Devoted readers of this blog (well, we must live in hope, must we not?) will be aware that I spent a lot of time going on about Venice, and as much time as possible going to Venice. Imagine my excitement, therefore, when one of our advisors on topics Ottoman and Byzantine suggested that we reissue various monumental nineteenth-century editions of manuscripts in the state archives of Venice. Among these are the eight volumes of I Libri Commemoriali della Republica di Venezia, originally published between 1876 and 1914 as part of the ‘Monumenti Storici della Deputazione Veneta di Storia Patria’ and edited (apart from the last volume, completed after his death), by the heroic efforts of Riccardo Predelli (1842–1909). We also have Tafel and Thomas’ Urkunden zur Älteren Handels- und Staatsgeschichte der Republik Venedig, and the equally fascinating Relazioni degli Ambasciatori Veneti al Senato, edited by Eugenio Albèri.
The texts in Predelli (which will do wonders for my reading ability in Italian, though I doubt if they will help much with my lamentable efforts to speak the language) are summaries of documents from the state archives, some of them very terse, some so extensive that they must in fact reproduce the whole of the original content. The bureaucracy of the Serene Republic was then (as now) sufficiently awesome that the mounds of vellum and parchment threatened to overwhelm the everyday business of politics, law and trade, and on several occasions the reigning doge required that Something Be Done: Predelli reports that in 1248, Doge Iacopo Tiepolo ordered a commission to sort, codify and summarise the legal documents held by the city, because the courts no longer had any idea what the law and precedents bearing on a particular case were.
The documents described range from workaday sales or leases of land in the terrafirma, to bills of lading for barrels of wine to be transported on Venetian galleys, to diplomatic drafts and treaties of international importance. There is a great deal about the French invasion of Italy which led to the sack of Rome in 1527. I ‘did’ this period for A-level History many years ago, and have always remembered the Important Point To Shoehorn Into Essay that ‘Pope Clement VII was [allegedly] the only person in Europe to be mindful of the Turkish Threat (siege of Vienna, 1529)’. Now, in Volume 6, we find Clement VII and Doge Andrea Gritti making eternal peace with Francis I of France (who was at this time also, by conquest, Duke of Milan) in December 1524. By April 1526, Clement is asking Florentine and Mantuan envoys to negotiate a ‘pacification of Christendom’ in order to offer united opposition to the progress of the Turks: they are to approach Francis I, the Doge of Venice, the Duke of Milan (now Francesco II Sforza, restored to his ancestral rule when Charles V had driven Francis out in 1525), and ‘Enrico re d’Inghilterra’. Famously, that didn’t work (Henry VIII no longer quite seeing his way to helping out the Pope), and by April 1527, Venice and France are threatening war on the Pope for having conspired with enemies, in contravention of the treaty of 1524. Clement is now caught between treating with the Imperial army, against which he has no realistic chance of defending Rome, and sticking to his original alliance even though France and Venice can do nothing to help him. The next reference is from October 1527: the College of Cardinals desires to achieve the freedom of the Pope from captivity…
Skipping on fifty years or so, we find that on 7 November 1571, the special envoy and the ambassador of the Duchy of Savoy attend the Council to congratulate Venice on the recent victory over the Turks (the battle of Lepanto, which, as all right-thinking people know, was won by Sebastiano Venier and not by Don John of Austria, whatever G.K. Chesterton may claim on the subject), but this is in the context of an ongoing tiff as to whether their master is entitled to the rank of altezza. And seventy years after that, in November 1642, ‘Carlo I re della Gran Bretagna, di Francia, d’Irlanda, ecc.’ receives the credentials of a Venetian ambassador not in London but at his ‘court in exile’ in Oxford after the outbreak of the Civil War.
Elsewhere, you can read Pope Sixtus V’s relatively benign proclamation about the Jews in the lands of Christendom: where they can and can’t live; the occupations they can and can’t pursue; their legal rights and (limited) freedom to pursue their religion (this after a period of severe persecution in Italy). Or Paul V’s threat to place an interdict on Venice if the Council doesn’t stop claiming the right to grant or refuse religious orders permission to build ‘monasteries and holy places’ on Venetian territory. Or that the Sultan’s mother thanks the Council, via the Venetian bailo at Istanbul, for the (unspecified) gifts… Or the long list of named Bosniak pirates who were to be expelled from the Adriatic port of Segna (Senj) and its environs.
The documents span the period from the eleventh to the eighteenth centuries, though the earliest period is less well represented. And there are noticeable trends in the content: a great deal in the fifteenth century about the recruitment of troops and the hiring of condottieri; after Lepanto, a great many messages from the Ottoman Sultan complaining about Venetian infringements of the uneasy peace in the Adriatic and the eastern Mediterranean; or, occasionally, thanking the Council for a favour, such as the freeing by the Venetians of Turkish prisoners on a Spanish ship.
But what is fascinating as you dip in and out, or try to follow a sequences of related documents, is the repetition of familiar names: Venier and Falier, Mocenigo and Contarini, Tiepolo and Badoer, Giustiniani, Dandolo, Loredan, Querini, Barbaro, Zen . . . names on palazzi, on alleyways, on portraits in the museums, and in the phone book. These books are a fantastic resource for anyone seriously interested in the history of the Serene Republic (and each volume has comprehensive indices of people and places); but they also provide a wonderful browsing ground for those who want their glimpses of history direct rather than supplied through the medium of an A-level textbook.