Jan Morris has a witty, erudite style marked by lists of antithetical items, gently provocative statements and wry observations that readily slip off the page.

Reading this book again, after many years, I realise my current neighbours, the coritos, are like the Venetians… unerringly so. I say this with admiration in the way they mix a sense of concern about your business whilst subtly extracting an obligation from you for having done so. I think Jan Morris might have said they’re not given to posturing artistry or impractical diversions; they’re focused on the practicalities of life; they are the craftsmen class. In business they’ll give you more than you might need but at a very fair price, such that it’s hard to argue or haggle. When payment is needed they’re as relaxed as they were entrepreneurially sharp before, leaving an impression that you have paid less than the king’s ransom that you eventually will pay. They are great conquerors and hoarders of other peoples treasure and wealth.
Difficult to know if this is Feria or Venice; conquistadores or condottieris?

introduction by Tim Harris

 



 

extracts from Venice by James Morris (1960), this edition by Faber and Faber (1983)

Venice was therefore a State of severely specialized talents. She produced fine administrators, seamen, merchants, bankers, artists, architects, musicians, printers, diplomatists. She produced virtually no poets, only one great dramatist, hardly a novelist, scarcely a philosopher. Her only eminent thinker was Paolo Sarpi

From this small city, though, from this very people sprung the glories of the Serenissima. It is said that at the time of the Fourth Crusade, in which Venice played a prominent and quite unprincipled part, the population of the city was only 40,000. In all the thirteen centuries of the Republic it was probably never more than 170,0000. Venice was therefore a State of severely specialized talents. She produced fine administrators, seamen, merchants, bankers, artists, architects, musicians, printers, diplomatists. She produced virtually no poets, only one great dramatist, hardly a novelist, scarcely a philosopher. Her only eminent thinker was Paolo Sarpi, the monk who conducted the Venetian case in the worst of the Republic’s quarrels with the Papacy, and who discovered the contraction of the iris. Her boldest generals were condottieri.




She was pre-eminently an adapter rather than an innovator. Her vocation was commerce; her countryside was the sea; her tastes were voluptuous; her function was that of bridge between east and west; her obsession was political stability; her consolation, when she needed it, was self-indulgence; and it is remarkable how closely her talents fitted her needs. For many centuries Venice was never short of the leaders, craftsmen, entertainers and businessmen she required, from astute ambassadors to diligent shipwrights, from financiers to architects, from Marco Polo to Titian to Goldoni, the merriest of minor geniuses. 

their prices were high and their terms inflexible, but they did it in style. Their ships were the best, their trappings most gorgeous

The Venetians always had an eager eye for a monopoly or a quick return, and enjoyed the reputation of being willing to sell anything they possessed, if offered enough for it. They are sharp business men still. Venetian merchants, contractors and shippers retain a reputation for hard-headedness, if not cussedness. (‘A stiff necked and rebellious people’ is how one administrator from Rome recently described the Venetians).

The Venetians remain hard but wise bargainers. when their forbears undertook to transport an army or equip a fleet, their prices were high and their terms inflexible, but they did it in style. Their skips were the best, their trappings the most gorgeous, they fulfilled their agreements scrupulously. ‘Noi siamo calculatori‘, the Venetians have always cheerfully admitted – ‘We are a calculating people.’ So it is today. the Venetians will always let you pay another time, will seldom cheat you over the odd lira, are never disgruntled if you break off a negotiation. They are business men of finesse.

myriad picture-framers of the city, whose hearts must sink at the very thought of another sunset Rialto

The Republic was sustained, too, by a stout company of artisans, denied all political responsibility, but never without self-respect. The rulers of Venice, though they held the working classes well under control, did their cunning best to keep them contended, partly  by feeding them on a diet of ceremonial, partly by fostering their sense of craft and guild. When the fishermen of the Nicoletti faction elected their leader each year, the Doge himself was represented at the ceremony, first by a mere doorkeeper of the Doge’s palace, later by a more senior official. The great Venetian artists and architects were nearly all of the craftsmen class, rich and celebrated though they became, and the painters usually subscribed to the Guild of House Painters.

The Republic was sustained, too, by a stout company of artisans, denied all political responsibility, but never without self-respect. The rulers of Venice, though they held the working classes well under control, did their cunning best to keep them contented, partly by feeding them a diet of ceremonial, partly by fostering their sense of craft and guild.

