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The Virginians and the Veneto

ISSUE:  Autumn 1987

Outside of ancient Rome, and of course contemporary England, the founders of the American Republic had more fascination and affinity for the Republic of Venice than any other European experiment in government. They were united on the nature and the effects of power. A common bond that leaders of both Republics shared on this big political issue was a deep skepticism in mankind’s inherently flawed nature, especially when it came to human greed and despotism. Without built-in safeguards, Venetians and Virginians knew that government could only compound the weaknesses of men. For this reason, as Gore Vidal observed, “Each republic made sure that it would never become a monarchy or a democracy.” Even though hereditary rulers were anathema in Williamsburg during the debate on the first constitution of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson was heard to remark “that a choice of the people themselves is not generally distinguished for its wisdom.”

Venice’s success in retaining her independence and internal stability against all manner of threats continued to impress the world long after her decline as an empire right down to the eve of the American Revolution. Venetians themselves believed the fundamental key was in their constitution, where elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy were carefully mixed—a republic successfully tempered by a blend of noble and popular elements. George Ill’s recent effort to dominate Parliament had thrown the English republican mix out of balance, prompting colonial leaders to hark back to what they called “true constitutional principles.” The Venetian Republic was one of the models of a tested experiment.

When Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, and Thomas Jefferson read John Adams’ letter in 1775, not long before the final break with England, expressing his “thoughts on Government applicable to the Present State of the American colonies,” they all agreed that future American governments must be, as Adams called them, “an empire of laws” reinforced by constitutionally dispersed powers, a Venetian invention in fact which Adams had carefully studied. Later, when the Virginia and the Federal constitutions were drafted, the Venetian experience was drawn upon. As a result, governors of Virginia and every other state along with the American president have one thing in common with the Doge of Venice, to faithfully uphold a constitution containing a system of “checks and balances” designed to overcome potential temptations for excessive power. That system whereby the republican magistrate, the Doge, was checked and counterbalanced by a Senate, a Council of Ten, and a Great Council, produced a stable government for more than a millennium without once resorting to dictatorship. During the two hundred years of the American Constitution, the unruly forces of democracy have been harnessed through the adaptation of the Venetian invention of the separation of governmental powers in the guise of a Senate, a House of Representatives, a President, and a Supreme Court. And every American president, including the presidential dynasty of Virginia shared more than once the frustrations of Venetian doges who would have gladly swept away endless constitutional and electoral complications that restricted and divided their power in so many directions. In Jefferson’s first draft of the Virginia State Constitution, he even proposed that the Senate be elected for life while the doge/governor was labeled “Administrator” to be elected annually by the Lower House. After reciting the abuses of George III, Jefferson’s first line in his initial draft declared that; “Legislative, Executive and Judicial Powers shall be forever separate.” It was a key element in the new structure of self-government.

When John Adams wrote his letter to his revolutionary colleagues in Virginia on the future organization of state governments, he knew that they were as well versed in the historic sources of the virtuous republican tradition as he was. Since the founding of their colony, the Virginia gentry, like their Italian predecessors in the Republican city-states of Florence and Venice, had looked to the classics as their guide both to the art of living and the ordering of their public affairs. These common intellectual roots of Greece and Rome of course explain the many parallels of shared values in both public and private conduct, displayed by the men of the Golden Age of Venice in the 14th and 15th centuries and the Golden Age of Virginia in the 18th century before the Revolution. When an English visitor noted the “inscrutable, dignified reserve of Venetian noblemen and the absence from among them of personal ostentation,” the same qualities of character were later discerned and commented on by foreigners when they met George Washington and other Virginia grandees. Since both Venetians and Virginians perceived their origins on a kind of frontier, one battling against the forces of nature on the lagoon, the other in the malarial swamps of Jamestown, it was easy for them to identify with the sturdy manners and earned confidence attributed to the founders of the early Roman Republic. The books of Cicero, Varro, Horace, and Pliny the Younger—books that appeared on the better book shelves in the Veneto and in Virginia— were filled with the ideals of civic virtue that appealed to both societies.


