Lorenzo ‘Il Magnifico‘, on his death bed, turned his face away from Savonarola to look outside at his City as the priest exhorted him to repent of Florence. The prince refused to answer, gazed at the Duomo, sighed and died. —Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, 1860
It was an excellent friendship between Monarch and Republican: King Charles I with his implacable Stuart pride in Divine Right and Absolutism, and James Harrington, champion of the philosophy of the Commonwealth, later to write his famous Oceana (1656), a constitution of the Perfect State based upon the exalted model of Venice—La Serenissima, as She was better known: the mythological and mystagogical sorceress-city of stability, independence and gloire. The hated King wanted none of Harrington’s hoary disquisitions on balances-of-power and wills-of-people but loved his companion’s intellectual company, finding his powers of mind without peer. When the time came that the great Charles I fled his first round of imprisonment under charges of high treason, Harrington refused to take an oath of loyalty to incoming Cromwellians and to report His Majesty’s escape. And when the hour of execution arrived, Charles I requested that his utopian friend accompany him to the scaffold where the proud monarch would breathe and behold his final moments of sceptered isle, other Eden, and precious stone in silver sea that gray January day, 1649.
Here was a King who trusted a man with republican principles; here was a republican who fearlessly confided such principles while serving a King. In the melancholy aftermath of the death of Charles I, Harrington, later to marry for the first time at age 64, withdrew and wrote his Venice-inspired masterpiece dreaming of ‘The State as a Work of Art,’ in the famous phrase of 19th century Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt. It has been said that Plato was the author of the perfect republic, while Xenophon was the author of the perfect monarchy. But then there was Venezia, authoress of so exotic a mixture of the two: She, the dazzling ornament that crowned a thousand-year old constitutional architecture founded by free men within a maritme order that combined a monarchy (the Doge), an aristocracy (the Senate) and democracy (the Great Council), captivating centuries of royalists and republicans the Western world over. Harrington’s visionary work was the great English contribution to this universal fascination for the impregnable island-city called ‘the Virgin’ by his smitten countrymen—and more importantly, to one of Western civilization’s most splendidly maddening questions: what or who, exactly, is The State?
Oceana—“an empire of laws not men”—caused a sensation in England for its views and as a kind of anti-Hobbesian tract; ironically, the book’s publication was nearly impeded by the dreaded Oliver Cromwell, who had quickly abandoned the idea of a free commonwealth in order to set up his own brand of military monarchy. But the renegade philosopher persisted in reaching his public. “Harrington was connected to no party or faction,” wrote an admiring critic in the late 1880s. “He was evidently one of those good and noble men, found in every revolution, who at one and the same time are on the left of the party on the Right and on the right of the party on the Left, without compromise of dignity or sacrifice of principle.” Himself blood-heir to a pedigree that included eight dukes, three marquisses, seventy earls, twenty-seven viscounts and thirty-six barons (of which sixteen were Knights of the Garter—the oldest noble order in England), Harrington was poised to make a revolutionary mark on the minds of his fellow countrymen, producing his work during a time of intense English intellectual self-reflection that marked the Interregum (1649-1660), Restoration (1660-1685) and Glorious Revolution (1688). Oceana would later influence Locke, Hume and the American and French Revolutions. The modern concept of the “separation of powers” is said to have been highly influenced by Harrington. When Baron de Montesquieu wrote De L’Esprit des Lois (“On the Spirit of the Laws,” 1748), Oceana was his inspiration and guide. John Adams is said to have been a strong admirer of the work, and as principal author of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusettes (1780), employed Harrington’s line “a government of laws and not men” in that composition. As early as 1681 we find William Penn examining the Venetian practices described in Oceana in connection with his plans for the government of Pennsylvania. The constitutions of other American colonies (The Carolinas, New Jersey) also exhibited Harringtonian features. Even a post-Revolution draft constitution in Paris in 1792 was directly based on the work.
