I promise it’s not because of Blue this time, or at least not entirely. It was because I got to shoot the Doge, during Carnival, on his own boat, while he was giving a speech, while wearing a gold mask. Assassin’s Creed II was the shit dude.
My regular reader may have observed (assuming they actually care about my intellectual movements, or at least enough to give the first few paragraphs a glance) that lately I’ve been reading more and more history. Part of this largely because, as ever, I’ve been watching more and more of Overly Sarcastic Productions as well as Shadiversity and Suibhne. These channels have been not just a joy to discover, they’ve been a great personal solace as I think more and more about my future and what I want to do with my life and my time. This is, namely, that I want to spend what time I’ve got enjoying my actual passions and one of my unending passions has been history. That…and the Assassin’s Creed franchise. I was about eighteen or nineteen when the series came out, and oddly enough I wasn’t even that interested when the trailers for it first appeared. I was far more interested in, and I admit this to my great shame, Modern Warfare 3.
Mistakes were made. I see that now.
My sister received Assassin’s Creed II for Christmas that year and started playing the game once I was done fighting Uber-nationalists in a Russian Gulag or some shit. In no time I started to notice that killing Brazilians with automatic rifles wasn’t anywhere near as cool as scaling the Santa Maria del Fiore, meeting Lorenzo de Medici and Leonardo da Vinci, killing people with hidden blades and brooms, collecting every Renaissance painting ever made, hunting down the Pazzi one by one and murdering the shit out of them, fighting the goddamn pope Alexander VI (Roderigo Borgia, a.k.a. the Spaniard) in an underground bunker beneath the Sistine Chapel that was built by gods, and then, of course, there was Venice.
I could spend hours talking about Assassin’s Creed II (and Brotherhood, and Revelations, and Odyssey which I got from Christmas this year care of my wife who I will love until the day I die) and trying to explain why the game left such a philosophical and intellectual impact upon my life, but honestly the only reason that mattered was that it was just a damn good game. And in between the assassination contracts I managed to ingest a great amount of actual history. It was in Venice though that most of the game took place, and after watching OSP’s four-part series on the Republic of Venice(for the tenth time I think), and rekindling my love of history, and reflecting on the Assassin’s Creed game which helped further solidify my love of history, it made sense that my sister gave me one of the books she read in graduate school which just happened to be about Venice.
Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice by Edward Muir is a book that, honestly, I didn’t think I was going to review while I was reading it. The book is academic to a level that is almost painful, and there are numerous instances throughout where almost half of a page is dedicated to footnotes alone. If the reader is not fluent in English, French, Italian, and Latin they’re sure to be stumped by the neat constant use of all of these languages with, conveniently, no footnotes to explain what words or expressions he’s attempting to communicate. And finally, if the reader has absolutely no knowledge of the history of La Serenissima de Republica de Venetzia, or, The Most Serene Republic of Venice then the near constant references to doges, oligarchs, merchants, and notable individuals is sure to leave you either annoyed or stumped.
With all that said, this book was a fucking blast and I enjoyed it till the end.
Part of what makes Muir’s book so enjoyable to read is his observation of the Ritual in Venetian society and how rituals helped create a sense of identity. In his Introduction as he sets up his argument he lays out the seven parts of his book and explores each of the aims:
In numerous medieval and Renaissance examples, legal and “constitutional” precepts and precedents found expression in ceremony long before they were written down in formal codes; and Venice, it seems, was indeed no stranger to the habit of ceremonial law. Sixth, the historian of civic ritual investigates how ceremonies may reveal the citizen’s own sense of their city’s relations with the outside world, relations that the Venetians saw by and large in imperial terms. […]. In Venice, one finds that the legally defined social classes, the patrimonial family, age groups, and women all shared varying degrees of ritual recognition that marked their place in the political and social organization of the city. (6-7).
Yeah, just a forewarning, most of these quotes are going to be painfully academic. This quote alone demonstrates Muir to be concerned more with the construction of an argument than a narrative and that in itself implies that he’s writing mostly for a handful of academics. And while I will admit freely that I’ve grown to despise academic writing, especially after finishing graduate school, Muir’s book was still enjoyable to read because of the way he made Rituals seem like something important and relevant.
