Lessons In Politics From The Past Master of Italian Intrigue

The Venetian Republic once set an example for the world.

Venice, An Odyssey - Italics Magazine Series on Venice
Photo: Kasia Drabek
Neal E. Robbins’ book, Venice, an Odyssey: Hope, Anger and the future of cities is out now.

How did the upstart Venetian Republic manage to sustain a single government for 900 years, longer than all others in the world, past and present? The reasons are a distant mirror worth looking back at to understand the weakness of governments today. Venice

That’s centuries more than the Han Dynasty or any government in the Roman empire, and even longer that its closest rival, the Byzantine empire. So what was it about the Republic run from its watery lagoon city that, despite wars, natural disasters, repeated visitations of the plague, its political system had such longevity?

The first reason, one suspects, is that it was a sort of democracy in an age of feudalism. Whereas the other Italian city states suffered the abrupt changes in leadership and self-serving capriciousness of kings and tyrants, Venice overcame that problem by the early 12th century, putting real power in the hands of its elected consultative councils chosen by and made up of aristocrats and patricians. The doge led by moral example, but was tightly bound in what he could do, the favors he could take and even the people he could meet with. These restrictions grew over time, and withstood even an attempt at a coup.

Venice, forewarned by its own early period of bloody strife for power, built up rules and regulations that made it harder and harder for any individual to dominate. Overlapping jurisdictions of the Senate and other bodies meant no group could push ahead a decision alone. The election of the doge was based on a convoluted election system from designed to fend off plotting and factions, in short imbroglio, a word inherited from Venice. To elect a doge, the Great Council typically selected 30 men by lot, who chose 9 of their own number, who nominated 40 candidates, of whom 12 were chosen by lot, and these men chose 24, who drew lots for 9 and named 45 from whom 11 selected 41, who actually voted. The result was an unbroken series of 120 doges.

But the longevity was founded on much more than a system. Behind these evolving rules of engagement lay an ethos distinguished by its focus on practicality. The men — and it was always men — who ran Venice came not from an hereditary class so much as from families who had made money through trade. They were merchants, giving government what today we would understand as a business mindset: they knew the value of a contract, of looking at results and eschewing ideologies. When Venice expanded into the Adriatic and beyond, creating colonies for its empire, it accepted pre-existing local laws, established rule with limited intervention and created a rigorous legal system that left no one above the law. The great legacy of documentation in the Venetian archives, with its 72 kilometers of records — ranging from court records, to wills and treaties — gives testimony to the great care with which agreements were created and honored. Justice was an expectation for everyone. It mattered.

This makes it easier to understand how the government kept popular loyalty, even though in effect just 1% of the population took part in governance. The Venetian people supported their government, which took great pains to communicate to the public its efforts on their behalf, to the extent of holding at key moments a great “town meeting” in St Mark’s Basilica to sell its decisions. In normal times, the leaders performed some 40 civic-religious processions through St Mark’s Square and the streets of the city in part to drive home the mythology of Venice that the government had god-given right to rule foretold by St Mark. For good measure the Virgin Mary was often depicted as representing the state in the sculpture and paintings of state, building on the cult of Mary that was widely practiced in Venice.

This elaborate propaganda, tells us that the state, even one as pragmatic and in ways un-ideological as Venice, needed public trust. And even in it last centuries, when Venice was losing its power, its empire, its reputation and wealth, when society fell into a sort of decadence, Venetians stayed true and did not rebel. It was only when Napoleon invaded, seemingly on a whim, in the spring of 1797 that Venice’s own government gave in to external might and ended its rule — making the decision in a final chaotic vote with the attackers at its door.

Venice an Odyssey Book cover

Neal E. Robbins’ book, Venice, an Odyssey: Hope, Anger and the future of cities is out now.

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