Oceana celebrated the idea of the “aristocratic republic”—a concept that Machiavelli found so difficult but so necessary to distinguish from democratic republics–which Harrington thought would bring “the greatest peace and felicity to mankind.” For, it was not the misgovernment of a monarchical ruler or the stubborness of the mass that were his main concern, but rather how a constitution should manage what he called the “balance of property”—a State’s very basis of power—between prince and people. A well-constituted State, Harrington optimistically opined, would make “wicked men virtuous and inspire fools to act wisely.” His Venice was just such a place—as it was the place of so many of his enlightened contemporaries: John Milton praised the Venetian government in his 1680 work The Readye and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth; the Anglo-Welsh literary critic James Howell did so as well in his Survay of the Signore of Venice (1651), in which he rhapsodized: “Could any State on Earth Immortal be/Venice by Her rare Government is She;” Marchamont Nedham, a celebrated Oxfordian scholar of the English Civil War, published The Excellency of a Free State the same year that Oceana appeared, while gentleman-scholar Thomas de Fougasses penned The General History of the Magnificent State of Venice (1612), possibly the most lyrical of all these works. The encomiums were not just literary: The early 17th century polymath-diplomat Sir Henry Wottan asserted, while on his second ambassadorship to Venice, that he had sought that appointment above any other because of his admiration for the government of The Serene One and the pleasure he derived “from contemplating its noble institutions.”
The extraordinary longevity of Venice; her liberalism and strong social order; her finely-tuned system of internal checks-and-balances and her constitutional consistency comprised the City’s particular brand of state-making genius. Protected by a stalwart lagoon against the barbarian hordes that had swept over Italy in the fifth century, “Venice recognized itself from the first as a strange and mysterious creation–the fruits of a higher power than human ingenuity,” wrote Burckhardt in his classic The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860). Her dramatic foundation is the proverbial stuff of legend in Western history: On March 25, 413, immgrants from Padua searching for asylum from the gothic invasions laid the first stone at the Rialto. The priest who completed the act of consecration of the newborn maritime commune cried to heaven: “When we hereafter attempt great things, grant us prosperity! Now we kneel before a poor altar, but if our vows are not made in vain, a hundred temples, O God, of gold and marble shall rise to thee!” Such prayers were obviously answered: By the 15th century Venice had become, in the words of Burckhardt (once more), “the jewel-casket of the world.“
It was following a series of constitutional reforms in 1297 that Venice emerged the model aristocratic republic. Prior to the 13th century, the Doge ruled in a much more autocratic fashion though his powers were curtailed by two institutions: the promissone—the “promise” or pledge the Doge took to honor Venice—and the maggior consiglio—the Great Council—consisting of 480 members drawn from patrician families, without whom the Doge was effectively powerless to carry out any decree. After the reforms of 1297, the centers of power in the Venetian government became more dispersed. Among other things, terms of office varied sharply. The Doge and the Procurators of Saint Mark—one of the most important magistracies right up until the fall of the Republic in 1797—served a life term. Senators—the pregadi—served a year’s term and were delegated by the maggior consiglio. Advisors to the Doge served eight-month terms. The sapientes—a rotating Council of Wise Men formed to advise the Doge on external threats to Venice’s economic position—were each in power for six months.
