Mrs. (Margaret Oliphant Wilson) Oliphant.

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

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amid all the wonderful dramas of light and shade that go
on upon the low horizon sweeping round on every side, a
true globe of level, long reflections, of breadth and space
and solitude, so apt for thought. Had he known, per-
haps, before he thought of dedication to the Church,
young Anna Michieli, between whose eyes and his, from
her windows in the doge's palace to the green line of the


Lido, there was nothing but the dazzle of the sunshine
and the ripple of the sea? Was there a simple romance
of this natural kind, waiting to be turned into joyful ful-
fillment by the Pope's favorable answer? Or had the
novice to give up his dreams of holy seclusion, or those
highest, all-engrossing visions of ambition, which were
to no man more open than to a bold and able priest?
These are questions which might well furnish forth pages
of delicate description and discussion. Naturally the old
chronicler has no thought of any such refinement. The
Pope consented, and the doge gave his daughter to young
Niccolo, " which thing procured the continuance in the
city of the Casa Giustinian, in which afterward flourished
men of the highest intellect and great orators," is all the
record says. The resuscitated race gave many notable
servants to the state, although no doge until well on in
the seventeenth century. When the pair thus united had
done their duty to the state, Niccolo Giustinian rededi-
cated himself in his old convent and resumed his religious
profession ; while Anna, his wife, proceeded to her chosen
nunnery, and there lived a life so holy as to add to the
fame of her family by attaining that partial canonization
which is represented by the title of Beata. This, one
cannot but feel, was an admirable way of making the best
of both worlds.

" In this year," says Sanudo, " there were brought to
Venice from Constantinople, in three great ships, three
mighty columns," one of which in the course of disem-
barkation fell into the sea, and remains there, it is to be
supposed, till this day; the others are the two well-known
pillars of the Piazzetta. We need not repeat the story,
so often told, of how it was that, no one being able to
raise them to their place, a certain Lombard, Niccolo of
the Barterers, succeeded in doing so with wetted ropes,
and asked in return for permission to establish a gambling-
table in the space between them. Sabellico says that
the privilege granted went so far "that every kind of
deception " was permitted to be practiced there; but it
can scarcely be supposed that even a sharp Lombard
money-changer would ask so much. This permission,
given because they could not help it, having foolishly
pledged their word, like Herod, was, by the doge and his
counselors, made as odious as possible by the further


law that all public executions should take place between
the columns. It was a fatal place to land at, and brought
disaster, as was afterward seen; but its evil augury seems
to have disappeared along with the gaming-tables, as half
the gondolas in Venice lie at its margin now. The col-
umns would seem to have been erected in the year 1172,
but whether by Doge Vitale or his successor is uncertain.

Other improvements were done under this doge besides
the elevation of the columns in the Piazzetta. He filled
up the canal which crossed the broad space of the Piazza,
still a green and open ground, partly orchards and
enlivened by this line of water and thus prepared the
way for the work of his successor, who first began to
pave it, and surrounded it with buildings and lines of
porticoes, suggesting, no doubt, its present form. There
must, however, have been a charm in the greenness and
trees and sparkling waters grass growing and foliage
waving at the foot of the great golden-crowned Campanile,
and adding a brightness of nature to the Byzantine
splendor of the church and palace. The Camera degli
Imprestidi, or great Public Loan Office, however, the
first National Bank of Europe, is more important to
history than even the ceaseless improvements of the city,
The first loan is said to have carried interest at the rate
of four per cent. a high rate for a public debt and the
organization necessary to arrange and regulate it seems
to have come into being with wonderful speed and com-
pleteness. The time was beginning when the constitu-
tion, or rather want of constitution, of the ancient
republic, full of the accidents and hasty expedients of an
infant state, would no longer suffice for the gradually
rising and developing city.

