ill-advised Signoria, and to resent the catastrophe which,
with greater energy on his part, might perhaps have been
prevented altogether. The Venetians avenged the dis-
aster by sending a fleet at once to Genoa, where, coursing
along the lovely line of the eastern Riviera, they caught
in a somewhat similar way the Genoese fleet, and annihi-
lated it. But this is by the way.

Carmagnola, meanwhile, lay, like Achilles, sullen in his
tent. Philip himself came in his joy and triumph to the
neighborhood, but could not tempt the disgusted general
to more than a languid passage of arms. An attempt to
take Cremona by surprise, made by one of his officers, a
certain Cavalcab6, or as some say by Colleoni, seemed as
if it might have been crowned with success had the general
bestirred himself with sufficient energy " if Carmagnola
had sent more troops in aid." As it was, the expedition,
being unsupported, had to retire. If he were indeed
contemplating treachery, it is evident that he had a great
struggle with himself, and was incapable of changing his
allegiance with the light-hearted ease of many of his con-
temporaries. He lay thus sullen and disheartened in his
leaguer even when spring restored the means of warfare,
and though his old enemy Piccinino was up and stirring,
picking up here and there a castle in the disturbed pre-
cincts of the Cremonese. "The marvel grew," cries
Sabellico, " that Carmagnola let these people approach
him, and never moved."


The Signoria, in the meantime, had been separately
and silently turning over many thoughts in their mind on
the subject of this general who was not as the others, who
would not be commanded nor yet dismissed; too great to
be dispensed with, too troublesome to manage. Ever
since the memorable incidents of the battle of Maclodio,
doubts of his good faith had been in their minds. Why
did he liberate Philip's soldiers, if he really wished to
overthrow Philip? It was Philip himself so the com-
missioners had said in their indignation whom he had
set free; and who could tell that the treachery at Soncino
was not of his contriving, or that he had not stood aloof
of set purpose while the ships were cut in pieces?
Besides, was it not certain that many a Venetian had
been made to stand aside while this northern mountaineer,
this rude Piedmontese, went swaggering through the
streets, holding the noblest at arm's-length? A hundred
hidden vexations came up when someone at last intro-
duced his name, and suddenly the senators with one con-
sent burst into the long-deferred discussion for which
everyone was ready.

There were not a few [says Sabellico], who, from the beginning,
had suspected Carmagnola. These now openly in the Senate declared
that this suspicion not only had not ceased but increased, and was
increasing every day; and that, except his title of commander, they
knew nothing in him that was not hostile to the Venetian name. The
others would not believe this, nor consent to hold him in such suspicion
until some manifest signs of his treachery were placed before them.
The Senate again and again referred to the Avogadori the question
whether such a man ought to be retained in the public service, or
whether, if convicted of treachery, he ought to be put to capital punish-
ment. This deliberation, which lasted a very long time, ought to
demonstrate how secret were the proceedings of the Senate when the
affairs of the country were in question, and how profound the good faith
of the public counselors. For when the Senate was called together for
this object, entering into counsel at the first lighting of torches, the con-
sultation lasted till it was full day. Carmagnola himself was in Venice
for some time while it was proceeding; and going one morning to pay his
respects to the doge, he met him coming out of the council chamber to
the palace, and with much cheerfulness asked whether he ought to bid
him good-morning or good-evening, seeing he had not slept since supper.
To whom that prince replied, smiling, that among the many serious
matters which had been talked of in that long discussion, nothing had
been oftener mentioned than his [Carmagnola's] name. But in order
that no suspicion might be awakened by these words, he immediately
turned the conversation to other subjects. This was nearly eight months
before there was any question of death; and so secret was this council,



holding everything in firm and perpetual silence, that no suggestion of
their suspicions reached Carmagnola. And though many of the order of
the senators were by long intimacy his friends, and many of them poor,
who might have obtained great rewards from Carmagnola had they
betrayed this secret, nevertheless all kept it faithfully.

