The Myth of Venice Continued

We had ended with Paruta supporting the ancient example of Sparta in contrast to the ancient example of Rome against Machiavelli.

This is the era of humanism and classicism, where the recovery of ancient texts made possible conscious inspection, and  imitation of classical thoughts, ideas, and history. Renaissance Italians could not get enough; the language of humanism provided a vehicle for legitimation, advice, and moral succor.

When Paruta and Machiavelli, and men like them, wanted to compare political systems or the actions of leaders, they looked back to the examples of the ancients. To compare governments, they had the example of Athens (a democracy, commercial empire, but is limited life-span turned many Renaissance thinkers off of it), Sparta (aristocratic, small, limited empire, but still a republic). Rome (the most glorious; nearly a perfect constitution) and Carthage (but this was used the least). It is interesting to note the occasions when these individual examples would be cited.

Paurta must uphold Sparta because Sparta was organized as an aristocratic republic, that because it did not expand territorially, remained internally stable and lasted as a distinct political entity for hundreds of years. Rome’s imperial greatness, is enticing, but the turmoil that comes along with it would be unacceptable for Venice.

Paruta needs to downplay the importance that Machiavelli attaches to the “lawgiver.”  Sparta had Lycurgus, Athens had Solon, the Jews had Solomon, Rome had Romulus and Numa, but Venice has no founding figure. In fact, the Venetian political system was famous for its unanimity; very few famous figures emerged, no leaders arose around which cliques formed. One historian notes how the number of individual Venetians we have direct records about abound with phrases like “he was a typical Venetian”. Part of the uniqueness of Venice is thus its high level of political and cultural conformity. Paruta must present an argument for the perfection of the Venetian republic that allows for no original great lawgiver; an naturally occurring system that “self-corrects” and does not either decay into corruption or require a new ‘lawgiver’ to restore the society.

Paruta emphasizes the role of ‘accidents'(chance) and the role of forming governments and institutions which ideally suit the local temper of populations and the geography of the area.  Venice’s organic government, its limited, sea-borne empire, is ideally suited to the Venetian situation, says Paruta, and the situation of the ancient Romans (as farmers) ideally suited them to a massive, expanding land empire.

How successful is Paruta in defending the Serenissima? Moderately. Paruta, as a good  ambassador, is sensitive to the uniqueness of each situation. In his Political Discourses, he tests historical situations as well as “modern” historical situations, where he apologetically defends Venice from charges of being “fishermen and merchants.” In many of the episodes which Paruta explores, no clear preference or prescription emerges; he sees benefits to both sides, and acknowledges that the historical actors often did they best they could and probably cannot in honesty be faulted. The Paruta that abhors generalizations and “essentialisms” is attractive, and the Paruta who refers to the Venetian political system consistently as ‘miraculous’ is touching. In many ways, Paruta’s reading of Machiavelli has clearly had an effect. Paruta agrees with Machiavelli on the importance of a citizen-milita instead of relying on mercenaries, and is clearly tempted by the lure of “great deeds and actions”, i.e., a glorious empire.

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