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A Closer Examination of Paolo Sarpi and the Uses of Information in the Seventeenth-Century Venice

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A Closer Examination of Paolo Sarpi and the Uses of Information in the Seventeenth-Century Venice

Paolo Sarpi was a scholarly friar who was a driving force in trying to change government policy concerning the distribution of information and played a significant role in the politics of seventeenth-century Venice. Through his political ties and extensive information networks, he managed to make known his thoughts on just how powerful information could be in the proper as well as improper hands. Looking at Sarpi’s scholarly and political contributions during this time period serve to show that he was a profound and progressive thinker whose ideas on the happenings within Venice and beyond revolved around three major themes of communication studies: that media allows us to “experience” distant events as they occur via information networks, that media, such as the avvisi, influences thought, psychological organization, and social and institutional organization, and that the media are never neutral as shown by propaganda charged political writings (Black, Chunn, Edwards and Heyer 2).

The reference article, Filippo De Vivo’s paper Paolo Sarpi and the Uses of Information in the Seventeenth-Century Venice, is structured very much like a standard essay in that it has an introduction, thesis, supporting paragraphs for the points brought up by the thesis, and a conclusion. The title of De Vivo’s paper is an accurate depiction of what the subject matter pertains to which is about Paolo Sarpi and the uses of information in Venice during the seventeenth-century. Background information regarding Venice and its information network start the paper off. It is then established that information that was once only available to the elite classes such as merchants and politicians was then made available to the masses as a saleable commodity in the form of newsletters called avvisi (De Vivo 37). His network expanded beyond that which was available to the common people and he had access to information only available to one with political ties such as his and predictably he made great use of those sources. Besides having written correspondences with ranking officials of other nations, which had severe consequences if caught doing so, Sarpi would regularly meet with both domestic and foreign merchants and other travelers to discuss the happenings abroad, which also frowned upon by the government. The thesis of the article is introduced as an explanation of Sarpi’s use of the newly developing means of information (38). To do this, De Vivo details how Sarpi kept updated on both domestic and foreign affairs through his long-reaching information network, analyzes Sarip’s uses of the information, both as a means of political action to influence government decisions, and as a tool of propaganda destined for wider spheres of the public (38). To add a deeper understanding of Sarpi’s methods of using information as a political tool, De Vivo also explains in what context propaganda is used in that time and place and how it differed between Sarpi and other writers of reason of state (38). It should be noted that Sarpi’s views and suggested policies on how information should be handled was radical at the time and not very popular with the government, however his reasoning was well thought out and rational which history later confirms.

Sarpi’s information network was vast and it was a tool that drew upon many different sources. One of his most obvious and common source was the avvisi, the newsletter that was available twice weekly to anyone who could afford it. Venice was a crucial harbor between long-distance maritime routes and many foreign visitors would constantly be coming and going bringing with them news from where they last came (37). This relates directly to Chapter 16, The Trade in News, of the course textbook which details the various information networks that arose in early modern Europe. The particular information network that was established and applies to this case would be the networks that were linked to the expansion of commercial activity (Thompson 115). Professional news-writers of the time who compiled the avvisi would glean the information where they could, usually through word of mouth via traveling merchants, and what was written in one newsletter would be taken and used to bolster the content of another and so forth. Because of this, Sarpi would gather all the available newsletters and pore over them absorbing all the knowledge of affairs both within the empire and without and compose his own analysis on what he had learned which he would then share with others, in particular with his correspondences. Sarpi’s political station allowed him access to information regarding events occurring outside of Venice whether it came in the form of reports or accounts from foreign diplomats and so forth. Sarpi kept correspondences with political figures in England and the Netherlands to name a few and with the information he gleaned he was able to spread the experiences of the occurrences within the world to his fellow scholars and others who shared his same hunger for news and they similarly kept him updated with information they themselves had been gathering or came across. For example, he was able to ask one of his French correspondents about the movements of the Spanish fleets (De Vivo 40). This clearly shows media such as the avvisi, oral accounts, and written correspondences allowing Sarpi and others to “experience” distant events that occurred both near and far though not instantaneously but to a degree which would have been impossible if not for the efficiency of their information networks.

With the rise of newsletters like the avvisi which made trade and political information widely available, the public was then able to form opinions about the subjects discussed. Of particular interest were the dealings within the government. Though the avvisi were also used by the politically elite, they were appalled at this spread of information (37). When the public had no knowledge of why a certain action was being taken by the government or other political power, they could not rightly question the decisions being made. However, they began to question and voice their own thoughts on what was being done when the newsletters opened their eyes to the happenings in their environment. The elite did not appreciate having their decisions being second-guessed or even questioned as Ludovico Zuccolo recapitulated in Venice, �few are the men who, having no experience of government, don’t want to judge the administration of republics and empires’, down to the humblest artisans �think they know what is done for the reason of state and what is not’



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