views updated May 18 2018


VENICE , city in N. Italy.

The Medieval Community

Although some individual Jews had passed through Venice in the Middle Ages, legislation enacted in 1382 allowing moneylending in the city for the following five years marked the start

of the authorized Jewish presence in the city, and at its expiration in 1387 a 10-year charter came into effect exclusively for Jewish moneylenders. However, at the end of the ten years, they had to leave, and officially no Jew could stay in Venice for longer than 15 days at a time, with exceptions made only for merchants arriving by sea and for doctors; also henceforth all Jews coming to the city were required to wear on their outer clothing a yellow circle, changed in 1496 to a yellow head-covering to make evasion more difficult.

The authorized continuous residence of Jews in the city of Venice and the emergence of its Jewish community was a 16th-century development not initially planned by the Venetian government. Its restrictive policy toward the residence of Jews in Venice in the 15th century was not extended either to the Venetian overseas possessions or to the Venetian territory on the Italian mainland, and the charter issued in 1503 to Jewish moneylenders in Mestre permitted them to come to Venice in case of war. Consequently, in 1509, as during the War of the League of Cambrai, the enemies of Venice overran the Venetian mainland, Jewish moneylenders and other Jews residing in Mestre, as well as in Padua and elsewhere, fled to Venice. The Venetian government soon realized that allowing them to stay was doubly beneficial, for they could provide the hard-pressed treasury with annual payments while their moneylending in the city itself was convenient for the needy urban poor. Consequently, in 1513 the government granted the Jewish moneylender Anselmo del Banco (Asher Meshullam) from Mestre and his associates a charter permitting them to lend money in Venice. Then, two years later, the Jews obtained permission to operate stores selling strazzaria, literally rags, but, by extension, secondhand clothing and other used items such as household goods and furnishings, which were sought by a large part of the population, especially foreign diplomats and visitors to the city and even the government itself for state occasions, prior to the Industrial Revolution when less-expensive mass-produced items first became available.

Many Venetians, especially clerics, objected to the residence of Jews all over the city, so in 1516 the Senate decided, despite the objections of the Jews, as a compromise mediating between the new freedom of residence all over the city and the previous state of exclusion, to segregate them. Accordingly, all Jews residing in the city and all who were to come in the future were required to move to the island known as the Ghetto Nuovo (the New Ghetto), which was walled up and provided with two gates that for most of the time that the ghetto existed were locked all night, from one hour after sunset in the summer and two hours after sunset in the winter, when it got dark earlier, until dawn.

Initially, the site adjacent to the island of the Ghetto Nuovo had served as the location of the Venetian municipal copper foundry, il ghetto from the verb gettare, in the sense of to pour or caste metal, while the Ghetto Nuovo to which the Jews were relegated in 1516 had been used for dumping waste material from the copper foundry. Accordingly it was referred to as "the terrain of the ghetto" (il terreno del ghetto) and then eventually the Ghetto Nuovo, while the area of the actual foundry became known as the Ghetto Vecchio (the Old Ghetto). But since the foundry was unable to process a sufficient quantity of metal, its activity came to be consolidated in the Arsenal, and in 1434 the government auctioned off the foundry and adjacent island, both of which became residential areas.

Although a few compulsory, segregated, and enclosed Jewish quarters had existed in Europe prior to 1516, the best-known and longest lasting of which was that of Frankfurt am Main established in 1462, they were never called ghettos because that word came to be associated with Jewish quarters only after the Venetian development of 1516. Thus, the oftencountered statement that the first ghetto was established in Venice in 1516 is correct in a technical, linguistic sense but misleading in a wider context.

The establishment of the ghetto, however, did not assure the continued residence of the Jews in Venice, for that privilege was based on a charter granted by the Venetian government to the Jews in 1513. Upon its expiration in 1518, very extensive discussions took place in the Senate, as numerous proposals, including the expulsion of the Jews from Venice, were advanced, but eventually a new five-year charter was approved and subsequently renewed for generations.

Overall, the attitude of the Venetian government toward the Jews was highly ambivalent. While the majority of the senators allowed utilitarian socio-economic considerations to be foremost in their decision-making, thereby in retrospect making the residence of the Jews in the city continuous from 1513 on, there was a constant undercurrent of hostility that could find its expression at the time of the charter renewal. An examination of the actual terms of the charters reveals that over the years, clauses were added to further regulate the status of the Jews. Most important was the change in attitude toward moneylending. Increasingly, the Venetian government viewed Jewish moneylenders as a source of cheap credit for the urban poor rather than of revenue for the state treasury, and accordingly, it lowered the interest rates and correspondingly reduced the required annual payments of the Jews. Finally, in 1573, it eliminated the annual payment, but the Jews were required to make loans of up to three ducats each at five percent per annum interest to any borrower with a suitable pledge. Since the native Jews of Venice, whom the government referred to as Tedeschi (i.e., German) Jews because many of them were ultimately of Germanic origin even though their families might have lived on the Italian peninsula for generations, claimed that they could not support the expenses of the pawnshops (sometimes misleadingly referred to as banks) on their own, the Jewish communities of the mainland were required to contribute and that responsibility was also extended to the Jewish merchants, despite their strong objection. Thus the nature of Jewish moneylending completely changed from a voluntary profit-making activity engaged in by a few wealthy individuals to a compulsory responsibility imposed on the Jewish community which passed it on to individual Jews who had the resources to fund the pawnshops, and then subsidized them with a premium over the five percent interest that they could legally charge on their loans.

