From Peter Ackroyd’s lyrically beautiful history of Venice, entitled Venice, Pure City:
Venice has been construed as a great ship upon the sea… The ship was once, for the early settlers, a place of refuge. The ship of Venice was, from the beginning, a haven for exiles and wanderers. It was an open city, readily assimilating all those who came within its borders. One 15th-century traveler noted that “most of the people are foreigners,” and in the following century, a Venetian recorded that “apart from the patricians and the citizens, all the rest are foreigners and very few are Venetians.” He was referring principally to the shopkeepers and artisans. In 1611, an English diplomat, Sir Dudley Carlton, described Venice as a “microcosmos,” rather than city. It was created in the fashion of orbis [the world], rather than of urbis [city]. And so it has remained for the rest of its history. There were French and Slav, Greek and Fleming, Jew and German, Oriental and Spaniard, as well as assorted citizens from the mainland of Italy. Certain streets were named after them. All the countries of Europe and of the Levant were represented. It was something that all travelers noted as if quite suddenly they had come upon the tower of Babel in St. Mark’s Square.
No other port in the world held so many strange peoples. In many 19th-century paintings, the gabardine of the Jewish merchants, the scarlet caps of the Greeks, and the turbans and robes of the Turks, are seen jostling among the more severe costumes and tophats of the Venetian gentlemen. It might be said that the Venetians fashioned their own identity in perpetual contrast to those whom they protected. The Germans were granted their own miniature Germany in a complex known as the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, at Rialto, which contained two halls for dining and 80 separate rooms. The merchants were supervised and monitored by the government, but it was said that “they love the city of Venice more than their native land.” In the sixteenth century the Flemish settled in large numbers. The Greeks had their own quarter, with their own church dedicated to the Orthodox faith. After the fall of Constantinople in 1204, and the abandonment of that city to the Turks in 1453, there was a further flow of Byzantine Greeks– among them soldiers, mariners, artists and intellectuals looking for patrons. The Armenians and the Albanians had their own districts. Eventually an Armenian monastery was established on the island of S. Lazzaro, where Byron travelled to learn the Armenian language as a way of exercising his mind among the more sensual pleasures of Venice. There was a colony of Turkish merchants, established as the Fondaco dei Turchi, where a school for the teaching of Arabic was maintained. So Venice was the setting for a thriving cosmopolitan life. It was not altruism or generosity that occasioned this inviting embrace. Venice could not have survived without its immigrants. Some of them were raised to the rank of citizens; some of them intermarried with the indigenous people.
They were not all, of course, well protected. Many thousands of poor immigrants were cramped into cheap housing, sharing the corners of rooms with others of the same race or nationality. Many of them came as refugees from Balkan wars, or from impossible poverty; some of them were escaping the plague. They congregated in the poorer parishes and by the sixteenth century, as a result of the influx, Venice had become the most densely populated city in Italy. The immigrants also provided cheap labor for the city, and were even employed in the galleys of the Venetian warships. They did the work that the Venetians themselves preferred to avoid.
In the fourteenth century the Italian poet, Petrarch, celebrated Venice as the “sole shelter in our days of liberty, justice, and peace, the sole refuge of the good.” As a port, the city attracted such epithets as “shelter” and “refuge.” They were natural images. Pietro Aretino, himself an exile from Rome who had found safe haven in Venice, put it another way. In an address to the doge in 1527 he declared that “Venice embraces those whom all others shun. She raises those whom others lower. She affords a welcome to those who are persecuted elsewhere.” There were, after all, refugees who travelled to Venice for reasons other than commercial. There was a toleration in this open city that was unknown in other regions. That is why it became, from the eighteenth century forward, a resting place for what Henry James called “the deposed, the defeated, the disenchanted, the wounded, or even only the bored.” The deposed were a particular speciality of Venice. Many of the dethroned princes of Europe made their way here. At one time in 1737 there were five dispossessed monarchs living in the city, one of them being the young Charles Edward Stuart.
It was also a haven for those broken of spirit, for wanderers, and for exiles. Venice became the home of the dispossessed and the deracinated. Its watery and melancholy nature suited those who were acquainted with sorrow. It became a haven for those who were uncertain of their origin or of their true identity and for those, perhaps, who might have wished to escape from them. It was like a mother, endlessly accessible and accommodating. It was a womb of safety. The people were known for their placability and civility. Venice was a city of transit, where you might easily be lost among the press, a city on the frontier between different worlds, where those who did not “fit in” to their native habitat were graciously accepted… There came here, too, swindlers and fraudsters of every description; there were failed financiers and statesmen, shamed women and soldiers of fortune, alchemists and quacks. The rootless were attracted to the city without roots.
Venice was also a frontier between different faiths, Catholic and Orthodoxy, Islam and Christianity. So it attracted religious reformers of every description. A secret synod of Anabaptists was established here in the middle of the sixteenth century, and the German community harboured many Lutherans among its number. Venice always kept its distance from Rome, and protected the independence of its Church from the depredations of the pope; so it became, in theory, an arena for religious renovation. There was even a time when the English government believed the republic to be ready to join forces with the Reformation. In that, of course, it proved to be wholly mistaken.
If you had failed, then Venice was a good place for you to forget your failure. Here you were in a literal sense insulated from the outer world, so that its scorn or simple inattention could no longer wound you. Venice represented an escape from modernity in all its forms. And, like any port, it offered anonymity. If you were an exile in Venice you could lose your identity; or, rather, you could acquire another identity entirely in relation to the floating city. You, too, could become fluid and elusive. Tell me who I am. But not who I was.
We need cities like Venice today.