"Cry u2018havoc!’ and let loose the dogs of war, that this foul deed shall smell above the earth with carrion men, groaning for burial."
~ Antony, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Act III
One of the nicest things about Europe’s cities is that they are so full of dead people. In Paris, the cemeteries are so packed that the stiffs are laid down like bricks, stacked one atop the other. Occasionally the bones are dug up and stored in underground ossuaries that are turned into tourist attractions. Thousands and thousands of skulls are on display in the catacombs; millions more must be spread all over the city.
Here in Venice, a dead man gets — or used to get — a send-off so gloriously sentimental that he could hardly wait to die. There is barely room within the city walls for the living and none at all for cadavres. So the dead were loaded onto a magnificently morbid floating mariah — a richly decorated funeral gondola, painted in bright black with gold angels on her bow and stern. Then, as if crossing the river Styx, the boat was rowed across the lagoon to the island of San Michele by four gondoliers in black outfits with gold trim.
How America’s versifiers must have envied one of their own, Ezra Pound, when he took his last gondola ride in such fabulous style in 1972. And then, what luck…the former classical scholar, poet and admirer of Benito Mussolini got one of the last empty holes on the cemetery island. Today, when a Venetian reaches room temperature, the best he can hope for is a damp spot over on the mainland.
Here at LRC we do not hasten to join the dead, but we seek their counsel. When corpses whisper, we listen.
“Been there. Done that,” they often seem to say.
Reading Mrs. Oliphant’s history of the dead dukes — or “Doges” — of Venice, we felt as though we should send a copy to someone in Washington. “Read this. Spare yourself some trouble,” we might write upon the accompanying note. But who reads anything but newspapers in the capitol city? Who reads at all? In America, if it isn’t on the evening news, it didn’t happen. Ancient history is something that happened last week.
Too bad. For many of the most preposterous ideas now emanating from the feverish swamps of the Potomac have already been tried out here in the feverish swamps of Venice, hundreds of years ago.
“Democracy! Commerce! Freedom! Nation-building,” the ideas are cast into the murky lagoon of human affairs…as if the words themselves were clarifying magic. Suddenly, wrong is as distinct from right, as day from night. Good from bad…success from failure…how clearly we see things in the crystal waters of our own delusions!
America congratulates itself as the finest democracy the world has ever seen, but the system of ruling Venice 8 centuries ago was no less democratic. People voted for people who voted for other people, who then voted for yet more people who elected the Doge. The whole idea was to allow ordinary people to believe that they ran the nation…while real authority remained in the hands of a few families — the Bushes, Gores, and Rockefellers of 13th-century Venice.
“So easy is it to deceive the multitude,” says Mrs. Oliphant. “The sovereignty of the Venice, under whatever system carried on, had always been in the hands of a certain number of families, who kept their place with almost dynastic regularity undisturbed by any intruders from below — the system of the Consiglio Maggiore was still professedly a representative system of the widest kind; and it would seem at the first glance as if every honest man, all who were da bene and respected by their fellows, must one time or other have been secure of gaining admission to that popular parliament.”
To Mrs. Oliphant’s dictum on the multitude we add a corollary: it is even easier to deceive oneself. Today, rare is the American who is not a victim of his own scam. He mortgages his home and thinks he is getting richer by it. He buys Wall Street’s products as though he were gambling in Las Vegas, and believes himself a mini-Warren Buffett. He goes to the polling stations this November and believes he is selecting the government he wants, when the choice has already been reduced to two men of the same class, same age, same schooling, same wealth, same secret club, same society, with more or less the same ideas about how things should be run.
In Washington, the U.S. senate meets in the same solemn deceit as the Consiglio Maggiore — pretending to do the public’s business. While down the street, America’s own Doge, George W. Bush, takes up where the Michieli and Dandolos left off: trying to hustle the East.
Making a very long story short, at the beginning of the 13th century, as at the beginning of the 21st, many people saw a “clash of civilizations” coming and sharpened their swords. They were, then as now, the same civilizations, clashing in about the same part of the world — the Middle East.