In 1541, some visiting Ottoman Jewish merchants, known as Levantine Jews, complained to the Venetian government that they did not have sufficient space in the ghetto. Legislation of that year designed to make trading in Venice more attractive to foreign merchants, primarily by lowering customs duties on certain imports, pointed out that these Jewish merchants were importing the greater part of the merchandise coming from the Ottoman Balkans and ordered that their complaint be investigated. Upon confirmation of its validity, they were assigned the area of the Ghetto Vecchio, which was ordered walled up with only one gate at each end, one of which opened up to a bridge to the Ghetto Nuovo.

Meanwhile, the establishment of the Inquisition in Portugal in 1536 increasingly induced many *New Christians to leave, either because they were secretly judaizing or were afraid that they might falsely be accused of doing so. The existence of a Jewish community in Venice and the growing presence of Levantine Jewish merchants in the city after 1541 made it more attractive for judaizing Iberian New Christians to come to Venice, where many reverted to Judaism and either stayed or went on elsewhere, primarily to the Ottoman Empire.

Although the Venetian government was always doctrinally Catholic and concerned with the religious faith of its inhabitants, it usually did not concern itself with the origin and background of those New Christians who upon arriving in Venice went directly to the ghetto and there assumed Judaism and henceforth lived unambiguously as Jews. On the other hand, officially it did not tolerate New Christians who lived outside the ghetto and passed themselves off ostensibly as Christians while nevertheless still secretly judaizing, both because their conduct was an affront to Christianity and also because it was feared that they might lead more simple Christians astray. Only once in the 16th century, in 1550, apparently under the pressure of Emperor Charles v, did the Venetian government take action against judaizing New Christians as a group as it forbade *Crypto-Jews from settling in Venice and the Venetian state.

Yet despite the legislation of 1550, the pressure of the papal nuncio, and the presence of the Venetian Inquisition – revived in 1547 in order to deal with the growth of Protestant heresy rather than with Crypto-Jews as had been the case with the Inquisition on the Iberian peninsula (although once established it concerned itself with all manifestations of heresy, including cases of Crypto-Judaism) – Venice continued to serve judaizing New Christians as both a place of settlement as well a major point of transit.

The cause of the judaizing New Christian merchants in Venice was taken up by Daniel Rodriga, a Jew of Portuguese New Christian origin, in 1573. He submitted to the Venetian government numerous proposals and projects intended primarily to restore the declining maritime commerce of Venice and augment its diminishing customs revenue while simultaneously benefiting Jewish merchants and, above all, obtaining for them privileges in Venice. Keenly aware of the far-flung merchant kinship networks of the Jewish-New Christian Iberian Diaspora in the ports of the Mediterranean, Rodriga claimed that if given suitable guarantees of security, these merchants would bring their merchandise to Venice, increasing its customs revenue and enabling it to maintain its entrepôt function. Finally, in 1589, Rodriga's persistence was rewarded, as the Venetian government, recognizing the need to take some action in view of the serious decline in Venetian maritime commerce, concluded that inviting Jewish merchants to the city constituted the least serious possible modification of its long-standing commercial protectionist policy and accordingly the least objectionable way of attempting to alleviate the situation. Consequently, it issued a charter allowing both New Christian merchants from the Iberian Peninsula (who were called Ponentine – i.e., Western – Jews in order to avoid referring to them as New Christians or Marranos) and also Levantine Jewish merchants from the Ottoman Empire to reside in Venice as Venetian subjects with the coveted privilege of engaging in maritime trade between Venice and the Levant on condition that they resided in the ghetto and wore the special yellow Jewish head-covering.

These Jewish merchants were so successful that their charter was subsequently renewed for successive 10-year periods, and when in 1633 they assured the Venetian government that additional merchants would come to Venice if granted adequate living space, it assigned the newcomers an area containing 20 dwellings across the canal from the Ghetto Nuovo, in a direction almost opposite to the Ghetto Vecchio, that almost immediately became known as the Ghetto Nuovissimo, i.e., the newest ghetto. In light of the spread of the use of the term "ghetto" to refer to compulsory and segregated Jewish quarters on the Italian peninsula in the wake of the harsh papal bull of 1555 known as Cum Nimis Absurdum, it is understandable that this third compulsory Jewish quarter in Venice was referred to as a ghetto. However, the Ghetto Nuovissimo differed from the Ghetto Nuovo and the Ghetto Vecchio in one important respect. While the last two designations had been in use prior to the residence of the Jews in those locations and owed their origin to the former presence of a foundry in that area, the Ghetto Nuovissimo had never been associated with a foundry. Rather, it was called the Ghetto Nuovissimo because it was the site of the newest compulsory, segregated, and enclosed Jewish quarter. Thus, the term ghetto had come full circle in the city of its origin: from an original specific usage as a foundry in Venice to a generic usage in other cities designating a compulsory, segregated, and enclosed Jewish quarter with no relation to a foundry, and then to that generic usage also in Venice.

