17th Century Venice: The Decline of the Republic

Giambattista Tiepolo: Neptune offering the gifts of the sea to the allegory of Venice.

Here is a fascinating account, published in 1675, of the possible causes of Venice’s decline in the 17th century. Of course it has to measured against what we now know of events in the 18th century, leading to the conquest of Venice by Napoleon in 1797 – but the four principle reasons for the “decay” of Venice given by the author are pretty much unchallengable: 1, Venice had bitten off more than it could chew in terms of foreign territory; 2, the process of governance had become sluggish and bureaucratic to the extent that important decisions could not be made quickly; 3, there were too many cooks spoiling the broth, too great a “plurality of voices”, as the author puts it, in decision making; 4, a decline in educational standards, specifically in the education of the ruling class – and by this the author means moral as much as academic education, referring to the increasing decadence of the nobility. From: The history of the government of Venice wherein the policies, councils, magistrates, and laws of that state are fully related, and the use of the balloting box exactly described: written in the year 1675. Amelot de La Houssaie, Abraham-Nicolas, Sieur 1634-1706.

It has hapned to the Common-wealth of Venice as it hapned anciently to the Commonwealth of Sparta; both the one and the other flourished whilst they contented themselves with the little latitude of their own Countries, and both began to decline when they had acquired more than they could manage.

Sparta was Mistress of all the chief Provinces in Greece, and no sooner had two Theban*Captains rescued their Country from the Dominion of the Lacedemonians, but all the other Towns they had conquered, followed the Example, and revolted. The State of Venice, grown to be great and for∣midable in Italy by its prodigious increase, and the detriment of the Princes she had over-reach’d, lost by one single Battel as she had usurped upon the Terra-firma, because her foundations were not sufficient for the weight of so vast an Edifice. Which makes it evident, that as the health of the Body proceeds not so much from the meat it takes in, as from the digestion that is made; so the strength of a State consists not in what it gains, but what it is able to keep. And if it be true that a State can never maintain it self, but by means conformable to its principle, no wonder if the Republick of Venice conceived in Fear, brought forth in the Waters, brought up in Poverty, and elevated in Peace, began to decline from its great∣ness, by engaging in a War with the Dukes of Milan and Ferrara, without considering the nature of their Forces, or the difficulty of maintaining their Conquests *. Had the Venetians followed the wise counsel of their Doge Thomas Moccineguo which he gave them upon his death-bed, to content themselves with their Conquests at Sea, where they had acquired so many fair and rich Islands, the delights of the Terra-firma would not have debauched them, nor provoked the emulation and jealousy of all the Princes of Italy who were ob∣liged to unite in a War against them, to curb their extravagant ambition. They might better have resisted the Turk, who finding them otherwise employed, began from that time to invade Greece, and infest their Maritime Provinces. And Politi∣tians have observed, that the recovery of their Lands upon the Continent, was the first cause of the loss of Cyprus and Candia, places of much more importance than their Towns upon the Terrafirma. And therefore P. Scipio had reason, when to the Officer who cried about the Streets in Rome, Jupiter auge Rempublicam, he told him he had much better pray to Jupiter to preserve, than * to encrease it, Satis esse auctam, dicens, dummodo Conservaretur. Though the Lacedemonians were all professed Souldiers, they punished not those who lost their Swords in the Battel, but those who lost their Bucklers, it being then an infamy among them, as since among the Germans*: to shew that they esteemed it less Glorious to Con∣quer than to Defend, the Sword serving for In∣vasion, the Buckler for Defence. With much more reason, the Venetian being a People of the Robe, and for Councel, ought to have imployed their Buckler against their Neighbours, and ap∣plied themselves more diligently to their Interest in the Levant, where Fortune had been so fa∣vorable to them.

A Second Cause of their decay is the slowness of their Councels. ‘Tis true, this fault is common in all Commonwealths, but with them it may be said to be in extremity, their Senat seeming sometimes to be asleep, with so much heaviness and inactivity it moves upon several occasions. They had seasonable advertisement of the vast∣ness of the Ottoman preparation for the Invasion of Candia, and yet they thought no more of putting themselves into a posture of defence, than if they had had no former experience of the Turkish perfidy, or had been assured, by Revelation that that great Force was not intended against-them. This Confidence was founded upon the Promises of an Infidel who deceived them, by making them believe that the Designes of the Port were against Malta, though Hungary and Poland might have given them wholsom instances of fear, and distrust. And John Sorance, their Embassador at Constantinople admonished them of their danger, and exhorted them constantly to provide; but apprehending to disgust the Grand-Seignior if they should discover any open suspition; and fearing to precipitate themselves by false Measures, into a War against which they thought themselves safe by virtue of their Alliance, which they had lately renewed, they saw the Fortress of St. Theodore surprized; and the City of Canea besieged, before they would believe their Coun∣trey was to be the Theatre of the War, and the whole Charges to be defraied by them. Which shews there is a certain Fatality that governs all things, and blinds the wisest persons living when misfortune is at hand *.

