Venetian laws and orderBy
Virtually every day of every year, the news here will include some mention of how deeply disappointing the municipal government is, and the many ways in which its decisions (bear in mind that not deciding also qualifies as a decision) fall short of the minimum necessary for decent human life.
I’m not here to defend anybody, but history shows that Venice has always presented an exceptional challenge to its rulers.
Giving some consideration, as I do every day, as to how run a city and/or empire in the most efficient and beneficial way — principles which can easily be applied to other activities, such as running a house, or a large corporation, or a work-release program or whatever — I thought I’d give a sample of some of the laws which the Venetian government passed and also, I think, enforced.
In 1348 Venice, with more than 100,000 inhabitants, was the most populous city in Europe. Even before it grew that big, managing it, body and soul, was something like playing three-dimensional chess — its governing bodies had to keep track of everything (wars, famines, earthquakes, attempted coups, plague prevention, counterfeiting, ostentatious clothing, civil servants with sticky fingers) all at the same time.
Naturally they passed metric tons of useful laws governing business and commerce, goods and services, civil engineering projects, weights and measures, and the rights, duties and privileges of virtually everybody. These are not comic material, they’re the reason (among many) why Venice survived for close to 1,500 years.
But as anyone who has ever been two years old knows, it’s one thing to establish a rule, it’s another to enforce it, most especially where behavior is concerned. Passing a law makes everybody happy; enforcing it, not so much.
So as you read the following, cast your minds back, ever so briefly, to imagine the situation which had reached the point at which a law was required to control, or even stop it, we hope. As you’ll see, all those squillions of different snowflake-patterns are nothing compared to the myriad misdemeanors that people are apt to get up to when living in a small area with thousands of other people, many of whom may not have your best interests at heart. Or you theirs.
But also bear in mind that most, if not all, other European governments between 421 and 1797 A.D. were some variation on monarchy or despotry. Venice was governed, not by an individual, but by groups of people, groups which had been formed over time not merely to do a particular job but to ensure that other groups didn’t get the upper hand. This checks-and-balances system, which seems so obvious to us today, was one which many intelligent people devoted time and energy to devising, improving, and maintaining. So no snickering from the cheap seats.
1224: It is forbidden to ride horses along the Mercerie [the street between Rialto and San Marco] due to the great increase in pedestrians. This seems so obvious as not to require a law, but as you see, it did.
1229: It is forbidden to spend more than half a ducat per person for food when giving a dinner. Something had to be done to combat the phenomenally luxurious banquets which had already become common — common, that is, among the classes not known as common. The relentless ingenuity of the wealthy patricians to find ways to out-spend each other sometimes verged on the potlatch mentality, and required a steady supply of ever-more-specific laws to control. One of many reasons why the government considered display worth controlling was because it was apt to stir up envy and other unpleasant emotions which could lead to even more unpleasant situations such as attempted coups, or the assassination of the doge. I’m not sure how they enforced this half-ducat limit but it sounds like the right idea.
1258: Pharmacists are forbidden to sell medicine without a prescription. Furthermore, doctors, even the most illustrious, are required to treat poor patients for free. One of many examples of how innovative, not to say revolutionary, Venetian thinking often was.
1274, February 29: It is prohibited to pass along the Mercerie on horseback because of all the people on foot [wait, didn’t we already have a law about that?].
1287, February 29: It is forbidden to go through the Mercerie on horseback [Are you people not listening?] except for foreigners who have just arrived. [Couldn’t find a parking place for their horse?] Furthermore, anyone wanting to go to San Marco has to tie his horse to the fig tree in the Campo San Salvador. [Voila’! Parking.]
1315: It is forbidden to commit impure acts in sacred places [finally something the church and state can agree on]. This law was intended to stop the “dishonest and disgraceful” behavior running riot not only in the porticoes of the basilica of San Marco — to say nothing of the many convents — but inside the churches themselves. How effective this law proved to be is shown, for example, by Marco Grimani, who was fined for “having attempted to fornicate with a young lady under the arches of the basilica.” This occurred in 1363. Venetian laws seem to have had a limited shelf life, more or less 50 years, or roughly two generations. Time enough for people to quit listening. Or caring.
