Foundation Of Venice
Author: Hodgkin, Thomas; Ruskin, John

Thomas Hodgkin 


The terrible invaders, made wrathful and terrible by the resistance of
Aquileia, streamed through the trembling cities of Venetia. Each earlier
stage in the itinerary shows a town blotted out by their truly Tartar genius
for destruction. At the distance of thirty-one miles from Aquileia stood the
flourishing colony of Tulia Concordia, so named, probably, in commemoration
of the universal peace which, four hundred and eighty years before, Augustus
had established in the world. Concordia was destroyed, and only an
insignificant little village now remains to show where it once stood. At
another interval of thirty-one miles stood Altinum, with its white villas
clustering round the curves of its lagoons, and rivalling Baiae in its
luxurious charms. Altinum was effaced as Concordia and as Aquileia. Yet
another march of thirty-two miles brought the squalid invaders to Patavium,
proud of its imagined Trojan origin, and, with better reason, proud of having
given birth of Livy. Patavium, too, was levelled with the ground. True, it
has not like its sister towns remained in the nothingness to which Attila
reduced it. It is now

"Many-domed Padua proud,"

but all its great buildings date from the Middle Ages. Only a few broken
friezes and a few inscriptions in its museum exist as memorials of the
classical Patavium.

As the Huns marched on Vicenza, Verona, Brescia, Bergamo, all opened
their gates at their approach, for the terror which they inspired was on
every heart. In these towns, and in Milan and Pavia (Ticinum), which
followed their example, the Huns enjoyed doubtless to the full their wild
revel of lust and spoliation, but they left the buildings unharmed, and they
carried captive the inhabitants instead of murdering them.

The valley of the Po was now wasted to the heart's content of the
invaders. Should they cross the Apennines and blot out Rome as they had
blotted out Aquileia from among the cities of the world? This was the great
question that was being debated in the Hunnish camp, and, strange to say, the
voices were not all for war. Already Italy began to strike that strange awe
into the hearts of her northern conquerors which so often in later ages has
been her best defence. The remembrance of Alaric, cut off by a mysterious
death immediately after his capture of Rome, was present in the mind of
Attila, and was frequently insisted upon by his counsellors, who seem to have
had a foreboding that only while he lived would they be great and prosperous.

While this discussion was going forward in the barbarian camp, all
voices were hushed, and the attention of all was aroused by the news of the
arrival of an embassy from Rome. What had been going on in that city it is
not easy to ascertain. The Emperor seems to have been dwelling there, not at
Ravenna. Aetius shows a strange lack of courage or of resource, and we find
it difficult to recognize in him the victor of the Mauriac plains. He
appears to have been even meditating flight from Italy, and to have thought
of persuading Valentinian to share his exile. But counsels a shade less
timorous prevailed. Some one suggested that possibly even the Hun might be
satiated with havoc, and that an embassy might assist to mitigate the
remainder of his resentment. Accordingly ambassadors were sent in the once
mighty name of "the Emperor and the Senate and People of Rome" to crave for
peace, and these were the men who were now ushered into the camp of Attila.

The envoys had been well chosen to satisfy that punctilious pride which
insisted that only men of the highest dignity among the Romans should be sent
to treat with the lord of Scythia and Germany. Avienus, who had, two years
before, worn the robes of consul, was one of the ambassadors. Trigetius, who
had wielded the powers of a perfect, and who, seventeen years before, had
been despatched upon a similar mission to Genseric the Vandal, was another.
But it was not upon these men, but upon their greater colleague, that the
eyes of all the barbarian warriors and statesmen were fixed. Leo, bishop of
Rome, had come, on behalf of his flock, to sue for peace from the idolater.

The two men who had thus at last met by the banks of the Mincio are
certainly the grandest figures whom the fifth century can show to us, at any
rate since Alaric vanished from the scene.

