The Gift Thieves: Interpreting a Scandal in Early Modern Venice

This is the third post in a series by Jesse Hysell, one of this year’s AHA Today blog contest winners. His posts examine material exchanges between Venice and Egypt in the early modern period. Previous Posts include: Cultural Encounters and Material Exchanges in the Venetian Archives and The Politics of Pepper: Deciphering a Venetian-Mamluk Gift Exchange

My last post examined how diplomatic gift exchange between Venice and Cairo in the early modern period enabled communication and cooperation between their rulers. As I continued my research into these practices, my findings led me to confront an inevitable question: What happened to ambassadorial gifts after they had changed hands?

Brass box with cover, possibly Egyptian—such containers may have been used to ship luxury goods to Europe. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Brass box with cover, possibly Egyptian—such containers may have been used to ship luxury goods to Europe. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The sultan’s court in Egypt followed a carefully arranged protocol for the distribution of foreign presents and tributes, assigning objects to every leading member of the regime. In Venice, unlike in Cairo, strict legal provisions concerning the receipt of gifts by public officials stipulated that diplomatic presents be auctioned off, with proceeds going into the state coffers. Such laws aimed to prevent bribery of elected officials and to discourage corruption in statecraft. It is ironic, however, that in at least one instance, rather than instilling respect for the republic’s austere moral image, the regulations instead made Venetian politicians eager to seize gifts as soon as possible in order to try to prevent them from making it to the auction block. In my research, I have suggested that studying gift exchanges and reception customs allows for a better understanding of the collective identities of these two regimes. Yet looking at problems in reception practices is also worthwhile because they can reveal the precarious nature of the exchange process and the fragility of the public image that the governments sought to project.

Looking for details on public gift auctioning in Venice, I initially relied on materials at the Archivio di Stato di Venezia, which possesses the records of the Venetian Senate (Senato) and other governmental bodies that managed the republic in this era. These collections include a vast documentary body of deliberations on a wide variety of topics, consisting not only of discussions of weighty political matters, but also of domestic affairs and even of scandalous moments that stirred the city.

There, I found a brief mention of an incident concerning the arrival of a shipment of diplomatic gifts from Egypt in the registers of the senate’s deliberations in 1515. On March 7 of that year, the senate decreed that the officials who had taken any of the recently arrived gifts from the sultan must immediately return them so they could be sold at public auction for the benefit of the state. Anyone subsequently discovered to have kept a diplomatic gift in his possession would face a heavy fine and, undoubtedly, infamy in the eyes of the populace.

Frequently, the process of historical inquiry is a winding path, and more often than not one finds a trace clue in the archives that leads to more information elsewhere. Unable to locate further details on this event in governmental records, I turned to the diarist Marin Sanudo. A Venetian patrician who kept a meticulous journal between the years 1493 and 1533, Sanudo is an extremely valuable source for the study of the early modern Mediterranean. His set of diaries, edited by Rinaldo Fulin in the 19th century and available at the Archivio de Stato’s research library, is incredibly thorough, and in edited form consists of 58 published volumes.

DogeLoredan (1)

Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan by Giovanni Bellini. National Gallery, London

Sure enough, the diary entries for March 1515 filled in the gaps of this strange debacle: Sanudo reported that when the boxes containing the sultan’s presents arrived in the ducal palace, they were quickly opened and ransacked by Doge Leonardo Loredan himself and his councilors. According to the diarist, Loredan managed to abscond with a horn of civet musk while his colleagues seized porcelains, cloth, robes, and even a horse saddle. In other words, the republic’s august leaders had brazenly made off with whatever they could get their hands on in open violation of the law, and in the very heart of the republic. Sanudo, with characteristic chagrin, noted that the affair had greatly scandalized the good people of Venice.

The differences between reception practices in Venice and Cairo reveal the two powers’ attempts at fashioning a collective self-image. While both wrapped themselves in the symbolism afforded by precious objects and rituals, they did so to different ends. The Mamluk Sultanate, which presented itself to its subjects and to the world as a disciplined militaristic regime, upheld a tightly scripted protocol in which the disbursement of presents tacitly recognized the hierarchical order of their empire. Conversely, the Venetian government sought to use the reception of presents to bolster the image of the state as an incorruptible and serene republic in which individual interests were secondary to the common good.

As the episode of gift thievery in the ducal palace in 1515 shows, however, this mythology of a virtuous and selfless political elite in Venice was precisely that—a myth, which like any human invention, could succumb to weaknesses such as greed, allowing the stately veil to slip. It would therefore be very useful to know if similar breakdowns in gift-giving practices occurred across the Mediterranean at the other end of the exchange. Although I know of no such examples at present, I hope to find some information on how well gift-receiving practices functioned in the sultan’s court in the future. Whatever the case may be, if word of the ransacking of the sultan’s gifts or the practice of public auction ever arrived in Cairo, I have to wonder whether the Mamluk court met this scandalous news about the Venetians with amusement or offense.

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