1322: The government decrees the construction of 50 public wells, to be completed within two years. In 1424 another 30 were added. Wells (whether cisterns for rain or installed over an artesian source), or barges from the mainland, were the city’s only means of obtaining fresh water. The price of water was set by the government, and each year the waterboatmen were required to donate the contents of 100 waterboats to the public wells [4,506,000 liters, or 1,190,359 gallons, presumably not all on the same day]. It went on like this until the aqueduct from the mainland was built in 1884. Excellent planning, and execution, you old Venetians.
1350, April 11: Some six months earlier — on September 25, 1349 — a certain nobleman, Stefano Manolesso, was riding his horse in the Piazza San Marco [doing WHAT?] and unfortunately ran over and killed a little boy. Therefore The Great Council passes a decree which requires that horses wear rattles to warn people of their approach. [So you don’t risk getting trampled by the horses that aren’t supposed to be there.]
1354: November 11. It is prohibited to carry grimaldelli [picklocks], because they have become the favorite toy of young bloods, perfect for breaking into houses, especially where beautiful and wealthy girls are residing.
1392: August 29. It is debated whether on festive days it should be forbidden to ride your horse at a fast pace in the Piazza San Marco. [Now we’re just quibbling over speed?]
1397: It is decreed to place new lamps or candles for street lighting. The problem of dark streets here has been obvious for centuries; in 1128 the first lights were placed, at government expense, on votive shrines around the city, in the hope of discouraging the nocturnal mayhem — mugging, homicide — that had become the norm. Venetians would wake up in the morning to find murdered people lying in the streets. So they started installing faint but well-intentioned illumination at many corners and intersections. Which was insufficient three centuries later. Was there more crime? More streets? Nobody replacing the candles or refilling the lamps?
1407, September 11: It is severely forbidden to throw garbage or trash into the canals. A few years ago we were rowing along behind the Giudecca, and as we turned into a certain canal I saw a hand-lettered sign thoughtfully placed near the entrance. It said (in Italian, of course): “WARNING. GO SLOW. WASHING MACHINES IN THE WATER.” What was so funny (it’s not funny) was the use of the plural. In any case, the sign is gone now. I have no idea if the washing machines themselves are also gone. Maybe not. Human nature is tougher and more resistent than I don’t know what. 15-5PH stainless steel. Which is also not to be thrown into the water.
1409, September 26: Members of the Great Council are not to throw the cloth balls used for voting at each other. [And they’re making our laws?]
1411, January 27: Servants and slaves are not to create a racket at night in the Palazzo Ducale. [Throwing balls of bread dough at each other?]
1414, April 18: New, more severe rules [there already were some?] against people blowing bugles at night.
1415, July 25: Every year the names of those who have stolen state property will be announced in the Great Council, and this will be done for the entire life of the guilty parties. Public shame is supposed to be a deterrent, and maybe it was. But I’d be willing to bet that everyone who heard those names only thought some variation of “Better him than me.”
1423, March 26: The desks of the Chancellery are to be raised so that curious passersby can’t read the secret documents. [There. Mind your own beeswax.]
1425, February 7: The government responds to the protest of many Venetians and decrees that church bells shall not be rung at night except in case of fire. It had reached the point where bells were being rung far into the night to celebrate all kinds of events. What with bells, bugles, and I don’t know what all, night in Venice must have been like noon in Shanghai.
1430, March 2: The Great Council limits the height of the heels of women’s shoes. I can’t say what height they had reached, but it was probably fairly ridiculous. Not that most of the lower classes were wishing they could have shoes that made them walk like flamingoes, but it’s just better to keep the footwear under control.1443, June 29: The Republic guarantees the services of a lawyer to poor defendants who can’t pay. This was the first time such a law was made anywhere in Europe, and furthermore, the said attorney was to be chosen by the judge from among the best (no sneaking in raw beginners) and was required to follow the case with the maximum care or risk a major fine. As in the case of doctors, the government was unusually alert to the advantages of maintaining some semblance of fairness. The idea that the law could be equal for all was not something the French invented as they were hurling paving stones at the Bastille; there were even several cases in which the doge refused to intervene to save his own son from his deserved punishment, even when it was death. Impressive.