None of these things, however, stood the doge in stead
when he came back beaten and humiliated, with the
plague in his ships, to face his judges in solemn conclave
in San Marco a tumultuous assembly of alarmed and
half-maddened men, trembling for their lives and for the
lives of those dear to them, and stung by that sense of fail-
ure which was intolerable to the haughty republic. This
was in the month of May, 1172. From the first the meet-
ing must have borne an air dangerous to the doge, against
whom there began to rise a cry that he was the occasion of
all their evils of the war, of enforced military service and


compulsory contributions, and, last and greatest, of the
pestilence which he had brought back with him. The
men who had virtually elected him, who were his friends,
and had shared the councils of his reign, would, no doubt,
stand by him so far as their fears permitted; but the
harmless assembly called together to give its sanction to
the election of a new and popular doge is very different
from the same crowd in the traditionary power of its
general parliament, assembling angry and alarmed, its
pride wounded and its fears excited, to pronounce whose
fault these misfortunes were, and what should be done to
the offender. The loud outcry of traditore, so ready to
the lips of the populace in such circumstances, resounded
through San Marco, and there were ominous murmurs
that the doge's head was in danger. He tried to clear
himself by a touching oration, con piangente parole, says
one; then hastily going out of the church, and from the
presence of the excited assembly, took his way toward
San Zaccaria, along the Riva, by what would seem to
have been a little-frequented way. As he passed through
one of the little calli, or lanes, called now, tradition says,
Calle delle Rasse, someone who had, or thought he had,
a special grievance, sprang out upon him and stabbed
him. He was able to drag himself to San Zaccaria and
make his confession, but no more: and there died and
was buried. The people, horror-stricken perhaps by the
sudden execution of a doom which had only been threat-
ened, gave him a great funeral, and his sudden end so
emphasized the necessity of a relation more guarded and
less personal between the chief ruler and the city that
the leading minds in Venice proceeded at once to take
order for elections more formal and a constitution more
exact. There had been, according to primitive rule,
two counselors of permanent character, and an indefinite
number of pregadi, or men " prayed " to help the doge
a sort of informal council; but these were called together
at the doge's pleasure, and were responsible only to him.
The steps which were now taken introduced the principle
of elective assemblies, and added many new precautions
for the choice and for the safety of the doge. The fact
which we have already remarked, that all the names*

* Romanin informs us that a few names of the people appear in early
documents, as Stefano Tinctor (dyer), Vitale Staniario (tin-worker), etc.,


given belong to families already conspicuous in Venice,
continued with equal force under the new rule. No
doubt the elections would be made on the primitive
principle; one man suggesting another, all of the same
class as those who, without the forms of election, had
hitherto suggested the successive princes, for the sanction
of the people. But the mass of the Venetians probably
thought with enthusiasm that they had taken a great
step toward the consolidation of their liberties when they
elected these Dandolos, Falieris, Morosinis, and the rest,
to be their representatives, and do authoritatively what
they had done all along in more subtle ways.

Thus ended the Doges Michieli: but not the family,
which is one of the few which have outlived all vicissi-
tudes and still have a habitation and a name in Venice.
And the new regime of elective government began.

but these are so few as to prove rather than confute the almost invariable
aristocratic rule.



THE first beginnings of a more formal mode of govern-
ment thus followed close upon the murder of Vitale
Michieli. The troubles of the state under his rule, as
well as the prompt vengeance taken upon him by the
infuriated multitude, combined to make it apparent that
it was not for the safety or dignity of Venice either to
remain so entirely in the hands of her chief magistrate,
or to bring the whole business of the state to a standstill,
and impair her reputation among foreign countries, by
his murder. The republic had thus arrived at a com-
prehension of the idea which governments of much later
date have also had impressed upon them painfully, that
the person of the head of the state ought to be sacrosanto,
sacred from violence. And, no doubt, the rising compli-
cations of public life, the growth of the rich and power-
ful community in which personal character was so strong,
and so many interests existed, now demanded established
institutions and a rule less primitive than that of a prince
with both the legislative and executive power in his
hands, even when kept in check by a counselor or two,
and the vague mass of the people, by whom his proceed-
ings had to be approved or non-approved after an oration
skillfully prepared to move the popular mind. The
Consiglio Maggiore, the great Venetian Parliament,
afterward so curiously limited, came into being at this
crisis in the national history. The mode of its first
selection reads like the description of a Chinese puzzle;
and perhaps the subtle, yet artless complication of elec-
tions, ending at last in the doge, may be taken as a sort
of appeal to the fates, by a community not very confident
in its own powers, and bent upon outwitting destiny
itself. Two men were first chosen by each sestiere or
district (a division which had been made only a short
time before for the convenience of raising funds for Doge
Vitale's fatal expedition), each of whom nominated forty


of the best citizens, thus forming the Great Council, who,
in their turn, elected eleven representatives who elected
the doge. The latter arrangement was changed on
several occasions before that which commended itself as
the best and which was more artificial and childishly
elaborate still was chosen at last.

