As I watched in horror yesterday’s storming of the Capitol in DC by Trump supporters instigated by the President himself during what is normally a boring rubber-stamping procedure to peacefully transfer power, I could not help but think of Marino Faliero, the doge (or duke) who in the 14th century decided he wanted to become the Prince of Venice.
In 1355, Doge Marino Faliero, duly elected by his fellow patricians in a tradition that had already lasted more than half a millennium, tried to take down the Venetian government by spreading false information, planning to murder fellow noblemen, and conspiring with supporters so he could be crowned Prince of Venice. When the Council of Ten (sort of like a Venetian CIA) uncovered the plot, it executed all involved, including beheading Doge Faliero. This was the only credible failed coup in all of Venice’s more than thousand-year history,
Does that story have echoes of the present or what? All up to the beheading part. Now we have other elected officials trying to remove the President from power immediately either via invoking the 25th Amendment or impeachment, less violent and more symbolic forms of cutting the head of state down to size. In the case of Faliero, his portrait was removed from the Hall of the Great Council and his name erased from the official records, though of course he was not truly forgotten. And given the long memory of the internet today, it is doubtful that Trump will just become a footnote in history but rather have reams of analysis continue to be written about him.
Even after Faliero was beheaded by his own government, the transfer of power in Venice continued unabated for another five-hundred years, after the death of each doge. Indeed, Venice is truly remarkable in that it was the longest-lasting republic in the history of the world, lasting more than 1100 years, with 120 doges in continuous succession. To compare, the USA has had 45 (when Biden is inaugurated, 46) presidents over 245 years.
Legend says Venice was founded 1600 years ago, on March 25 in the year 421. Veneti refugees from the Italian mainland fleeing the so-called barbarians settled on the mud flats of the Venetian Lagoon and created a loose coalition for the common good. According to legend, twelve illustrious families descended from Romans elected the first doge in 697, traditionally identified as Paolo Lucio Anafesto, whose mandate was to unite the various peoples of the Lagoon and defend their territories from invading Lombards – sort of in the vein of George Washington. In actuality, the doge was most likely appointed by the Byzantines in a military capacity – also sort of like George Washington. Choosing the doge eventually did evolve into elections. In that there were elections it was a democracy – but only for the patrician class, whose membership came to be strictly governed by the Libro d’Oro, or the Golden Book.
Over the early centuries, the Venetian government became increasingly complex, with many layers, committees, and councils. The doges could only be chosen from among the members of the Council of Forty (the Quarantia), who in turn were elected by members of the Great Council (originally the Council of Wise Men), who in turn were members of the patrician class (part of the Golden Book). Needless to say, only men were eligible, though it was critical that the women maintained a purely patrician line, with harsh punishments for straying outside marriage. (The doge’s wife was called dogaressa.)
If you think the American electoral process is confusing, with fifty different state rules plus the seemingly archaic electoral college, the Venetian electoral process for choosing a doge can only be described as byzantine: “Thirty members of the Great Council, chosen by lot, were reduced by lot to nine; the nine chose forty and the forty were reduced by lot to twelve, who chose twenty-five. The twenty-five were reduced by lot to nine and the nine elected forty-five. Then the forty-five were once more reduced by lot to eleven, and the eleven finally chose the forty-one who actually elected the doge. None could be elected but by at least twenty-five votes out of forty-one, nine votes out of eleven or twelve, or seven votes out of nine electors.”
Moreover, the doge was always an older man, often in his 60s, 70s, or even 80s, and the noblemen who governed Venice basically made a gerontocracy, with people holding the belief that age instilled experience and wisdom (though we can see in the modern-day context this does not always hold true!). The doge held very little power and was more of a figurehead, sort of in the way of the current British monarch.
The Venetian Republic came to an end on May 12, 1797, when Napolean conquered the city. The final doge of Venice was Ludovico Manin, who was forced to abdicate and return the Golden Book. Even that was a relatively peaceful affair, with only one ship sunk.
I have learned much about Venice in the course of writing my current novel, set in 1510, a time of great upheaval in the Republic, including how the doge at the time, Leonardo Loredan, badly handled a potential Papal invasion. Despite Loredan’s ineptitude, the Warrior Pope never did set foot in the Venetian city itself, partly because of the aptitude and negotiation skills of the rest of the government.
I can only hope that the American “experiment” is as robust and lasts as long as Venice’s did – and as peacefully.