IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Friday, December 13, 2013

Venice and the Liberty of States

Esto Perpetua, [be thou everlasting], were the last words of Paulo Sarpi, who died in 1623. The phrase was invoked by John Adams in a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1820. Adams wished “as devoutly as Father Paul” for the preservation of “our vast American empire and our free institutions,” as Sarpi had wished for the preservation of Venice and its institutions. [i] (Article Length: 6000 words)

Sarpi is a now almost totally forgotten figure, though his importance for early political thought is very considerable. From his first appearance as the dignified representative of Venice in its struggle against the Papacy, he was seen in England as a sort of oracle, and his sayings and maxims passed into Anglo-American thought and were absorbed by it. Sarpi had his many detractors, both at the time and subsequently. His books were ordered burned by the papacy and placed on the Index; at a later period, even critics sympathetic to his strictures against the Roman church found much cause for fault: a French writer in 1852 held that his history of the Council of Trent was “nothing better than a long satire, lifeless and insipid; often, too, inaccurate and unfair.” [ii] But there are a great many encomiums as well. Gibbon considered him as among the four best early modern historians, standing alongside Guicciardini, Machiavelli, and Davila in eminence. These writers are the inventors of what we should now term “international history,” as it commenced its modern phase. Sarpi’s keenest contemporary student, William Bouwsma, notes that Sarpi took up in his History of the Council of Trent where Guicciardini had left off in his History of Italy, both of them narrating the history of a larger European constellation of power politics that emerged in the Renaissance and grew in geographic scope thereafter. Sarpi is the central figure in Bouwsma’s magnificent study, Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty (1968), from which I will be drawing extensive extracts below. Bouwsma's thick book is about far more than Sarpi, but Sarpi is the man who represents Venice at its best. His history of the Tridentine council, writes Bouwsma, has “some claim to be considered the last major literary achievement of the Italian Renaissance. " [iii]

The central theme in that struggle with Rome was Sarpi’s refutation of the universalistic pretensions of the papacy and his defense of the rights of independent states. The idea that states, as representatives of distinct human communities, must perforce have the direction of them, and that in doing so they conserve basic human values of freedom and autonomy, entered strongly into the subsequent history of the European state system. The idea, indeed, continues to form a ground norm—albeit a deeply contested grundnorm—of the contemporary international legal order. Today, the struggle between universalism and particularism takes the form in international relations of a clash between universal human rights and state sovereignty. Though the specific content of these universalisms has changed (as has, arguably, the complex of values represented by particularist ideas), the clash between these two conceptions has an enduring character. 
Sarpi’s thought is especially notable as expressing a commanding view of the imperative of state sovereignty or of international freedom as against the dictates of a universalist religion or ideology; it is one of the first great statements of what the English School of IR calls "pluralism." Against the universalist pretensions of the Counter Reformation, which appeared to Sarpi “as a disguise for the interests of Spain and the worldly pretensions of the papacy,” Sarpi “asserted the particularistic and political (though not necessarily unreligious) conceptions of the Renaissance. What he dreaded above all was the imposition, through Spanish arms, of what he significantly described as 'an Octavian peace.' The imperial Pax Romana, the nostalgic ideal so dear to Europeans since the fall of Rome, meant for him precisely the most dreadful of political arrangements, a monolith in which all the achievements of such particular communities as Venice must surely perish.” (553) “Underlying Sarpi's hostility to universalism was always his profound belief that the lofty principle it appeared to embody was in reality only an instrument for the perennial imperialism of Rome.” (582) Early on, addressing the doge and senate of Venice, Sarpi expressed his fundamental conviction thusly:
I cannot refrain from saying that no injury penetrates more deeply into a principate than when its majesty, that is to say sovereignty, is limited and subjected to the laws of another. A prince who possesses a small part of the world is equal in this respect to one who possesses much; Romulus was no less a prince than Trajan, nor is your Serenity now greater than your forebears when their empire had not extended beyond the lagoons. He who takes away a part of his state from a prince makes him a lesser prince but leaves him a prince; he who imposes laws and obligations on him deprives him of the essence of a prince, even if he possessed the whole of Asia. (437-38)

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A monk in the Catholic Servite order who had already distinguished himself in Venice’s service, Sarpi emerged in 1606, the year of the Church’s interdict against Venice, as a figure of European renown and significance, “the oracle of the age.” The function of the interdict, writes Bouwsma, was at last to “bring fully to the surface the antithesis between the political and cultural achievements of the Italian Renaissance and the ideals of medieval Catholicism, now reinvigorated by the Counter Reformation. Each side in the bitter struggle over the interdict was persuaded that the outcome was crucial for all that it held most dear.” (417) The stakes were indeed deadly. Sarpi, having bested Pope Paul V in his initial confrontation with him, narrowly escaped death at the hands of assassins instigated by Paul. There were further plots against him until his death, by natural causes, at the age of 71.
