7 Venice as a Model for Victorian England

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hirteen years after the appearance of the last volume of John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice, Dallas similarly urges the British reader to pay close attention to the history of this once-powerful country trading nation with a dominant navy. The sections devoted to the history of Venice fit rather oddly — in fact distort the structure — of both books. Although most of The Stones of Venice concentrates on the development of the architecture details from gothic to renaissance of Venetian buildings, the “The Quarry,” the book’s famous opening chapter, however, appears in the language and style of the Victorian sage warning his readers to pay attention to what happened to the Venetian state. The long, detailed discussion of Venice in The Gay Science follows hundreds of pages of philosophical discussion of the nature of pleasure, conscious and unconscious, that ranges through the history of European philosophy and draws on many passages from literature. Like Ruskin’s history of Venice, Dallas’ seemingly violates the structure of his book.

Despite these similarities, The Gay Science has several major differences, the most important of which is that Dallas holds up Venice as proper model for Victorian England. Furthermore, perhaps rather oddly Dallas does not mention Ruskin or The Stones of Venice, although he had earlier praised him at length for virtually singlehandedly creating the wide acceptance of painting and the fine arts. Finally, Dallas begins his discussion by attacking the views of two very different thinkers — Matthew Arnold and Thomas Carlyle, the first of whom one may take as a thinker opposed to Ruskin’s ideas, style, tone, and roots in the prophetic tradition, the second the major influence upon him —neither of whom would have agreed with Dallas’s main point, that “the trading Spirit represses the so-called hero and encourages the private individual.” — George P. Landow

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f we would know whether there is any connection of cause and effect between the predominance of the trading spirit and the withering of individual character, then look at the history of Venice. Of all foreign histories which it behoves Englishmen to study, that is by far the most important. [252/253] But it is studied very little; and Mr. Disraeli, himself of Venetian extraction, is the only one of our statesmen who seems to have mastered it. In the Venice of the middle ages we see before us a picture of modern England which we can hold at arm's length and study.

Medieval Venice the Head of Christian Civilization

In her day, Venice was at the head of Christian civilization; her empire was the grandest in Europe; her navies were the most powerful on the earth. She rejoiced in freedom when other nations bowed their necks to the cruel yoke of the feudal system, and even before the English barons had a Magna Carta to boast of. Her mariners knew all the coasts of Europe, and had found their way to Iceland, to Labrador, and to Newfoundland, before Columbus was born. Marco Polo had prayed to St. Mark in Tartary, India, and Cathay, while as yet Europe dreamt not of journeyings beyond the established route of palmers and pilgrims. It was about the same time, the end of the 13th century, that the golden ducats of Dandolo came into note and obtained a currency similar to that enjoyed afterwards by the Spanish dollar and now by the English sovereign. They were carried far beyond the confines of Europe, so that when Clive, after the battle of Plassy, came upon the hoarded treasures of the East, his eyes were astonished by the sight of ducats and sequins carried of old to these distant regions by Venetian traders. [253/254] The trade of Venice was so large that in the beginning of the 15th century the Doge Mocenigo calculated the commerce with Lombardy alone as worth nearly 29,000,000 ducats a year. The Venetian galleys carried wine to the English, honey to the Scythians, wood to the Greeks and Egyptians, safFron, oil, and linen to Syria, Persia, and Arabia. They were the great carriers of the world. It was by means of Venetian galleys that the postal service between Germany and Constantinople was accomplished. As we read of the doings of Venetian merchants and the windings of Venetian polity, we are in the heart of the the middle ages, but we hear all the the modern cries and feel the modern pulse. The hands are the rough, hairy hands of the mediaeval Esau, but the voice is the voice of the modern Jacob in all his various degrees from Jacobin to Jacobite.

The Venetian Invention of “Bureaucratic Machinery”

In no other history of the middle ages can we find such a phenomenon. . . . The whole system of routine is modern in its aspect. The Venetian [254/255] Government was the earliest in Europe that chapter organized a bureaucratic machinery, that developed largely the use of red tape, that elaborated the diplomatic etiquette and official routine which, in its decrepitude, we know as the peculiar glory of the circumlocution office. Commerce is indebted to the Italians for that singularly ingenious system of book-keeping by double entry without which it would nowadays be impossible to conduct safely a large business. What double entry is to commerce, etiquette, routine, division of labour, and standing orders are to political administration; and to the Italians we are indebted for both systems. In the commercial polity of Venice Englishmen are especially interested. In many of the discussions in the Great Council one fancies that one hears the first notes of an infant Manchester school. Venice was constantly at war, but, being a nation of traders, its instincts were always on the side of peace, and an orator in the Great Council often looks curiously like Mr. John Bright in garments of mediaeval cut, or Mr. Cobden clothed in purple.

