By Prof. Romano Toppan
University Professor – Philosopher and writer
“A ghost upon the sands of the sea, so weak –
so quiet – so bereft of all but her loveliness,
that we might well doubt, as we watched her
faint reflection in the mirage of the lagoon,
which was the City and which the Shadow”
(John Ruskin, The stones of Venice)
Why Venice and its surrounding territories deserve to be independent again
To come to Venice means to enter into a city world, which encompasses the footprint of the East and West, of Rome and Greece, of the feelings of Christianity and the respect for Islam, a town which loved always a steady approach to the freedom, cross-cultural vision and pragmatic tolerance.
Therefore, our approach to Venice can be transformed in cultural experience and enlarge our horizons to the “core” facets of Venice and its magnificent and extraordinary history.
The dignity and prestige of Venice, in all its aspects (artistic, architectural, urban, beauty) are firmly founded on the Most Serene Republic.
Venice is a window on the best practices of the civilization, where to look for the secrets of the prosperity of our region, the well-being of our life: Venice, before the American Constitution, aimed at the happiness of its citizens.
Venice as cradle of renewed European Civilization in the past
As far as the first reason is concerned, the motivations which justify the candidature of Venice, are connected with the role played by that town in the capacity building of European Recovery Strategy, after the fall of Roman Empire, working in favor of the European prosperity and joining finally, around year 1000, the same level of well-being was enjoyed at the time of 300 AD, after seven centuries of scarcity, poverty and not rarely long famines..
Many factors favored this recovery: the crisis of the feudalism, the birth of the “Free Communes” and their new social classes of merchants, entrepreneurs and especially craftsmen or skilled workers with their own statutes and corporations. But one of the rare “Communes” that were able to keep the typical and specific “Commune’s governance” was Venice, without any hesitation or going in reverse: merchants, entrepreneurs and craftsmen remained the rulers of the town for ever, until the extinction of Republic in 1797.
Venice was a symbol of the new Europe and society, according to Adam Smith and other Enlightenment’s thinkers: a society founded on the merits and competencies, not on “divine right” and social state.
According to the doctrine of “divine right”, only God can judge an unjust king. The doctrine implies that any attempt to depose the king or to restrict his powers runs contrary to the will of God and may constitute a sacrilegious act.
At contrary, in Venice, the Dukes were submitted to the election and approval of people. The few of them, who tried to become “sovereign” with hereditable right, were decapitated. Their power was strongly restricted by a very complex balance between the different powers and roles.
A world city
Venice was defined by Fernand Braudel, the great historian of the Europe, “City-World”, because it (she) played a central role in the economic, cultural and social development of all Europe. It (she) was, for long time, the hearth of all the European culture, with a cross-cultural approach to all other existing cultures in many centuries: it was a network, a lean organization, more than a territorial or continental state, more emporium than imperium, with an original political system, being the unique Republic in a world dominated by absolute forms of governance.
A study of the economic staff of the OECD, leaded by Angus Maddison, made a compared evolution and position of the different forms of state in the past: Venice was the richest state with its GDP, from 1250 to 1510. No other state, since the fall of the Roman Empire, occupied the first place so long in this rating. Braudel said that “the wealth is a mobile house, which moves now this way and that”: he is the author of the famous boutade that “when Venice was the world centre of the finance and trade, Manhattan was a field of potatoes”. After Venice, the centre of the European Economy and Wealth production moved to other countries or city-state, Antwerpen, London, New York (and now perhaps Shanghai and China): but the duration of those placements was not so long as in Venice Republic.
Its governance, with a carefully shared power and balance between the roles, allowed a steady continuity of the state, with all the competitive advantages of such a model. For these reasons and other motivations in the art, cultural exchanges with all the known world, within Mediterranean sea and out of that area, towards the East, until China for the first time in the European History, economic prosperity, effective waters and territories management, peace keeping, social dialogue with hospitality, the candidature of Veneto Region to its own independence seems a form of explicit acknowledgement for all the contributions Venice gave to the evolution of our Continent towards democracy and dialogue. Venice is much more Europe than Italy, world than a local place.
