If legend is to be believed, the Giustinian family seem to have been dogged by fate, history or even evolutionary biology. Claiming descent from the Roman emperor Justinian II (murdered by his own troops in 711 CE), they were first recorded in Venice only half a century later, and rapidly became prominent among the ruling aristocracy of the Most Serene Republic.
When war broke out between Venice and the Byzantine empire in 1170, the entire Giustinian clan (the men, that is) volunteered for active service, and not one came back alive – the treacherous Byzantines having called a truce and then poisoned the wells on the island of Chios where the Venetian fleet was wintering. (A less dramatic version of the plot has them dying of the plague.) The Venetians were horror-struck at the extinction of one of their wealthiest families, and took the drastic step of appealing to the pope for the sole surviving adult male Giustinian to be released from his monastic vows. Niccolò Giustinian was retrieved from the monastery of San Niccolò di Lido, married to the daughter of the doge (who came with a massive dowry), and justified the confidence placed in him by fathering nine sons and three daughters. Duty done, he returned to his monastic cell, and his wife retired to a nunnery.
Over the next few centuries, the descendants of Niccolò flourished, and as many as fifty families bore the name. Their wealth can be demonstrated by their magnificent palaces – this one
(in which Wagner composed the second act of Tristan and Isolde) is at the bend of the Grand Canal; another, opposite Santa Maria della Salute, is now the headquarters of the Venice Biennale. However, by the mid nineteenth century, their numbers had declined again, to only four families. Today, there is only one Giustinian listed in the Venice phone book.
The family, over the years, supplied several procurators of St Mark’s, some bishops, a great many scholars, and one doge (Marcantonio, in the seventeenth century). Today’s subject, however, is Sebastiano Giustinian (1460–1543), who after more than twenty years’ service to the Venetian state, was unexpectedly asked to take on the role of ambassador to King Henry VIII of England. The nominated ambassador had been seized by an apoplectic fit while at supper; twelve days later, Giustinian was elected to the post, which he seems to have accepted with some reluctance, both because of unfinished business from previous postings (including the prosecution of an Illyrian gentleman who had had an improper intimacy with a nun and also murdered a barber) but also because he felt the proposed salary would be inadequate to the level of ostentatious display which the role would require.
Rawdon Lubbock Brown (1806–83), the editor of the seven-volume Calendar of State Papers and Manuscripts, Relating to English Affairs, Existing in the Archives and Collections of Venice, and in Other Libraries of Northern Italy, published in 1854 an abridged edition of Giustinian’s despatches from England between 1515 and 1519, linked by explanatory narrative and with helpful notes.
For those of us who tend to think of Henry VIII as a bloated, bearded king with a bad record in the marriage department, these two volumes are absolutely fascinating. They cover a short period – 12 January 1515 to 26 June 1519, to be precise – which led up to the meeting between Henry VIII and his rival monarch Francis I of France in June 1520 at the ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’.
Plans for such a meeting had been in train for years, and the diplomatic complexities which formed its context are the subject of the work. Henry VIII had succeeded to the English throne in 1509: he was almost universally described as unusually tall, handsome, red-haired, glowing with energy, unrivalled in the hunting or tilting field, a scholar and musician, and very happily married to his Spanish wife, Catherine of Aragon. He was also spending money like there was no tomorrow, on clothes and jewellery (read the passages about the St George’s Day and May Day celebrations in 1515), and on manipulating the politics of Europe by ‘subsidies’, i.e. bribery.
Famously, the power behind the throne, the ‘eminence rouge’ of Henry’s court, was Thomas Wolsey, archbishop of York, whose elevation to the status of cardinal was announced soon after Giustinian arrived in England. Wolsey seems to have been keen to achieve and maintain European peace, in spite of the many casus belli which plagued the continent, and in particular the Italian peninsula. Venice’s immediate problem was that Verona, claimed as hers by right since 1405, was occupied by the Hapsburg emperor Maximilian. Venice wanted her (alleged) allies, France and England, to aid attempts to drive the Austrians out. Meanwhile, the French had a claim to Milan, which they were trying to enforce by military means, and wanted help from Venice. Meanwhile the pope was against Venice, and let’s not forget the Swiss, who were the most important troops in the area at the time and would fight for anyone if paid enough, and the Turks, rapidly overrunning central Europe…
Giustinian reported back to Venice at least twice every week on his dealings with the king and with Wolsey, as well as on meetings with other influential courtiers and ambassadors. A recurring theme in the books is that he is fighting blind: his messages are not acknowledged, no firm instructions are sent to him, he is therefore forced to take his own initiative. If he offers support for a specific action or viewpoint, and the Council later overrules him, he loses authority in England, but if he prevaricates and commits himself to nothing, he is seen as weak.
He understands that when his audience is with the king, he is possibly being given misleading information, or equally possibly being told the first thing that has come into the king’s head on a particular day. It is then a question of noting down what was said, and what he said in return, and providing a gloss or interpretation of the king’s views. With the cardinal, it is much more difficult. Wolsey may be telling the truth or telling lies (and will swear by his cardinal’s hat equally enthusiastically in either case), but he knows Giustinian knows that there is an intended subtext to everything he says, which the ambassador has to work out as best he can.
Other ambassadors are more straightforward to deal with: they will all lie about everything, especially the Spanish one, though Giustinian reserves his especial loathing for the emperor’s ambassador, the cardinal of Sion, whose name he can barely bring himself to write, let alone apply to him all the titles of courtesy with which the despatches are otherwise decorated.
After four years of diplomatic fencing, possibly accompanied by the sensation that he was achieving very little, and now aged 59, Giustinian had had enough. A successor had been appointed as ambassador, but he met with an accident. The Council then wondered whether, after the treaty of London (a non-aggression pact among most of the states of Europe, negotiated by Wolsey and signed in 1518), it was worth the expense of keeping an ambassador in England at all. (This was an extraordinarily naïve view, of course, and luckily they changed their minds.) So on 26 July 1519, Giustinian penned his last despatch and set off for home.
If he had hoped for a relatively quiet life thereafter, he was to be disappointed. His evident skill at walking on eggshells led to his being appointed ambassador to France in 1526, and again in 1529 – by which time of course the marriage of the king and queen of England was beginning to unravel and the non-aggression pact had been broken several times. Giustinian was finally recalled home in 1532, but he continued to serve the state in various domestic capacities until 1540, dying in 1543. One of his three sons, Marino, followed in his diplomatic footsteps, but tragically died two years before his father, after a shipwreck, and this whole branch of the great family was extinct by 1612.