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The Role of the Venetian Oligarchy in the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, Enlightenment and the Thirty Years' War -- Part I


by Webster Tarpley

Printed in The American Almanac, March 22, 1993.


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The following speech, which will be presented in the New Federalist in three parts, was delivered on September 6, 1992 at a conference co-sponsored by the Schiller Institute and the International Caucus of Labor Committees in Northern Virginia.
During the last dozen years, our philosophical association has advanced the thesis that many of the disasters of modern history have been rooted in the heritage of the former Venetian Republic. This includes the central role of the Venetians in cutting short the Golden Renaissance of Italy, in precipitating the Protestant reformation and the wars of religion, and in creating the pseudo-scientific, irrationalist currents of thought that are called the Enlightenment. I would like to return to some of these themes today in order to explore them in greater detail.

Our interest in exposing the Venetian war against the Italian renaissance of the Quattrocento is coherent with our commitment to the Renaissance as an ideal, and with our efforts to launch a new Renaissance today. As has just been stressed, the benchmark for civilization, culture, religion and morality in the last half millennium is constituted by the work of Cardinal Nicolaus of Cusa, the founder of modern science, and of his associate Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, Pope Pius II. Through their cooperation with the best representatives of Medici Florence in the time of the Council of Florence of 1439, Nicolaus and Aeneas Silvius saved western civilization from the Dark Age that had begun with the defeat of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen at the hands of the Black Guelph oligarchs.

During that Dark Age, the Roman Catholic Church had been substantially destroyed by the Avignon captivity and the Great Schism, both against the backdrop of such events as the Hundred Years' War, the Wars of the Roses, and the advance of the Ottoman Empire. Without Nicolaus and Aeneas Silvius, there would have been no Europe and no church by 1500; Venice opposed both through the Morosini agent Gregory von Heimburg [Gilbert, 191]. Paolo Morosini dedicated to Heimburg one of the landmark propaganda pieces on the Venetian oligarchical system to be published during the fifteenth century, ``Concerning the affairs and structure of the Venetian Republic, dedicated to Gregory of Heimburg, the most eminent doctor of the Germans.''

Gregory was the thug and agent provocateur who attempted to sabotage the work of Pius II, Cusanus, and Bessarion, and who is thus a prominent and typical representative of the anti-papal, anti-imperial current among the electors and other princes (Fuersten) of the Holy Roman Empire. This was the stratum of oligarchs played by the Venetians during the conciliar movement, mobilized by Venice against Pius II's proposed crusade, and which would form the basis of Luther's support during the ``Reformation.''

The essence of Venice is oligarchism, usury, slavery, and the cult of Aristotle. The traditional rate of interest was above 20%--a Volcker prime rate. The Venetians were the first in western Europe to read Aristotle directly in the Greek text--first at the School of the Rialto, where leading patricians lectured on Aristotle, and later, after about 1400, at the University of Padova, where the Venetian nobles studied. We must remember that Venice was a branch of the Byzantine Empire which became powerful enough to capture Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade, shortly after 1200. Venice, like Byzantium, saw religion as a tool of state power, with new cults to be concocted as the need arose.


The Aristotelian Network

During the Quattrocento, Venice developed in Italy and in Europe an extensive Aristotelian network. Bernardo Bembo, the Venetian ambassador to Florence and the Florence handler for the Venetian Signoria was part of this (``The Venetians are called the new Romans,'' he wrote.), as was his son Pietro Bembo. The Barbaro family was represented by Francesco, Ermaolao the elder and Ermolao the younger. Giorgione's painting ``The Three Philosophers'' can be seen as depicting three Arsistotles: the scholastic Aristotle of the Paris Sorbonne, the Averroistic Aristotle derived from the Arabs, and the ``modern'' Aristotle of Padova-Rialto, perhaps depicted here with the features of the younger Ermolao Barbaro. Another family prominent in the effort were the Dona', who will pop up again and again in this account.