Attila we by this time know well enough; adequately to describe Pope Leo
I, we should have to travel too far into the region of ecclesiastical
history. Chosen pope in the year 440, he was now about half way through his
long pontificate, one of the few which have nearly rivalled the twenty-five
years traditionally assigned to St. Peter. A firm disciplinarian, not to say
a persecutor, he had caused the Priscillianists of Spain and the Manichees of
Rome to feel his heavy hand. A powerful rather than subtle theologian, he
had asserted the claims of Christian common-sense as against the endless
refinements of oriental speculation concerning the nature of the Son of God.
Like an able Roman general he had traced, in his letters on the Eutychian
controversy, the lines of the fortress in which the defenders of the Catholic
verity were thenceforward to intrench themselves and from which they were to
repel the assaults of Monophysites on the one hand and of Nestorians on the
other. These lines had been enthusiastically accepted by the great council
of Chalcedon - held in the year of Attila's Gaulish campaign - and remain
from that day to this the authoritative utterance of the Church concerning
the mysterious union of the Godhead and the manhood in the person of Jesus
Christ.

And all these gifts of will, of intellect, and of soul were employed by
Leo with undeviating constancy, with untired energy, in furthering his great
aim, the exaltation of the dignity of the popedom, the conversion of the
admitted primacy of the bishops of Rome into an absolute and world-wide
spiritual monarchy. Whatever our opinions may be as to the influence of this
spiritual monarchy on the happiness of the world, or its congruity with the
character of the Teacher in whose words it professed to root itself, we
cannot withhold a tribute of admiration for the high temper of this Roman
bishop, who in the ever-deepening degradation of his country still despaired
not, but had the courage and endurance to work for a far-distant future, who,
when the Roman was becoming the common drudge and footstool of all nations,
still remembered the proud words "Tu regere imperio populos, Romane,
memento!" and under the very shadow of Attila and Genseric prepared for the
city of Romulus a new and spiritual dominion, vaster and more enduring than
any which had been won for her by Julius or by Hadrian.

Such were the two men who stood face to face in the summer of 452 upon
the plains of Lombardy. The barbarian King had all the material power in his
hand, and he was working but for a twelvemonth. The pontiff had no power but
in the world of intellect, and his fabric was to last fourteen centuries.
They met, as has been said, by the banks of the Mincio. Jordanes tells us
that it was "where the river is crossed by many wayfarers coming and going."
Some writers think that these words point to the ground now occupied by the
celebrated fortress of Peschiera, close to the point where the Mincio issues
from the Lake of Garda. Others place the interview at Governolo, a little
village hard by the junction of the Mincio and the Po. If the latter theory
be true, and it seems to fit well with the route which would probably be
taken by Attila, the meeting took place in Vergil's country, and almost in
sight of the very farm where Tityrus and Meliboeus chatted at evening under
the beech-tree.

Leo's success as an ambassador was complete. Attila laid aside all the
fierceness of his anger and promised to return across the Danube, and to live
thenceforward at peace with the Romans. But in his usual style, in the midst
of reconciliation he left a loophole for a future wrath, for "he insisted
still on this point above all, that Honoria, the sister of the Emperor, and
the daughter of the Augusta Placidia, should be sent to him with the portion
of the royal wealth which was her due; and he threatened that unless this was
done he would lay upon Italy a far heavier punishment than any which it had
yet borne."

But for the present, at any rate, the tide of devastation was turned,
and few events more powerfully impressed the imagination of that new and
blended world which was now standing at the threshold of the dying empire
than this retreat of Attila, the dreaded king of kings, before the unarmed
successor of St. Peter.

Attila was already predisposed to moderation by the counsels of his
ministers. The awe of Rome was upon him and upon them, and he was forced
incessantly to ponder the question, "What if I conquer like Alaric, to die
like him?" Upon these doubts and ponderings of his supervened the stately
presence of Leo, a man of holy life, firm will, dauntless courage - that, be
sure, Attila perceived in the first moments of their interview - and, besides
this, holding an office honored and venerated through all the civilized
world. The barbarian yielded to his spell as he had yielded to that of Lupus
of Troyes, and, according to a tradition, which, it must be admitted, is not
very well authenticated, he jocularly excused his unaccustomed gentleness by
saying that "he knew how to conquer men, but the lion and the wolf (Leo and
Lupus) had learned how to conquer him."

