Europe's Latest Secession Movement: Venice?

2.1 million Venetians just voted to leave Italy and restore their medieval republic.
Venice's Grand Canal, facing towards St. Mark's Basilica (Manuel Silvestri/Reuters)

"Ballot" is not originally an English word: It comes from the Venetian word ballotta, or "little ball." For centuries, councils elected the Doge of Venice, who ruled the city-state, with small silver and gold balls. Now Venetians have put their modern equivalent to good use in a bid to declare independence from Italy. And they have a pretty good case to make for restoring their once-mighty republic.

Last week, in a move overshadowed by the international outcry over Russia's annexation of Crimea, Plebiscito.eu, an organization representing a coalition of Venetian nationalist groups, held an unofficial referendum on breaking with Rome. Voters were first asked the main question—"Do you want Veneto to become an independent and sovereign federal republic?"—followed by three sub-questions on membership in the European Union, NATO, and the eurozone. The region's 3.7 million eligible voters used a unique digital ID number to cast ballots online, and organizers estimate that more than 2 million voters ultimately participated in the poll.

On Friday night, people waving red-and-gold flags emblazoned with the Lion of St. Mark filled the square of Treviso, a city in the Veneto region, as the referendum's organizers announced the results: 2,102,969 votes in favor of independence—a whopping 89 percent of all ballots cast—to 257,266 votes against. Venetians also said yes to joining NATO, the EU, and the eurozone. The overwhelming victory surprised even ardent supporters of the initiative, as most polls before the referendum estimated only about 65 percent of the region's voters supported independence.

Luca Zaia, Veneto's regional president and the referendum's most prominent supporter, echoed the sentiments of separatist movements across Europe when he declared that international law allowed "the right to self-determination." But whether Italian law allows it is a different matter. "The 'digital plebiscite' has no legal value and it cannot force anyone to do anything," claimed Mario Bertolissi, an Italian constitutional scholar. "In short, it has no practical consequences." But with Scotland voting on independence from the U.K. in September and Catalonia weighing an unauthorized November referendum to leave Spain, it's worth watching how Veneto's independence campaign plays out.

***

The Most Serene Republic of Venice, as it was officially known, dominated the Mediterranean Sea during its thousand-year lifespan between the seventh and eighteenth centuries. At its height, the state's traders and merchants sailed from the lagoons of the northern Adriatic Sea to the shores of Syria and Lebanon, carrying spices and silks from Asia to Western markets. Venice itself, a cosmopolitan city whose culture and arts were rivaled only by those of Florence and Rome, produced explorers like Marco Polo, composers like Antonio Vivaldi, writers like Giacomo Casanova, and painters like Titian.

But a centuries-long economic decline, caused by the shift in trade routes from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic during Europe's early colonial period, culminated in France's almost-bloodless conquest of the republic in 1797. Paul Strathern described its capture by Napoleon's revolutionary army in his recent history of the city:

When the city and the nearby islands had been secured, 4,000 soldiers of the revolutionary army staged a parade, accompanied by brass bands, in the Piazza San Marco. The watching citizens well understood the significance of the event: this was the first time in Venice's long history that foreign troops had set foot in the city.

Further humiliations marking the end of the independent Republic soon followed. Bonaparte ordered that a 'Tree of Liberty' be planted in the Piazza San Marco, beneath which the doge's corno, and other insignia of office, were ceremonially burned, along with a copy of the Golden Book listing all the noble families. The deposed doge and the former members of the Grand Council who had not fled the city were then made to dance around the flames, while the watching citizens were encouraged by the French soldiers to jeer at their former masters.

Next it was the turn of the city itself to be dismantled. The French army began taking down the bronze horses of San Marco and removing other treasures, in preparation for their trans-shipment to France. The city's destruction, both political and symbolic, was now complete. The 1,000-year-old Republic of Venice was no more.

Both the city-state and its inland territory fell under French and then Austrian rule for the next half-century. A short-lived Republic of San Marco declared independence in the region during the revolutions of 1848, but surrendered to Austria just over a year later. After Austria's defeat during the wars of Italian unification, an 1866 plebiscite in Venice, held in the shadow of an Italian military garrison, registered 647,246 votes in favor of annexation by the Kingdom of Italy and only 69 votes against—a margin worthy of Putin's Russia.

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Matt Ford is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the National Channel and works on social media.

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