This painting hints at an important feature of Venetian method, namely the strategy of dominating culture, religion, and politics through the expedient of concocting a series of Aristotelian cults or schools which then contend among each other. In the 1400's the Aristotelian school-men of the Sorbonne were a formidable force in theology. But the Venetian oligarchs Giustinian and Quirini, in their pioneering 1513 reform proposals addressed to Pope Leo X attacked the decadent scholasticism of the Sorbonne, saying that the education of clergy must no longer be based on the ``fallacious erudition of the Parisians'' and similar ``pagan fables.'' [Jedin, ``Contributo,'' p. 112] (Instead, Giustinian-Querini recommended Holy Scripture and Church fathers, especially St. Augustine. They appear to have been thinking of the fundamentalism of isolated Biblical quotations as it has in fact flourished among the Protestant sects.) [See also Schnitzer, p. 236]

It should then come as no surprise to find Martin Luther, a few years later, packaging his own reform movement in a very similar ``anti-Aristotelian'' garb, despite the Manichean dualism in Luther which led right back to Aristotle's method. Similarly, the pseudo-scientific method cooked up by Francis Bacon using the epistemological writings of Paolo Sarpi portrayed itself as tearing down the authority of Aristotle in favor of scientific experiment. But this does not change the fact that Bacon's method was Aristotelian through and through. Bacon touted induction as the great alternative to syllogisms, but there is no qualitative difference.

Another prong of the Venetian war against the Renaissance was Venice's expansion inside Italy, on the terraferma, with the aim of conquering the entire Italian peninsula and then of using Italy to dominate the world. When it proved impossible to conquer Milan, Florence, the Papal states and Naples, Venetian diplomacy invited France and Spain, the emerging great powers, to invade Italy; the Venetians thought they could pick up the pieces. Between the French conquest of Milan in 1494 and the sack of Rome in 1527, Italy was indeed devastated by these rival armies. But the entry of the new great powers into Italy also prepared the greatest shock in Venetian history: the War of the League of Cambrai. Fighting began in 1509.

The League of Cambrai was the first broad coalition of European states against a nominally Christian nation. It included just about all of Europe: the France of Louis XII, the Holy Roman Empire of Maximilan I, Spain, Pope Julius II, the King of Hungary, the Duke of Savoy, the King of Cyprus, the Dukes of Ferrara, Milan, Florence, Mantova. Some accounts include England. There was a plan to carve up Venice. A painting by Palma Giovane in the Doge's palace depicts Doge Loredan and the lion of St. Mark fighting Europa, who rides a bull and carries a shield embossed with the arms of the member states of the league. Venice sought help from the Ottoman Empire, but was left with no allies. In the decisive battle of Agnadello, French troops crushed the Venetian mercenaries. Venice, as Machiavelli exulted, lost all the land it had stolen in the course of centuries. The Venetians were driven back to their lagoon; their destruction was imminent.

Pope Julius II was induced to drop out of the League of Cambrai, but between 1509 and 1513 the French forces, with Florentine money, kept the Venetians on the brink of doom. The state was close to bankruptcy, and had to borrow from the Chigi of Siena. It was also at this time that the Jewish community of Venice came into existence. Previously Jews had been restricted to the role of moneylenders on the terraferma. Jews were obliged to live in the quarter called the ghetto, whose residents were subjected to special discriminatory laws and were obliged to wear a yellow star of David. As the Cambrai crisis deepened, demagogic preachers attempted to blame the disasters of Venetian policy on the new Jewish community. [Gilbert, 18, 39]

In the midst of the hysteria in the lagoon, a religious revival broke out, spurred on by Antonio Contarini, the Patriarch of Aquilea. Religious processions and demonstrations multiplied, for the deified state and the immortal fondi were in gravest danger. Contarini, whose family will be at the center of our story, harangued the Senate on Venetian immorality: ``Nunneries served the sexual needs of the rich and powerful. Homosexuality was so widespread that female prostitutes had come to him complaining that they earned so little they had to exercise their profession into old age.'' [Gilbert, p. 38] Indeed: 10% of the population were female prostitutes at any given time; even more important was the prevalence of sodomy, a sure marker for the presence of the Bogomil-bugger tradition in epistemology.

A badly mauled, indebted and humiliated Venice survived the War of the League of Cambrai, but the Doge told the 2,500 patricians that the new Spanish power had reduced the republic from a great power to ``2,500 flies.'' [H. Brown, p. 150] At the deepest level, some patricians realized that the lagoon city could now be crushed like an egg-shell, and was not a suitable base for world domination. As after 1200 there had been talk of moving the capital, perhaps to Constantinople, so now plans began to hatch that would facilitate a metastasis of the Venetian cancer towards the Atlantic world. To make matters worse, the Portuguese access to India had undercut the Venetian spice monopoly through the Levant; there was talk of building a Suez canal, but this was abandoned. Venice had always thrived through divide and conquer. If Europe could unite against Venice, what could Venice do to divide and rend Europe so thoroughly that it would tear itself to pieces for more than a century?


