Workgroup 2: General narratives
Contribution of the University of Basel
Lucas Burkart / Marco Vencato
1. Subject / Event: The crisis of Agnadello (1509)
In the mid fifteenth century Venice approached the zenith of its power und reputation. The Serenissima Repubblica had consolidated its conquests on the mainland of Italy, thereby adding a second empire to its overseas dominions in Dalmatia, Greece and the eastern Mediterranean.
In 1508 Venice’s territorial expansion on the Terraferma provoked a military alliance against her by virtually every major power of Southern Europe - an improbable consensus among rulers who seldom agreed on anything.
The bargain was sealed in a December convocation in the French city of Cambrai; by the following spring Spain, France, the Holy Roman Empire, the Papal States, Hungary, Savoy, Mantua and Ferrara had all agreed to send their armies into the field against the mercenary forces of Venice in a decisive campaign.Following the formation of the League of Cambrai in December 1508, events moved swiftly. The first incursion into Venetian territory came from the French in the area east of Milan. Venetian hopes rested in her mercenary army led by two experienced mercenary generals: Nicolo Count of Pitigliano and his younger cousin Bartolomeo d'Alviano.
On May 14, 1509, Alviano's force encountered
and was set upon by French forces at Agnadello, southwest of Bergamo.
Alviano's troops held a strong position and successfully repulsed attacks
first by cavalry and then by pikemen. Alviano called upon Pitigliano,
whose army was only a few miles away, to bring his forces up in support,
but Pitigliano - a more cautious commander - apparently decided it was
better to preserve his troops and he made no response. Perhaps a different
reaction from Pitigliano would have changed the course of events.
Due to the unprecedented
disaster of Agnadello Venice lost within a month almost all the mainland
empire it had acquired since the early Quattrocento. What made this war
different for Venice, however, was not merely the scale of the defeat
but the length and intensity of the conflict that followed, lasting eight
years and placing enormous strains on Venetian resources and, eventually,
on the Republic’s political system itself.
17 May 1509
whole city was in a state of gloom, and there was much railing against
fortune for allowing such a fine army to be wretchedly beaten. They blamed
the greed of Alviano, and they wanted him here to give some satisfaction
to the people, and they blamed even more the Capitanio, who is worthless,
and the condottieri and our own troops, who are worth zero; everyone
concludes that we have lost this most excellent state. And they greatly
blamed the members of the Collegio, who will be noted down remembered
for ever: we are done for, and they did not know what to do, nor have
they taken any measures at all. (...)
I diarii di Marino
Sanudo, ed. R. Fulin et al., 58 vols, Venice 1879-1903; here: viii,
cols 265-6; tranlated by Chambers; Pullan (1992), p. 75.
Venetian public finance, especially in wartime, depended on raising large sums through forced loans rather than outright taxation. A sizable porportion of the state’s income was assigned to servicing the public debt, which was secured upon certain earmarked taxes. In 1262 outstanding loans to the state had been consolidated into the loan fund which became known as the Monte Vecchio, paying interest at 5 per cent of the face value of the holdings. At the time of the War of Ferrara (1482-1483) the second public loan fund - the Monte Nuovo - was created. By 1509 it had expanded far beyond its original limit of 550'000 ducats, and as much as 3 million were now invested in it. Taken from Girolamo Priuli’s lively account of the crisis of Agnadello, the following text shows how holdings in the Monti had become for many Venetians a supposedly safe and trouble-free security preferable to landed estates. Himself smarting from the experience, Priuli tells how the value of state could plummet when war broke out and the state lost its capacity to pay interest.
