‘Prostrate before your most merciful feet’: A Venetian secretary’s plea for clemency, 1614

This post in our Addressing Authority Online Symposium comes from Fabio Antonini, who recently completed his PhD at Birkbeck, University of London, as part of the ERC funded project ‘ARCHIves – a History of Archives in Late Medieval and Early Modern Italy. He examines a single illuminating document from seventeenth-century Italy to show how a skilled writer could craft a powerful petition, and what this can tell us about the secretive men who controlled the flow of information in the Venetian Republic.

There were few figures more important to the legislative and diplomatic activity of the early modern Republic of Venice than the secretaries of the city’s chancery. Operating within a vast and complex bureaucratic hierarchy, these were the scribes, archival assistants and international correspondents who drove the Republic’s substantial information networks, both within the city and across the continent. From an individual perspective, however, written traces of their careers and professional activity are often hard to come by amongst the Venetian state papers; the deliberately faceless and anonymous representation of the Republic’s various councils meant that the voice of the individual secretary is far more muted than in other prominent examples across early modern Europe.[1]

One of the rare occasions in which the secretaries of the Republic were allowed a personal voice, however, was in the petitions and supplications addressed to their paymasters – the highly secretive executive body known as the Council of Ten – which now reside in the Venetian State Archives. Many of these petitions, in which the secretaries give a detailed narrative of their careers and activities in order to demonstrate their years of service to the state, were often submitted in the hope of salary increases, promotions within the ranks of the chancery, or even favourable treatment for their children as they too embarked upon the secretarial career path.

Vendramin's petition in the Venetian State Archives, 1614

Vendramin’s petition in the Venetian State Archives, 1614

In some cases, however, the stakes were significantly higher. Whilst looking through these semi-autobiographical records as part of my research into the history of the Venetian chancery,[2] I came across a particularly poignant and revealing example of the importance of petition writing for the livelihoods of Venice’s early modern secretaries. This particular petition was submitted by a former secretary of the Senate – the third highest ranking within the hierarchy of the chancery – Giacomo Vendramin, who in 1612 had been accused of revealing state secrets whilst serving the Venetian ambassador in Florence. Vendramin was ordered back to Venice to face trial, and was subsequently sentenced to two years imprisonment.[3]

In some respects, Vendramin had got off lightly. The revelation of state secrets – whether through design or negligence – had long been an extremely serious offence for those entrusted with compiling and registering government records. In one famous case in 1542, for example, an unfortunate secretary was publically strung up between the columns of Saint Mark’s Square after having been caught in the act of selling secret papers to an Ottoman spy.[4]

Perhaps spared the ultimate sanction due to the somewhat less clear-cut nature of his case,[5] Vendramin’s punishment was nevertheless significantly damaging, as his two year imprisonment was accompanied by a loss of all salaries and offices within the chancery. Any attempt to evade his punishment, the Council of Ten decreed, would result in even greater financial sanctions and a state of perpetual exile from the Republic and its territories.

Vendramin’s disappearance from the records of the Ten in the two years following his sentencing indicates that the secretary did indeed acquiesce with the decisions of his masters, and had returned to the city for his imprisonment. However, faced with potential financial ruin after the loss of his salary within the chancery, Vendramin remained at the mercy of his prosecutors, who were now to decide whether the former secretary could return to his former position after his release. It was in this regard that Vendramin finally submitted a written petition to the Council of Ten in November 1614, pleading his former masters to lift the terms of his suspension from the chancery and allow him to reclaim his livelihood.[6]

Taken in isolation, many aspects of Vendramin’s petition seem unremarkable. As one might expect from an individual who had been professionally trained in the art of scribal practice, his address largely mirrored the example of those submitted by his colleagues before him, as outlined below, as well as the more general conventions for addressing authority which are now being amply demonstrated through corpus linguistics and digital humanities techniques. However, it is the question of Vendramin’s guilt, as well as the outcome of the secretary’s plea, which renders this document an interesting artefact in the relationship between supplicants and the state.