What was different back then was that the effort to make the world a better place — at least in this episode — was being prodded forward by the French. Mrs. Oliphant’s history tells of the arrival of 6 French knights in shining armor, who strode into San Marco’s piazzo to ask the Doge for help. They were putting together an alliance of civilized Western armies in order to reconquer Jerusalem, they explained.
All the usual arguments were brought out. But the Venetians were not so much convinced by the French as they convinced themselves. They were, they said to themselves, just as Madeleine Albright would centuries later, the indispensable nation. Without them, the effort would fail; therefore they must act. Yes, they could still fail, they acknowledged, but look what they had to gain! For not only would they being doing good, but they stood to do well, too — implanting trading posts and ports along the way.
And so a fleet of 50 galleys was assembled and set off…the old Doge himself leading the way. Finding their French allies along the way, a bit the worse for wear and tear, they proposed a new deal: instead of attacking the infidels forthwith, they would warm themselves up with an assault on Zara, a town on the Dalmatian coast that had recently rebelled against its Venetian masters.
The French protested. They had intended to make war against the enemies of Christ, not against other Christians. But they so needed the Venetians’ support, they had no choice.
In five days, the city of Zara surrendered; its defenses were no match for the armies in front of them. And so the city was sacked and the booty divided up. Soon after came a letter from Pope Innocent III, who wondered what they were doing killing the fellow Christians; it was the pagans they were meant to be killing, he reminded them. He commanded them to leave Zara and proceed to Syria, “neither turning to the right hand nor to the left.”
The Pope’s letters greatly troubled the poor pious French, but the Venetians seemed undisturbed. They ignored the letters and remained in Zara until a new comic opportunity presented itself.
This time, it was Constantinople that was the unfortunate target. A young prince from that city had come to them, asking support for a mission at once as audacious as it was absurd. His father had been blinded and thrown in a dungeon; the capital of Eastern Christendom was in the hands of men who must have been ancestors of Saddam Hussein — evil usurpers, dictators whom the people detested. If the Venetians would come to his aid, he promised, they would be rewarded generously. More than that, he and his father would return the entire Eastern Empire back to the one true church…the church of St. Peter in Rome.
The Venetians couldn’t resist. In April, 801 years ago this month, they set sail for the straits of the Bosporus. And in a great battle — a battle that must have been an undertaker’s dream — the city was taken.
Historian Edward Gibbon describes the scene:
“The soldiers who leaped from the galleys on shore immediately ascended their scaling ladders, while the large ships, advancing more slowing in the intervals and lowering a drawbridge, opened a way through the air from their masts to the rampart. In the midst of the conflict the doge’s venerable and conspicuous form stood aloft in complete armor on the prow of his galley. The great standard of St. Mark was displayed before him; his threats, promises and exhortations urged the diligence of the rowers; this vessel was the first that struck; and Dandolo was the first warrior on shore. The nations admired the magnanimity of the blind old man…”
It proved, however, that the young prince upon whose stories and promises the campaign was launched had been a bit economical with the truth. Like the intelligence services’ warnings of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, his depiction of the circumstances prevailing in Constantinople at the time was only partially accurate. Much of it seemed fanciful.
Though the initial conquest was fairly easy and glorious, subsequent events were less so. The local population rose up against the invaders. The city had to be retaken; this time, the battle was even bloodier and thousands of innocent citizens were put to the sword.
As near as historians can tell, no lasting gain or benefit was earned by the Venetians. Dandolo died in 1205, never having seen his home again. As for his compatriots, what was left of them eventually returned to Venice.
“But there still remains in Venice,” adds Mrs. Oliphant, “one striking evidence of the splendid, disastrous expedition, the unexampled conquests and victories yet dismal end, of what is called the Fourth Crusade. And that is the four great bronze horses, curious, inappropriate bizarre ornaments that stand above the doorways of San Marco. This was the blind doge’s lasting piece of spoil.”
“Been there. Done that,” whispers the old doge.
Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century.