Lessons for the Left on the Price of Civilization

A happy coincidence of scheduling found Callista and me in Italy on Columbus Day weekend, the birthplace nation of Christopher Columbus. He was from Genoa, and we were in Venice — but as we discovered, Columbus’ Italy is filled with a history that Americans value.

Perhaps no one was more aptly named than Columbus. Christopher (literally “Christ Bearer”) is the name taken from the saint who is to millions of Catholics the patron saint of travelers. And a traveler he was. Centuries before the sexton and other navigation tool, Columbus ventured to find for Spain a westward and competing route to spice-rich India. A great navigator, he was not. He ended up finding the Western Hemisphere instead.

So maybe he wasn’t a great navigator, but he was an extraordinary mariner and certainly one of the most important explorers. Up until recently, Columbus had enjoyed a prominent place in American history. But because of the left’s ongoing historical revisionism of Western civilization, Columbus has become a fashionable target of ridicule. The elites like to paint Columbus as nothing more than someone who spread disease, inflicted genocide and destroyed the native civilizations of the New World.

But if these elites learned historic fact instead of historic spin, they would know that Columbus brought with him to the West a set of habits and ideas that helped lay the foundation for American greatness. (Then again, perhaps herein lies the reason for the left’s attack on Columbus: They find these American traits unacceptable.)

Venice offers a new perspective and a re-affirmation of the values that built America: the power of entrepreneurship, the creativity of the human mind and the necessity of a national defense.

Proof was all around us.

What follows are my notes from our tour of this extraordinary city of water. They are offered this Columbus Day week as a lesson in perspective and humility and as a reminder of all that we have built as Americans — and all we have to lose.

Art and Beauty, Brought to You by Prosperity and Power

What first struck me as Callista and I toured Venice and listened to our remarkably informed guide, Alessandro Giannatasio, was the comparative depth and richness of the Republic of Venice and the lessons it offered for America.

Venice is an ancient city whose very architecture testifies to its history. Keep in mind that the average house in Venice is more than 500 years old — not the oldest house, the average house.

Which means most of Venice’s homes were built during the 1,100 years that Venice was a republic — from around 697 until another Italian descendent (later a French general turned emperor), Napoléon Bonaparte, a Corsican (Corsica was then part of the Republic of Genoa), ended it in 1797.

Venice is famous for its art and beauty, of course. But few take the time to understand what made this possible.

Here was a city-state dedicated to creating jobs and prosperity and, as a consequence, seeking enough military power to protect its wealth. It acquired military power through technological and organizational superiority in a manner every American should be able to identify with. Then, having become one of the three or four wealthiest cities in the world (by 1450 there were 250,000 people in Venice itself and, at its peak, 3.5 million people in the Republic of Venice), Venetians began to invest their wealth in art and music and great churches.

If you visit Venice and tour the churches, schools and museums remember that Titian, Tintoretto and the other remarkable artists were supported by the accumulated prosperity of a thousand years of business effort and careful defensive preparations.

The Venetian Arsenal of Democracy

The Venetian model of national security was based on sea power. After all, Venice is a collection of small islands. The Venetians understood early on that having naval supremacy was critical to their safety and their freedom.

One key contribution of Venetian naval power came in 1571 when, at Lepanto, they joined other European powers in defeating the Ottoman Empire. That victory was so decisive that the Ottomans would never again threaten the West in terms of naval power.

To ensure its national security, Venice invented the arsenal. This is a word now used worldwide to denote centers of military production and military equipment storage.

The Venetian Arsenal is so huge it covers 20 percent of the land area of the city. Compare that investment in national security to the anemic, less than 4 percent of GDP America currently invests.

Way Ahead of Henry Ford

The Venetian Arsenal was not just big, it was also the most technically advanced production center in the world.

A thousand years ago, Venetians understood standardized parts and assembly lines (something Eli Whitney would apply to gun manufacturing around 1800 and Henry Ford applied to automobile production in 1905). Venetians were using the same system of productivity about 1,000 years earlier with the same effect: It made them the wealthiest people in Europe.

Sobering Reminders of Venice’s Decline

As we toured, there are also some sobering lessons in Venice’s decline.

It was the deforestation of Venetian territories in the Dolomite Mountains and along the Dalmatian coast that eventually made it very difficult to get enough timber to continue building the ships in the Venetian navy.

And it was the absence of a sound public health system that led to the terrible plagues of 1575 and 1630, which reduced the city to 140,000 people.

Yet, despite these problems, the wealth and culture of the Venetian Republic continued to contribute to civilization.

It was in Venetian-controlled Brescia, for example, that the violin probably originated.

A Fascinating Reality That Goes Against Left-Wing Sentimentality

One sign of Venice’s longevity is found in two of its most famous private companies. Their diversity is a good reminder of the complexity of high civilizations.

The Segusi family has been making world famous Murano glass for more than 600 years. As family businesses go, that is a record to which to aspire.

The other great historic business in Venice is Beretta, which has been making guns since 1525.

It is a fascinating reality that goes against left-wing sentimentality. Beretta helped make it possible to protect the glassmakers of Murano, and businesses creating wealth made it possible to sustain the art and artists for which Venice is known.

This is a useful dynamic to keep in mind as we go through the next few years’ debates.

The Political Roots of Prosperity

Remember also that the glory of Venice grew out of the marshes. The city-state was based on a series of islands connected by boats. At its peak, Venice had 11,000 gondoliers moving people among the islands.

As we see the politically imposed poverty of Gaza, Zimbabwe, Cuba and now Venezuela, we need to remember that the human spirit is far more important than natural resources or geography in making people productive and prosperous.

There was no geographic or natural resource advantage that helped Venice to become one of the three or four wealthiest cities in the world during the Middle Ages.

The rise of Venice was a function of human creativity, drive and entrepreneurship within a legal and political framework that encouraged the acquisition of wealth and honored the process of productivity and economic growth.

If the poorest societies and countries in the world studied the lessons of 1,000 years of Venetian productivity and commerce, they would learn a lot more than they will learn from those touting big-government, big-bureaucracy theories that have never created wealth.

Marco Polo and Chinese Civilization

One Venetian traveler is especially noteworthy.

Marco Polo spent 35 years traveling to and living in China. His story is a useful reminder of the history of Chinese invention and prosperity as the wealthiest and most advanced society in the 13th Century when Marco Polo brought back paper, silk, gunpowder and, most amazingly, spaghetti.

So the next time someone complains about China’s learning from us, remind them how much we learned from China.

Columbus, Venice and Lessons for a Much Younger Republic

The other intriguing traveler who changed not only Venetian but world history is the man we honored this week.

When Columbus crossed the Atlantic and discovered the New World, he signaled the beginning of the end of the Venetian system. The Atlantic was about to replace the Mediterranean as the center of trade. Sailing ships were about to replace the famous vessels of the Serenissima (called “galleys”) that were rowed. The national states of Northern Europe were about to grow too big for a city-state, even one as wealthy as Venice, to compete.

Nonetheless, the Venetian story is a fascinating story, and it is one well worth studying and thinking about in seeking lessons for America and the future of our much younger republic.

Newt Gingrich

P.S. — My daughter, Jackie Cushman, wrote a column about a good cause she and my other daughter, Kathy Lubbers, are engaged in. It’s a moving story of two sisters literally walking their way to better health and a better quality of life for millions of people. I hope you enjoy it.