Mrs. (Margaret Oliphant Wilson) Oliphant.

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

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matter was settled. " The army returned victorious to
the ships. The prince had purged the sea of robbers,
and all the maritime parts of Istria, of Liburnia and of
Dalmatia, were brought under the power of Venice."
With what swelling sails, con vento prospero, the fleet must
have swept back to the anxious city which, with no post
nor dispatch boat to carry her tidings, gazed silent, wait-
ing in that inconceivable patience of old times, with
anxious eyes watching the horizon! How the crowds
must have gathered on the old primitive quays when the
first faint rumor flew from Malamocco and the other sen-
tinel isles of sails at hand! How many boats must have
darted forth, their rowers half distracted with haste and
suspense, to meet the returning armata and know the
worst! Who can doubt that then, as always, there were
some to whom the good news brought anguish and sor-
row; but of that the chroniclers tell us nothing. And
among all our supposed quickening of life in modern
times, can we imagine a moment of living more intense,
or sensations more acute, than those with which the
whole city must have watched, one by one, the galleys
bearing along with them their tokens of victory, thread-
ing their way, slow even with the most prosperous
wind, through the windings of the narrow channels,
until the first man could leap on shore and the wonderful
news be told?

"There was then no custom of triumphs," says the
record, "but the doge entered the city triumphant, sur-
rounded by the grateful people; and there made public
declaration of all the things he had done how all Istria
and the seacoast to the furthest confines of Dalmatia
with all the neighboring islands, by the clemency of God
and the success of the expedition, were made subject to
the Venetian dominion. With magnificent words he was
applauded by the Great Council, which ordained that not
only of Venice but of Dalmatia he and his successors
should be proclaimed doge."

Thus the first great conquest of the Venetians was ac-
complished, and the infant city made mistress of the seas.

It was on the return of Pietro Orseolo from this tri-
umphant expedition, and in celebration of his conquests,


that the great national festivity, called in after days the
Espousal of the Sea, the Feast of La Sensa, Ascension
Day, was first instituted. The original ceremony was
simpler, but littlerless imposing than its later development.
The clergy in a barge all covered with cloth of gold, and
in all possible glory of vestments and sacred ornaments,
set out from among the olive woods of San Pietro in
Castello, and met the doge in his still more splendid
barge at the Lido, where, after litanies and psalms, the
bishop rose and prayed aloud in the hearing of all the
people, gathered in boat and barge and every skiff that
would hold water, in a far-extending crowd along the
sandy line of the flat shore. "Grant, O Lord, that this
sea may be to us and to all who sail upon it tranquil
and quiet. To this end we pray. Hear us, good Lord."
Then the boat of the ecclesiastics approached closely the
boat of the doge, and while the singers intoned " Aspergi
me, O Signor" the bishop sprinkled the doge and his
court with holy water, pouring what remained into the
sea. A very touching ceremonial, more primitive and
simple, perhaps more real and likely to go to the hearts
of the seafaring population all gathered round, than the
more elaborate and triumphant histrionic spectacle of the
Sposalizio. It had been on Ascension Day that Orseolo's
expedition had set forth, and no day could be more suit-
able than this victorious day of early summer, when
Nature is at her sweetest, for the great festival of the

These victories and successes must have spread the
name of the Venetians and their doge far and wide; and
it is evident that they had moved the imagination of the
young Emperor Otto II., between whom and Orseolo a
link of union had already been formed through the doge's
third son, who had been sent to the court at Verona to
receive there the sacramento della chrisma, the rite of
confirmation, under the auspices of the emperor, who
changed the boy's name from Pietro to Otto, in sign of
high favor and affection. When the news of the con-
quest of Dalmatia, the extinction of the pirates, and all
the doge's great achievements reached the emperor's ears,
his desire to know so remarkable a man grew so strong
that an anonymous visit was planned between them.
Under the pretext of taking sea-baths at an obscure