The dispute with Venice that brought on the interdict was twofold. One was Rome’s objection to Venice’s incarceration of two priests on allegations of poisoning, murder, and (reports Sarpi’s late nineteenth century biographer, Alexander Robertson) “licentiousness of a most revolting and even unnatural kind.”[iv] The second was a property dispute, centered on the church’s claim of an exemption from taxation. “Half the area of the city of Venice was occupied by buildings and gardens belonging to the Church, and one-fourth of all the real property in the province of Venetia was in its hands.” With Church properties exempt from taxation, “the laity had to bear its own share, and that of the Church besides.” Threatening to the Republic, writes Robertson, was “the ruinous combination of a fattening Church and a famishing country, pride in the clergy and poverty in the people.” (76) Venice extended to the whole of its dominions older ordinances, previously restricted to Venice itself, that prohibited the Church from building new religious properties without the government’s consent, and disqualified it from retaining property given to it by donation or inheritance (requiring instead that the property be sold). The Pope’s demand that the priests be released and the property laws overturned was rebuffed, incurring the Pope’s wrath and a threat to place Venice under interdict and excommunication. “We are above all,” said Pope Paul. “God has given to us power over all. We are able to depose Kings, and to set up others, and we are over those things which tend to a supernatural end.” (77)
Venice, under Sarpi’s guidance, denied the Church’s right to interfere in the civil affairs of the Republic. In Robertson’s summation:
Fra Paulo was able to show how the Pope's demands were without precedent in the history of the Republic; how they were contrary to Scripture, to the Fathers, to Church Canons, to the decisions of Councils, and to the bulls of former Popes. Then he carried the question at issue back to first principles, by declaring, and reiterating the declaration, that the Pope's claim to intermeddle in civil matters was a usurpation; and that in these the Republic of Venice recognized no authority but that of God. "God has instituted two kingdoms in the world," he said, "one spiritual and the other temporal, each in its own sphere is supreme and independent. The Kingdom of Christ is not of this world; but in heaven, therefore, religion walks by a heavenly way, the Government of the State by an earthly one, and the one ought never to interfere with the other. God wishes to be served in such a way as to preserve this harmony between the two powers which he has instituted; maintaining them balanced so that one may not usurp the place that belongs to the other." [v]
Venice’s defiance brought on the bull of interdict and excommunication. Its harsh terms looked to disorganize Venice and encourage internal revolt.  