The number of Jews residing in Venice apparently reached around 2,000 (roughly 1.5% of the total population of the city) in the last years of the 16th century, rising to a peak of almost 3,000 (roughly 2% of the population) toward the middle of the 17th century, and then dropped to a low of slightly over 1,500 in the last years of the Republic, although according to some very questionable sources at times it was substantially higher. Especially in the 16th and 17th centuries, the number of dwellings available in the ghetto was very often insufficient, so they were constantly subdivided into smaller units while stories were added to the existing buildings, thereby starting a virtually constant process of alteration and modification.

The Venetian government enforced the regulations regarding residence in the ghetto and the requirement to remain there after the hour established for the closing of its gates. Only Jewish doctors treating Christian patients and Jewish merchants who had to attend to their business enjoyed routine permission to be outside the ghetto after hours, while additionally on occasion individual Jews, including representatives of the Jewish community who had to negotiate charter renewals with the government, singers and dancers who performed in the homes of Christians, especially at carnival time, and others who had special needs and skills were granted the privilege, often only until a specified hour of the night. Only extremely rarely indeed was permission granted – usually to doctors – to reside outside the ghetto. Along with residence in the ghetto, the requirement that the Jews wear a special head-covering, initially yellow, which for some undetermined reason became red although Levantine Jews continued to wear yellow, constituted a very significant part of the Venetian socio-religious policy of segregating the Jews.

Reflecting the heterogeneous ethnic backgrounds of the Jews of Venice, several synagogues were established in the ghetto. Five were generally considered to be major synagogues. Three were located in the Ghetto Nuovo: the Scuola Grande Tedesca and the Scuola Canton, both of the Ashkenazi rite, and the Scuola Italiana. Situated in the Ghetto Vecchio were the Scuola Levantina and the Scuola Ponentina or Spagnola, officially Kahal Kadosh Talmud Torah. Additionally, at least three smaller synagogues existed in the Ghetto Nuovo: the Scuola Coanim or Sacerdote, the Scuola Luzzatto, and the Scuola Meshullam. Only the cemetery, initially established in 1386, of necessity was located outside the ghetto on the Lido. The Scuola Ponentina acquired an additional significance as its by-laws served as a model for the Sephardi community of Amsterdam, whose procedures in turn were utilized by the Sephardi Jewish communities of London and of the English colonies of New York, Philadelphia, and Montreal in the New World.

The rabbis of Venice constituted overall a distinguished cadre that provided leadership for their day and a few outstanding figures of more than local significance. The best known was the prolific Leon *Modena (1571–1648), whose numerous works include a remarkably frank Hebrew autobiography which sheds much light on his own life as well as providing unique and fascinating insight into the everyday life, practices, and values of the Jews in early-modern Venice, including their extensive relationships with their Christian neighbors on all levels, from intellectual exchanges to joint participation in alchemy experiments and gambling. Also of special prominence was Modena's contemporary, Rabbi Simone *Luzzatto (ca. 1583–1663). Today he is remembered primarily for his Discorso sopra il stato degl'Ebrei et in particolar demoranti nel'inclita città di Venetia ("Discourse on the Status of the Jews and in Particular Those Living in the Illustrious City of Venice," 1638), written in Italian for the Venetian nobility in order to avert a possible expulsion of the Jews as a result of a major scandal involving the bribery of Venetian judges through Jewish intermediaries. In the course of his presentation, Luzzatto displayed considerable insight into the economic and commercial situation, combined with a thorough acquaintance with classical Graeco-Roman literature and an awareness of contemporary intellectual trends, especially in philosophical and political thought, as well as new scientific discoveries in mathematics and astronomy, as he argued that the presence of Jewish merchants and moneylenders was very useful indeed for the Venetian economy and therefore the Jews should not be expelled. Additionally, Venice served as a significant center for the development, transformation, and popularization of the Lurianic Kabbalah from Safed as Rabbi Menachem Azariah mi Fano began to publicly expound it, and eventually it was transmitted from Venice to Eastern Europe.

Additionally significant in Venice was the presence of Jewish doctors, many of whom had been attracted by the educational experience offered by the nearby medical school of Padua. The attendance of Jewish students there was especially significant since it was generally regarded as the best medical school in Europe, with the humanities integrated into the scientific curriculum, and provided one of the richest opportunities for Jews to familiarize themselves with the best of European intellectual and cultural achievements. Jewish students from all over Italy as well as central and eastern Europe came to Padua, and many returned to serve in their communities and elsewhere. Especially noteworthy was the Jewish doctor David dei Pomis (1525–c. 1593) who left Rome as a result of Cum Nimis Absurdum, eventually settling in Venice, where he resided for the rest of his life and published, among other works, his De Medico Hebraeo Enaratio Apologica (1588), which refuted charges often brought against Jews and Jewish doctors in his own days in the bull of Gregory xiii.

