The present writer received his first intimation of the mortality of the Western Civilization in an experience (mentioned in this Study already in IV. iv. 282) at the south-eastern corner of the Island of Crete, en route from Khandrà to Palaíkastro, on the 19th March, 1912. Rounding the southern shoulder of a mountain, he was startled at suddenly finding himself face to face with the ruins of a country house in the Baroque style of architecture. If the date of this experience had been A.D. 1952 instead of being A.D. 1912, probably he would not have felt the same shock; for by A.D. 1952 a deserted and dilapidated seventeenth-century country house was no longer an unimaginable object in the landscape of the writer’s native province of the Western World; but in A.D. 1912 every house of the kind in England would have been intact and have been inhabited – as likely as not, by descendants of the country squire who had had the house built for him some two or three hundred years back in the past. What was startling and disturbing for a Western observer in A.D. 1912 was to see a piece of architecture which, in his mental picture of his native country, was associated with the living world of his own generation standing here in Crete as starkly dead and deserted as the monuments of an Hellenic architecture at Gortyna and Praesus, and the monuments of a Minoan architecture at Cnossos and Phaestus, that he had been inspecting within the last few days in the course of his journey. This inevitable comparison awakened his imagination to the truth that, on this island, a civilization which was his own, and which on his own island was then still self-confidently alive, was already as dead as the civilizations that had come and gone in earlier generations of this species of society.
Gazing at what, at that date, was so portentous a spectacle for Western eyes, the English traveller realized that this house must have been built, on the eve of the Great Veneto-Ottoman War of Candia (gerebatur A.D. 1645-69), by some Venetian country gentleman or official, and that this seventeenth-century Venetian builder must have taken it just as much for granted as his English contemporaries, who were then building other houses in the same style on another island, that his new family mansion would continue to be occupied by his descendants for many generations to come. The Englishman then reflected that a Venetian rule in Crete that had been extinguished by Ottoman arms in A.D. 1669 had by that date been in existence for no less than 457 years – a span of time which, in A.D. 1912, was longer than that of the duration, up to date, of British rule in the oldest of the overseas possessions of the British Crown. The inference was inescapable. If the Venetian Empire had perished, the British Empire could not be immortal; and, if the Western Civilization, in which Great Britain as well as Venice lived and moved and had her being, had become extinct in a former Cretan province of its domain, there could be no province, on any shore of either the Mediterranean or the Atlantic, in which a Westerner would be justified in assuming that his civilization was invested with the incredible privilege of being exempt from the jurisdiction of Death the Leveller.
Crete had passed from Byzantium to the Arabs in 824. The Arabs destroyed the old city of Gortyn and made a new capital, Khandak, known to the Venetians (as was the whole island) as Candia, to the Byzantines as Chandax, and now called Heraklion.
Byzantium reconquered Crete in 960 and held it until it passed to Venice in 1204-12, after the Fourth Crusade. The Turks conquered it in 1669. Crete did not join independent Greece until 1913.
Here, in its context, is the earlier account of the experience of 1912, as published in 1939:
If the Athens of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. could fairly claim the title of “the Education of Hellas”, the Italy of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries of the Christian Era might have called herself “the Education of Western Christendom” with equal justice. If we scrutinize the countenance of our Western Society in that “modern” chapter of its history which runs from the latter part of the fifteenth century to the latter part of the nineteenth, we shall find that its “modern” economic and political efficiency, as well as its “modern” aesthetic and intellectual culture, is of a distinctively Italian origin. In this chapter of its history our Western Civilization was launched on a new course by an Italian impetus; and this impetus came from the radiation into Transalpine Europe, of a special Italian version of the general Western culture of the preceding age. This local Italian culture made its conquests in Transalpine Europe, and thereby opened a new chapter in the history of the Western World as a whole, because it was brilliantly superior, in a number of vital points, to anything that Transalpine Europe had yet succeeded in achieving. The unrivalled creativity of Italy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was thus the original driving-force behind the movement of Western Civilization during a span of four ensuing centuries which, on this account, might aptly be called our “Italistic Age”; and here we find ourselves confronted, once again, by our Attic paradox; for, throughout a period of our common Western history [sixteenth and seventeenth centuries] which bore the image and superscription of Italian acts of creation in the past, the contemporary Italian contributions to the general life of the age were conspicuously inferior to those of medieval Italy’s modern Transalpine converts.
