Doge Luge

Excerpts from the forthcoming "Amalgamated Guide to Italy"
Amalgamated Press

The Doge Luge

Mention snow, ice, and sledding, and very few people are likely to think of Venice. This city of canals can get cold in the winter months, but it's known for a Mediterranean climate, and there's is not a hill to be seen until you travel many miles into the Veneto. Yet, there was once sledding here, and the ancient sport of luge once played a key role in the city's politics.

The Palazzo Ducale, built first as a fortress in the early 9th century was home to this race. Fires destroyed the palace three times in the history of the city, and the one that stands today was constructed between 1340 and 1419. It is the palace of 1116 however, that is of interest to the historian of luge.

In 1095, Pope Urban II had issue the proclamation that let to the first Crusade. Venice, the center of a vast trading empire that bridged Europe and Byzantium soon acquired even more import as provisions for the armies were shipped by sea, and as booty from the sacking of the Holy Lands flowed back.

Up until this point, the election of the doge, the provincial leader, had been an affair of military politics. Orso Ipato, the first doge, was elected in 726 to stand against the threat of Emperor Leo III. As Venice rose from province to dukedom to city-state, the safety of the city had been the primary occupation of the doge. By the end of the 9th century, however, the commercial skills of Venetian traders (under the protection of its Navy) had made commercial interests nearly as strong as those of the military.

The two factions had been united in Doge Aglio Caprese, a successful Naval officer whose wife's family controlled the market for cinnamon and Arabian silks. Caprese was not a native Venetian, he had left his boyhood home in Cortina d'Ampezzo, a small alpine town near the border of modern Austria. Caprese has been elected doge on the heels of his victory against the Genoese in 1112, and it was to his designs that the ducal palace were reshaped after the fire of 1120.

Caprese retained his love of the mountains, and with the financial might of mercantile Venice behind him, he lavished uncountable florins on the creation of a private, artificial "mountain" contained completely within the palace. The "mountain" included a garden, a small zoo of forest animals, and pump-driven "stream" that wound down the mountain. The architect of this marvel was the legendary Frau Nero Faggioli who later founded the Scuola di Lattuga that would eventually produce Italy's greatest architects, Brunelleschi and Ghiberti.

In January of 1154, Caprese lay dying. The city was in turmoil as the Senate could not come to a decision regarding his successor. The powerful mercantile interests were blocking the election of yet another military man, and the navy threatened to shut down the city if a mere merecante took the post. The senate turned to Caprese for a way out, begging him to find a solution.

"A politician must be able to negotiate the most slippery of conditions," stated Caprese. "He must not resort to force when subtlety is most appropriate. Yet he must be brave enough to face treachery without flinching." He gazed over at his mountain, the pumps shut down for the winter, but with the waterway shiny with ice. A smile broke over his face and he called out to his ministers, "La slitta.. The sled."

Caprese went on to propose the contest that governed the selection of the doge for the next 250 years. The candidates for doge must be brave enough to attempt a winter run down the icy stream bed, and be agile enough to turn in a winning time. The military candidate one that first race, and Riso al Funghi took over the city's rule. Caprese died a hero, and his last words "gemma di rosa" became the symbol of the race. Al Funghi was not able to savor his victory for long. When he was killed only two years later in a battle against the Normans, the merchant class demanded that the contest be run again. Unknown to the navy, they had been training in secret near Lake Como. To compete in the contest became a mark of valor in the noble classes.

The doge luge left one additional tradition in it's wake: the linen cap worn by the doge (il formaggi), originated in the luge race of 1204. One contestant, frustrated by the lack of mobility and questionable aerodynamics, wore a simple cloth cap to bypass the newly enacted helmet laws. The doge who won that race, Arrosto Cavolo, was so pleased with his success, he wore the cap for the duration of his term in office, and other doges followed in his footsteps.

The doge luge continued for over two centuries until fire once again destroyed the Palazzo Ducale. By this time, the race had been sullied by bribery and cheating. With the stakes so high, contestants had resorted to tampering with timing devices, bribing judges and other chicanery. Only once was this corruption publicly exposed, when the standing doge discovered that race officials had been bribed. Infuriated, he cancelled the race and vowed to outlive his potential successors. This episode of doge rage subsided, however, when the bribes were extended to include a princely some to the doge's two sons.

After the fire, however, the Venetian Senate decreed that the doge luge subterfuge was out of control, and that it would withhold to itself the privilege of choosing the doge. The public agreed, though it meant an end to the thrilling beginning of the downhill race, where the Bishop of St. Mark would call out, "Il descendere," and a linen-capped man would hurtle down the artificial mountainside in the palazzo.

Though the doge luge eventually faded, and it would be the 19th century before there was a sled competition of import outside Italy (Davos, Switzerland, 1883), the luge had made its mark on Venetian government.