Teaching Venice in Schools, pp. 2 of 7

On the issue of governmental efficacy versus checks and balances, Venice appears to have achieved a certain power balance and expediency in its political system. Efficacy in a government and checks and balances in a political system have the potential to conflict with each other. This system allowed Venice to delegate its executive power to a more centralized organ in times of crises and subjected decision-making or “legislation” to a more laborious process of going through the councils and senate under more normal circumstances. Lane (1973) argues that the hallmark of republicanism in Venice, implemented through motley arrangements, was about how the interests of domestic power groups were balanced as the system evolved through time.[iv] At the highest level, the inner circle was comprised of the chiefs of the council of ten, esteemed representatives from the senate (savii grandi), state inquisitors (with their own body of informers and secret police) and the doge (and his councilors). The doge made his decision as part of a team (and members of the “inner group” represented the most dominant families of metropolitan Venice). In practice, strong and decisive executive powers were more needed in external affairs in order to react effectively to arising crises; diplomatic courses of action were, hence, often carried out and informed to the Senate and other councils without debate (Lane, 1973, pp. 427-34).

On many other important matters (such as law, finances and coinage, as highlighted in the textbook), sessions of the great council were called and the senate could set up their committees and commissions to investigate issues (much like in the present American senate) (CPDD, 2008a, p. 96). The Venetian system was “so successful” that the Austrian Habsburgs who took over the city in the post Napoleonic period considered at one time whether there was a need to revive the “old system” (Laven, 2007, p. 217). While there was intention by the later generation to restore the earlier Venetian system, it should be remembered that the history of the city-state’s survival was dotted with intense conflicts between power groups as well as other lapses. A case in hand can be seen in Doge P. Gradenigo’s faction in rivalry against the faction of (a branch of) Querini family over the issue of the war against the Pope over the territory of Ferrara in 1310. The rivalry became intense enough that plots to revolt were conceived against the doge (Lane, 1973, pp. 114-17). The rivalry was often joined by foreign groups residing in Venice. A survey of “Catalogo XXVI” in the Archivo de Simancas (in Spain) reveals that the Habsburgs collected intelligence and kept a close tab of happenings in Venice; most notably, the development of factions involving nobles in the city so that they could readily intervene in domestic politics where the occasion benefitted them.

Students of Venetian studies need to re-question the extent to which corruption is pegged as a reason for decline of Venice. The “additional notes” pins the increasing domination of certain families as “one of the causes of Venice’s decline” (CPDD, 2008b, p. 112). In the textbook, the affliction of the political-administrative system with incapable leadership (arising from a shrinking pool of nobles, in turn linked to the Black Death) and the associated corruption contributed to the decline of Venice. Discussion of the topic in class can take place along the line to probe the information offered by the textbook and resource package further. A few issues can be discussed here: 1.) The degree to which the nobility had turned in on itself after 14th century. 2.) The nature of corruption. 3.) The history of Venice from a longer time perspective can have a more neutral effect on the perception of the city-state’s decline. We will discuss the issue of the inward turning of the nobility first. We can examine this by, for instance, examining the degree to which the position of the doge was monopolized by noble families. If the thesis of the inward turning of the nobility can be disproven, the importance of the factor on the decline of Venice may be questioned. We can analyze the list of doge-elects from 900-1200s and 1500-1700s (in Appendix A) to assess if there was a monopoly by certain noble families. A survey of the lists (see Appendix A) for the above periods shows that: The number of families (going by the names of the doge elected) which fielded a doge was more in the 15-18th century period compared to the 10-13th century period; the families which fielded more than one doge was correspondingly but not surprisingly more in the 15-18th compared, again, to the 10-13th century period. From the list, one would have realized that the average tenure period of the doges had shortened in the 16-18th centuries. One could argue that the complex process by which a doge was elected prevented any concentration of power in the hands of a few families; one can go one step further to argue that the limited power and hence, lucrativeness of the position of the doge acted as a brake in a system saddled with checks and balances although this could not be relied on to overcome or solve the problem of the diminishing population (with declining population of nobility and hence, a diminishing pool of talents).

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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