[It embraced] in its anathema not only the rebellious Doge, the Consultore [the office then held by Sarpi], and the other members of the Government, but the whole mass of the people throughout the length and breadth of Venetia, and its dependencies. All alike, young and old, innocent and guilty, were caught within the sweep of this tremendous measure. By the interdict, all were prohibited from receiving the so-called saving sacraments of the Church, and the consolations of religion. By excommunication all were declared to be severed from the body of Christ, which is the Church, and to have become accursed. No more masses were to be said. Baptism, marriage, and burial services were to cease. The churches were to be locked up, and all the priests could withdraw from the devoted land. All social relationships were dissolved. Marriages were declared invalid, and all children born were illegitimate. Husbands could desert their wives, and children disobey their parents. Contracts of all kinds were declared null and void. Allegiance to the Government was at an end. Subjects were absolved from their obligation to pay taxes, and to respect the laws of the land. The design of this wicked invention was to let loose the elements of disorder and rebellion, and throw the whole body politic into a state of anarchy and terror. Then, whilst the Pope preached the doctrine that he was above all law, and all peoples and princes, receiving his commission direct from God, whose representative he was, he as diligently preached this opposite one, that kings and rulers existed by the people, and for the people; and as it was they who set them up, they could legitimately cast them down. Thus the hope was entertained that the people, made to suffer for their rulers’ faults and sins, would rise in rebellion and depose them. (82-83)
Venice had fallen under interdict seven times previously, the first time in 1201, the last a hundred years before in 1509, and over very similar issues. On each occasion, Robertson notes, Venice had been humbled, and it was not unreasonable for Pope Paul V to believe that the weapon that had been successful in the past would be so again. But Sarpi had anticipated the Pope’s attitude and advised a vigorous counterstroke:
Defiance must be met with defiance, the commands of the Pope by the counter-commands of the Republic. The Pope had interdicted all religious services, let the Republic order their continuance. He had commanded the priests to shut their churches, let the Republic order them to keep them open. He had charged the priests to read publicly the censures, and to affix them to the doors of their churches, let the Republic order them to send all documents coming from Rome unopened to the Doge’s Palace. He had permitted them to quit the “accursed land,” let the Republic forbid them to stir from the dioceses and parishes. He had sought to cancel contracts and dissolve relationships, let the Republic see to it that all obligations were fulfilled, and all orderly ties maintained. . . . And, since fear of death was the sanction of the Pope’s bulls, let fear of death be that of the Senate’s decree. The Pope’s death penalty was to be executed on the soul hereafter, let that of the Republic be executed on the body now. . . . [In promulgating the bull, the Pope] was declared to have shut his ears to the voice of reason, of Scripture, of the Fathers and of the Sacred Canons, and to have trampled on the divinely granted rights of Kings and Governments. The bull was therefore pronounced to be null and void, and a thing to be utterly despised and ignored. (85-87)
Each side in this great dispute appealed to law: “Rome charged again and again that the Venetian legislation to which it took objection was in some fundamental sense illegal, while Venice insisted that, on the contrary, the Roman position was an assault on the law.” (Bouwsma, 449) So, too, each side charged the other with Machiavellism.
Sarpi himself attributed to the pope the doctrine that the end justifies the means, the end in this case being "the conservation and increase of the temporal authority which they claim"; hence the efforts of Rome to incite subjects to rebellion. But the charge of preferring politics to principle was more frequently directed by Rome against Venice; Rome, with good reason, recognized that its true enemy was the political mentality of the Renaissance. Again and again Venice was accused (as though the criminality of this were self-evident) of basing her policy on ragione di stato, which [the papal writer]  Bovio did not hesitate to label as heresy. It was, he wrote, a "heretical concept of certain impious men who believe that reason of state dispenses from all laws, human and divine, and legitimizes every injustice and impiety, so that anything which favors the preservation and increase of the state is held incapable of harming the soul.” (445)
All Christendom took a keen interest in this riveting contest between Paul the pope and Paul the friar, but its moral and political effect was uneven. France’s king, Henry IV, had been annoyed by the controversy, and thought that both sides had brought on “an Iliad of inconveniences for a Helen or so little merit that all past history reveals no example of Christendom being troubled for a thing so trifling.” (404n). The interdict was lifted in the following year, after France mediated a face-saving settlement favorable to Venice. The Most Serene Republic had represented its claim as one in which other states were also vitally interested, but other powers, comments Bouwsma, proved unwilling to declare themselves even when sympathetic to Venice’s aims.
