Imagine a time in which citizens could voice their concerns anonymously by placing hand-written notes into designated boxes. In turn, the government would address each complaint individually. No need for mass protests or demonstrations. Welcome to Renaissance-era Venice.
These boxes, or bocche di leone (lions’ mouths), were scattered throughout the city, from the Doge’s Palace to the Dorsoduro district. Each stone receptacle resembled an intricately carved face, often that of a lion—the winged lion of St. Mark is the symbol of Venice—with a slot at the mouth into which letters could be inserted. The earliest lion’s mouth adorning the Doge’s Palace dates back to 1618 and is still intact.
With so many tribunal offices around the palace, each state department had its own box. And across the city, different boxes addressed different issues—such as taxes, market fraud, or trade disputes—depending on their location. This spoke to the system of government in place at the time, an oligarchic republic led by the doge and known locally as La Serenissima (Most Serene Republic of Venice).
The box embedded in the wall of the church of Santa Maria della Visitazione in Dorsoduro, for example, was used to complain about garbage in the canals. It read “denunciations related to public health for the Sestiere of Dorsoduro.” Centuries later, this box remains, and so too does the pollution problem. If only this mouth could speak again.
Mouths of truth
Venice wasn’t the only place that followed this kind of protocol. During the medieval and Renaissance periods, “many cities and countries had systems for anonymous denunciation of one kind or another—that’s part of how the legal system worked throughout Europe,” says Filippo de Vivo, historian and author of Information and Communication in Venice: Rethinking Early Modern Politics.
“It was a legal system known as inquisitorial,” he says. “Inquiry would be started from a public accusation which often involved witnesses, or a secret denunciation.”
What made Venice’s complaint boxes effective was that by law anonymous denunciations were accepted only against public officials, not private individuals. They were used to “invite denunciation against government officers who were misusing their power, in theory at least,” says de Vivo. This also helped create a strong republic because “the opinions of ordinary Venetians were taken seriously,” he adds.
While anyone could drop a note into the boxes at any time of day or night, signed notes took precedence. Each one was read and addressed by the relevant state department. Complaints signed and supported by witnesses were often reviewed by one of Venice’s main governing bodies, the Council of Ten.
Significant evidence gathering and investigation followed, and consequences could be dire, for both the accused and the accuser, if the latter was found to be lying. The most serious crimes were punished by incarceration in the city’s notorious prisons, exile, or even death. The system had its flaws, and sometimes innocent people were condemned.
But throughout the 17th century, Venice was known for having an effective, though strict, legal system—in part because of the boxes, also called bocche che parlano (mouths that speak). Seventh-generation Venetian Caterina Vianello, a theater and opera lecturer at universities in Venice and Paris, believes that “the exceptionality of Venice was due to there being no king, prince, dictator ... no concentration of power.”
The method of the complaint boxes allowed everyone to have a voice. And by sharing the power, people also shared the responsibility. “All the citizens were engaged for a common cause, not like now where the focus is on the individual,” says Vianello.
Silence of the lions
The fall of the republic followed a politically driven series of events fueled by the French Revolutionary Wars. Finally, in 1797, Napoleon Bonaparte threatened to declare war on Venice unless it agreed to democratize. The Venetian Senate had no choice but to abdicate, thus ending 1,100 years of a calm and orderly republic.
Under Napoleon’s rule, the French occupied Venice and proceeded to loot it, damaging parts of the city including the Venetian Arsenal—and destroying many of the bocche di leone.
Decades later, American writer and humorist Mark Twain delivered another blow to the boxes, highlighting their sometimes fearsome reputation. In his 1869 travel book, The Innocents Abroad, he wrote: “At the head of the Giant’s Staircase, where Marino Faliero was beheaded, and where the Doges were crowned in ancient times, two small slits in the stone wall were pointed out—two harmless, insignificant orifices that would never attract a stranger’s attention—yet these were the terrible Lions’ Mouths! The heads were gone (knocked off by the French during their occupation of Venice), but these were the throats, down which went the anonymous accusation, thrust in secretly at dead of night by an enemy, that doomed many an innocent man to walk the Bridge of Sighs and descend into the dungeon which none entered and hoped to see the sun again.”
Despite his dim view of the bocche di leone, Twain did come to appreciate the vestiges of Venice’s past as a city-state with global significance. One particular moment seems to have sent him time traveling, as he wrote “in the moonlight, her fourteen centuries of greatness fling their glories about her, and once more is she the princeliest among the nations of the earth.”
Whispers of history
In modern-day Venice, with rising seas and floods of tourists threatening to submerge the city—and now a deadly pandemic endangering lives and livelihoods—it would be understandable if locals felt a pang of nostalgia for the old complaint boxes.
And some remain throughout the city, albeit worn down by time and the truths they told. In addition to those at the Doge’s Palace and the Santa Maria della Visitazione church, others can be found at the Torcello Museum and the church of San Martino. Post-pandemic visitors can take a guided tour or try their luck on a self-guided treasure hunt.
Venice’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987 has helped raise awareness of the need to preserve the city’s architecture, including its bocche di leone. If they could speak again, they would ask to be remembered for the important role they once played. These days it’s up to us to speak for them.