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Posted February 16, 2013
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Writing his 1831 novel THE BRAVO midway through a lengthy sojourn in Europe, James Fenimore Cooper took mid-15th Century Venice as precisely the kind of government that the new USA was not. "Venice, though ambitious and tenacious of the name of a republic, was, in truth, a narrow, a vulgar, and an exceedingly heartless oligarchy" (Ch. XI). Its leader, the Doge, was a puppet trotted out for ceremonial occasions such as the wedding of Venice with the Adriatic, lavishly described in THE BRAVO. The Doge was "the titular sovereign of that still more titular Republic" (Ch. X).
Cooper wanted his fellow Americans to think better of themselves. All too accustomed they were to accept European views of the New Worlders as ignorant, uncreative, uncivilized and generally inferior. Cooper saw the U. S. Constitution as something new in the world. In the USA men were citizens, not subjects. Government existed to assure justice and good to all citizens, not just the rich. How better show Americans their opposite in virtue, especially in equal justice for all, than by holding up a mirror to Venice in mid 15th Century, in early decline. It was already a tightly controlled police state. Profligate sons of the mighty are shown great indulgence and not likely to be severely punished. But simple fishermen can be imprisoned on false charges or sent to the galleys to protect the Republic, a service never required of sons of the powerful.
A bravo is a paid assassin. In the novel young Jacopo Frontoni is known throughout Venice as a bravo. He is feared because, despite his reputation, the Senate, the Council of Thirty and the dread secret Council of Three never move against him until the very end. Much of Cooper's great work of historical fiction slowly explains how Jacopo was made to seem a bravo for the ruthless "good" of the Venetian state.
Jacopo's short, unhappy life intersects with that of the daughter of the warden of the prison beyond the Bridge of Sighs where Jacopo's father lies dying. Their lives in turn intersect with those of a powerful Duke prevented by Venice from wedding a rich orphaned heiress. The heiress, Donna Violetta Tiepolo, has a Carmelite priest spiritual advisor who explains to her the evils of the Venetian State. He also hears the final confession of a spirited old fisherman Antonio Vecchio who asks no more of Venice than that it free his 14-year old grandson from duties on the Republic's war galleys.
THE BRAVO introduced to Americans of the Trail of Tears years pre-Reformation Catholic Italy in all its individual heroism and corporate depravity. We see gondola races for rich prizes. We hear the serenades of gondoliers. We marvel at the ability of a dying state like Venice to assume first place in the consciences of most of its patricians. We suffer with poor fisherman and spied upon private gondoliers. Venice is Communist East Germany 500 years before the Berlin Wall. A grand tale! -OOO-