The people were little satisfied at first with this con-
stitutional change, and there were tumults and threatened
insurrections in anticipation of the new body of electors,
and of the choice of a prince otherwise than by acclama-
tion of the whole community assembled in San Marco.
" It was in consequence ordained," says Romanin, "that
the new doge should be presented to the multitude with
these words: 'This is your doge, if it pleases you,' and
by this means the tumult was stilled." So easy is it to
deceive the multitude! What difference the new rules
made in reality it would be difficult to say. The council
was made up of the same men who had always ruled
Venice. A larger number, no doubt, had actual power,
but there was no change of hands. The same fact we
have already noted as evident through all the history of
the republic. New names rarely rise out of the crowd.
The families from among whom all functionaries were
chosen at the beginning of all things still held power at
the end.

The power of the doge was greatly limited by these
new laws, but at least his person was safe. He might be
relieved from his office, as happened sometimes, but, save
in one memorable instance, he was no longer liable to
violence. And he was surrounded by greater state and
received all the semi-oriental honors which could adorn a
pageant. Sebastiano Ziani, the first doge chosen under
the new order, was carried in triumph round the Piazza,
throwing money to the crowd from his unsteady seat.
Whether this was his own idea (for he was very rich and
liberal), or whether it was suggested to him as a way
of increasing his popularity, we are not told; but the
jealous aristocrats about him, who had just got hold of
the power of law-making, and evidently thought there
could not be too detailed a code, seized upon the idea,
perceiving at once its picturesque and attractive pos-
sibilities and its dangers, and decided that this largesse
should always be given by a new doge, but settled the


sum, not less than a hundred nor more than a hundred
and fifty ducats, with jealous determination that no
wealthy potentate should steal the hearts of the populace
with gifts. There came to be in later times a special
coinage for the purpose, called Oselle, of which speci-
mens are still to be found, and which antiquarians, or
rather those lovers of the curious who have swamped
the true antiquarian, " pick up " wherever they appear.

Sebastiano Ziani, according to some of our chroniclers,
was not the man upon whom the eleven electors first
fixed their choice, who was, it is said, Aurio, or Orio
Mastropiero, the companion of Ziani in a recent embas-
sage, and his friend; who pointed out that Ziani was
much older and richer than himself, and that it would be
to the greater advantage of Venice that he should be
chosen a magnanimous piece of advice. This story un-
fortunately is not authenticated; neither is the much
more important one of the romantic circumstances touch-
ing the encounter of Pope Alexander III. and the Em-
peror Barbarossa at Venice, which the too conscientious
historian, Romanin (not to speak of his authorities), will
not hear of, notwithstanding the assertions of Sanudo,
Sabellico, and the rest, and the popular faith and the
pictures in the ducal palace, all of which maintain it
strongly. The popular tale is as follows. It is painted
in the hall of the Maggiore Consiglio, where all the
world may see.

The Pope, driven from Rome by the enmity of the
emperor, after many wanderings about the world, took
refuge in Venice, where he concealed himself in the
humble habit of a friar; acting, some say, as cook to the
brethren in the convent of La Carita. The doge, hearing
how great a personage was in the city, hurried to visit
him, and to give him a lodging worthy of his dignity;
then sent ambassadors to intercede with Barbarossa on
his behalf. He of the red beard received benignly the
orators of the great republic; but when he heard their
errand, changed countenance, and bade them tell the doge
that unless he delivered up the fugitive Pope it would be
the worse for him that the eagle should fly into the
church of San Marco, and that its foundation should be
made as a plowed field. Such words as these were not
apt to Venetian ears. The whole city rose as one man,