A shuttle for the modern society and well-being economy
United States were born before the French Revolution and Jefferson did not find, in his European journey and investigation, a political system conform with the new American inspiration for equality and happiness: he found only in Venice a proof of the feasibility process towards a Republic, and the “Most Serene” suggested the content of the first section of the Independence Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness “. The new vision of a state was to ensure the happiness of the citizens. Thomas Jefferson, in his notes on the separation of Powers, wrote: “All the powers of government, legislative, executive, and judiciary, result to the legislative body [in the Virginia Constitution of 1776]. The concentrating these in the same hands is precisely the definition of despotic government. It will be no alleviation that these powers will be exercised by a plurality of hands, and not by a single one…Let those who doubt it turn their eyes on the republic of Venice. As little will it avail us that they are chosen by ourselves. An elective despotism was not the government we fought for; but one which should not only be founded on free principles, but in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among several bodies of magistracy, as that no one could transcend their legal limits, without being effectually checked and restrained by the others”. Even if criticized as “aristocrat senate”, Republic of Venice was a source for the rising new state of America, both for the “form” (republic) of the governance and for the divided and balanced power among several bodies of magistracy. And some years later, in his letter to Joseph C. Cabell, in 1816, Jefferson wrote: “No, my friend, the way to have good and safe government, is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among the many, distributing to every one exactly the functions he is competent to”. However, in this elective despotism of Venice, there was a “preventive action”: many Government duties were not paid and their duration rarely was beyond only 1 year.
The motivations of its role in the European historic evolution
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Venice was the only political and social experience of “continuity” with the great and unequalled level of Rome: Venice kept the competencies of the Romans in the key sectors: governance (republic with Senate), know how for building, crafts, ships and trading.
Founded in 697 A.D. and fell down in 1797 A.D., The Most Serene Republic has been 1.100 Years old, with the most durable form of continuity of the state in Europe, perhaps in the world.
Sea was its land, not to create an “imperium”, but an “emporium”: a network in profitability and quality and a modern example of “lean organization” and innovative civilization.
The main components of the identity of Venice and its modernity are:
Governance: the unique republic in its times and citizens involvement (citizens, not subjects). Venice was a Republic founded on “citizens”: Petrarch, one of the greatest poets of Italy and founder, with Dante and Boccaccio, of our Italian language, in a letter to a friend wrote this meaningful judgement about Venice governance: « Venice, unique hospital town in these days for the freedom, justice, peace, unique refuge of the good people and port where the ships of the men who are looking for a serene life can be guested, after the storms of tyranny and wars everywhere in Europe; a town rich of gold, but much richer of dignity and fame, powerful in forces, but much more powerful in virtues, founded on steady and solid stones and marbles, but much more on solid civic grounds of its social cohesion, protected and surrounded by the sea, but much better fortified and ensured by the careful wisdom of its sons».
Elective roles: all the trials to modify the constitution in favour of hereditary dynasty, were cut off.
Refuse of the feudalism: the state before everything and everyone. The motto of the Venice Government was: “Salus Rei Publicae ante Omnia”. : Venice had no kings, no princes, no dukes, no counts, no barons. Only an egalitarian aristocracy, independently from the actual wealth (there were rich aristocrats and poor aristocrats).
Freedom: all the Romans who fell under the domination of the barbarian invaders lost their freedom and their wealth was severely reduced at the level of the 5° century before Christ: to join the same level of prosperity and pro capita wealth of the 3° and 4° century, before the decline, European had to wait until 12° century, that’s more than 800 years. Venice rises from a deed, an action, a decision of the roman and Venetic communities for freedom, escaping from the disgusting oppression and barbarian invaders. Venice was the first community in the Western Europe to join the prosperity, thanks to the “memory” of the Roman Empire competencies.
