Contarini's Commonwealth and Government of Venice, translated by Lewkenor


The Commonwealth and Government of Venice played a pivotal role in conveying the myth of 16th-century Venice to an English audience. First written in Latin by Cardinal Gasparo Contarini, it was translated into English in 1599 by Lewis Lewkenor. With a string of hyperboles, the book idealises the city as a perfect example of justice, tolerance, trade and imperial power.

Justice and humanity towards strangers

In his letter ‘To the Reader’, Lewkenor describes how travellers talk of Venice as the thing ‘most infinitely remarkable, that they had seen in the whole course of their travels’ (sig. A1v–A2r). Some people celebrate ‘the greatnes of their Empire’ and their ‘zeale in religion’ (sig. A2r). Others praise the justice system as ‘pure and uncorrupted’ (sig. A2v).

However, Lewkenor also notes the ‘monstrously strange’ geography of this ‘glorious’ city. It is seated ‘in the middle of the sea’ with its ‘pallaces, monasteries, temples’ founded on marshy ‘Quagmires’ (sig. A3r).

Lewkenor says many young travellers are particularly impressed by the Venetians’ ‘humanitie towards strangers’ (A1v). He describes the ‘unmeasurable quantity’ of merchandise coming from ‘all realms and countries’, but he is also struck by its multinational mixture of people. The ‘wonderful concourse of strange and forraine people … of the farthest and remotest nations’ makes Venice a ‘generall market to the whole world’ (p. 1).

Lewkenor and Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice and Othello

In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare seems to confront and complicate this idea of a tolerant, cosmopolitan city. The relationship between Shylock, the Jewish moneylender and the Christians of Venice is not defined by ‘humanitie’. The trial in Act 4, Scene 1 also raises questions about the Venetian reputation for exemplary legal justice.

Kenneth Muir has argued that Shakespeare must have consulted Lewkenor’s book when he was writing Othello – another play exploring the complex role of a ‘stranger’ in Venice. Muir highlights Lewkenor’s pleasure in hearing travellers’ tales of ‘paineful inconveniences’ (sig. A1v). He sees parallels in the way Desdemona listens ‘with a greedy ear’ to the painful ‘story of [Othello’s] life’ (1.3.149; 129).

Full title:
The Commonwealth and Gouernment of Venice. Written by the Cardinall Gasper Contareno, and translated out of Italian into English, by Lewes Lewkenor ... With sundry other collections, annexed by the translator for the more cleere and exact satisfaction of the reader. With a short chronicle in the end, of the liues and raignes of the Venetian Dukes, from the very beginnings of their citie
1599, London
Book / Quarto
Giovanni Matteo Contarini, Lewis Lewkenor [translator]
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

Full catalogue details

Related articles

Shakespeare’s Italian journeys

Article by:
Andrew Dickson
Shakespeare’s life and world, Global Shakespeare

Shakespeare set many of his plays in Italy, though he almost certainly never went there. Andrew Dickson assesses how much Shakespeare knew about the country and its people, and describes how the playwright drew from myth and reality to create a rich imaginative space.

An introduction to Volpone

Article by:
Sean McEvoy
Renaissance writers

Sean McEvoy explores Ben Jonson's Volpone, looking at Jonson's daring, unique brand of comedy and the play's treatment of money, greed and morality.

Questions of Value in The Merchant of Venice

Article by:
Farah Karim-Cooper
Comedies, Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage, Power, politics and religion

The valuation of property and people – particularly women – in Shakespeare’s Venice reflects contemporary anxieties nearer home, suggests Farah Karim-Cooper.

Related collection items

Related works


Created by: William Shakespeare

The plot of Othello revolves around a Moorish general who has achieved great military feats on behalf of the state ...