Fiction in the Archives?


Let me begin with an archival text: ‘If all of the subjects of your serenity had persevered with constant faith, as I Girolamo Cavechia your most passionate citizen of Verona has done, I believe that the affairs of this most illustrious domain would have had, and achieved a better outcome.’ (‘Se tutti li subditi de vostra serenita havesseno perseverando ne la constante fede, como ho fatto io hieronimo Cavechia sviseratissimo citadin vostro di Verona, credo che le cosse de questo illustrissimo dominio hariano havuto et consequito meglior exito’).[1] With these immodest words the rather bumptious Cavechia immediately came to life on the page of his appeal to the powerful Venetian Council of Ten in July 1517 which five hundred years later I discovered interleaved with the minutes of the Ten’s deliberazioni held in the city’s Archivio di Stato.

A gripping tale of espionage and escape during the Italian Wars followed. Cavechia stated that he had risked his life and property (‘faculta’) in various encounters in the past few years. He had aided one ‘Lutio Malvezo’ by sending spies to him but on being discovered was threatened with hanging. After escaping imprisonment in Trent by paying 50 ducats Cavechia passed information from Venice to the condottiero Alvise Avogadro, whose disastrous conspiracy against French rule in the Venetian city of Brescia precipitated a bloody sack there in 1512. Cavechia then discovered that all of his goods worth more than 300 ducats had been ‘sachizato’ and that he was still at risk of being hanged. In flight for his life his horse died under him and he was imprisoned and again threatened with hanging for his espionage activities. ‘[D]estiuto et ruinato’, his house burned down and possessions ruined, he now threw himself at the feet of the Ten who almost unanimously decided to grant him 50 ducats for his troubles.

This vivid story, and dozens more contained in supplications from ordinary men and women preserved in the files of the Ten, brings home in the most startling and personal way the human cost of the Italian Wars which devastated Venetian territory during 1509-17. These appeals were fashioned at a time when peace had just returned and scores were being violently settled across the mainland empire,[2] and they offer a valuable insight into the experiences of individuals who are often overlooked in the sweeping narratives of war, but also suggest how they constructed ‘ego-documents’ with an aim to receiving compensation.[3]

Like Cavechia, many supplicants naturally emphasised their service to the state. There was the appeal of Sebastiano Gabino who braved danger during the siege of Padua and was secretly sent out of the city by the proveditore as an ‘explorator’ to spy on the enemy.[4] Then there was the story of Andrea Rosso who served as secretary to the state for eighteen years in Hungary, Poland, France (twice), Spain (twice), England, Burgundy, Naples, and Rome. He also spent three years in Milan with the proveditori generali in campo Andrea Gritti, Paolo Capello, and Andrea Loredan and it was during this period of service that he was assaulted three times by the enemy ‘with his total ruin’. In Brescia he was taken prisoner with Gritti and held in prison in Milan for 5 months and paid a fine of 120 ducats, while his brother served in the defence of Brescia as a soldier.[5]

Rosso’s successful appeal to the Ten mentioned the need to support his sisters, and some of the other supplications come from women and girls widowed and orphaned by the wars, or include portraits of pathetic indignity likely to move the grave Venetian councillors. For example, in her appeal Laura Berardo described how her father learnt of the siege of Padua while in Pisa and returned to defend the city at his own expense by building banks, bastions and other fortifications. He refused to abandon the city and ultimately lost his life and goods during the ‘strage’ and ‘disordini’ of the Venetian recapture and sack of the city, leaving Laura orphaned. For this service to the honour, glory, and utility of Venice the Ten granted her 50 ducats towards a dowry.[6] The widow, son and brother of one Serafino da Bergamo ‘who so many times with great danger and with the noose at his throat’ (‘[q]uale tante et tante volte con tanti pericoli, et con el lacio ala gola’) sweated in service to Venice in France and was killed by a Milanese while captain at Rovigo also expatiated on their poverty. Their appeal speaks pathetically of two sons left in poverty in Bergamo and the widow being ‘many times sacked and left in nothing but a shirt’ (‘piu volte sacchegiata et lassatola in sola camisa’) by the Spanish and Germans.[7] A similar image of a ‘plundered … nude’ wife and six children led away was evoked by Girolamo Malipiero, a patrician serving the state at Cologna. Enemy troops left Verona and assaulted Girolamo ‘cum gran furia’, but he managed to hole up in the castle with his family and his brother before he was betrayed, stripped of his possessions, and imprisoned for forty-four months. Failing to move the Ten with his first supplication a second appeal gave greater details of his debts (including some to the fondaco dei tedeschi), the expenses of provisioning his troops, and described the enemy now assaulting him ‘cum grandissima furia’, before concluding that he and his family would now be forced to beg and in this way lose their ‘nobility’ as patricians. This canny appeal to social shame and solidarity worked and the Ten agreed to help him.[8]

