Venice and the Art of Decline

January 11, 2017  •  4 Comments

A visitor to Venice, as I am now, cannot help but see lions. They adorn the city flag, the Basilica of St. Mark, innumerable doorknockers, the newel post of a staircase in the Rialto fish market and, in paper form, the occasional dressmaker's dummy. I saw the one pictured above on a stage in the ruins of a hospital for tubercular children on the Lido de Venezia. The lions might seem an affectation now, when Venice is a city with a diminishing population, a city that must accommodate mobs of tourists for its livelihood, a city that some fear will disappear entirely beneath the rising waters of its lagoon and canals in the not-too-distant future.

But the lions speak silently to the fact the Venetians once had reason to think of themselves as kings of the jungle, the superpower of the late Middle Ages. Venice dominated world trade from approximately 1200 to 1500. It was the essential commercial intermediary between the West and the Orient, and it knew how to make that centrality pay. It was an aggressive naval power quite adept at conquest, colonization and pillage.

And then it declined.

Historians ascribe Venice's long, slow fall to several factors, some within its control and some not. One factor was the discovery of new trade routes, pioneered by Portuguese navigators who demonstrated that Europeans could import the riches of the Orient by sailing around Africa. In this way, traders could save themselves the middleman's charges and taxes levied by not only the Venetians but the Islamic empires that lay between Europe and the sources of silks and spices. This competition seriously eroded Venice's comparative advantage in world economics in much the same way that the internet has eroded the comparative advantage of newspapers.

There was also the classic dynamic between the rich, status quo power (Venice) and the hungry, up-and-coming, disruptive power (the Ottoman Turks). The Turks were willing to do whatever it took to conquer. The Venetians, not so much. They developed a fatal tendency to want to enjoy what they had. So, in the late 15th Century, under Mehmet II, the Turks slowly and persistently conquered most of Venice's trading outposts and colonies in the eastern Mediterranean.

Finally, some historians argue that Venice weakened itself when its governing body enacted what was called La Serrata, or the closing. This restricted eligibility for membership in the ruling council to families that were already part of the nobility. It put a lid on upward social mobility and diminished the incentive for upstart Venetians to contribute their energy to the commonweal. Whatever the reason, it's beyond argument that some of the hereditary aristocrats given command of Venetian naval forces proved themselves less than valorous in battle with the Turks.

But while its relative economic and political power declined after 1500, it would be an egregious overstatement to say Venice collapsed. To the contrary, it managed decline very well. For one thing, its cultural life thrived long after its geopolitical dominance was gone. Titian (1488-1576) and Vivaldi (1678-1741) were exemplary Venetians of the sunset era. Though forced to surrender its independent republic status to Napoleon in 1797,  Venice always managed to avoid being sacked and burned. Its canals and beautiful palazzi remained more or less intact for future tourists to marvel at. Its industries suffered from global competition, but some of them managed to find niches in which they survived. The woman at right works for Tessitura Luigi Bevilacqua, a Venetian fabric manufacturer in business since 1499. Using wooden looms made hundreds of years ago, she weaves rich fabrics of silk and velvet that, as of yet, the textile mills of China and India either cannot duplicate or don't bother with. The market for Bevilacqua products, I was told, includes Arab sheikhs, Russian oligarchs, and a couple of European royal houses. They cost upwards of a thousand Euros a meter. Venice stopped being a competitive purveyor of mass goods, but it retained a reputation for quality good.

(My thanks go here to Frank Van Riper and Judith Goodman. My wife and I are on one of their photography workshops in Venice, and their contacts have made it possible for me to visit places like the Tessitura Luigi Bevilacqua and ask my questions about Venetian history.)

It's almost impossible for me, especially at this point in American history, to visit Venice and wonder if it is now, or soon will be, America's turn to face the challenge of managing decline. I know there are chest-thumping Americans who would regard this statement as akin to treason. God has chosen America to be the exceptional nation, they would say, and therefore decline will never happen unless Americans turn their backs on God or some such blunder. There are others who apparently believe that America has been in decline for the last decade or so, but it will come roaring back in a storm of blustery tweets.

I don't know. Maybe America will be the exception, but until now the inevitability of great power decline has been a constant in human affairs. I think it's safe to say that the United States has become a status quo power whose leading citizens prefer to dodge taxes rather than sacrifice for the commonweal. (See Trump, Donald.) We are embroiled in a world full of hungry, disruptive powers. (The tactics of Vladimir Putin today bear a striking resemblance to those employed by Sultan Mehmet II against Venice in the 15th Century.) Our system concentrates wealth in the hands of one percent of the population, and social mobility, once our pride, is now worse than in many European countries.

The American political system is increasingly dysfunctional. Twice in this century, the loser of the popular vote has nevertheless become president. Small states, the wealthy, and residents of certain "battleground states" wield disproportionate influence. The art of gerrymandering has advanced to the point where moderates have no influence and the fringes, both right and left, control Congress. Our people are riven into tribes that have diverging views of reality and don't very much listen to, respect, or understand one another any more. 

All of those would seem to be harbingers of decline. If they are, the question is what to do about it. We could choose to exacerbate the factors that have traditionally led to decline. We could choose to concentrate still more wealth and power in the hands of a few. We could have our own version of Venice's Serrata by slashing immigration and letting the public schools drift in futility. We could choose to ignore or remain ignorant of the challenge posed by leaders like Putin. On the other hand, we could choose ineffective, expensive military responses to those challenges until we exhaust our funds and our will to fight.

Or, perhaps, we could learn from the things Venice did right during its decline. We could take care to preserve our culture and our environment. We could recognize that some things are beyond our control, like the new trade routes to the Far East in the 16th Century were for Venice. We might be able to make our decline so long and gradual as to be almost imperceptible, and to preserve our country, as Venice did its city, as a place for the rest of the world to admire. Still a lion, but a lion of a different kind.



Steve Wells(non-registered)
Excellent essay, Bob!
Frank Van Riper(non-registered)
Terrific column, Bob. Amazing that you found time to spin this yarn (as it were) while also making great pictures here in La Serenissima.
Alana Davidson
I haven't been to Venice in a number of years but you have presented this beautiful, historical city in a new light -- a new framework to consider. As always, you provide us subscribers with tasty food for thought. Thank you.
Bert Cullen(non-registered)
A nicely woven story. Pun intended.
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