Declines always begin early with Toynbee. To say that Italy’s had begun before 1500 seems strange now, since it leaves out of account the Rome of the Counter-Reformation. But
The comparative cultural sterility of Italy during the four hundred-years’ span of Western history which began circa A.D. 1475 was manifest in all the medieval [my italics] homes of Italian culture – in Florence, in Venice, in Milan, in Siena, in Bologna, in Padua – and a connoisseur of Italian life in this period of eclipse would be able to drive the point home by presenting an eclectic picture composed of features drawn from the life of each and all of these cities. [Footnote: For the general state of Italy in this age see Collison-Morley, L.: Italy after the Renaissance (London 1930, Routledge); Belloni, A.: Il Seicento, second edition (Milan 1929, Vallardi), Natali, G.: Il Settecento (Milan 1930, Vallardi, 2 vols.); eundem: Cultura e Poesia in Italia nell’ Età Napoleonica (Turin 1932, Società Tipografica), Lee, V.: Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy, second edition (London 1907, Fisher Unwin).] An amateur may content himself with citing the single case of Venice as a particularly poignant illustration of a malady that afflicted every one of these historic Italian communities in this Modern Age.
In a profound change of circumstances which was cruelly adverse to the welfare of the whole Italian city-state cosmos, Venice was superficially more successful than most of her neighbours in holding her own. She did not lose her independence to a Transalpine conqueror (as Milan lost hers after having come within an ace of making herself mistress of all Northern Italy); and she did not lose it to an Italian empire-builder (as Siena lost hers to Florence, and Bologna hers to the Papacy, and Padua hers to Venice herself). Having always previously avoided political commitments on the Italian mainland and concentrated her political energies on acquiring an empire overseas, Venice deliberately reversed her policy in the course of the fourteenth century, and replied to the continental imperialism of the Visconti by embarking on an offensive-defensive movement in the same field which produced more lasting political results than those Milanese conquests which had drawn Venice into the continental arena. When the Visconti had disappeared from the Italian scene, and when Milan herself had become the prize of contending Transalpine Powers – to be bandied about from French hands to Spanish, and from Spanish to Austrian – Venice remained in possession of the largest of the new consolidated dominions which had now replaced the medieval mosaic of North and Central Italian city-states. This latter-day Venetian empire on Italian soil was both more extensive and more dangerously exposed to attack by Transalpine aggressors than the latter-day Florentine empire which became the Grand Duchy of Tuscany; yet, in contrast to Florence, Venice managed both to acquire and to retain her empire without being driven to renounce the luxury of continuing to live under her ancestral republican constitution. This preservation of her medieval domestic liberties was a unique distinction which Venice shared with her maritime rival Genoa; and Genoa – absolved from the necessity of defensive empire-building by her good fortune in enjoying the protection of the natural rampart of the Maritime Alps – was never called upon to face the fateful question whether an empire can be governed by a republic.
This relative successfulness of Venice in an age of general Italian discomfiture was not a windfall of happy accidents, but was the reward of a clear-headed and unslumbering statesmanship; and the quality of this Venetian statesmanship can be tested by comparing it with Athenian behaviour in corresponding situations. If Venice succeeded in gaining and holding an empire without having to submit herself to a despotism at home, this was because she avoided the strain which Imperialism generally imposes upon communities that indulge in it; and she achieved this negative yet by no means negligible success by making her yoke so easy, and her burden so light [footnote: Matt. xi. 30.], that her Paduan and Brescian subjects were free from any temptation to exchange their present status for that of their Bolognese or Milanese or Pisan contemporaries. In corresponding circumstances Athens made her tyranny so odious to her subject-allies that they soon yearned for a Spartan, or even for an Achaemenian, yoke as a more tolerable alternative servitude. And the inferiority of Athenian to Venetian statesmanship comes out as clearly in its handling of the problem of how a small state at the geographical centre of an international system should keep its footing after it has been dwarfed by the rise of new titans on an expanding periphery. We have seen how Athens was invariably worsted by this problem: how sometimes she recklessly threw down the gauntlet to Powers for whom she was no match, and thereby brought upon herself the disasters of 338 and 262 and 86 B.C., while at other times – as, for instance, in the critical year 228 B.C. – she showed an equal lack of judgement in the unseasonable pursuit of an unaspiring policy of isolation. This persistent ineptitude, which is the main thread of continuity in Athenian foreign policy from the days of Demosthenes to the days of Anstion, affords a remarkable contrast to the masterliness of a Venetian diplomacy which managed to stave off for nearly three hundred years that partition of the Republic’s Italian dominions among the Transalpine Powers which was the grand design of the League of Cambrai.