To some extent the failure of the secular powers to side openly with Venice reflected their appraisal of the practical significance of the papal offensive. They saw in it little danger to themselves, and their nonchalance was perhaps a more devastating comment on the ambitions of the Counter Reformation than their active support for the beleaguered Republic might have been. At the same time they were concerned to prevent the Venetian crisis, so petty in itself however freighted with theoretical significance for the contenders, from turning into a general European war. The Habsburg powers and France feared each other far more than they feared the pope, even a pope victorious over Venice. The Venetian interdict therefore became an occasion for further jockeying between France, Spain, and the Empire. For this reason it distantly continued the earlier Habsburg-Valois struggles over Italy (as, indeed, contemporaries were inclined to recognize) as well as being one of the earliest among the crises leading to the Thirty Years' War. (404) 
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Sarpi’s History of the Council of Trent was written in the decade following the controversy over the interdict and was first published in London in 1619. It constituted a subtle but devastating deconstruction of the papacy. It recounted the historical development of the Concilio Tridentino, held half a century previously in fits and starts from 1545 to 1563, but Sarpi traversed much further afield in his investigations. Bouwsma unfolds in several passages the links to the Florentine writers Machiavelli and Guicciardini:
Since Sarpi viewed the apparently religious decisions of the Council as in reality an expression of sinister political interests and the papacy itself as an essentially political agency, a full understanding of what had transpired at Trent required him to provide an extended account of the political events leading up to the first session. Thus, chronologically as well as thematically, Sarpi's Istoria del Concilio Tridentino is in some degree a continuation of Guicciardini's Storia d'Italia. Among its other uses the Council of Trent allowed Sarpi to deal with the next phase in the continuing crisis of Italy that had so preoccupied Machiavelli and Guicciardini in their rather different moods. But now the Italian powers may be seen to count for even less than in the earlier phases of the crisis. The duke of Florence is no more than a presence, and even Venice is hardly mentioned. Only France, Spain, and the emperor can significantly affect events; and although the major action in Italy now is chiefly focused in Trent, it can only be explained by an even larger attention to developments abroad than had been necessary for Guicciardini. (591)
In his view the church, by assuming the attitudes and asserting the claims of an earthly government, had inevitably exposed itself to those transformations which all polities, as agencies of this world, are destined to endure. He believed that the church had originated as a kind of free and spiritual republic; but then, taking on an increasingly formal organization and more and more openly political responsibilities and attitudes, it had passed step by step through the same constitutional evolution as secular states, whose cycle of forms had been described long ago by the ancients and more recently by Machiavelli. Sarpi's analysis of the historical development of the church, and similarly his conception of reform, were profoundly influenced by the constitutional speculation of the Renaissance. His basic questions are thus familiar: how does a republic degenerate into a principate? is such a transformation to be avoided or desired? can it be reversed? what is a tyrant and how does he behave? can he be restrained? The novelty of Sarpi's thought lies in the fact that he puts these questions to the church. (607-08)
Sarpi's history of the Council of Trent is thus necessarily a political history, and it was appropriate for this reason for him to draw on the methods and attitudes of his Florentine and Venetian predecessors in this genre. Not only does Sarpi treat the popes of the Council much like Machiavellian princes, although deprived of military force and compelled to struggle to maintain a vast tyranny with the arts of peace. In addition his conception of their predicament may be seen as an illustration of a problem with which Renaissance political speculation was centrally concerned: the predicament of the man of virt├╣, (here clearly virtuosity rather than virtue) contending with circumstances that threaten to destroy him. Sarpi is even more ambivalent, in his depiction of papal action at Trent, than in his attitude to earlier popes as political leaders; because the cynical maneuvering that Sarpi must deplore for its invasion of the church he is compelled to admire, as a student of politics, for its finesse and finally for its success. (614)
The relationship, as exhibited in the Council, between what men professed to believe and the interests they were actually concerned to promote particularly fascinated Sarpi; and he frequently undertook to reveal the sordid purposes that protestations of high principle were designed to mask—a figure which appears more than once in the course of his work . . .  His perception that men like to conceal interest under idealism found expression in neat and general aphorisms. "How differently," Sarpi exclaimed, "do men judge in what    concerns their own interest from how they judge the affairs of another!" "So it happens not only in human things but also in those of religion that when interests change, credulity changes." (576-77)
These are Machiavellian and Guicciardinian themes, but Sarpi occupied what we would today call the moral high ground in his critique of the Church of Rome. His learning was broad, and he maintained a vast correspondence, delighting even in the knowledge possessed by heretics. Underlying his achievements, however, was the evident simplicity of his manners and his devotion to his native city and to truth. Sarpi's life, wrote an admiring Gallican magistrate of Paris, “was proving even more persuasive on behalf of Venice than his arguments; it had caused him first of all to be ‘admired and revered in Venice as a saint,’ and it had given ‘great weight and authority to his books.’" (403)  He depicted in his writings a church that had suffered inordinate corruption through time and could only be reformed by a return to first principles:
His central thesis, developed systematically in the Trattato delle materie beneficiarie but underlying his other writings, was that the decay of political authority begun in the period of the barbarian invasions had gradually loosened all restraints on the clergy and left them a prey to their own most worldly impulses (604)
One of the earliest symptoms of the church's decline, he believed, had been a growing materialism. The Christian community, as he noted, had from the beginning received gifts, which were used partly to support its apostolic leadership, partly for the poor. But its income had grown rapidly, and even before the barbarian invasions there were hints of decline in the administration of this wealth. (605)
The western church had, in the course of the centuries, passed through the whole sequence of constitutional forms and in the usual order, from democracy through aristocracy to monarchy. And the papal monarchy had been converted into an open tyranny by the claim of the pope to stand above the canons that regulated the universal community of Christians. (608)
The original leaders of the church, Sarpi noted, had been “poor and ignorant fishermen” who had never said, “Embrace our preaching, else we will come with an army to destroy your city, else we will declare you excommunicated and abominable, we will condemn you to death.” (466)
Sarpi, as a Catholic monk, had a curious relation to the Reformation, being in it but not quite of it. He detested persecution, writes Bouwsma, and his position seems very close to that of Erasmus. “Sarpi was clearly on the side of latitude and flexibility on all religious questions, and of charity and open discussion rather than force in dealing with error. Thus, as he noted, critics of the Tridentine decrees on the Eucharist had protested that ‘if there were so many legitimate positions, it was necessary to express them, and not force men to believe by terror but with persuasion. But the Council had chosen to make the faith into ‘a despotism such as Saint Paul so much detests.'” (588) In this attitude of the Church, according to Sarpi, lay the basic cause of the Reformation:
[T]he essential cause of the Protestant revolt had been the steady subversion of the ecclesiastical constitution by the papacy, the conversion of the church from a republic into a tyranny, and the transformation of the faith from a religion of freedom and grace into a religion of authority. In this perspective ecclesiastical and religious history could not be readily distinguished; the profound corruption of the former had resulted in the corruption of the latter. And Sarpi identified the rise of heresy in western Europe with that moment in the history of the church, the investiture controversy, when the papacy had first asserted its authority over princes and decisively transformed the church into a system of governmcnt. The ultimate abuse, it had inevitably exposed the church to all other abuses, both of belief and of practice. With Sarpi, therefore, the question whether the causes of the Reformation were primarily institutional or theological was basically meaningless. Both the protest against abuses and the doctrinal challenge had been directed against a more fundamental evil. Although Sarpi was sympathetic to both, he refused to identify himself finally with either. His target was the ultimate abomination. (610)
[Sarpi profoundly disapproved] the Counter Reformation, which had for him not only failed to accomplish genuine reform but was fundamentally subversive of true religion. In his view, true reform depended on the retention of the clergy in their original, spiritual responsibilities, not the effort to assume authority in the temporal realm; on the maintenance of the essential bond between the church and the particular human communities of which it was the spiritual expression; on local autonomy rather than centralization; on the submission of pope and Curia to the same canonical restraints they proposed to impose on others; on the limitation, not the extension, of power. The pope, in this view, must be made to rule the church according to its earliest traditions and under law, in much the same way that the doge ruled Venice, as the constitutional monarch of a spiritual society in which sovereignty was delegated from below. (551)
He was even more deeply concerned with the larger issues Protestantism raised for the nature of the church. From this standpoint Protestantism seemed a hopeful development. As reaction against papal tyranny, it represented the decentralization and pluralism he considered appropriate to the human condition and the church militant. This is probably why, although he supported the political unity of the Protestant world against Spain and the pope, he displayed little interest in the ecumenical impulses of the age. Indeed, he was probably antagonistic to contemporary movements toward religious unity and reconciliation with Rome, which in any case his practical sense considered unrealistic. The reconciliation of the Protestant world to Rome would only have reversed what he considered the most salutary development of the age. (546-47)
Like the Florentines Sarpi found occasion to blame the pope for contributing to the decline of Italian liberty. Thus . . . he criticized Paul III for joining the emperor in 1546 to crush the Lutherans of Germany. If the pope had had any regard for the needs of Italy, Sarpi wrote (though he characteristically attributed this judgment to "the powers of Italy"), he would have kept the war at a distance "and the ultramontane princes in an equilibrium of forces"; for "if the emperor had subjugated Germany, Italy would have been at his mercy and France would not have sufficed to oppose such power." But "if the emperor had been defeated, the eagerness of the [Lutheran] Germans to invade Italy was manifest." Since either outcome of the war would have brought disaster to the peninsula, the pope obviously should have tried to keep the peace. The passage, it may be observed, combines the ideal of balance in international relations, a sense of the folly of subordinating politics to religion, and an awareness of Italy's dependence on events abroad. (591)
Sarpi’s analysis of the constellation of forces facing Venice shows considerable anxiety and is infused with the political calculations so prominent in Machiavelli and Guicciardini. If this was realism, it was realism of a constitutional kind, as Sarpi's idea of the society of states is one regulated by a fundamental law and maintained by the political balance.
