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( Originally Published 1913 )
The waters of the Po and of several other streams hurrying through the plains of Lombardy on their way to the sea have for ages carried with them quantities of soil, rocks and shells. Part of the load has been dropped before the mouths of the rivers were reached; much has been carried out beyond the shore line, forming a kind of sand bar, or better, a chain of islands. Lagoons separate the sandy islands from the mainland, and canals or narrow waterways divide island from island.
The Veniti dwelt at an early time in that part of Italy which lies at the head of the Adriatic Sea. When Rome conquered the peninsula they were added to her dominions, but their commerce was little interfered with. Padua was the greatest of their cities, although numerous were the towns and villages around the Adriatic.
When Attila and his Huns spread into Europe, leaving desolation and despair in their train, terrified ones from various towns of Venetia took refuge on this chain of islands, beaching their boats and dwelling in them until danger was past. The settlement thus brought into being was never again abandoned, but grew eventually into the city of Venice.
"A few in fear
Those who came thither represented various conditions of life, but all assiduously set themselves to the task of making homes where nature's curious formations had insured safety. Fish were abundant and had long supplied a commodity of trade. Salt, too, was obtainable in the vicinity. Seamen for generations and instinctively traders, it was not long before these sturdy men controlled the trade up and down the rivers, from islands to mainland and from port to port along the sea. A letter survives written about 523 A.D., by Cassiodorus, in which he characterized their industry and thrift:
"To your other advantages it is added that you can always travel a safe and tranquil course; for when through the angriness of the winds the sea is closed to you, there opens another way through the pleasantest rivers. Your ships fear not the harsh gusts... With pleasure I recall how I have seen your habitations situated. The noble Venetian towns, already filled with nobles, border on the south Ravenna and the Po; toward the east they enjoy the smiling Ionian shore, where the alternating tide now covers and now bares the surface of the fields. There are your houses like aquatic birds, now on sea and now on shore; and when the aspect changes suddenly, these dwellings scattered far and wide, not produced by nature, but founded by the industry of men, are like the Cyclades. The solid earth is there held together by woven willow boughs, and you have no doubts in opposing so frail a barrier to the waves, when the shore does not suffice, on account of its lowness, to hold back the mass of waters. Your inhabitants have abundance only of fish; rich and poor live together in equality. The same food and similar houses are shared by all; wherefore they cannot envy each other's hearths, and so they are free from the vice that rules the world. All your emulation centers on the salt works; instead of ploughs and scythes, you turn cylinders, whence comes all your gain. Upon your industry all other products depend; for though there may be somebody who does not seek gold, there never yet lived the man who desires not salt, which makes every food more savory. Therefore, repair your ships, which you keep ditched like animals to your walls."
The dogged independence of these island citizens was from the first apparent. In turn Eastern Emperor, Lombards, Franks and the Pope all strove to establish over-lordship, but to little or no purpose. The Venetians, being a commercial people, were very politic and would give ear to any who brought a request, but brooked no commands. Yielding submission to none, attentive to the will of the Church only when it pleased her own interests, Venice became unique among the nations.
Holding aloof from outside entanglements, she had her share of internal strife. Twelve little settlements united to form the future city. Great rivalry existed between these various hamlets. Some burned with the desire for equality; others brought thither strong aristocratic tendencies. The government, so far as it concerned the whole, was at first vested in twelve tribunes, chosen one from each settlement. So keen were the jealousies arising, it shortly appeared that unity would come only as a result of welding the community together under one executive and a Doge-from dux-or duke-was elected in 697 A.D.
To the Doge was given wide authority over the administration of the state, the army and ecclesiastical appointments. The tribunes remained, but their duties now were local, corre sponding in a general way to ward officers in a modern city. The arrengo, or popular assembly, convened for matters of importance, elected the Doge in the beginning and later gave approval to the Doge already chosen by a council. The first Doge continued in office for twenty years, and considerable progress toward unity was made under his administration. At his death the Venetian Republic was firmly established.