The secret of Venice’s success, in certain situations in which Athens failed, was an ability to rise above the vice of self-worship in which those Athenian failures seem to find their explanation. But the success of modern Venice has been only relative and negative; on the whole and in the end, Venice failed to make any fresh creative contribution to the life of a society in which she managed to survive; and this Venetian failure can be explained by the fact that Venice, too, did succumb, in her own way, to the nemesis of creativity.
In the field of domestic politics the infatuation with a dead self which had nerved Venice to maintain her own medieval republican constitution at the same time inhibited her from anticipating or emulating the modern constitutional achievements of Switzerland or the Northern Netherlands by transforming her latter-day Italian empire into a federal state on a republican basis. While Venice was never so wrong-headed as to oppress her subject cities, she was also never so broad-minded as to take them into partnership; and so, in A.D. 1797, the political régime in the Venetian dominions in Italy was still just what it had been in A.D. 1339; that is to say, a mild hegemony under which a number of subject communities had to take their orders from a single privileged sovereign city-state.
Again, in the field of foreign policy, the extraordinary skill with which modern Venetian statesmanship succeeded in maintaining the integrity of the latter-day Venetian dominions in Italy, without involving Venice in efforts beyond her strength, did not find its counterpart in the contemporary policy of Venice in the Levant. In her dealings with the Great Powers of the modern Western World Venice took care not to exhaust herself as Florence exhausted herself in the age of Charles VIII or Holland in the age of Louis XIV. On the other hand Venice devoted herself to the forlorn hope of defending her ancient empire in the Levant against the rising power of the ʿOsmanlis with an obstinacy which equalled the Dutch courage of a William of Orange and with a recklessness in facing overwhelming odds which reminds the historian of the spirit in which Athens confronted a Macedonian Philip and Antigonus and a Roman Sulla. In the War of Candia (gerebatur A.D. 1645-69) the Venetian Commonwealth – undeterred by the uniformly disastrous outcome of the series of losing battles which it had been fighting against the ʿOsmanlis since the time of the War of Negrepont (gerebatur A.D. 1463-74) – threw the last ounce of its military strength into the prolongation of a struggle which, however long it might last, could have no other ending than the loss of Crete. Through this unseasonable intransigence Venice permanently weakened her stamina without any result beyond the unprofitable satisfaction of knowing that she had compelled the Ottoman Power to pay the same exorbitant price for a Pyrrhic victory.
The modern Venetian idolization of the medieval Venetian empire in the Levant, which inspired the Venetians to this vain act of self-immolation, drove them on to renew the unequal struggle at the first opportunity. When the tide turned against the ʿOsmanlis in a war with the Danubian Hapsburg Power which began with the second Ottoman siege of Vienna in A.D. 1682 and ended in 1699 in the peace of Carlowitz, the Venetians hastened to intervene on the anti-Ottoman side and set out to compensate themselves for the loss of Crete by conquering the Morea. The vehemence with which they prosecuted their revenge was momentarily rewarded by the acquisition of Ottoman territories on the mainland which were greater in area than the aggregate of all the islands which Venice had lost to the Pādishāh between 1463 and 1669. Yet the only enduring effect of this War of the Morea upon Venetian life was to rule out the last faint hope of recovery from the exhausting effects of the War of Candia. The conquest of the Morea itself was ephemeral; for all that Venice had won from the ʿOsmanlis on the mainland in 1684-99 she lost to them again in 1715, with the island of Tenos – her last foothold in the Archipelago [of the Cyclades] – into the bargain. In this ill-judged final bid for dominion in the Levant Venice was simply creating a diversion for the benefit of the Hapsburgs and the Romanovs, who duly profited by making permanent acquisitions at the Ottoman Empire’s expense in the Danubian Basin and on the Black Sea Steppes.
