11 August, 2006

78. Ca' Dario: Part 2

Venice was an oligarchy. One with many checks and balances which worked well for a very long time, but an oligarchy none the less.

The foundation of the system was the Great Council, the Maggior Consiglio, which was made up of between 1500 and 2000 members of Venice's aristocratic families. Officially, no-one else in Venice had any political voice, and if you were not born into one of the designated aristocratic families your chance of ever participating in any of the many levels of government was absolutely zero.

Giovanni Dario, who built this palazzo for himself, was not an aristocrat. He was a 'cittadino', a citizen, and therefore of the second rank and forever limited in Venetian society, a fact which in the light of his accomplishments, seriously pissed him off.

He was rich, he was a successful merchant, he was a respected diplomat who served Venice well – he had even successfully negotiated a peace treaty in 1479 between Venice and Sultan Mehmet II, the same Ottoman leader who had destroyed Byzantium – yet he could never receive the honours he felt he deserved, nor could he occupy a position of power and influence in the Republic.

When Dario retired from diplomacy, he built this lavishly ornamented home for himself worthy of the most exalted aristocracy. It was one of the first buildings in Venice to be completely faced in marble, and it was studded with decorative roundels of marble and porphyry, the Imperial stone, not the sort of material that an ordinary citizen would normally be presumptious enough to choose.

On the face of the building at canal level, he had these Latin words inscribed: "Urbis Genio Ioannes Darius" (click on the picture to make it bigger). This could be translated two ways. It could be taken to mean "Giovanni Dario, genius of the city", which you would have to agree was a pretty arrogant 'two-finger-salute' to the city fathers. Dario argued that it was in fact meant as a tribute from him to the city of Venice – 'genio' in Latin meaning 'spirit' – so it should be read as "Giovanni Dario, to the guiding spirit of the city".

He got away with it, but it must have been touch and go for a while, and you have to admire his cojones.

Although he could never be an aristocrat himself, Dario put together a big enough dowry for his daughter to marry into the Barbaro family, making sure that his descendants had ruling opportunities that he himself did not.

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