I chose my university, the Victoria University of Manchester, UK, because it was, at the time, the only British university that had a professor who taught Venetian history. And so, in the early 1990s I came into contact with the wonderful Professor Brian Pullan. Unlike, sadly, many of the academics in the department of history, Professor Pullan actually cared about his students and oozed love and passion for Venice. As I said in an earlier post, it was through Professor Pullan that I learned to love the map of Venice by Jacopo de’ Barbari, but he also introduced me to Marin Sanudo.
Marin Sanudo (known as ‘the younger’ to distinguish him from a famous natural historian of the same name) was a venetian nobleman, born in 1466, who became a sort of Venetian Samuel Pepys. Obsessed with history and politics, he was very active in the Venetian Great Council, to which he won access through ballot at the age of twenty, rather than having to wait until he was twenty-five.
He was an obsessive note-taker and soon these formed the basis of a detailed diary in which he wrote about all the important social and political events of the day. On 1 October 1498, Sanudo became a Senator and so had access to even more of the political life of the city. At this point he was given official permission to access the State Archives and so was able to include letters from officials and ambassadors in his diaries which steadily became a comprehensive record of all important events in the Republic.
Sanudo enjoyed a moderately successful political career, being often elected to minor offices. For example in 1501 he was elected Camerlengo (the state accountant) for Verona. However, probably due in part to his character, he never rose to any great office. He therefore, concentrated on his writing, his diary, and caring for his library, which, according to his diary, had 2,800 books in 1516.
When it was decided to employ someone to continue the work Antonio Sabellico, the semi-official historian of the Venetian Republic, Sanudo hoped to be chosen. However, the work of completing the Historiae rerum venetarum ab urbe condita (The History of Venice from the founding of the City) was given to Andrea Navagero. Sanudo was mortified, so you can imagine how he felt when in 1529, Navagero died without leaving a single page of completed work. But the final straw was when he was again passed over and the task of continuing the history was given to Pietro Bembo.
Finally, in 1531, (probably taking pity on the elderly Sanudo, who was by then very poor) the Venetian state gave him a pension of 150 ducats per year to continue his diaries in an official capacity. He managed to keep going until September 1533 when he had to give up due to infirmity, and he died on 4 April 1536.
I used the diaries, which are in Venetian and have never been translated, as the source material for my bachelor’s dissertation, because there is a copy in the University Library. It was through them that I truly entered, for the first time, the world of Renaissance Venice. Due to my background, I was the only member of the class who was able to read them.
They contain fascinating details of the working of the state which give us an extraordinary and intimate insight. For example, the sections covering the election of Doge Andrea Gritti in 1523, even tell us the names of all the people chosen as electors at the various stages of the process as well as giving snippets of speeches for and against his election. We even have an eye witness account and the final words of Doge Antonio Grimani:
“Note: the Doge died fully dressed, and saying that his cloak of gold should be displayed every year at the church of San Nicolò, the patron of sailors, and shouldn’t be sold; and the same for the rest of his ducal regalia. And wanting a little broth, he died. 2500 ducats of his own money were found in his desk and so these were taken and given to mister Piero his son.”
(Marin Sanudo, Diarii 7 May 1523)
Marin Sanudo has no tomb, but the 58 volumes of his diaries, now considered an important source for sixteenth century Venetian history, stand in its place. A special shelf in the Biblioteca Marciana, in the Piazza di San Marco, holds a copy published in 1879 and the original manuscripts are also held in the building.
Note: I was delighted, when I first started using the Biblioteca Marciana, which is one of the oldest and most important libraries in Italy and was the State Library of Venice, to find a copy of Professor Brian Pullan’s book which was published in 1992 while I was his student. I remember him proudly showing me an advance copy.