09.12.12, Labalme and White, eds., Venice, Cità Excelentissima

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Kiril Petkov

The Medieval Review 09.12.12

Labalme, Patricia H. and Saura Sanguineti White (eds.). Venice, Cità Excelentissima: Selections from the Renaissance Diaries of Marin Sanudo. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. Pp. 598. ISBN: 978-0-8018-8765-9.

Reviewed by:
Kiril Petkov
History, University of Wisconsin-River Falls

"Thirty years of New York Times for the Venetian Renaissance," this is how Joseph Connor dubbed, quite appropriately, Marin Sanudo's Diaries. Marin Sanudo's fifty-eight volumes of daily entries on all the memorable happenings in the republic of Venice, enlivened with a good deal of his personal commentary, live up to the comparison. Product of one man's obsessive dedication to his native city and affection for all that it stood for, Sanudo's work is a treasure trove for the modern historian. With their monumental size, and the wealth and breadth of information provided, ranging from anecdotal references to thoughtful analysis, the Diaries offer an unparalleled window into the history of government, economy, mores, and culture in Venice, Italy, and Renaissance Europe.

Beginning on January 1, 1496, Sanudo, a scion of an ancient patrician family, dutifully collected, weighed, and kept inserting bits and snippets of information as well as larger narrative pieces, sometimes incorporating official documents to which he had been granted access by the Signoria, all the way to 1533. The effort and energy he put into this myriad of recordings cannot be justified solely by his belief that the work he had undertaken, to bequeath to posterity the glory of his city, would win him a political career. Quite simply, Sanudo was a history buff, perhaps the greatest that the pre-modern world has seen. Whoever has had the chance to browse through the Diaries' massive edition of 1879-1903 cannot help but admire Sanudo's dedication, persistence, intimate knowledge of Venetian affairs, and sharp eye for detail. For the modern reader, as perhaps for many a contemporary, the fact that he never managed to bring the Diaries to the level of an integrated history and wrote in the vernacular Venetian dialect rather than in Latin, according to the humanistic vogue of the time, makes his prodigious output even more precious.

In the more than a century since a critical edition was made available, Sanudo's work has been accessible only to initiated, professional historians with interest in matters of Venice, and those proficient in his native tongue, the dialect of the Venetian lagoon. Now, for the first time, the voice of the patrician diarist reaches us in an elegant, fluent English translation bound to appeal to the beginning professional student of the Renaissance as much as to the lay reader with a knack for history. Patricia Labalme, Laura White, and Linda Carroll have put together a sample of the best Sanudo's Diaries have to offer.

To select, organize, translate, and introduce excerpts of the Diaries in coherent categories of relatively equal weight in a tome of probably one percent of the length of the original is a daunting task. This volume accomplishes it admirably. Relying on their extensive knowledge and enlisting the help of several Venetian experts, the editors provide us with an exquisite assagio of Sanudo's work that will definitely whet the appetite for more. The excerpts are taken from Fulin's magisterial edition, and each text is carefully compared, word for word, to the original autograph manuscript of the Diaries preserved today in Biblioteca Marciana, Ital. Cl. 228-86 (9215-73) and amended as necessary.

The volume opens with a concise, matter-of-fact introduction to Marin Sanudo's life, his works preceding the Diaries, and the manner in which he conceived and executed the latter. Several appendixes, on Venetian money and coinage, a comparative scale of annual wages and salaries, as well as an extensive glossary of governmental terms, weights and nomenclature for candles, ceremonial containers, fabrics and garments, boats, ships, and nautical terms, and musical instruments, as well as a short chronology of Sanudo's life and times, provide very helpful guidance into the numerous and rather obscure technical terms employed by Sanudo and often left in the vernacular by the translator in order for the reader to get a better taste of the author's language. Twenty-nine pages of relevant bibliography add considerably to the support apparatus put together by the editors. Other invaluable guides are the sizable introductions to each of the selected passages and excerpts from the Diaries. In all, these amount to a contextual biography of Sanudo's life and preoccupations, and a running commentary on the diverse themes to which his entries offer an insight, a reference, or an analytical reflection.

The heart of the volume, Sanudo's texts, is organized in nine categories, each with subdivisions reflecting the bewildering variety of official, circumstantial, or anecdotal contents of the Diaries.

The first cluster, "Sanudo on Sanudo," reflects on the diarist's motivation for compiling the immense records. His conviction about Venice's crucial role in the political turmoil of the time was paramount. His professed approach, a faithful recorder of events rather than a fanciful rhetorician, conveys the sense of destiny that permeates his work. Passage after passage reinforces his statement that he was "searching for the truth," and the truth was to be found in the objective recording of a first-hand witness and participant in the events. The chapter covers as well Sanudo's rare and reserved intimations on his own not-so-successful political career, his sometime bitter complaints of being passed over in the venal competition for office, and his small triumphs as a public speaker before the Senate, his knowledge of the laws, and his ever-present persuasion on the importance of the service that the compilation of the Diaries rendered to the republic. A few additional texts illustrate Sanudo's unwillingness to leave his native city, and his personal circumstances, method of work, and library.

The second chapter, "The Venetians Govern" includes excerpts on funerals and elections of doges, the presence and honoring of foreign rulers, such as the Dukes of Ferrara, Milan, and Urbino, and the great expenditures accompanying the stay of the Queen of Hungary to maintain the political image and position of the city. The intricacies of government and domestic and foreign policies are one of Sanudo's central foci and the selected excerpts highlight his preferences quite extensively. Several texts refer to the daily functioning, prerogatives, and tasks of some of Venice's main magistracies, the administration of the waterways and everything linked to communication in the city and the lagoon, the building of fortifications, and the all-important office of the Venetian field commissioners supervising the hired armies of mercenary troops, which fought Venice's wars. Loyalty and betrayal in terraferma in the examples of Padua and Brescia and the difficulties in controlling the unruly territorial lords of the Friuli are all subjects of interest to Sanudo, for they illustrate the skill and resolve with which the republic handled its dominion and the dedication of the patrician class as collective rulers.

