Mrs. (Margaret Oliphant Wilson) Oliphant.

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

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nobilis), the fourth a physician. A mere noble, a mere
merchant significant words! a soldier, and one who
probably led them with his superior science and informa-
tion, the only one who had the least claim to be called a
philosopher, the young professional to whom no doubt
those would-be learned giovinastri looked up as to a
shining light. They were disciples of Averroes or
most likely it was the young physician who was so, and
whose reinterpretation charmed the young men; and by
consequence, in that dawn of the Renaissance, they were
all infidels, believers in Aristotle and nothing else.
Petrarch himself narrates with much naivete' the method
he employed with one of these irreverent and disdainful
youths. The poet, in his argument with the young unbe-
liever, had quoted from the New Testament a saying of
an apostle.

" Your apostle," he replied, " was a mere sower of words, and more
than that, was mad." " Bravo! " said I, " oh, philosopher. These two
things have been laid to the charge of other philosophers in ancient
times ; and of the second, Festus, the Governor of Syria, accused him
whom I quote. But if he was a sower of words the words were very
useful, and the seed sown by him, and cultivated by his successors and
watered by the holy blood of martyrs, has grown into the great mass of
believers whom we now see." At these words he smiled, and " Be you r


if you like it, a good Christian," he said ; " I don't believe a word of all
that ; and your Paul and Augustine and all the rest whom you vaunt so
much, I hold them no better than a pack of gossips. Oh, if you would
but read Averroes! then you would see how much superior he is to
your fable-mongers." I confess that, burning with indignation, it was
with difficulty that I kept my hands off that blasphemer. " This con-
test with heretics like you," I said, "is an old affair for me. Go to the
devil, you and your heresy, and come no more here." And taking him
by the mantle with less courtesy than is usual to me, but not less than
his manners deserved, I put him to the door.

This summary method of dealing with the young
skeptic is not without its uses, and many a serious man,
wearied with the folly of youthful preachers of the
philosophy fashionable in our day, which is not of
Aristotle or Averroes, might be pardoned for a longing
to follow Petrarch's example. Perhaps it was the young
man described as simplex nobilis, who, indignant, being
thus turned out, hurried to his comrades with the tale;
upon which they immediately formed themselves into
a bed of justice, weighed Petrarch in the balance, and
found him wanting. "A good man, but ignorant," was
their sentence after full discussion dabben uomo, ma
ignorante. The mild yet persistent rage with which the
poet heard of this verdict magnanimous, restraining
himself from holding up the giovinastri to the contempt
of the world, yet deeply and bitterly wounded by their
boyish folly is very curious. The effect produced upon
Lord Tennyson and Mr. Browning at the present day
by the decision of a tribunal made up of, let us say, a
young guardsman, a little lord, a millionaire's heir, led
by some young professional writer or scientific authority,
would be very different. The poets and the world would
laugh to all the echoes, and the giovinastri would achieve
a reputation such as they would little desire. But the
use of laughter had not been discovered in Petrarch's
days, and a poet crowned in the Capitol, laureate of the
universe, conscious of being the first man of letters in
the world, naturally did not treat these matters so
lightly. He talks of them in his letters with an offended
dignity which verges upon the comic. "Four youths,
blind in the eyes of the mind, men who consider them-
selves able to judge of ignorance as being themselves
most ignorant si tengono competent! a giudicare delta
ignoranza flerche son essi ignorantissimi attempting to rob


me of my fame, since they well know that they can
never hope for fame in their own persons," he says; and
at last, in the bitterness of his offense, Venice herself,
the hospitable and friendly city, of which he had lately
spoken as the peaceful haven and refuge of the human
spirit, falls under the same reproach. In every part of
the world, he says, such a sentence would be received
with condemnation and scorn; "except perhaps in the
city where it was given forth, a city truly great and
noble, but inhabited by so great and so varied a crowd
that many therein take men without knowledge for
judges and philosophers." And when the heats of
summer came, sending him forth on the round of visits
which seems to have been as necessary to Petrarch as if
he had lived in the nineteenth century, the offended poet
did not return to Venice. When his visits were over he
withdrew to Arqua, on the soft skirts of the Euganean
hills, where all was rural peace and quiet, and no pre-
sumptuous giovinastri could trouble him more.