Being a citizen of the United States I recognize this. Growing up in East Texas the Fourth of July was always an obligatory event, rather than a passive one. It was required that you go out and blow shit up or watch people blowing shit up regardless if you suffered from allergies like I did. Watching fireworks, listening to people singing the Star Spangled Banner, or watching War movies on TV were events which were supposed to create a sense of American identity, or else national Pride. And while I found far more patriotism in the act of living my life the way I wanted to , as well as my freedom of expression (David Bowie Electric Tiger pimp surprises) for a great number of people the ritual is the means of finding a sense of one’s self politically, emotionally, and for some, religiously.
Muir’s book then tackles some of the rituals of Venice such as the Marriage the Sea, The Feast of Mary’s, and the Coronation of the Doge in order to understand how politics and religion helped establish the notion of La Serrenissima, or the “serenty” of the Republic of Venice. Venice as a city, and as a government, still stands as the longest running single government in human history spanning from 697 CE to 1797 CE, a time of almost 1100 years surpassing any civilization in human history. What’s inspiring, or at least fascinating is that part of this lasting success was the merging of religious and political ritual to create this sense of identity as the “serene” republic.”
According to fifteenth-century Venice humanist, Giovanni Caldiera, the cardinal virtues—Faith, Hope, and Charity—underlay the republican virtues; so obedience to the state was metaphorically obedience to the will of God. Thus, in Venice patriotism equaled piety. The Venetians conception of themselves as a chosen people in consequence, was always revealed in their attachment to certain sacred institutions. (16).
He continued this point later down the page noting:
Belief in Venice-as-the-chosen-city and adherence to the historical institutions of the republic enabled the Venetians to withstand the tremendous forces for changes, including the temptations of millenarian enthusiasm, that ravaged the rest of Italy during the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. (16).
And finally he adds more more point on the following page:
For the Venetians, “liberty” was a matter not of personal freedom, but rather of political independence from other powers. (17).
The history of Italy during the Renaissance, is quite possibly one of the most fascinating topics to cover in history because there was simply so much chaos, warfare, political manipulations, and internal strife coupled with an explosion of academic, technological, and cultural innovation. Legions of mercenaries were scattered across the peninsula hired and fired freely as they for or against any city state that might hire them, and while the blood flowed men like Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci created paintings that would infer in society’s collected consciousness for centuries. And in the midst of all this turmoil, Venice somehow managed to stay above the fray, or at least, managed to maintain some level of, wait for it, serenity that the rest of the country could only aspire to. Muir tries to show then that it was because of the rituals, and their underlying rhetoric that Venetians were somehow ordained by divine grace that they were able to channel their efforts and psychology into maintaining a republic.
The Marriage of the Sea best represents this idea. Without taking too much time, the ceremony would involve the Doge of Venice, the political and spiritual leader of the Republic, sailing out to the opening of the Adriatic on a massive and ornate sailing barge. There would be music and prayers and pomp and circumstance, but the main event would involve the Doge reaching the spot where the lagoon of Venice met the Adriatic and, after uttering psalms and prayers, the Doge would drop a gold ring into the sea signifying that Venice was “married” to the seas. This ritual, which for the record still continues to this day almost three centuries after the republic ended (meanwhile I can’t even find ten minutes to do a few push-ups), was supposed to imply Venice’s “mastery” of the sea, which in turn would explain their economic and political prosperity.
Muir dedicates a significant portion of his book to this ritual, largely because it was so psychologically significant to the Venetians. He says in one passage:
The marriage of the sea was a Venetian version of a spring fertility festival. The usual goals of agrarian fertility rites—safegaurding the fecundity of women and crops—were transformed by the Venetian rites to serve maritime and Mercantile needs: the rites ensured the safety of sailors at sea, expressed political and commercial hegemony, established fair trade for the crowds, and invoked through a mystical marriage, continued prosperity. At the moment of their occurrence such fertility rites characteristically contribute to social cohesion and unanimity within the community. (131).
By “marrying” the sea Venice in effect created a narrative where they were effectively in control of it, and therefore if they had any sort of success it was because of this ritual. Though on the note of control the feminist in me immediately demands I provide the next quote which Muir provides on the next page:
The Sensa also deprived the sea of its frightening demeanor by feminizing it. The men who said abroad could most easily imagine the sea as a female archetype: unpredictable, fickle, sometimes violent, other times passive; but assuredly she could mastered by the resolute male. (132-33).
Muir completes this charming metaphor by providing the following analysis:
The Sensa revealed two profound psychological habits of belief: that natural forces could be comprehended by personifying them, and that through understanding these forces one could better control them, or at least predict their influences. And in symbolizing sexual conquest the processional movement took full advantage the female metaphor. Through the marriage each year at the beginning of the sailing season and through the subsequent voyages that consummated the union the sea was deprived of her mystery; men now “knew” her. (133).
