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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.

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