La Serenissima — or the Most Serene Republic of Venice — was an independent trading power for a millennium before its last leader was deposed by Napoleon in 1797. The republic encompassed not just Venice but what is now the surrounding region of Veneto and it is there that the vote will take place from tomorrow until Friday.
Campaigners have been inspired by the example of Scotland, which will hold its referendum on independence in September, and Catalonia, where around half the population say they want to break away from Spain.
Activists say that the latest polling shows that 65% of voters in the Veneto region, which includes historic cities such as Treviso, Vicenza and Verona, are in favour of cutting ties with Rome.
For decades there has been deep-seated dissatisfaction in the rich northern regions of Italy with what is widely regarded as inefficient and venal rule from Rome, as well as resentment that hard-won tax revenues are sent south and often squandered.
About 3.8 million people in Veneto are eligible to vote. Campaigners want a future state to be known as Repubblica Veneta — the Republic of Veneto.
They acknowledge that the vote is not binding on the national government in Rome and could cause a big constitutional upheaval, but insist that if it passes, they will start taking steps to withhold taxes, in what would effectively be a unilateral declaration of independence.
“If there is a majority yes vote, we have scholars drawing up a declaration of independence and there are businesses in the region who say they will begin paying taxes to local authorities instead of to Rome,” Lodovico Pizzati, the spokesman for the independence movement, told The Daily Telegraph.