Vendramin’s petition began with a supplicatory device which was typical of the many petitions presented by the secretaries of the Republic to their employers, ‘wish[ing] to bring to your attention the long history of service to this Most Serene Dominion carried out by my ancestors in singular and incorruptible faith.’ Long before addressing the main subject of the petition itself, Vendramin embarked on a cursus honorum of public service to the Republic, through which we learn that the majority of his career had been spent in the service of the city’s ambassadors across Europe:

I have undertaken through numerous travails in all the principal courts of Christendom – including twice in Germany, twice in France, once in Rome, and finally in Florence – and despite the well-known poverty and afflictions of my house I have contrived to remain resident for the entire duration of my service in Germany and Rome, having opened house three times in these two great Christian courts, where Your Serenity has had the most difficult and arduous negotiations.

Three familiar themes are notable in this opening section of the address: self-denial (‘I have abandoned all personal interest to serve in this city’), professional diligence (‘I have always endeavoured to distance myself from any manner of thing which may bring the Republic or Your Excellencies into disrepute’) and dynastic heritage, drawing upon the special citizenship status of the secretarial class by invoking the service of his ancestors as well as his own.

It is again with an emphasis on the family name that Vendramin finally approaches the issue of the sentencing itself:

I have suffered such disaster that I could not possibly suffer more, even in death, for the judgement made by Your Serenity upon my person has led to the complete ruin of my house. I do not know how my poor, ancient father, now at the age of eighty, can possibly cope with this distress without constant cries from his very spirit, by which I am reminded of my complete disgrace. As for me, it is only with God’s will, and the certainty of my pure and innocent faith that my troubled spirit is maintained, or I else I too would have fallen under the crushing weight of these afflictions.

As for the question of his guilt, Vendramin continued to plead his innocence, stating that his faithfulness to the Republic had been ‘thrown into doubt and suspicion’ by no more than ‘the false witness of a poorly informed individual.’ In order to reconcile his continued pleas of innocence with his willing acceptance of the sentence already imposed upon him, the secretary invoked the rhetoric of Christian piety, attributing his misfortunes to divine rather than civic retribution:

I do not accuse the verdict, rather I revere it as sacrosanct, but I do accuse my misfortune which by certain fate has caused me such ill, but from which I must still reasonably be saved, not only due to my absence from the city for some thirty-eight months whilst serving in Florence, but also my prompt appearance before the arbiters of justice, a full eight days before I was due. I have willingly suffered the punishment of one year’s imprisonment, not through the guilt of having been unfaithful to my Prince, but for my many offences to the Divine Majesty.

Citing confidence in his vindication in the eyes of the Lord – ‘as to Him nothing of our hearts is hidden’ – if not the deceivable judgement of his masters, Vendramin is able to request that the crippling conditions of his sentence be overturned, ‘thus giv[ing] notice to the world that I am no longer in such state of disgrace.’

Having previously mirrored the language of civic duty and a dynastic heritage, with phrases such as anni, tempo, servitio and padre as recurrent in his text as they are throughout the wider corpus of secretarial petitions, it was this final device which distinguishes Vendramin’s plea for clemency from the more quotidian requests for salary and offices submitted by his colleagues, bringing together these three fundamental themes in his concluding remarks:

I supplicate once again prostrate before the feet of Your Serenity, and Your Excellences, that by your singular benevolence and piety, and in memory of the service rendered by my ancestors and me, you may deign to return my poor aged father to full spirit and relieve my afflicted house and person with your grace, releasing me from the conditions of this sentence, as I have said. And to the Lord our God, who knows my heart and my deeds, and understands them fully, may it please his Divine Majesty that this will be repaid by pious work and service.