«By the collapse
of the Venetian state, [holdings] in the loan funds of the Monte Vecchio
and Monte Nuovo were depressed to a very low level, and there
were no buyers and no money [for the bonds], for in the face of these
catastrophes all were thinking of their own interests and wanting to preserve
their money, so that in case of disaster they could save themselves and
escape from all danger, holding on to the money, for otherwise they would
be ruined and undone. This loan fund of the Monte Nuovo used
to enjoy the highest reputation in the city of Venice, because the holdings
were valued at 102½ per cent before the present war, and I, the
present writer, bought myself some 4000 ducats‘ worth, as can be
seen from our account books. (...) To tell the truth, as I am bound to
do, no one would ever have imagined that the Venetian mainland state could
be lost and destroyed within fifteen days, as we have now seen. The holdings
of the Monte Nuovo were now worth 40 per cent at most, and I
myself, as stated above, had spent that great sum of money on buying them
at 102½ per cent, and have received but one interest payment, so
you can imagine how terrible is my loss. (...)
I Diarii, ed. A. Segre 1912 (I) and R. Cessi 1913 (II), 1938
(IV), RIS XXIV.3, Città di Castello (I) and Bologna (II, IV), here:
IV, p. 15-17; translated by Chambers; Pullan (1992), p. 160-162.
4. Representation: Jacopo Palma’s «Allegory of the War of the League of Cambrai» (around 1582)The war of the League of Cambrai appeared to many Venetians as a confirmation of degeneracy, a just punishment for deviation from original virtue. Providential conceptions, however, pointed the way out of the crisis, for it could not be assumed that God would chastise without hope of redemption. The war of the League of Cambrai was therefore seen as purge. The very magnitude of the defeat in 1509 became part of the argument for the Republic’s essential perfection and God’s guiding hand in its destiny. Agnadello seemed to offer Venice a second chance at virtue, an opportunity to recapture the purity of its origins. In this sense Jacopo Palma il Giovane’s painting entitled «The Allegory of the War of the League of Cambrai», which hangs on the wall of the Senate chamber in the Ducal Palace, is not a representation of «Europa»‘s victory over «Venetia», but a vigorous vision of the coming triumph of the Serenissima Repubblica accompanied by «Abundatia» and «Pax» (on the left side of the painting).
After the War of the League of Cambrai there was a tremendous demand for offices, partly because the conflict itself eliminated or diminished alternative sources of income. At same time Venice was in great need of money in order to keep on financing the war. In this atmosphere of crisis, the government was driven to the desperate and humiliating expedient of raising money by auctioning its own offices for low-interest loans. The state became an object of commerce. Such a measure was fundamentally repugnant to Venetian political values, which regarded government office as a sacred and selfless responsibility, distant from family loyalties, personal ambition, and financial gain. Loans for office threw the Great Council into disarray. Age, reputation, and service to the state meant nothing in the elections. Only those who gave loans obtained office. In the following text the Venetian diarist Marcantonio Michiel describes the scene of bedlam in the chamber of the Great Council on the 24th August 1515, the very day on which the sum of 47'000 ducats was dispatched to Bartolomeo d'Alviano before the decisive battle of Marignano.
Diarii, MCC. MS. Cod. Cicogna, 2848, fol. 189r. (translated by
Finlay (1980), p. 179)
6. Short bibliography
Chambers, David; Pullan, Brian (ed.), Venice: a documentary history, 1450-1630, Oxford / Cambrigde 1992.
Priuli, Girolamo, I Diarii, ed. A. Segre 1912 (I) and R. Cessi 1913 (II), 1938 (IV), RIS XXIV.3, Città di Castello (I) and Bologna (II, IV).
Finlay, Robert, Politics in Renaissance Venice, London 1980.
I diarii di Marino Sanudo, ed. R. Fulin et al., 58 vols, Venice 1879-1903.
1. Subject / Figure: Enrico
Enrico Scrovegni was one of Padua's best known and wealthiest citizens. He took over his father's lucrative business and had amassed a fortune by lending money at high rates, a practice that the church and fellow citizens saw as sinful. The family was not on the best of terms with the church. During the siege of 1320, Enrico deserted Padua and fled to Venice where he lived until he died in 1336. His body was brought back to Padua and placed in his tomb in the chapel. Enrico had built the chapel thinking it would guarantee him a place in heaven.
