In one odd respect the history of Venice is like the French Revolution: it reveals the political views of all who write on it. Tell me how a historian evaluates the Venetian Republic and I will tell you his politics.
Why this should be is simply told. During most of its history, the Republic was an oligarchy with a fixed class of hereditary noblemen, constitutionally so after 1300. For centuries this group disposed of all political authority in the state, so that, for example, in 1500 a city of 100,000 people, with a large mainland empire and a rich scatter of colonies, was completely under the rule of 2,500 men. Indeed, the actual rulers numbered no more than 800 or 900, because most of their peers, often indigent noblemen (barnabotti), scarcely counted politically. Yet this oligarchical policy was undeniably successful: thence "the myth of Venice"--stable, wise, long-enduring, magnificent Venice, where justice ruled and the arts flourished. Question: as late 20th-century believers in some sort of democracy, what do we make of the myth of Venice? Do we "buy" it, or, being wary of power and of institutions held in the grasp of the few, do we wonder about demystifying it? One thing is certain: there can be no "objective," middle position in these matters. History--the sort worth caring about--is not a geometric construct with measurable spaces. Besides, for many of its historians, and especially the British among them, Venice starts out as such a strongly emotive fossil that in writing about it they are apt to show more than just their politics.
John Julius Norwich, who sits in the House of Lords, loves the city and does not care to dissect its myth. His new history of Venice is exemplary from the standpoint of what it discloses about relations between the past and present. Coursing through his 640 pages of chronicle is not only an urbane conservatism but also four other features that illustrate some of the ways in which we are condemned to see the past in our own image. These are: (1) an old-fashioned chronological narrative whose amateur touch vouches, paradoxically, for its modernity; (2) an admiring love of Venice which often breaks out into homily; (3) nostalgia for the Venetian maritime empire in its prime (1200-1400), behind which looms the vanished British Empire; and (4) a full-bodied, patrician prose style whose wheeling periods glow when describing moralities, empires, pageantries, naval battles, and great personalities. Words like sublime, magical, miraculous, and glorious come unashamedly.
Norwich runs the story across 14 centuries, from the city's rude beginnings about A.D. 400 up to the overthrow of the Republic by Napoleon's troops in 1797. He has a sharp eye for drama, a gargantuan appetite for fact, and a nice disregard for analysis ("Venetians were not thinkers: they were doers"). Doges, wars, diplomatic stratagems, and other major events follow in strict temporal succession, though always fretted about with anecdotes. No academic could have written this book. Professional historians in our time are perhaps too preoccupied with social structures, demographies, poor people, and community organization. So there is surely a place for Norwich's history, for the curious modernity of his effort to take daring hold of the entire story by pegging it out along a linear progression of fact. Chronology bound, the result is also late imperial in its waves of fatalism, as one doge or century succeeds another, accenting the death of the previous one.
Norwich's feeling for Venice--it began, he tells us, on a first visit with his father at age 16--is attested everywhere in the narrative. He takes sides, he emphasizes, he castigates, he shakes his head, he sighs, and he draws moral lessons. In effect, he sits in judgment on nearly all 118 doges, since what is always at stake is "the Most Serene Republic." His judgments are founded on the values of virility, decisiveness, honor, industry, moderation, fair play, magnificence, a good laugh, social rank, and knowing (as a leader of men) how best to spend your money. Setting the overall narrative tone, these values explain the book's wistfulness, the emphasis on personalities over impersonal forces, and the preference for Venice at the height of empire. They also make Venetian history into a chronicle of fearless adventurers, great merchants, even greater sailors, colonizers, administrators, shipbuilders, and cold-eyed diplomatists, who then, in the course of time, turn into pleasure lovers, only to end when confronting Napoleon, as pathetic clowns and dupes.
The main parts of this story have been retailed many times before. Lord Norwich's prose adds something new: it underlines the pertinacity of a late patrician ideal. Most appropriately, in this connection, the book's avowed aim is revisionist and polemical: namely, to take the story away from its detractors, away from all those historians--not many, to tell the truth--who have depicted Venice as repressive and wickedly oligarchical, and to tell it differently by showing Venice as humane and fair. Professionals will not, I suspect, be convinced --but then this book is not addressed to them. It offers no analysis of problems and does not rely on the fullness of modern scholarship, with the result that it is wrong about the 14th-century population, wrong abut guilds, about the even-handed administration of justice, about the equitable distribution of taxes, about entry into the special class of "citizens," and about other matters of little interest to the general reader. Yet there is much here to appeal to the latter. The book has zest, vigor, and an unflinching narrative line. Travelers, laymen, local librarians, and all who enjoy the exploits and panache of old regimes are certain to find satisfaction in it. I hope they also find the light it throws on the ways in which our present determines our understanding of the past, for in this regard Norwich's book--a bit of live history itself--is a resonant human document.