[H]e was fully aware that no state could survive if it ignored developments elsewhere. Although he abominated any conception of Europe as a unified polity, he fully recognized that the Continent was a system of states whose actions profoundly concerned one another; and his understanding of this system continued to be determined by the familiar Renaissance conception of balance. Its order was not to be preserved through the application of those universal principles dear to the Spanish Dominicans and to his own contemporary Grotius, but by the manipulation of forces. Sarpi's political world, like Machiavelli's, is ruled by power, not by law. (553)
Sarpi’s dislike of universalism, both political and ecclesiastical, was profound:
For Sarpi, universality had never been more than a fantasy. He denied not only that there had ever been a visible universal church but even a universal council or a universal empire. The emperors of antiquity, he noted, in spite of the universal titles given them by courtesy, had ruled scarcely a tenth of the world. And the so-called general councils of antiquity had represented only the Christians of the Empire, by no means the whole body of believers. The point was cleverly made. It managed simultaneously to diminish the achievement of ancient Rome, to emphasize the historic diversity of Christianity, and by denying the universality of even the venerated councils of antiquity to cast doubt on the traditional authority of a general council lately invoked on behalf of Trent. (581)
He believed that the impulse to articulate and systematize religious belief was basically neither spiritual nor intellectual but chiefly expressed only pride and malice. He regarded theological controversy, because it degraded spiritual realities to the weak and corrupted level of man, as a peculiarly offensive manifestation of human egotism; it seemed even worse than political ambition because it was mean and trivial. (575)
Sarpi seems to have traversed a path similar to that which would later be taken by Edmund Burke, an old Whig turned counter-revolutionary at the time of the French Revolution. When confronted with an implacable revolutionary power in France, Burke concluded that the only recourse was to fight fire with fire. The "pluralist," to again employ English School terminology, became a "solidarist." Such was also Sarpi’s occasional conclusion and temptation, looking not simply to containment and resistance but to overthrow and victory.
The problem of Venice, as he clearly saw, arose primarily from the absence of any adequate counterweight to Spain. Spain could thus hold the initiative in European affairs. Sarpi ruefully noted the "great Spanish felicity, that [Spain] not only freely wills war and peace, but also holds every one in suspense, forced to await the good pleasure of their declarations." The aim of Venetian policy, he felt, was to find allies and so to restore the balance of power: if the French were unreliable, then the English, the Dutch, the Germans, the Swiss, even the Turks. Papal prohibitions against Catholic alliance with heretics he repudiated as another recent innovation based on the political ambitions of Rome. But if the notion of an equilibrium suggests the attitudes of the Renaissance, at other times Sarpi favored quite a different conception. He wrote frequently, to Gallicans as well as Huguenots, of what might be hoped for from a great crusade in which, through an invasion of Italy, all antipapal forces, Protestant as well as Catholic, would finally put an end to the temporal ambitions of Rome. The prospect of war did not altogether please him, but there is perhaps more than resignation in his suggestion that, if a general European conflict should turn out to be "for the increase of [God's] glory and the advancement of the church of God, or at least the purgation of the world, we should not complain." The multitude desires peace, he wrote on another occasion, "but the wise would like war." (553-54)
Those bellicose dreams were not shared by his fellow Venetians, and Sarpi’s influence declined. Venice’s strategic position was poor, and getting worse.
It was increasingly impossible for Venice to identify herself openly or in a general way with Sarpi's views, as the position of the Republic continued to deteriorate through the steady erosion of her Mediterranean commerce, the terrible plague of 1630, and the loss of Crete in the long and expensive conflict with the Turks during the middle decades of the century. Under these pressures Venice slowly weakened, both as a respected European power and as a source of vital republican energies; the oligarchic tendencies already apparent in her aristocratic government intensified; and her libertarian traditions chiefly survived as a calculated permissiveness that made her, in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a city of pleasure, the gaudiest stop on the Grand Tour of the European upper classes. (625)
Despite Venice’s woes and its increasingly bad reputation by the late eighteenth century, it was still in contemplation of its former glory a figure of commanding respect.  
