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NEW QUARTERLY REVIEW.
VENICE, WHERE are few spots in the continents of either Europe or
Asia, over which the imagination lingers more fondly than the site of the old Venetian commonwealth. What Rome gains by her immemorial antiquity and unbroken chain of traditions, she loses by the pettiness of her recent history. Our reminiscences of Athens are too purely classical, and the ideas which her name conjures up are too remote from our daily experience, to kindle any train of associations in the majority of even cultivated minds. At Jerusalem, the imagination is scarcely permitted to indulge itself. The character of the place is too sacred and too awful, and too much bound up with our most precious beliefs and aspirations, to permit of our giving way to the more purely poetical sentiments which she would otherwise be calculated to arouse in us. But through Venice we are at once linked on to the old expiring classical world, if not as firmly as by Rome, yet sufficiently so to excite in us the same kind of interest, however inferior in degree. Her history for thirteen centuries is one undeviating record of material and moral greatness. Not a single degrading association is connected with her name; and thousands yet live who remember her as a
1 History of the Venetian Republic; by W. C. Hazlitt, of the Inner Temple. London : Smith & Elder. VOL. III.
European power. The existing generation can yet reach back a hand to the last of her long line of rulers. The ashes of her independence are still warm ; may we add, that even the flame is not yet wholly extinct! Yet, practically, at the present day her history sounds almost like a dream. The wide-spread dominions, the boundless wealth, the formidable influence possessed by a state whose continental territory was scarcely more extensive than Scotland; her naval and commercial supremacy, apparently so disproportionate to her geographical position, and therefore so analogous to our own ; her wonderful and mysterious polity, almost realizing the visions of Plato, and covering with boundless ridicule the puny theories of the democrat; the vague romantic reverence with which we contemplate her traditions ; her brave, haughty, and long-descended aristocracy, which could break but not bend; and the rich colouring of her daily life, which throws round the old Queen of the Adriatic something of the weird splendour of remote orientalism; all combine to raise in us a tumult of poetical emotions when we dwell upon the name of Venice. Even her crimes and her vices, seen through the blue distance, do but heighten the effect of her attractions. Her impenetrable dungeons, and her cruel magistrates, invested with a Stygian majesty ; her dark-eyed dames and her lawless lovers; the gondola shooting through her moonlit waters on its mission of adventurous gallantry; the lady bending from the lattice; the bravo lurking in the shade; dash with streaks of purple the history of her wars and embassies, like the flush of passion on some brow of imperial dignity. Such was Venice while the children of Charlemagne still wore the crowns of Europe. Such she continued to be till the greatest of Charlemagne's successors pronounced her doom. Such she may again become, cleansed of her corruptions, and absolved from her guilt, if the heir of that successor will it.
We are all acquainted with that felicitous couplet of Pope, in which he compares the progress of ambitious men with the rise of the Venetian state
“ Mark by what wretched steps their glory grows,
From dirt and seaweed, as proud Venice rose; and this was literally the case. Romantic as the origin of Venice
may sometimes seem, no historian has as yet thrown any doubt upon the main facts of that familiar story. The old Veneti, a people of North-Eastern Italy, said to be of the same race as the Etruscans, were the last inhabitants of the peninsula to submit to the arms of Rome, and the first to refuse submission to her barbarian conquerors. Their maritime skill and their devotion to commerce certainly lend some colour to the tradition that they too were emigrants from Tyre; while it may not perhaps be wholly fanciful to suppose that, in the character of their modern institutions, we may trace some resemblance to the aristocratic system of Etruria. Be this as it may, it seems clear that the first settlers on the lagoons were not a miscellaneous confluence of exiles and outlaws, nor yet any wandering horde of pirates or brigands. The inhabitants of Venetia who fled from the approach of Attila, fled in an orderly and compact body, carıying with them the traditions, the organization, and the arts of a highly civilized society. At first, no doubt, the exigencies of daily life compelled the suspension of conventional claims and customs. But no sooner had the infant state surmounted the preliminary labours of providing for the daily wants and the personal security of its members, than the old ideas reappeared upon the surface, and reasserted their familiar supremacy. Venice was always an aristocracy. Her earliest form of government was the administration of justice by twelve magistrates chosen annually from among the chief families. Becoming dissatisfied with the instability and turbulence which attended this system, she exchanged it for a dictatorship which lasted somewhat less than a century. This was in turn succeeded by the government of two, after the fashion of the Roman consulate. And this, in the middle of the third century of her existence, was finally merged in the famous and long-lived Dukedom.
