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October 27, 2008


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There is a large painting in one of the museums in Venice of a XVIIth C.(?) doge being borne through the Piazza San Marco on a throne surrounded by stave-wielding, liveried thugs. The doge is throwing handfuls of coins to the crowd, who scramble grotesquely, while the thugs whack anybody who gets too close. The commentary about the painting suggests that it portrays a regular event occurring for many, many years, through many dogal reigns.

I don't know if we are to think there is much in the way of a theory in the doge's mind as he makes his way back to his Palazzo. But, like all images of the doges, this one makes him look very much as though he knows exactly what he is doing.

My reaction to that scene was much the same as it was to a good deal of what I saw in Venice: a semi-appalled quasi-admiration.

I am not talking about the souvenir hell Venice mostly is today; but rather about the inferences that seem to fairly shout from the artifacts, about the remarkably stable civic social and political arrangements prevailing internally across its 900 or so years of independence and more than occasional dominance.

For better and for worse, the old Venetians' view of how their city should operate seems deeply cynical. And yet, from top to bottom, they nevertheless seem not to be depressed or sapped of creative energy.

Instead, it seems everyone was completely, seriously, diligently devoted to making it all appear, in all its creepiness, to work splendidly. And it did (appear to) work for an almost unimaginably long time.

Somehow I do not think that kind of longevity will accrue to our current stab at conducting a civilization.

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