The importance of Venice and of its ideals and attitudes . . .  by no means ended with the political decline of the Republic. The complex of values, immediately political but ultimately so much more, that had first been clearly enunciated in Renaissance Florence and then elaborated in Venice a century later, had meanwhile been taking root in other parts of Europe; and to this process the nourishment contributed by the political and historical literature of Venice was as significant as the stimulus supplied by the writings of the great Florentines. (625)
Bouwsma’s protestations, sound as they were, were unavailing. In subsequent scholarship and even more in popular culture, Machiavelli and Florence stole the show; Venice was barely audible. But that there should be thousands of works on Machiavelli for every one on Sarpi is really passing strange, as if the division of labor did not apply to scholarship. Surely Bouwsma was disappointed by that dubious cultural turn (he died in 2004). It would have bugged the Florentines themselves: Machiavelli and Guicciardini doubtless would have been thrilled by Sarpi’s performance against the papacy--both having earnestly wished that the world would be “delivered from the tyranny of these wicked priests”--and (I have it on good authority) would not be pleased with its contemporary obscurity. [vi]
Bouwsma’s work was published in 1968. The work breathes a sort of confidence that the ideas Sarpi developed and the complex of values he carried forth were still of consequence. Do they continue so? What is the relation of Sarpi’s ideas to American conceptions of religious liberty or of republicanism? What is the relation to contemporary ideas of international order? There are many questions in the development of international thought that might arise from reflection on Sarpi’s work, but the overriding question is the philosophical one.
Sarpi’s brief against universalism posits a right of autonomous development that rings through the centuries as one pole of international thought. The questions raised by the long contestation between universalism and particularism continue to be highly relevant to reflection on the nature and purpose of international society, as do Sarpi’s positive convictions: “He was against clericalism because of his respect for the dignity of the lay magistrate, and against universalism because of his attachment to Venice and his conviction that particular states incorporated important values, not the least among them the ability to govern effectively.” (583) His was among the earliest entries stressing “the positive role of the state in world affairs.” State sovereignty then was clearly on the side of freedom as against tyranny. Is it so today? 

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These two maps, from The Times Atlas of World History, give an idea of Venice's strategic position in the time of Sarpi. Note that Venice's possessions are strung out along the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea and reached at one time into the Aegean Sea. Venice lost Cyprus to the Turks in 1571 and a century later (in 1669) would lose Crete. The second map shows the vital importance of the Straits of Otranto exiting the Adriatic, a position threatened both by the Turks and the Spaniards (in control of southern Italy).








[i]See David C. Hendrickson, Union, Nation, or Empire, 121.
[ii] History of the Council of Trent, from the French of L.F. Bungener, translated by David Scott (Edinburgh, 1852), 3.
[iii] William J. Bouwsma, Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty: Renaissance Values in the Age of the Counter Reformation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), 623. I use the paperback edition (1984)
[iv] Alexander Robertson, Fra Paolo Sarpi: The Greatest of the Venetians (New York, 1894), 74. Subsequent page citations in the text (76 to 87) are to Robertson’s  celebratory tract. Pages 400 and above are to Bouwsma. The tenor of Robertson’s work is indicated by his remark that “Sarpi, Galileo and their fellows, who were the reprobates of that age, are the heroes of this.” (181)
[v] Robertson, 80. We may note in passing that Sarpi’s language was exactly that of the Federalists in explicating the American Constitution. They held that the constitution partitioned power between two authorities—one concerned with general and the other with local objects, each of which in its own sphere is supreme and independent. See especially Raoul Berger, Federalism: The Framer’s Design (1987)
[vi] Guicciardini, Ricordi, Grayson ed., B-14. Image of Sarpi statue from Wikipedia page on Sarpi. The Times Atlas of World History, ed. Geoffrey Barraclough, as I've noted previously, is the best of the historical atlases. The older edition is available quite cheaply at www.abebooks.com.