Venice Wants to Secede from Italy

Separatists in the Northern Italian region of Veneto have been making noise for decades about independence, and the most recent campaign asked residents to cast a vote for secession in an online poll.

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Mar 21 2014, 12:00pm

A campaigner's T-shirt calls for independence. All photos by Filippo Massellani

There's clearly something about March that makes people think about secession. While Crimea monopolized the front pages when its residents voted to secede from Ukraine, Venetians were taking an online poll on whether they wanted to quit Italy and turn their Italian region of Veneto into its own country.

The northeastern province has a long history of demanding more autonomy from its parent country. The Republic of Venice existed from the seventh century until 1797, when it was annexed by the Austrian Empire following the Napoleonic Wars and eventually given to the Kingdom of Italy in 1866. Ever since an economic boom in the 1970s, a number of small Venetian politicially parties have called for secession as a way to protect the region's economy from the corruption that is supposedly rife in Southern Italy.

The most recent campaign for independence kicked off a few months ago, when a group called Plebiscite 2013—led by entrepreneur Gianluca Busato—announced the creation of an online poll (which began on Sunday, March 16, and ends today) titled "Referendum for Veneto's Independence."

As expected, all the big names from Veneto's separatist history—like Franco Rocchetta, the former leader of Liga Veneta (one of the first separatist parties)—are backing this campaign. On March 19, Luca Zaia, the region's president, publicly voiced his support for independence, saying there is "across the board" approval from Veneto's 5 million citizens. (He might have been exaggerating a little: According to a February poll, only 47 percent of Venetians would vote in an actual secession referendum.)

Though organizers claim that 750,000 votes have been cast already, this poll is completely nonbinding—nothing will happen whatever the result is.

Celebrations on "Venetians' Day"

The origins of modern separatism in Veneto—dubbed "Venetism"—can be traced back to the formation of the Liga Veneta party on December 9, 1979. “The moment has come today for all Venetians,” said Venetist Achille Tramarin at the time, "to take back control of our natural and human resources after 113 years of unitary Italian colonization; to fight against the wild exploitation that brought us misery, emigration, pollution...”

Four years later, during the 1983 elections, Liga Veneta won a surprisingly strong 4.3 percent of the vote. Tramarin, the party's first secretary, was elected to the Italian Chamber of Deputies, and party member Graziano Girardi went to the Senate. Soon after that initial success, however, the party committed political suicide through an agonizingly drawn-out series of internal disputes, divisions, betrayals, and breakups. The Lega Nord (Northern League) party was founded soon afterward, and it proposed turning Padania—a section of Northern Italy—into an independent state.

Although nothing resembling a legitimate political project ever surfaced, people continued to call for a return to the "Most Serene Republic of Venice" throughout the 80s and into the early 90s.

Then, on May 9, 1997, eight militant members of the nationalist organization Venetian Most Serene Government drove a tank into Venice and hoisted their flag up onto the St. Mark's bell tower, pissing off pretty much everyone involved in Italian politics at the time (even the Lega Nord) and provoking a harsh reaction from the state.

Surprisingly, polls at the time suggested that the majority of Venetians sympathized with the separatists' bizarre show of force. Author Paolo Rumiz wrote in his book La Secessione Leggera (The Light Secession) that it was "a sign of deep telluric movement" that proved there was considerable Venetian opposition to remaining a part of Italy.

Graffiti that reads, "Vote for Lega Nord"

In 2009, 12 years after the incident at the bell tower, an investigation by the prosecutor of Treviso revealed the existence of another “separatist paramilitary association”: the Polisia Veneta (“Venetian Police”), a sort of gang formed by members of another small separatist party, the Self-Government of the Venetian People.

The authorities uncovered military-style uniforms, weapons (nine semi-automatic pistols and two shotguns), and munitions. One of the members, whose phone had been tapped, was caught saying, “We need to die for the children—for the new generations—to make a turning point and stop the nightmare of this shitty Italy.”

Luciano Franceschi promoted a similar brand of separatist extremism when he stormed into a bank in February of 2013 and screamed that he was "willing to die as a martyr for the cause of the Venetian people’s liberation."

Besides those more radical cases, stories of smaller separatist actions are always making the local news in Northern Italy. For example, in 2011 somebody introduced Venetian Republic drivers' licenses that didn't recognize the Italian state's authority, and that same year some people refused to speak Italian at school.

A re-enactment of the 1797 Veronese Easter, when citizens of Verona revolted against the French

From the perspective of the the events of the last 40 years, the Plebiscite 2013 referendum is nothing new. But since the argument has always been that the region would be stronger economically if it were set apart from Italy, it makes sense that the call for independence has reared its head again after five long years of recession.

From a constitutional and legal point of view, Veneto cannot detach itself from Italy—no matter how many people vote in favor of doing so online. But in the minds of many separatists, the region has been independent for years.

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