To serve as the cat’s-paw for plucking other people’s chestnuts out of the fire was the last role which Venetian statesmanship would have chosen to play; and it was a role which Venice never did fall into playing on the political chessboards of medieval Italy and modern Western Europe. Such political ineptitude ran altogether counter to the Venetian tradition and the Venetian êthos; yet the Venetians succumbed to this folly, and persisted in it to their own undoing, in a sphere where the policy was ruinous from every material standpoint. The cost, in “blood and treasure”, of postponing the loss of Candia for twenty-five years, or obtaining possession of the Morea for twenty-eight, could not be recouped by any commercial profits that were to be drawn from these Levantine dominions; for the territorial possessions which had been effective points d’appui for Venetian trade in the Levant in the Pre-Ottoman Age had been rendered, long since, commercially valueless through the mere fact of their being reduced to the position of tiny enclaves in the vast domain of an Ottoman Empire which had engulfed the whole of the hinterland; and this hinterland itself had been impoverished by the diversion of the main stream of international trade from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Thus the Levantine stake for which Venice played her ruinous game against Turkey in the Modern Age was nothing more substantial than a passion to “save” her “face” by retaining the cumbersome territorial tokens of a past political greatness. The fact that this passion should have mastered the habitually cool and calculating Venetian mind is a striking testimony to the deadliness of the malady of self-idolization.
The spirit in which Venice surrendered herself to this malady is enshrined for Posterity in the material relics of her Levantine empire. The massive fortifications of her original Levantine places d’armes – a Negrepont and a Modon and a Coron and a Candia – speak, more eloquently than any words, of the limpet-like tenacity with which, through two hundred years of strenuous defensive warfare, the Venetian Commonwealth clung to every disputed foothold, and incidentally turned these Levantine reefs and crags and islands and peninsulas into a veritable museum of military architecture in which the twentieth-century traveller may watch the transition from medieval tower-and-curtain-wall to modern bastion-and-glacis. The vanity of the ephemeral revenge which Venice took upon the Ottoman victor in her final feat of conquering the Morea is likewise mutely proclaimed in the present state [ie condition] of Monemvasía – “the Little Gibraltar” [footnote; Like Gibraltar, Monemvasía is a rock connected with the continent by a low-lying spit of land. The name, in Greek, means “One Way In”; in English it survives as the label of the “Malmsey” wine which was exported from the medieval French principality of the Morea to the countries of the West. The missing link between the English Malmsey and the Greek Monemvasía is the French Malvoisie.] – where the traveller who cares to scale the rock can still enter the citadel in the footsteps of the Janissaries who made their entry on the 10th September, 1715, [footnote: For the capitulation of the Venetian garrison of Monemvasía to the Ottoman forces in September 1715 see Brue, B.: Journal de la Campagne que le Grand Vezir Ali Pacha a faite en 1715 pour la Conquête de la Morée (Paris 1870, Thorin), pp. 51-7.] and can pick his way over the summit among the carcasses of the dismantled Venetian cannon, whose bronze bodies lie where they fell when their splintered wooden carriages rotted away.