Misogyny is always fascinating to read about largely because one gets a sense to what limits men were, and still are, willing to go to in order to perpetuate bullshit. The implied misogyny of this ritual aside however, Muir is able to demonstrate that this ritual helped complete a sense of Venetian identity. For centuries Venice was a maritime power-house and no-one could actually dispute that fact. Using a thalassocracy, a system of government and rule mostly executed through naval power rather than territorial claims, Venice was able to establish a powerful military and economic system which kept them rich and prosperous. Whatever opinion the reader might have about Venice they have to acknowledge that this ritual helped the citizens of the Republic believe that they were exceptional which in turn helped them execute this vision.
But at this point my contester feels compelled to speak up. So what? So what about Muir’s book? It’s a long, dry, academic book about a bunch of rituals that are irrelevant. Venice isn’t a republic anymore, in fact they’ve become nothing but a tourist attraction. What relevance does a bunch of old rituals have to my life.
Well, if I may correct my contester, the book isn’t long, it’s only 305 pages. To put it in perspective, while I’m writing this review I’m also reading Grant by Ron Chernow, a book which is 940 pages, and 48 hours long in terms of the audiobook.
As for the relevance this is a fair point. Like I said before, Muir is writing Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice for academics. He’s writing for people who study Venice, and study the time period of the Renaissance. This book is clearly designed for a small audience, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t relevant. While the topic may seem specific to a set of conditions, Muir’s book is largely about a larger theme: the practice of rituals in human history. While he centers his study in Venice he’s able to demonstrate that rituals are just a part of human behavior and then tries to show how these rituals translated into political, religious, and civic success.
Human beings like symbols, and we craft rhetoric and narratives from those symbols. Whether it’s the various religions human beings practice, the modes of politics that we participate in, or simply the millions of stories that we create and read and watch every year, human beings like stories that make us feel connected to one another because the can inform us about what the purpose of meaning of our existence is. Muir’s book tries top understand the narratives the Venetians of La Serrenissima told themselves through these religious and political rituals, and how that translated into a success that lasted for, literally, a thousand years.
It’s an incredible testament to the fact that human beings like rituals, because even if they may seem ridiculous or offensive in hindsight, their power over those who participated in them allowed said individuals to feel connected to a larger idea. Venice as a government, as an idea, and as an institution are due entirely because of the narratives Venetians crafted for themselves, and so as I look to Muir’s book I do recognize that, while it may not be entirely approachable as a book, as a history it’s incredibly relevant. Good history should be about observing trends in behavior, and so the history of Venice is about recognizing the potential of the self, and the capacity for human beings to work together and create something incredible.
It’s nowhere near as enjoyable as shooting the Doge on his own boat during Carnival, but it is its own joy to read a book, find the name Marco Babarigo, and remark to yourself, “Hey I killed that guy.”
Though I might recommend you say that internally as you co-workers are likely to look up from their lunches at you and begin to wonder if it was such a good idea to invite you out for a drink later after work.
All quotes from Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice were cited from the paperback Princeton University Press edition.
I’m gonna leave the soundtrack to Assassin’s Creed II here, because, well, because you just deserve it. I really haven’t experienced a game with such an incredible soundtrack before. Hope you enjoy:
I’m going to leave a few links to articles and encyclopedia entires and videos about La Serenissima in case the reader is interested. Enjoy:
And, because I’m a man obsessed, I’ve included links to all the videos Blue of Overly Sarcastic Productions has done over the Republic of Venice. If you decide to watch, maybe you’ll understand or appreciate them as much as I do…Appreciate them I said! Ahem. Please enjoy.
Operation Odysseus video:
I’m going to remind my reader that, since this writing I’ve begun a podcast series entitled “Jammer Talks About” and Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice just happened to be the fourth book I discussed. You can find a link to the podcast in the “Jammer’s Podcasts” link at the top of the page, or you can follow the link below. Hope you enjoy:
Finally I want to give a little bit more street crew to Dr. Edward Muir, who’s the real focus of this essay anyway. I’ve found his Professor page for Northeastern University and I’ve posted it below. It includes his credentials, awards, publication history, Circulum Vitae, etc. Definitely look him up because the man is a great writer, a wonderful scholar, and, if it hasn’t been made apperent, his book is definitely worth your time.