Welcome to the half-way point of our series! If you want to catch up on what came before in Venetian history to this point (in a limited way) click here!
Well, we all knew it was coming to this.
The end of a long tug of war
The serrata was a cementing of trends that had been dogging the republic of Venice for some time. Since she first broke away from the Carolingians (maybe even before). The tension lay between a more populist (and directly democratic) system of government more similar to other Italian communes of the era. Kropotkin's own observations on Italian commune structures noted that they weren't immune to hierarchies, and excluded many of the poor, the participation of women and other faults. Still, they were more democratic than a straight up monarchy. The communes were built more on a guild-style structure, something that Venice incorporated into its own republic in the fullness of time.
But in the first half of Venetian history, another major tension came from the office of the doge itself. As we saw with the Antenori brothers and their whacky power grab, the early doges were a major source of instability. The Antenori swept into power, not through an election, but by one of the few popular revolts in Venice that succeeded in toppling a doge. Such coups and threatened power grabs--that is, making one family paramount and the doge a hereditary monarch--were a constant source of mistrust and social tensions in early Venetian history. There were of course other families that tried to consolidate power in a similar manner to the Antenori or Orseoli, but by the time of the serrata the attempts to hold onto power in the dogeship in such obvious ways had petered out.
The Venetian government's suspicion and mistrust of the doge, however, if anything, had only intensified and the restrictions on his power only tightened.
Class and The Lock-In
Historian Gary Wills summarizes the perils of making broad statements about Venetian class structures in his book on the subject:
“The third caste in Venice made up ninety percent of the populace….there were wealthy popolani just as there were poor Nobili and cittadini…yet oddly enough, this inner division of single groups helped them cohere with other groups up and down the social ladder. Each was a kind of Venice in miniature, with overlapping structures.”
This segmentization of Venice was actually a strength. The oligarchs of Venice did not, as a rule, wall themselves up in fortresses with imposing drawbridges or spikes. For one thing, there wasn't room for such things, and for another, while they were oligarchs, this cramped condition meant that they mingled far more with non-oligarchs than one might expect, walking in the same streets, boats and even living in the same neighborhoods. This meant that, for a time, anyway, they had a far better understanding of the daily lives of their fellow citizens than say, the nobles of Milan or Naples, for example.
So, let us go to one of our sources on the serrata. JJ Norwich in his History of Venice summarizes the lead up to the lock in, and the continuing process of consolidating oligarchic power:
“At the base of the same pyramid the Venetian populace had as we have already seen lost virtually all its influence, and as recently as 1289, had signally failed to reassert it…for those without the advantages of wealth or family connections, membership was not easy to obtain. From the start the Council had been self-selecting, thus, inevitably over the years, it had grown more and more into a closed society.”
“And yet, for all that, there can be no denying that what has gone down in Venetian history as the serrata—literally, the locking—del Maggior Consiglio created, at a stroke, a closed caste in the society of the Republic; a caste with its own inner elite of those who had sat in the Great Council during those four critical years between 1293 and 1297, but which also embraced those whose parentage or whose own past record, gave them a past title to membership…in 1315 a list was compiled of all Venetian citizens eligible for election; and from this, in view of the rigid exclusion of all those born out of wedlock or of a non-patrician mother, it was a short step to that great register of noble marriages and births that was later to become famous as the libro d’oro—the Golden Book.”
This new social arrangement consolidated power in the hands of the oligarchs. The republic of Venice had hardened its caste lines so as to prevent almost all social mobility on the basis of class--though not, interestingly, on the lines of wealth. For all the Venetian fanaticism for the state and loyalty to Venice above all, they had a very hands-free attitude towards the day-to-day life of the city, trusting people to largely organize themselves along neighborhood lines.
War of Chioggia (1378-1381)
This was the last of four major wars that Venice fought against Genoa, and undoubtedly the one it was in existential danger during.
In The Venetians author Colin Thubron notes the last desperate struggle of the Venetians against the Genoans in the very mouth of the lagoon:
“Never in the history of the republic had Venice been in graver danger. With part of the fleet under Admiral Carlo Zeno, away in the East, and the rest of the navy decimated in a recent battle against the Genoese, the Venetians had only six war galleys at their disposal.
Doge Andrea Contarini dispatched three ambassadors to Chioggia seeking a compromise. But the Genoese admiral rejected the offer. “You shall never have peace wit the lord of Pauda or our republic until we have bridled the bronze horses that stand in your square of St. Mark,” he said. “When we have the reins in our hands, we shall know how to keep them quiet.”
Venice, at this point, had eclipsed Constantinople as an art-hub--largely from plundering Byzantium, as we discussed in our episode of the Fourth Crusade. The Genoan commander is making a sly reference to the horse-statues the Venetians stole from the Byzantines--not so subtly stating that Venice would be sacked in much the sack way the Venetians had ravaged Byzantium.
The Venetians were so desperate to rally what citizens they had to fight the invading Genoans with any carrots and sticks they had available. This prompted the Venetians to make the only large-scale opening to the serrata in their history--people who performed valorous service in aid of the Republic in her moment of crisis could be lifted to the rank of oligarchic power.
This promise, along with the very real threat of starvation and the sword proved enough of a motivator that, combined with the return of Zeno's fleet, the Genoans were driven from the lagoon.
And so on forever and ever
Girolamo Priuli ( a 16th century Venetian writer) once quipped:
“Time does much for republics, because they never die.”
Historian Gary Wills picks up where Priuli left off, saying:
“The Venetians had a sense of time different from that observable Italian cities where regimes came and went, of longer or shorter duration, marked off from each other by violent wrenches, by sharp changes in personnel, constitutions, and character. The life of the lagoon republic, seemed by contrast, a seamless continuity.”
In the same way that nation-state would like to project that they are eternal, changeless entities, so did Venice take steps to portray herself as deathless. The Most Serene Republic could never be destroyed in the same way a monarchial power could, for its people and institution(al knowledge) would persist beyond the death of individuals.
In the modern day, we see this corporate, deterministic ethos in too big to fail banks or corporations, who are as interested in pruning the imagination away from a world without them as Venice was.
Declaring perpetuity, in short, is not a statement of strength, but of insecurity.