Venice, the Birth of the Modern World, and Some Rules for Empire

Adam Gravano

 

Once a powerhouse of medieval and Renaissance trade and finance, Venice has now taken on a slightly different coloring. It is an old city imperiled by rising sea levels, with a population that pre-COVID-19 was at its lowest levels since the 1950s. In some discussions of decadence and decay, as that in Ross Douthat's The Decadent Society, Venice is never far from the tips of thoughtful tongues in search of examples.

 

Reaching decadence, though, often requires some time at the top of the world, a glory to be reflected from the past to a present set of circumstances. And looking at this period of Venetian life, the better part of three centuries at the close of the medieval period and the beginning of the modern period, provides one lessons that may hold even in our time.

 

 

While one might claim that there isn't so much a small city state can teach a large territorial state, even if they're both republics, many of the innovations of Renaissance-era Italian city states are still with us today. Examples, of course, include the structure of diplomacy and something few businesses or college kids in search of a math credit can do without — double-entry accounting. The Republic of Venice and the United States only coexisted for two decades before the Napoleonic Wars ended the older republic; however, several episodes from the history of Venice should be of special interest to anyone who finds history capable of teaching lessons to future leaders.

 

One of the major lessons from Venice involves commitment. At several points in Venetian history, most notably the Battle of Lepanto, one sees a major lesson about strategic commitment. Namely, the failure of many Venetian captains to join the fray prevented the Ottoman losses from being greater. While this tactic may have prevented a loss from becoming a rout, it also stifled the ability to capitalize on a victory. This happens at other points toward the end of Venice's status as a medieval Mediterranean superpower as well.

 

 

As with Rome or Britain or any great imperial holding, it's possible to posit multiple reasons for the fall – and thus multiple lessons depending on the cause attributed to the fall. It's difficult to describe exactly where certain attitudes emerged regarding combat. It could stem from a tactical or operational factor: no great way to approach conflicting fleets or too much fog or smoke to make out friends or foes, for example. But from a higher perspective, looking at the traditions and habits of Venice, we can see certain elements of the political culture that may provide certain strengths but may also lead to a corrosion of dynamism.

 

This draws our attention to another great invention of the Venetians: double-entry accounting. The Venetians' accounting prowess was not only used to track expenses, it was also used to perform regular audits. Auditors were even empowered to use interrogation, including torture, over abuses of expenses incurred in the name of the republic. No matter how minute, all expenditures were potentially up for question. Perhaps here might lie the source of any accused pusillanimity? There's a valuable lesson here for a manager: where to draw a line regarding the justification of expenses?

 

 

Of course, much of Vernice's rise to great power was made by having a set of valuable assets, a fleet and shipbuilding industry, and a clientele for the use of these assets, be it crusaders looking to arrive at the Holy Land or the spice trade. Leasing these assets out in the Fourth Crusade provided not only a largescale moneymaking opportunity, it also allowed the Venetians use of foreign crusaders to subdue threatening neighbors, like Zara, and accomplish other ends, like regime change in Constantinople. Sometimes providing services and being flexible on payments leads to attaining other strategic goals. The past can provide many lessons for the historically minded. Each corner provides the resourceful reader with a new example of possible means of handling situations.

 

Author Bio:

Adam Gravano is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

 

For Highbrow Magazine

 

Image Sources:

 

--Jack Keilo (Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

--Canaletto (Wikipedia, Creative Commons)

--Johannes Adelphus (Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

--Nana Tchelidze (PublicDomainPictures.net, Creative Commons)

 

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