and an armata was immediately prepared to resist any
that might be sent against Venice. The doge himself,
though an old man over seventy, led the fleet. Mass was
said solemnly in San Marco by the Pontiff himself, who
girded his loyal defender with a golden sword, and blessed
him as he went forth to battle. There were seventy-five
galleys on the opposite side, commanded by young Prince
Otto, the son of Barbarossa, and but thirty on that of
Venice. It was once more the Day of the Ascension
that fortunate day for the republic when the two fleets
met in the Adriatic. The encounter ended in complete
defeat to the imperial ships, of which forty were taken,
along with the commander, Otto, and many of his most
distinguished followers. The Venetians went home with
natural exultation, sending before them the glorious
news, which was so unexpected, and so speedy, that the
whole city rushed to the Riva with half-incredulous won-
der and joy to see the victors disembark with their pris-
oners, among them the son of the great German prince,
who had set out with the intention of planting his eagles
in San Marco. The Pope himself came down to the
Riva to meet the victorious doge, and drawinga ring from
his finger gave it to his deliverer, hailing him as the lord
and master of the sea. It was on Ascension Day that
Pietro Orseolo had set out from Venice on the triumphant
expedition which ended in the extermination of the
pirates, and the extension of the Venetian sway over all
the coast of the Adriatic and then it was, according to
our chroniclers, that the feast of the Sposalizio, the wed-
ding of the sea, had been first established. But by this
time they have forgotten that early hint, and here we
have once more, and with more detailed authorities, the
institution of this great and picturesque ceremony.

Prince Otto was nobly treated by his captors, and after
a while undertook to be their ambassador to his father,
and was sent on parole to Rome to the emperor. The
result was that Frederick yielded to his son's representa-
tions and the Venetian prowess, and consented to go to
Venice, and there be reconciled to the Pope. The meet-
ing took place before the gates of San Marco, where His
Holiness, in all his splendor, seated in a great chair
(grande e honoratissima sedia), awaited the coming of his
rival. Popular tradition never imagined a more striking


scene: the Piazza, outside thronged, every window,
balcony, and housetop, with eager spectators, used to
form part of every public event and spectacle, and know-
ing exactly every coign of vantage, and how to see a
pageant best. The great Frederick, the story goes, ap-
proached the seat where the vicar of Christ awaited him,
and subduing his pride to necessity, knelt and kissed the
Pope's foot. Alexander, on his part, as proud and elated
with his victory, raised his foot and planted it on Barba-
rossa's neck, intoning as he did so, as Sabellico says, that
Psalm of David, ' ' Super aspidem et basiliscum ambulabis."
The emperor, with a suppressed roar of defiance in his
red beard, exclaimed: " Not thee, but Peter! " To which
the Pope, like one enraged, planting his foot more firmly,
replied: "Both I and Peter." One can imagine this
brief colloquy carried on, under their breath, fierce and
terse, when the two enemies, greatest in all the western
hemisphere, met in forced amity; and how the good
doge, amiable peacemaker and master of the ceremonies,
and all the alarmed nobles, and the crowds of spectators,
ripe for any wonder, must have looked on, marveling
what words of blessing they were saying to each other,
while all the lesser greatnesses had to wait.

But the later historians refuse their affirmation to this
exceedingly circumstantial, most picturesque, and, it must
be added, most natural story. Romanin assures us, on
the faith of all the documents, that the meeting was a
stately ceremonial, arranged by Pope and emperor, with-
out either passion or humiliation in it; that the Pope was
not a fugitive in Venice, and that the emperor never
threatened to fly his eagles into San Marco; that Prince
Otto never was made prisoner, and that the Pontiff
received with nothing less satisfactory than a kiss of
peace the formal homage of the emperor. The facts are
hard to deny, and no doubt Romanin is right. But there
is a depth of human nature in the fable which the facts
do not reveal. It is impossible to imagine anything
more likely to be true than that brief interchange of
words, the churchman's triumph and the statesman's
unwilling submission.