Hebrew Printing

Understandably 16th-century Venice, with available capital, technical proficiency, good paper, a skilled labor force, and constituting a convenient location for exporting emerged as a major center of printing not only in Italian, Latin, and Greek but also Hebrew, Judeo-Italian, Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), and Yiddish (Judeo-German). Indeed, the Venetian printing press made a very extensive and lasting contribution to Jewish learning and culture through its assuming a major role in the early history of Hebrew printing and publishing. One of the outstanding publishers of Hebrew books in Renaissance Italy, and indeed of all times, was Daniel Bomberg, a Christian from Antwerp who, with the help of numerous editors, typesetters, and proofreaders, mostly either Jews or converts from Judaism to Christianity, printed around 200 Hebrew books. Of prime significance for Jewish religious life and culture is his complete edition of the Babylonian Talmud (1520–23) with the commentary of Rashi and the Tosafot, whose format and pagination has been followed in virtually all subsequent editions up to the present, and also his edition of the rabbinic Bible (Mikra'ot Gedolot) (1517–18; 1524–252), with the Aramaic translation and traditional rabbinic commentaries, which also became the standard model for most subsequent editions, as well as other major works, including the Palestinian Talmud.

After Bomberg, the more important subsequent printers of Hebrew books included the Christians Marco Antonio Giustiniani, whose activity overlapped the last years of Bomberg, and Alvise Bragadini. Their competition in rival editions of Maimonides' Mishneh Torah led to a papal decree of 1553 condemning the Talmud and ordering it burned. Consequently, on October 21, 1553, Hebrew books were burned in Piazza San Marco, to the great loss of the Jewish community and the Christian printers alike. Subsequently, in the early 1560s, Hebrew printers in Venice resumed their activities, printing books by Jewish authors from all over who sought out the resources of the city on the lagoons, from which the books were exported throughout Europe and the Mediterranean world, although from 1548 on, Jews were officially not allowed to be publishers or printers. Indeed, it has been estimated that of 3,986 Hebrew books known to have been printed in Europe prior to 1650, almost a third (1,284) were printed in Venice. Eventually, during the course of the 17th century, the quantity and quality of Venetian Hebrew imprints declined and other centers of Hebrew printing gradually emerged.

The Modern Community

By the 18th century, Venice as a whole had declined economically, certainly in a relative if not absolute sense, and with it also the financial condition of the Jewish community as a corporate entity, even though an impoverished community did not mean that all of its individual members were impoverished. The Venetian government was very concerned, above all because it required that the Jewish community be solvent in order to operate the pawn shops, especially since it was unwilling to establish in Venice a charitable pawnshop known as a *monte di pietà in order to eliminate Jewish moneylending and the presence of the Jews or at least to minimize their role as had been done in many places on the Italian peninsula, although that possibility was raised on several occasions during the course of the 18th century. Consequently, in 1722 it took the major step of creating the magistracy of the Inquisitorato sopra l'Università degli Ebrei for the purpose of restoring and maintaining the financial solvency of the community. For the rest of the century, the Inquisitorato, together with the Senate and other relevant magistracies, constantly worked out detailed regulations in attempts to promote the smooth functioning of the pawnshops, to arrange for the repayment of the substantial debts of the Jewish community owed both to Venetian Christians and to the Jewish communities of Amsterdam, The Hague, and London, and generally to restore its solvency, eventually closely supervising all aspects of its everyday financial affairs.

In 1738 the separate charters of the Tedeschi Jews and of the Levantine and Ponentine Jews ended as one unified 10-year charter was issued for all Jews residing in the Venetian state. In a sense, such a charter was long overdue, since the charters of the Tedeschi Jews, which antedated those of the Levantine and Ponentine Jewish merchants, contained general provisions which were also applied to the merchants. Yet, the once distinct economic activities and responsibilities of the two groups of Jews had merged over the years, as for well over a century the merchants had been subjected to payments to the pawnshops of the Tedeschi Jews, while since 1634 the Tedeschi Jews had been eligible to engage in maritime trade with the Levant. The charter of 1788 was slightly over a year away from its expiration when in May 1797 the Venetian government dissolved itself in favor of a municipal council as the army of *Napoleon Bonaparte stood poised across the lagoons. The ghetto gates were spontaneously torn down and the special restricted status of the Jews of Venice came to an end.

After Napoleon ceded Venice to Austria by the Treaty of Campo Formio later in 1797, some restrictions were reinstituted but not the requirement to reside within the ghetto. After Napoleon defeated Austria in 1805, Venice became a part of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy and the rights of the Jews were again restored, only to be partially revoked when after the fall of Napoleon, Venice was reassigned to Austria by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. They were briefly restored during the revived Republic that emerged during the revolution of 1848–49, led by Daniel Manin, of Jewish descent, and with two Jewish ministers. Only after Venice became a part of the emerging Kingdom of Italy in 1866 were the Jews granted complete emancipation. In the following decades, the Jewish community decreased in numbers as a result of emigration and intermarriage, numbering around 2,000 in 1938.

[Benjamin Ravid (2nd ed.)]

Holocaust Period

Between the issuing of the racial laws in September 1938 and the summer of 1943, the Jewish community of Venice experienced a difficult period of exclusion and racial discrimination, first under the leadership of Aldo Finzi, who had been appointed by the government, and then, after June 16, 1940, under the presidency of Professor Giuseppe Jona.