The loss of Canea drew after it the loss of Retimo, and the Field. And when there was no∣thing remaining to them but the chief City and some few Villages and Forts, they began to de∣liberate in despair: The greatest part were for delivering it up freely for Peace; and it had been certainly done, had not John Pesaro, since Doge, bravely Remonstrated to the Senat, That if they gave up that place to the Turk, it would be the way to make him more insolent; to increase his Contempt of them, and raise in him an insatiable desire to Invade them, by the easiness of his Conquests; and therefore it was his Judgment better by a vigorous resistance to discourage him. That if he were once master of Canea, he would quickly demand the three Isles, and the rest of Dalmatia. That to be Conquered and Submit to their Force would be no scandal; but to submit for fear would be dishonourable and base; that though an Enemy be never so formidable, we are not to publish our apprehension; That States are not maintained by Pusilanimity and Trusting*. That if it be almost imposible to preserve a Countrey already more than half lost, it would be the more honourable to defend it Courageously, the less likelihood there was of success. That the Commonwealth of Venice like a Corpulent man, had need to Exercise to dissipate the gross Humours it had contracted by too long repose. That the War in Candia was like a Wound, to be kept open, to prevent a Gangrene: That the Eyes of all Christendom were upon them to observe how they followed the steps of their Glorious Ancestors, and what expression they made of their Constancy and Courage. And that if their Forces were not strong enough for the Turks, yet they were strong enough in such a desperate juncture, where their Honour and Safety was at stake. This Discourse turned the Scale, and put the Senat upon a resolution to maintain the War to the utmost extremity, which they did a long time with prodigious ex∣pence.

And here it is to be observed, the Venetians who are naturally very fearful and superstitious, were not so when they should have been. Some Months before the Turks landed in Candia, a Nobleman of that Countrey, being present at Mass with the Senat, in the Chappel of the Colledg, stole the Pax which is usually given about to be kissed; and not many days after, in the Court of the Palace of St. Mark, the word Pax out of the Verse, Justitia & Pax osculatae sunt, fell down out of the hands of Justice in the sight of several persons; which was taken as a certain presage of the War wherewith that Republick was threatned, in the opinion of all People: and the Omen was much more intelligible than that whereby Ceditius Prognosticated the coming of the Gauls to Rome. But the Senat made no use of these Prodigies, either willing to conceal its distress, according to the Custom of Prin∣ces , or else insensible of its danger.

Thus the Venetians lost the Kingdom of Cyprus by their irresolution, though the Procurator Hieronimo Zane, and Pascal Cicogne, their Generals in Dalmatia and Candia, remonstrated to the Senat, that they were not to expect till Selymus declared, but to look upon it as certain, and provide to meet him with a good Fleet at Sea, to hinder his descent in that Kingdom. The Senat understood the importance of their Councel, when it was too late to make use of it *, for Selymus gave them no leisure to repent , so ill it is to comply too much with an ill Neighbour, or to discover a fear.

By the same irresolution the State of Venice lost her interest upon the Terra firma not ma∣ny years since; because they came not to a de∣termination before the Consederate Princes inva∣ded their Territories. They might easily have judged their Power too weak to have resisted the united strength of the Pope, the Emperour, the French, and the Spaniard, and therefore it had been their interest to have divided them, as they might easily have done by giving up part for the safety of the whole: But ambition to grasp what they could not hold, dazled them for discerning their true Advantages, and made them lose what they were unwilling to leave. They gave the Enemy time to joyn their Forces, and never o∣pened their Eyes till they were beaten at Vaila by the French, after which they began to think of peace, and having surrendered to the Pope, Rimini, Faienza, Ravenna, and Cervia, they beg∣ged his Mercy, as if they had been his Rebel∣lious Subjects, promising never to intermeddle in * Ecclesiastick affairs, nor to tax their Lands with∣out permission from the Pope: They offered the Emperour, Verona, Vicenca, Padua, and several places in Friul, of which they owned them∣selves Usurpers:

They proffered him an Annual Tribute of 50000 Ducats, protesting that if he would pitty their Condition, they would Record him in their Annals for their Father, their Redeemer, their Founder, obey his Com∣mands, and for the future never separate from his Interest. So poor Spirited and abject does Adversity make many People, and those especially who before the danger are most huffy and high, * as were the Venetians*.

