At the beginning of May, I attended a conference in the wonderful town of Sacile. It was hosted by Professor Antonio Soligon, a retired teacher and writer who loves the city of Venice intensely. He talked about the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, a historical building that the oma.eu website describes like this:
First constructed in 1228, and located at the foot of the Rialto Bridge across from the fish market, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi is one of Venice’s largest and most recognizable buildings. It was used as a trading post for German merchants, a customs house under Napoleon, and a post office under Mussolini. Depicted by Canaletto and other masters, and photographed countless times as the impressive but anonymous backdrop of the Rialto bridge, the Fondaco stands as a mute witness of the Venetian mercantile era, its role diminished with the progressive depopulation of Venice.
During the conference, he mentioned several facts about Venice’s glorious history, which remind me of current circumstances. For instance, many countries in the Western world are experiencing severe problems related to the integration of immigrants from many different countries. This is especially true in my country, Italy, which is seen as a sort of gate to Europe for immigrants coming from Africa and the Middle East. There are various ideas about how to handle this problem. Those who claim that we should accept all or most people often use the Republic of Venice as an argument to prove that this is feasible. It is undoubtedly true that Venice was indeed a shining example of peaceful coexistence among different ethnic groups. In this regard, it was, once again, centuries ahead of most of the world. The Republic managed to host people from all over the Mediterranean basin, even though they spoke different languages, had different habits and traditions, and professed different religions.
Supporters of a fully open society seem to forget an important part of the story, however, as described wonderfully by Professor Soligon during the conference. It is true that foreign people were allowed to stay in Venice and they were free to practice their religion in determined places. Nevertheless, they had to follow the laws of the Republic rigorously. Infringements and violations were punished mercilessly. Venetian laws were rigid and punishments were hard, including the death penalty. Zero tolerance, as we would say using modern language.
The Fondaco dei Tedeschi is a blatant example of such a legal system. For instance, German merchants who stayed there had to respect a strict curfew. They were allowed to trade with Venetians only. To avoid any kind of scams, goods’ packaging was strictly regulated as well, and random checks were performed by republican officers even in the dead of night. When German merchants applied to get a room at the Fondaco, they had to prove in advance they could afford it, and so on.
In essence, Venetian legislators were able to build a legal system which created a clean separation between the private and the public spheres. With regard to the public domain, they chose to issue cast-iron laws, with no compromise. Period.
In modern terms, we would say they implemented a right-wing policy, as this is usually associated with the “law and order” idea. Come to think about it, the Venetian government even reminds me of a form of fascism. Technically, Venice was a republic as Venetians elected their leader since the beginning of its outstanding, thousand-year-old history. However, the leader was chosen by a very restricted group of people:
The republic was ruled by the Doge, who was elected by members of the Great Council of Venice, the city-state’s parliament. The ruling class was an oligarchy of merchants and aristocrats.
Participation in the Great Council was established on hereditary right, exclusive to the patrician families enrolled in the Golden Book of the Venetian nobility.
For these reasons, I would define this form of government like this: a soft fascism disguised as an oligarchic democracy—by the way, it is no coincidence that the title duce used by the head of Italian Fascism, Mussolini, derives from the word doge.
One of the main problems of any republican constitution is the balance of power. In this regard, it is very interesting to read how brilliantly Venetians found a solution to limit the Doge‘s power:
In Venice, doges normally ruled for life, although a few were forcibly removed from office. While doges had great temporal power at first, after 1268, the doge was constantly under strict surveillance: he had to wait for other officials to be present before opening dispatches from foreign powers; he was not allowed to possess any property in a foreign land.
Modern Western constitutions are children of the American and the French Revolutions. As such, it is inconceivable that current republics imitate the government scheme of the glorious Republic of Venice. Many good principles and concepts that worked so well for almost a thousand years, however, might be useful to handle present problems too, such as the massive immigration flows we are witnessing. At the end of the day, although we live in a deeply different society, some of these issues are quite similar to the ones faced by the Venetian political class throughout the centuries.
We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.
–George Bernard Shaw
Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.
Piqued by Soligon’s narrative, last August I visited the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. The company that owns the building allows visitors to get to the terrace on the top of the building too (please refer to this link to book the visit). From the rooftop, you can enjoy one of the most evocative, inspiring, and romantic views of the city. These are some of the pictures I took. The complete set is available here.