In our modern Western society, a disturbing trend has become incredibly prominent in the media, education, and common discourse: the complete decontextualization of historic and current events so as to present the West as uniquely evil or especially horrible. One often sees this coming from people – usually on the political left – who use it as a cudgel to demean modern Western societies as part of a project of radical change to those very societies. This seems to be more present in the Anglosphere than in other developed societies. Much of the radical activism we’ve seen over the past year or two has emanated from the United States, Britain, Canada, and Australia, where statues have been toppled, history decried as uniquely genocidal, and modern societies seen as evil and immoral simply for existing in previously-colonized lands. Don’t get me wrong, all nations have blemishes and blights on their histories and each and every country has injustices in the modern day; still, these cannot be understood in a vacuum or without context.
The Republic of Venice – also known as the Republic of St. Mark or La Serenissima – was a medieval city-state centered around the Adriatic city of the same name and governed by a merchant oligarchy. That governing group of elites met in the Grand Council chamber, or Sala del Maggior Consiglio, of the Palace of the Doges to make critical decisions on war, peace, and commerce. The walls of the room are bedecked with beautiful paintings by Renaissance masters like Tintoretto and Vicentino, depicting famous scenes of glory from the history of the Republic, including the 1177 Peace of Venice. A large portion of the chamber, however, is taken up by a series of works related to the infamous Fourth Crusade. That fateful conflict has historically been seen as an utter disaster for Christendom, both at the time of its occurrence and centuries later; observers and commentators from Pope Innocent III – who declared the crusade initially – to Voltaire lambasted the crusaders, especially the Venetians. Given this widespread condemnation, why would the Venetians, who had the opportunity to renovate the Grand Council chamber after a devastating fire in 1577, choose to celebrate their participation in the Fourth Crusade? Are the tales “of the Venetians who had no religion but profit and the state, and of the devious Dandolo who spun a web to entrap the naïve northerners to achieve his ends” true? Could the Venetians not be the greedy, rapacious villains of this story?