Secrets of the Secret City: Braavos and its Venetian Parallels

Shrouded in secrecy for centuries, the Free City of Braavos is arguably the most unique of the Nine Free Cities.  The culture, people, politics, and history of Braavos are very different from its sister cities, and thus it is sometimes referred to as “Valyria’s Bastard.”  This uniqueness and independence from the other descendants of Valyria parallels the way medieval and Renaissance Venetians saw their city.  It is quite apparent from the way Braavos is depicted in the books, show, and official map that it is physically a reference to Venice.  The canals, bridges, and island all make it look very Venetian.  However, there are many elements in Braavos as well that do not correspond to Venice, along with fantasy elements.  George R.R. Martin does not simply poach from Venetian history and architecture, but rather he amalgamates Venice with other references and adds fantastic elements to make his world more interesting.  Examining the culture and political structure of Braavos closely, they actually match up with Renaissance Venice much more closely than the other Free Cities.

Before examining Braavos in detail one must consider the wider context of the Free Cities.  The most obvious reference the Free Cities have are the Italian City States of the medieval and Renaissance period.  But how medieval are these cities?  Benjamin Breen in his article has argued that the Free Cities (and the whole world of ASOIAF) are actually a parallel to the early modern world.  As problematic as this article is, it does raise some interesting points about the Free Cities.  The global trade networks that run through the Free Cities,the proto-corporations, and intellectual curiosity of the maesters are the reasons why Breen thinks ASOIAF is early modern, and thus absence of these elements would be ‘really’ medieval.[1]  Breen thus sees the medieval world as full of ignorance and superstition, and by attempting to argue the world’s ‘modernity’ Breen attempts to fit the Free Cities into a parallel with the Italian Renaissance.  Yet the attempt to fit the Free Cities as a parallel for the Renaissance fails because they lack the most important element of Renaissance thought: a self-consciousness of the epoch.  Renaissance intellectuals wrote of their time as a new period in history, and clearly delineated their ‘modern’ times with the dark, barbaric, and ignorant past.  Nowhere in ASOIAF does this recognition appear.  Thus the characters think in a very medieval mindset, which is not to say they are ignorant and intellectually stagnant, but they simply do not have the tripartite view (Classical, Dark, and Modern) of history as the Renaissance intellectuals had.  It is important to note that Martin does have a lot of parallels to the Renaissance Italian city-states, especially with Braavos, but they all lack the intellectual driving force for it to be an early-modern parallel, and thus operate in a medieval mindset.

The culture of Braavos is an interesting creation because Martin incorporates a lot of Renaissance ideas and values without actually making it a Renaissance parallel.  To examine these values an excellent example can be seen in the famed swordsmen of the city: the bravos.  The most striking of these swordsmen is none other than Syrio Forel, the former First Sword to the Sealord of Braavos.  In this clip, pay close attention to how Syrio moves and his mannerisms . The interesting aspect of Syrio’s movement is the effortless ease he employs.  He demonstrates this in his first “dancing lesson” with Arya, when her attempts to strike him are easily deflected, even when his back is turned.  Syrio also looks rather bored or slightly amused that Arya is trying to strike him.  This effortless grace parallels with the important Renaissance value of sprezzatura that all Italian noblemen aspired to gain.  Sprezzatura, meant effecting a character of nonchalance and having the ability to perform all manner of skills with little effort and in a graceful style.  It was important not to look too obvious in trying to effect sprezzatura and over exerting it could backfire in an attempt to effect it.[2]  The most significant text on sprezzatura was Baldesar Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, written in the early sixteenth century.  Castiglione advises his reader “…to practice in all things a certain sprezzatura so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.”[3]  Thus it is quite apparent that Syrio’s mannerism carries with it a sense of sprezzatura.  Additionally, Syrio clearly has a distaste for the way Westerosi knights fight, describing it with words like hacking and slashing.  Finally, the description of Syrio’s fighting style, the water dance, also evokes sprezzatura.  The water dancers gain their name from the custom of duelling one another on the Moon Pool of Braavos, and supposedly “…can fight and kill upon the pool’s surface without disturbing the water itself.”[4]  Even if this claim is skeptical, as Pilman of Lannisport believes, he still insists that “…he never saw anything like it for grace or skill…”[5]  The water dancers of Braavos thus demonstrate through their fighting style the Renaissance value of sprezzatura, yet it is important to note that having this value does not make the world a Renaissance parallel, but rather Martin simply borrows ideas from other periods without removing the medievalism in ASOIAF.

