One of the most remarkable facts about the Republic of Venice is that the people, completely shut out of power by the ‘Locking’ of the Maggior Consiglio in 1297 never revolted in the 500 years that followed.
There were occasional riots, especially by the seafarers in the Renaissance, who were universally mistreated and often cheated. But by and large, the Venetians lived much better and with more security than their mainland counterparts. When Napoleon barged in on the scene to introduce the democratic joys of the French Revolution, it was ironically the people who wept, whereas many patricians were so relieved they danced with the soldiers around the Liberty Tree in Piazza San Marco.
The secret of Venice’s popular success was a precocious sense of social justice. Venice’s merchant aristocrats, who never claimed any kind of divine right or natural superiority, knew the best way to retain their monopoly of power and their profits was to devote themselves to the public good: the only real privilege a patrician had was to serve the state. All the classes mingled together in the streets and at festivals, with no signs of deference beyond the requirements of common courtesy. There were even laws that doubled the punishment when a patrician committed a crime against a commoner. Europe’s other aristocrats thought their Venetian cousins were bonkers.
The most important factor in maintaining social stability actually cost the patricians very little in time or money: they encouraged co-operative, independent guilds and confraternities (scuole), just when many European princes were trying to limit them, the way modern politicians try to bust up unions.
There were only five or so scuole in the 13th century; 30 more in the following century, and by the fall of the Republic, there were 925 of these corporations.
There were six Scuole Grandi, or large religious and charitable confraternities that had grown up from the Scuole dei Battuti ('of the Beaten Ones'), penitential self-flagellation brotherhoods founded in the Middle Ages dedicated to charity and spiritual good works. These six Great Schools were officially recognized by the Council of Ten and were unique to Venice: the Misericordia, San Giovanni Evangelista, Carità (now part of the Accademia), San Marco, San Rocco, and San Teodoro, which erected monumental buildings, filled with great art.
The vast majority, or scuole piccoli ranged from large, politically influential guilds like the glass-makers and arsenal workers, down to the humble fruiterers’ guild, whose members had the privilege of annually presenting the Doge with their finest melons.
The scuole were the backbone of everyday life in Venice, ‘republics within the Republic’. Each had its own constitution, a body of electors, a senate (banca) and doge (gastaldo); each decided what was best for the trade or society and its members. They regulated pay, settled quarrels, controlled and maintained the standards of Venetian crafts, promoted the finest craftsmen and supervised the selection of apprentices.
Long before Marx’s ‘from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’, Venice was paying workers at the same job a different wage, depending on whether they had a wife or children to support. Each member paid dues according to his earnings and in return had access to the guild hospital and guild school for his children, was given a pension in his old age, and knew that the scuola would support his wife and children if he couldn’t. Many a member left the confraternity a tidy sum in his will, often to beautify the church or guild hall – today among the finest things to see in Venice. Some even loaned the Republic money in times of need.
One of the first things Napoleon did was suppress the scuole; to his ideal of a modern, central government, they seemed like medieval anachronisms. It was like pulling the rug out from under the people, who at one blow lost their security and their chance to control their own affairs, and it wasn’t long before a third of the Venetian workforce had to turn to the modern, central government dole.