MDCXXXIII  20 June
All games are forbidden, of whatever sort they may be [note: these “games” were not hopscotch, but gambling] and also to sell things, set up a shop or corbe [large wicker baskets for carrying coal], to utter blasphemies or other indecencies around this church or any nearby sacred places and this is by deliberation of the Most Excellent and Serene Executors against Blasphemy with the penalty for transgressors of prison, the galleys, banishment, and also [a fine of] 200 small lire [to be divided] between the accuser (who will be kept secret) and the captors. D. Francesco Morosini, Procurator, D. Nicolo Contarini, D. Marco Antonio di Priuli, D. Alvise Mocenigo, Executors against Blasphemy.
Note: Forbidding blasphemy does not indicate that Venice was in the grip of religious fanatics, but that it was included with other common forms of public behavior which were revolting. The Executors against Blasphemy were responsible not only for punishing blasphemy (priests were also often guilty), but also the profanation of sacred places, the defloration of virgins promised in marriage (remember the picklocks?), pimping, the publication of forbidden books, and most other activities, of which there were many, that degraded the quality of life. It was a losing battle but they had to try. In 1512 Lorenzo Priuli, later doge, wrote in his diary: “In Venice there were two things that were very difficult to overcome: the blasphemy used by every grade of person and clothes in the French fashion.”
1455, March 20: It is decreed that it is illegal to deprive a condemned person of his clothes before the execution. [Good grief. They’d been sending the poor bastards to the block in their skivvies?]
1461, October 20: It is illegal for a creditor to deprive a debtor of his cows or agricultural tools, even if he owes money to the State.
1570: It is decreed that it is illegal for a creditor to deprive a debtor of his bed.
1469, December 27: It is decreed that the lawyers pleading cases in the Council or the College may not speak for more than an hour and a half. [Lawyers without “Off” buttons have always been with us.]
1474: Once again in the vanguard, the Republic issues the first laws which protect patents on inventions and the rights of the inventors.
1476. November 17: The Republic creates a new office, the Supervisors of Pomp. It can issue laws [oh good, we need more of those] concerning the display of wealth [it just doesn’t stop], including but not limited to elaborate clothes and decorations, ostentatious display of jewels, excessive fancying-up of your servants or boats, over-the-top banquets, and anything else that is, as they put it, contrary to the spirit of the Republic, seeing that extravagant consumption [even if the money is all yours] is not only wasteful and teaches the wrong lessons, but also conduces to scandal [spending bags of money on stuff might weaken your grasp on the idea of boundaries, yours and everybody else’s] and thus is to be avoided. [Clear as a 25-carat diamond.]
1498, June 11: At the request of the people living on the Giudecca, it is forbidden to “roast” cinnabar. The government was vigilant to relegate hazardous or extremely obnoxious industries (dyeing and tanning among them) to outlying areas of the city, but in this case they neglected to make it an uninhabited part. I can well believe that the residents objected; the idea of a furnace roasting mercury ore anywhere near groups of vertebrates is so ghastly that it’s hard to believe it was ever permitted to exist. I’m sure the councilors didn’t let this furnace get built because they were distracted by deciding how much silk you would be allowed to use to make your underwear [I made that up]. They must have been thinking about how important it was to produce mercury for hatmakers, and for pharmacists concocting treatments for syphilis.
1563: At an unspecified date, a momentous decision is finally made. It is forbidden to ride horses anywhere in the city. Sometimes tourists marvel that there are no cars in Venice [before they notice the inconvenience of all those bridges]. However, if anybody had ever wondered why there are no horses, now we know. It was forbidden. Seriously forbidden. And this time we mean it, totally prohibited. With this majestic edict all those rattles and rules could be thrown out and I suppose collected by the itinerant rag, bone, and scrap iron merchant to be turned into soap or paper. Certainly they weren’t thrown into the canals. That’s illegal.