Teaching Venice in Schools

Introduction

This paper aims to briefly survey advances made in the field of Venice studies and explore how these can help enhance the teaching of Venice in schools. Focusing on the early modern period, this essay will discuss issues related to Venetian politics as well as government and society. The issues for discussion are sub-divided into: 1.) Republicanism and related systems; 2.) Political system and corruption as a reason for decline of Venice; and 3.) The wider social / social-political organizations or arrangements as a stabilizing (or destabilizing) force of Venetian society. The choice and clustering of these issues are partly based on the content survey on Venetian studies and partly based on the survey of similar issues of concern occurring in contemporary Singapore society.[i]

This essay makes reference to and is meant to be read hand-in-hand with the write-up on Venice in the resource package produced by Curriculum Planning and Development Division of the Ministry of Education (CPDD, 2008b). This will hopefully assist in the content understanding of the teachers teaching the topic in schools. An inquiry and discussion process in the classroom entailing a fuller exploration of an issue (warts and all) can lead to a better appreciation and conviction of not only the subject of history or social studies, but of one’s role in society.  

Survey of Venice Studies

The field of studies on Venice’s history continues to evolve.[ii] Even at the turn of the millennium (at 2000), shifts in the writing of Venice’s history are already obvious in several sub-areas of the field. On the general front, the scholarship of the field is “[doing] away with a unilateral reading of Venice’s past” (Martin & Romano, 2000, p. 27). To put it in another way, historiography is probing beyond the “myth,” an image of an ideal republic, a strong maritime empire as well as a birthplace of capitalism and economically driven people and society.  This meant probing beyond the usual reasons advocated for the rise or decline of the city-state. Current historiography tends to “highlight fissures, tensions, contradictions and elements of disorder (in Venice)”; there is, to reiterate, “a shift in interest from order to disorder, orthodoxy to dissent, from the center of power to the broader social context (or periphery)” (Davidson, 1997, pp. 13-24; Martin & Romano, 2000, pp. 7-8). In contrast, the treatment on Venice in the Social Studies textbook covers the rise and fall of the city-state and it can be deterministic towards human-centered factors and does not convey enough of the “fissures, disorder or the periphery.”[iii]

In terms of participants in a political system, one can move away from the “mythical” by exploring a version of the social reality on the ground. An instructor teaching the topic has to be reminded that MOE materials, not surprisingly, have a value judgment on the “selfish interest” of a participant in a political system. From a more neutral angle, participants in a democracy, whether in positions of power or as common folks, embraced the mode of governance for a combination of reasons that were self-serving and altruistic. The “additional notes” in the teachers’ resource file has stated that the aristocrat republic of Venice was a rule of limited representation from the 8th century (CPDD, 2008b, p. 112). Durant’s (1968) insightful reflection from a long survey of history has revealed that “from Solon to the Roman conquest of Greece, the conflict of oligarchs and democrats was waged with books, plays, orations, votes, ostracism, assassination and civil war.” The “oligarchs” referred to a group of politicians who desired a greater concentration of control or power; the “democrats” referred to a group of politicians who desired a wider base of power sharing as well as checks and balances (p. 73). Whether desiring for more power or more checks and balance, individuals sought to protect their interest to a certain extent. In an article analyzing the state of republicanism after the Battle of Agnadello, the resolve of Venetian subjects to uphold the rule of the city-state was severely tested. Agnadello in the War of the League of Cambrai is mentioned in the textbook as an event of severe setback which “tested Venice’s political and military capabilities” (CPDD, 2008a, p. 113). Granted that Venice’s republicanism was not uniformly implemented throughout its empire (especially in its terra firma colonies, referring to hinterland territories of Venice), the new subjects (not citizens) strove in certain places to yearn for Venetian influence and in others, to be rid of it, in accordance of the benefits that might reaped in comparison to the previous system of extraction they were subjected to (Muir, 2000, pp. 137-67).

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An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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