Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Word Frequency Map for Pistols! Treason! Murder!

Pistols Wordle

Created using the Wordle generator, which was invented by Jonathan Feinberg.

You play the black and the red comes up

[The photographer Helen] Levitt says that she [gambles] for fun and out of respect for Luck, but play is more than diversion for her. Play is central to her notion of society; it is a proposition that animates life. Of itself, play has no moral consequences; it is disinterested. It is not serious, but its rewards are: In its temporary freedom a limited perfection can be achieved. …. For Levitt photography is a form of serious play.
Maria Morris Hambourg

You play, you win. You play, you lose. You play.
Jeanette Winterson, The Passion

Photography is a gambling game. It is the only art in which chance plays an essential role, which is why the Surrealists liked it. To decide whether a photograph is successful is therefore an attempt to define the difference between winning and losing, a difference that is arbitrary and absolute, like the decision to trip the shutter. Why should this difference matter? Every image makes a claim upon the viewer’s attention, but it’s up to the photographer to provide a stake to back that claim. The machine registers every scene with equal indifference, just as the roulette wheel doesn’t care where the ball lands.

The uncontrollable, or chance, element in photography consists partly in not being able to define what constitutes a winning move in advance of playing. Photography is distinctive among gambling games in this respect: that the photographer makes up the rules as he goes along, and sometimes in retrospect. Intention is more decisive in editing than it is at the moment of exposure.

Like photographers, historians must also create meaning from contingent facts, just as they are obliged to deal with the chance destruction or survival of documents. Carlo Ginzburg and Adriano Prospero have gone even further than this, arguing that chance is essential to the historian’s working methods, since it is precisely when we encounter the unexpected that our preconceptions and models are most effectively challenged, and by definition we only stumble upon the unexpected by chance. Photography, like historiography, should be a way of discovering new things about the world rather than simply confirming what we already know. We must permit reality (under which heading I include both the contents of historical documents and the subjects of photographs) to surprise us.

[I have written an article, entitled 'Let's Get Lost: On the Importance of Itineraries, Detours and Dead-Ends', which explores some of these themes in more detail.]

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Review by Zoë Sadokierski of The Raw Shark Texts

Here is a review by Zoë Sadokierski of Steven Hall's The Raw Shark Texts. Of particular interest to me is this passage addressing criticism of Hall's use of images and typo/graphic experiments as 'gimmicks':

Hall addresses this criticism as a kind of literary snobbishness: "these storytelling techniques are still considered 'experimental' or even worse, 'gimmicky' in some book circles; whereas in art you can sit in a gallery with a dead lobster on your head for a week without fear of being accused of either." It’s a complaint shared by Jonathan Safran Foer, whose novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close also features a flip-book passage. He concurs that the use of images in novels is “still considered to be a gimmick or some expression of the failure of language”. In a review for the Village Voice Safran Foer states: "It's a shame that people consider the use of images in a novel to be experimental or brave. No one would say that the use of type in a painting is experimental or brave. Literature has been more protective of its borders than any other art form – too protective. Jay-Z samples from Annie – one of the least likely combinations imaginable – and it changes music. What if novelists [or historians, I might add] were as willing to borrow?"

Both Pistols! Treason! Murder! and Five Wounds attempt to answer this question.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Auckland Symposium on 'Character, Author, Person'

On Thursday, 17 December 2009, I shall be giving a paper as part of a symposium at the University of Auckland on 'Character, Author, Person'. Below are the symposium details (the same information can be found here on the Auckland English department page):

Character, Author, Person: The Problem of People in Texts
Thursday, 17 Dec 2009

Presenter: Department of English

Department: English

Venue: Room 426 Arts 1 Building

Time: 2pm

Our symposium will examine and theorize the place of people in and out of texts, and the roles conventionally assigned to authors, characters, and persons. All those interested in the history of the novel, in questions of autobiography and pseudo-autobiography, in how represented persons affect real audiences, or in unusual modes of authorship are most welcome to attend.

With Special Guests
Jonathan Lamb, Bridget Orr and Jonathan Walker

This is the abstract for my paper, ‘Gerolamo Vano as Character, Author, Person’:

My recent book, Pistols! Treason! Murder! is an illustrated biography of a Venetian spy, Gerolamo Vano, who was executed for perjury in 1622. It is not, however, a conventional biography retelling the events of an entire life in chronological order. Rather, it is an explication of the various senses in which Vano might (legitimately or otherwise) be described as a character, an author and / or a person on the basis of his various appearances in documents in the Venetian state archive, notably the collection of surveillance reports he submitted to his nominal employers, the Venetian Inquisitors of State. In what sense does a loose-leaf collection of unedited papers, originally intended for a handful of select readers, who, moreover, retrospectively judged their contents to be sufficiently damning as to warrant the author’s execution, and which have lain unread for hundreds of years since 1622, constitute a ‘body of work’ or evidence of a distinctive literary sensibility? In this presentation, I’ll outline some possible answers to this question.

