You'd have come across of plenty of complaint boxes in your life - from the ones in school, to the letters sent to newspapers by aggrieved citizens, and the ones you find in corporate offices.
But have you heard of the Lion's Mouth in Venice?
The search for this takes us to the era of Renaissance in Venice when communication between the public and the administration would take place through complaint boxes known as the Lion’s Mouth. It is just one more unavoidable reason for you to add Venice to your post-pandemic travel bucketlist.
Venice with its blue waters and romantic boats for taxis isn't just another idyllic tourist destination, it also houses some amazing historiographical artefacts. One such artefact, and a functioning one at that, is the ‘Bocca di Leone’ or the Lion’s Mouth. These sculpted lion’s mouths date back to the Renaissance, and were mounted on the walls in each state, acting as complaint boxes against various trade disputes, tax gripes and accusations.
Venice holds in each of these Lion’s Mouths thousands of stories, attracting architectural and historiographical buffs to the city to uncover this distinctive system of communication.Placed from Doge’s Palace to Dorsoduro district, these Lion's Mouths once existed all over Venice. They represented the lion of St. Mark, a symbol of the Venetian state. Each state department had its own box, with different boxes pertaining to different issues, extending but not limited to tax disputes, market fraud, bureaucracy default, administrative red tape and more, swallowing a lot of criticism and, in turn, strengthening the republic of Venice. The oldest one still remains intact at Doge Palace built around 1618, intended to collect the secret complaints addressed to the magistrates.
Venice was ruled by an Oligarchic Republic led by the Doge I.e. La Serenissima. Roughly translated, it means the most serene republic of Venice.
The system ensued that the complaints were only filed against the public officials misusing their powers and not private individuals.
In a republic where ordinary Venetians' opinions were counted seriously, a system of Bocche Che Parlano (Mouths That Speak) emerged creating in the 17th century an effective strict legal system due to these boxes.
A kind of tip line for the 16th century, people could anonymously report a fellow Venetian's nefarious activities by slipping a note through the mouth of Bocca di Leone. From inside, the officials would collect these notes and a serious investigation would ensue. But caution was always to be maintained for a false tip would lead to action against the complainer.The French revolutionary war in 1797 witnessed looting and damaging in parts of the city, including the destruction of the Bocca di Leone. Even today, you can see the broken mouths and damaged heads of these complaints boxes which are etched onto these walls.
These Lion’s Mouths may not be functioning anymore, but they leave behind find their legacy in accounts and stories.
It finds its mention in Mark Twain’s book ‘The Innocents Abroad’ where he shadows the tale of how the Lion’s Mouth would swallow innocents through misuse of the complaint boxes and these men would cross the famous Bridge of Sighs to never see the sun.