The Braavosi also mirror the Venetians in their view of a relatively egalitarian society.  Although this view was mostly a fabrication in Venice, it was widely promoted by foreigners and Venetians alike, and the Braavosi also parallel these views.  One interesting way these views manifested themselves was in clothing, and Samwell has a rocky encounter with bravos on account of his black clothes, where in Braavos only “…the mighty dressed in charcoal gray and purple, blues that were almost black and blacks as dark as a moonless night.”[6]  In Sam’s encounter, the bravos challenge him and say that “…you dress above your station.  Are you some great lord to wear black?”[7]        This example demonstrates the reality of social orders in Braavos even though the myth of equality is maintained.  The myth is supported in The World of Ice and Fire, where the maester writes that “[i]n Braavos men and women from far-flung corners of the world may sit together…All are welcome in the Secret City, it is said.”[8]  Thus the maester perpetuates the myth of equality in Braavos while there are still real social distinctions.  This egalitarian myth is similar to Venice, but Venetian society was actually divided into hierarchies in 1315 in the serrata (closing) where noble families were listed, and all others were barred from government.[9]  Venice’s myth was that all the classes worked together for the state’s good, and this can be seen in Marin Sanudo’s Laus Urbis Venetae, where he writes that “…there is no sedition from the non-nobles (populo), no discord among the patricians, but all work together to [the Republic’s] increase.”[10]  Thus both Braavos and Venice have some kind of myth about their respective societies that support society and prevent it from breaking down.  In Venice, the myth actually held some truth, as there never was a great revolt of the lower classes, which many of the other city-states could not avoid.  On a final note about clothing, Sanudo writes that “[t]he gentlemen are not distinguished from the citizens by their clothes, because they all dress in much the same way…[they] almost always wear long black robes…”[11]  Thus this passage reveals how Martin both maintains the egalitarian beliefs of Venice, while turning the clothing that was supposed to equalize society into symbols of distinction and class.

The Titan of Braavos and the city from HBO Game of Thrones

The Titan of Braavos and the city from HBO Game of Thrones

Venice from the air

Aerial photo of Venice

These two images of Braavos and Venice thus demonstrates how physically alike they are.  The cartographer of the official map, Jonathan Roberts, writes that “Braavos obviously has a heavy Venetian inspiration both in the cities [sic] construction and its architecture.”[12]  The buildings and the canals thus evoke a Venetian tone to Braavos.  The major civic buildings have also been depicted on Roberts’ map with very heavy Venetian influences.

The Sealord's Palace, from The Lands of Ice and Fire, "Braavos"

The Sealord’s Palace, from The Lands of Ice and Fire, “Braavos”

The Sealord’s Palace here has a clear resemblance to the Palazzo Ducale, which was the residence of the Doge of Venice (see image below). The Sealord’s Palace complex boasts the same loggia that the Palazzo Ducale has, but the Sealord’s Palace is a much more expansive complex than the Palazzo Ducale, probably to make it seem more fantastic.  Additionally a menagerie can be seen in the back of the Sealord’s Palace “with its magnificent menagerie of queer beasts and birds from all around the world…”[13]  The menagerie demonstrates Braavos’ many trade connections with the entire world.  Although the Palazzo Ducale did not possess something as exotic as a menagerie, it too was built with Venice’s global trade network in mind.  On the construction of the Palazzo, it is written that “[t]he outside walls are all worked over and inlaid with white marble and with stones from all over the wall.  Inside, the walls on the ground floor are all gilded and inlaid with panelling so that it is a very beautiful sight.”[14]  Thus the Palazzo Ducale was built to proclaim Venice’s dominance in trade, with its connections all over the world, and Braavos’ Palace seeks to make it more fantastic, with a menagerie and a much larger complex.

The Palazzo Ducale, Venice

The Palazzo Ducale, Venice

Both cities also have a unique tie to the sea.  Venice had existed since the early Middle Ages, but it was only until the late Medieval to Renaissance periods that the rest of Europe recognized their dominance at sea, which was the source of their wealth and power.  Thus in 1380, Pope Pius II remarked after the Venetian victory over the Genoese that “…from that time Venetians were the lords of the sea.”[15]  This phrase is a clear reference to Braavos’ head of state, the Sealord, who similarly to the Doge of Venice was elected for life.  The domination of the sea, and the belief that both of these cities had a unique connection to the sea is also apparent.  These beliefs were manifested in annual ceremonies.  The Doge would sail out on the Bucintoro (a huge ceremonial barge) once a year and toss a golden ring into the sea to symbolize Venice’s marriage to the sea in an event known as the Sensa.[16]  Similarly, the Braavosi have a marriage ceremony to the sea, where the Father of Waters’ “…house is built anew whenever he takes his bride.”[17]  Thus both cities share a unique relationship with the sea that contributes to their wealth and power, and ceremonies were created to demonstrate the cities’ dominance over the sea.