This incident, however, would seem to point to an
element of tumult and trouble in Venice, to which
republics seem more dangerously exposed than other
states. It was the insults of the giovinastri, insolent and
unmannerly youths, which drove Marino Faliero to his
doom not very many years before. And Petrarch him-
self implores Andrea Dandolo, the predecessor of that
unfortunate doge, to take counsel with the old men of
experience, not with hot-headed boys, in respect to the
Genoese wars. The youths would seem to have been in
the ascendant, idle for it was about this period that
wise men began to lament the abandonment at once
of traditional trade and of the accompanying warlike
spirit among the young patricians, who went to sea no
more, and left fighting to the mercenaries and luxurious;
spending their time in intrigues on the Broglio and else-
where, and taking upon them those arrogant airs which
make aristocracy detestable. A Dandolo and a Contarini
are in the list (supposed to be authentic) of Petrarch's
assailants, and no doubt the supports of fathers in the
Forty or the Ten would embolden these idle youths for
every folly. Their foolish verdict would by this means
cut deeper, and Petrarch, like the old doge, was now
sonless, and had the less patience to support the inso-


lence of other people's boys. He retired accordingly
from the ignoble strife, and on his travels, as he says,
having nothing else to do, on the banks of the Po, began
his treatise on "the ignorance of himself and many
others " de sui ipsius et multorum ignorantia, which was,
let us hope, a final balsam to the sting which the gio-
vinastriy unmannerly and presumptuous lads, had left in
his sensitive mind.

The books which he had offered to the republic as the
foundation of a public library were left behind, first in
the hands of a friend, afterward in the charge of the
state. But Venice at that time had other things to do
than to think of books, and these precious manuscripts
were placed in a small chamber on the terrace of San
Marco, near the four great horses of the portico and
there forgotten. Half a century later the idea of the
public library revived; and this was confirmed by the
legacy made by Cardinal Bessarione of all his manuscripts
in 1468 a hundred years after the gift of Petrarch; but
nearly two centuries more had passed, and the splendid
Biblioteca de San Marco had come into being, a noble
building and a fine collection, before it occurred to some
stray citizens and scholars to inquire where the poet's
gift might be. Finally, in 1634, the little room was
opened, and there were discovered a mass of damp
decay, as they had been thrown in nearly three centuries
before the precious parchments, the books which
Petrarch had collected so carefully, and which he thought
worthy to be the nucleus of a great public library. Some
few were extracted from the mass of corruption, and
at last were placed where the poet had intended them
to be. But this neglect will always remain a shame to
Venice. Perhaps at first the giovinastri had something
to do with it; throwing into contempt as of little impor-
tance the gift of the poet a suggestion which has been
made with more gravity by a recent librarian, who points
out that the most valuable of Petrarch's books remained
in his possession until his death, and were sold and dis-
persed at Padua after that event. So that it is possible,
though the suggestion is somewhat ungenerous, that,
after all, the loss to humanity was not so very great.
At all events, there is this to be said, that Petrarch did
not lose by his bargain, though Venice did. The poet



got the dignified establishment he wanted a vast palace,
as he himself describes it, in which he had room to
receive his friends and from which he could witness all
the varied life of Venice. He had not, we think, any
great reason to complain he had received his equiva-
lent. His hosts were the losers by their own neglect,
but not the poet.

It was but a short episode in his learned and leisurely
and highly successful life; but it is the only poetical
association we have with Venice. He shows us some-
thing of the cultured society of the time, with its advan-
tages and its drawbacks, a society more "precious"
than original, full of commentaries and criticisms, loving
conversation and mutual comparison and classical allu-
sion, not so gay as the painters of an after age, with less
inclination to suonar il liuto, or, indeed, introduce any-
thing which could interfere with that talk which was
the most beloved of all entertainments. Boccaccio, one
cannot but feel, must have brought something livelier and
more gay with him when he was one of those who sat at
the high windows of the Palazzo delle due Torri and
looked out upon all the traffic of the port, and the ships
going out to sea. But the antechambers of the poet
were always crowded as if he had been a prince, the doge
ever ready to do him honor, and all the great persons
deeply respectful of Dom Francesco, though the young
ones might scoff, not without a smile aside from their
fathers, at the bland laureate's conviction of his own