The famous “Forty” (the Qarantia) was established as a body in 1179 to elect the Doge—always a grandee, to be sure, and without exception registered in Venice’s famous libro d’oro (“Golden Book”), a list of the dozen or so most prominent families in the Republic. The Forty also staffed the judicial councils: the quarantia civile nova, the quarantia civile vecchia and the quarantia criminale, their respective members serving eight months. These councils were in turn selected by nine electors who themselves were nominated by a popular assembly, lo concio, which had grown out of the Assemblies of Free Men in existence in Venice since—scholars estimate—the 6th century. Several councils for charity and public health were established as well. Next-to-last and never least was the establishment in 1310 of the notorious Council of Ten (consiglio dei dieci), Venice’s security service/intelligence network/morals-police, each capi serving one year. The Council’s three-man inner circle of Inquisitors, the Committee of Three, rotated in and out of office each month. Yes, it is this merciless “tribunal of blood” and its even less compassionate troika of inner-sanctum spies that have bequeathed to the world the Venice of sinister New Year’s Eve-Ball lore and legend: Of the masked assassin swathed in Domino slipping furtively out of celebrations at the stroke of midnight; of the bejewelled dagger thrust into the back of the opulent Seljuk merchant; of pools of aristocratic blood washed away by the mists hazing over the gondola moorings framing a shimmering St. Mark’s Square. “The Council of Ten will be your torture; the Committee of Three will be your death,” warned Casanova, who in 1756 escaped imprisonment in the attic of the residence of the Doge on God-knows-what charges. Finally, in 1537, under the encroaching shadow of the Turk, the Esecutori contro la Bestemia (“The Executors Against Blasphemy”) was charged with protecting Christianity against “degrading words and actions.” Whatever the quirks and quiddities of this somewhat eccentric structure, Venice remained stable, secure and took care of her own. In 1206, Aquinas, in his work On Kingship, praised Venice as a free state enjoying more liberty than other Italian states. Centuries later, scholars and humanists would continue to agree.
“The cause of the stability of Venice lies rather in a combination of circumstances which were found in union nowhere else,” wrote Burckhardt. “Unassailable from its position, [Venice] had been able from the beginning to treat of foreign affairs with the fullest and calmest reflection and ignore nearly altogether the parties which divided the rest of Italy, to escape entanglement of permanent alliances, and to set the highest price on those which it thought fit to make. The keynote of the Venetian character was, consequently, a spirit of proud and contemptuous isolation…”
But infusing this spirit of character was an even more intriguing trait: That of the ‘Myth of Venice’—the other-worldy Something that gave the City her indefinable allure—and this element the unique product of its patrician-princes. There was Doge Tommaso Moncenigo, for example, of a renown noble family that counted seven such titles; countless churchmen, diplomats and statesmen, and most famous for his deathbed oration as featured in that excellent page-turner Lives of the Doges (1536) by Marino Sanuto (he of the swashbuckling Crusader family) in which the mighty Moncenigo demands that La Serenissima retain her lone-wolf status at all costs and rejects the growing Florentinophile, interventionist ethos growing in defiance to the rising power of Milan. No doubt the Doge had an unfavorable lasting impression of the fate of his famous medieval predecessor, Prince Enrico Dandolo, who, at age ninety and legally blind, led the Venetian contingent in the Fourth Crusade against Constantinople—a colorful misadventure that only served to disrupt what had been for Venice excellent mercantile relations with Byzantium. Alas—Moncenigo’s successor was Doge Francesco Foscari, whose expansion of Venice, alliance with Florence, and wars with Milan during his long reign at the inception of the Renaissance brought the City to near ruin—stunning feats of strategic miscalculation to be later eulogized in the torrential poetry and grand opera of two of the 19th century’s greatest minds. Passionately in love with his Venice, it was Doge Foscari who started the tradition of the ‘Marriage to the Sea’ ritual of his office, requiring the person of the Doge to sail into the Lido in his bucentaure—the royal ship of gold—and toss a ring into the ocean: the gesture of his vow to and bond with the gift and wealth of the Adriatic.
Other aspects of Doge Foscari’s life were less festive: Eight of his nine children died in the Black Plague; his surviving son Jacopo was tried by the Council of Ten on charges of corruption and was exiled to Crete, where he died. The elder Foscari was forced by the Council to resign—the first Doge to do so in six centuries. He died a week later. Yet the public outcry was so great in demanding that the noble Foscari vecchio be given a full state funeral that the sumptuousness of the event became what many romantic-minded historians regard as the very inauguration of ‘The Myth‘ in all of its desperate splendor—and this, to be exact, by way of the beautiful funeral oration given by Prince Bernado Giustiniani, a descendant of Justinian the Great. Lord Byron immortalized father and son Foscari in his poem, The Two Foscari, later to be used as the libretto for Verdi’s intense, subtle and lovely opera of the same name, Il Due Foscari (in Act 2 and in the opera’s final scene—the Carreras-Cappuccilli recording of 1976, please—one finds, indeed, a most sublime introduction to ‘The Myth’…).