The German occupation of Mestre and Venice on September 9 and 10, 1943, however, signaled the beginning of the actual Shoah in the region. On September 17, Professor Jona committed suicide rather than deliver the membership list of the Jewish community to the Germans. The political manifesto of the Italian Social Republic (the so-called Republic of Salò) on November 14, 1943, and subsequent decrees at the end of that month declared that all Jews in Italy were enemy aliens and ordered their arrest and the confiscation of their property. Some Jews were able to escape to Switzerland or to the Allied-occupied south of Italy. Some young people joined the armed resistance, especially the Garibaldi Brigade Nannini. Most of the others were rounded up by Italian police and Fascist militia and held in special assembly points such as the prison of Santa Maria Maggiore, the women's prison on the island of Giudecca, and the Liceo M. Foscarini. From there, they were sent to Fossoli until July 1944, and after that to a camp at Bolzano or to the prison of Risiera di San Sabba in Trieste. Nearly all were deported from those camps to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Most arrests and deportations of Jews in Venice occurred between the major roundup on December 5, 1943, and the late summer of 1944, but incidents continued at a slower pace until the end of the war. Particularly hateful was the arrest of 21 patients at the Casa di Ricovero Israelitica on August 17, 1944. Among the victims there was the elderly Rabbi Adolfo Ottolenghi, who chose to share the fate of his fellow Jews. All of these victims were deported, most of them to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The Nazi-Fascist persecution of Jews in Venice lasted 18 months, during which time, despite the dangers, Jewish life in the former ghetto and religious services at the synagogue continued. There was also some help from non-Jews and from the Church. Some 246 Venetian Jews were captured and deported during this period. A commemorative plaque at the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo records their names forever. Near the plaque is a monument to the Shoah by the sculptor Arbit Blatas.

[Umberto Fortis (2nd ed.)]

Contemporary Period

At the time of the liberation in 1945 there were 1,050 Jews in the community. In the early 21st century Venice had an active Jewish community of around 500 members, with services still conducted in its beautiful synagogues and a Jewish museum established in the ghetto.


B. Pullan, Rich and Poor in Renaissance Venice (1971); idem, The Jews of Europe and the Inquisition of Venice (1983); B. Ravid, Economics and Toleration in Seventeenth Century Venice: The Background and Context of the Discorso of Simone Luzzatto (1976); idem, Studies on the Jews of Venice, 13821797 (2003); P.C.I. Zorattini, Processi del S. Uffizio di Venezia contro ebrei e giudaizzanti, 14 vols. (1980–99); G. Carletto, Il Ghetto veneziano nel settecento attraverso i catastici (1981); L. Modena, The Autobiography of a Seventeenth-Century Venetian Rabbi: Leon Modena's Life of Judah, ed. M.R. Cohen, with introductory essays by T.K. Rabb and M.R. Cohen, H.E. Adelman and N.Z. Davis, and historical notes by H.E. Adelman and B. Ravid (1988); D. Malkiel, A Separate Republic: The Mechanics and Dynamics of Jewish Self-Government, 16071624 (1991); E. Concina, U. Camerino, and D. Calabi, La città degli Ebrei: Il ghetto di Venezia: Architettura e urbanistica (1991); G. Cozzi, Giustizia Contaminata (1996); U. Fortis, The Ghetto on the Lagoon (rev. ed. 2000); A. Luzzatto, La comunità ebraica di Venezia e il suo antico cimitero (2000); R.C. Davis and B. Ravid (eds.), The Jews of Early Modern Venice (2001); S. Levis Sullam, Una comunità immaginata: gli ebrei a Venezia 19001938 (2001); D. Carpi, Minutes Book of the Council of the Italian Jewish Community of Venice, 16441711 (Heb., 2003); R. Segre (ed.), Gli Ebrei a Venezia 19381945. Una comunitá tra persecuzione e rinascita (1995); P. Sereni, Gli anni della persecuzione razziale a Venezia: appunti per una storia, in Venezia ebraica, ed. by U. Fortis (1982), 129–51; idem, Della comunitá ebraica a Venezia durante il fascismo, in La Resistenza nel Veneziano, ed. by G. Paladini and M. Reberschak (1984); G. Luzzato and E. Perillo (eds.), Pensare e insegnare Auschwitz. Memorie storie apprendimenti (2004); M. Sarfatti, Gli ebrei nell'Italia fascista (2002); idem, Le leggi antiebraiche spiegate agli italiani di oggi (2004).


views updated May 23 2018


VENICE. One of the first cities in Italy to engage in international commerce after the devastations of the early Middle Ages, Venice established a maritime empire by 1300 and a territorial empire from the early 1400s. Its unique form of government, although not as perfect as its apologists claimed, was a model of a "mixed" constitution for the early modern world. Adapting to changing circumstances, its economy remained vibrant into the seventeenth century. It experienced little social turmoil, while its literary and artistic achievements were rivaled only by those of Florence and Rome. For most of its thousand years of existence, Venice was free and independent. One of the most successful states in Europe, it fell at last to Napoleon in 1797.


