The Merchants of Venice

unde origo inde salus

Photo Courtesy of Gianmario Guidarelli

I’ve enjoyed Nate’s posts this month on the importance and benevolence of the market as a human institution. The market can indeed promote tolerance, cooperation, and peace, to say nothing of wealth. And its importance in our culture only increases. The market continues to expand its reach, governing many aspects of life we once thought beyond it. A few decades ago, prenuptial agreements were void as against public policy. Courts would not enforce agreements in contemplation of divorce. Now, prenups are routine. There are many other examples.

As the market expands, it seems inevitable that competing commitments will shrink, at least as a matter of public life. Religion may be among these commitments. In fact, as Nate explains, reducing religion’s hold on people may have been the point all along. Voltaire, for example, anticipated that the expansion of commerce would cause religious commitment to atrophy. People would come to see the market, not the church, as important, and identify as buyers and sellers rather than believers. After all, in the marketplace, it doesn’t matter whether one is a good Christian, Jew, Muslim or pagan. All that matters is whether one can pay.

In the passage Nate quotes, Voltaire offers eighteenth-century London as the model of a benevolent, religiously indifferent, commercial society. (Voltaire overstated things. In 1780, two years after he died, London was convulsed by the vicious, anti-Catholic Gordon Riots, in which mobs terrorized the city for days while Londoners huddled inside their homes, afraid to face them. “Such,” Johnson observed, “is the cowardice of a commercial place.”) When one thinks of the prototype of a mercantile society, though, one usually thinks of another city a thousand miles away. It’s Venice, more than any other place, which conventionally epitomizes the commercial society.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about Venice, lately, ever since I visited last month to participate in an international law and religion moot court competition. In its glory, Venice was a city devoted to commerce. Just as in today’s New York, you could find anything for sale. The city pioneered credit-financed capitalism and grew fabulously wealthy on trade with Byzantium and the Levant. And, as Voltaire’s theory would suggest, the Venetian Republic was quite tolerant of religious difference, especially for the time. The city had significant colonies of Eastern Christians like Greeks and Armenians; Lutheran Germans; Muslim Turks; and of course Jews. All made fortunes trading peaceably in Venice.

And yet, as I learned, Venice had a compensating commitment to tradition. The city balanced devotion to the fluid world of commerce with an equal devotion to the static world of custom. As Peter Ackroyd explains in his marvelous book, Venice, Pure City (2009), Venice was “the most conservative of societies.” In law and government, ancient usage had preeminent authority, more than positive legislation. Social interactions followed patterns that did not change. For example, strict rules limited what different classes could wear. Patricians wore stiff black gowns, which highlighted gravity and authority, not flexibility and cosmopolitanism. In architecture, generation after generation followed old models. When buildings collapsed, Venetians would reconstruct them exactly as they had been, often using the same materials. Come era, dove era.

And Venice was exceptionally religious. The city’s enthusiastic participation in the Crusades is well known, and was always a matter of great pride. One could dismiss Crusading as a search for more loot, but for Venetians it was more than that. Venetians were genuinely devout, perhaps excessively so. Hundreds of churches shared a very small space; religious processions were numerous and frequent.  Reports of miracles were common; only Rome had more. This is not to say that Venetians were saints. They never lost sight of the main chance. But Catholicism was a centerpiece of their identity. Ackroyd sums it up best: “Machiavelli wrote that ‘we Italians are corrupt and irreligious beyond all others.’ That was not true of the Venetians. They were corrupt and religious.”

The commitment to tradition was brought home to me when I was visited the famous basilica of Santa Maria della Salute on the Grand Canal. The basilica was built in the seventeenth century to commemorate the Virgin’s help in ending one of the periodic plagues that struck Venice. As architectural historian Gianmario Guidarelli explained to me, at the very center of this church, there is an inscription (above) that captures the Venetian understanding of life: Unde Origo Inde Salus, “Where is the Origin, There is Salvation.” The inscription refers to the legendary founding of Venice on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation to the Virgin in the Western calendar. But I think the inscription must allude more generally to the saving power of the past. Salvation doesn’t come from novelty or change. To preserve the city, one must return to history, to ancient customs, to the origins. You can’t get more traditional than that.

With their dual commitment to markets and tradition, the merchants of Venice held the gorgeous East in fee. The state they created, the Venetian Republic, lasted for more than a thousand years. In the West today, we have kept and expanded markets, but seem ever more eager to jettison tradition. I wonder how long we’ll last.

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