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On one of the three exposed corners of the ducal palace, there is a sculpture concerning the judgement of Solomon. On the west façade of the palace is the figure of Iustitia, with the sword of justice upright in her hand; here also is the word “Venecia.” Venice and Justice have been combined in one eternal image, with the inscription “Strong and just, enthroned I put the furies of the sea beneath my feet.” Above the Porta della Carta, in the same complex of public buildings, is enthroned the virgin image of Venetia and Iustitia with sword and scales. The crowning figures of the palace are also those of Iustitia. The justice of Venice is one of the myths of Venice. It is deemed to be ancient. It is deemed to be divinely inspired. It is related, in ultimate form, to the judicial salvation of humankind.

The actual nature of Venetian law is less glorious, but perhaps more interesting. As in all aspects of the Venetian polity, it was of mixed inheritance. Elements of it came from Roman jurisprudence, and from Byzantine legislation. Other elements were taken from the Lombard and Frankish codes. Having no firm territorial foundation, Venice was forced to adapt or borrow the traditions of other peoples. It could be said that the Venetians created a patchwork coalition of various legal principles, flexible and accommodating for any circumstances. Venetian law was, above all else, efficient. A nation all at sea must first save itself.

The first code of jurisprudence was promulgated at the close of the twelfth century, and the laws were collected in the following century within the pages of five great books. The majority of statutes, as might be expected in a city of merchants, dealt with matters of wealth and property. Commercial law was the most voluminous. The five books might be said, in fact, to embody a mercantile attitude towards law. Despite the reverence for the customary image of Justice, the practice of the Venetians seems to have been largely empirical and pragmatic. The laws were often acknowledgements of what already existed in practice. Customary law, unwritten and on occasions anecdotal, seems to have been pre-eminent. It was even declared that custom might override the written law. This is in part evidence of the merchant spirit, distrusting legal niceties and quibbles. The offender must pay for dishonour done to God, and disrespect shown to the city. These were the important matters.

It was often said that Venetians were more fond of talking than of doing. Certainly it is true that no other city-state produced so much legislation. The contents of these laws are sometimes confusing, inconsistent and contradictory. They were passed and then not enacted. They were issued, or reissued, when the very same laws were already on the statute books. The leaders of Venice legislated too much. There is an air of fantasy, or of unreality, about their search for legal formulae. Some of the great council believed or thought that they remembered a certain law. When it could not actually be found, it was drawn up and entered anyway. There was a saying that “seven days suffice before time obscures a Venetian law”:

Una leze veneziana

Dura una settimana.

The sumptuary laws, in particular, entered the minutiae of social life where no practical supervision was possible. So they were largely ignored. They remain, however, the most bizarre example of the lengths to which the Venetian state would go to influence social conduct. If the city were a large family, as was often claimed, then it was of a harshly paternalistic kind. Thus, in 1562, it was decreed that “at any meal of meat not more than one course of roast and one kind of boiled meat may be provided. This may not include more than three kinds of meat or poultry …” The legislation was designed in part to curb the enthusiasm for large family parties, for gatherings of kin, which could be considered as a threat to the state. That is why the particular focus of legislation was directed at feasts and banquets where great numbers of people might gather. Oysters were not permitted at dinners where there were more than twenty guests. There were rules on the number of pastries and fruits that could be served; peacocks and pheasant were forbidden. The slaves who served at such banquets were invited to spy on their masters. The cooks were obliged to report in advance to the authorities what food they had been asked to prepare.

The legislation was also designed to arrest the tendency towards excessive flamboyance; the common people, faced with the extravagance of the rich, might become restless. In Venice, internal dissension had to be avoided at all costs. That is perhaps the reason for the general disregard of sumptuary legislation; it was seen only as a gesture to mollify the populace, not as a serious attempt at enforcing law.

There was also the spiritual argument. The example of vanity and greed would invoke the anger of the Almighty. At times of defeat, on sea or land, the Venetians often blamed the debased morals of certain of the citizens. This was of course a common trope in the medieval and early modern periods, but it applied all the more aptly and sharply to a city that believed itself to be chosen by God. The rules applied to the strictest regulations of dress. No man or woman could possess more than two fur cloaks. In 1696 it was forbidden for anyone to wear lace ruffles on the neck or wrists; brocade and silk clothes were forbidden, and no more than two rings could be worn upon the fingers. Three patricians were chosen as magistrates or sumptuary police, to enforce these regulations. It is not known whether they were successful in their attempts to curb extravagance and excess.

The practice of Venetian law was in theory equitable. Anyone who owned property, whether patrician or citizen or artisan, was treated in the same manner. Patricians could not plead, or expect, any especial favours. There was also a system of appeal established upon principles of fairness. Solicitations could be made to the doge himself. There was a Venetian saying, “pane in piazza e giustizia in Palazzo”; bread in the piazza and justice in the palace. Venetian justice had a reputation for strictness, on occasions to the point of barbarity, but also for impartiality. The state provided counsel for those who were poor. Even the slaves of Venice could approach the legal tribunals, and obtain redress from any grievances. In May 1372 a Venetian artisan, Antonio Avonal, and Giacobello, a tanner, whiled away the time by pricking with a long pin the slaves who passed them on their way to vespers at Saint Mark’s; they were taken before the authorities. Avonal was sentenced to three, and Giacobello to two, months in prison.

Almost uniquely in Italy, too, the lawcourts conducted their business in the vernacular. The court records are filled with the voices of ordinary Venetians, arguing, pleading, complaining about neighbours and employers and servants. The tribunals were like family courts. Venetian life was one of almost continuous litigation. In fact the sturdy tradition of the vociferous courts helped to stabilise Venice throughout its history. That is why the people of Venice were known to be “law-abiding.” Rulers and ruled knew the common ground on which they stood. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux is supposed to have told the doge, Cristoforo Moro, that “the republic would last as long as the custom continued of doing justice.”

We have the intriguing spectacle of practical success and ad hoc or muddled legal theorising. Laws were made or unmade, or ignored, or thwarted, or disobeyed. There were so many laws that no one could remember them all. The patrician judges had not received a legal education, except that which they had picked up by observation. They were politicians employed for a relatively short term. So they relied upon the promptings of conscience, conjecture, and common sense. They were, in one sense, amateurs. There must of course have been abuses of power and of principle; there must have been bribes and blackmail. That is the nature of life. Yet the pragmatic workings of the legal system, established upon custom, prevailed. The bond of equality before the law kept the city together. It is a measure of the Venetian temperament.

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