Extravagant showmanship, a proclivity toward the taking of calculated risks, and unabashed greed- all salient features of the Venetian way of life- are epitomized in Francesco Guardi’s “Il Ridotto” , which also sums up the decadence of eighteenth-century Venice and prefigures the city’s later role as the fleshpot of Europe.
As elaborately costumed masked revelers disport themselves in the great hall of the Casino of Ca’ Giustinian, a somewhat more purposeful cashier on the far left, transacts business outside one of the gaming parlors- a theme that, with numerous airs and variations, is as clearly perceptible to today’s tourists as it was to Guardi himself.
Didst ever see a Gondola? For fear
You should not, I’ll describe it you exactly:
‘Tis a long covered boat that’s common here,
Carved at the prow, built lightly, but compactly.
Rowed by two rowers, each call’d “Gondolier,”
It glides along the water looking blackly,
Just like a coffin clapt in a canoe,
Where none can make out what you say or do.
And up and down the long canals they go,
And under the Rialto shoot along,
By night and day, all paces, swift or slow,
And round the theatres, a sable throng,
They wait in their dusk livery of woe,–
But not to them do woeful things belong,
For sometimes they contain a deal of fun,
Like mourning coaches when the funeral’s done (Byron)
It was a decadent atmosphere of Venice at the end of the 18th century. A vigorous comment by Jean Cocteau tells us of the sick souls and the sorrows of literary characters and musicians who lived the dream of this city. It is the Venice of Lord Byron, Alfred de Musset, George Sand, d’Annunzio; a Venice made of precious images, palaces reflected in the water, mysterious moonlights, little squares where unhappy lovers wander under the music of Richard Wagner.
Here is one of Byron’s rattling descriptions of a Venetian night. The date is December 27, 1816, and it is written to his publisher, Murray: “As the news of Venice must be very interesting to you, I will regale you with it. Yesterday being the feast of St. Stephen, every mouth was put in motion. There was nothing but fiddling and playing on the virginals, and all kinds of conceits and divertisements, on every canal of this aquatic city.
“I dined with the Countess Albrizzi and a Paduan and Venetian party, and afterwards went to the opera, at the Fenice theatre (which opens for the Carnival on that day)–the finest, by the way, I have ever seen; it beats our theatres hollow in beauty and scenery, and those of Milan and Brescia bow before it. The opera and its Syrens were much like all other operas and women, but the subject of the said opera was something edifying; it turned–the plot and conduct thereof–upon a fact narrated by Livy of a hundred and fifty married ladies having _poisoned_ a hundred and fifty husbands in the good old times. The bachelors of Rome believed this extraordinary mortality to be merely the common effect of matrimony or a pestilence; but the surviving Benedicts, being all seized with the cholic, examined into the matter, and found that their possets had been drugged; the consequence of which was much scandal and several suits at law.
“This is really and truly the subject of the Musical piece at the Fenice; and you can’t conceive what pretty things are sung and recitativoed about the _horreda straga_. The conclusion was a lady’s head about to be chopped off by a Lictor, but (I am sorry to say) he left it on, and she got up and sang a trio with the two Consuls, the Senate in the background being chorus.
“The ballet was distinguished by nothing remarkable, except that the principal she-dancer went into convulsions because she was not applauded on her first appearance; and the manager came forward to ask if there was ‘ever a physician in the theatre’. There was a Greek one in my box, whom I wished very much to volunteer his services, being sure that in this case these would have been the last convulsions which would have troubled the _Ballerina_; but he would not.
“The crowd was enormous; and in coming out, having a lady under my arm, I was obliged in making way, almost to ‘beat a Venetian and traduce the state,’ being compelled to regale a person with an English punch in the guts which sent him as far back as the squeeze and the passage would admit. He did not ask for another; but with great signs of disapprobation and dismay, appealed to his compatriots, who laughed at him.”
“After a last war with the Ottoman Empire, which by now was also collapsing, the Venetians signed the Treaty of Passarowitz with the Ottomans in 1718. After this, Venice followed a policy of neutralism, pacifism, and anti-militarism with slogans strikingly similar to the peace movements of the twentieth century; Ortes wrote that military service was always servitude.
From Passarowitz until the liquidation of the Venetian Republic by Napoleon’s invasion and the Treaty of Campo Formio in 1797, with which Austria absorbed Venice, the Serenissima was able to spin out an “end of history,” with the oligarchy drawing its income from landed estates on the Italian mainland, tourism, and the service sector, including pimps, prostitutes, gigolos, and other parasites. Although more and more of the nobility was impoverished, the few dozen families who were not were among the very richest in Europe. And while Venice had no army at all and no navy to speak of, its secret intelligence agencies and diplomats were among the most active and effective in all of Europe.
By the time of Ortes, the oligarchical cancer that was Venice had largely metastasized to the City of London and the new British Empire. The center of the Venetian Party worldwide was now no longer in the Rialto, but between Westminster and St. Paul’s, and the English countryside was filling up with Georgian copies of the Venetian architect Palladio. But in many areas of intrigue and manipulation, the Venetians of Rialto remained unequaled.
So the general direction of Venetian intelligence operations was to act in support of the British Empire, especially by weakening France and the economic school of Colbert. A second axis of Venetian attack was to undercut the influence of the German scientist and philosopher Leibniz, while attempting–as always–to envelop and destroy any and all positive figures in art, music, science and intellectual life. In the process, the Venetians found ways to express their own devotion to absolute, satanic evil. Among the Venetian assets devoted to these activities we find such figures as Giacomo Casanova, Count Cagliostro (Giuseppe Balsamo), and the economist Giammaria Ortes.
I stood in Venice, on the “Bridge of Sighs”;
A Palace and a prison on each hand:
I saw from out the wave her structures rise
As from the stroke of the Enchanter’s wand:
A thousand Years their cloudy wings expand
Around me, and a dying Glory smiles
O’er the far times, when many a subject land
Looked to the winged Lion’s marble piles,
Where Venice sate in state, throned on her hundred isles.
She looks a sea Cybele, fresh from Ocean,
Rising with her tiara of proud towers
At airy distance, with majestic motion,
A ruler of the waters and their powers:
And such she was;–her daughters had their dowers
From spoils of nations, and the exhaustless East
Poured in her lap all gems in sparkling showers.
In purple was she robed, and of her feast
Monarchs partook, and deemed their dignity increased.(Byron)
In 1727 a theatre in Verona presented a play entitled ‘I Franchi Muratori’ (The Freemasons). In 1746 the Cavalier Alticozzi published his ‘Report on the Company of Freemasons’. If the theatre play ‘The Freemasons’ by Francesco Ghisellini had little success, ‘Le Donne Curiose’ (The Curious Women) by Carlo Goldoni – a play in which the curiosity of the women takes centre stage with regard to what their husbands get up to in their lodge – enjoyed great success during the Carnival of 1753. Giacomo Casanova, probably a Venetian more famous than Marco Polo and Antonio Vivaldi, returned to Venice in that same year after having been initiated in Lyon, where the Count Cagliostro had founded his famous lodge. Casanova was arrested on 21 August 1755, not for being a mason but for his debauched and unscrupulous behaviour.