Those personal qualities we see in the well-rounded life and works of Daniele Barbaro, humanist, mathematician, historian, and botanist, who founded the first botanical garden in Padua, and patron of Andrea Palladio, and those of William Byrd II of We stover are striking. Byrd, too, studied the classics, read five languages, wrote history, carried out scientific explorations on the Virginia frontier, served in government, and was a keen plantsman at his Westover estate. Both men shared a deep love of books, and when Byrd died in 1744, he left more than 3600 volumes. Both men were familiar with all that a great city had to offer as in Venice and in London, and both had deep roots in country life and in farming. Each built distinguished country houses just as their Roman counterparts—Pliny, Cicero, and Horace—-had done two thousand years earlier, Barbaro at the Villa Maser and Byrd at Westover.

When one reads the letters, journals, and memoirs of a Virginia squire presiding over his bustling plantation along the Potomac, James, or Rappahannock Rivers, not unlike the rivers and waterways of the Veneto, it takes little imagination to easily transport him in time and space without his hardly noticing the difference, particularly if he is deep in philosophical conversation in his library with one of his learned neighbors over the translation of a Latin text. Or he might be preoccupied in the supervision of the storing of the season’s harvest in his barns not far from the house, hardly realizing that the barn he had been moved to was not in Gloucester County but had actually been built by Scamozzi just below the lawn of the Villa Rotunda outside of Vicenza.

A few years ago an exhibition devoted to the architecture of Andrea Palladio was mounted in London and called “The Portico and the Farmyard,” a title that in many ways captures the nuance of those common values linking in a curious, inexplicable way, the two worlds of Virginia and the Veneto patriciate that are otherwise so obviously and profoundly separated by history, geography, and religious traditions.

The aristocracies of the provinces of the Veneto and of Virginia, like their classic models, were founded on the ownership and cultivation of land. And it was farming to a large extent that produced the wealth enabling Palladio’s patrons to build their great villa complexes. Later in Virginia, Palladian architectural ideas via the English architectural books of James Gibbs, Colin Campbell, and the translations of Palladio’s own writings were adapted by the Virginia gentry once they had accumulated enough wealth to build a plantation house. Those first borrowed elements were Palladian windows and connecting dependencies as at Mt. Airy. Quoin corners and double porticoes in a modified Palladian order appeared early at Shirley plantation. Inside, rooms and doors might be fitted out with a few other details copied from a carpenter’s handbook based on the Palladian original.

Venetian governors in their official reports of the 16th century constantly speak of the wealth of the Vicenza, Padua, and Verona—their production of grain, cattle, wine, and fruit—much as royal governors in 18th-century Virginia described in letters to London the growing wealth produced by the large land holdings of the Carters, Lees, Randolphs, Nelsons, Pages, Harrisons, and Byrds. If, by some bizarre twist of history, the founders of these families had in fact found themselves the first settlers in the marshes of the lagoon of Venice instead of the marshes of the James and York Rivers, their names no doubt would have been the first to be entered in the Golden Book of Venice. It took them far less time in fact to establish their position as a ruling aristocracy in the wilderness of the Virginia colony than it had taken their Venetian counterparts.

Of course, the Virginians had first of all the ancient patterns of the English gentry to model themselves on and which they did as quickly as the more energetic, cunning, and foresighted had wrested enough property together, often at the expense of their neighbors, clearly to establish themselves above the herd. The speed with which the wealth of these families was accumulated and the consolidation of their power both private and public, was breathtaking and would have certainly impressed even the representatives of the most ancient Venetian and provincial families of the 13th and 14th centuries. And one thing that would have united both Venetians and Virginians, if either cared to admit it, was that their families’ histories were not above reproach, even though the Italian aristocrat would have had much longer time to concoct his familial mythology and with much grander visual icons in the form of portraits by Titian, Belini, or Veronese, to decorate the great halls of his ancestral houses.