island, Otto made a sudden and secret dash across the
sea and reached the convent of San Servolo, on the
island which still bears that name, and which is now one
of the two melancholy asylums for the insane which
stand on either side of the water-way opposite Venice.
The doge hurried across the water as soon as night had
come, to see his imperial visitor, and brought him back
to pay his devotions, " according to Otto's habit," at the
shrine of San Marco. Let us hope the moon was
resplendent, as she knows how to be over those waters,
when the doge brought the emperor over the shining
lagoon in what primitive form of gondola was then in
fashion, with the dark forms of the rowers standing out
against the silvery background of sea and sky, and the
little waves in a thousand ripples of light reflecting the
glory of the heavens. One can imagine the nocturnal
visit, the hasty preparations; and the great darkness of
San Marco, half built, with all its scaffoldings ghostly in
the silence of the night, and one bright illuminated spot,
the hasty blaze of the candles flaring about the shrine.
When the emperor had said his prayers before the sacred
spot which contained the body of the Evangelist, the
patron of Venice, he was taken into the palace, which
filled him with wonder and admiration, so beautiful was
the house which out of the burning and ruins of twenty
years before had now apparently been completed. It is
said by Sagornino (the best authority) that Otto was
secretly lodged in the eastern tower, and from thence
made private expeditions into the city, and saw every-
thing; but later chroniclers, probably deriving these
details from traditional sources, increase the romance of
the visit by describing him as recrossing to San Servolo,
whither the doge would steal off privately every night to
sup domesticamente with his guest. In one of the night
visits to San Marco the doge's little daughter, newly
born, was christened, the emperor himself holding her
at the font. Perhaps this little domestic circumstance,
which disabled her Serenity the Dogaressa, had some-
thing to do with the secrecy of the visit, which does not
seem sufficiently accounted for, unless, as some opine,
the emperor wanted secretly to consult Orseolo on great
plans which he did not live to carry out. Three days
after Otto's departure the doge called the people together


and informed them of the visit he had received, and
further concessions and privileges which he had secured
for Venice. "Which things," says the record, "were
pleasant to them, and they applauded the industry of
Orseolo in concealing the presence of so great a lord."
Here it is a little difficult to follow the narrator. It
would be more natural to suppose that the Venetians,
always fond of a show, might have shown a little disap-
pointment at being deprived of the sight of such a fine
visitor. It is said by some, however, that to celebrate
the great event, and perhaps make up to the people for
not having seen the emperor, a tournament of several
days' duration was held by Orseolo in the waste ground
which is now the Piazza. At all events the incident only
increased his popularity.

Nor was this the only honor which came to his house.
Some time after the city of Bari was saved by Orseolo's
arms and valor from an invasion of the Saracens; and
the grateful emperors of the East, Basil and Constantine,
by way of testifying their thanks, invited the doge's
eldest son Giovanni to Constantinople, where he was
received with a princely welcome, and shortly after mar-
ried to a princess of the imperial house. When the young
couple returned to Venice they were received with extraor-
dinary honors, festivities, and delight; the doge going
to meet them with a splendid train of vessels, and such
rejoicing as had never before been beheld in Venice.
And permission was given to Orseolo to associate his son
with him in his authority a favor only granted to those
whom Venice most delighted to honor, and which was
the highest expression of popular confidence and trust.

''But since there is no human happiness which is not
disturbed by some adversity," says the sympathetic
chronicle, trouble and sorrow now burst upon this happy
and prosperous reign. First came a great pestilence, by
which the young Giovanni, the hope of the house, the
newly appointed coadjutor, was carried off, along with
his wife and infant child, and which carried dismay and
loss throughout the city. Famine followed naturally
upon the epidemic and the accompanying panic, which
paralyzed all exertion and mourning and misery pre-
vailed. His domestic grief and the public misfortune
would seem to have broken the heart of the great doge.


After Giovanni's death he was permitted to take his
younger son Otto as his coadjutor, but even this did not
avail to comfort him. He made a remarkable will, divid-
ing his goods into two parts, one for his children, another
for the poor, "for the use and solace of all in our
republic " a curious phrase, by some supposed to mean
entertainments and public pleasures, by others relief
from taxes and public burdens. When he died his body
was carried to San Zaccaria, per la trista citta e lachrimosa,
with all kinds of magnificence and honor. And Otto his
son reigned in his stead.