In 828 the body of St. Mark was stealthily brought into Venice from Alexandria. In the Middle Ages to possess the body of a saint brought coveted fame, and St. Mark was by many regarded as important as St. Peter. The fortunate citizens directly relegated St. Theodore, their former patron, to a secondary position and eventually built for the glory and honor of St. Mark a splendid cathedral. St. Mark's is inseparably connected with the city's vicissitudes and successes. However formal and meaningless worship in the Middle Ages may now and then have become, such was never the case in Venice. St. Mark was dearly loved and venerated by all faithful worshippers.
"Be thou unique!" was the message the Fates were believed to have given this Sea-city, and there were many particulars in which it would be impossible to parallel Venice. Feudalism never developed in this state, for feudalism is a system of land tenure and in Venice there was no land. Even as the State reached out territorially, commerce was the predominating feature. Argosies were the means to wealth, and wealthy princes were the aristocrats. A large proportion of the citizens was always away on the sea-not at home in the islands.
From the first there was a tendency to make the Doge a hereditary ruler, but the people long successfully opposed this. Some serious combats arose on several occasions when a Doge, more ambitious than ordinary, tried to establish his line. In 1171 the aristocratic party was strong enough to limit the power of the people in electing the Doge. Rather, the city was divided into six wards: from each two tribunes were chosen; each submitted a list of forty nobles in his ward; these 480 so chosen elected the Doge and submitted their choice for ratification to the arrengo, or assembly. In 1297 a measure was brought forward and passed to the effect that only one whose father or grandfather had served on the Great Council was eligible for membership in it. This made the Council electing the Doge practically a closed body, and the names of such as were eligible were contained in a record known as the Golden Book. In time, even the form of offering the name of the chosen Doge to the popular assembly for ratification was dropped.
We must not infer that as Venice merged from a Republic into an oligarchy the gradual change was necessarily harmful to the people at large. On the contrary, it would be difficult in all history to discover a state where government was more wisely or more justly administered than in Venice. Each who served the State was responsible for any act committed during his term. Upon the death of a Doge, a special commission, known as the Inquisitors of the Doge, examined his acts, and if in any particular he was found blameworthy, his heirs could be fined. There is one case at least on record where the surviving heirs were heavily tined because a Doge had not lived so magnificently as became his exalted position.
Very famous became the so-called Council of Ten. The council came into being in this way: In 1310 a plot was made to overthrow the government. The State had been carrying on a losing war on the mainland. The plague had taken off many of her troops. Two nobles planned to seize control of affairs and convert the government into a despotism. The plot was discovered, but so great was the consternation occasioned by the bold design that a Council of Ten was appointed to apprehend those whose evil plots might endanger public safety. Very sinister indeed became the reputation of this council. As we read Venetian stories we can imagine the Ten to be at their detective work if but a shadow falls over the canal or a quiet splash of an oar is heard in the darkness. Undoubtedly the Ten over-reached their authority now and then, and in their eagerness to fulfil their duties, or perhaps taking advantage of their office, worked the undoing of some who in reality were innocent. Nevertheless, the Doge and his councillors sat with them and had they become too forbidding it is safe to conclude they would not indefinitely have been tolerated.
A few facts in the history of Venice's story do little or nothing to explain to us her one-time splendor. It was the wondrous beauty of the city that infatuated and held men. "The Queen of the Adriatic" she was called, and men loved and cherished her. Individuals were as nought compared to the welfare of that city of loveliness. Her superb position offered every advantage in an age when water routes were preferable by far to routes by land. Venice lay in the path of the longest sea-route and the shortest land-route in traveling to the East-land of spices, silks and treasures. The Crusades, affecting all the northern ports of Italy, greatly enhanced her prosperity. Indeed, the Fourth Crusade was actually diverted from its purpose and became a struggle for extending Venetian commerce. Nor in this age was there anything sordid nor repulsive in the idea of promoting trade by religious undertakings.
He who would appreciate the Venice of the Renaissance must become acquainted with her art, her architecture, her marvelous frescoes in public and private hall; he must travel in spirit, at least, up and down the lagoons, in their ever-changing lights and colors, and repeople the city with those in whose hands the fortunes and pride of the city once lay. In the glory of her sunsets, in the mellow light of her moonlit lagoons a realization of the charm of Venice will finally overpower him.