Happiness economy: The most serene republic would be the most appropriate definition of the “happiness economy” proposed by the Nobel Prize Daniel Kahneman.
Human rights: the power of the Inquisition against the heretics, the treatment of the Jews and other minorities, the rules for the immigration, the forms of welfare (public and private),the treatment of the poor people and diseased, the parity of the women. Moreover, the power of the Inquisition against the heretics was severely limited, but avoided, the treatment of the Jews and other minorities was much better than in the rest of Europe (to protect them from the “progroms”, Venice ensured to the Jews a quarter, named Ghetto, that was not a “prison”, but a “compound” with security measures), the rules for the immigration were clear and a certain number of “temporary hospitals” for them was provided by the State,
Hospital and cosmopolitan civilization, open to the diversity and cross-cultural approach. The proofs of this cosmopolitism are the long and fruitful relationships with Byzantine Empire of the Eastern Europe, with Arabians’ high civilization of the Middle East, with Ottoman Empire. Even with China.
The bureaucracy: rigorous and responsible (corruption was severely condemned, even with the capital punishment,
Welfare: the forms of welfare (public and private) were ensured through a mutual pact between the “private” corporations (the “Schools”) and the State, especially about the treatment of the poor people, widows and diseased, the parity of the women was evident and celebrated by the literature (e.g. Goldoni). Other Charities were for the pilgrims, immigrants and diseased: in Venice there were 68 Hospitals. Health was organized with many preventive measures, like quarantine, isolation of the infected people in the islands and in the boats around the island (Lazzareto Nuovo), far from the city: when new people came to the site, all gave welcome with applauses and loud cheers: “You are coming to the land of Cockcaigne“, because they were well-fed by the Republic for all the time of quarantine (quarantine is a terminology introduced by Venice, because the word “quarantine” originates from the Venetian dialect form of the Italian quaranta giorni, meaning ‘forty days’). This is due to the 40 day isolation of ships and people prior to entering the city. The original document from 1377, which is kept in the Archives of Dubrovnik, states that before entering the city, newcomers had to spend 30 days (a trentine) in a restricted location waiting to see whether the symptoms of Black Death would develop. Later on, isolation was prolonged to 40 days and was called quarantine. Medicine doctors had their own “corporation”, and the Venice policy was to define very precisely their emolument fees, every royalty on the medicines was forbidden, the most important doctors, coming also from Padua and Bologna, were “invited” to Venice for free consultation in the case of poor people,. Also for the poor people: one of these charities was very famous and exists even today: Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage for poor and illegitimate children where Vivaldi worked between 1703 and 1740.
Intercultural dialogue: Civilization was hospital and cosmopolitan, open to the diversity and the cross-cultural approach,
Venice: the justice: The courts: also the nobles were condemned, all the Dukes who tried to change the elective system into hereditary or dynastic one, were killed, immediately, always,
The political leadership and governance profile
The main institutions of the Republic was The Signoria of Venice. It was constituted of:
- the Doge (Duke): the election of the Doge required 10 steps, with several (ten) steps through casual extractions and ballots (the word “ballot” comes from the election of Venetian Duque), just to avoid every trial of conditioning election (e.g. through the corruption of the electors)
- the Minor Council (Minor Consiglio), created in 1175, which was composed of the 6 advisors of the Doge, who could not take any decision without consulting the Minor Council
- the 3 leaders of the Quarantia the supreme tribunal, created in 1179
- College of the Wise Men (Collegio dei Savi): Council of the Ministers
- Senate (Consiglio dei Pregadi): Senate was composed by a class of merchants, entrepreneurs and nobles, but not by feudal classes
- Council of Ten or simply the Ten, was, from 1310 to 1797, one of the major governing bodies of the Republic. Although its actions were often secretive, it was generally considered to be fair and effective by the citizens of the Republic
- General Assembly of Patricians (Consiglio Magior): responsible of the election of the Doge and all the most important roles of the state.