In short, to the King of Spain they restored Frani, Otranto, Brindes, Monopoli, Mola, and Pulignan, all which they held in Pouille. To the Duke of Ferrara they delivered up the Polesin; and this they did rather in despair and a fright, than upon good deliberation, as is franckly con∣fessed by Andrew Moccineguo who writ in the heat of the War . Whereas had they thought in time of satisfying the King of France, or of dividing the Pope from the League, they might have been able to have defended against the rest of the Princes, as appeared afterward; for Julius II. con∣ceiving a jealousy against the French (whose pro∣gress he feared) and retiring from the League, the face of the Venetian affairs quickly changed, and several of their Towns returned to their o∣bedience.

The same thing almost happened before in the League that Pope Sixtus XII made against them * with the King of Naples, the Duke of Milan; and the Florentines, for Ferrara. For if Lodowick Sforza Governour of Milan had not left the League, the Venrtians (who had lost their Fleet upon the Po, and all the Territory of Bergamo, Brescia and Verona, that the Duke of Calabria Son to the King of Naples had taken from them) had without doubt been deprived of all their possessions in Lombardy. But upon Capitulation with Sforza, whose Quarrel they Espoused against the Calabrians, who would turn him out of his Government of Milan, all was restored, without being obliged reciprocally to the restitution of the Polesin to the Marquess of Ferrara: so that they who were vanquished in the Field, were Victors in Council, and recovered all by their management of the Treaty. To which I shall add my Reflexions upon one thing the Senat of Venice did after the loss of Candia; by which the truth of what I have said may be judged.

It was resolved an extraordinary Council should be held every Week for the carrying on of the War, which could hot be obtained at the begin∣ing by all the Remonstrances of the Chevalier Molin, who very well understood the condition of their affairs; and yet most ridiculously, at an un∣seasonable time, two Months after the Peace was concluded, this Council was set up, like a Phisitian, who prescribes after the Patient is dead, or like the Phrygeans, who assembled their Coun∣cil after the mischief was happened, to consider how they might have prevented it. The proposition made by the Senat, at the same time to the Emperour, to purchase the Towns of Friest Gra∣disque, and Goretz, to repair their losses in the Levant, was as much out of time; For if they had Money to purchase more, it might as well have been laid out to keep what they had.

The Third cause of the disorder of their affairs, is, because the Senat consisting of so great a number, and their Affairs determined by plurality of Voices, ill Councels (provided they be covered with plausible appearances) are oftner followed than good, which most commonly displease, either from the difficulty of Execution; or because the good or ill Consequences are not generally fore∣seen by several of the Members, who discern not what is True from what is False, nor what is Convenient from what is Destructive: So that it is sometimes at Venice as Anacharsis said it was formerly at Athens, where the Wise Consulted, and the Weak Resolved; for Voices are counted, not Reasons conside∣red *; for the Vote of a Fool is e∣quivalent to the Vote of the wisest, and they being always fewest, no wonder if their Councel miscary. Thus did they conclude to League themselves with Lewis XII, against Sforza Duke of Milan, to have in Recompence the Town of Cremona, and the Countrey de la Ghiara d’Adda, because the advantage was present; whereas the Graver of the Senators advised the contrary, ac∣cording to Principles of true Policy, not to drive out a Neighbouring Prince, to let in a more Po∣tent into his place: and this occasioned after∣wards the League of Cambrey, which Melchior Trevisan had Prognosticated before, telling them in full Senat, That the King of the Romans would joyn more readily with the King of France against them, than with them against so powerful a King; because united with France it would be easy for him to Conquer the Venetians, whereas with them, it would be very hard to prevail against France; and by consequence, the Republick of Venice having already so many Enemies upon their hands, they must either beat all the Princes of Europe, or be beaten by them.

Besides, there are those in Venice, who to flatter the Genius of the People, and shew them∣selves zealous for their Countrey, accomodate their Councels to the depraved Palats of others. For Example, If it be in debate to render some Town that has been unjustly usurped from some great Prince who threatens by force of Arms to revenge himself, ‘Tis most certain, the Senator who would perswade Restitution, should not willingly be heard; and he who should advise to keep it, would haye a Torrent of voices on his side, and be esteemed a good Citizen, though he betraied his own Conscience and Countrey by a Councel he knows must be the detriment of the State. In this manner it was that the Procurator Dominick Trevisan prevailed against the just Demands of Julius II, who contented him∣self * with the restitution of Rimini, and Faenza (Usurped under his Papacy) to refuse his Rati∣fication of the League of Cambray. An effect of the feebleness and ignorance of the generality of Mankind, who not regarding the future, chose rather to lose all afterward, than at present to part with any thing, though for the safety of the rest: like the Merchants that perish in the Sea, because they will not suffer any part of their Goods to be thrown over-board. Or like those obstinate People, who will rather run the hazard of a Gangreen, than endure the pain of an incon∣siderable Incision: so that whatever Exprience the Venetians have had, they will not change their Method, and thereby verifying the saying of the Italians, That the State of Venice never releases any thing willingly, that she has once got into her clutches.

