IT is the strangeness and completeness of the contrast which makes one’s first row from Venice to Torcello so hard to forget. Behind us the great city sinks slowly into a low line of domes and towers ; around us, dotted here and there over the gleaming surface, are the orange sails of trailing market boats; we skirt the great hay-barges of Mazarbo, whose boatmen bandy lazzi and badinage with our gondolier; we glide by a lonely cypress into a broader reach and, in front, across a waste of brown sedge and brushwood, the tower of Torcello rises sharply against the sky. There is something weird and unearthly in the suddenness with which one passes from the bright, luminous waters of the lagoon, barred with soft lines of violet light and broken with reflections of wall and bell tower, into this presence of desolation and death. A whole world seems to part those dreary flats broken with lifeless inlets, those patches of sodden fields flung shapelessly among sheets of sullen water from the life and joy of the Grand Canal. And yet, really to understand the origin of Venice, those ages of terror and flight and exile in which the. Republic took its birth, we must study them at Torcello. It was from the vast Alpine chain, which hangs in the haze of midday like a long, dim cloud line to the north, that the hordes of Hun and Goth burst on the Roman world. Their path lay along the coast, trending round to the west, where, lost among little villages that stand out white in the distant shadow, lie the sites of Heraclea and Altinum. Across these grey shallows, cut by the blue serpentine windings of deeper channels, the Romans of the older province of Venetia on the mainland fled before Attila or Theodoric or Alboin, to found the new Venetia of the lagoon. Eastward, over Lido, the glimmer of the Adriatic recalls the long centuries of the Pirate War, that struggle for life which shaped into their after form the government and destinies of the infant State. Venice itself, the crown and end of struggle and of flight, lies, over shining miles of water, to the south. But it is here that one can best study the story of its birth; it is easier to realise those centuries of exile and buffeting for life amidst the dreary flats, the solitude, the poverty of Torcello, than beneath the gleaming front of the Ducal Palace or the mosaics of St. Mark.
Here, in fact, lies the secret of Venetian history, the one key by which it is possible to understand the strange riddle of the Republic. For thirteen centuries Venice lay moored, as it were, off the coast of Western Europe, without political analogue or social parallel. Its patriciate, its people, its government, were not what government or people or patriciate were in other countries of Western Christendom. The difference lay not in any peculiar institutions which it had developed, or in any novel form of social or administrative order which it had invented, but in the very origin of the state itself. We see this the better if we turn from Venice to our own homeland. The same age saw the birth of the two great maritime powers of modern Europe; for the settlements of the English in Britain cover the same century with those of the Roman exiles in the Venetian lagoon. But the English colonisation was the establishment of a purely Teutonic state on the wreck of Rome, while the Venetian was the establishment of a purely Roman state in the face of the Teuton. Venice, in its origin, was simply the imperial province of Venetia floated across to the islands of the shore. Before the successive waves of the Northern inroad, the citizens of the coast fled to the sand-banks which had long served them as gardens or merchant ports. The ” Chair of Atilla,” the rough stone seat beside the Church of San Fosco, preserves the memory of one destroyer before whom a third part of the people of Altinum fled to Torcello and the islands around. Their city even materially passed with them. The new houses were built from ruins of the old. The very stones of Altinum served for the ” New Altinum ” which arose on the desolate isle, and inscriptions, pillars, capitals came, in the track of the exiles across the lagoon, to be worked into the fabric of its cathedral.
Neither citizens nor city was changed even in name. They had put out, for security, a few miles to sea, but the sand-banks on which they landed were still Venetia. The fugitive patricians were neither more nor less citizens of the imperial province because they had fled from Padua or Altinum or Malamocco or Torcello. Their political allegiance was still due to the Empire. Their social organisation remained unaffected by the flight. So far were they from being severed from Rome, so far from entertaining any dreams of starting afresh in the ” new democracy ” which exists in the imagination of Daru and his followers, that the one boast of their annalists is that they are more Roman than the Romans themselves. Their nobles looked with contempt on the barbaric blood which had tainted that of the Colonnas or the Orsini; nor did any Isaurian peasant ever break the Roman line of doges as Leo broke the line of Roman emperors. Venice as she proudly styled herself in aftertime was ” the legitimate daughter of Rome.” The strip of sea board from the Brenta to the Isonzo was the one spot in the Empire, from the Caspian to the Atlantic, where foot of barbarian never trod. And as it rose, so it set. From that older world of which it was a part, the history of Venice stretched on to the French Revolution, untouched by Teutonic influences. The old Roman life, which became strange even to the Capitol, lingered, unaltered, unimpaired, beside the palace of the duke. The strange ducal cap, the red ducal slippers, the fan of bright feathers borne before the ducal chair, all came unchanged from ages when they were the distinctions of every great officer of the Imperial State. It is startling to think that almost within the memory of living men Venice brought Rome the Rome of Ambrose and Theodosius to the very doors of the Western world ; that the living and unchanged tradition of the Empire passed away only with the last of the doges. On the tomb of Manin could men write truthfully, ” Hic jacet ultimus Romanorum.”