“One of the curious features of our mentality since the Renaissance,” Allen Tate once reminded an audience in Mr. Jefferson’s Charlottesville, was the discovery of the gift of “the historical imagination.” By this Tate meant that with the revival of the studies of the classics—Latin and Greek—men in Venice, Florence, and later along the Thames and even in the wilds of the new world, began to pose as Romans of the Republic. Palladio’s architecture based on the ancients made the perfect setting for these noble ideals. “There is evidence,” Tate observed, “that our Revolutionary fathers were the noblest Romans of them all . . .that the men of the early American republic had a profound instinct for high style, a genius for dramatizing themselves.” Like many of their counterparts of the Italian Renaissance, and particularly in the Veneto, they lived in a social and economic system of landed freeholders symbolized by “the portico and the farmyard,” an agrarian society that, as Tate put it, “permitted them to develop a human character that functioned in every level of life.”

Nowhere is the agrarian civility reflected more clearly than in some of the country villas of the Veneto arid in the Virginia manor houses of Shirley, Carter’s Grove, Mount Airy, and Westover. After 1404, when the Venetian Republic took control of that large area stretching to Verona and called the “Terra ferma,” public order and prosperity followed with a building boom that continued for more than two centuries. Both Venetian merchant-patricians and the provincial nobility seized the opportunity to invest in large agricultural operations. The villas-—really small cities serving as an administrative center according to Palladio’s description and design—combined business with pleasure, enabling the owners and their families who lived there in the summer to escape the heat of the city and to supervise the gathering of harvest and the vintage. To the extent that the Virginia plantations in the 18th century were permanent family residences and not temporary rural retreats, they differed mainly in their requirements for year-round accommodations. But those differences were only a matter of degree—more bedrooms, more fireplaces, more winter storage.

In other respects, and especially if the owner had any inclination toward learning and the classics as many did, the daily routines of Virginian planters were surprisingly similar to their earlier Venetian counterparts. When William Byrd II wrote the Earl of Orrery in July of 1726, describing himself in Old Testament terms, “as one of the patriarchs” with “my flocks and my herds, my bondesmen and bond-women . . .(where) we sit securely under our vines and our fig trees without any danger to our property,” he would have been completely at home with Cardinal Bembo who wrote in 1501 from his villa near Padua:

I hear nothing but the voice of the nightingales warbling from every branch in joyous rivalry. I read, I write; when I choose I walk or ride. I spend much time in the grove at the end of a pleasant and fruitful garden, where I gather vegetables for the first course of our evening meal, and sometimes pick a basket of strawberries which are not only delicious to the taste but perfume the whole breakfast table with their fragrance. . . The garden and the house and the whole place are full of roses.

or, again in Byrd’s words since country idylls beginning with Horace are quite interchangeable,

Our comforts like those of the good are mostly domestic, observing . . .the flowers of our own planting improve.

Byrd’s other domestic pleasures included reading and writing in his library at Westover. A number of the books on his shelves had been printed in Venice. In addition to religion, philosophy, and veterinary science, there were many titles of history, of gardening, and of architecture, including two copies of Palladio’s Quatro Libri, three volumes of Vitruvius, whose Latin treatise on Roman architecture had once been translated by Daniele Barbaro, a copy of Alberti’s Architectures, and the works of the Vincentine architect Vincenzo Scamozi, Palladio’s successor.

Byrd, like many of his educated colonial contemporaries, judging by other library inventories and references in correspondence, also knew something about the history of the Venetian Republic. Earlier in the 17th century, it had been a subject of particular interest to Englishmen of the Commonwealth period when historical works such as James Harrington’s account of a Utopian republic based on the myth of Venice, were widely read and discussed. Byrd, of course, had a copy of Harrington’s popular Oceana as it was called, and after Byrd’s death, a young lawyer from Albemarle County bought it along with one of the Palladio volumes for his own library at Monticello.

