Monday, September 22, 2003

Postcard from Venice II
(An innacurate note on Venetian constitutional history from Doug)

I did really love the Doge's palace yesterday, not just for the architecture and history - but for what both said about the system of government under the Dogate and the Republic. Yes, the geeky constitutional lawyer in me came to the fore and dammit, I'm gonna share.

By the end of the Republic (ie Napoleon), the Doge - tititular ruler of Venice - was little more than a figurehead (think our governor general), though he was not allowed to miss a single one of a myriad meetings. He could not make decisions except with government members present, had very little actual discretion or authority, could not recieve ambassadors alone, could not leave Venice except on comission and could not go out in public without government minders. One wonders whether the poor guy was allowed to take a crap in private. Yet when he died, the business of government ceased for an interminably long, convoluted election process. (Think any of the models for an Australian republic not involving electing an Australian president by popular vote.)

Where later republics and deomcracies have had an entrenched separation of powers (legislative, judicial, exeuctive and ecclesiastical), Venice just seems to have believed in a proliferation of bodies with overlapping fields of power and responsibility. These polycentric and competing centres of power seem to have been the chief check on abuse of power, resulting in a web of inter-related judicial/administrative bodies with power to intervene in each others deicision making that would make Kafka, Focault or Centerlink proud.

A fantastic example is the Council of Ten, a temporary security body set up to thwart a plot to overthrow the dogate, which became a permanent "security council", with a counterintuitive seventeen members (10 councillors, 1 Dodge and 6 advisors to the Doge).

Anyway, while technically an aristocracy, it seems to have been fairly democratic. All aristocrat males over 25 (or something) - being between 1200 and 2000 people - met in the grand council and delegate power to various other bodies such as the senate and tribunals. There were an amazing number of jobs, including that of Public Advocates entrusted with upholidng the principle of legality. Really it was a magistracy, rule by officials invested with public power.

Also, one could inform anonymously by posting notes in "lions' mouths", carved heads on walls which had mouths that were - in effect - post boxes for tip offs for the magistracy.

Also, fascinatingly, Venice was almost unique in being ruled from a relatively open and accesible palace - not a castle. There is, in fact, no real defensive structure on the islands.

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