However, the figure who best mixed Myth with majesty and magistracy in his praise of the Venetian constitution was the celebrated Cardinal Gasparo Contarini, perhaps the most interesting figure of the first half of the 16th century on the Italian, if not European, scene. The aristocratic Cardinal, of one of Venice’s finest families that had spawned many a Doge, was one of those post-Renaissance, pre-Modern minds—like Erasmus or More—who blended worldliness and piety, passion and rationality, strategic careerism with moral principle so well. He was the ambassador for Venice to Emperor Charles V; he was present at Worms for the famous Diet when Luther made his appearance; he met and admired Thomas More whom he enthusiatically pronounced uno cavalier Englese molto letterato (“a very culivated English gentleman.”) His later embassy was to Pope Clemens VII and then to Pope Paul III who entrusted the Cardinal with the latter’s most difficult and delicate assignment: papal legate to the theological discussions with the Lutherans.
It was in a private letter to Paul III—that playboy-turned-pious Farnese pope (to whom Copernicus famously dedicated his De Revolutionibus)—in which Cardinal Contarini swooned over his beloved urbanis felicitas as an idyll of Reason, Equity and Concern for the Common Good, thus setting in motion the project that would become his most memorable undertaking: the writing of De Magistratibus et Republica Venetorum (1543). This paradigmatic work, swiftly translated in to Italian, French, and English, argued most persuasively on behalf of the perfection of the Venetian constitution. De Magistratibus would go on to become “the” source that nourished republican thought across monarchical centuries, and was first brought to the attention of the English-speaking world in 1599 by soldier-spy-scholar Lewis Lewkenor in his The Common Wealth and Government of Venice—and then later going on to captivate our Mr. Harrington.
The Restoration, of course, put an end to all active discussion of adapting or adopting Venetian institutions in England. Yet the idea that Venice had something worth contributing died hard. Parliamentary champions saw in the Senate of Venice a type of parliament; monarchists could study it and see that the Doge was a sort of king. Disraeli himself was impressed: “Had William III been a man of ordinary capacity,” opined the statesman of the Dutch King of the Glorious Revolution who overthrew the last Stuart King, James II, “the Constitution of Venice would have been established in 1688.” Once more, the challenge of an ‘aristocratic republic’—the stability of monarchy; the consent of those governed—was the nec plus ultra standard. Aristotle, it will be recalled, had his time-honored classification of monarchies, aristocracies, and ‘polities’ which in turn corresponded to their debased forms of tyrannies, oligarchies, and democracies (that is, the demos for which he had contempt). This schema would continue to influence the course of Western political philosophy, such as when Aquinas, in his On Kingship, warned: “Just as the government of a King is the best; so the government of a Tyrant is the worst.” By the end of the 17th century History had seen enough of such corruptions to make the aristocratic republic concept seem more appealing than ever, not least to stave off the Hobbesian-Machiavellian fate of countries having to accept governments founded not on justice but the sword. “The happiness of a nation must needs be firmest and certainist in fair and free council of their own electing, where no single person, but Reason only, sways,” Harrington had written. But, he acknowledged: “The ground and basis of every Just and Free government is a General Council of ablest men chosen by the people to consult for the common good.” Those “ablest men” in Venice, he knew, had been patricians, nobles and merchant grandees—and most emphatically not men drawn from the common lot. He concedes: “Those who found a Commonwealth must themselves be noble.” A beautiful formulation, no doubt. Yet, was such a high-minded State still possible? Could it be derived from or co-exist with the increasingly equalizing philosophical Zeitgeist of republican sentiments? Was the rigid, stable, beautiful, liberal, moral, decadent, pompous, charitable, pious, corrupt, mercantilist, cultivated, isolated and proud Venice with its patrician exclusivity, intricate checks-and-balances, subterranean spies, and happy population a model to be emulated—or just a striking oddity to be admired by her privileged sons and by enamored scholars separated by centuries’ of romantic distance?