There is something grim and terrible in the smiling
reply of the doge to the man whose life was being played
for between these secret judges, that his name had been
one of those which came oftenest uppermost in their dis-
cussions. With what eyes must the splendid Venetian
in his robes of state, pale with the night's watching,
have looked at the soldier, erect and cheerful, con f rente
molto allegra, who came across the great court to meet
him in the first light of the morning, which, after the dim-
ness of the council chamber and its dying torches, would
dazzle the watcher's eyes? The other red-robed figures,
dispersing like so many ghosts, pale-eyed before the day,
did they glance at each other with looks of baleful mean-
ing as the unsuspicious general passed with many salu-
tations and friendly words and greeting "Shall it be
good-even or good-morrow, illustrious gentlemen, who
watch for Venice while the rest of the world sleeps? "
Would there be grace enough among the secret coun-
cilors to hurry their steps as they passed him, or was there
a secret enjoyment in Foscari's double entendre in that
fatal smile with which he met the victim? The great
court which has witnessed so much has rarely seen a
stranger scene.

At what time this curious encounter can have happened
it is difficult to tell perhaps on the occasion of some
flying visit to his family, which Carmagnola may have
paid after laying up his army in winter quarters, after the
fashion of the time. The Signoria had sent messengers
to remonstrate with him upon his inaction to no avail;
and that he still lingered in camp, doing little or nothing,
added a sort of exasperation to the impatience of the
city, and gave their rulers a justification for what they
were about to do. The Venetian senators had no thought
of leaving their general free to carry over to Philip the
help of his great name in case of another war. Carma-
gnola's sword thrown suddenly into the balance of power,
which was so critical in Italy, might have swayed it in
almost any conceivable direction and this was a risk


not to be lightly encountered. Had he shaken the dust
from his feet at Mestre, and, instead of embarking upon
the lagoon, turned his horse round upon the beach and
galloped off, as he had done from Philip's castle, to some
other camp the Florentines', perhaps, or his own native
Duke Amadeo of Savoy what revolutions might hap-
pen? He had done it once, but the magnificent Signoria
were determined that he should not do it again. There-
fore the blow, when finally resolved upon, had to be
sharp and sudden, allowing no time for thought. Thanks
to that force of secrecy of which the historian brags,
Carmagnola had no thought of any harm intended to him.
He thought himself the master of the situation he to
whom only a year before the rulers of Venice had sent a
deputation to soothe and caress their general, lest he
should throw up his post. Accordingly, when he re-
ceived the fatal message to return to Venice in order to
give his good masters advice as to the state of affairs, he
seems to have been without suspicion as to what was
intended. He set out at once, accompanied by one of
his lieutenants, Gonzaga, the lord of Mantua, who had
also been summoned to advise the Signoria, and rode
along the green Lombard plains in all the brilliancy of
their spring verdure, received wherever he halted with
honor and welcome. When he reached the Brenta he
took boat; and his voyage down the slow-flowing stream,
which has been always so dear to the Venetians, was like
a royal progress. The banks of the Brenta bore then,
as now, long lines of villas, inhabited by all that was
finest in Venice; and such of the noble inhabitants as
were already in villegiatura, "according to their habit,"
Sabellico says, received him, as he passed, con molta
festa. And so he went to his fate. At Mestre he was
met by an escort of eight gentlemen from Venice
those, no doubt, to whom the historian refers as bound
to him by long intimacy, who yet never breathed to
him a word of warning. With this escort he crossed the
lagoon, the towers and lofty roofs of Venice rising from
out the rounded line of sea; his second home, the coun-
try of which he had boasted, where every man received
his due.

How did they talk with him, those silken citizens who
knew but would not by a look betray whither they were


leading their noble friend? Would they tell him the news
of the city: what was thought of the coming peace; what
intrigues were afloat; where Trevisano, the unlucky
admiral, had gone to hide his head in his banishment? or
would the conversation flow on the last great public show,
or some rare conceit in verse, or the fine fleet that fol-
lowed the Bucentoro when last the Serenest Prince took
the air upon the lagoon? But Carmagnola was not
lettered, nor a courtier, so that such subjects would have
little charm for him. When the boats swept past San
Stai, would not a waving scarf from some balcony show
that his wife and young daughter had come out to see
him pass, though well aware that the business of the
Signoria went before any indulgence at home? Or per-
haps he came not by Canereggio but up the Giudecca,
with the wind and spray from the sea blowing in his face
as he approached the center of Venetian life. He was
led by his courtier-attendants to the Palace direct the
senators having, as would seem, urgent need of his
counsel. As he entered the fatal doors, those com-
placent friends, to save him any trouble, turned back
and dismissed the retainers, without whom a gentle-
man never stirred abroad, informing them that their
master had much to say to the doge, and might be long