The Signoria was considered a very important body of government, more than the Doge himself. The sentence si è morto il Doge, no la Signoria (The Doge is dead, but the Signoria is living) was ritually said during the ceremonies set for the death of the Doge.
A very rare traits of the venetian leadership was the independence from the clerical power: perhaps the only state In Europe that in Middle Age was not submitted to the two main powers of those times: the Roman Pope and the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire: Its political philosophy was inspired by pragmatic approach, without any trace of fanaticism or dogmatism.
The Ducal Palace: a symbol of “bottom up” policy
It is the unique palace of power which is empty downstairs and full upstairs: people had access and the Senate had nothing to fear and there was a facility for citizens to submit written complaints at what was known as the Bussola chamber.
The Ducal Palace offices (with officers) were completely hidden, between the external façade and internal walls: a long and secret interstice, where all the officers ruled without external pressures. A visit of this secret power with a guide through the so called “itinerari segreti” will be very instructive,
Venetian laws imposed that the names of the officers, who robbed public money, had to be published in legible list outside for ever, until their death.
It was the biggest company of those days: it was organized with the same principles and systems of the modern kaizen (involving everyone in the organization, in the processes). One ship was completely produced in 1 day. Nevertheless, the management of the forests for providing wood was ruled according to the sustainability criteria
The environmental management
Frederic Lane writes that “the natural resources of the surrounding territories were of prime importance for the start-up of the development model of Venice”. The management of the waters was particularly careful, especially for the rivers and lagoons: it was steady and permanent, even with effects until today, for the main infrastructural interventions of the Venetian Republic concerned. Lagoon was very carefully protected: hard punishments were inflicted to people who caused damages, rivers were diverted, in order to preserve the lagoon from tamping, drinkable water was provided with an original system of wells, visible even today.
They were “confraternities” and charities (today mutual help associations and ONG).
6 of them were “Great Schools”: Scuola Grande di San Teodoro (1258), Scuola Grande di Santa Maria della Carità (1260), Scuola Grande di San Marco (1261), Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista (1261), Scuola Grande di Santa Maria della Misericordia (1308), Scuola Grande di San Rocco (1478).
210 (or even more) were “Minor Schools” for the Crafts and Professions, with their rules, patron saint, see, church and board of directors.
These “Schools” formed the basis of the “social capital” and social cohesion of the Republic, which recognized and praised them, especially those of labours and professions: all the Schools were invited to participate in honour place to the main ceremonies of the Republic.
Also the foreign communities of immigrants, workers and craftsmen had their own “schools” and zones (Albanese, Greek, Dalmatian, German etc.).
Foreign and immigrants’ communities: the cosmopolitism of the Serenissima is proved by many signs of its hospitality. Many sites of the city are devoted to representatives of foreign people, even the “nicest ones” like:
- Riva degli Schiavoni (Dalmatian and Slavonic site)
- Riva dei Ragusei (Ragusa, now Dobrovnic community site)
- Fondaco dei Turchi (Turks Trade Centre)
- Fondaco dei Tedeschi (German Trade Centre)
- Calle delle Turchette (Turkish women site)
- Calle dei Tedeschi (German site)
- Calle degli Albanesi (Albanese community site)
- Ponte dei Greci (Greek Community site)
- Fondamenta degli Ormesini (Ormesini means someone or something coming from Hormuz, between Oman and Persia: in Venice “ormesino” was a type of wool coming from that land)
- Campo dei Mori (3 brothers, coming from Morea: Toni Rioba, Alfani and Sandi, merchants, immigrants in Venice in 1112): They bild Palazzo Mastelli, named also Camel Palace, to underline their “Levantine” origin (near the Palace, there is also a little fountain named “Arabian fountain”)
- Palazzo Labia della famiglia catalana dei Labia (provenivano da Girona), accepted as member of the Venetian Aristocracy in 1646
- Palazzo Grassi (of the family Grassi, coming from Chioggia or perhaps Genoa) accepted as member of the Venetian Aristocracy in 1718)
- Ca’ Rezzonico (of the family Widmann, a noble family coming from Carinthia, who was accepted as member of the Venetian Aristocracy in 1646.