In classical times, aristocratic republics existed in Athens, Sparta, and Rome—of course, not exactly in any kind of one-size-fits-all model. Venice remained one ’till the very end when, on May 31, 1797, Doge Ludovico Manin, the City’s last, handed Napoleon the keys to the ‘Mistress of the Adriatic,’ as the French revolutionary-emperor called her. Still, in Genoa, Lucca, San Marino, Ragusa, Lucerne, Zürich, Fribourg, and in Poland aristocratic republics were firmly in place. This unusual style government continued to attract and to persist. As mentioned, it was Machiavelli who is credited with first drawing the distinction bewteen democratic and aristocratic republics. That distinction becomes even more apparent in Montesquieu, who, in his Laws, gives its Venice fifty-one paragraphs of awed analysis (while Athens gets three, Rome gets six; Carthage, Poland, Ragusa, and Genoa each get one). De Tocqueville championed the aristocratic republic as did Madison, who in Federalist 10, wrote of an elitist conception of representation. John Adams, in his Defence of the Constitutions of the United States (1789), considered Poland, Neûchatel (the Swiss canton) and England “monarchical republics.” After all, the concept did seem to allow for governments to maintain a kind of artful equilibrium in lieu of all-out democratic equality: “An aristocracy can maintain the strength of its principles if the laws are drafted so that they make the nobles feel the perils and fatigues of command more than its pleasures,” wrote the wise Baron. Hence, it is necessary to have, Serenissima-style, a permanent magistradt that makes the nobles tremble “like the Ephors of Sparta and the State Inquisitors of Venice, and not unlike the censors at Rome…”
Possibly so. Yet, there was another State, itself considered a work of art, that knew no stable constitution—and, in fact, knew very little stability at all: That of Florence, the Republic turned Principality (and later Grand Duchy), in turn led by a Prince who was, in spirit, a Republican. In honor of the Florentine phenomenon that was Cosimo de Medici, even a special kind of political category was created: the civitas sibi princeps–the city-state as the prince itself—in the romantic phrase of Bartolus of Sassoferrato, he who heroically codified the Laws of Justinian. No less than Machiavelli, Franceso Guicciardini, David Hume and Thomas Jefferson argued that a prince-leader of his type was the right formula. The magnifcence of Cosimo de’ Medici is well-chronicled: the legendary family fortune established by his father, Giovanni de Medici, through his banking house in Rome, Florence and Venice, became Cosimo’s personal glory when he added on high-value imports from the East to that fortune and lent money to the princely houses of Europe. Cosimo and the rest of the star cast-members of the monnied and poetic de Medici clan were the de facto rulers of Florence—give or take a few exiles, aristocratic conspiracies, irate Popes, conniving French kings, and typical Renaissance assassinations involving verses from Virgil left torn onto the bloodied blade of a Falchion sword. The magic would last through the time of the establishment of the (Holy Roman) Grand Duchy of Tuscany under Cosmio I de Medici in 1537 until the mid 18th century. Sir Walter Scott called the family the greatest that Europe had yet seen.
