At the fall of the ancient world – the final cataclysmic barbarian invasions of the Western Roman Empire – local inhabitants fled to some marshy islands right off the Italian coast at the end of the Adriatic Sea. Over the course of the next several hundred years, the inhabitants of these islands established themselves as an important and thriving economic and shipping port city.
By the 1300s, Venice had established itself as a leading Italian and Mediterranean power. While most Italian cities, and larger European nations were feudal, landed nations, often constantly engaged in low-level warfare, Venice lived a sort of “splendid isolation”, benefiting commercially from wars and peace alike. By the end of the 1400s, Venice had reached her peak. She had expanded across the eastern Mediterranean, and now held considerable land territories in northern Italy.
In 1494, at the instigation of the Pope, French armies defended in to Italy. This triggered nearly thirty years of complicated, shifting alliances, conspiracy, revolt, treason, etc. At one point – nearly all of the powers in the Mediterranean world formed an alliance – the League of Cambrai – against Venice. It was the supreme crisis, not just because every European power was conspiring to destroy Venice, but the Venetian army was beaten badly right off the bat. Only the waters of of the Venetian Lagoon saved the Republic. Eventually, through the treacherous shifting sands of diplomacy and high politics, the lands were recovered by a chastened Venice several years later.
But there were bigger problems looming for Venice. The decaying Byzantine Empire (which at one time claimed Venice as a dependent city) was gone, destroyed by the Turks, who were aggressively expanding both on land and on sea. The Portuguese were starting to engineer the new trade routs to the Indies, and were slowly starting to cut into Venice’s spice trade.
Thus, by the early 16th century, Venice was a second rate power, hemmed in by hostile powers and finding her commercial trade increasingly risky and competitive.
The Venetian political concept and ideology became a well known myth in early modern Europe. Venice was the Serenissima, the Serene Republic; the perfect mixed constitution of monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements hoped for by Aristotle, which guaranteed a sort of perpetual internal stability. The crisis of the League of Cambrai had served to create a self-conscious strengthening of this myth.
Niccolo Machiavelli, a Florentine, here enters the picture. Machiavelli is famous for The Prince, a guidebook for aggressive, expansionist rulers, that shocked and dazzled contemporaries, and is a important step to our modern ideas of abstract, rational states. Since ancient times, political thought had been based around how cities should be organized, and how to produce virtue in the citizen body. Christian writers like Augustine were interested in sorting out men’s souls and organizing a Christendom on earth. Machiavelli is a realist, a man in the winter of his discontent. Man is neither good or bad; a Prince who wants to rule needs not be loved or even liked; to be hated and feared is ok. Cunning and subterfuge is a part of being a ruler. Machiavelli, as a support of a Florentine Republic looks back to ancient Rome, and thinks that, with some tweaking, Florence could be organized to be a new Empire on the Roman model. He thinks that Rome had a perfect constitution, and the fact that Rome fell leads Machiavelli to conclude that all political systems will inevitably be corrupted and either be renewed by a “law-giver” or collapse. All told, Machiavelli makes for pretty weak reading these days (I would literally kill to hear his thoughts on modern US politics; I think that even Machiavelli himself would find them cynical and corrosive).
While Machiavelli is not “anti-Venetian”, he would certainly be a skeptic of the Myth of Venice, and his writing provides a vocabulary and ammunition to the critics and enemies of Venice. This is where Paolo Paruta comes in. Paruta is a leading Venetian aristocrat, diplomat, and historian. And in his “Political Discourses” he sets out to shore up the Myth of Venice. Paruta asks (vastly over simplified here): what is so great about Rome? Why do we want to imitate this empire which was full of internal discord, civil war, and bloody expansion? Paruta posits that peace, internal stability and tranquility is the natural state of cities and governments. Only Fear and Jealousy prompt wars, and expansionistic warfare is an uncertain gamble, as likely to result in your own ruin as anyone else’s.
Paruta needs to assert the Venetian form of Republic (mixed, but primarily aristocratic) against Machiavelli’s preference for a republic based on a certain amount of internal tension. So Paruta basically cites the success of the Venetian state so far in history, quotes Aristotle, and claims that because the people of rome had too much power, and the grandees of Rome had too much wealth, it could only go badly. Paruta supports the ancient example of Sparta over Rome.