Law School Looks Into Italy’s Past

Back in 1942 the Yale Law School’s Lillian Goldman Law Library received an endowment to acquire rare law books, notably from Europe.

Problem was there was a war going on there and you couldn’t buy much.

Three years later the war was over, and it was one of the best times to acquire rare books — because people were, alas, selling them to keep roofs over their heads.

Their misfortune was the Law School library’s opportunity. The librarian in 1945 spent $8,000 from that endowment on a collection of about 800 rare law books and manuscripts from Italy.

Today, Yale’s collection of rare Italian law books, called statuti — augmented by another 200 items since — is the most extensive outside of Italy itself, said Michael Widener, the library’s rare book librarian.

He’s co-curator, along with art history grad student Christopher Platt, of “Law and Authority in the Most Serene Republic: Illuminated Manuscripts and Printed Books From Renaissance Venice,” an arresting little exhibition showing documents of laws pertaining to how Venice arrested its criminals and ne’er-do-wells, regulated its commerce, and everything else legal in between.

The show is on the second level of the library on Wall Street and runs through Dec. 15.

Although the show is modest in size — only two vitrines — it packs a punch. The vitrines contain medallions announcing the doge’s power; an 18th-century print showing the platform, the pietra del bando, the stone of announcements, in front of the doge’s palace (it’s still there) from where criers read aloud recently voted-on laws; and printed volumes containing decrees of laws that tell you things you might not have known about the Serene Republica, or La Serenissima.

For example, to quote one of the informative labels, “on August 27, 1577 the Council decreed that men should not trick women into having sexual relations by making false promises to marry them.”

Are you surprised to hear that the law had to be repeated?

It was re-decreed in 1612, accompanied by a threat that this time the “guilty party would be severely punished.”

We learn that punishment in Venice — its efficiently run government was one of the secrets to how a tiny political entity could be so powerful for so long — rarely involved jail time, because, well, it’s expensive to keep people in jail. Punishments included fines, or torture if the crime was serious, to get the accused to admit their guilt and get on with it. 

When criminals did at some point accumulate in the jails, another law decreed they should work out their sentences in the galleys of Venice’s vaunted navy. The show gives you the law decree and, next to it, an image of what a maritime prisoner’s outfit looked like.

For Widener, one of the pleasures of the exhibition was to learn more about the commissioni, the illuminated booklets in which officials going to important posts, like governing the city of Bergamo, would receive their marching orders.

The exhibition contains four of the six commissioni that the library owns, said Widener. In addition to having the lion of St. Mark, the official’s personal family herald, they spelled out in legal terms exactly what his responsibilities involved, said Widener.

In short, they were illuminated job descriptions.

Widener said there’s a whole variety of reasons La Serenissima was such a successful political power for so long, not least of which was the business orientation of its citizens, its strong navy, and its extensive bureaucracy.

But the law was also important, and wide ranging in its concerns. “There’s gun control, laws pertaining to record keeping, a sophisticated legal system,” Widener added, not only in Venice but also throughout Italy.

“What do businessmen loathe? Uncertainty. They might not like regulation, but if a guy on the other side of the Mediterranean stiffs you, how do you get your money back?” Widener asked rhetorically.

In the rare book vault is one of the earliest of the holdings, the laws of Verona from 1477, a thick volume all in Latin with comments in the margins. Widener noticed that most of the penned comments, also in Latin, were full of abbreviations — perhaps written by the past equivalent of the law students working just outside his office.

Law and Authority in the Most Serene Republic: Illuminated Manuscripts and Printed Books From Renaissance Venice” is open throughout the long hours that today’s law students study:  Monday through Sunday, from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.

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