The Medieval Review 12.08.08

Morreale, Laura K. Martin da Canal, Les Estoires de Venise. Archivo del Litorale Adriatico XII. Padova: Unipress, s.a.s, 2009. Pp. xxii, 174. ISBN: 978-88-8098-267-8.

Reviewed by:

Alison Williams Lewin
St. Joseph's University

This lively chronicle covers the last third of the 1200s as seen through the eyes of a very well informed Venetian, Martin da Canal. It is fascinating not only historically but also linguistically, being written in what is now called Franco-Venetian. This review will address only the former, but those who wish more information on French as used outside France are invited to view the translator's two websites, and As one who does not know Franco- Venetian well, I will review not the translation per se but rather the import of this rich and complex work.

Morreale's excellent introduction situates the work for us beautifully. Da Canal's chronicle broke with earlier Venetian chronicle traditions "to promote a specific version of Venetian history....Da Canal was interested in creating a history of the Venetian people that was equal to his vision of the city's greatness, at a time when many of the characteristics he presented were in fact at risk" (vii-viii). Specifically, while da Canal continued the tradition of glorifying his city, and presents the doge as the heart of communal power, he innovates by adopting the style of the French romance-epic to make the doge an epic hero (viii).

The Venice da Canal inhabited was not, as his account would have us believe, stable, secure or selfless towards its own citizens and subject territories. As Venice extended into the mainland, it struggled to maintain control over its overseas possessions and of the lucrative trade with the East. Moreover, in 1266, the year before da Canal began writing, food shortages and taxes on foodstuffs led to a popular revolt and violent factionalism, which da Canal blames on the injustice and hostility of outside forces. From the beginning he argues "that the Venetians' actions were nothing more than logical responses to threats or requests made of them by outside forces rather than the result of unfettered Venetian self-interest" (ix).

Like most contemporary and subsequent authors of civic chronicles, da Canal is ferociously partisan towards Venice, enormously proud of his city and its inhabitants, though his loyalty stretches or ignores reality when the city might appear at fault. The intended audience, especially given the work's linguistic specificity, would most certainly have been fellow Venetians or those sympathetic to them, however, so he ran little risk of being contradicted or corrected. The translator points out the reasons for writing in a language accessible to three different yet overlapping language groups (xi- xviiii) as well as da Canal's extensive use of oral techniques.

Given the scope and detail of the work, brief though it is, I will present only certain episodes or points of special interest, especially when the author separates himself from his book to reflect on various topics. As the chronicle opens, the author tells the reader, or listener, that he has "undertaken to translate from Latin into French the glorious victories gained by the Venetians in the service of the Holy Church and in the Service of their noble city" and that he has chosen French because it "has spread all over the world, and is the most delightful to read and hear above any other" (3). In the first brief chapter alone, he mentions Venice's obedience and service to the Church five times, a theme which runs throughout the work. The opening history, the dignities and ornaments of the doge, and the tributes paid to Venice follow, as does a resumption of the history and the shift, unexplained, from annual to lifelong tenure of the dogato (sometime in the eighth century, because Charlemagne attacked at the same time of the transformation). It is ironic that in a work that glorifies the doge, Charles' invasion was precipitated by the treachery of one of the early doges, Belengero, who paid for his crime by having his heart pulled from his chest, followed by hanging (8). No surprise either that da Canal neglects to mention how many early doges were deposed, blinded, exiled, or assassinated. The translation of St. Mark's bones has elements of comedy (the bones were hidden inside two sides of pork, which the Muslim guards would not touch) and requisite miracles. The next list of doges does mention the assassination of one, exile of another, and civil war in Venice but very much in passing. Far more prominent are accounts of the acquisition of Dalmatia and Acre, as well as privileges in Syria and the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the expanding Venetian presence in the Holy Land.

This coverage of events is not remarkable for it novelty or its accuracy, but for its liveliness. Da Canal has a real gift for detail that conveys an immediacy to the situations he recounts. For example, he tells the story of the Venetians' foray to Tyre with great flair. A messenger dove from the sultan of Babylon was so overwhelmed by the noise of the crowd that it fell to the ground and the Venetians were able to intercept the message it carried. The Sultan had written to the lord of Tyre and his entire following telling them to evacuate the city in fifteen days, or face certain defeat. The doge had a letter written in Saracen stating that the sultan could offer no aid, and that the city should surrender to the Christians if the inhabitants could not defend themselves. So all the Venetians and French had to do was appear at the city gates and it surrendered, much to the sultan's fury (14-15).

Da Canal's narrative gifts shine especially brightly in his telling of Venice and the Fourth Crusade. The appeal of a small child, whom the doge embraces, moves the doge to declare that the Venetians and French "should abandon the route to Jerusalem and instead make their way to Constantinople and put this child in control of the city" (20). When the barons cry to sack the city, the doge nobly replies, "we are on crusade, and so should steal from no one. Let us take only the money we have spent and put the child in possession of his city;..." (22). It was only the treachery of the Greeks, who murdered the child and refused to pay expenses, that led to the sack and the assassination of the treacherous false emperor, Murtzuphles. The doge, having reassured the French forces and planned the naval strategy that took the city, again nobly refuses the empire and settles for three-eighths of it (25), the specifics of which the chronicle then provides.

