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Information and Communication in Venice: Rethinking Early Modern Politics (review)
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There is no surer sign that a new study in the social sciences and humanities is promoting a particular revisionist slant than the inclusion of "reconsidered" or "rethinking" in its title. The stimulating conference on Venice, 1297–1797, held at Syracuse University a decade ago gave us Venice Reconsidered (2002), and a series of memorable sessions on the achievements of Paul Oskar Kristeller held at the RSA a few years later produced Kristeller Reconsidered (2006). But "rethinking" has enjoyed an even greater vogue of late. Published in 2007, the reformminded Rethinking Imprisonment, the seemingly universal Rethinking Global Sisterhood, and the upbeat but nuanced Rethinking Jewish-Christian Relations in the Middle Ages, use "rethinking" as a robust marketing tool to suggest that readers will find some new outlook or hypothesis to replace outmoded approaches and conventional interpretations.

This is certainly the case with Filippo de Vivo's brilliant first book investigating the political uses of different forms of communication —oral, manuscript, and printed —in sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Venice. The study has a distinguished intellectual genealogy: it originated as a Cambridge PhD thesis written under the direction of Peter Burke, whose interest in early modern Venetian thought goes back to his pioneering translations of Paolo Sarpi's histories of benefices and the Council of Trent. It is also informed by Burke's well-known studies of communication, elites, and culture in early modern Europe, but its methodologies are based in the seminar on power and the book taught by Christian Jouhaud at Paris. A late draft of the work benefited from a helpful critical reading by that most distinguished and innovative practitioner of early modern cultural history, Carlo Ginzburg.

In essence, the book is a highly original treatment of the response of Venice's political elite, largely informed by the writings and counsel of Paolo Sarpi, to the famous Interdict of 1606–07 and its aftermath, against the backdrop of both the restraint and promotion of information and communication in the government, political life, and physical city of Venice. As such, it invites comparison with William J. Bouwsma's Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty (1968), now four decades old, which de Vivo takes as a foil to his own innovative interpretations. Notorious at the time of publication for its neglect of archival and manuscript sources, Bouwsma's work was a self-conscious heir to Hans Baron's insistent thesis on the birth of modern republicanism in the political thought and, to a lesser extent, governance of Florence and Venice. It is precisely in its rich array of sources —council debates, inquisition records, and judicial proceedings, as well as manuscript and printed pamphlets —that de Vivo' s study supersedes previous scholarship in placing Venice' s response to the Interdict within the broadest possible context. Especially innovative are the chapters, "The City," on the transmission of information in Venice, and "Communicative Transactions," which compares different forms of communication, from official publications to the political gossip in barbershops and pharmacies and the posting of anonymous pasquinades.

But more traditional historiographical fields, such as administrative history, are not handled with the same authority and insight. De Vivo' s descriptions of the offices and procedures of the doge, Collegio, Senate, and Maggior Consiglio depend on only a few works, notably Giuseppe Maranini' s idealized portrait of the Venetian constitution (1927–31) and Robert Finley's Politics in Renaissance Venice (1980), which is restricted to the early sixteenth century. Inevitably, mistakes and oversights have crept in. A single sentence can contain multiple errors (37): the Collegio "included the Signoria (the doge and his six councilors, all elected in the Great Council), and a Consulta of 16 savi ("wise men," senators elected by the Senate), who divided into subgroups (known as mani) to oversee all sorts of affairs which the Collegio then brought to the Senate for approval." But the Signoria also included the three heads of the Quarantia as well as the doge and ducal council. The doge was not elected in the Maggior Consiglio, but by a committee of forty-one nobles created by a complicated system of nine different nominating committees. Mano can be called a "subgroup," but it usually denotes the...