Denominations of the roads and “calli” dedicated to Crafts and labor, much more than personalities or other abstract names
Crafts and labour were honored and also for them city named streets, squares and sites.
We can find in Venice roads and call dedicated to Crafts: Fuser (weavers), Fabric (blacksmiths), Furtado (fruitier), Cirri (wax-chandlers), Tint or (dyer), Pastor (baker), Cored (rope-maker), Tagiapiera (stonemason), Calegher (shoemaker), Cerchieri (hoop-makers).
Some roads and calli are dedicated to Labour: Carbon (coal site), Olio (oil site),Vin (wine site), Lana (wool site), Masena (mill site), Squero (boatyard), Orti (vegetables site), Frezzerie (arrows’ site), Spadaria (swords’ site), Mercerie (clothes’site), Fiuberia (buckles’site), Pestrin (milkman ?),
Many streets and squares (calli and campielli) are devoted much more to crafts and labour than to the saints and famous men
It is an example of the relevance and priority of the “labour” in the history of the ancient Venice Republic.
The capitals of the Ducal Palace show the values table of the Republic: many of them represent the major arts and crafts, in honour of the labour as foundation of the wealth and strengths of the state, especially from the capital 17 to 25.
From all the considerations I exposed, a question arises strikingly: Venice, with its history and long independence, with its governance style, can be compatible with the rest of Italy, dominated a long time by kings and feudal governments, unified with false plebiscites, occupied by the Reign of Piedmont with depredation, with many regions still oppressed by criminality and mafias, which are invading even the rest of the nation and penetrating in our region to plunder and raid the wealth created by our past generations and to damage the quality of our social capital? Our state is weak, often even complicit with all these criminal associations, coming from south Italy and abroad (Nigeria, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Russia, Morocco etc.). If we stay inactive, in a few years we will witness the decline and destruction of our great civilization and its beauty will be disfigured for ever. If Venice and our cities of Veneto Region will look like some cities dominated by the mafias, we will find waste everywhere and people will be submitted to the fear industry. Our social capital will disappear: Veneto region at present is the first region for the quality of its social capital (composed by social cooperatives, associations, voluntary communities, industrial districts, religious and ethic attitudes, civic responsibility etc.): the Campania is the last one, together with all the regions dominated by mafias and corrupted political and bureaucratic classes. Even if corruption and the predatory, avid politicians and bureaucrats are increasing also in our regions (Piedmont, Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, Friuli-Venezia Giulia elect.), even in Südtirol and Trentino, with a huge waste of the public money, exaggerated and unjustified payments, lifelong pensions, a lot of privileges etc., nevertheless an autonomous approach to the spending policy can be a brake for these bad practices: if each region can count only on its resources, with an independent strategy, a central state will have not the means to favour more the dissipative regions or towns than the virtuous ones.
 Director of the Economic History of OECD.
 In Congress, July 4, 1776.
 Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 13, 120—21,1784.
 The Founders’ Constitution. Volume 1, Chapter 4, Document 34,The University of Chicago Press. Even if Jefferson doesn’t consider the Venetian form of government absolutely like best, nevertheless, in comparison with all other forms in force in his times, Venetian Republic was an appreciated (and unique) exception.
 Frederic C. Lane, Venice. A Maritime Republic, John Hopkins University Press, 1973. It is the basic text to achieve a complete and accountable documentation on the history of Venice. Italian translation is: Frederic C. Lane, Storia di Venezia, Einaudi 1991.