Of the immemorial independence of Venice, more may have been said than is exactly borne out by history. But her recog. nition of the Roman, Gothic, and Byzantine sceptres, though ostensibly kept up for some centuries, was always rather nominal than real. She contributed her quota of provisions to the royal household at Ravenna; but, in return for this act of homage, she was allowed perfect freedom in every essential point.
As early, however, as the end of the seventh century, Venice had been declared a free republic, in a treaty between Charlemagne and the Byzantine emperor, though she continued attached to the latter by ancient ties of friendship, and her existing commercial interests, almost to the Turkish conquest. But Venice at this time escaped a greater danger than any which could have threatened her from the pretensions of the Eastern empire. The great Emperor of the West never quite abandoned the notion of re-uniting the two sovereignties in his own person; and to this end the annexation of the Adriatic republic to his own dominions seemed the first and the final step. As Venice lay, so to speak, midway between the two contending parties, there was of course a French faction and a Greek faction within her walls. Charlemagne adopted the usual measures which are employed in such
He flattered and caressed his partisans, holding out to them the prospect of political predominance and private gratifications, could they succeed in inoculating the people with a taste for the French alliance. We are not to suppose that those Venetians who espoused his cause were necessarily traitors to their country. There is no reason to believe that they suspected his real designs ; and it might possibly be a moot point which of the two connections promised the greater advantages to the growing commerce of the republic, Happily, however, for Venice, the Greek party were enabled to retain their predominance; and, when Charlemagne, availing himself of the first pretext for hostilities, directed his son Pepin, the young king of Italy, to attack the Venetian lagoons; his forces were repulsed with loss, and the independence of the Republic established on a still firmer basis. This benefit, however, had been dearly purchased. The citizens had abandoned all their outermost islands, to intrench themselves in the central one of the Rialto. The destruction of private property had naturally been enormous. But the patriotism displayed on this occasion was the foundation of Venetian greatness. Venice had learned her own strength; and had proved by experience in what lay her true safety. The galleys of Pepin had been stranded in her shallow waters, and his men suffocated by thousands in the mud of her numerous canals. These, then, were her natural defences; and, to make the most of them, she must build her
city in their centre. A new Venice now, therefore, rose on the Rialto; and painters and sculptors were employed to adorn her palaces with memorials of the battle of Albiola. • The above action, followed by, as it were, the second foundation of Venice, was fought in either 804 or 809, A.D.; and, for nearly four hundred years to come, the republic went on extending her commerce, and gradually perfecting her polity, without obtaining any notable accession of territory. By the end of the tenth century she had monopolized the trade of the Levant, and she had acquired such a footing in Dalmatia and Croatia as seemed to justify her sovereign in assuming the title of Doge of these provinces. But it does not appear that she ever obtained any lawful or recognised suzerainty over more than their seaport towns and the adjacent islands. Even these were repeatedly wrested from her by the kings of Hungary, with whom she maintained a sort of running fight during the greater part of her earlier career. Venice, in fact, seems to have been in exactly the same plight as all great mercantile states whose immediate subjects are confined within a limited area. Three-fourths of her available fighting men were wanted for her fleets: the result of which was, that while, partly by her naval superiority, partly by the commercial advantages which it was in her power to confer on her dependents, she had little difficulty in establishing her empire along the coasts of all the neighbouring seas, she was never able for any length of time to maintain her hold upon the inland, and was always liable to be driven out by the concentration of a powerful hostile force on any given point.
About the middle of the eleventh century Venice took the important step of abolishing hereditary succession to the Dogeship. The immediate reason of this change is to be sought in the tyrannical misgovernment of the particular family which had arrogated the right to the crown. But this family had never been recognised as a legitimate royal family, reigning by the grace of God, and as much raised above the highest subject of the realm as he in turn above the fishermen and sailmakers of the lagoons. It was as a family nearly on a level with the rest of the aristocracy, and there could be therefore no conscientious scruples against reducing it to its former condition. Practically, we have no doubt.