La Serenissima: a Study in Non-Transparency

21 September 2015


A view of Venice by Canaletto.

A view of Venice by Canaletto.

In a fine-grained account of terrestrial civilization — leaving aside the broadest taxonomies that subsume multiple civilizations — we can identify a distinct Venetian civilization, Serenìsima Repùblica Vèneta, or, more simply, La Serenissima, the Most Serene Republic. This Venetian civilization lasted about a thousand years, until it came to an end in 1797 — like Byzantine civilization, and the civilization of Khotan, both of which endured about a thousand years (i.e., each of these examples endured one chronom, in the terminology I suggested in A Metric for the Science of Civilization).

The Republic of Venice was not only long-lived by any measure of terrestrial civilization, it was also, in its time, routinely held up as an exemplar of government, a beacon to which other political entities might look to for inspiration. What were the characteristic institutions of Venice that proved both robust and instructive? It must be said that they were nothing that would be admired today. In particular, the institutions of Venetian statecraft were markedly at variance with the contemporary ideal of transparency.

Everyone today seems to agree that transparency is a good thing, and the more transparency the better. There is an independent organization devoted to transparency issues, Transparency International, which primarily positions itself in opposition to corruption: “Transparency International gives voice to the victims and witnesses of corruption. We work together with governments, businesses and citizens to stop the abuse of power, bribery and secret deals.” Transparency International equates non-transparency with corruption. Was the Most Serene Republic of Venice corrupt? Can we apply modern conceptions and standards of governmental corruption to pre-modern political entities?

The contemporary conception of transparency is entirely predicated upon governments that are at least putatively installed by popular sovereignty, and which therefore must at least give the appearance of honoring democratic processes, representative institutions, and political openness, however compromised these are in practice. Thus transparency becomes a matter of closing the gap between professed principles and actual practices. Corrupt politicians can be publicly shamed by highlighting their failure to implement the principles that they must, in deference to popular sovereignty, publicly espouse.

No such gap between the appearance and reality of democratic forms plagued the Italian city-states. If a government is never constituted on the basis of popular sovereignty, it cannot be accused of any failure to embody the principle. The republics of the medieval and early modern Italian peninsula were spectacularly non-democratic (if not anti-democratic) by any modern measure, but in comparison to other regimes of their day and before, these republican city-states were a marvel of responsive representative government, and were nothing like the absolutism of continental Europe.

While the Donation of Constantine was discussed (and eventually demonstrated to be a forgery) by the Italian humanists, doctrines of the divine right of kings played little role in the political ideology of the Italian peninsula. Theologically justified absolutism was primarily a concern of ultramontane Europe. There was, of course, the Papacy, which ruled over the Papal States as a theologically-constituted political entity with the Pope as head of state and acting in a tradition of Papal absolutism, but this was a very different kind of political entity that the monarchies of west and central Europe, which sought legitimation of absolutism though special divine sanction of royal power.

It is arguable that the monarchies of Europe that sought legitimation through public spectacle were acting on the medieval equivalent of transparency: power was power made visible. Everyone understood power when made visible in this way. Venice represented something very different, though despite its difference its power was no less recognized by contemporaries. Perhaps a measure of this differentness derived from its utterly distinct economic model. The monarachies of Europe possessed an almost exclusively agrarian economy; wealth was measured in land, and the agricultural productivity of this land. Venice grew far more wealthy from trade and commerce, and this was no doubt difficult to understand in a time when it was thought that all occupations other than agriculture were inherently sterile (a doctrine eventually formalized by the physiocrats hundreds of years later). Agricultural wealth and power is, in a sense, on display to all; the wealth of merchant republics, and especially the sources of this wealth, is often kept hidden. And Venice was a master of secrecy.

The Venetian Republic made a principle and a practice of secrecy; it was the very embodiment of non-transparency. Anyone could be denounced in secret (by way of the bocca di leone), retained in secret, interrogated in secret, tried in secret, condemned in secret, imprisoned in secret, executed in secret, and their remains disposed of in secret. “Disappearances” were the modus operandi of “Venetian justice,” a phrase that has survived down to modern times as a synonym for harshly disproportionate punishment, for which Venice was notorious. The spectacularly non-transparent Council of Ten was perfectly democratic in its impunity: it had the power to take any action against any individual, regardless of rank or station.

Nothing about the Venetian justice system would pass contemporary muster, but it can also be said of Venice that its serenity was not disturbed by show trials, which routinely mar, and routinely pervert, the administration of justice in democratic republics; there was no need to publicly display Venetian power, since everyone knew and understood (and feared and respected) this power without the necessity of a vulgar display. Venetian power was famously “the iron fist in a velvet glove.” Venice not only exercised power, it did so elegantly. In this sense, Venice is not only distinct from contemporary standards of transparency, but also distinct from the theatricality of most medieval regimes, which gloried in public torture and executions as an enactment of the theater of power. Venice, of course, knew how to put on a show — what greater show is there is Europe than Carnival? — and it did engage in public executions, when the personage to be executed was sufficiently visible that their execution could serve as exemplary justice. But Venice did not need to do this to retain its power.