The Venetian Funds and Their Relation to Lower Taxes

Most curious of all, however, is it to think of the Funds in these middle ages. We who are apt to regard a national debt as quite a modern invention, seeing it is not two centuries old in this country, are amazed to hear of loans contracted in Venice for the State so early [255/256] as the 12th century, to hear of the rise and and fall of the funds in the 13th century, and to think of the Four per Cents, and the Five per Cents. as in those middle ages a a good investment. The Venetian Funds were an invention of the revolution of 1173, just as the English Funds were a creation of the revolution of 1688. Mr. Disraeli is never tired of repeating that from 1688 to 1831 England was governed by a Venetian oligarchy, and the oligarchy had certainly learned the Venetian art of creating a public debt. Our Dutch William learned the secret in Holland. Money was required for certain purposes which were, no doubt, as commendable as they were imperative. But a Government, newly established and by no means secure, could not afford to tax the people heavily. It was a great thing for William's Government to afford our people the diversion of war and the glory of victory; but it was impossible to incur the odium of laying the burdens of the contest and the cost of the whistle on a nation accustomed to rebellion and but half satisfied with the revolution.

So it was at Venice towards the close of the 12th ccntury. Under the new constitution the people were deprived of their open assemblies. Their Arrengi, as they had previously been conducted, were robbed, indeed, of almost all their power. But under the new constitution it became [256/257] necessary to adjust the finances of the chapter State, which recent wars had brought to the verge of bankruptcy, and it was a matter of importance that the taxes of the new Council should not be felt after those of the old, as the chastisement of scorpions after the chastisement of whips. The expedient of a loan, and a chamber of loans, was proposed. The Four per Cents. were raised. Gradually the system was carried out so completely, loan after loan being regarded in raised, that in process of time the Venetian Funds came to be regarded as a first-rate investment. Foreign princes, trembling for their power, and not knowing what should afterwards become of them, prudently sought permission to place their money — hundreds of thousands of ducats — in the secure keeping of the Chamber of Loans, and this, too, although in those troublous times the prices fluctuated prodigiously, being sometimes as low as 18½, and never higher than 60. Where such an institution flourishes we at once feel that we are on modern ground. The Bank of Venice was the oldest institution of the kind in Europe, and, though banks and public funds are very gross material things, yet they very nearly express the essential facts of modern civilization. They mean money — they mean security — they mean debt — they mean heavy taxes to meet the interest of that debt — and more or less involve all the great problems of political economy. [257/258]

In the Venice of the middle ages we thus find ourselves in the very centre of commercial ideas, and of a commercial polity directed, as in England, by a mixed Government. Furthermore those who, with Archdeacon Hare and Mr. Phillmore, denouuce the destructive effects of the commercial spirit can point with triumph to the speedy fall of the Bride of the Adriatic. We read of Venice in the Venice in the height of power and refinement, when the other kingdoms of Western Europe were sunk in barbarism and struggling for existence, and we are astonished to hear of this mighty empire declining as the others, rising into notice, shook off the bonds of the mediaeval darkness. But the cause of that decline must be traced not to the fact that Venice was a commercial empire, but to the fact that she had no agriculture — that she was a city without a country. It was upon this very ground that Venice maintained her right of dominion over the seas. In answer to a message from the Pope as to the free navigation of the Gulf, the Ducal Government stated that Venice having no lands depended on the sea, and that her home and her path was on the deep, and that it was of vital importance to her that the Lion of St. Mark should rule the waters. Driven out upon the seas, she asserted her supremacy there, and, cooped up amid the lagoons, developed a municipal system to the highest point, [258/259] when all around was only feudalism. Queen of the sea, and enjoying all the strength that could be derived from municipal institutions and an elaborate constitutional government, Venice be- came very great; but in her greatness there were the seeds of death, for she had no broad footing upon the land.

. . . . Nor was Venice only without a country, its wide-spread colonies were not colonies as we understand them, but branch establishments of trade. The Venetian colonist was still a Venetian citizen, paying his dues to the treasury of St. Mark, and never really naturalized in the coimtry of his adoption. An empire, based upon the fickleness of commerce, and upon that alone, rests evidently upon a foundation as precarious as those shifting sands of the lagoons from which the Doge Ziani tried to lure away his fellow-islanders.

