In 14th century Venice there existed a system encouraged by the government that allowed anonymous accusations to be made against any citizen. This was a Renaissance version of a surveillance culture which is reflected in the 21st century with CCTV, spy drones and phone taps.
In 14th century Europe, Venice was one of the most intrigue-filled cities of the Renaissance. It's trading empire which stretched all the way to the Near East had created wealthy merchant elites, who had bought noble titles for themselves.
These merchant nobility had absolute control of the government, and had passed laws that only members from their class could hold office. Despite the power of this bureaucracy it was in stark contrast to the other parts of Europe, which was ruled by monarchs or nobles who had their heirs succeed in their place.
Legal problems were solved by three men elected by their peers and known as the Avogadori. They were not lawyers but acted as criminal prosecutors for the state. They held the post for two years, and were given the position not because of their knowledge of the law but as a power draw for their family.
The Mayor of Venice was the Doge, who was elected by the people and held office for a lifetime. He lived in a palace, which is where justice was interpreted and carried out. What better place to receive anonymous accusations about anyone? One would think that any accusation would be invalidated by an anonymous accuser, but the palace had masks with mouths that were mail slots which would receive "Secret Denunciations".
These letterboxes could be found all over the city and Venetians were encouraged to snitch on their fellow citizens. Witness protection would be promised to those worried about coming forward. The official version was that accusers had to sign their letters and anonymous ones were destroyed, but in truth they were not and would be investigated.
These accusations would of course point the finger to anyone stealing from the state or breaking a law, and this was done without a shred of proof. These mail slots were not only used against political enemies, but regular citizens had to worry about a neighbor or supposed friend who would slip your name written on a slip of paper into the "Lion's Mouth". A sentence of death could not be appealed and the proceedings were all conducted in secret. An accused could also endure torture as a result of one of these denunciations and defense was not allowed.
Once you were "picked up" and taken to the Doge's Palace the person would lose contact with the outside world, and not even their family knew what was happening to them or what they were accused of.
There were other secret passages in the palace which could take you to a torture chamber where an inquisitor could work on you to get the "truth". One form of torture was to lift a prisoner up by a rope with his hands behind his back. The arms came out of their sockets and the ribcage could also break. A prisoner could be tortured for three days, and the other prisoners being held could hear their cries. No doubt this was a way to psychologically break those being held.
The condemned would be taken from the interrogation room in the Doge's Palace over the Bridge of Sighs that connected to the prison which would allow them their last view of the outside world and their families.
In a city replete with spies, police and ways to accuse without proof, it created a climate of constant fear and suspicion, despite the glitter of its wealth and the apparent gaiety of its citizenry.
Even if nothing came of the accustion the information was recorded and preserved in something known as the Secret Archive.
In 1755 Giacomo Casanova a 30-year-old charlatan was imprisoned after receiving a 5-year sentence for the blasphemy of bedding nuns. Through bribery he secured another cell and with a file hidden in a bible was able to escape.
When you hear of these internal machinations we shudder to think of living in this type of culture, but are we so far removed in present day from having an "anonymous" source ruin a citizen's life either legally or in the court of public opinion without any type of proof? In truth we are not removed at all.
Source - Guido Ruggiero, Law and Punishment in Early Renaissance Venice, 69 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 243 (1978)
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