Here romance comes in with unnecessary aggravations
of the tragic tale; relating how, not finding the doge, as
he had expected, awaiting him, Carmagnola turned to go
to his own house, but was stopped by his false friends,
and led, on pretense of being shown the nearest exit,
another gloomy way a way that led through bewildering
passages into the prisons. No sentimental Bridge of
Sighs existed in these days. But when the door of the
strong-room which was to be his home for the rest of his
mortal life was opened, and the lively voices of his con-
ductors sank in the shock of surprise and horror, and all
that was about to be rushed on Carmagnola's mind, the
situation is one which requires no aid of dramatic art.
Here, in a moment, betrayed out of the air and light,
and the freedom which he had used so proudly, this man,
who had never feared the face of men, must have realized
his fate. At the head of a great army one day, a friend-
less prisoner the next, well aware that the light of day


would never clear up the proceedings against him, or
common justice, such as awaits a poor picker and stealer,
stand between him and the judges whose sentence was a
foregone conclusion. Let us hope that those intimates
who had accompanied him thus far slunk away in con-
fusion and shame from the look of the captive. So much
evil as Carmagnola had done in his life and there is no
reason to suppose, and not a word to make us believe,
that he was a sanguinary conqueror, or abused the posi-
tion he held must have been well atoned by that first
moment of enlightenment and despair.

During the thirty days that followed little light is
thrown upon Carmagnola's dungeon. He is swallowed
up in the darkness, "examined by torture before the
Secret Council," a phrase that chills one's blood until
they have the evidence they want, and full confirmation
in the groans of the half-conscious sufferer of all imagined
or concocted accusations. Sabellico asserts that the
proof against him was " in letters which he could not
deny were in his own hand, and by domestic testimony,"
whatever that may mean; and does not mention the tor-
ture. It is remarkable that Romanin, while believing all
this, is unable to prove it by any document, and can only
repeat what the older and vaguer chronicler says. " The
points of the accusation were these," Sabellico adds:
"succor refused to Trevisano, and Cremona saved to
Philip by his treacherous abstinence." The fact, how-
ever, is more simply stated by Navagero before the trial,
that "the Signoria were bent on freeing themselves"
from a general who had apparently ceased to be always
victorious after the excellent habit of republics, which
was to cut off the head of every unsuccessful leader
thus effectually preventing further failure, on his part at

Carmagnola was not a man of words. Yet he might
have launched with his dying breath some ringing defiance
to catch the echoes, and leave in Venetian ears a recol-
lection, a watchword of rebellion to come. The remorse-
less council thought of this, with the vigilance and subtle
genius which inspired all the proceedings of their secret
conclave; and when the May morning dawned which was
to be his last, a crowning indignity was added to his
doom. He was led out con itno sbadocchio in bocca, gagged,


"in order that he might not speak," to the Piazzetta,
now so cheerful and so gay, which then had the most
dreadful associations of any in Venice. " Between the
columns," the blue lagoon, with all its wavelets flinging
upward their countless gleams of reflection in the early
sun; the rich-hued sails standing out against the blue;
the great barges coming serenely in, as now, with all
their many-colored stores from the Lido farms and
fields the gondolas crowding to the edge of the fatal
pavement, the populace rushing from behind. No doubt
the windows of the ducal palace, or so much of the gal-
leries as were then in existence, were crowded with
spectators too. Silent, carrying his head high, like him
of whom Dante writes who held great Hell itself in
despite, sdegnoso even of that gag between his lips, the
great soldier, the general whose praises had rung through
Venice, and whose haughty looks had been so familiar in
the streets, was led forth to his death. By that strong
argument of the ax, unanswerable, incontestable, the
Signoria managed to liberarsi of many an inconvenient
servant and officer, either unsuccessful or too fortunate.
Carmagnola had both of these faults. He was too great,

Online LibraryMrs. (Margaret Oliphant Wilson) OliphantThe makers of Venice; doges, conquerors, painters, and men of letters → online text (page 21 of 35)