Learning from the Venetian Republic

Image by Kelly Sikkema.

For some time I have been reading about Venice. Initially I studied what most immediately concerns me, books about the old master visual art. But then I turned my concerns to the fascinating political history, which isn’t usually much discussed by the art historians. For almost a millennium, from 826 until 1797, when it was destroyed by Napoleon, Venice was a Republic, an independent city state. It was, so I initially thought, hard to find a more academic subject more distant from the present than this history. Venice was a small state, with no more than about 150,000 people. Sometimes, however, seemingly distant institutions can turn out to have a surprising relevance to the present. And so right now, perhaps we can learn something from the Venetian Republic.

There were three classes in the Venetian Republic. The ruling patricians, about 3% of the population, an hereditary elite; the citizens, about 8%, who are the professional administrators; and everyone else. The doge, who usually was an old man, was chosen by voting from amongst the patricians in a complex, multistage process designed to undercut block voting. Then this elected ruler was closely watched when in power, and after death, his finances were critically evaluated. Like the Papacy, Venice thus was headed by an elected official; but unlike the Pope, the doge had little power. And the third class, neither patricians nor elite, were much occupied with running the charitable institutions, which played an important role in domestic life.

The Venetian system was designed to deal with two related political problems, continuity of policy and corruption. A state outlives individual rulers, and so must have an effective way of appointing their successors. And it needs some way of disciplining and vetting rulers. The unavoidable danger of reliance upon heredity is that the descendants of even the most able rulers may not also be able. On the whole, the Venetian rulers effectively served the community. But there are exceptions, and so then there needed to be surveillance and controls. (There are, in any society, lawless men. And so the state’s institutions must anticipate this danger and build in controls.) Venice combined pessimism about individuals with optimism about the power of the laws. The rulers needed to be selected with care, watched closely and if necessary punished. There was no bill of rights in this elaborate system of checks and balances. And judgments of criminals were swift and unforgiving, with no appeals.

Venice puzzled foreign observers during the old regime, for the government was neither monarchy nor democracy nor, exactly, an aristocracy. Venice, never a feudal culture, was a businessman’s society. Until late in its history, prosperity derived from trade, not land. And the arsenal, where ships were built, was a proto-modern factory. Its trading anticipated modernist European imperialism. And much depended upon its unique geography. Because navigation in the lagoon was treacherous, Venice had no need for city walls; it was never invaded. Compared with the other Italian city states, it was very stable. There never was a coup d’etat, though admittedly there was one near-miss, the Venetian equivalent to the events in the United States of January 6, 2021. But because Venice was tightly regulated, with highly effective police spies and an unforgiving penal system, it is hard to imagine that uprising being successful. Had Venice not been relatively successful at realizing what Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a one-time resident, called the general will, it probably would not have lasted so long.

Venice faced both external and internal conflicts. The prosperity of the Republic depended upon trade, and so the destruction of Christian Constantinople (1453) and the European circumnavigation of the globe (1528) undercut the traditional sources of wealth. The changing maritime technologies meant that the warships of early Venice became obsolete. Compared to its European rivals, Venice was a relatively small state. And the reliance upon a small, closed class of patricians created problems given the laws about inheritance. Patricians were required to marry patricians, who needed large dowries; and that meant that many women remained unmarried, and often were involuntarily placed in convents. The impoverishment of some aristocrats, and the prosperity of some merchants created real instabilities. And of course there were plagues, which several times killed a third or more of the population.

Often the Venetian Republic is praised for its relatively tolerant treatment of the Jews. There was a long established, small Jewish community. Also some other resident ‘foreigners’- i.e. people from other Italian states. And extensive trade with the Islamic world. But Venice was not multicultural society. Catholicism, sometimes in political opposition to the Pope, was the only accepted religion. Our present pressing political dilemma, how to find consensus when people from diverse cultures are present in one state, was not Venice’s concern. And there was not much capacity for change built into the Venetian Republic. Although it conquered a vast empire, both on the Italian mainland and at sea, it really could not have been a model for the Italian nation.

To the extent that Venice was a model of a successful state, as judged by its ability to last a long time, there is reason to be very skeptical about the comparative prospects of the American Republic. Venice’s institutions presupposed a realism (or pessimism) about individual personalities. Its stable state requires comprehensive, rigidly applied rules, for unruly people sometimes needed to be restrained. The Venetian institutions were the products of experience, not philosophical reflection. As has often been noted, Machiavelli, the great political; theorist, was a Florentine whose writing drew upon his immediate experience. The Venetian monk Paolo Sarpi (1552 – 1623), who played an important political role, once famously said that he told the truth, but not to everyone, a policy well suited to Venetian society.

In offering this analysis, I am not presenting the Venetian Republic as an ideal. Venice was an authoritarian patriarchy. The creation and maintenance of very beautiful art and architecture so much admired by visitors depended upon the dreary poverty of the lower working classes and the many emigrants. For this reason, the older histories, which tend to celebrate the real cultural achievements, need to be supplemented by study of the more recent social histories. A great deal has been written recently, for thanks to the relentless bureaucracy, the archival records are very revealing.

Venice’s dominant political concern was stability, not inequality. This stability certainly had a high price. But, as I have said, Venice was supple enough to be extremely successful for a very long time. Will the American Republic also last a millennium? It is interesting that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson admired Venice. And so, can we learn, then, from such an historically distant culture, whose goals, technology and values are so unlike ours? It would be a fine exercise in imagination to imagine a time traveling Venetian brought into our world and asked to judge our institutions. That Venetian would worry about the political corruption, and the threats of autocratic personalities. And, observing that the very institutions designed to elect the presidents are beleaguered, he would be concerned about the stability of our political system.


Frederic C. Lane, Venice. A Maritime Republic (1973) is the standard older history. See also Elisabeth Crouzet-Pavan, Venice Triumphant. The Horizons of a Myth, trans. Lydia Cochrane (2002) and Garry Wills, Venice: Lion City. The Religion of Empire (2001), which offers a highly critical Catholic perspective. On the status of women see Jutta Gisela Sperling, Convents and the Body Politic in Late Renaissance Venice (1999). Thomas Madden, who has published a history, Venice: A New History (2013) also has a book Empires of Trust. How Rome Built- and America is Building- a New World (2008) linking Venice to the present.

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.