Venice's unusual location and circumstances permitted its enterprising merchants to build a maritime empire by 1300. It was founded in the sixth and seventh centuries by refugees from the mainland, who had been forced by the invasions of the Germanic Lombards to flee northern Italian towns. They settled on a cluster of low, sandy islands in the Adriatic, where they were protected by the sea yet had access in their boats and barges to the river mouths that led to inland cities. Primarily fishermen, they also traded locally in fish and salt, which they manufactured from seawater. During the era of the Crusades (eleventh through fourteenth centuries), Venice (as well as Genoa, on the western coast of the Italian Peninsula) entered into Mediterranean commerce, establishing merchant depots on islands and seacoasts along the route to the Levant (Near East). In the late fourteenth century the rivalry between Venice and Genoa exploded into war. Venice was victorious and retained mastery of its maritime empire.

The Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, however, signaled the beginning of the decline of Venice's maritime enterprise. Despite the victory by Venice and allies at the Battle of Lepanto (1571) against the Turkish fleet, the city's seaborne commerce was gravely injured. It was a commerce, moreover, based on the import of luxury goods from Asia, especially spices. By 1600 the tastes of European consumers were shifting. Sugar, tea, and tobacco became, more than pepper, the staples of world trade. In those markets Venice had no role.


In the meantime, however, Venice had won a territorial empire, beginning with the conquests of nearby Padua and Verona in 1405. By 1454 Venetian conquests reached far west on the Lombard Plain of northern Italy to Bergamo and Crema, almost to Milan, and northeast along the arc of the Adriatic Coast to Friuli and beyond to Dalmatia (modern Croatia). These territories included wealthy trading centers, drawing on the fertile lands bordering the Po River, and gateways to the passes over the Alps and the commercial possibilities of the north. These conquests were made possible by the admirable military organization Venice developed. Heretofore, with only a maritime empire, Venice had provided both commanders and sailors, who also served as armed marines. On land Venice did not attempt to raise a citizen militia. Instead, it hired the best of the mercenary commanders (condottieri) then available but coordinated and systematized their efforts through a network of supervisors (proveditori) drawn from the governing elite. Venice was thus a pioneer of the rethinking of military organization that, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is sometimes considered a "military revolution."

The Peace of Lodi (9 April 1454) put an end, for the moment, to the rivalries among the great Italian powers, Venice, Milan, Florence, Naples, and the papacy, that had emerged from the crucible of warfare. The Italian League of the following year sought to maintain peace for a renewable twenty-five-year term by establishing a balance of power. Some historians note that this agreement foreshadows the peace sought by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Venice continued to seek commercial and political advantage where it could and fell into a damaging war with Ferrara (in the Papal States) from 1481 to 1484 that confirmed the impression of the larger city's aggressive behavior. When French, imperial, and Spanish armies began their long invasion of Italy in 1498 (with a pause in 1530 and no final resolution until the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559), Venice shifted its allegiance from side to side, attempting at times to maximize its advantage, at others simply to preserve the state.

In 1508, at the nadir of these conflicts, Venice faced the League of Cambrai. All of its sometime friends and enemiesFrance, Spain, the pope, and the empirewere united against the crafty republic. During a war that lasted from 1509 to 1517, Venice lost but then regained all of its mainland territories. It was saved by the commitment of its own people and the loyalty of mainland subjects. When the fog of war lifted at mid-century, Venice alone of the Italian states was capable of proceeding briskly to assume its accustomed preeminence. Venice withstood the Reformation and Counter-Reformation alike, weathering a papal interdict in 16061607. It remained an international power, although a waning one, until its 1797 demise.

Venice's success was due in part to its unique location and its energetic people. But it was the result as well of its system of government, which was sufficiently inclusive and sufficiently just to win the broad support of the citizenry.


By 1000 c.e. Venice's island communities had united into a single state ruled by an elected doge, whose election was a central part of Venetian political ritual. Soon thereafter the nominal obedience the Venetians paid to their presumed overlord, the Byzantine emperor, dropped away. By the thirteenth century the Maggior Consiglio, or 'Great Council', of prominent families made major decisions and limited the doge's effective power. In 1297 those families declared the serrata, or 'closing', of the Great Council. By that move, which took decades more to take full effect, they instituted a hereditary nobility of about 1,200 adult males (from some 150 families) with exclusive access to political power. With the exception of some eighty families admitted for exceptional service in 1388, there were no additions to the roster of noble families until the seventeenth century (when nobility could be obtained by purchase).

The Great Council elected members from the same noble stratum to a senate, and the council or the senate elected members to a number of other councils, including the "Forty" of justice and the "Ten" for state security. They also elected the avogadori di comun (state attorneys), ambassadors, and military and other proveditori. Venetian government had many branches. A large part of the nobility spent a significant part of its time on the business of government, while a smaller elite of perhaps one hundred to two hundred exceptionally powerful men rotated in high office.

