How Venice worked

Peter Burke

  • Politics in Renaissance Venice by Robert Finlay
    Benn, 336 pp, £13.95, June 1980, ISBN 0 510 00085 1

‘While the Athenians, Spartans and Romans did not survive for more than six hundred years, this Republic has lasted for more than a thousand, because it was founded by Christians and given the most excellent laws in the name of Christ.’ So wrote the 16th-century Venetian diarist, Marin Sanudo, about his native city. Venetians believed that their republican regime had the secret of eternal life, and they persuaded others to believe this too. After the execution of Charles I, the British government consulted the Venetian ambassador on the question of how republics survived. The traditional answer, which received its classic formulation early in the 16th century in a treatise by the patrician cardinal Gasparo Contarini, was in terms of checks and balances. Venice endured because it was harmonious, and it was harmonious because it was a judicious combination of the three possible forms of government: monarchy (represented by the Doge), aristocracy (the Senate) and democracy (the Great Council, a general assembly of adult male nobles).

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