No other poet has ever illustrated Venice. Dante
passed through the great city and did not love her, if
his supposed letter on the subject is real at all events,
brought no image out of her except that of the pitch
boiling in the Arsenal, and the seamen repairing their
storm-beaten ships. Nameless poets, no doubt, there
were, whose songs the mariners bellowed along the
Riva, and the maidens sang at their work. The fol-
lowing anonymous relic is so pure and tender that,
though far below the level of a laureated poet, it may
serve to throw a little fragrance upon the name of
poetry in Venice, so little practiced and so imperfectly
known. It is the lament of a wife for her husband gone
to the wars alia Crociata in Oriente a humble Crusader-


seaman, no doubt; one of those, perhaps, who followed
old Enrico Dandolo, with the cross on his rough cap,
ignorant of all the wiles of statesmanship, while his wife
waited wistfully through many months and years.

" Donna Frisa, in your way,
You give me good advice, to lay
By this grieving out of measure,
Saying to see me is no pleasure,
Since my husband, gone to war,
Carried my heart with him afar ;
But since he's gone beyond the sea
This alone must comfort me.
I have no fear of growing old,
For hope sustains and makes me bold
While I think upon my lord ;
In him is all my comfort stored,
No other bearing takes my eye,
In him does all my pleasure lie ;
Nor can I think him far, while he
Ever in love is near to me.
Lone in my room, my eyes are dim,
Only from fear of harm to him.
Nought else I fear, and hope is strong
He will come back to me anon ;
And all my plaints to gladness rise.
And into songs are turned my sighs,
Thinking of that good man of mine ;
No more I wish to make me fine,
Or look into the glass, or be
Fair, since he is not here to see.
In my chamber alone I sit,
The festa may pass, I care not for it,
Nor to gossip upon the stairs outside,
Nor from the window to look, nor glide
Out on the balcony, save 't may be
To gaze afar, across the sea,
Praying that God would guard my lord
In Paganesse, sending His word
To give the Christians the victory,
And home in health and prosperity
To bring him back, and with him all
In joy and peace perpetual.

" When I make this prayer I know
All my heart goes with it so
That something worthy is in me
My lord's return full soon to see.
All other comforts I resign.
Your way is good, but better mine,
And firm I hold this faith alone ;
The women hear me, but never one


Contradicts my certitude,
For I hold it seemly and good,
And that to be true and faithful
To a good woman is natural ;
Considering her husband still,
All his wishes to fulfill,
And with him to be always glad,
And in his presence never sad.

" Thus should there be between the two
No thought but how pleasure to do,
She to him and he to her,
This their rivalry ; nor e'er
Listen to any ill apart,
But of one mind be, and one heart.
He ever willing what she wills,
She what his pleasure most fulfills.
With never quarrel or despite,
But peace between them morning and night.
This makes a goodly jealousy
To excel in love and constancy.
And thus is the pilgrim served aright,
From eve to morn, from day to night."



THE first development of native literature in Venice,
and indeed the only one which attained any greatness,
was history. Before ever poet had sung or preacher dis-
coursed, in the early days when the republic was strug-
gling into existence, there had already risen in the
newly founded community and among the houses scarcely
yet to be counted noble, but which had begun to sway the
minds of the fishers and traders and salt manufacturers
of the marshes, annalists whose desire it was to chronicle
the doings of that infant state, struggling into existence
amid the fogs, of which they were already so proud. Of
these nameless historians the greater number have
dropped into complete oblivion; but they have furnished
materials to many successors, and in some cases their
works still exist in codexes known to the learned, afford-
ing still their quota of information, sometimes mingled
with fable, yet retaining here and there a vigorous force
of life which late writers, more correct, find it hard to put
into the most polished records. To all of these Venice
was already the object of all desire, the center of all am-
bition. Her beauty the splendor of her rising palaces,
the glory of her churches is their subject from the begin-
ning; though still the foundations were not laid of that
splendor and glory which has proved the enchantment of
later ages. This city was the joy of the whole earth, a
wonder and witchery to Sagornino in the eleventh century
as much as to Molmenti in the nineteenth; and before
the dawn of serious history, as well as with all the aid of
state documents and critical principles in her maturity,
the story of Venice has been the great attraction to her
children, the one theme of which no Venetian can ever
tire. It would be out of our scope to give any list of
these early writers. Their name is legion and- any
reader who can venture to launch himself upon the
learned, but chaotic, work of the most serene Doge Marco