For more information on Vano, see

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: Plausibility, Part 2

[Continued from the previous post:]

The distinctiveness of Vano’s reports will become clearer if we compare them with two chronicles that describe the downfall of the Venetian traitor, Zuan Battista Bragadin.[1] Neither of these chronicles mentions Vano, whose evidence was in fact crucial to the prosecution (the case is described in some detail in Pistols! Treason! Murder!).[2] On the contrary, the chronicle accounts explain Bragadin’s downfall in such a way as to avoid any mention of spies, paid informants, or the Inquisitors of State, whose existence presupposed a world in which spies were an essential instrument of statecraft.

According to the chronicles, then, Bragadin was generally despised for his [poor] character.[3] His election to the Senate, on whose deliberations he supplied information to the Spanish, only came about because of a massive electoral conspiracy. This conspiracy also resulted in the elevation of a number of other highly unsuitable candidates. It was exposed by the Ten in 1620, shortly before Bragadin's arrest. These events are outside our area of interest, but the fallout from this conspiracy caused a huge scandal, and the resulting arrests and prosecutions occupy a great deal of space in the Ten’s criminal register for 1620.

Again according to the chroniclers, Bragadin left notes for the Spanish secretary to collect in a dead-drop in the church of the Frari. This suspicious behaviour was observed by one of the friars attached to the church, who reported the matter directly to the doge by means of a petition. Bragadin’s fellow senators then tricked him into writing a letter, so that the writing could be compared with that on the notes. When presented with the evidence (by these same fellow senators), Bragadin said simply, I deserve to die.[4]

Possibly the friar was an actual, independent source, who was used to corroborate Vano’s evidence. In any case, this ‘official’ version of events shows that the chroniclers had a quite different understanding of treachery and spying to Vano, and consequently a different notion of what counted as an adequate or plausible account of events. Unwilling or unable to enter Vano’s world, they offered a comforting fable whose silences betray an anxiety about the role of spies in Venetian political life. The chroniclers seem to be critiquing Vano, however unconsciously, but we can turn this around and use Vano to critique them. There are four complementary elements to this mutual critique.

(1) For the chroniclers, the traitor was corrupt from the beginning, and he was understood to be so before he ever committed an act of treachery. His election to the Senate was irregular, and he was therefore unrepresentative of its membership. Since he was different, he could be judged and condemned without anxiety. For Vano, by contrast, the identity of the traitor was difficult to establish because he looked just like everyone else. Also, many spies had divided or shifting loyalties, so the person who was condemned one day might turn out to be a useful informant the next.

(2) For the chroniclers, the traitor was discovered by a concerned but neutral observer (the friar), who was representative of all those who played no direct role in Venetian government but benefited from Venetian justice, and therefore wished to be good subjects. For Vano, by contrast, the traitor was uncovered by paid specialists, whose loyalty could not be relied upon.

(3) For the chroniclers, the traitor was trapped and publicly exposed by his peers, who thus symbolically repudiated him as unworthy of being a noble. In the world occupied by Vano and the Inquisitors, the traitor was sentenced secretly, and those who (unlike Bragadin or Foscarini) managed to escape into exile remained in contact with family and friends. The traitor was not exceptional, because there was always someone else waiting to take his place.

(4) For the chroniclers, the traitor condemned himself spontaneously when confronted with the truth of his guilt. For Vano and the Inquisitors, if the traitor confessed it was only because he was compelled to do so by the threat of torture, and some men – Antonio Foscarini for example – went to their deaths refusing to confess.

I would not wish to exaggerate Vano’s sophistication, but his account is still more convincing than that of the chroniclers.[5] Whatever the local definitions of plausibility, the best writers are capable of escaping from them by creating a self-contained world, within which their characters become not only plausible, but necessary manifestations of the internal logic of that world. Vano’s minimalism then becomes a sign of his control over his material rather than his lack of insight. The success of his accusation against Foscarini is proof of this.

[1] The two chronicle accounts of Bragadin's case can be found in the Marciana Library, Venice, Italian manuscripts, class VII, 1664 (7542), Miscellanea, fos 98-107; and class VII, 121-2 (8862-3), Gian Carlo Sives, Cronica Veneta, book 4, fo. 185r.

[2] Most of the relevant documentation is in Archivio di Stato, Venice, Inquisitori di Stato, busta 1214, no. 57.

