Reading this many years ago I liked James Morris’, now Jan Morris, jovial, witty yet knowledgeable style
A bit like an erudite Chris Stewart
Looking at it again I realize my neighbours, the coritos*, are like the Venetians… unerringly so
They’re not given to posturing artistry or impractical diversions; they’re focussed on the practicalities of life; they are the craftsmen class
In business they’ll give you more than you might need but at a very fair price, such that it’s hard to argue or haggle
When payment is needed they’re as relaxed as they were entrepreneurially sharp before, leaving an impression that you have paid less than the king’s ransom that you eventually will pay
They are great conquerors and hoarders of other peoples treasure and wealth
Is this Feria or Venice; conquistadors or condottieris
* men and women from the village of Feria, Badajoz
introduction by Tim Harris
extracts from Venice by James Morris (1960), this edition by Faber and Faber (1983)
From this small city, though, from this very people sprung the glories of the Serenissima. It is said that at the time of the Fourth Crusade, in which Venice played a prominent and quite unprincipled part, the population of the city was only 40,000. In all the thirteen centuries of the Republic it was probably never more than 170,0000. Venice was therefore a State of severely specialized talents. She produced fine administrators, seamen, merchants, bankers, artists, architects, musicians, printers, diplomatists. She produced virtually no poets, only one great dramatist, hardly a novelist, scarcely a philosopher. Her only eminent thinker was Paolo Sarpi, the monk who conducted the Venetian case in the worst of the Republic’s quarrels with the Papacy, and who discovered the contraction of the iris. Her boldest generals were condottieri.
She was pre-eminently an adapter rather than an innovator. Her vocation was commerce; her countryside was the sea; her tastes were voluptuous; her function was that of bridge between east and west; her obsession was political stability; her consolation, when she needed it, was self-indulgence; and it is remarkable how closely her talents fitted her needs. For many centuries Venice was never short of the leaders, craftsmen, entertainers and businessmen she required, from astute ambassadors to diligent shipwrights, from financiers to architects, from Marco Polo to Titian to Goldoni, the merriest of minor geniuses.
They are sharp business men still. Venetian merchants, contractors and shippers retain a reputation for hard-headedness, if not cussedness.
The Venetians remain hard but wise bargainers. When their forebears undertook to transport an army or equip a fleet, their prices were high and their terms inflexible, but they did it in style. Their ships were the best, their trappings most gorgeous, they fulfilled their agreements scrupulously. Noi siamo calculatori, the Venetians have always cheerfully admitted, we are calculating people.. So it is today. The Venetians will always let you pay another time, will seldom cheat you over the odd lira, are never disgruntled if you break off a negotiation. They are businessmen of finesse.
The Republic was sustained, too, by a stout company of artisans, denied all political responsibility, but never without self-respect. The rulers of Venice, though they held the working classes well under control, did their cunning best to keep them contended, partly by feeding them on a diet of ceremonial, partly by fostering their sense of craft and guild. When the fishermen of the Nicoletti faction elected their leader each year, the Doge himself was represented at the ceremony, first by a mere doorkeeper of the Doge‘s palace, later by a more senior official.
The great Venetian artists and architects were nearly all of the craftsmen class, rich and celebrated though they became, and the painters usually subscribed to the Guild of House Painters.
Crusty old men like London cabbies, holding antique hooks, , stand beside the canals in long flapping greatcoats looking rheumily for gondolas to help alongside. Even the drivers of grand motor boats sometimes hide an agreeable heart behind a pompous exterior; and there are few kindlier policemen than those that patrol the canals in their little speedboats, or solemnly potter about, buttoned in blue greatcoats, in flat-bottomed skiffs.
But generally a sturdy sense of equality pervades Venetian life. It is still, like the rest of Italy, a place of domestic servants, trim uniformed housemaids, motherly cooks, soft-footed menservants: but they have a sensible hale-fellow-well-met approach to the problems of the household, with few traces of oily subservience. With a friendly familiarity your housekeeper sits down beside you at the breakfast table, for a rambling discussion of the day’s prospects, or a kind word of correction about how to bring up the children.