The Decline Amid Splendor
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Venice the beautiful city ended, pagan-like, as did its sisters the Greek republics, through nonchalance and voluptuousness. We find, indeed, from time to time, a Francis Morosini, who like Aratus and Philopoemen, renews the heroism and victories of ancient days; but, after the seventeenth century, its bright career is over. The city, municipal and circumscribed, is found to be weak, like Athens and Corinth, against powerful military neighbors who either neglect or tolerate it; the French and the Germans violate its neutrality with impunity; it subsists and that is all, and it pretends to do no more. Its nobles care only to amuse themselves; war and politics with them recede in the background; she becomes gallant and worldly.
But the evening of this fallen city is as mellow and as brilliant as a Venetian sunset. With the absence of care gaiety prevails. One en-counters nothing but public and private fetes in the memoirs of their writers and in the pictures of their painters. At one time it is a pompous banquet in a superb saloon festooned with gold, with tall lustrous windows and pale crimson curtains, the doge in his simarre dining with the magistrates in purple robes, and masked guests gliding over the floor; nothing is more elegant than the exquisite aristocracy of their small feet, their slender necks and their jaunty little three-cornered hats among skirts flounced with yellow or pearly gray silks.
At another it is a regatta of gondolas and we see on the sea between San-Marco and San-Giorgio, around the huge Bucentaur * like a leviathan cuirassed with scales of gold, flotillas of boats parting the water with their steel becks. A crowd of pretty dominos, male and female, flutter over the pavements; the sea seems to be of polished slate under a tender azure sky spotted with cloud-flocks while all around, as in a precious frame, like a fantastic border carved and embroidered, the Procuraties, the domes, the palaces and the quays thronged with a joyous multitude, encircle the great maritime Venetian sheet.
In truth they never concern themselves with religion except to repress the Pope; in theory and in practise, in ideas and in instincts, they inherit the manners, customs and spirit of antiquity, and their christianity is only a name. Like the ancients, they were at first heroes and artists, and then voluptuaries and dilettanti; in one as in the other case they, like the ancients, confined life to the present. In the eighteenth century they might be compared to the Thebans of the decadence who, leagued together to consume their property in common, bequeathed what remained of their fortunes on dying to the survivorsat their banquets. The carnival lasts six months; everybody, even the priests, the guardian of the capucins, the nuncio, little children, all who frequent the markets, wear masks. Pea ple pass by in processions disguised in the costumes of Frenchmen, lawyers, gondoliers, Calabrians and Spanish soldiery, dancing and with musical instruments; the crowd follows jeering or applauding them. There is entire liberty; prince or artizan, all are equal; each may apostrophize a mask. Pyramids of men form "pictures of strength" on the public squares; harlequins in the open air perform parades. Seven theaters are open. Improvizators declaim and comedians improvize amusing scenes. "There is no city where license has such sovereign rule."
The Chiogga campaign is the last act of the old heroic drama; there, as in the best days of the ancient republics, a besieged people is seen to save itself against all hope, artizans equipping vessels, a Pisani conqueror undergoing imprisonment and only released to renew the victory, a Carlo Zeno, surviving forty wounds, and a doge of seventy years of age; a Contarini, who makes a vow not to leave his vessel so long as the enemy's fleet is uncaptured, thirty families, apothecaries, grocers, vintners, tanners admitted among the nobles, a bravery, a public spirit like that of Athens under Themistocles and of Rome under Fabius Cunctator. If, from this time forth, the inward fire abates we still feel its warmth for many long years, longer kept up than in the rest of Italy, and sometimes demonstrating its power by sudden outbursts.
The nobles, on their side, are always ready to fight. During the whole of the sixteenth century, even up to the seventeenth and beyond, we see them in Dalmatia, in the Morea, over the entire Mediterranean, defending the soil inch by inch against the infidels. The garrison of Famagouste yields only to famine, and its governor, Bragadino, burned alive, is a hero of ancient days. At the battle of Lepanto the Venetians alone furnish one half of the Christian fleet. Thus on all sides, and nothwithstanding their gradual de-cline, peril, energy, love of country, all, in brief, which constitutes or sustains the grand life of the soul here subsists, while throughout the peninsula foreign dominion, clerical oppression and voluptuous or academical inertia reduces man to the system of the antechamber, the subtleties of dilettantism and the babble of sonnets.
But if the human spring is not broken at Venice, it is seen insensibly losing its elasticity. The government, changed into a suspicious despotism, elects a Mocenigo doge, a shameless speculator profiting on the public distress, instead of that Charles Zeno who had saved the country; it holds Zeno prisoner two years and entrusts the armies on the mainland to condottieri; it is tied up in the hands of three inquisitors, provokes accusations, practises secret executions and commands the people to confine themselves to indulgences of pleasure. On the other hand luxury arises. About the year 1400 the houses "were quite small ;" but a thousand nobles were enumerated in Venice possessing from four to seventy thousand ducats rental, while three thousand ducats were sufficient to purchase a palace.
Henceforth this great wealth is no longer to be employed in enterprises and in self-devotion, but in pomp and magnificence. In 1495, Com-mine admires "the grand canal, the most beautiful street, I think, in the world, and with the best houses; the houses are very grand, high and of excellent stone—and these have been built within a century. All have fronts of white marble, which comes from Istria, a hundred miles away, and yet many more great pieces of porphyry and of serpentine on them; inside they have, most of them, at least two chambers with gilded ceilings, rich screens of chimneys with carved marble, the bedsteads gilded and the 'ostevents' painted and gilded and well furnished within." On his arrival twenty-five gentlemen attired in silk and scarlet come to meet him; they conduct him to a boat decked with crimson silk; "it is the most triumphant city I ever saw."
Finally, while the necessity of pleasure grows the spirit of enterprise diminishes; the passage of the Cape in the beginning of the sixteenth century places the commerce of Asia in the hands of the Portuguese; on the Mediterranean and the Atlantic the financial measures of Charles V., joined to bad usage by the Turks, render abortive the great maritime caravans which the state dispatches yearly between Alexandria and Bruges. In respect to industrial matters, the hampered artizans, watched and cloistered in their country, cease to perfect their arts and allow foreign competitors to surpass them in processes and in furnishing supplies to the world.
Thus, on all sides, the capacity for activity be-comes lessened and the desire for enjoyment greater without one entirely effacing the other, but in a way that, both commingling, they pro-duce that ambiguous state of mind similar to a mixed temperature which is never too severe and in which the arts are generated. Indeed, it is from 1454 to 1572, between the institution of state inquisitors and the battle of Lepanto, between the accomplishment of internal despotism and the last of the great outward victories, that the brilliant productions of Venetian art appear. John Bellini was born in 1426, Giorgone died in 1511, Titian in 1576, Veronese in 1572 and Tintoretto in 1594. In this interval of one hundred and fifty years this warrior city, this mistress of the Mediterranean, this queen of commerce and of industry became a casino for masqueraders and a den of courtezans.