[3] He was elected indirectly, since he held a judicial office that conferred ex officio Senate membership.

[4] The Mantuan resident’s despatches also mentioned the friar, and insisted that Bragadin had confessed spontaneously, but he put the case where it belonged, under the supervision of the Inquisitors.

[5] Vano’s analysis is considerably less subtle than that offered in many of the despatches sent to the Venetian Senate, the Ten and the Inquisitors by ambassadors stationed abroad. However, in certain respects his ‘voice’ resembles that of the Inquisitors’ secretary Roberto Lio, in the reports the latter sent from Mantua during a rendezvous with a potential informant in July 1621. The skeptical, sardonic and unruffled manner adopted by Lio is implicitly contrasted with that of his contact, who is depicted as shifty, easily offended, and prone to emotional outbursts and melodramatic statements, which he used to cover the holes in his story. This contrast – between a detached narrator who stresses his own emotional self-control, and a narrative subject whose lack of self-control reveals more fundamental character weaknesses – may therefore be regarded as a standard device. For Lio’s ultimately fruitless trip to Mantua, see Archivio di Stato, Inquisitori di Stato, busta 157, various letters to Milan dated 17 July to 7 Aug. 1621, along with a letter to Mantua dated 24 July 1621; and Inquisitori di Stato, busta 449, letters from Mantua dated 23 July and 26 July 1621, plus various letters from Milan from 14 July to 11 Aug. 1621.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: Plausibility, Part 1

Pistols! Treason! Murder! describes the arrest, execution and posthumous exoneration of the Venetian noble Antonio Foscarini. Gerolamo Vano supplied (at least some of) the evidence against Foscarini. Given the eventual outcome of the case, why were the Council of Ten (the prosecuting magistrates) initially convinced of Foscarini’s guilt? In other words, why did Vano’s accusations initially seem plausible to them?

To answer this question, we need to begin by distinguishing the plausible from the true. Even if truth is absolute, plausibility is not. It is always defined by reference to a particular context because it depends on shared expectations and preconceptions about normal behaviour or probable outcomes. For example, in Venice, what we might call the ‘threshold of suspicion’ was very low after the exposure of the so-called Spanish conspiracy in 1618. The Council of Ten were expecting to find traitors, and specific accusations are always preferable to diffuse anxiety in such circumstances. And, while both Foscarini's arrest and the sentence against him were unexpected, none of the foreign ambassadors present in Venice who initially reported on the case doubted that he was guilty as charged. There were no cynics suggesting that the Ten had been deceived or that there were political motives behind the prosecution.[1]

The legal notion of indizii, ‘clues’ or circumstantial evidence, was undoubtedly crucial in Foscarini’s trial. Indizii were physical or other signs that permitted an investigating magistrate to make inferences in the absence of direct eyewitness testimony. Most such ‘clues’ fell under the category of what we would now call circumstantial evidence. For example, in a murder case, if the accused fled, or had previously threatened the victim, these were indizii of his guilt, whilst the presence of multiple wounds on a corpse served as evidence of deliberate intent to kill, and was therefore an indizio of premeditation. Theoretical discussion of this matter dwelt at inordinate length on the possibility of poisoning; that is, on circumstances that were by definition difficult to establish by eyewitness testimony.[2]

The biographer Girolamo Priuli, writing a few years after Foscarini’s death, explicitly tells us that Foscarini was suspected – the word used is inditiato, that is, ‘rendered suspect by indizii’ – on the basis of testimony from witnesses who had been corrupted by the wicked man [that is, Gerolamo Vano, although he is not named in Priuli’s account], since matters of State are so important and sensitive, that circumstantial evidence [indizii] has the force of proof [in such cases].[3] This last point was in contrast to normal criminal procedure, in which indizii alone might justify an arrest or investigation, but not a conviction.

Vano’s reports are indeed full of details that could be classed as
indizii of treachery or deceit: attempts at disguise, signs of emotional disturbance, and so on. However, many of these involve the sort of crude emotional signposting that only children and bad actors resort to nowadays: stamping feet, foaming mouths, and so on. To a modern reader, they seem highly implausible. How could the Ten possibly have been taken in? The point is that plausibility depends on local definitions of appropriate behaviour, and these in turn depend on the threshold of embarrassment (the phrase is Norbert Elias') regarding open displays of emotion. Vano lived in a world in which melodrama was part of the texture of everyday experience. Moreover, part of the point of Vano’s reports was that he was showing men with their guard down, when the demands and controls of civility had been relaxed.