Modern Venice is rich in conscientious craftsmen, people of strong and loyal simplicity, such as one imagines in the sea ports of early Victorian England. the specialist workmen of Venice are still impressive, from the men at the garage at the Piazzale Roma, who skilfully steer cars by manipulating the two front wheels, to the myriad picture-framers of the city, whose hearts must sink at the very thought of another sunset Rialto. Splendid horny craftsmen work in the sawdust shambles of the boat-yards – in Venice, squeri – where the tar cauldrons bubble and stink, and they caulk the boat with flaming faggots. Crusty old men like London cabbies, holding antique hooks, , stand beside the canals in long flapping greatcoats looking rheumily for gondolas to help alongside. Even the drivers of grand motor boats sometimes hide an agreeable heart behind a pompous exterior; and there are few kindlier policemen than those that patrol the canals in their little speedboats, or solemnly potter about, buttoned in blue greatcoats, in flat-bottomed skiffs.


And among them all, the very image of Venice, straight-descended from Carpaccio, moves the gondolier. He is not a popular figure among the tourists, who think his prices high and his manners sometimes overbearing: and indeed he is frequently a Communist, and no respecter of persons, and he often shamelessly pumps the innocent foreigner with inaccurate information,and sometimes unfairly induces him to disregard the tariff (‘Ah, but today is the feast of San Marcuola, signor, and it is traditional to charge double fares on this holy day’). The gondoliers are usually highly intelligent: they are also tolerant, sardonic, and, with some grumpy and usually elderley exceptions, humorous.

The gondoliers still have a strong sense of guild unity. Their co-operative is a powerful force in Venice, and in the past they even had their own communal banks, run on a system of mutual risk. Not long ago each traghetto, or gondola ferry station, was organised in its own asertive guild. nowadays, though nearly every gondolier is still affiliated to a traghetto, they are all members of one co-operative. Each gondola is privately owned – your gondolier is not necessarily the owner, possession often running in families – and profits go to the proprietor, the co-operative being merely a negotiating agency, a system of social security, and a common convenience – and sometimes a political organ too. Competition between gondoliers is, nevertheless, strictly governed, and the celebrated gondoliers’ quarrels, dear to generations of travel writers, often have a distinctly stagy air to them.

Under the Republic none of these working men had any share in the running of the State. A small hereditary aristocracy, enumerated loftily in the Golden Book, preserved all power for itself. Only occasionally was the Book opened for the inclusion of a newly-elevated patrician, honoured for prowess in war, for particular fidelity to the State, or for a suitable (but of course purely symbolic) fee. Thirty families were ennobled for service in the wars against Genoa, and sometimes rich commoners from the mainland bought their way into the Venetian aristocracy, as you might buy yourself membership at Lloyds. It took generations, though, for such parvenus to be accepted by the old aristocrats, who often though so highly of themselves, not without reason, that they shuddered at the very thought of going abroad and being treated like ordinary folk.

But generally a sturdy sense of equality pervades Venetian life. It is still, like the rest of Italy, a place of domestic servants, trim uniformed housemaids, motherly cooks, soft-footed menservants

The working people, in return for their labour and loyalty, were governed fairly and often generously, but they had not one iota of political privilege, and could only occasionally alter the course of events by a riot or a threatened mutiny. Generally they remained astonishingly faithful to the system.



Some observers consider that the Venetians’ complete dependency upon aristocratic condescensions bred a servility still apparent in the city. There is, it is true, a degree of social sycophancy in Venice. Venetians are considered more docile than most Italians, and used to be more easily exploited abroad, in the days when Italy provided cheap labour for half Europe. Sometimes a retainer will speak to you of his employers in a hushed and respectful whine, as though he were talking in church. Venetians now, as always, have a healthy respect for the moneyed – more, perhaps, than the well bred.

But generally a sturdy sense of equality pervades Venetian life. It is still, like the rest of Italy, a place of domestic servants, trim uniformed housemaids, motherly cooks, soft-footed menservants: but they have a sensible hale-fellow-well-met approach to the problems of the household, with few traces of oily subservience. With a friendly familiarity  your housekeeper sits down beside you at the breakfast table, for a rambling discussion of the day’s prospects, or a kind word of correction about how to bring up the children. 

photographs by Tim Harris
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Venice

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Venice 45.434238, 12.338676 Venice, Metropolitan City of Venice, Italy (Directions)