Della Ragion di stato: An Act of Justice

As John Martin and Dennis Romano acknowledge in their introduction to Venice Reconsidered:

There simply are too many Venices, too many unknown dimensions. Just when one believes one is beginning to follow the story line, Venice transmogrifies and, both in spite of and because of the richness of its archives and artistic treasures, is again a mystery, an enigma, an indecipherable maze of interweaving stories, false and true.

In this light, Valcamonica’s execution presents a riddle wrapped in an enigma. Within the inner riddle, given the dominant powers operating in Venice at the time, the execution itself compels at least two readings: one aligned with the governmental authorities of state and one with the spiritual authority of the Church. Neither one perspective nor the other provides all the answers; rather, the enigma of the execution reveals itself within the parallax view opened from straddling both perspectives simultaneously. That gymnastic feat presents the possibility that the interweaving stories of Venice, stories which the Venetians told to themselves in order to maintain faith in their political autonomy that came under pressure during the sixteenth century, played out upon the bodies of its own citizens. Reading the body of Valcamonica within the network of state power helps to gain access to the narratives and metanarratives structuring these stories.

Around the core riddle of Valcamonica, however, stretches another enigma, that posed by Venice itself. As Martin and Romano point out, Venetian historiography reveals narratives that somehow exist as both true and false. The perception of Venetian government at any one given time, for example, does not necessarily reveal an accurate picture. Misreadings stem from the possibility that the city streets and the dramaturgies of the performances transpiring within them both encode multiple layers of meaning into all the events that unfold there, thereby compelling contemporary spectators to wonder how, in this particular case, the space of the city prepares the scene of the execution. To begin working through the kaleidoscopic fragmentation of Valcamonica’s execution caused by the multiple perspectives carved out by Venice’s numerous narratives, I turn to Giovanni Botero. A former Jesuit whose political theorizations provide a map of state governmental mechanisms in early modern Europe, Botero presents a compelling grid of specification through which to view both Valcamonica’s death and the machinery that conveyed him to the scaffold.

In 1598, a Venetian press published Botero’s Della ragion di stato (On the Reason of State). In that document, the last edition which the author himself revised, the former Jesuit opened with the following definition: “State is a stable rule over a people and Reason of State is the knowledge of the means by which such a dominion may be founded, preserved, and extended [... ]. [I]t is concerned most nearly with preservation, and more nearly with extensions than with foundations” (3). Somewhat enigmatically, then, the text functioned as a guide to the practice of extending a state’s domination but also as a portrait of the ideal state, a territory that has been perfectly preserved from internal and external danger. To preserve itself, a healthy state had to cultivate and maintain internal tranquility while also pursuing moderate but aggressive exterior expansion; ideal state homeostasis derived from this double movement, and, in turn, the sovereign’s virtuosity propelled this double movement. Such virtuosity arose from the sovereign’s recognition of his subjects as materials and of himself as artificer capable of manipulating those materials like so many actors on a great stage.

The size of one’s territory also conditioned the success of the state. “[A] small dominion,” wrote Botero, “is one that cannot stand by itself, but needs the protection and support of others [... ]. A middle-sized dominion has sufficient strength and authority to stand on its own [ ... ]. Those dominions are large which have a distinct superiority over their neighbors” (4). Of these three sizes, Botero thought medium the best since those states were “exposed neither to violence by their weakness nor to envy by their greatness, and their wealth and power being moderate, passions are less violent, ambition finds less support and license less provocation” (8). The best example of such a state: Venice.

For Botero, the Venetian state maintained the necessary peace and tranquility required to make it strong. Their rulers exercised those special “arts” which won for those rulers the love and admiration of their people. The Republic of Saint Mark understood the two aspects of royal justice: justice between the ruler and his subjects and justice between subjects themselves. Though peace was the goal, Botero believed that both types of justice frequently relied on violent means capable of countering civic turbulence. “Violence,” he wrote, “is the work of outlaws, robbers, assassins and murderers, who must be held in check by fear and by severe legislation; for what is the use of keeping out foreign armies if a worse danger prevails at home?” (19-20). Of what did the sovereign’s violent response consist? The answer lay in the coupling of “fear” and “severe legislation.”

Michel Foucault named this coupling the coup d’etat (Italian: soffito di stato). In his genealogy of reason of state, Foucault identified the coup d’etat as the masterstroke of government, as that which constituted the most violent but also the most theatrical gesture of a sovereign ruler (Foucault, Security 261). When did a ruler perform this masterstroke? Foucault cited Botero’s own thoughts on the matter: “A public misfortune is the very best of opportunities for a prince to win the hearts of his subjects” since it is in those moments of misfortune and disarray that the presence of the sovereign can set things straight and re-establish a rightful order of things. Thus, the turbulence churned up by interior threats of criminals had always to dissolve beneath the violent and swift response of the ruler. Such responses took on spectacular forms, such as public executions and civic performances that demonstrated the legitimacy of the government.

Botero’s depiction of Venice as the model of reason of state was, however, distorted. Venice did not have a sovereign. The government had a head figure, the doge, but the administrative and legislative duties fell to multiple branches, each with its own particular duty. Additionally, in 1561, the year of Valcamonica’s execution and around the time that Botero would have witnessed Venetian governance in action, the smooth functioning of the Republic’s government underwent a dramatic shift. The Council of Ten, which for so many years held the most power, had begun to lose its absolute grasp. Whereas that Council once consolidated many duties within itself, the last decades of the sixteenth century saw the creation of new councils aimed at taking over matters of blasphemy, civic peace, and heretical inquisitions, thereby diffusing the Council of Ten’s authority (Cozzi, “Authority” 317-318). Therefore, Botero’s metaphorical pronouncement that “[t]he more intricate and complex the mechanisms of a watch the more likely that it is to go wrong,” which he offered as a counter-example to the efficiency of the Venetian state, seems misplaced. The Venetian government was an intricate and complex mechanism if ever there was one. What accounts for Botero’s misreading?