No discussion of Braavos is complete without examining the Iron Bank, the institution that supplies the Iron Throne with a large portion of its funds, and something that terrifies even Tywin Lannister.  The way the Iron Bank operates, and the resources it has exists very much in the realm of fantasy and have no real parallel to medieval or Renaissance banking institutions, as demonstrated in the video below.

Of course Venice and the other city states had powerful banks throughout the middle ages and beyond, but none existed with as much wealth or power as the Iron Bank.  In the Middle Ages, when kingdoms repudiated its loans, major banks collapsed.  Thus the Iron Bank is a fantasy element of Braavos because it apparently has so many resources that it can fund the war of a kingdom, then back its rival when it refuses to pay its debts.  Their resources must be incredibly astonishing because the Iron Bank chooses to back Stannis, who has basically no resources.  As the bank envoy said, Stannis has only a few thousand men and a couple ships, and no provisions to feed them.  This means that the bank has to pay for provisions, buy new ships, and hire more soldiers just to give Stannis a fighting chance.  Thus, up to this date, the Iron Bank has financed the War of Five Kings for the Lannisters, and also Stannis’ cause.  As Tywin said in the video above, the Lannisters have produced no gold in the last three years, which means the Iron Bank has basically funded two armies up to this point in the story.  Of course, there are still some parallels to medieval banking, as kings would often receive funding for their many wars through loans., but the Bank’s wealth clearly exists in the realm of fantasy as medieval banks simply collapsed after a king refused to repay a loan.

Finally the founding history of both Braavos and Venice stress their independence.

In the lore segment above, it is clear that Ser Jorah views Braavos as one of the more unique Free Cities, unlike the others where he mostly just glosses over and describes their wares.  Braavos is unique because of their unique founding history, which was not by the Freehold of Valyria, but against it.  Venice also has a similar founding story, where the city was founded not “…voluntarily but out of fear, not by deliberate decision but from necessity…[and built as] an obstacle to barbarians and attackers.”[18]  Thus the founding story of Venice parallels that of Braavos, and emphasize the necessity of the cities’ founding, along with them being a refuge for its citizens.  However, Braavos’ founding created a unique characteristic that is not seen anywhere in the Middle Ages, which is complete religious freedom.  On account of the city’s founding by slaves from a multitude of cultures “…all gods were given their due and decreed that none would ever be made paramount over another.”[19]  Although this religious freedom seems modern, it is a unique phenomenon in Martin’s world and is seen nowhere else in the present story world.  Thus Breen’s argument falls apart here, because he argues that the religious freedom seen in the world demonstrates how it is early modern, but the separation of church and state and the growth of religious tolerance happened gradually, and was not isolated in a single city.  Thus the history of the founding resulted in both parallels to Venice’s founding and unique creations of Martin’s.

It is important to note that the references to Venetian culture and society in Braavos create a kind of blurred medievalism that seems like a strict parallel to Renaissance Venice.  One should note that these Venetian myths and ceremonies date back to the Middle Ages (the sensa dates back to around the eleventh century) and carried on into the Renaissance, where most popular knowledge/imagination of the city comes from.  Thus these Venetian characteristics are easily fit into a Renaissance setting while in reality they are very medieval ideas that carried on into Renaissance period.

                                                                                      

[1] Benjamin Breen “Why Game of Thrones Isn’t Medieval,” Pacific Standard June 12, 2014 http://www.psmag.com/books-and-culture/game-thrones-isnt-medieval-matters-83288.

[2] Lisa Kaborycha, A Short History of Renaissance Italy (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2011), 233.

[3] Baldesar Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier trans. Charles S. Singleton ed. Edgar Mayhew (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2002), 32.

[4] George R.R. Martin, et al.  The World of Ice and Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones (New York: Bantam Books, 2014), 276.

[5] Ibid.

[6] George R.R. Martin A Feast for Crows (New York: Bantam Books, 2011), 548.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Martin, World of Ice and Fire, 275.

[9] Kaborycha, Italian Renaissance, 149.

[10] David Chambers and Brian Pullman, ed., Venice: A Documentary History, 1450-1630 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), 21.

[11] Ibid, 6-7.

[12] Jonathan Roberts, “The Free City of Braavos” Fantastic Maps: maps of Real and Fantasy Worlds.

http://www.fantasticmaps.com/2013/03/the-free-city-of-braavos/ (accessed March 3, 2015)

[13] Martin, The World of Ice and Fire, 275.

[14] Chambers and Pullman, Venice, 16.

[15] Kaborycha, Italian Renaissance, 152.

[16] Ibid, 155.

[17] Martin, Feast for Crows, 127.

[18] Chambers and Pullman, Venice, 4.

[19] Martin, World of Ice and Fire, 271.

Bibliography

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