Certainly, the construction of Vendramin’s supplication was vindicated by its outcome. In the short term, the conditions of his sentence were lifted in a Council of Ten decree just two weeks after the date of his petition,[7] but perhaps more significant was the rehabilitation which the secretary enjoyed following his successful readmission to the chancery. In 1617, the superintendent of the city’s secret chancery archive reported that the once disgraced secretary had now been entrusted with the task of reordering and indexing the most sensitive records of the Republic,[8] and in 1621 Vendramin was given the highly salaried responsibility of recording the secrets of the government for posterity in one of the city’s central archival registers.[9]

To a certain extent, these laborious administrative tasks could be perceived as an ongoing form of penance for the once prominent diplomatic secretary. Nevertheless, this was a remarkable office to entrust to an individual who had previously been charged with the spreading of state secrets, especially by one of the most notorious body of censors in the early modern world.

Whether this case can be considered as a successful example of ‘addressing authority’ perhaps depends on the deliberative processes surrounding this document itself. Unlike many of the supplications submitted to governing bodies by the public during this time, Vendramin’s former prominence potentially afforded him the channels of communication to plead his case beyond the confines of the written document, with the formal petition presented after the fact. Indeed, the document itself has suggestions of theatricality, with the secretary ‘present[ing] myself before Your Serenity and Your Illustrious and Excellent Sirs, alongside my aged father, my sons, daughters and all my family […], prostrate before your most merciful feet’, and it was not unknown for the Venetian government to preserve ostensibly oral addresses in written format.[10] However, whether or not this was the document which preserved the income and livelihood of the Vendramin family, petitions such as this are a valuable artefact in preserving the voices, narratives and personal circumstance of an otherwise underrepresented section of Venetian society.

antonini-venice1610


[1] For a recent study of early modern secretaries, see Filippo de Vivo, Alessandro Silvestri, and Andrea Guidi (eds.), Archivi e archivisti in Italia tra Medioevo ed Età Moderna (Roma: Viella, 2015).

[2] Fabio Antonini, ‘“Kept within their chests for the benefit of their histories”: Archival reform and the rise of historical scholarship amongst the state records of early modern Venice’, Storia della Storiografia / History of Historiography, 68.2 (2015), pp. 37-52

[3] Venice, Archivio di Stato (ASVe), Consiglio dei Dieci, Deliberazioni, Criminali, Filze, b. 40

[4] Paolo Preto, I servizi segreti di Venezia. Spionaggio e controspionaggio ai tempi della Serenissima (Milano: Il Saggiatore, 1994), pp. 76-79

[5] In this instance, the charge brought against Vendramin was based on a third party accusation.

[6] ASVe, Consiglio dei Dieci, Deliberazioni, Comuni, Filze, b. 298

[7] Venice, Archivio di Stato, Consiglio dei Dieci, Deliberazioni, Comuni, reg. 64

[8] ASVe, Consiglio dei Dieci, Deliberazioni, Secrete, Filze, b. 32

[9] ASVe, Capi dei Dieci,

[10] Filippo de Vivo, ‘Archives of speech: recording diplomatic negotiation in late medieval and early modern Italy’, European History Quarterly, 46.3 (2016)

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3 thoughts on “‘Prostrate before your most merciful feet’: A Venetian secretary’s plea for clemency, 1614

  1. Pingback: Addressing Authority: An Online Symposium on Petitions and Supplications in Early Modern Society | the many-headed monster

  2. Wonderful post, Fabio. It is interesting to compare this supplication by a highly trained and experienced professional with the petition of Ester Cutler transcribed by Sharon Howard at the start of her post on eighteenth-century London petitioning. The differences aren’t terribly surprising: lengthy v. brief; rhetorically fluent v. prosaic; elegantly written v. roughly scrawled. However, it is noticeable that despite all this they still obeyed essentially the same ‘rules’ in terms of structure and humility.

  3. Pingback: Addressing Authority: some concluding thoughts | the many-headed monster

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