Foscarini upon Venetian literature, will find himself
hustled on every page by a pale crowd of half-perceptible
figures in every department of historical research. The
laws, the church, the trade of Venice, her money, her
ceremonials and usages, the speeches of her orators, her
treaties with foreign powers, her industries; in all of
these by-ways of the history are crowds of busy workers,
each contributing his part to that one central object of
all the glory and the history of the city, which was to
every man the chief object in the world.

It was, however, only in the time of Andrea Dandolo,
the first man of letters who occupied the doge's chair, the
friend of Petrarch and of all the learned of his time, that
the artless chronicles of the early ages were consolidated
into history. Of Andrea himself we have but little to
tell. His own appearance is dim in the far distance, only
coming fairly within our vision in those letters of Petrarch
already quoted, in which the learned and cultivated
scholar prince proves himself, in spite of every exhorta-
tion and appeal, a Venetian before all, putting aside the
humanities in which he was so successful a student, and
the larger sympathies which letters and philosophy ought
to bring with a sudden frown over the countenance
which regarded with friendly appreciation all the other
communications of the poet until he permitted himself to
speak of peace with Genoa, and to plead that an end
might be put to those bloody and fratricidal wars which
devastated Italy. Dandolo, with all his enlightenment,
was not sufficiently enlightened to see this, or to be able
to free himself from the prejudices and native hostilities
of his State. He thought the war with Genoa just and
necessary, while Petrarch wrung his hands over the woes
of a country torn in pieces; and instead of responding to
the ideal picture of a common prosperity such as the two
great maritime rivals might enjoy together, flamed forth
in wrath at the thought even of a triumph which should
be shared with that most intimate enemy. The greater
part of his reign was spent in the exertions necessary to
keep up one of these disastrous wars, and he died in the
midst of defeat, with nothing but ill news of his armatas,
and Genoese galleys in the Adriatic, pushing forward,
perhaps, who could tell, to Venice herself. "The
republic, within and without, was threatened with great


dangers," says Sabellico, at the moment of his death, and
he was succeeded by the ill-fated Faliero, to show how
distracted was the state at this dark period. Troubles of
all kinds had distinguished the reign of the learned
Andrea. Earthquakes, for which the philosophers
sought strange explanations, such as that they were
caused by "a spirit, bound and imprisoned under-
ground," which, with loud noises, and often with fire and
flame, escaped by the openings and caverns; and pesti-
lence, which Sabellico believes to have been caused by
certain fish driven up along the coast. Notwithstanding
all these troubles, Dandolo found time and leisure to add
a sixth volume to the collections of laws already made,
and to compile his history a dignified and scrupulous, if
somewhat brief and formal, narrative of the lives and acts
of his predecessors in the ducal chair. The former
writers had left each his fragment; Sagornino, for in-
stance, dwelling chiefly upon Venice under the reign of
the Orseoli, to the extent of his personal experiences.
Dandolo was the first to weave these broken strands into
one continuous thread. He had not only the early
chronicles within his reach, but the papers of the state
and those of his own family, which had already furnished
three doges to the republic, and thus was in every way
qualified for his work. It is remarkable to note through
all the conflicts of the time, through the treacherous still-
ness before the earthquake and the horrified clamor after;
through the fierce exultation of victory and the dismal
gloom of defeat, and amid all those troubled ways where
pestilence and misery had set up their abode, this philoso-
pher, doctor of laws, the first who ever sat upon that
throne, the scholar and patron of letters, distracted with
all the cares of his uneasy sway, yet going on day by day
with his literary labors, laying the foundation firm for
his countrymen, upon which so many have built. How
Petrarch's importunities about these dogs of Genoese,
perpetual enemies of the republic, as if, forsooth, they
were brothers and Christian men! must have fretted him
in the midst of his studies. What d id a poet priest, a clas-
sical half-Frenchman of peace, know about such matters?
The same language! Who dared to compare the harsh
dialect these wretches jabbered among themselves with
the liquid Venetian speech? The same country! As far


