Saturday, December 20, 2014

Governance in Venice

Good governance gave Venice a thousand years of prosperity and renown.

The idea that the US is the oldest democracy in the world is far from the truth. Even if you qualify it as  "existing" or "continuously existing", the Swiss have one far older, (making allowances for a brief Napoleonic regime), as do the Icelanders. But more important is that forms of government are very plastic. What we call a democracy in the US is a far cry from actual self-rule, given the vastly greater influence of the moneyed classes and the advertising arts over who gets elected, than anyone in the demos. Oligarchy would be more like it. Republic it may be, but democracy it is not.

But oligarchies aren't all bad. Just think of the Catholic church, which has functioned continuously (give or take a few anti-popes) for about a thousand years, and with less historical certainty for another thousand back to the time of the first bishops of Rome. Its organizational stability has been impressive, even as it has gone through vast changes in theology, morals, and power.

Venice in its heyday was a somewhat similar republic / oligarchy, and an extremely well-ruled one. A wonderful history of Venice tells a story that I had never learned in school, of the long and proud reign of Venice over a commercial empire that grew across the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond. From its extremely humble origins in the 568 in a malarial lagoon, Venice developed a communal government as well as an adavanced (and state-run) ship manufacturing system which, combined with skillful seamanship, diplomacy, a dedication to business, and occasional military prowess, earned her a durable mercantile empire. This was centered on the India trade, which ran through several routes, such as the silk road, the Byzantine ports, and the Arab caravans. Venice was the home of the Polo family, which famously followed these routes to the ends of the earth.

Symbol of Venice, the winged lion of St. Mark.

In 1204, its power was such that, as a particularly horrific and misguided part of the fourth Crusade, Venice led her allies to attack and sack Constantinople, a theretofore unimaginable feat, given the reputation of its walls and military. This was, for the Eastern Empire, a disaster it never recovered from, after which it limped along till its final defeat under the scimitars of the Turks in 1453. Venice, too, was eventually boxed in by the Ottomans, who in their own prime ran a highly capable fleet and threatened Venice in the Adriatic and even its own lagoon, while relieving it of its Greek and other far-flung possessions.

What finally sent Venice into decline (well before being crushed by Napoleon and then assimilated into the modern state of Italy) was the Northern European revolution in navigation and trade, as the Portugese and then Dutch overtook the India trade directly by way of the horn of Africa. Thereafter, Venice became poorer, and more embroiled on its landward side with the complexities of Italian feudal feuds, including with various Popes.

Through it all, Venice had a remarkable system of government. "Byzantine" doesn't do it justice, as there were ten layers of elections to go through among various bodies before the supreme leader, the Doge (a variant of "Duke"), was elected. Each Doge was constitutionally restricted in his scope of independent action, and also given a specific document of restrictions, usually the fruit of past excesses or corruptions that the community had learned from. The civil service was very efficient, and many times over her history, when Venice found herself in a tight spot, she put out the call for various special taxes, donations, and forced loans, which were typically met with great generosity. Each Doge set an example by distributing vast amounts of his own wealth when elected, and many followed that up with other gifts to the city during their rule and in their bequests. The degree of civic committment at all levels is striking, especially in this day when some parties cry about the most infinitesimal increment of taxation.

At the base of the state was the Grand Council, whose membership of about 1500 was originally elected among the population at large, but by 1296 became hereditary to the Venetian nobility, i.e. the rich. Thereafter, new families were allowed in very sporadically, when the state was under stress, and for large payments, but generally, membership was tightly closed and formed the core of the oligarchy, and the voting base insofar as it was a republic. Various more select bodies such as the ministers to the Doge, the Senate, (sixty members), Zonta (sixty more members), and Venice's own Inquisition / Star chamber / NSC- the Council of Ten- were chosen from this Great Council.

One might note that the early Roman republican system was hardly less complex, and also led to hundreds of years of good, if, again relatively oligarchical, government. Universal sufferage was extremely uncommon in large bodies before modern times, partly for technical and ideological reasons, but also because universal education was equally uncommon. But given an oligarchy, the complexity of these great examples such as Venice seem to reflect relatively little cost, and provide an extensive filter of checks and balances that so frequently succeeded in putting the best people in charge.

The effect of this good governance was to provide durable prosperity and promote human values, even in the midst of terrible times, such as several severe bouts of the plague. Its commitment to great art and architecture was legendary. And while Venice was not an intellectual leader in the Renaissance, its enthusiastic and free printing establishments were the largest in Italy and played a central role in transmitting knowledge from the Byzantine archives to the scholars of Europe. In time of our own when political ideologues dream of drowing their own governments in bathtubs, and refuse to govern countries they themselves have conquered, it is important to remember what a blessing (and a lesson) good government is.

"The more one studies the domestic history of Venice, the more inescapable does the conclusion become: by whatever political standards she is judged, she compares favorably with any nation in Christendom- except, arguably, in the days of her final dotage. Nowhere did men live more happily, nowhere did they enjoy more freedom from fear. The Venetians were fortunate indeed. Disenfranchised they might be; they were never downtrodden. Although, being human, they might occasionally complain of their government, not once in all their history did they ever rise up against it; such few attempts as there were at rebellion were inspired by discontented nobles, never by the populace." 
"Alone of all the states of Catholic Europe, it had never burnt a heretic."

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