Botero’s distorted vision may have been produced from the barrage of theatricality deployed by the Venetian government on a regular basis. As Edward Muir has suggested, “[t]he fundamental problem of the historians of Venice [... ] has been to separate outward appearance from reality, to uncover from the veneer of propaganda and mythology the actual social and political structure of the city” (Muir, Civic Ritual 13). This veneer was generated by numerous annual demonstrations, parades, and galas, all of which were deployed by the Venetian state to tend to its own complex clockwork. These civic rituals, including the demonstrations of might exemplified in the soffito di stato, were all a part of “the Venetians’ perpetual encomium to their city. ” Botero was not wrong to suggest that Venice epitomized the coupling of fear and severe legislation, or that the state knew when to deploy theatrical gestures to stabilize and sustain its civic life. Rather, he failed to realize that in addition to the soffito di stato, the Venetian Republic was equipped with many theatrical gestures that were aimed at producing a complex unity out of Venice’s numerous governmental limbs.

As one example of these civic performances, the annual marriage to the sea (La Sensa) acted to support the unified Venetian identity as master of the waves (Muir, Civic Ritual 119-135). As Muir has pointed out, La Sensa provided an opportunity for the state to order the temporal and spatial dimensions of the Republic within a civic grid. The annual marriage fell on the feast day of the Ascension, and the civic ceremony was therefore a strategic act of overwriting the Church’s authority. The event followed a well-worn groove in the city’s geography that led from the Palazzo Ducale to the Basin of St Mark where the doge boarded the giant Bucintoro, a boat plated with gold. The boat, powered by numerous rowers stowed below the decks, took the doge to the sea of Venice where he threw a wedding ring overboard and discharged gallons ofholy water into the surf. With the symbolic marriage and consummation thus complete, Venice demonstrated its authority over the sea in a highly masculine manner. This ceremony grew in importance after 1509 when, because of Venice’s defeat under the League of Cambrai and the increased dominance of Portugal over the spice trade, the Republic required a renewed sense of confidence in order to maintain its political drive and autonomy. La Sensa, along with the other civic festivals, helped Venice annually to strengthen its faith in itself through theatrical means.

From the perspective of reason of state, the execution of Valcamonica appears in a similar light. The execution, embedded within a highly theatrical landscape and functioning as part of a larger and more sustained effort to keep Venice intact as a political entity, demonstrated the government’s ability to re-establish inner tranquility in the wake of unspeakable horrors and obvious failures within the halls of its civic institutions. In Botero’s terms, the gruesome nature of the priest’s crimes constituted a great “public misfortune.” When the very person designated to shepherd the souls of impoverished girls propagated the sinfulness against which those girls struggled, inner civic tranquility came under threat. What other state-funded facilities hid such men from view? Since reason of state suggested that “public misfortune is the very best of opportunities for a prince to win the hearts of his subjects,” Valcamonica’s transgressions demanded a swift and lethal response. Instead of banning the priest from the Republic for life or just dropping him in the sea in the middle of the night, the state displayed its ability to suppress such threats.

Viewed as such, Valcamonica’s execution bore a resemblance to the surgeries performed within the anatomy theatres of the sixteenth century. Instead of medical professionals removing organs in front of medical students, however, it was the state that sutured the wounds opened by the priest’s ignominious activities at the Convertite. Anatomy theatres had a theatrical architecture consisting of steeply raked seats that encircled the stage upon which the body of the patient opened up to the audience’s inquisitive gaze. The Piazza San Marco had a similarly theatrical architecture that positioned spectators around the scaffold that was raised between the two columns. On this stood the body of the priest, which, through the act of beheading and the subsequent incineration of the corpse, was reduced to the primary object in a civic anatomy lesson.

The most explicitly theatrical components of the Piazza San Marco were the windows on the second storey of the newly constructed library. Those windows became private viewing posts from which the Republic’s noblemen and governors could watch the state operate. As such, these windows functioned like the box seats from which the richest patrons watched theatrical production unfolding upon the stages of the first permanent theatres in Venice, built around 1580. In the piazza, the pink brickwork of the facade of the Palazzo Ducale replaced the need for any painted backdrop.3 Between the two pillars, outside the legislative center of the city, Valcamonica lost his head in Venice’s most cherished sceno- graphic locale.

Looking at the execution from the perspective of ragion di stato, the multiple blows of the axe to Valcamonica’s neck were folded within the one masterstroke of government that utilized the opportunity of a public misfortune to reveal its own power and capability of securing the Republic from any interior threat. As Botero conceded, the act of securing the interior was essential for the preservation of the state, and the virtuosity of the Venetian government lay in its ability to deploy such a highly visible gesture of authority. The executioner’s axe, the gazes of the nobles in their box seats looking down, and those of the masses gathered on ground level looking up to the scaffold all vivisected Valcamonica’s body, thereby turning him into the object of state power as well as an instrument of the state. This act, like the multitude of annual performances organized by the doge and other administrators of the Republic, doubled as a macabre civic festival executing the act of justice necessary for the smooth running of the Serenissima.

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