The writer Benedetto Varchi, author of the sixteen volume Storia fiorentina (1543) declaimed Florence to be “as no other State in the world.” Jacopo Pitti, Marsilio Ficino and Bernado Segni—humanists, Aristotelians, historians and men-of-letters them all—tell the story of Florence-the-Republic in dense and memorable prose, even if prone at times to a deep purple tint. Florence possessed “the most elevated political though” and Burckhardt called her “the first modern State in the word.” He continues: “That wonderful Florentine spirit, at once keenly critical and articially creative, was incessantly transforming the social and political condition of the State…Florence thus became the home of political doctrines and theories, of experiments and sudden changes.” Unlike Venice, Florence had a very fitful time organizing a constitution. But unlike Florence, Venice, which had mastered commerce and diplomacy, did not produce the philosophers or artistic milieu of her moodier sibling. Florence remained elusively and brilliantly dynamic with her strong proletariat-merchants, the senatorial rule of the nobility; the limited and unlimited democracy; the theocracy of the doomed super-monk Savonarola—and this all topped by Medicean despotic-democrats—giving her a wonderful kind of consistent inconsistency. Gregorio Dati, in his Istoria di Firenze (“History of Florence“) of 1735 simply concluded: “The Florentines live on peace and profit by it as the bee profits by the honey of the flowers. They never resolve on war except to gain on peace. We are Florentines, free Tuscans, Italy’s image and light.”
A strong democratic political class—the popolo—came to dominate in Florence in the 13th century against Frederick II Hohenstaufen—that very genial Holy Roman Emperor—and against the local ruling class that attached to his imperial power. Medieval localism flourished and the dictum of the day went: “Better to live under the rule of the Ciompi [the rebellious leaders of the wool industry] than under the tyranny of the king.” It was at this time that a certain Ardingo de Medici appeared in the history books as a local power, followed by his cousin Salvestro, who, in turn, got himself thrown out of the city leading a revolt of a small artisan class against the well-heeled nobility—the first sign of the famed popular touch among the de Medici clan that would take them to soaring heights of popularity within two generations. By the outset of the Trecento (the “300”s, as one says in Italian, in lieu of “the 1300s,”) Florence was still more or less an informal communal entity. Its political structure was a body made up of its wealthiest merchant-guilds known as the Signoria. The nine members of the Signoria ruled Florence with dramatic flair: Draped in crimson-colored velvet uniforms with ermine cuffs and tended to by livried servants in green silk, these members—known as the priori—were ensconced in the sumptuous Palazza della Signoria, though themselves modestly remunerated. In rotating two-month terms, six of these members came from the city’s major guilds and two from the minor, while the most prestigious ninth member was known by the poetic title of Gonfaloniere (“the banner”) of Justice. To be elected, one was required to carry no debt and to bear no relation to the names of the men drawn previously for election. War councils, security councils, foreign affairs councils and the like played no major role and were summoned as the need arose. The business of bella Firenze was business, after all, and she soon became the head of the Tuscan city-leagues—a loose network “of common pride and kinship” to preserve civic liberty in Tuscany all the while the mad march of Milanese tyranny was engulfing central and northern Italy.
Alas, these ancient liberties and deeply rooted communal immunities started to erode the last four critical decades of that century. Now Florence as “State”—as a centralized, territorial force—would emerge, albeit unhappily. It now seemed the world was out to squeeze what they could from the molten-gold nectar that was ripe, rich Florence. The post-Avignon re-establishment of the Papal See at Rome put pressure on Florence to become Rome’s newest financial fulcrum. The colorful and oh-so French Walter de Brienne, “Duke of Athens” by way of Crusader-state pomp, arrived en scene, urged over by local nobles to call in immense English debts to Florentine banking houses and to wrest away wealthy Lucca from yet another up-and-coming potentate—such back-channel reliance on foreign powers being the lazy wont of Florence’s elite. Meanwhile, the insatiable appetite of Milanese despotism continued to widen its already ample girth in northern Italy, incursions made all the more memorable by the appearance of John Hawkwood—everyone’s favorite English mercenary of the High Middle Ages, who, when not switching sides between warring city-states for fun and profit, could be found partying with the likes of Chaucer and Petrarch at Visconti weddings. Battles ensued. Pisa and Siena allied with the Visconti. Pisa lost independence; Florence and Siena made a pact against the Neapolitans; Florence gained Pisa—thanks, ahem, to the intervention of Venice. Things settled down. As for looming threats, the spawn of Gian Galeazzo “Count of Valour“ Visconti would remain the most serious breed of land-mad tyrant in the country—even Karl Marx had to begrudgingly admit that that family was rather talented as far as absolute-rulers went.
