Gary Wills' Venice

Tomorrow I make my first pilgrimage to Venice, the enchanted city that so charmed Ruskin, though his Stones of Venice narrates both what he takes to be its genius and its demise--which correlates with its Gothic beginning and Renaissance decadence. For Ruskin's Venice, the renaissance was as hardly a re-birth, but more of a death knell. So, as a devotee of Ruskin, you can imagine that I've been boning up on Stones (from a great 1898 edition in the York St. John's library in York).

However, I also took this as an opportunity to finally read a book that's been languishing on my shelf for a few years: Gary Wills' Venice, Lion City: The Religion of Empire (Simon & Schuster, 2001; paperback, 2002). I recall picking this up at a bookstore in Stratford several years ago, piqued by interest in Ruskin but with a sense that Wills' take represented the loyal opposition as it were. Turns out I was right.

It's a marvelous book, taking the reader on a tour of Venice's religious, commercial and political history through its rich artistic archive. (Wills opens with Evelyn Waugh's comment that "If every museum in the New World were emptied, if every famous building in the Old World were destroyed and only Venice saved, there would be enough to fill a lifetime with delight.") While the book does presume some prior knowledge of Venice (both history and art, as well as some sense of the geography of the city), it could also be profitably read alongside a decent guidebook for a first time visitor to Venice.

What's interesting is how Wills frames his "argument," as it were: First, though it was Ruskin who put him onto Venice, Wills is really out to contest Ruskin's moralistic thesis which suggested that Venice's empire crumbled precisely when commerce trumped religion. According to Wills, not only can the two not be separated, in fact, it was Venice's relentless pursuit of trade and commerce that already yielded all the earlier Gothic delights that Ruskin so valued.

This claim then floats on a second, more submerged interest: drawing persistent parallels with the "American" empire. Venice is celebrated as an empire of "independence," constantly resisting both Roman and Eastern hegemony--a kind of proto-protestant city on a hill devoted to labor, commerce, and trade. The analogy keeps bubbling up throughout the book--as when Lotto's depiction of the Annunciation brings to mind Jackie Kennedy (!): "I thought, when I first saw the picture in Washington, of Jacqueline Kennedy turning to clamber out of her car when the tremendous blow fell on her in the Dallas motorcade" (232-233). He brings the analogy home in an Epilogue, "Farewell to Empire," where he then labors to emphasize the differences between Venetian and American exceptionalism. While Venetians considered themselves exceptional, they didn't think that Venice could be replicated or exported, in contrast to American self-understanding which took itself as a pattern to be emulated and a system to be exported. In other words, Wills seems to draw the analogy in order to note that Venetian imperialism was pragmatic, commercial and "realist;" in short, Venetians weren't neoconservatives, had no PNAC-like idealism about a global Venice.

What's intriguing and prescient is the fact that this book was published on September 18, 2001 (and Wills didn't seem to make any changes for the 2002 paperback edition). He couldn't have known that the string of quotes from Wintrhop ("city set on a hill"), Jefferson (America as "the world's best hope"), and Lincoln would, within a year, be marshaled for just the kind of exceptionalist imperial project he was worried about here.

However, prescience is not quite wisdom. While the book is a spectacular tour of Venice via its art and architecture, and should be required reading for any thoughtful pilgrimage to Venice, I'm not convinced that Wills rightly diagnoses what's at stake in the "religion of empire."

Let me take just one example: What makes Venice the "Lion City" is the fact that it is home to the body of St. Mark, the Gospel writer signified by a lion. The relic of the saint--stolen from Alexandria by Venetian forces--played a central and crucial role in both the religious and political life of Venice from the time of its "translation" there in 828. The relic was presented to the doge (roughly, 'emperor') for protection. This is already an important episode: the saint's body was not delivered to the bishop, but to the doge--not to an ecclesiastical authority, but to a secular one. This already represented a marginalization of the bishop and--by extension--the pope and Rome (an early assertion of the "independence" of Venice that Wills so prizes). The doge becomes the protector of St. Mark's body in exchange for the saint's protection and prospering of the city. The Basilica of San Marco is the 'home' of this relic; but note, this is not a cathedral or a diocesan church--it is, in fact, the private chapel of the doge.

What does Wills conclude from this? That "Mark's body ordered the whole of society around itself" (33). Henceforth, "the republic would be true to him" (35).

But of course this is susceptible to exactly the opposite reading: that the "ordering" is just the other way around--that the republich has marshaled Mark's body as an instrument for its own ends, and that Mark's body is literally "brought in" (by theft) to baptize and sanctify the activity of the commercial empire.

Wills never seems to entertain this reading (even to disagree with it or dismiss it). As such, I think he underestimates his own phrase: "the religion of empire." These genitives are notoriously slippery. Wills seems to me "religion AND empire." This is why he thinks he can dismiss Ruskin's reading simply by noting that both piety and aggressive commercialism functioned simultaneously at the height of the Venetian empire. But that's seeing the two as distinct entities: Christian "religion" on the one side and commercial "empire" on the other. (Granted, I think Ruskin's reading fails on this point as well; he still works with too simple a dichotomy.)

But what if both are a matter of "religion?" What if it is precisely commerce that was the god of this empire? In short, what if it really might have been the case that the empire was the religion? (Wills seems to almost glimpse this when he notes that "[t]he doge, not the bishops, was the protector of religion in Venice, and when conflicts arose with Rome, the clergy were expected to be loyal to the Venetian faith" (45). Would it not be the case, then, that St. Mark was hijacked in the service of false gods?

And might this be a familiar story?