This government structure was by no means democratic. Yet it was admirable in many regards. It included elements of monarchy, of aristocracy, and of republican process. In the 1490s, when Florence was redesigning its government, it imitated the Venetian Republic, which also inspired English statesmen in the seventeenth century and even some of the American founders in the eighteenth century. Exaggerated statements of the justice and serenity of the Venetian state were made by proponents of the "myth of Venice" beginning in the fifteenth century. At the same time there prevailed a countermyth, voiced by the enemies of Venice, about that state's unique duplicity and cruelty.


A unique state was based on a unique society, of which no feature is more striking than the role of the nobility. From 1300 to 1500 the number of adult male nobles ranged from twelve hundred to twenty-five hundred and constituted 6 to 7 percent of the city's population. The population of Venice dipped to 50,000 after the plague of 1348 and reached a high of 190,000 around 1570, after which further rounds of epidemics took severe tolls. A secondary elite of cittadini originari ('original citizens', either native-born or so ranked by grant of privilege) provided the huge numbers of bureaucrats and secretaries (as well as merchants and professionals) that a city of the complexity of Venice required. The artisan stratum was grouped in guilds that were less powerful than in some other cities but that were an important force for social cohesion. In addition the scuole, a uniquely Venetian version of the confraternity, provided charity and consolation for both members (of all social classes) and outsiders. A large pool of workers was employed by the Venetian state shipbuilding industry of the Arsenale (Arsenal). Below the strata of ordinary workers were the groups of prostitutes, beggars, and the poor found in most early modern cities. In addition Venice had a large population of resident foreigners, merchants in transit, visiting scholars, travelers, and refugees.

Women in Venice, as elsewhere in Italian society, were expected to obey their fathers and their husbands and dedicate themselves to childbearing, charity, and piety. Women of the middle and lower social ranks had more freedom than those of the nobility and high bourgeoisie. They were able to own property, participate in the public life of the marketplace, and defend themselves in court. Prostitutes and courtesans were numerous in a city with a large and mobile population, a large group of foreigners, and an elite of unmarried noble males (who remained bachelors so family wealth would flow to the next generation undivided). Venice also had a large number of women, committed nuns (including many forced as children into the convent as a cheaper alternative to marriage), abandoned children, widows, and former prostitutes, who lived in convents.

In this heterogeneous society there were also present those who dissented from the majority established religion, Catholicism. During the sixteenth century Venice was in many ways tolerant of heterodoxy. Its bookshops and taverns were homes to forbidden ideas. Venice cooperated with the Inquisition yet insisted on retaining its own investigators of religious dissent. In sum, in a diverse society the repressive hand of the Counter-Reformation was seen in Venice but could not act unrestrainedly.


During the same centuries of religious exploration, economic innovation, and empire building, Venice also was a center of intellectual and artistic activity. Historians, philosophers, mathematicians, and even humanists flourished from the fifteenth through the seventeenth century, although it was a humanism less critical of traditional structures of power than elsewhere. Venice became the major printing center of Italy, which means the most important printing center anywhere in the early years of that technological explosion. The work of Aldus Manutius (also Aldo Manuzio) (14491515), who opened his print shop in Venice in the 1490s, is especially notable. Among the many elegant Aldine editions are those of Greek and Roman authors thus printed for the first time anywhere in formats that made them accessible to scholars and amateurs. Venice participated in the artistic Renaissance in its own way, blending Gothic and classical styles in architecture and remaining loyal to traditional genres until fairly late. From the late fifteenth century to the sixteenth century, however, the Venetian masters Giovanni Bellini (c. 14301516), Giorgione (c. 14771511), Titian (1488 or 14901576), Tintoretto (c. 15181594), and Paolo Veneziano came to the fore with their characteristic sensitivity to color and light. In music, where Italy generally was laggard in the fifteenth century, needing to import composers and musicians from the Netherlands, Venice took a leading role from the sixteenth century. The city itself was a work of art. Its unique cityscape of breathtaking beauty, its ritual displays, and its inter-play of costume and performance during the season of Carnival were magnets for all of Europe.

See also Cateau-Cambrésis (1559) ; Genoa ; Italy ; Lepanto, Battle of ; Printing and Publishing ; Venice, Art in .


Brown, Patricia Fortini. Venice and Antiquity: The Venetian Sense of the Past. New Haven and London, 1996.

Davis, Robert C. Shipbuilders of the Venetian Arsenal: Workers and Workplace in the Pre-Industrial City. Baltimore, 1991.

Grendler, Paul F. The Roman Inquisition and the Venetian Press, 15401605. Princeton, 1977.

Lowry, Martin. Nicholas Jenson and the Rise of Venetian Publishing in Renaissance Europe. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1991.

Mallett, M. E., and J. R. Hale. The Military Organization of a Renaissance State: Venice c.14001617. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1984.

Muir, Edward. Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice. Princeton, 1981.

Pullan, Brian. Rich and Poor in Renaissance Venice: The Social Institutions of a Catholic State, to 1620. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1971.

Romano, Dennis. Patricians and Popolani: The Social Foundations of the Venetian Renaissance State. Baltimore and London, 1987.

Ruggiero, Guido. The Boundaries of Eros: Sex Crime and Sexuality in Renaissance Venice. New York and London, 1985.