Harrington as a student had spent time in Venice, and his classic study which was greatly admired in the American colonies on the eve of the Revolution advocated several principles of government that would have an impact on the thinking of a number of the Founding Fathers. These included:

  • a constitution—John Adams’ “Empire of Laws”

  • the unlimited extension of the elective principle

  • the distribution of the functions of government in a system of checks and balances

  • an independent, property-owning citizenry who gave precedence to public service.

  • In addition to Harrington’s work, there were other histories of Venice at Westover and especially the account of the Council of Trent describing the battle between the Venetian oligarchy and Pope Pius V written by the Venetian priest Pavlo Sarpi. The issue over the power of the civil government of the Republic to run its affairs without the authoritarian interference from the Pope in Rome struck home to Americans set on establishing their system of government without interference from the crown in London.

    The great accomplishment that impressed all students in England and later in the American colonies was the apparent stability of the Venetian Republic in the face of overwhelming outside threats, while at the same time maintaining the liberty of its citizens through its constitution. To our eyes, the myth of Venice does not bear too close scrutiny. From our vantage point it frankly seems to be a rather repressive rule by a hereditary aristocracy with few visible republican and almost no democratic virtues. But for Virginia gratin of the 18th century, there were many elements of the Republic and not just its country house architecture that they could identify with and understand.


    In both Venice and Virginia, there was from the beginning a firm attachment to government of the rich, the well-born, and the able. Training began early for both the sons of the patrician families of the Veneto and the sons of the Virginia Tidewater, who were expected to follow their fathers into public service. And just as the sons of the Veneto aristocrats were college bred at the universities of Padua or of Venice, so almost without exception the Virginia leaders of the American Revolutionary period were college men either of William and Mary or Princeton or in a few cases Oxford and Cambridge.

    For Virginians, perhaps their first practical training in administration was in the management of large plantations where the broad acres and classically inspired architecture set the proper stage for independent and dignified living as similar props had served Palladio’s patrons. Management in both places consisted in maintaining buildings, of allocating fields to several crops, planting and harvesting, providing food for a large establishment, and for securing a steady return on the production that was sold.

    It is in this common background that we again see both the portico and the farmyard elements that I mentioned earlier. For the Virginian and Venetian squires knew the sensation of walking across fields newly turned, the smell of the barnyard, the summer heat during harvest, the sting of cold wind in open ground and especially in unlighted drafty hallways, the holiday atmosphere in the drawing room when friends came to stay. Aside from the practical and theoretical training of the Virginia and Venetian patrician, there was also a shared recognition that birth into a ruling family was an essential element in the making of a political career. In Venice it was by decree; in Virginia it was by common consent.

    Just as we encounter many of the same family names throughout the long history of the Venetian Republic, closely held family ranks dominated the government machinery of Colonial Virginia. To cite one statistic, of the 91 men who were appointed to the Governor’s Council in Virginia between 1680 and the Revolution, only 67 family names appear. Of these, nine family names account for almost a third of the Council while 14 other names accounted for another third. These statistics do not reveal that among those ruling clans almost all were related by blood or by marriage or both. To a Grimani, a Dandolo, or a Marcello, such family prerogatives to govern were God-given, or at least approved by the Almighty.

    Of course, by the time that the Lees built Stratford, and Washington remodeled Mt. Vernon, Venice, beyond the exaggerated myth of its Republic, was no longer relevant. For Europeans on the Grand Tour in the 18th century and those few Americans who traveled abroad, it had become a symbol of tawdry pleasures where its carnival, which once had run for the traditional three weeks before Lent, was now extended to six months. As a city, it was no longer a proper model for Republican virtue to serve governments in Virginia, in Boston, in Philadelphia or any place else. Its fame lived on only in histories recounting its former glory. The opening paragraphs of The General Histories of the Magnificent State of Venice, published in 1612, describing the beginning of Venice sound very much like the opening lines of some of the early histories of Virginia:

    First founders thereof were very honest people, noble and rich . . .their care of justice and right was so maintained amongst them, as in so great a multitude of people no strife could be perceived.