different as east from west. They were no brethren,
but born enemies of Venice, never to be reconciled; and
in this faith the enlightened doge, the philosopher and
sage, reigned and died.

After Dandolo there seems to have been silence for
about half a century, though no period was without its
essays in history; a noble patrican here and there, a
monk in his leisure, an old soldier after his wars were
over, making each his personal contribution, to lie for
the greater part unnoted in the archives of his family
or order. But about the end of the fourteenth century
there rose a faint agitation among the more learned
Venetians as to the expediency of compiling a general
history upon the most authentic manuscripts and records,
which should be given forth to the world with authority
as the true and trustworthy history of Venice. There
was, perhaps, no one sufficiently in earnest to press the
matter, nor had they any writer ready to take up the
work. But, no doubt, it was an excellent subject on
which to debate when they met each other in the public
places whither patricians resorted, and where the wits had
their encounters. Oh, for a historian to write that great
book! The noble philosophers themselves were too busy
with their legislations, or their pageants, or their classi-
cal studies, to undertake it themselves, and it was diffi-
cult to find anyone sufficiently well qualified to fill the
office which it was their intention should be that
of a public servant encouraged and paid by the state.
During the next half century there were a great many
negotiations begun, but never brought to any definite
conclusion, with sundry professors of literature, espe-
cially one Biondo, who had already written much on the
subject. But none of them came to any practical issue.
The century had reached its last quarter, when the
matter was summarily, and by a personal impulse, taken
out of the noble dilettanti's hands. Marco Antonio
Sabellico, a native of Vicovaro, among the Sabine hills,
and one of the most learned men and best Latinists of
his day, had been drawn to Venice probably by the same
motives which drew Petrarch thither: the freedom of its
society, the hospitality with which strangers were re-
ceived, and the eager welcome given by a race ambitious
of every distinction, but not great in the sphere of


letters, to all who brought with them something of that
envied fame. How it was that he was seized by the
desire to write a history of Venice, which was not his
own country, we are not told. But it is very likely that
he was one of those men of whom there are examples
in every generation, for whom Venice has an especial
charm, and who, like the occasional love-thrall of a
famous beauty, give up their lives to her praise and
service, hoping for nothing in return. He might, on the
other hand, be nothing more than an enterprising author,
aware that the patrons of literature in Venice were mov-
ing heaven and earth to have a history, and taking
advantage of their desire with a rapidity and unexpected-
ness which would forestall every other attempt. He was
at the time in Verona, in the suite of the captain of that
city, Benedetto Trivigiano, out of reach of public docu-
ments, and naturally of many sources of information
which would have been thrown open to an authorized
historian. He himself speaks of the work of Andrea
Dandolo as of a book which he had heard of but never
seen, though it seems incredible that any man should
take in hand a history of Venice without making himself
acquainted with the only authoritative work existing on
the subject. Neither had he seen the book of Jacopo
Zeno upon the work and exploits of his grandfather
Carlo, which is the chief authority in respect to so im-
portant an episode as the war of Chioggia. And he
wrote so rapidly that the work was completed in fifteen
months, "by reason of his impatience," says Marco
Foscarini. Notwithstanding these many drawbacks,
Sabellico's history remains among the most influential,
as it is the most eloquent, of Venetian histories. It is
seldom that a historian escapes without conviction of
error in one part or another of his work, and Sabellico

Online LibraryMrs. (Margaret Oliphant Wilson) OliphantThe makers of Venice; doges, conquerors, painters, and men of letters → online text (page 31 of 35)