Hostilities with the Genoese dominate the next long section. Martin da Canal sums up the whole situation at the opening of chapter 71: "What can I say? This war between the Venetians and the Genoese continued for a long time and there were many losses on both sides" (29). Though da Canal's sympathies lie with Venice, he recounts the imprisonment of captives on both sides and tell us, without further comment that "Mesire Pietro Ziani...had an iron cage constructed and Count Alemanno was put in it, and he had the others put in prison" (ibid.).

War also erupted with the Paduans because of their arrogance in objecting to a tower the Venetians had erected, presumably in Paduan territory at Bebbe. In several short chapters, the chronicler cites the arrogance, malice, pride and wrath of the Paduans, as well as the courage and wisdom of the Venetians. Da Canal's language and representation of both parties are reminiscent of the French verse, "Cet animal est très méchant: Quand on l'attaque, il se défend"--which could, in short, sum up da Canal's attitude towards all those who oppose Venetian plans.

At this point, most of the major players were on the board, and the rest of Book I relates the crushing of the prideful Zaratini (40-44), the again-successful assault on the arrogance of the Paduans (47) and Venice's involvement in the wars between Frederick II and the papacy 46). In this last case, da Canal shows great insight: [t]he war between Monseignor the apostle and the emperor was deep-rooted. And the Venetians were so entangled in these roots that, no matter how they wanted to free themselves, they were unable to find a way out..." (47). The papacy opposed Ezzelino da Romano (A Very Bad Man, in any account), to whom the emperor had given lordship of the Trevisan March. Book I concludes with a fitting moral ending: following Ezzolino's death his brother Alberico was cut to pieces together with his two sons and judge, his wife and daughter burned, as two years later was a bastard daughter. Apparently the Venetians, to whom Alberico had surrendered with guarantees of safety, were unable to prevent his victims from capturing and summarily executing the lot. I wonder.

Book II continues the narrative but with far greater emphasis on the doge, on the treachery and wickedness of Venice's enemies, particularly the Genoese, and on the virtues of specific Venetians. Service and obedience to Holy Church continue as before. Da Canal shows his capacity for reflection in considering the value of his own labors: people would like to know everything, "even though this is impossible, because one person has died, another is dying, and yet another is being born, and in this way it is impossible to relate all that happens in their lifetimes, if it is not made known by writings or by paintings...[in which] it seems as though we are present.... [and] the subject still lives..." (59). For the honor of the doge, the nobility, the commoners, he states he will tell the absolute truth, and calls on a wide range of witnesses to validate his account.

The first incident he relates, however, hardly shows Venice or the doge in a positive light; though some Genoese in Acre seize some Venetian ships, they return them, and the Genoese send a delegation to Venice immediately and offer to make amends. The Venetians choose to take revenge instead, quickly arm and set off to Acre, where they seize thirty-two Genoese vessels, set fire to them, and capture and destroy a Genoese castle there. The Genoese are likewise pursued and defeated at Tyre, and prisoners sent back in chains to Acre. Though the Venetians free their prisoners after papal intercession (67), the Genoese, for their part, "decided that there was no way, either by peace promise or by signed treaty, that they would be kept from taking revenge on Venice..." (69). Moreover, when captured Venetians were brought before the Byzantine Emperor, the Genoese said they were pirates and "recommended that the Venetians be blinded" (71), an action that escalated hostilities significantly.

Strangely, after eighty-some chapters recounting the war, da Canal turns rather abruptly to lengthy descriptions of the many processions ("that Monseignor the doge arranges," 94) and festivals the Venetians observe throughout the year. The doge is absolutely central in all. Just as abruptly as before, da Canal takes up his narrative again (100). The pope, the Kings of France and of Sicily succeed in 1268 in arranging a three-month truce. At this point da Canal begins many subsequent chapters with, "the story says," suggesting greater reliance perhaps on existing narratives and official documents, to which he was privy (vii).

During the negotiations before the pope with the Genoese, the doge died, and here again, da Canal abandons his narrative to describe in great detail the procedures for electing a new doge, stressing at every turn that every action occurred before witnesses, and naming the men involved at various points, including all forty-one of the final electors, who were "part of the aristocracy of Venice and from among the noble Venetian people" (106). Da Canal praises the new doge, Mesire Lorenzo Tiepolo highly because of his glorious father, and Lorenzo's own works, skills, honesty, loyalty and good deeds (106- 107). For example, the doge "sent out to find those who were at odds with him, and when they came, he embraced them and made peace and gave them his blessing and his good wishes and made them his friends" (108). The many, many celebrations that followed are then described in great, if formulaic, length, particularly the visits each of the important guilds made to the doge in his palace and the dogaressa in her home. Clearly da Canal meant to return to this section, because most long paragraphs end with "they numbered [ms. blank]" (109-166). Breaking the litany is the sudden appearance during the master barbers' visit of two knights-errant, holding four foreign maidens, who challenge any to "come forward to test their bodies and win these foreign maidens from us..." (114). The doge grants permission, but that is the last we hear of them.

