It’s no surprise that Venice was so quick to adopt bank ATM technology in the 80’s and 90’s. They’ve had a centuries-old history of putting secret data into slits in the wall.
Of course I’m referring to the famous bocche dei leoni, the lions’ mouths, that the Venetian Republic used as a means of collecting complaints – citizen against citizen, citizen against authorities. Above you see a bocca di leone that is embedded in the wall of the church of Santa Maria della Visitazione on Le Zattere (click on it for an enlargement). The technology here is rather simple: insert denunciation in hole and push. The bocche were specialized for various types of gripes. This one reads, in effect, “denunciations related to public health for the Sestiere of Dorsoduro”. Since this bocca dates to the 15th century, and was around during a couple major waves of the Black Death, you can presume that the “public health” complaints left here were not limited to neighbors who failed to attend to their garbage. Those with the plague were carted of to the quarantine island of Lazaretto Vecchio, a place from which few returned.
While these lions’ mouths were a pipeline to the State, they were not, despite popular lore, sinister snitching posts where your enemy could anonymously rat you out – fairly or unfairly – and wait for the Council of Ten’s reps to pop by and drag you off to swing from a gibbet. On the contrary, there was a sophisticated process through which anonymous denunciations were considered. Serious evidence and investigation were always needed before any action was taken. (See for instance Venice 697-1797: A City, a Republic, an Empire by Alvise Zorzi, page 54, for a discussion of the process.)
Mark Twain, who for some reason had a bit of a hate-on for Venice, typifies the popular fiction of the bocca di leone as a wretched symbol of the malevolence of the Venetian Republic. In his Innocents Abroad, he writes:
These were the terrible Lions’ Mouths. … these were the throats down which went the anonymous accusation thrust in secretly in the dead of night by an enemy, that doomed many an innocent man to walk the Bridge of Sighs and descend into the dungeon which none entered and hoped to see the sun again.
Of course, these days you can simply email your denunciations directly to the Comune di Venezia, though I have to wonder if anyone still checks the bocche for random grievances left by a less techno-literate veneziano in the dead of night.