The tradition which asserts that the republic of Venice and its neighbor
cities in the lagoons were peopled by fugitives from the Hunnish invasion of
452, is so constant and in itself so probable that we seem bound to accept it
as substantially true, though contemporary or nearly contemporary evidence to
the fact is utterly wanting.

The thought of "the glorious city in the sea" so dazzles our
imaginations when we turn our thoughts toward Venice that we must take a
little pains to free ourselves from the spell and reproduce the aspect of the
desolate islands and far-stretching wastes of sand and sea to which the fear
of Attila drove the delicately nurtured Roman provincials for a habitation.

If we examine on the map the well-known and deep recess of the Adriatic
Sea, we shall at once be struck by one marked difference between its eastern
and its northern shores. For three hundred miles down the Dalmatian coast
not one large river, scarcely a considerable stream, descends from the too
closely towering Dinaric mountains to the sea. If we turn now to the
northwestern angle which formed the shore of the Roman province of Venetia,
we find the coast line broken by at least seven streams, two of which are
great rivers.

These seven streams, whose mouths are crowded into less than eighty
miles of coast, drain an area which, reckoning from Monte Viso to the Terglon
Alps - the source of the Ysonzo - must be four hundred and fifty miles in
length, and may average two hundred miles in breadth, and this area is
bordered on one side by the highest mountains in Europe, snow-covered,
glacier-strewn, wrinkled and twisted into a thousand valleys and narrow
defiles, each of which sends down its river of its rivulet to swell the great
outpour.

For our present purpose, and as a worker out of Venetian history, Po,
notwithstanding the far greater volume of his waters, is of less importance
than the six other small streams which bear him company. He, carrying down
the fine alluvial soil of Lombardy, goes on lazily adding, foot by foot, to
the depth of his delta, and mile by mile to its extent. They, swiftly
hurrying over their shorter course from mountain to sea, scatter indeed many
fragments, detached from their native rocks, over the first meadows which
they meet with in the plain, but carry some also far out to sea, and then,
behind the bulwark which they thus have made, deposit the finer alluvial
particles with which they, too, are laden. Thus we get the two
characteristic features of the ever-changing coast line, the Lido and the
Laguna. The Lido, founded upon the masses of rock, is a long, thin slip of
the terra firma, which form a sort of advance guard of the land.

The Laguna, occupying the interval between the Lido and the true shore,
is a wide expanse of waters, generally very few feet in depth, with a bottom
of fine sand, and with a few channels of deeper water, the representatives of
the forming rivers winding intricately among them. In such a configuration
of land and water the state of the tide makes a striking difference in the
scene. And unlike the rest of the Mediterranean, the Adriatic does possess a
tide, small, it is true, in comparison with the great tides of ocean - for
the whole difference between high and low water at the flood is not more than
six feet, and the average flow is said not to amount to more than two feet
six inches - but even this flux is sufficient to produce large tracts of sea
which the reflux converts into square miles of oozy sand.

Here, between sea and land, upon this detritus of the rivers, settled
the detritus of humanity. The Gothic and the Lombard invasions contributed
probably their share of fugitives, but fear of the Hunnish
world-waster - whose very name, according to some, was derived from one of
the mighty rivers of Russia - was the great "degrading" influence that
carried down the fragments of Roman civilization and strewed them over the
desolate lagoons. The inhabitants of Aquileia, or at least the feeble
remnants that escaped the sword of Attila, took refuge at Grado. Concordia
migrated to Caprularia (now Caorle). The inhabitants of Altinum, abandoning
their ruined villas, founded their new habitations upon seven islands at the
mouth of the Piave, which, according to tradition, they named from the seven
gates of their old city - Torcellus, Maiurbius, Boreana, Ammiana,
Constantiacum, and Anianum. The representatives of some of these names,
Torcello, Mazzorbo, Burano, are familiar sounds to the Venetian at the
present day.