The Florentine political structure was left in chaos. Around 1400, however, Providence summoned Fortuna in the form of the rise of the merchant-prince who would be, according to his elegiac chroniclers, as close to the ideal of the Platonic Philosopher-King as history had yet seen. High-minded, humane, rich as sin and deeply humble, Cosmio de Medici was “The Prince as Roman Republican Statesman” as extolled by humanists such as Leonardo Bruni and Poggio Bracciolini, who dedicated their translations of Aristotle and Plutarch to his honor.
As mentioned, this princely republican—or republican prince—never officially held office, but was, nonetheless, Florence’s undisputed sovereign by grace of his immense wealth, his cultivated personality, his steadfast populism—his shrewd dealings, his plump bribes and his limited taste for compromise. Naturally, he was hated by a good portion of the aristocracy—oligarchy who could not abide Cosimo’s benevolent-despot fondness for the lesser guilds—those productive entities whom he smartly molded into local potenze; that is, poorer merchants allowed their own communal, village sense of political autonomy. Nor could the noble class tolerate the hike in their taxes to pay for the elaborate cultural projects endlessly underway during Cosimo’s reign. Prince Albizzi and Prince Strozzi conspired to put him to death. Cosimo ended up in exile instead, taking his bank with him as well as new ideas for a reformed constitution. He was begged back to Florence a year later—and the City was his. What followed was the re-establishment of a wealthy, secure State led by an admired leader and…and what else, indeed: oh, those churches, those palaces, the staggering libraries, the Byzantine scholars fleeing Constantinople and welcomed with prestige-status and financial support; the locals named Cellini, Donatello and Fra Fillipo Lippi; the convents, cloisters and…the Duomo. And all of it a richesse to be continued with even more fervor through the next extraordinary de Medici to come on down the line, grandson Lorenzo “Il Magnifico“. In spite of his riches and lavish entertainments, Prince Cosimo lived modestly, worked long hours and was accessible to all. After his death in 1464, the title Pater Patriae was inscribed on his tomb, an honor bestowed only one time prior in all of Italy—to Cicero, the ultimate Republican.
But it just may be the case that The Perfect State was not even a state. For, once upon a time there was a northern, medieval phenomenon as much the subject of universal myth and curiosity as that of the enchantress-republics flourishing down south: the Hanseatic League of the mid-13th to 16th centuries. “The Hansa“ (old German for “associations“) or “The League,“ as it was known, began as a treaty between Lübeck and Hamburg to”clear the road of pirates and robbers between the Elbe and the Trave“ [a river in northern Germany with its delta at the Baltic sea]. It gradually increased to add Cologne and Bremen, later expanding to Gdansk, Riga and Novgorod, finally incorporating Bruges, Brunswick, and many satellite-cities throughout Scandinavia. The main goal of this expansion was to keep the herring fisheries of the Baltic in the hands of the merchant-princes of Lübeck and decidedly out of the hands of the multi-tasking Frederick II Hohenstaufen, who, in 1226, decreed the lovely, gothic-gabled town an Imperial City. Then, too, routes to capture the salt trade to Cyprus were critical. Soon, The League was dominating commercial relations with the Levant, Venice, Spain, France and England in timber, fur, grain, honey, Scandinavian copper and iron, in return for spices, medicine, fruit and wine and cotton. Such is how this loose coalition of Flying Dutchman—capitalists emerged as an empire without a State.