Venice as a Lesson for England

But in all this there is a lesson which tells directly on the argument of the present chapter. If we who glory in the originality of our constitution, and in the singularity of our commercial position, may find somewhat to lessen our pride and to teach us caution, in the history of Venice; once comparatively great as we are, free as we are, proud as we are; now sunk into decay, her navies reduced to a few gondolas, her palaces until but yesterday the spoil of the spoiler, and her paths the paths of the conqueror; we may also take comfort against the reproaches of those who attribute the withering of individual character [260/261] to the incubus of commerce, from the extraordinary force of individual character among the Venetians, which all the levelling influence of their trade could not crush. From being a collection of fishing villages and islands, Venice became an immense emporium, the leading men of which were at once merchants and princes. From being lord of a few morasses and shifting sands the Doge of Venice rose to be Doge of Venice, Dalmatia, and Croatia; he became the mate of Kings and Emperors; and the dynasties of the Badoeri, the Sanudi, and the Orseoli met on equal terms the House of Hohenstaufen in Germany, and the descendants of Capet in France. The trading aristocracy of Venice is the shrewdest that history makes any mention of, and, traders all, they felt and asserted their equality. Their differences were differences of wealth, and, above a certain level, differences of wealth do not constitute a social distinction. The difference between the man who has £5,000 a year and him who has £50,000 is by no means proportionate to the difference between men who have respectively £50 and £500. Above a certain level all differences of this kind go for nothing, and an aristocracy of wealthy traders insisted upon their equality. In the course of time they so asserted their rights that the Great Council of Venice became the most august assembly in the world. Proud and [261/262] exclusive as it was, however, the Venetian oligarchy had the natural sympathy of merchants with the people.

The Spirit of the Venetian Aristocracy

We trace the whole spirit of the Venetian aristocracy in one great though exceptional fact. On the fall of Chioggia, when the very existence of the Republic was in danger, the Senate published a decree that of those families of plebeian rank who should most powerfully assist the State, either in purse or person in this its hour of need, thirty should be summoned after the peace to the Great Council; and in fulfilment of this pledge we find masons and other artisans, vintners, dealers in peltry, apothecaries, and the like, introduced into the same chamber with the Sanudi and the Badoeri, the Contarini and the Dandoli, who could trace back their honours to the first rise of the Republic.

The Exceptional Quality of the Doges

The point for us which is worthy of of especial notice is that in the long line of Doges characters, selected from this aristocracy we have a series of remarkable characters, such as no other monarchy or presidency, elective or hereditary, can boast of. They were men of native force and of modern type — heroes who derived their authority from strength of character and not from feudal observance, and who, being the elect of municipal institutions, were above all others pre-eminent in that administrative ability which in these latter days has come to be regarded as the prime quality of statesmanship. There is [262/263] an originality about these Doges which is ever pleasant. . . . It is out of nature so pure and strength so great as this that true nobility proceeds. Read of Giovanni and Andrea Dandolo, read of Pietro Contarini, who was literally forced to leave his privacy to assume the berretta. These were great, peculiar men. . . . And in presence of such men we are driven to the denial of Hare's and Phillimore's assertion that commerce enfeebles character, or that whatever feebleness of character we may find in modern life is due to the predominance of the trading spirit.

The Trading Spirit Represses the So-called Hero and Encourages the Private Individual.

That the position of the individual has come to be altered in modern society is certainly not the result of a sordid propensity. Increase of commerce, for example, implies the increased prevalence of law; and law makes short work of heroics. In reading history, one constantly lence of comcs upou characters that are nowadays almost unknown in public life — hot, angry men, who cannot be controlled, and whom it is death to offend. They might flourish in an age when might was right; they wither in an age of law. At the Council of Constance, the Archbishops of Milan and Pisa sprang from their seats in the midst of debate, closed like wild beasts, and nearly throttled each other. No such passion dare show itself in a modern convocation. The persons who are described as yielding to their passions in former times are chiefly men in authority — kings or barons. These have less liberty [264/265] now than they formerly had. The liberty of their subjects and lieges has been raised on the circumscription of their power — therefore on the limitation of their excesses. If a baron now were ever so passionate, his anger would not be so terrible, and therefore not so noticeable, as it was in days when he could hang and imprison at pleasure, and when he thought no more of running a retainer through the body in a sudden fit of rage than he would now do of dismissing him with a month's wages. So to limit the energy of the passions is to shear Samson of his locks, and to reduce the hero to the level of an ordinary individual. It is not commerce which thus acts; although the trading spirit is one of the most potent influences in the modern civilization which represses the so-called hero and encourages the private individual.


Dallas, Eneas Sweetland . The Gay Science. 2 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, 1866. A HathiTrust online version of a copy in the Harvard University Library. Web. 30 April 2022.

Created 3 May 2022

Last modified 23 January 2024