    Few Virginians actually included Venice on their European itinerary in the 18th century. Jefferson, who so admired Palladio’s work, never bothered to go there or to Vicenza during his visit to Italy. He probably felt he didn’t need to since he knew the master’s works in detail from the published volumes. Oddly enough, Jefferson’s only extended encounter with a remnant of the old Venetian aristocracy occurred in July 1788, when as the American minister in Paris, he was asked to negotiate the inscribing of the name of an aristocratic Virginia lady in the sacred pages of the Golden Book of Venetian nobility. For so ardent a democrat, it is an act of noblessse that does not fit our popular, democratic image of the sage of Monticello.

    The subject of the minister’s gallant efforts was a young lady called Lucy Paradise, the daughter of Lucy Ludwell Paradise, an old Virginia friend of Jefferson who had lived almost all of her life in Europe. The mother came from a proud family of Virginia landowners who were connected with the Lees of Stratford, the Grymes, and other members of the “Virginia Golden Book,” if there had been such a thing. When her daughter Lucy, at age 16, decided to elope with a certain Venetian Count Antonio Barziza, against her father’s wishes, but with her mother’s consent and encouragement, London society, where the Paradises lived and moved in the highest circles, was titillated by the scandal. Lucy, who was as willful and erratic as her mother, tried to force her father’s consent by confessing that she had already “lost her virtue.” Whether it was the truth or stratagem, the father was determined to halt the affair until he could at least establish the count’s integrity and make sure he was not trying to get hold of Lucy’s Virginia fortune, which included large plantation holdings and a handsome house in Williamsburg which still stands on the Duke of Gloucester street.

    For Mrs. Paradise and for her distinguished cousin, the American diplomat Arthur Lee, the idea of establishing a connection with a Venetian noble family was most appealing. To these Virginia aristocrats it was a marriage worthy of their own high family self-esteem.

    The truth was that Count Barziza was most assuredly a member of an ancient and noble Venetian family who belonged to the hereditary oligarchy which had played a prominent role for centuries in the running of the Republic. But while the count still possessed the family palazzo in Venice and a country estate near Alzano in the Venetian province of Bergano, there was little or no money to support these establishments. His intention as far as Miss Paradise was concerned was ambiguous, to say the least. Still, for the ambitious mother and her headstrong daughter, this was a small matter in exchange for the distinction of being styled the Countess Barziza.

    It is at this stage that Mrs. Paradise asked her often put-upon friend, Thomas Jefferson, to draft a communication that would convince Venetian authorities that the new bride with her own impeccable Virginia lineage was worthy of the title. Jefferson, displaying his usual, well-bred courtesy, especially where titled foreigners were concerned, first determined how to address the accompanying letter he planned to send to the bride now that she was in fact the foreign wife of an Italian count, cautiously settling on “madame” pending the outcome of his official brief he enclosed.

    Jefferson’s petition is worth reading in full for its recital of family distinctions and pedigree expressed in terms understandable and above all acceptable to a Venetian aristocrat yet composed by the foremost architect of American democratic, equalitarian institutions. It declared:

    We, Thomas Jefferson, minister plenipotentiary for the United States, of America at the court of Versailles, certify to all whom it may concern:

    That we are personally and well acquainted with the family of Mrs. Lucy Paradise, wife of John Paradise, esquire, with their connections and condition:

    That the said Lucy was born in the state of Virginia, in the lawful wedlock of her parents, of a Christian family and educated in the Christian religion:

    That her father, the honourable Philip Ludwell, esquire, was a native of the same state of Virginia, was a member of the Royal Executive council, of the General court, the supreme judicature of the state and a Visitor of the College of Williamsburg of public foundation:

    That her grandfather, the honourable Philip Ludwell esquire, was President of the said state, that is to say, the vice regent & representative of the king during the absence of the governor, & in cases of inter-regnum:

    That her great grandfather, the honourable Philip Ludwell esquire, was Governor of the neighboring state of Carolina, that is to say, the immediate Vice-regent & Representative of the King in ordinary and extraordinary:

    That her mother was of the family of Grymes; her uncle on her mother’s side, the honourable Philip Grymes esquire, was Receiver general of the King, a member of the Royal executive council, and of the General court, the supreme judicature of the state:

    That her grandfather on the same side, the honourable Philip Grymes esquire, was Secretary of the state, a member of the Royal executive council, and of the General court, the supreme judicature thereof:

    And that her ancestors in general, both on the side of the father & mother, have been of the most distinguished in that country from its first settlement, for their wealth, and the honours & offices they have filled:

    That in that country no distinction of ranks has ever been admitted at all, much less to be made hereditary:

    And all this we certify of our own knowledge, so far as the facts are of our own times, and so far as they are of earlier times we have learnt them from the public records & history of the state, & from the constant uncontradicted reputation of that country, of which we are native born.

    With respect to the said John Paradise esquire, heretofore resident in the kingdom of Great Britain, lately removed to Virginia and become of our personal acquaintance, we can certify his personal worth only, which is great, and his condition, which is that of a gentleman, & citizen of that character, capable of all the offices & honours of that country, and received a Visitor of the same College of Williamsburg of which his father-in-law, Philip Ludwell before named, was a Visitor; his family is unknown to us but by reputation.

    Given under our hand and seal at Paris, in the kingdom of France, this 6th day of July, in the year of our Lord, 1788.

    Th: Jefferson.

    Apparently the keepers of the Golden Book and whatever was left of the Venetian myth found the recital of the Virginian myth as summarized by the American diplomat convincing or at least acceptable under the circumstances, for the former Lucy Paradise was finally recognized as Countess Barziza.

    The long afterglow of the Venetian Golden Age extended in the decline over at least two centuries. When Napoleon’s troops brought the final curtain down, it was a third-rate city now almost entirely given over to revelry for the benefit of the growing tourist trade. Visitors came in shocked anticipation to savour the forbidden pleasures now so widely publicized in Casanova’s memoirs and in less reputable novels and reports.

    The twilight of the brilliant little society that Thomas Jefferson had been born into in 1743 as a member of the gentry that had ruled the colony of Virginia from its founding had also all but faded away at almost the same time. Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson’s grandson who inherited the former president’s debts and the responsibilities of a large, demoralized family when the patriot died in 1826, aspired to a career in public service in the noble tradition of his family that stretched back to the beginning of the Colony. But family and financial burdens were too great, and a public career was now a luxury in self-indulgence he could not afford.

    “Yet when sons of the gentry,” as a recent historian observed, “for whom civic affairs had been a way of life withdrew from politics to serve their families first. . .a tradition was broken, a way of life itself profoundly changed.” To the hereditary citizens of the Venetian Republic in the last decades of the century of the Enlightenment, the forces of change appeared far more ominous and complex than even to young Randolph, entangled as their fortune was with international conflicts and dynastic ambitions beyond their control, comprehension, or mitigation.

    Still; there were probably a few descendants of the Victors of Lepanto, the Conquerors of Constantinople, and the former rulers of a world empire, resting in the warm sun of the Campo St. Barnaba or idling over coffee in Florians who still dreamed they might somehow reverse history and once again take up the ancient family responsibilities, especially if there was a rich Virginia heiress anxious to pledge her honor for a title and incidentally to pay the bills.


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    A Visitor · 8 years ago

    Great article. Helps put to rest the false Whig idea common among unlettered Americans today that a Republic must be democratic. The great Republic of Rome and the Republic of Venice were, of course, led by aristocrats, just as the great Republic of the United States was founded led by aristocrats. Democracy was considered an obstacle to be avoided. My, how times have changed.   


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