Otto, it is evident, must have appeared up to this time
the favorite of fortune, the flower of the Orseoli. He
had been half adopted by the emperor; he had made a
magnificent marriage with a princess of Hungary; he had
been sent on embassies and foreign missions; and finally,
when his elder brother died, he had been associated with
his father as his coadjutor and successor. He was still
young when Pietro's death gave him the full authority
(though his age can scarcely have been, as Sabellico says,
nineteen). His character is said to have been as perfect
as his position. " He was Catholic in faith, calm in
virtue, strong in justice, eminent in religion, decorous
in his way of living, great in riches, and so full of all
kinds of goodness that by his merits he was judged
of all to be the most fit successor of his excellent father
and blessed grandfather," says Doge Dandolo. But per-
haps these abstract virtues were not of the kind to fit a
man for the difficult position of doge, in the midst of a
jealous multitude of his equals, all as eligible for that
throne as he, and keenly on the watch to stop any suc-
cession which looked like the beginning of a dynasty.
Otto had been much about courts; he had learned how
emperors were served; and his habits, perhaps, had been
formed at that ductile time of life when he was caressed
as the godson of the imperial Otto, and as a near con-
nection of the still more splendid emperors of the East.
And it was not only he, whose preferment was a direct
proof of national gratitude to his noble father, against
whom a jealous rival, a (perhaps) anxious nationalist, had
to guard. His brother Orso, who during his father's life-
time had been made Bishop of Torcello, was elevated to
the higher office of patriarch and transferred to Grado


some years after his brother's accession, so that the
highest power and place, both secular and sacred, were
in the hands of one family a fact which would give
occasion for many an insinuation, and leaven the popular
mind with suspicion and alarm.

It was through the priestly brother Orso that the first
attack upon the family of the Orseoli came. Otto had
reigned for some fifteen or sixteen years with advantage
and honor to the republic, showing himself a worthy son
of his father, and keeping the authority of Venice para-
mount along the unruly Dalmatian coast, where rebellions
were things of yearly occurrence, when trouble first
appeared. Of Orso, the patriarch, up to this time, little
has been heard, save that it was he who rebuilt, or
restored, out of the remains of the earlier church, the
cathedral of Torcello, still the admiration of all beholders.
His grandfather had begun, his father had carried on,
the great buildings of Venice, the church and the palace,
which the Emperor Otto had come secretly to see, and
which he had found beautiful beyond all imagination. It
would be difficult now to determine what corner of
antique work may still remain in that glorious group
which is theirs. But Orso's cathedral still stands dis-
tinct, lifting its lofty walls over the low edge of green,
which is all that separates it from the sea. His foot has
trod the broken mosaics of the floor; his voice has
intoned canticle and litany under that lofty roof. The
knowledge that framed the present edifice, the reverence
which preserved for its decoration all those lovely relics
of earlier times, the delicate Greek columns, the enrich-
ments of Eastern art were, if not his, fostered and pro-
tected by him. Behind the high altar, on the bishop's
high cold marble throne overlooking the great temple, he
must have sat among his presbyters, and controlled the
counsels and led the decisions of a community then active
and wealthy, which has now disappeared as completely as
the hierarchy of priests which once filled those rows of
stony benches. The ruins of the old Torcello are now
but mounds under the damp grass; but Bishop Orso's
work stands fast, as his name, in faithful brotherly
allegiance and magnanimous truth to his trust, ought to

