Italy – An Historical Parallel 1350-1915

HISTORICAL parallels, though interesting and curious, cannot safely be pressed too closely in the hope of acquiring rules and lessons for future guidance. History does not repeat itself, as the experiment can be repeated in the laboratory to demonstrate a conclusion. And yet no one can fail to be struck by certain resemblances, not merely between historical personages, but also between crises in national history.

The Italian peninsula, one of the centres in Europe where the human spirit has shown itself most fully and most frequently in process of development, is peculiarly rich in such analogies. Roughly speaking, from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, Italy, with her numerous independent States, was the focus and field of European diplomacy, owing, first of all, to the wealth, widespread commerce, and rivalry of her component parts, which made the possession of Milan or the fate of Florence a matter of universal European importance. and, secondly, at a later period, to the fact that her plains and cities became the battle-field of wider interests, which- developed with the growth of European States after the close of the Quattrocento.

During the earlier period of internal struggle and rivalry between the various States, it is natural that we should find, in miniature, a series of situations which in many ways resemble situations that were subsequently developed on the wider field of European politics ; and not merely situations, but also principles and doctrines of Statecraft, be-gotten and exemplified in the microcosm of Italian politics. The fundamental principles of the balance of power were worked out in the insistent tendency towards antagonistic alliances based on and governed by geographical and commercial conditions. The doctrine of buffer-States, and the inherent dangers to which they were exposed, was illustrated in the long struggle between Venice, the Scaligeri, the Carraresi of Padua, and the Visconti of Milan ; even the modern theory of ” sea-power ” seems to have been divined and implicitly laid down in Paolo Sarpi’s maxim, ” Chi puô venire per mare non è lontano ” (whoever can reach you by sea is not really far away).

Among the many historical parallels furnished by the microcosm of mediaeval and Renaissance Italy, the rivalry between Genoa and Venice in the fourteenth century bears a striking resemblance to the situation between two of the great powers engaged in the war now raging. The rival republics challenged each other for supremacy in the field of Eastern trade comprised within the basin of the Black Sea, much as Germany and Britain are now at grips largely, if not chiefly, for dominating influence in Asia Minor. The possession of Tenedos in the one case, and of the Tigris and Euphrates delta in the other, was the key to the situation. The decision was sought in fields far removed from the bone of contention. The struggle was for very life. In the earlier example it was dragged on through a series of campaigns ending in the overthrow of Genoa, when the war of Chioggia closed triumphantly for Venice in 1380.

The history of this struggle is rendered peculiarly interesting for us, because about the middle of its long-drawn course it came under the observation and criticism of that great humanist, that man of wide worldly-wisdom and sympathy combined with supreme literary accomplishment, Francesco Petrarch, poet and diplomat, who in his letters to the Venetian Doge, Andrea Dandolo, soldier and chronicler of his native city, sums up with impartial perspicuity the probable issue of the struggle between two such distinguished members of the Italian group of States.

Petrarch opens an impassioned appeal for peace by stating that Venice and Genoa seemed to have been so placed by Nature as to render a clash unlikely and unnecessary. Genoa looked west to the Tyrrhenian Sea, Venice east, down the waterway of the Adriatic to the Levant ; why not divide and rule ? But the fair dream of the poet-diplomat was shattered by the facts. The East was the source of wealth ; both powers desired supremacy there. And so it come about that ” latens bellum nunquam non defuit ” ; for years a suppressed or latent warfare, really a war of the pocket, the ” war before the war,” as it has been called in the present case, had been waged between the rival States, preluding an inevitable rupture into patent and actual war. ” And now,” says Petrarch, ” these two powerful peoples, these two flourishing States, these two eyes, as it were, of Italy, have flown to] arms, and certain it Lis that Italy must perish if you thus turn your conquering swords against each other’s breast. The foes of Italy will rejoice over our self-sought calamities, though they will have no just cause for pluming themselves on their gains. The overweening, head-strong counsels of youth, that it is which fills me with profoundest alarm. And what must be the end of this war, whether you win or lose ? Only this, that of the two eyes of Italy one must be dimmed, the other put out. (Necesse est ut unum e duobus Italia luminibus extinguatur, obscuretur alterum.) Between such foes what hope of aught but a blood-draining victory ? And is all our wealth and all our garnering to pass into the hands of others ? Remember that war cannot be kept within bounds at our pleasure ; it is a contagious disease that easily infects its neighbourhood. (Suis in finibus non stat bellum, nempe contagiosa res est et quae facile serpat in proximos.) What I say to one of you I say to both.”

So Petrarch—” pareva sognatore e fu profeta ” —in words of wisdom and prophecy, which fell on deaf ears. The Doge replied in terms of the soldier and the statesman. With a compliment he brushes aside the appeal of abstract wisdom. ” Such a noble effusion could only have sprung from a pure and noble heart. Your praise of peace is beyond praise ; nevertheless, the prosecution of a just war such as ours is argument for comfort, not for blame Is patience under injuries a virtue ?

We have always been taught that laws human and divine forbid us to let the wicked live or to allow perfidy to go unpunished. The iniquities of Genoa drove us, unwilling and reluctant, into war, as all the world well knows. And now our foes have rendered the sea dangerous for themselves, the whole world hostile, and every single State their foe. (Mare sibi reddiderunt infestum, terrarum orbem exosum et inimicas singulas nationes.)” Could words more truly describe the present situation ?