A Look At Contarini

To see how this was done, let us look at Gasparo Contarini, whose studies under the Aristotelian Pomponazzi were interrupted when Emperor Maximilian seized Padova. Contarini had helped entertain Agostino Chigi when he was negotiating that vital loan. Back at Venice, Contarini gravitated to a group of young patricians who gathered at the Camaldolese monastery of San Michele on the island of Murano to discuss the salvation of their souls. Remember what Pius II had said of the Venetians: ``they wish to appear Christians before the world, but in reality they never think of God and, except for the state, which they do regard as a deity, they hold nothing sacred.'' [Pius II Commentaries, p. 743]

One participant was Vincenzo Quirini, who had just been in Germany, where he had been serving as the Venetian ambassador to the Empire. ``All the princes of the empire, be they prelates or secular rulers, harbor a very ill will towards your most illustrious Lordship, which I have seen and touched with my hands....'' [Alberi, series 1, vol. 6, p.43], he warned the Doge. Quirini had seen that war was imminent. Another was Paolo Giustinian, who had gone to the Levant in 1507 (looking for Turkish help?). During the grim winter of 1510-1511, in the midst of the mortal emergency of Cambrai. Guistinian and Quirini turned away from their patrician state careers and entered the austere Camaldolese order, first on Murano and later near Arezzo. Giustinian and Quirini became the advance guard of the Catholic reformation, shaking up the Camaldolese order and later sending the first Catholic reform manifesto, ``Pamphlet to Leo X'' to the Lateran Council. (This proposes the death penalty for Jews who do not convert and a war with the Turks in alliance with the young leader of Persia, identified as ``Sophi.'' This is all in addition to the attacks on the schoolmen mentioned above. [Schnitzer, p. 227 ff.]

Gasparo Contarini corresponded with Quirini and Giustinian for more than a decade. Parts of this correspondence have survived, and illuminate the actual orgins of the Protestant Reformation. To put them in perspective, let us jump from Gasparo Contarini in Venice in 1511 to Martin Luther in the tower of his Wittenberg monastery in the years 1513-1514, the years of Luther's so-called ``Thurmerlbenis'' or experience in the tower, generally regarded as the starting point of the Protestant reformation.


Faith and Works

The ``Thurmerlebenis'' brought Luther to the definitive standpoint of his theology: that salvation is by faith alone, with the good works of charity playing no role whatsoever. Luther describes the experience thus:
``These words `just' and `justice of God' were a thunderbolt in my conscience. They soon struck terror in me who heard them. He is just, therefore He punishes. But once when in this tower I was meditating on those words, `the just lives by faith,' `justice of God,' I soon had the thought whether we ought to live justified by faith, and God's justice ought to be the salvation of every believer, and soon my soul was revived. Therefore it is God's justice which justifies us and saves us. This knowledge the Holy Spirit gave me on the privy in the tower.'' [Grisar, ``Luther,'' VI, p. 506.]
This was Luther's celebrated explication of Paul's Letter to the Romans I.17:
``For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.''
This passage was ripped out of scriptural and traditional context and made the total passkey.

Luther's allegedly new insights into the problems of justification, faith, and works were a thoroughly disingenuous revival of an old controversy that had long been solved in theology by the magisterium of the Roman Church. St. Paul, at certain places in his epistles, was at pains to convince the non-Christians in his audience that first justification and thus salvation could only come through faith, and not through the works of the law without faith. These observations by St. Paul were part of his polemic against the so-called Judaizers. The New Testament itself contains a warning against one-sided interpretations of St. Paul such as the one practiced one and one-half millenia later by Luther:

``As also in all [St. Paul's] epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.''
This prophecy of Luther comes from none other than St. Peter (2 Peter 3.16).