The attack came from a certain Poppo, Patriarch of


Aquileia, an ecclesiastic of the most warlike mediaeval
type, of German extraction or race, who, perhaps with
the desire of reasserting the old supremacy of his see
over that of Grado, perhaps stirred up by the factions
in Venice, which were beginning to conspire against the
Orseoli, began to threaten the seat of Bishop Orso. The
records are very vague as to the means employed by this
episcopal warrior. He accused Orso before the Pope as
an intruder not properly elected; but, without waiting
for any decision on that point, assailed him in his see.
Possibly Poppo's attack on Grado coincided with tumults
in the city, "great discord between the people of Venice
and the doge," so that both the brothers were threatened
at once. However that may be, the next event in the
history is the flight of both doge and patriarch to Istria
an extraordinary event, of which no explanation is given
by any of the authorities. They were both in the prime
of life, and had still a great party in their favor, so that
it seems impossible not to conjecture some weakness,
most likely on the part of the Doge Otto, to account for
this abandonment of the position to their enemies. That
there were great anarchy and misery in Venice during
the interval of the prince's absence is evident, but how
long it lasted, or how it came about, we are not informed.
All that the chroniclers say (for by this time the guidance
of Sagornino has failed us, and there is no contemporary
chronicle to refer to) concerns Grado, which, in the
absence of its bishop, was taken by the lawless Poppo.
He swore "by his eight oaths," says Sanudo, that he
meant nothing but good to that hapless city; but as soon
as he got within the gates gave it up to the horrors of a
sack, outraging its population and removing the treasure
from its churches. Venice, alarmed by this unmasking
of the designs of the clerical invader, repented her own
hasty folly, and recalled her doge, who recovered Grado
for her with a promptitude and courage which make his
flight, without apparently striking a blow for himself,
more remarkable still. But this renewed prosperity was
of short duration. The factions that had arisen against
him were but temporarily quieted, and as soon as Grado
and peace were restored, broke out again. The second
time Otto would not seem to have had time to fly. He
was seized by his enemies, his beard shaven off, whether


as a sign of contempt, or by way of consigning him to
the cloister, that asylum for dethroned princes, we are
not told, and his reign thus ignominiously and suddenly
brought to an end.

The last chapter in the history of the Orseoli is, how-
ever, the most touching of all. Whatever faults Otto
may have had (and the chroniclers will allow none), he
at least possessed the tender love of his family. The
Patriarch Orso once more followed him into exile; but
coming back as soon as safety permitted, would seem to
have addressed himself to the task of righting his brother.
Venice had not thriven upon her ingratitude and disorder.
A certain Domenico Centranico, the enemy of the Orseoli,
had been hastily raised to the doge's seat, but could not
restore harmony. Things went badly on all sides for
the agitated and insubordinate city. The new emperor,
Conrad, refused to ratify the usual grant of privileges,
perhaps because he had no faith in the revolutionary
government. Poppo renewed his attacks, the Dalma-
tian cities seized, as they invariably did, the occasion to
rebel. And the new doge was evidently, like so many
other revolutionists, stronger in rebellion than in defense
of his country. What with these griefs and agitations,
which contrasted strongly with the benefits of peace at
home and an assured government, what with the plead-
ings of the patriarch, the Venetians once more recognized
their mistake. The changing of the popular mind in
those days always required a victim, and Doge Centranico
was in his turn seized, shaven, and banished. The crisis
recalls the primitive chapters of Venetian history, when
almost every reign ended in tumult and murder. But
Venice had learned the advantages of law and order, and
the party of the Orseoli recovered power in the revulsion
of popular feeling. The dishonored but rightful doge
was in Constantinople, hiding his misfortunes in some
cloister or other resort of the exile. The provisional
rulers of the republic, whoever they might be probably
the chief supporters of the Orseoli found nothing so
advantageous to still the tempest as to implore the
Patriarch Orso to fill his brother's place, while they sent
a commission to Constantinople to find Otto and bring
him home. The faithful priest who had worked so loyally
for the exile accepted the charge, and leaving his bishopric


and its administration to his deputies, established him-
self in the palace where he had been born, and took the
government of Venice into his hands. It was work to
the routine of which he had been used all his life, and
probably no man living was so well able to perform it;
and it might be supposed that the natural ambition of a
Venetian and a member of a family which had reigned
over Venice for three generations would stir even in a
churchman's veins, when he found the government of
his native state in his hands; for the consecration of the
priesthood, however it may extinguish all other passions,
has never been known altogether to quench that last
infirmity of noble minds.