The story goes on to tell how Doge Ziani escorted
his two splendid guests to Ancona, where the Pope and
the emperor were presented with umbrellas a tribute


apparently made to their exalted rank; whereupon the
Pope requested that a third might be brought: " Manca
la terza pel Doge de Venezia chi ben lo merita" from which
incident arose the use of this royal, if unimposing, article
by the doges ever after. The Pope had previously
granted the privilege of sealing with lead instead of wax
another imperial attribute. To all this picturesque nar-
rative Romanin again presents an array of chilling facts,
proving that the Pope and emperor left Venice singly on
different dates, and that the doges of Venice had carried
the umbrella and used the leaden bollo long before Ziani
all which is very disconcerting. It seems to be true,
however, that during the stay of the Pope in Venice the
feast of the Sensa Ascension Day was held with special
solemnity, and its pageant fully recorded for the first
time. The doge went forth in the Bucintoro, which here
suddenly springs into knowledge, all decorated and
glorious, with his umbrella over his head, a white flag
which the Pope had given him flying beside the standard
of St. Mark, the silver trumpets sounding, the clergy
with him and all the great potentates of the city, and
Venice following, small and great, in every kind of barge
or skiff which could venture on the lagoon. It is said to
have been with a ring which the Pope had given him that
old Ziani wedded the sea. Whether the ceremony had
fallen into disuse, or if our chroniclers merely forgot
that they had assigned it to an earlier date, or if this was
the moment when the simpler primitive rite was changed
into its later form, it is difficult to say. It must be
added that the strange travesty of history thus put
together is regarded with a certain doubt by the chroni-
clers themselves. Sabellico for one falters over it. He
would not have ventured to record it, he says, if he had
not found the account confirmed by every writer, both
Venetian and foreign. "And, "says Sanudo, "Is it not
depicted in the hall of the great council? Se non fosse
stata vera i nostri buoni Venetiani noil avrebbero mat fatta
depingere" (if it had not been true our good Venetians
never would have had it painted).

It was during the stormy reign of Vitale Michieli, in
the midst of the bitter and violent quarrel between the
Greek Emperor Emmanuel and the Venetians, when
ambassadors were continually coming and going, that an


outrage, which cannot be called other than historical,
and yet can be supported by no valid proof, is said to
have been inflicted upon one of the messengers of Venice.
This was the noble Arrigo or Enrico Dandolo, afterward
one of the most distinguished of the doges, and the
avenger of all Venetian wrongs upon the Greeks. The
story is that in the course of some supposed diplomatic
consultation he was seized and had his eyes put out by
red-hot irons according to a pleasant custom which the
Greeks of that day indulged in largely. It is unlikely
that this could be true, since it is impossible to believe
that the Venetians would have resumed peaceable negotia-
tions after such an outrage; but it is a fact that Dandolo
has always been called the blind doge, and even the
scrupulous Romanin finds reason to suppose that some
injury had been inflicted upon the ambassadors. Dan-
dolo's blindness, however, must have been only compara-
tive. The French chronicler Villehardouin describes
him as having fine eyes, which scarcely saw anything,
and attributes this to the fact that he had lost his sight
from a wound in the head. Dandolo's descendant, suc-
cessor, and historian, however, says only that he was of
weak vision, and as he was at the time eighty-four, there
would be nothing remarkable in that. Enrico Dandolo
was elected doge in 1193, after the death of Orio Mastro-
pietro, who succeeded Ziani, and whose reign was not
marked by any special incident.

Dandolo was the first doge, if not to sign the promts-
stone, or solemn ducal oath of fidelity to all the laws and
customs of the republic, at least to reach the period of
history when such documents began to be preserved.
His oath is full of details, which show the jealousy of
the new regime in defining and limiting the doge's powers.
He vows not only to rule justly, to accept no bribes, to
show no favoritism, to subordinate his own affairs and
all others to the interests of the city, but also not to
write letters on his own account to the Pope or any other
prince; to submit his own affairs to the arbitrament of
the common tribunals, and to maintain two ships of war

Online LibraryMrs. (Margaret Oliphant Wilson) OliphantThe makers of Venice; doges, conquerors, painters, and men of letters → online text (page 6 of 35)