But we are not to admire such ill Councels are given in the Pregadi, seeing ill Counsels are most acceptable, and good, not only rejected, but heard with indignation. The Councel that Bartholomew Alviani gave, them to carry on the War into the Enemies Countrey, according to the old Rule of the Romans, and to invade the Dutchy of Milan, before Lewis XII. passed in∣to *Italy, was looked upon as rash, though no more than their affairs required, and in appear∣ance that rashness would have ‘been happy; but it seems the Senat wanted both Courage and Providence *. Besides, the wisest of the Senators do many times forbear giving their advice, as knowing the danger of exposing themselves to the Capriccio of the weaker sort, who are as much their Judges as the greatest of the Sages. For the Proposers of great Enterprises, like those who throw up great Stones into the Air, are in great danger of having them fall upon their heads: and again, if they succeed, every one will pretend to the Glory, as Tiberius told the Senat: but if they miscary, the Blame redounds to the Author, though the fault be in the ill management of all. Those who at Rome advised that the Consulary Tribunes should be indiffe∣rently chosen out of the Nobility and People, were generally blamed both by the People and the Nobility (though the People had Espoused the Interest of the Nobility against the Senat) when they understood that the first Popular Consul who Commanded the Army, was defeated by the Enemy: and almost the same thing happened at  Venice during the War; They condemned at last what they approved in the beginning, and they judged of the Actions of their Generals only by the success of their Arms, which many times is a wrong and irrational Argument. They have another ill Custom likewise, and that is, How good soever the Resolution is, that their General takes in any dangerous exigence; how advantageous soever the terms they make with the Enemy, they always find fault and account it the worst *. And therefore after they had received with satisfaction and great applause the News of the Peace which General Morosini had made in Candia, and had ratified it with all expressions of extraordinary approbation, in a few Months time they changed their note, and made the deliverer of their Countrey (as they called him before) a Criminal, and a Traitor.

Moreover, the State of Venice is much subject upon any ill-conjuncture of their Affairs, to take the middle-way, which is commonly the worst *. That is to say, of two Counsels proposed, one ge∣nerous and brave, the other poor and pusilani∣mous; they frame a third out of both, without examining their incompatibility or danger.

Nor is their parsimony less pernicious to the Venetians; for the want of keeping a forreign Militia in time of Peace, when-ever War is de∣clared, they are sure to be surprized. No sooner were they delivered from the War in Candia, but they disbanded their Forces, as if they had been sure never to have had occasion for them more: and yet within a year they engaging in a new Quarrel about limits in Dalmatia, and were in danger of losing that whole Province, before they could have reinforc’d it with 2000 men, had the Port been willing, or known how to have made use of the opportunity. The Author of disband∣ing their Army, was the Procurator Nani, and his advice was preferr’d, because it pretended fruga∣lity. So that it may be said of this State, as it was of Perseus King of Macedon, that he knew better how to keep his Money than his Country. The Kingdom of Cyprus was lost partly by their Avarice, refusing to pay the 50000 Crowns (owing to Selymus, as Successor to the Sultan of Egypt) according to agreement with the said Sultan, and King James, whose Heirs they were; which drew upon them the displeasure and Arms of that Emperor. Historians have likewise observed that their Avarice was the chief cause of the ruine of their Trade in the Persian Gulf; for they were willing to allow the Portugals should be their companions in so profitable a Commerce, they contented not themselves to excite the King of Calecut, and the Sultan of Egypt against them, and to send them Gunners and Engineers to assist them, but they called in the Hollanders, who after they had set∣led their Correspondencies and Magazins, in re∣quital, they supplanted the Venetians. In the same manner they were handled by the Turks after they had brought them out of the Black-Sea into Europe, at the rate of 25000 Crowns; for those In∣fidels having invaded Servia, Bulgaria, and Bosnia, advanced at length against Greece. God permit∣ting by a just Judgment, that those who for their base interest had sacrificed their Neighbours to those miscreants, should at length in their turn be buried in the common ruine.

And to these may be added another reason of their decay, and that is the ill-Education of their Youth. For in Venice ’tis a common thing to see the Father courting his Concubine, and treating the other instruments of his Debauchery in the presence of his Son, who perhaps learns the act, before he understands the evil *; involving himself farther as he advances in years, being corrupted by an example he thinks himself bound to follow: so that these young Gentlemen entring into publick affairs with so wicked dispositions, ’tis impossible but the Administration must be infected. And therefore Sixtus V in a Letter to the Archbishop Matteuzzi his Nuntio at Venice, had these words, J am venit hora eorum, Their time is coming. And truly, if we consider the loss this Commonwealth has sustained within these hundred years, and what they are like to do more, unless God Almighty prevents it, it is in danger of being reduced to its Primitive Patrimony, that is to say, the bare Dominion of their Lakes and their Marshes, and which is worse, do Homage to the Grand Seignior, as Ragusa does at this day.

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