Of course, a balanced reading of St. Paul leaves no doubt that while faith is clearly primary and prior to works, both faith and works of charity are necessary for salvation. See for example Galatians 5.6:``For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.'' Beyond this, the epistle of St. James contains a lengthy and trenchant polemic against the obscurantists who, like Luther, attempt to separate faith from works. These lines are of special importance for all Protestants today, and may explain Luther's attempts to get St. James thrown out of the New Testament altogether. St. James says:

``What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he have faith, and have not works? can faith save him?... Seest thou how faith wrought with [Abraham's] works, and by works was faith made perfect? ... Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.... For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.'' (James 2.14-26)
This debate was summed up several centuries later by St. Augustine. Here we must read carefully because of Luther's attempt to dress himself in a neo-Augustinian cloak. St. Augustine was in fact the author of an entire book in which he warned against precisely the kind of vicious error which Luther later promulgated. Looking back retrospectively over his life in his Retractiones, Augustine writes:
`` ... I received from certain laymen who however, were learned in the Scriptures, certain writings which so distinguished good works from Christian faith as to say that it was possible to obtain eternal life without the former but not without the latter.''
This is the subject of Augustine's book On Faith and Good Works. Considering the question of faith, Augustine warns,
``we feel that we should advise the faithful that they would endanger the salvation of their souls if they acted on the false assurance that faith alone is sufficient for salvation or that they need not perform good works in order to be saved.... When St. Paul says that man is justified by faith and not by the observance of the law, he does not mean that good works are not necessary or that it is enough to receive and to profess the faith and no more. What he means rather and what he wants us to understand is that man can be justified by faith, even though he has not previously performed works of the law. For the works of the law are meritorious not before but after justification.... [T]his opinion originated in the time of the apostles, and that is why we find some of them, for example, Peter, John, James, and Luke, writing against it in their epistles and asserting very strongly that faith is no good without works.... [St. Peter] was aware of the fact that certain unrighteous men had interpreted certain rather obscure passages of St. Paul to mean that they did not have to lead a good life, since they were assured of salvation as long as they had the faith.... See, then, what a great mistake they make who think that they can be saved by a faith that is dead!'' (On Faith and Works, pp. 23-30)
In the concluding chapter of this work, Augustine recapitulates his views, saying that:
``those who are preparing for baptism should be instructed not only in what they must believe but also in what they must do; that we should not tell the faithful that they will obtain eternal life if their faith is dead, if it is without works and therefore cannot save, but rather that they will obtain eternal life if they have that faith of grace that works by charity.'' (pp. 55-56)
These themes are constantly repeated in Augustine's writings. Compare for example the following segment of his treatise Grace and Free Will:
``Because they fail to grasp what the apostle means when he says: `We reckon that a man is justified by faith independently of the works of the law,' some men have understood him to say that faith is sufficient for man, even though he lives a bad life and is without good works. It is unthinkable that the Vessel of Election should hold this view. It was he who, after having stated in a certain passage, `For in Christ neither circumcision is of any avail nor uncircumcision,' at once added, `but faith which works through charity.'|''
The best Renaissance Christian humanist theology shared this same view. See Nicolaus Cusanus in his On Learned Ignorance:
``For without love faith is not living, but dead, and is not faith at all. But love is the form of faith giving to faith new being; indeed, love is the sign of the most steadfast faith.''
See also Nicolaus' On the Peace of Faith, where we find the following:
``it is impossible that someone please God without faith. However, it must be formed faith, for without works it is dead.''
``Fides caritate formata,'' faith formed by charity, is a common medieval and renaissance expression for the necessity that faith be expressed and developed by acts of charity towards one's neighbor. ``Fides caritate formata'' was not coincidentally a citation that was capable of throwing Luther into hysteria during theological debates.

For Luther, the devil is an independent power who rules over the material world, so good works belong to the devil; human reason is the ``bride and whore'' of the devil. In those days of greater theological knowledge, this could be clearly recognized as a new variation on Manicheanism, the idea that good and evil are equally necessary parts of the creation. According to such a gnostic view, the material world is inherently bad, and only the spiritual world can be good. Something not so different was professed by the Bogomils. Luther's contemporary and sometime associate Philip Melanchton saw Luther in exactly these terms: ``Manichaean delirium.'' Luther attempted to portray his own viewpoint as a return to St. Augustine's stress on grace as against the ethical notions of the late Graeco-Roman world, but this was disingenuous. Luther's marginal jottings to Augustine's Confessions have come to light; an interesting one recaptures Luther's reaction to Augustine's polemics against the Manichaeans and their idea of the two coequal cosmic forces locked in struggle. Luther's annotation: ``This is false. This is the origin of all Augustine's errors.'' [see Socci and Ricci, and Theobald Beer.] Luther appears to reflect the influence of the pseudo-Hermes Trismegistus and his ``Book of the 24 Philosophers.''