And so back to the wars--only this time the Bolognese are the foe. Ruling most of the Romagna, the Bolognese wished to build a castle on the Po, which the Venetians opposed. While the Genoese are presented as treacherous and cruel, but also clever and skilled at sea, the Bolognese by contrast appear disorganized and ineffectual (119). Unlike the Venetians, whose men from their own sestieri of the city were fighting, "the Bolognese procured so much with promises and with gifts, that they found one thousand strong men who were either exiled from their own land of from others" (120). When the Venetians do rely on mercenaries, they prove incompetent and suffer defeat; the Bolognese go about saying, "The Venetians are not men, but women" (121). This so enrages the noble Venetians that they arm and charge, inflicting a crushing defeat, causing the Bolognese to eat their words. In the end, "they were so damaged and so reduced, both in the city and in the army..., that one could longer call them Bolognesi, but rather a dispersed and exiled people..." (134).

Food shortages create tensions with Padua, the marquis d'Este and Ferrara, and the Trevisans who were all "inhuman" because they prevented the income from Venetian holdings from reaching Venice (123). Da Canal expresses his amazement that neither the Paduans nor the Trevisans recall the horrors they suffered under Ezzelino and Alberico da Romano respectively, and that "the Venetians helped them to escape this servitude..." (124). Even the marquis owes Venice for its aid in ousting Mesire Salinguerra. The doge sends ships to find grain overseas (125), which arrives safely in Venice. In the midst of which--another joust! Reading between the lines, it seems that the timely arrival of food and a three-day diversion headed off what could have been unpleasantness, if not outright conflict, in the city.

A formal peace with the Genoese was concluded at last, and the pressure of the Friars Minor and Friars Preachers effected an exchange of prisoners. At this juncture da Canal again steps out of his narrative or descriptive role to reflect: "The whole world should praise and cherish the works that the Friars Minor and Friars Preachers sought and accomplished. What can I say? Everyone who looks after souls should take up these kinds of works, because, when anyone becomes angered with his neighbor, the prelates of the Holy Church should seek peace...Because the prelates are responsible for the souls in their care, and Our Lord has given much money for this supervision: it is the task and the duty that is expected of the Holy Church." Then, pulling back, "I will stop preaching so much for I am not used to it, and I will tell you about the Venetians, because I undertook first of all to tell of their work" (127).

But after brief forays into troubles on Crete and the council of Gregory X in 1274, da Canal offers a prayer he has written to St. Mark on behalf of the Venetians (129-132). Between the prayer and the insistence after mentioning some other contemporary event that "it does not belong in my book," we feel as if da Canal perhaps feels his own end approaching, or at least the end of his work: "it will be fitting for my book to take up my direct story line, for which I began this book; that is for the honor of Venice" (132). Even the Bolognese are dismissed; though he tells of their failed attempt on Faenza and the capture of eight thousand men, "they do not belong in my book" (136).

The work concludes, fittingly, with the death of doge Lorenzo Tiepolo and the somewhat modified but still complex procedures used to choose the new doge, again with lists of the names of the men at various points. After dismissing another incident, he reflects, "And as for what I have told you, I have done this because I want it to be known how much evil has come to our time because of the evil course of action that runs through this age. And this evil faction began in the heavens; it was the pride that was cast down from the heavens. And I would like one and all to know that all of those who persevere in pride, if they do not fall in this life and do not amend their ways, they will descend in the other life...And if anyone comes forward who claims to have won gold or silver from his pride in this world, he is damned in the other world, body and soul" (140). So, not surprisingly, it is the pride of those from Bologna that has led to their downfall; the pride on both sides in a war in Dalamatia that led to their mutual destruction; and lastly, pride that led to a Genoese attack on a Venetian ship, for which the Genoese apologized and promised to punish the offenders. And that is the end, though one suspects, not the one the author intended.

The edition is marred by what seem nowadays to be the inevitable proofreading errors ("harbor of at Spinalonga," 27; "andwith," 34; "rather that [he] would attack it," 36; "that and exchange took place," 74), and also displays some curious formatting (126). Les Estoires de Venise is nonetheless highly engaging and comes all too soon to an end. The book is not listed in Books in Print, which might make it difficult to obtain; I hope some publisher with wider distribution picks it up, because it would make an excellent text for classroom use. Personally, I am grateful to Laura K. Morreale for her clear and lively translation--and would love to sit down with Martin da Canal, raise a glass of prosecco with him, and hear more from his fascinating mind.

Copyright (c) 2012 Alison Williams Lewin

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