Negotiating Sovereignty through Petitions in the Early Modern Mediterranean: Patterns of Political Expression in the Venetian Stato da Mar

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2021

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This thesis offers an analysis of the Venetian empire in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from a new perspective. In the past many historians tended to view the empire as the construction of the merchant elites in Venice itself as they sought to aggrandize and control territories in northern Italy, the Adriatic, and the eastern Mediterranean. Still other scholars have interpreted these efforts at expansion and control in terms of colonialism. Yet, these attempts generally fail to unpack the geopolitical complexities of Venice’s varied subject populations, while casting them as passive bystanders, if not victims. Focusing on the Adriatic – which included most of the dominions of the Venetian Stato da mar – this work breaks away from center-periphery analyses and the colonializing models of the past, and argues that Venetian imperial sovereignty was established through the interactions of local populations with the metropole. Ultimately, I argue, the Venetian empire was made by this very interaction. Petitions, the legal medium through which subjects established a direct contact with the sovereign authority, are central to this study. With their requests and grievances, the petitioners not only expressed their political agency, but also provided the inputs that set in motion the Venetian state machine. The textual analysis of these petitions – informed by a variety of interpretative tools borrowed from cultural anthropology, legal sociology and linguistics – reveals that the imperial discourse of power between sovereign and subjects, although asymmetrical, was a dialectical one. The study of the rhetorical structures and tropes of the petitions shows that the relationship was articulated according to the cultural paradigms of Mediterranean honor and grace. The idiom of honor appears to be the common ground, the shared values that allowed the communication between sovereign and subjects, and it is perceptible at every level of the interaction, gendering hierarchies at both the micro and macro level. The two case studies that emerge from painstaking research in Italian, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Greek archives make apparent how the diverse interests and experiences of the subjects determined the juridical particularism through which Venice expressed its sovereignty. More specifically, the first study, centered in the island of Corfu, shows how local tensions between old élite groups and newcomers became an imperial concern for the Venetian government. The Corfiot parties, the Venetian representatives and the sovereign bodies of the Republic engaged in legal rituals in which each party knew the role they played and anticipated the other’s response, reshaping accordingly their mutual interaction. The second case study further problematizes the imperial dimension, moving to the Ottoman-Venetian frontier between Albania, Montenegro and Dalmatia. This microhistorical analysis explores the life of a cultural broker of Kotor, on which Venice relied to manage the region and the relationship with neighboring population and Ottoman authorities. Following the ways in which he developed his communication with Venice, this second study emphasizes how the model of Mediterranean honor not only defined the strategies of the subjects, but also undergirded the behavior of the Venetian institutions towards petitions, establishing and justifying both hierarchical order and reciprocity. The picture of the Venetian empire that emerges is one (almost) literally made by a myriad of particular interests that required to be checked and measured, and that needed the interventions of the Venetian governing bodies to be legitimized. In other words, the Republic, exercising sovereignty through its jurisdiction, depended upon the proactive role of the subjects who constantly provided inputs that demanded to be addressed. Thus, Venice needed a continuous frenetic exchange within its empire, in order to reaffirm its self-proclaimed image of Serenissima, the Most Serene Republic.

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Castellani, Erasmo (2021). Negotiating Sovereignty through Petitions in the Early Modern Mediterranean: Patterns of Political Expression in the Venetian Stato da Mar. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/23130.

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