It is this simple continuance of the old social organisation, which the barbarians elsewhere overthrew, that explains the peculiar character of the Venetian patriciate. In all other countries of the West, the new feudal aristocracy sprung from the Teutonic invaders. In Italy itself, the nobles were descendants of Lombard conquerors, or of the barons who followed emperor after emperor across the Alps. Even when their names and characters had alike been moulded into Southern form, the ” Seven Houses ” of Pisa boasted of their descent from the seven barons of Emperor Otto. But the older genealogies of the senators, whose names stood written’in the Golden Book of Venice, ran, truly or falsely, not to Teutonic, but to Roman origins. The Participazzii, the Dandoli, the Falieri, the Foscari, told of the flight of their Roman fathers before the barbarian sword from Pavia, Gaeta, Fano, Messina. Every quarter of Italy had given its exiles, but, above all, the coast round the head of the Gulf from Ravenna to Trieste. It was especially a flight and settlement of nobles. As soon as the barbaric hordes had swept away to the South, the farmer or the peasant would creep back to his fields and his cabin, and submit to the German master whom the conquest had left behind it. But the patrician had filled too great a place in the old social order to stoop easily to the new. He remained camped as before in the island-refuge, among a crowd of dependents, his fishermen, his dock labourers. Throughout the long ages which followed this original form of Venetian society remained unchanged. The populace of dependents never grew into a people. To the last, fisher-man and gondolier clung to the great houses of which they were the clients, as the fishers of Torcello had clung to the great nobles of Altinum. No difference of tradition or language or blood parted them. Tradition, on the contrary, bound them together. No democratic agitator could appeal from the present to the past, as Rienzi invoked the memories of the Tribunate against the feudal tyranny of the Colonnas. In Venice the past and present were one. The patrician of Venice simply governed the State as his fathers, the curials of Padua or Aquileia, had governed the State ten centuries before him.
It is this unity of Venetian society which makes Venetian history so unlike the history of other Italian towns, and to which Venice owes the peculiar picturesqueness and brightness which charm us still in its decay. Elsewhere the history of mediaeval Italy sprung from the difference of race and tradition between conquered and conquerors, between Lombard noble and Italian serf. The communal revolt of the Twelfth Century, the democratic constitution of Milan or of Bologna, were in effect a rising of race against race, the awakening of a new people in the effort to throw off the yoke of the stranger. The huge embattled piles which flung their dark shadows over the streets of Florence tell of the ceaseless war between baronage and people. The famous penalty by which some of the democratic communes condemned a recreant cobbler or tinker to ” descend,” as his worse punishment, ” into the order of the noblesse,” tells of the hate and issue of the struggle between them. But no trace of a struggle or hate breaks the annals of Venice. There is no people, no democratic Broletto, no Hall of the Commune. And as there was no ” people,” so in the mediaeval sense of the word there was no ” baronage.” The nobles of Venice were not Lombard barons, but Roman patricians, untouched by feudal traditions, or by the strong instinct of personal independence which created feudalism. The shadow of the Empire is always over them ; they look for greatness not to independent power or strife, but to joint cooperation in the government of the State. Their instinct is administrative; they shrink from disorder as from a barbaric thing; they are citizens, and nobles only because they are citizens. Of this political attitude of its patricians, Venice is itself the type. The palaces of Torcello or Rialto were houses not of war but of peace; no dark masses of tower and wall, but bright with marbles and frescoes, and broken with arcades of fretted masonry.
Venice, in a word, to her very close was a city of nobles, the one place in the modern world where the old senatorial houses of the Fifth Century lived and ruled as of old. But it was a city of Roman nobles. Like the Teutonic passion for war, the Teutonic scorn of commerce was strange and unknown to the curial houses of the Italian municipalities, as it had been strange and unknown to the greatest houses of Rome. The senator of Padua or Aquileia, of Concordia, Altinum, or Ravenna, had always been a merchant, and in his new refuge he remained a merchant still. Venice was no ” crowd of poor fishermen,” as it has been sometimes described, who were gradually drawn to wider ventures and a larger commerce. The port of Aquileia had long been the emporium of a trade which reached northward to the Danube and eastward to Byzantine. What the Roman merchants of Venetia had been at Aquileia, they remained at Grado. The commerce of Altinum simply transferred itself to Torcello. The Paduan merchants passed to their old port of Rialto. Vague and rhetorical as is the letter of Cassiodorus, it shows how keen was the mercantile activity of the State from its beginning. Nothing could be more natural, more continuous in its historical development; nothing was more startling, more in-comprehensible to the new world which had grown up in German moulds. The nobles of Henry VIII.’s court could not restrain their sneer at ” the fishermen of Venice,” the stately patricians who could look back from merchant noble to merchant noble through ages when the mushroom houses of England were unheard of. Only the genius of Shakespeare seized the grandeur of a social organisation which was still one with that of Rome and Athens and Tyre. The merchant of Venice is with him ” a royal merchant.” His ” argosies o’ertop the petty traffickers.” At the moment when feudalism was about to vanish away, the poet comprehended the grandeur of that commerce which it scorned, and the grandeur of the one State which had carried the nobler classic tradition across ages of brutality and ignorance. The great commercial state whose merchants are nobles, whose nobles are Romans, rises in all its majesty before us in the Merchant of Venice.