This whole issue is further complicated by the fact that some of Vano’s characters actually were bad actors. His informants lived in the space between appearance and reality, whilst their real intentions always had to be subject to plausible denial. This posed an enormous psychological and cultural problem for them, just as it poses a retrospective interpretative problem for us, since people learn how to feel by acting their feelings out and having them validated by the response of others. By contrast, one learns to spy in the same way that one learns to lie.[4]

The difficulty of acting a part was compounded by the fact that, even in private, the word ‘spy’, like the word atheist or traitor, was usually applied to other people. Thus Vano used it exclusively to describe Spanish and Imperial familiars.[5]
Like executioners, spies were necessary instruments of government, but the men so employed were considered infamous by others.[6] As a result, it was difficult to explain one’s actions to oneself by adopting the role of spy. It was of course necessary to admit what one had done in certain circumstances – notably when asking for money from employers – but polite euphemisms were always observed: ‘loyal subject’ and so on.

The issue of infamy brings us to what plausibility meant in court, because evidence offered by infamous people traditionally carried little or no weight. A thief’s testimony always counted less than that of a gentleman. It was morally implausible. The get-out clause for the Council of Ten in using Vano’s testimony was the notion of ‘reason of state’, which justified a temporary suspension of normal moral and/or legal standards for political reasons. In other words, reason of state justified a redefinition of plausibility in light of a redefinition of morality, or in light of secret knowledge of statecraft.

On what basis were distinctions and legal judgements made? Thomas Cohen has argued in a recent article that witnesses in sixteenth-century Italian courts attempted to convince the judges by staking a claim to jeopardy. As he puts it, men with something to lose will flaunt their risks to prove serious intent. [7] He identified three forms of jeopardy invoked by witnesses. These were:

(1) Physical vulnerability: I cannot resist you. Torture me if you do not believe what I say and you will see that my story remains unchanged. Under torture, or faced with the threat of torture, I am incapable of dissimulation.

(2) Empirical proof: I am being so specific that it will be easy to prove whether I am lying by checking the details of my story.

(3) Honour: How dare you take this thief’s word over mine? May I lose my reputation if I am lying.

What then was Vano offering as a ‘stake’ to guarantee the truth of his information, the thing that he would forfeit if he was proved to be a liar? Not honour, obviously. As a spy, he was outside the honour code. He invoked empiricism most explicitly, apparently offering a rich accumulation of detail. However, there was a radical physical vulnerability behind this apparent empiricism. Vano staked himself and threw the dice, over and over again.

[Discussion continues in the next post:]

[1] There were four abstentions (out of seventeen votes) in the resolution on Foscarini’s condemnation, but since no one actually voted for absolution, the abstainers were probably just squeamish about getting noble blood on their hands.

[2] Antonio Barbaro, Pratica Criminale, Venice, 1739, pp. 41-6; Lorenzo Priori, Prattica Criminale, Venice, 1644, pp. 17-18, 123.

[3] Museo Correr, Venice, Codici Cicogna, 3782, G. Priuli, Pretiosi Frutti del Maggior Consiglio, fo. 29v.

[4] In light of all this, it is actually Vano’s restraint when faced with persistent threats to his life from the Spanish that is more difficult to explain. In other words, to reverse the terms of our original question, is it plausible that he should remain so impassive in a culture where stamping feet and foaming mouths were considered normal? There are two possible explanations for this. Firstly, his sang-froid might make more sense if we understand anger as a response triggered more by wounded honour than physical threat. Since Vano’s honour was not engaged, then he never got angry. Nor did he feel the need to justify or explain himself, since he could take the tacit support of his audience (i.e. the Inquisitors of State) for granted. Secondly, and more obviously, his role as narrator gave him a distance from the events he described.

[5] This generalisation is based on the use of the word spia in Italian sources. I cannot say whether it applies to the use of analogous terms in English or French. Venetian sources do sometimes refer to men in their own employ as spies. For example, the expense claims submitted by the Ten’s captain of police, Francesco Ongarin, and extant in Archivio di Stato, Venice, Inquisitori di Stato, busta 953, refer thus to individuals employed on an ad hoc basis for surveillance operations. The fact that no-one referred to Vano as a spy in his reports is actually rather suspicious. The single exception was an anonymous letter dropped off at Vano’s house, included as an insert in Inquisitori di Stato, busta 636, which (significantly) was written by an enemy.

[6] For example, this is how the spy is described in Tomaso Garzoni, La piazza universale, Venice, 1616, p. 306r, although spies were not considered ‘infamous’ in the technical, legal sense that a convicted felon was.

[7] Thomas V. Cohen, ‘Three Forms of Jeopardy: Honor, Pain, and Truth-Telling in a Sixteenth-Century Italian Courtroom’, Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 29.4 (1998), pp. 976, 987.