It is impossible to imagine any contemporary nation-state today being identified as “most serene.” Our politics is as noisy and as intrusive as our industry. The pursuit of transparency is the very embodiment of this intrusiveness, as Venice was the very embodiment of non-transparency. And in its non-transparency Venice was widely regarded as an example to be admired and emulated — indeed, its governmental structure was thought to be a nearly perfect exemplification of a republican constitution. That is, until the American and French revolutions revealed to the world a very different kind of republicanism. As such, Venice presents to us the spectacle of a political Other, drawn from within the western tradition, yet today incomprehensibly alien to us.

Venetian civilization lasted a thousand years. The city of Venice itself, with all its reminders of the heyday of Venetian civilization, endures still. The idea of The Most Serene Republic will probably last as long as human civilization lasts — at least until the next effacement of history, when civilization on the other side of prediction wall assumes some unrecognizable form that no longer looks back to terrestrial history as a point of reference.

Of what political entity extant today is this likely to be true?

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Another image of Venice by Canaletto.

Another image of Venice by Canaletto.

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4 Responses to “La Serenissima: a Study in Non-Transparency”

  1. xcalibur said

    Rome, Byzantium, and the Most Serene Republic each lived 1,000 years. A coincidence?

    I’ve always been drawn to the Venetian Republic. The emphasis on trade and commerce, sea power, the unique style of government (and a cool looking flag). It’s an interesting chapter for sure.

    I think Italy missed an opportunity. They’re a relevant nation-state today, but if the Italian peninsula had been unified much earlier, they might’ve been a dominant power.

    I think transparency is very important. Not so much the show trials and media sensationalism, which I see as noise; but rather the sense of accountability. If any citizen who’s willing can follow legislation or budget decisions, it cuts down on corruption and waste.

    I knew the grisly public executions in Europe served as a warning or chilling effect, but I hadn’t thought of them as power displays, or compared them to Venetian justice, but that all makes sense.

    • geopolicraticus said

      The thousand year term of many major civilizations — I have also cited the example of Khotan — is one reason I introduced the the time measure of a chronom in my post A Metric for the Science of Civilization. A possible explanation for this length of time — not necessarily an explanation that I would defend, but one “off the shelf” as it were — would be that, once a civilization passes a certain historical threshold that places it in the category of civilizational longevity, it takes about that long for the Toynbeean challenge-response mechanism to play out until a challenge emerges that a senescent civilization cannot meet. I think Toynbee wrote somewhere that it is typical for there to be about three challenge and response cycles for a civilization.

      Foucault’s Discipline and Punish is an important read on the use of torture and public execution as a display of power. More needs to be written on the relationship of exemplary justice to state-level societies: what is being exemplified? Why? Are there unsuccessful examples of attempted exemplarism? What distinguishes successful and unsuccessful models of exemplary justice? Is there any way to quantify success or lack of success in exemplary justice? This is a potentially rich field of research.

      Best wishes,


      • xcalibur said

        I’ll have to catch up with Foucalt. I’m more familiar with On Crimes and Punishments by Beccaria, which argued the case that draconian punishments were not really effective as a deterrent. But as you mentioned, there were other reasons for over-the-top public executions, mainly to exemplify the power and authority of the state. There is plenty of potential research there.

        As for the chronom, I’ll admit that I skimmed the first paragraph so that I had it in mind subconsciously, which led to me restating things. To add to that discussion, the time-scale of the chronom has many other examples. Ancient Egypt, if one includes the early dynastic period and the Ptolemies, lived for about 3000 years. Classical India lived about 1500 years. Imperial China lived slightly over 2000 years. (I use the term “live” to emphasize that society is analogous to an organism, continually growing, changing, and overcoming new challenges to its institutions. Once it’s reduced to static history, it is dead, although it may have a legacy continuing to the present.)

        I won’t cite the many other examples – the point is clear that there is a universal pattern in the long term rise and fall of civilizations. The industrial-technological revolution seems to have quickened the pace of historical development, but it remains to be seen how that will play out long term.

        • geopolicraticus said

          Beccaria represents precisely the Enlightenment school of thought in penology against which Foucault is reacting. The thought of Foucault could only have been possible in the late twentieth century, with its many layers of ideology and of reactions against the same ideologies, so there is no formulaic reading of Foucault that does his work justice. One must struggle with the works themselves.

          I don’t put much store by my use of the “chronom” except as an exhibit to show what might be possible as distinctive units of measure for the study of civilization as a rigorous science.

          In to the examples you cite, I would tend to identify longer periods of time and not to confine civilizations to the “classic” expressions. The archaeology of the prehistory of civilization and of proto-civilizations is not as exciting as excavating monumental architecture and deciphering inscriptions thereupon, as the remains are usually rudimentary in the extreme, but the shallow part of the exponential growth curve of a civilization usually represents the bulk of its history.

          Best wishes,


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