From Padua came the largest stream of emigrants. They left the tomb of
their mythical ancestor, Antenor, and built their humble dwellings upon the
islands of the rivers Altus and Methamaucus, better known to us as Rialto and
Malamocco. This Paduan settlement was one day to be known to the world by
the name of Venice. But let us not suppose that the future "Queen of the
Adriatic" sprang into existence at a single bound like Constantinople or
Alexandria. For two hundred and fifty years, that is to say for eight
generations, the refugees on the islands of the Adriatic prolonged an obscure
and squalid existence - fishing, salt manufacturing, damming out the waves
with wattled vine-branches, driving piles into the sand-banks, and thus
gradually extending the area of their villages. Still these were but fishing
villages, loosely confederated together, loosely governed, poor and
insignificant, so that the anonymous geographer of Ravenna, writing in the
seventh century, can only say of them, "In the country of Venetia there are
some few islands which are inhabited by men." This seems to have been their
condition, though perhaps gradually growing in commercial importance, until
at the beginning of the eighth century the concentration of political
authority in the hands of the first doge, and the recognition of the Rialto
cluster of islands as the capital of the confederacy, started the republic on
a career of success and victory, in which for seven centuries she met no
lasting check.

But this lies far beyond the limit of our present subject. It must be
again said that we have not to think of "the pleasant place of all
festivity," but of a few huts among the sand-banks, inhabited by Roman
provincials, who mournfully recall their charred and ruined habitations by
the Brenta and the Piave. The sea alone does not constitute their safety.
If that were all, the pirate ships of the Vandal Genseric might repeat upon
their poor dwellings all the terror of Attila. But it is in their amphibious
life, in that strange blending of land and sea which is exhibited by the
lagunes, that their safety lies. Only experienced pilots can guide a vessel
of any considerable draught through the mazy channels of deep water which
intersect these lagoons; and should they seem to be in imminent peril from
the approach of an enemy, they will defend themselves not like the Dutch by
cutting the dikes which barricade them from the ocean, but by pulling up the
poles which even those pilots need to indicate their pathway through the
waters. There, then, engaged in their humble, beaver-like labors, we leave
for the present the Venetian refugees from the rage of Attila.

But even while protesting, it is impossible not to let into our minds
some thought of what those desolate fishing villages will one day become.
The dim religious light, half revealing the slowly gathered glories of St.
Mark's; the Ducal Palace, that history in stone; the Rialto, with the babble
of many languages; the Piazza, with its flock of fearless pigeons; the Brazen
Horses, the Winged Lion, the Bucentaur, all that the artists of Venice did to
make her beautiful, her ambassadors to make her wise, her secret tribunals to
make her terrible; memories of these things must come thronging upon the mind
at the mere mention of her spell-like name. Now, with these pictures glowing
vividly before you, wrench the mind away with sudden effort to the dreary
plains of Pannonia. Think of the moody Tartar, sitting in his log-hut,
surrounded by his barbarous guests; of Zercon, gabbling his uncouth mixture
of Hunnish and Latin; of the bath-man of Onegesh, and the wool-work of Kreka,
and the reed candles in the village of Bleda's widow; and say if cause and
effect were ever more strangely meted in history than the rude and brutal
might of Attila with the stately and gorgeous and subtle republic of Venice.

One more consideration is suggested to us by that which was the noblest
part of the work of Venice, the struggle which she maintained for centuries,
really in behalf of all Europe, against the Turk. Attila's power was soon to
pass away, but, in the ages that were to come, another Turanian race was to
arise, as brutal as the Huns, but with their fierceness sharp-pointed and
hardened into a far more fearful weapon of offence by the fanaticism of
Islam. These descendants of the kinsfolk of Attila were the Ottomans, and
but for the barrier which, like their own murazzi against the waves, the
Venetians interposed against the Ottomans, it is scarcely too much to say
that half Europe would have undergone the misery of subjection to the
organized anarchy of the Turkish pachas. The Tartar Attila, when he gave up
Aquileia and her neighbor cities to the tender mercies of his myrmidons,
little thought that he was but the instrument in an unseen Hand for hammering
out the shield which should one day defend Europe from Tartar robbers such as
he was. The Turanian poison secreted the future antidote to itself, and the
name of that antidote was Venice.

 

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