Republic of Venice

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Republic of Venice

Type of Government

The Republic of Venice was an immensely rich maritime empire whose elite citizens controlled a large part of trade on the Mediterranean Sea. Because of this, Venetian politics were dominated by a powerful merchant class at whose apex were the old noble families, which made it more correctly an oligarchy (government by the few) than an actual republic. Regardless, Venice’s place in the history of world political institutions is notable for the rather revolutionary idea in medieval Europe that no one had given the Venetians their political rights—instead, they had created those rights for themselves.


Venice is located at the head of the Adriatic Sea, wedged between the Italian peninsula and the Balkans. Before the city’s founding, the area was essentially an uninhabitable swamp with a few scattered fishing villages; there was little fresh water, and its perpetual dampness made it a fertile breeding ground for both mosquitoes and the deadly malaria they carried. This isolation, however, made it an ideal hideout when a series of invaders began descending on the Italian peninsula in the waning years of the Roman Empire.

By the seventh century Venice had become part of the Exarchate of Ravenna, receiving protection from the Byzantine Empire and being governed by duces (military officials). In northern Italy this term became doge. According to historical legend, in 727 the clergy of Venice chose the city’s doge for the first time; later, a tribune (a panel of local men that served as a buffer between Byzantine officials and the people) began appointing the doge. By 814 the emperors of both Byzantium and the Carolingians in western Europe formally recognized Venice as an independent territory. It emerged as a city-state after 998, when the twenty-sixth doge of Venice, Pietro II Orseolo (r. 991–1009), subdued the pirate strongholds in Istria on the Dalmatian coast and initiated a five-hundred-year period of peace and prosperity.

Government Structure

Pietro’s victory over Istria occurred on Ascension Day in 998, the Thursday of the sixth week following Easter in the Christian calendar. To commemorate this, on the second anniversary in 1000 he rode out with the local bishop to bless the Venetian navy. Over the years, this became a faux wedding ceremony known as the Sposalizio del Mar (Wedding of the Sea). Aboard an immense golden gondola, the doge ventured out to a spot near the Lido port and tossed into the water a ring with the Latin phrase Desponsamus te, mare (We wed thee, sea).

Pietro ruled at a time when the doges enjoyed tremendous power. The title was bestowed for life, but doges held office not because of the grace of divine right—as did emperors and popes, and by extension the princes and other elites who ruled territories allied with the Roman, Byzantine, and Carolingian empires—but by trust of the popolo (people). This word was being used in official documents when Venice emerged as a strong maritime power, reflecting the belief that the powers of office were at least theoretically shared. In 1172 an unpopular doge was murdered by the popolo after he had acted against the advice of his closest councilors. Thereafter, a sapientes (council of wise men) became the nominating committee for the doges. To prevent further rash acts, doges were barred from leaving the city, and all their mail was read by a censor acting on behalf of the popolo. Later, another committee was established to review the doge’s term in office, and fines could be levied on a doge’s heirs if misconduct was determined to have occurred. The doges resided in the magnificent Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace), an architectural masterpiece that appeared to float above Venice’s waters and also housed several official meeting rooms for various government bodies.

Over the next century the sapientes and doges’ councilors evolved into a complex tree of executive and legislative branches. The sapientes and other bodies coalesced into the collegio, which carried out administrative duties related to government. After 1223 the doge was advised by a Quarantia, which consisted of forty men from Venice’s elite families. Political power became the province of the Great Council, the eventual successor to the Byzantine-era tribunes, and it elected the doge and other officials from among its members. By 1300 the council included 1,000 men who were drawn from a tightly controlled list of 180 noble families; after 1323 this list was firmly shut to new membership. This serrata (closing of the list) in effect made Venice a formal oligarchy.

The Great Council elected the doges by means of an elaborate nomination and reduction process designed to thwart favoritism or factional alliances, and chose the Quarantia as well as a Senate from among its members. Established in 1229, the sixty-member Senate made decisions relating to finance, foreign policy, and diplomacy. This chamber doubled over the next two hundred years, and into this was folded the Quarantia, which became an oversight agency within the Senate to curb any abuse of power, as well as a court of appeal. There was also a Council of Three, which functioned as another watchdog group to prevent senior officials from abusing their positions. The members of this trio were elected by the Great Council to sixteen-month terms. After 1268, in response to unrest among the trade guilds, the office of Grand Chancellor was created in Venice. Elected by the Great Council, this figure essentially served as head of the civil bureaucracy.

The Republic of Venice’s complicated system of government was designed to prevent powerful families from grasping power for themselves. In 1310, however, a Council of Ten was created in response to a failed rebellion led by two nobles. The ten members were drawn from the richest, most powerful Venetian families and chosen by the Great Council, and the body was originally charged with monitoring the factions out of which the insurgency had arisen. It gradually began to exert tighter control over the reins of government and grew to include the doge and six councilors. More important, the Council of Ten was immune from any oversight, and it grew increasingly despotic. In later years it was aided by its own secret police force, and by 1600 the Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia (Most Serene Republic of Venice) had become a virtual dictatorship under the Council of Ten.

Political Parties and Factions

The office of doge was held by a series of noble families, beginning with the Participazios, whose family originally came from the ancient district of Lucania in southern Italy. Following them were the Candiatos and the Orseolos, and members of the Michele clan dominated the office in the 1100s. Eventually, they were supplanted by the Dandolo and Ziani families; by the fifteenth century the Mocenigo and Barbarigo families emerged as contenders for the doge’s position, followed by the Donato and Contarini clans.

Major Events

In 828 the remains of Saint Mark, one of the four authors of the New Testament, were pilfered from Alexandria, Egypt, and brought to Venice. This was done to bolster a homegrown myth, which claimed that the apostle had once taken shelter there some seven centuries earlier. In 1082 Venice was granted charter of liberties from the Byzantine emperor Alexius II Comnenus (1169–1183). This guaranteed it freedom of transit and a release from paying taxes or duties on trade in Byzantine territories west of the Bosporus, where Constantinople was located. By 1571 those once-close ties had devolved into outright warfare, with the successor to the Byzantine Empire, the Ottomans, threatening maritime trade in the Mediterranean; that year a Venetian fleet, bolstered by military help from Pope Pius V (1504–1572), Genoa, and the Knights of Malta, roundly defeated armed Ottoman galleys in the Gulf of Patras during the battle of Lepanto. This five-hour battle is considered one of the most decisive naval victories in world history and served to bolster Christendom’s belief in its moral superiority of its fight against Islam.


Venice’s near-millennium of self-rule ended in 1797, when the French armies of Napoléon I’s (1769–1821) invaded the area. Some of the cities in the Republic of Venice’s outer territories supported France, forcing the doge Ludovico Manin (1725–1802) to surrender. The city changed hands several more times before becoming part of a united Italy in 1866, and although it never again regained its power in maritime trade or regional political influence, Venice’s reputation as one of the world’s most beautiful cities endures to this day.

The myth of Venice as the republic city-state where democracy flourished was promoted by successive generations of the city’s noble families. Elsewhere in Italy, city-states modeled on it flourished during the Renaissance, including Milan, Siena, and Florence. In seventeenth-century England, Venice was hailed by antimonarchists as the model of a successful republican form of government. English fascination with Venice’s wealth, power, and natural beauty dated back even earlier, however, to William Shakespeare’s (1564–1616) play The Merchant of Venice (1597).

Chambers, David S. The Imperial Age of Venice, 1380–1580. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.

Martin, John, and Dennis Romano, eds. Venice Reconsidered: The History and Civilization of an Italian City-State, 1297–1797. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Norwich, John Julius. A History of Venice. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.