Like the French pardons examined by Natalie Zemon Davis or the tales of contemporaries told by Francesco Vettori the supplications in the Venetian archives should not be dismissed as mere fictions, or even as histories largely concocted by notaries and other officials.[9] Further research into such documents will reveal the governing narrative structures and traditions of such documents. Certainly, some echoes of contemporary reports of war may be heard in them (for example, the ‘gran furia’ of the enemy mentioned by Girolamo Malipiero). In Cavechia’s adventures we may also detect echoes of the ‘books of battles’ pouring of Venetian presses at the beginning of the sixteenth century and the chivalric extravagances of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, which was first published in 1516.[10] As Lauro Martines has pointed out these works, and the experimental poetry, novelle, and other literary productions of these years reflect a literary and cultural crisis on the peninsula after 1494 closely linked to the political and social upheavals of the Italian Wars.[11]

Finally, there is one instance where these worlds may collide. In February 1518 ‘Zuan da Dressano’, or Dr Giovanni Trissino of Vicenza, submitted an appeal to the Ten stating that when the imperial army was encamped at Padua in 1509 he feared that he would be sacked by the barbarians who daily came into Vicenza ‘comettendo molti Insulti’, and menacing death and sack. He therefore thought it advisable to move to Mantua and then Ferrara, and he now wished to return home.[12] The family name was unlikely to find favour in Venice: Giangiorgio Trissino had been banished from Vicenza because of his support for the imperialists and was now on a campaign of ingratiation with the Venetian authorities, which included an oration directed towards the doge. He was also the author of an important work of tragedy and reflections on the Italian language which may be said to be central to the reordering of Italian cultural landscape as the supplications were to the reestablishment of order in the Veneto after the disruptions of war.[13]

I look forward to more such ‘fictions’ in my research as I try to reconstruct the murderous violence of sacks of cities from the point of view of the civilians who endured and survived.

[1] Archivio di Stato, Venice, Consiglio dei Dieci, Deliberazioni, parti miste, filza 39, no. 321 (29 July 1517).

[2] For cases of score settling see, for example, the case of a Brescian man ‘assassinato & morto’ by ‘XXV armati Incogniti’, and two further cases of murder including the death of the ‘ambador [sic]’ of the town of Orzinuovi to Venice. In the latter case Jacomo de Modesto of Orzinuovi and an accomplice stabbed the aptly named Dr Infelice Zanucha, who was returning to Brescia from Venice, nine times and threw his body in a ditch: Archivio di Stato, Venice, Senato terra, Deliberazioni, reg. 19, fols. 106r, 127r (pencil foliation, 3 July, 8 Oct. 1516). Another murder at the hands of twelve men is recorded in Archivio di Stato, Venice, Senato terra, Deliberazioni, reg. 20, fols. 26v-27r (pencil foliation, 14 May 1517).

[3] Mary Fulbrook and Ulinka Rublack, ‘In Relation: The ‘Social Self’ and Ego-Documents’, German History, 28.3 (2010): 263-72.

[4] Archivio di Stato, Venice, Consiglio dei Dieci, Deliberazioni, parti miste, filza 40, no. 211 (14 Jan. 1517 [more Veneto = 1518]).

[5] Archivio di Stato, Venice, Consiglio dei Dieci, Deliberazioni, parti miste, filza 39, no. 130 (28 May 1517).

[6] Archivio di Stato, Venice, Consiglio dei Dieci, Deliberazioni, parti miste, filza 39, no. 320 (13 Oct. 1513 [sic]).

[7] Archivio di Stato, Venice, Consiglio dei Dieci, Deliberazioni, parti miste, filza 40, no. 167 (23 Dec. 1517).

[8] Archivio di Stato, Venice, Consiglio dei Dieci, Deliberazioni, parti miste, filza 39, no. 89 (4 April 1517); ibid., no. 110 (12 May 1517).

[9] Natalie Zemon Davis, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987).

[10] Rosa Salzberg, Ephemeral City: Cheap Print and Urban Culture in Renaissance Venice (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014), 100-01.

[11] Lauro Martines, Strong Words: Writing and Social Strain in the Italian Renaissance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), ch. 11.

[12] Archivio di Stato, Venice, Consiglio dei Dieci, Deliberazioni, parti miste, filza 40, no. 244 (12 Feb. 1517 [more Veneto = 1518]).

[13] Giangiorgio Trissino, La Sophonisba, li Retratti, Epistola, Oracion al serenissimo principe di Vinegia (n.p., n.d. [Toscolano: Paganini, c.1524]).

Author: Stephen Bowd

I am a Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Edinburgh, and a Leverhulme Research Fellow (2016/17).