"Crime and Justice" covers a critical component in Venice's success as a ruling power, its impressive reputation for dispensing impartial justice. Sanudo recorded cases of judicial dealings with murder, treason, sexual crimes such as rape, abduction, and sodomy, and a variety of other trespasses such as counterfeiting and electorial fraud. He is no less informative, however, in the impediments to justice, the disorder, delay, and overlapping jurisdictions the Venetians had to deal with, the pressures and procedures for pardon, of which there appear to have been all too many cases in Venice's legal practice, and the effects of political and economic clout on the impartiality and strict appliance of the law.

The section on foreign affairs, "War and Diplomacy" illustrates well the editors' position that Sanudo, witness as he was to the great political turmoil of his age, did not really see the gradual decline of Venice as a major European power vis-à-vis the great territorial nation states, the Empire and the Papacy. The excerpts are full of gossip, several lengthy pages describing the courses served at diplomatic meals, characters sketches of popes, and official dpches of Venetian representatives abroad, but the overall feeling is business as usual, ups and downs of political fortune following one another in a succession that did not impair the greatness of the Serenissima. Anxious as the times may have been, the republic maneuvered aptly between Spain, France, the Empire, the Papacy, and the Ottomans and kept lesser Italian potentates at bay. Even the disaster at Agnadello in 1509 was nothing more than a temporary setback. Venice's rebound a decade later seems to justify Sanudo's even-keeled approach; perhaps it would be too much to expect him to detect a trajectory of decline, finely tuned observer as he was.

Sanudo was a no less capable observer of the economic fortunes of his city, according to the selections in "Economic Networks and Institutions." The economic instability of the last decade of the 1400s and bankruptcies of several of Venice's major financial institutions loom large in the excerpts, but so do the extraordinary riches which leading patricians, such as Gritti and Grimani, commanded. The institutions, hardware, and persons of Venice's lifeblood, the Levantine trade, are a major topic as is the price the Venetians had to pay to confront the aftermath of the league of Cambrai and to win the Sultan's graces.

Beside everything else, Sanudo's Diaries are a veritable encyclopedia of Venetian social mores at the turn of the cinquecento. The long section on "Society and Social Life" really brings to life a culture of patrician feasts and weddings, ostentatious display hardly checked by repeated sumptuary laws, and the public life of confraternities great and small. As a true patrician, Sanudo did not often report on the circumstances of the cittadini and popolani classes, but there are a few reflections on the everyday life of the marginal, prostitutes, servants, foreigners and Jews, and on the novel obsession with lotteries.

The excerpts in the portion on "Religion and Superstition" focus on the role of religious entities in the civic life of the city, to underscore, on the one hand, the superior position of the lay patricians over the religious, and on the other the special relationship the Serenissima enjoyed with the divine. Public processions and acts of propitiation, prayer and ceremony in time of plague abound. Of particular interest are Sanudo's notes on a major development of his time, the whiff of the Reformation and the attempts at reforming the lax morals of Venetian religious houses, especially nunneries, where patrician women were retired, in the wake of the Catholic renewal in the last decade of his life. Equally interesting are the examples of superstition examined and dismissed by the authorities, such as the spirits hoax that terrorized the bishop and population of Chioggia, and witches' hunts in Val Camonica.

Humanism was at full swing in the second part of Sanudo's life, and bitter as he might have been that Latin-versatile humanists stole the job of official historian of the republic which was rightly his, Sanudo has good words to say about the movement in general. He knew Latin, of course, and was friends with Aldo Manuzio, but the excerpts in the chapter on "Humanism and the Arts" indicate that his humanism was thoroughly civic and political, with learning geared to serve the interest of the Serenissima. Thus, we read sketches about Pietro Bembo and Aldo Manuzio, and rather acid remarks on his chief grief, Andrea Navagero, but the stress is on public education in Venice and the jockeying for the position of public lecturer. Sanudo has a thing for art and artists too, and many a page is filled with descriptions of public and private art monuments in Venice and Rome, with an eye toward their public function.

The last section, "Theater in Venice, Venice as Theater," gathers excerpts reflecting on the numerous "stage settings" of Venetian society, which transcended the boundary between mondo and teatro. Sanudo's speaks at length and with a connoisseur's eye, on performances in patrician homes, on campi, in churches, and on festive floats, actors and performers sponsored by patricians, cittadini, and popolani alike, depicting a Venice that was a grand theater herself, ever staging and celebrating, displaying and rejoicing in carnival and civic procession, religious holiday and state reception of foreign dignitaries.

For a volume of this size, variety, and complexity, this reviewer was able to detect remarkably few inconsistencies. Naples, for example was not a city-state in the mold of Florence or Milan (161); Pera was not exclusively the Venetian neighborhood in Constantinople (208); the title of Giovanni Casoni's chapter cited by Lane is in the work "Venezia e le sue lagune" (550 n. 2). Keen as the editors have been to offer us a true taste of the Venetian dialect, the excerpts use place-names in an irregular fashion and preserving it in the translation occasionally makes for some confusion.

These are minuscule slips. The editors and translator have erected a truly impressive and meticulously executed monument to Sanudo's accomplishments. Venice, Cità Excelentisima will doubtless remain a milestone in Renaissance studies and a must for the beginning Venetian scholar. It certainly is a fitting celebration of the ceaseless effort of a great annalist and a great Venetian patriot.

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Kiril Petkov

History, University of Wisconsin-River Falls