The nemesis of medieval Venetian creativity took a stern material shape in the frowning military works which modern Venice has left as her cenotaph in the Levant; but the same writing on the wall is no less plainly manifest in the melancholy works of art which were being created at home by those latter-day Venetian painters and musicians who were contemporaries of the last of the great Venetian captains, Francesco Morosini, the conqueror of the Morea. At first sight it may seem incredible that the seventeenth and eighteenth-century Venetians who were living that elegantly frivolous carnival life which the music and the pictures commemorate were the same flesh and blood that fought and died in the breach at Candia; but second thoughts tell us that the very sharpness of the contrast in ethos proves the two moods complementary. The intolerable strain which modern Venice was incurring in the Levant, in her infatuation with the dead self of her medieval Levantine glory, demanded, and received, in psychological “compensation”, an Epicurean relaxation of Venetian life at home; and this latter-day Venetian cultivation of the pleasures of the passing hour resembled its Hellenic original in being the refined expression of a low vitality. In Canaletto’s meticulous portraits of a Venice from whose atmosphere the sunlight has faded away we seem to see the ashes of a holocaust in which the Venetians had burned their energies out since the days when they had savoured the full-blooded colours of a Titian and a Tintoretto; and the same note of “dust and ashes” struck a nineteenth-century English poet’s ear in A Toccata of Galuppi’s.
Here you come with your old music,
and here’s all the good it brings.
What, they lived once thus at Venice,
where the merchants were the kings,
Where Saint Mark’s is, where the Doges
used to wed the Sea with rings?
What? Those lesser thirds so plaintive,
sixths diminished, sigh on sigh,
Told them something? Those suspensions,
those solutions – “Must we die?”
Those commiserating sevenths –
“Life might last! we can but try!”
Yes, you, like a ghostly cricket,
creaking where a house was burned –
“Dust and ashes, dead and done with,
Venice spent what Venice earned!
The soul, doubtless, is immortal –
where a soul can be discerned.”
“Dust and ashes!” So you creak it,
and I want the heart to scold.
Dear dead women, with such hair, too –
what’s become of all the gold
Used to hang and brush their bosoms?
I feel chilly and grown old.
We have already met Browning here. I broke up the lines to make them fit into the narrow column of this blog. The Victorians had barely heard of Vivaldi.
The writer of this Study is familiar with a picture of Canaletto’s, now hanging in an English house [presumably Castle Howard], in which the only patch of colour is the Union Jack which floats from the poop of an English ship riding at anchor among baroque palaces and churches. This blare of English red and blue, which catches and holds the gazer’s eye among the muffled Venetian browns and greens and greys, proclaims, in the visual language of Canaletto’s brush, that the dominion of the sea has passed into other than Venetian hands.
The truth that Venice is “dead and done with”, and the moral that others, besides “Venice and its people”, may be “merely born to bloom and drop” [ibid], have also been impressed upon the present writer’s imagination by another visual image which remains as sharply printed on his mind to-day as at the instant when he received it more than twenty-five years ago. Turning the corner of a mountain in a lonely district at the eastern end of Crete, he once suddenly stumbled upon the ruins of a baroque villa which must have been built for the pleasure of a Venetian grandee in the last days of Venetian rule in the island before the ʿOsmanlis came to reign there in the Venetians’ stead. It was a house which might have been built for a contemporary nobleman in England, and have been lived in – had it stood on English ground – by its builder’s descendants down to the tenth generation in the writer’s own day; but, having been built, as it happened, by Venetian hands in Crete, this piece of modern Western architecture was as utterly “dead and done with” – as veritably “a museum piece” – in A.D. 1912 as the Minoan palaces at Cnossos and Phaestus which the traveller had been looking at a few days before. In the common mortality which had overtaken each of them in turn, at moments more than three thousand years apart, these desolate habitations of vanished thalassocrats bore witness, against their makers, that
in due time, one by one,
Some with lives that came to nothing,
some with deeds as well undone,
Death came tacitly and took them
where they never see the sun.
[Ibid.] As the English traveller recalled the English poet’s lines, he reflected that the four and a half centuries for which Venice had been mistress of Crete were a longer span of time than the present age of his own country’s rule over the earliest acquired of her overseas dominions; and his ears seemed to catch an echo of Galuppi’s music among the Cretan crags.
In you come with your cold music,
till I creep in every nerve.
That baroque ruin in Crete, as it stood in A.D, 1912, was a memento mori for an England that was then still alive, as well as for a Venice that was then already dead.
The passage goes on to discuss Venice’s role in the revolutionary movements of the nineteenth century. We will save that for another day.
A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954 (footnote)
A Study of History, Vol IV, OUP, 1939