Contarini and Luther

But in the given historical context it is more than interesting that the top Venetian oligarch of the day--Gasparo Contarini--in 1511 went through a Thurmerlebnis of his own. In the Camaldolese monastery of Monte Corona above Frascati in the summer of 1943, the German scholar Hubert Jedin, acting on the advice of Giuseppe de Luca, discovered 30 letters from Gasparo Contarini to the Cambai Camaldolese, Giustinian and Quirini. One is from Eastertide 1511, when Contarini went first to the Benedictine monastery on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, and then to San Sebastiano. Contarini would have us believe that he was contemplating becoming a monk himself, but concluded that even monastic life of asceticism and good works would never been enough to atone for his sins. This is similar to Luther's starting point. A holy father told Contarini that the way to salvation is ``much broader than what many people think.'' Contarini writes:
`` ... I began to think to myself what that happiness [salvation] might be and what our condition is. And I truly understood that if I performed all the penances possible, and even many more, even if they were all taken together, they would not be enough to make up for my past sins, to say nothing of meriting that felicity. And having seen that that infinite goodness, that love which always burns infinitely and loves us little worms so much that our intellect cannot fathom it, having only by its goodness made us out of nothing and exalted us to such a height ... We must attempt only to unite ourselves with our head [Christ] with faith, with hope, and with that small love of which we are capable. As regards satisfaction for sins committed, and into which human weakness falls, His passion is sufficient and more than sufficient. Through this thought I was changed from great fear and suffering to happiness. I began with my whole spirit to turn to this greatest good which I saw, for love of me, on the cross, with his arms open, and his breast opened up right to his heart. This I, the wretch who had not had enough courage for the atonement of my iniquities to leave the world and do penance, turned to him; and since I asked him to let me share in the satisfaction which he, without any sins of his own, had made for us, he was quick to accept me and to cause his Father completely to cancel the debt I had contracted, which I myself was incapable of satisfying.'' [Jedin, ``Ein `Thurmerlbenis' des jungen Contarini,'' p. 117 and Dermot Fenlon, ``Heresy and Obedience in Tridentine Ital.'' p.8.]
The parallels to Luther are evident, even though Contarini still allows hope and a little love a role in salvation, in addition to faith. Later, in a letter of 1523, after Contarini had seen Luther, he would go beyond this and wholly embrace the Lutheran position:
``Wherefore I have truly come to this firm conclusion which, although first I read it and heard it, now nonetheless through experience I penetrate very well with my intellect: and that is that no one can justify himself with his works or purge his soul of its inclinations, but that it is necessary to have recourse to divine grace which is obtained through faith in Jesus Christ, as Saint Paul says, and say with him: `Blessed is the man without works, to whom the Lord did not impute sin....' Now I see both in myself and in others that when a man thinks he has acquired some virtue, just at the moment it is all the easier for him to fall. Whence I conclude that every living man is a thing of utter vanity, and that we must justify ourselves through the righteousness of another, and that means of Christ: and when we join ourselves to him, his righteousness is made ours, nor must we rely on ourselves to the smallest degree, but must say: `From ourselves we received the answer of death.'|''[Jedin, p. 127]
Contarini was always much more careful in the writings he published; in his treatise De Praedestinatione he says that Chrsitians should
``seek to exalt as much as possible the grace of Christ and faith in him, and to humble as much as possible the confidence we feel in our works, our knowledge and our will.''
These letters, first published in 1950, make Contarini the first Protestant, the undisputed caposcuola among those in Italy who argued for salvation ex sola fede, and who were called evangelicals, crypto-Protestants, or ``spirituali,'' to whom we will return shortly.

To be continued.


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The preceding article is a rough version of the article that appeared in The American Almanac. It is made available here with the permission of The New Federalist Newspaper. Any use of, or quotations from, this article must attribute them to The New Federalist, and The American Almanac.


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