For a thousand years Venice held, “the gorgeous east in fee” and set its own terms for the West. Then Napoleon saw a bluff…and called it….
In Venice’s finest years she was a hard, unyielding, brilliant sort of state; an outsider state, never ordinary, never quite acceptable to, or trusted by, the comity of nations. She had brazenly traded with the infidel Turks and was notorious for her opportunism. She was moreover, immensely pleased with herself. In the noblest days of the republic her people thought of themselves not so much as rich men or poor, patricians or plebians, but simply as Venetians, citizens of the best of states. They assumed that the Piazza San Marco- which Napoleon himself was to call “the finest drawing room in Europe” – was the center of the world, and they looked upon themselves with narcissistic delight.
Merchants, diplomats and sailors may have created the grandeur of the state, but it was immortalized by a succession of great Venetian artists- from the Bellini’s of the fifteenth-century, by way of Carpaccio, Giorgione, and Palma Vecchio, to Titian, Tintoretto, and Palladio in the years of climax. Though they mostly painted religious subjects, they were really celebrating the glory of their republic.
Before this noble spectacle the world stood astonished, for there had never been such a city- such a haughty hybrid of East and West, set so theatrically in the water like a sea creature behind its reef.
After 1500 the story of Venice is one of almost unbroken decline, but the process was so slow, and so disguised with pageantry, that the world scarcely knew what was happening. Yet for another three centuries Venice survived. Inspired artists still emerged from her studios, majestic buildings still arose upon her mud flats, her manners and customs became ever more superb. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the fire died.
By the eighteenth century Venice became above all, a carnival. “The Revel of the Earth,” as Byron put it. “the masque of Italy.” The pose became the reality; the facade, the state. In the overblown flower of her eighteenth century decadence, stripped of her consequence and her possessions, Venice was the most dissolute, the most carefree, in many ways the most charming place in the world.
To her theatres, casinos, and salons the hedonists flocked from all of Europe. Gossip and license were her specialities now, and her gifts were devoted to pleasure. Almost anything went in this dizzily permissive society that was half boudoir, half bordello. The Venetians shamelessly played to the tourist gallery, and for the most part their visitors were less shocked than delighted. It may have been pathetic, but it was fun, and it had style. Tipolo the painter caught the rococo allure of it in his guileless blues and pastry whirligigs or ornament; Goldoni immortalized the frothy humour; Goethe responded to the underlying innocence when he called the doge “the grandpa of all the Venetians.”
…By 1797, Napoleon was ready to sweep Venice into oblivion. To him, the republic was no more than a depraved parody of a reactionary original, and like a scourge he fell upon the city that summer and ended its ancient glory. The golden horses of the Basilica went to Pari
or installation upon a triumphal arch, and diamonds from St. Mark’s Treasury were put aside, to be set a few years later in Josephine’s crown. The last of the doges, whose visiting card was decorated with a nude Adonis asleep beneath a tree, abdicated without protest, handing his ducal hat to his servant with the listless comment: ” Take it away. We shan’t be needing it again.”
I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;
2 A palace and a prison on each hand:
3 I saw from out the wave her structures rise
4 As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand:
5 A thousand years their cloudy wings expand
6 Around me, and a dying Glory smiles
7 O’er the far times, when many a subject land
8 Look’d to the winged Lion’s marble piles,
9 Where Venice sate in state, thron’d on her hundred isles!
10 She looks a sea Cybele, fresh from ocean,
11 Rising with her tiara of proud towers
12 At airy distance, with majestic motion,
13 A ruler of the waters and their powers:
14 And such she was; her daughters had their dowers
15 From spoils of nations, and the exhaustless East
16 Pour’d in her lap all gems in sparkling showers.
17 In purple was she rob’d, and of her feast
18 Monarchs partook, and deem’d their dignity increas’d.
19 In Venice Tasso’s echoes are no more,
20 And silent rows the songless gondolier;
21 Her palaces are crumbling to the shore,
22 And music meets not always now the ear:
23 Those days are gone–but Beauty still is here.
24 States fall, arts fade–but Nature doth not die,
25 Nor yet forget how Venice once was dear,
26 The pleasant place of all festivity,
27 The revel of the earth, the masque of Italy!…
(Byron, Childe Harold)