Peace and order followed the advent of the bishop-
prince to power. And meanwhile the embassy set out,
with a third brother, Vitale, the Bishop of Torcello, at its
head, to prove to the banished Otto that Venice meant
well by him, and that the ambassadors intended no
treachery. Whether they were detained by the hazards
of the sea, or whether their time was employed in search-
ing out the retirement where the deposed doge had
withdrawn to die, the voyage of the embassy occupied
more than a year, coming and going. During these long
months Orso reigned in peace. Though he was only
vice-doge, says Sanuda, for the justice of his government
he was placed by the Venetians in the catalogue of the
doges. Not a word of censure is recorded of his peace-
ful sway. The storm seems changed to a calm under
the rule of this faithful priest. In the splendor of
those halls which his fathers had built he watched
over Venice on one hand, and on the other for
the ships sailing back across the lagoons, bringing the
banished Otto home. How many a morning must he
have looked out, before he said his Mass, upon the rising
dawn, and watched the blueness of the skies and seas
grow clear in the east, where lay his bishopric, his flock,
his cathedral, and all the duties that were his; and with
anxious eyes swept the winding of the level waters, still
and gray, the metallic glimmer of the acqua morta, the
navigable channels that gleamed between. When a sail
came in sight between those lines, stealing up from
Malamocco, what expectations must have moved his
heart! He was, it would appear, a little older than Otto,


his next brother perhaps his early childish caretaker,
before thrones episcopal or secular were dreamed of for
the boys; and a priest, who has neither wife nor children
of his own, has double room in his heart for the passion
of fraternity. It would not seem that Orso took more
power upon him than was needful for the interests of the
people; there is no record of war in his brief sway. He
struck a small coin, una moneta piccola d'argento, called
ursiolo, but did nothing else save keep peace, and preserve
his brother's place for him. But when the ships came
back, their drooping banners and mourning array must
have told the news long before they cast anchor in the
lagoon. Otto was dead in exile. There is nothing said
to intimate that they had brought back even his body to
lay it with his fathers in San Zaccaria. The banished
prince had found an exile's grave.

After this sad end to his hopes the noble Orso showed
how magnanimous and disinterested had been his inspira-
tion. Not for himself, but for Otto he had held that
trust. He laid down at once those honors which were
not his, and returned to his own charge and duties. His
withdrawal closes the story of the family with a dignity
and decorum worthy of a great race. His disappoint-
ment, the failure of all the hopes of the family, all the
anticipations of brotherly affection, have no record, but
who can doubt that they were bitter? Misfortune more
undeserved never fell upon an honorable house, and it is
hard to tell which is most sad the death of the deposed
prince in the solitude of that eastern world where all was
alien to him, or, after a brief resurrection of hope, the
withdrawal of the faithful brother, his heart sick with all
the wistful vicissitudes of a baffled expectation, to resume
his bishopric and his life as best he could. It is a pathetic
ending to a noble and glorious day.

Many years after this Orso still held his patriarchate
in peace and honor, and the name of the younger brother,
Vitale, his successor at Torcello, appears as a member
along with him of an ecclesiastical council for the reform
of discipline and doctrine in the Church; while their
sister Felicia is mentioned as abbess of one of the con-
vents at Torcello. But the day of the Orseoli was over.
A member of the family, Domenico, "a near relation,"
made an audacious attempt in the agitation that followed


the withdrawal of Orso to seize the supreme power, and
was favored by many, the chroniclers say. But his
attempt was unsuccessful, and his usurpation lasted only
a day. The leader of the opposing party, Flabenico, was
elected doge in the reaction, which doubtless this foolish
effort of ambition stimulated greatly. And perhaps it
was this reason also which moved the people, startled
into a new scare by their favorite bugbear of dynastic
succession, to consent to the cruel and most ungrateful
condemnation of the Orseoli family which followed; and
by which the race was sentenced to be denuded of all
rights, and pronounced incapable henceforward of hold-
ing any office under the republic. The prohibition
would seem to have been of little practical importance,
since of the children of Pietro Orseolo the Great there
remained none except priests and nuns, whose indignation,
when the news reached them, must have been as great as
it was impotent. We may imagine with what swelling
hearts they must have met, in the shadow of that great

Online LibraryMrs. (Margaret Oliphant Wilson) OliphantThe makers of Venice; doges, conquerors, painters, and men of letters → online text (page 3 of 35)