The Avatar

Friday, August 17, 2007 9:30 AM

In case anyone out there is wondering what the Avatar--that scary sculpture headlining this website--is suppose to signify, I can tell you. It is a photo which I took of a plaque affixed to a wall on the second floor of the inner courtyard of the Ducal Palace in Venice. The purpose of the plaque was to receive denunciations regarding crimes, especially high crimes of treason and corruption, against La Serenissima, the Republic of Venice, which endured for more than a thousand years. Its decline commenced with Columbus’ discovery of America in 1492. Its demise was overseen by Napoleon some three hundred odd years later, when he invaded the lagoon.

Notes were deposited into the mouth of the sculpture, which seems to have had a brass tongue, now shining with the patina of centuries. This particular sculpture was not a lion--a Bocca de Leone--but a piratical figure. The notes landed in a wooden box on the other side of the wall, which box was in the custody of the Council of Ten.  I realize this may sound like a police state to my libertarian friends. I think of it as a kind of honor system and a gesture of patriotism in the proper meaning of the word. If someone was doing something to harm Venice, the activity deserved to be denounced and stopped.

The Englishman Hugh Honour in his justly famous guide to Venice wrote: “As one reads Venetian history, the term ‘team spirit’ hovers at the back of one’s mind.... Anything approaching a cult of personality was discouraged. The Doge was an anonymous figure-head prevented by his coronation oath from meddling in politics. Government was conducted by a committee, or rather a frequently changing series of committees.... It was at all times forbidden for anyone to have social contacts with visitors to Venice.”

There are some remarkable similarities between the American Republic of 1789 and that of ancient Venice, which I will not go into right now. In fact, Venice could be seen as a kind of template, especially in regards the distrust of concentrated executive authority. In Venice one might say the attitude was taken to extremes.

The unique and unusual case of Doge Marino Faliero comes  to mind. The Council of Ten investigated and found Faliero guilty of treason, anno Domini 1355. The Ten went into action on behalf of the Republic. The Doge was decapitated in the courtyard of the Ducal palace, on the same spot where he had taken the oath of office a few months before. Granted, it would not be appropriate for the American republic to take such exceptional measures against its elected leadership, but we do have impeachment as an alternative, as well as exposure and denunciation. 

--Copyright 2007 Patrick Foy--