In his Divine Comedy Dante Alighieri banishes Reginaldo, Enrico's father, to the seventh circle of hell. This part of hell is reserved for sinful usurers who were considered the violents against nature and art. The «azure sow» (l. 65) is the device of the Scrovegni family («scrofa», in fact, means sow‘). The speaker of the ll. 66-73 is Reginaldo Scrovegni.
43. So off I went unto utmost east
46. Stark misery was pouring from their eyes;
49. dogs, throughout a roasting summer’s day,
52. When I’d examined several where they sat
55. from the neck of each there hung a bag,
58. And as I walked inspecting down the line,
61. Then, my look continuing its course,
64. And one who had a little argent wallet
67. Be off! but wait, as you’re alive, I vow
70. Among these Florentines am I, a Paduan;
73. with there goats on his money-bag appears!»‘
76. my social visit might seem over-long
The Arena Chapel was built between 1303 - 1305 by Enrico Scrovegni in memory of his father Reginaldo, a well-known money-lender. Giotto was commissioned to decorate the interior with frescoes. The cycle follows three main themes: episodes from the life of Joachim and Ann, episodes from the life of Mary and episodes from the life and passion of Jesus. The lower part of the chapel is decorated by a series of paintings, which represent the allegories of the Vices and the Virtues.
The frescoes in the Arena Chapel in Padua are among the most celebrated works in the history of art. Giotto's work was a source of inspiration and instruction for generations of painters; it was studied and absorbed by Masaccio, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael, artists whose own work was to be of such fundamental importance for the history of European art.
Documents on the Arena
Chapel are few in numbers. Nevertheless we can outline the main phases
of its building history.
Giotto painted fourteen personifications of the Virtues and Vices in marble under the frescoes on the side walls. The Virtues are on the right wall which is on the side of heaven. The Vices are on the left wall which is on the side of hell. The message is clear: Virtue leads to heaven and Vice to hell.The central couple is represented by «Caritas» and «Indivia». The allegory of virtue appears as a good-looking young woman who is standing on several money bags offering to a haleod figure one of the fruits she’s carrying in the skin. In contrast to charity the allegory of vice is depicted as an ugly old woman grasping a bag of money in her left hand and making a grab at an another one with her right hand. Out of her mouth a serpent is winding itself to her eyes. This comparison plays a specific role within the semantic system of representation referring to the commissioner of the chapel: With the donation of the Arena Chapel Enrico Scrovegni intended to put the emphasis on his generosity. Thus the Scrovegni family shouldn’t be associated anymore to the sin of envy as the usurers traditionally were since the patristic periode, but integrated in the discourse of «Caritas».
Scrovegni was seen as a trickster, a hypocrite, and also as suffering
from the sin of pride. He committed this "sin of pride" by having
his portrait included in one of the frescoes. The following is a detail
of the Last Judgement. It shows Enrico presenting the Virgin, who is flanked
by two attendants with a model of the chapel. A cleric is supporting the
model on his shoulders.
In his will Reginaldo Scrovegni forbade his son Enrico to make any donations to the church. However, Enrico didn’t follow the advice of his agnostic father. In his eyes, the sin of usury that was heavily weighing on the whole Scrovegni family should be confessed. In an act of «Caritas» he intended to do penance for the his sinful ancestors and himself. In the early Middle Ages, though, is was practically impossible to reach indulgence for usury. Enrico finally invented a new and spectacular way to find forgiveness: In spite of his father’s legacy he donated the Arena Chapel.
Dante Alighieri, The Inferno, a new translation by Ciaran Carson, London / New York 2002.
Imdal, M., Giottos Arenafresken: Ikonographie, Ikonologie, Ikonik, Munich 1983.
Riess, J., Justice and Common Good in Giotto’s Arena Chapel Frescoes, in: “Arte Cristiana”, 701 (1984), p. 69-80.
Spazzi, Anna Maria, La Cappella degli Scrovegni a Padova, Milan 1993.