14 July, 2006

50. Non scribatur

This magnificent staircase, which ascends from the courtyard of the Doge's Palace to the first floor loggia is known as the Scala dei Giganti', the Giants' Staircase, and it was at the top of this staircase that a newly elected Doge was crowned and presented to the assembled nobles below.

This particular staircase had not yet been built at the time of today's story, but in that earlier time there was another more modest set of steps that also went from the same courtyard to the same loggia, and at the top of those stairs, the Republic of Venice, for the first and only time, executed a reigning and legitimately elected Doge.

In 1354, seventy-six years old Marin Falier, the Venetian ambassador to the Papal court at Avignon, was elected to be the 55th Doge of Venice.

An irascible and cantankerous old man, who was also possibly somewhat senile, Falier developed, within months of being elected, an unreasonable hatred of some of the arrogant young aristocrats of Venice, who had insulted his wife and assaulted, among others, Stefano Ghiazza, the director of the Arsenale. Together with some other supporters, the two old men hatched a plan to use the army of workers at the Arsenale to stage a coup d'etat, which would give them the excuse to get rid of the young nobles and at the same time crown Falier as Prince of Venice, giving him the absolute power he wanted but which the Doge didn't have within Venice's oligarchic electoral system.

Like so many other failed plots, this one was undone by loose lips, and before the day of the coup the Council of Ten had all the information and evidence they needed to make sure that the coup was thwarted and all the conspirators arrested. Ten of the ringleaders were hanged in a row from the windows of the Ducal Palace facing the Piazzetta, but not Marin Falier.

Not sure what to do with him, the Council of Ten added twenty additional noblemen to their deliberations to consider Falier's fate. The aspiring prince, however, pleaded guilty, so he was taken from his private apartments in the palace to the Council Chamber and from there to the top of the staircase which led down into the courtyard of the ducal palace. Here, Falier asked the Republic to forgive him for his treachery, and laid his head on the block, whereupon he was beheaded with a single stroke.

The Council did not put Falier's name in the minutes, leaving a blank where it should have been in the list of the condemned, and writing beside it "non scribatur" – 'let it not be written'. In the frieze of portraits of the Doges that is painted round the walls of the Council Chamber in the Doge's Palace there is now one space that contains instead of Falier's likeness a painted black veil, underneath which is written "Here is the place of Marin Falier, beheaded for his crimes".

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