Navigare necesse est, viviere non est necesse it is inscribed over the door to the old shipping house in Bremen: “It is necessary to carry on navigation, it is not necessary to live.” This old Hanseatic wisdom truly captured the spirit of this great port-civilization. Ruled by a code of honor as a de-centralized alliance, trade was everything and “The State” was looked upon as a land-locked, bureaucratic annoyance. The League came together and stayed together to share the risks of trading, seafaring and—where necessary—to deal with pestering overlords who knew nothing of commerce on the high seas but could smell a fresh source of taxation from a thousand nautical miles away. They were “men who would not fight or steal; who would not live by plunder for pay,” as a 19th century British magazine, The Illustrated Magazine of Art, once swooned in nostalgia. “As those who wished to sell honestly, they were compelled to unite together for their own protection in order that they not be deprived of the rich goods they brought back with them from Italy for the north of Europe. They formed an association—one which ultimately became the proud and powerful rival of Kings and Emperors.”
In no time those kings and emperors “begged their loans and pawned their crowns” to do business with the Hansa and their fleet of 248 merchant ships—the pride and power of the seas. Lübeck, at one point the richest city in Europe and referred to as the “Carthage of the North”, became the unofficial capital of the League, one that maintained its own mercenary-army of 50,000. But that was about it. The League had no coherent political organization. To join or to leave was determined by trading interests of the merchants—there was never a clearly defined administrative center or even a system for raising taxes. Admission was strict: no cities would be allowed in unless situated on the sea or some navigable river adjoining; nor were cities “which did not keep the key to their own gates” even considered. They had no parliament, no president; no consistent civil jurisidction outside formal oaths and pledges. As a protector they chose the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights—and even he had to take an oath to preserve the mercantile freedom of this merry posse of salty dogs. The League’s on-again, off-again Diet met whenever and wherever it was convenient to discuss things; there was no army or navy, and in the event of some outside threat, the cities most at stake would come together to decide a common plan of action such as higher tariffs, and only rarely the waging of war. As The League’s founding charter proclaimed: “If the conflict is against a prince who is lord of one of the cities, this city shall not furnish men but only give money.”
One could argue that the Hansa model best emulated the democratic ideal of the ancient Greek poleis. The characteristic feature of the polis—first formed around 700 BC—was that it was a community of Citizens—capital “C”—and birth-privilege held no weight as such, especially considering how freely the polis accepted new citizens. The privileged aristocrat and the prominent local received the same rights, and the great poles—Athens, Corinth, Thebes—were themselves centers of industry, generating economic-civic relationships and an explosion in inter-regional trade between other city-states. The Hansa, one might say, was the medieval, northern, sea-faring equivalent of this exalted model. It remained as such only a few decades after that fateful day in 1598 when Elizabeth I closed a key Hansa trading association on the Thames in London, primed as she was to create an imperial power of England—of her sceptered isle that within a generation, alas, would be violently rife with its own confused question of…what is The State?
It was Socrates who spoke of the concept of a “city-soul.” The natural justice, as he called it, of city life was that men made products for the men who need them, with each individual endowed with some mental talent or physical capacity to equip the community. It is a justice, as one scholar of the philosopher has written, drawn from nature and “applied to the man-made organization of his order and rule.” The City was an expression of civic greatness—and “The State” no more or less than that.
By the 19th century each of these aristocratic republics and merchant-prince city-leagues—though still so noble in pedigree and ancient spirit—had become lovely post-card imprints of their former selves. The mightiness had sallowed, the luminescence dimmed—a spell still cast, to be sure, but one less hypnotizing of the imagination. It is said that it is a law of decay that all cities and empires “must” suffer. Today’s republics have no republicans—no wise democrats, no noble merchants, no gracious men-of-the-people leading by example. Or too few. Or too marginalized. But this matters little, of course, so long as man studies the inspiring genius of great civilizations past, and that his march continues onward, with ‘Excelsior’ ever in his mind’s eye and his heart’s song.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.