Margaret L. King


views updated May 14 2018


the end of the venetian republic
austrian and napoleonic rule
cultural responses in the early nineteenth century
the 1848 revolution and the unification of italy
venice under italian rule
venice and culture, 1866–1915

On the eve of the French Revolution, as the capital of an independent Republic, Venice still ruled over an extensive territory stretching along the Adriatic coast into Dalmatia, and deep into Lombardy. Venice had long before lost its position as the Mediterranean's dominant commercial center, falling victim to the rise of the Atlantic economy, and due to an inability to compete with bigger states. Indeed, by the mid-eighteenth century, the Habsburg free port of Trieste had begun to emerge as a rival even within the Adriatic. Nevertheless, Venice—still ruled by a narrow patrician oligarchy—was by no means the decadent and marginalized state often portrayed by contemporaries and subsequent historians alike. It remained a significant trading center, could deploy a sizeable fleet, and, in cultural terms, could still produce figures of the caliber of the playwright Carlo Goldoni (1707–1793) and the sculptor Antonio Canova (1757–1822).

the end of the venetian republic

The collapse of the Republic of Saint Mark in 1797 was not the consequence, as has frequently been suggested, of the cowardice and corruption of Venice's patrician class, but a direct result of changes in international relations brought about by the French Revolution. During the second half of the eighteenth century, the Venetian government had recognized that the only possible means of surviving in the face of expansionist neighbors was to adopt a policy of neutrality. When the Directory's Army of Italy invaded Italy in 1796 under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte (later Napoleon I, r. 1804–1814/15), the Venetian state had attempted to keep to this policy, but Austrian and French forces soon violated Venice's neutrality. In the spring of 1797, Napoleon invaded the Republic's mainland territories, establishing Jacobin satellite municipalities in many of the cities hitherto under its rule. Napoleon used a popular anti-French rising in Verona and resistance to French incursion into the lagoon as a pretext to occupy Venice itself. Faced with a French ultimatum, and anxious to avoid bloodshed or French reprisals, the last Doge, Ludovico Manin (r. 1789–1797), transferred power to the French authorities. Napoleon briefly set up a Jacobin municipal republic in the city, but almost immediately entered secret negotiations with the Austrians. In October 1797, these resulted in the Treaty of Campoformido. By this treaty, Venice and most of its former mainland territories to the east of the river Mincio were transferred to Habsburg rule in exchange for territorial concessions elsewhere.

austrian and napoleonic rule

Austrian troops arrived in Venice in January 1798. The city remained under the relatively benign rule of the Habsburgs until January 1806, when, by the Treaty of Pressburg, Napoleon (now crowned Emperor) annexed the city and its remaining territory to his satellite Kingdom of Italy. Until its liberation by Austrian forces in the spring of 1814, Venice languished under Napoleonic rule. Reduced to the status of a provincial capital, and with its remnants of trade destroyed because of Anglo-French naval rivalry and economic warfare, the plight of the Venetians under Napoleon was further exacerbated by heavy conscription, rapacious taxation, and the systematic plundering of Venice's art.

The Vienna settlement acknowledged the Austrian Emperor, Francis I (r. 1804–1835), as ruler of Venetia. Although the newly created Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia was technically separate from the rest of the empire, in practice most key decisions were made in Vienna. Such centralized rule was unpopular among Venetians. There was also disappointment that much of the machinery and personnel of the Napoleonic system was retained. Venice continued to suffer from a heavy tax burden and conscription, and many Venetians were angered by the large numbers of "foreigners" (both German-speakers and Lombards) who dominated the higher ranks of the civil service. Nevertheless, government expenditure rose massively under Austrian rule, and the reign of Francis I saw a gradual increase in the numbers of Venetians playing a role in the administration. A major source of resentment remained the apparently preferential treatment given to Trieste, although in 1830 Venice was granted the same free port status as its rival. Another fillip to the Venetian economy came in the form of causeway linking the city with the main-land, completed in 1846. Despite such measures, Venice was characterized by poverty and unemployment. Surprisingly, until the later 1840s there was very little active opposition to Habsburg rule. The one attempted rising—a naval mutiny led by the Bandiera brothers, Attilio (1810–1844) and Emilio (1819–1844)—failed spectacularly.

cultural responses in the early nineteenth century

In the Napoleonic and Restoration periods, Venice's greatest artist was the sculptor Canova, whose exquisite marbles were valued throughout Europe. In literary terms, the city was famous for the work of Ugo Foscolo (1778–1827), who flirted with the Napoleonic regime but went into exile in 1815.

In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, Venice began again to attract steadily larger numbers of travelers, including such figures as the French Romantic François-René de Chateaubriand (1768–1848), the novelist Stendhal (Henri Beyle; 1783–1842), the Irish poet Thomas Moore (1779–1852), and Lord Byron (1788–1824). Literary reactions to Venice were far from consistent, but few writers engaged with its current political and economic state; they preferred instead to explore a mythologized version of its past, and used the modern city as a trope for decay. This was echoed in representations by painters such as Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) and Richard Parkes Bonington (1802–1828) whose sketches showed contemporary Venice, but whose finished works tended to populate it with figures from much earlier periods. To the extent that foreign travelers did address the contemporary situation, they were generally critical of Austrian rule. One notable exception to this was John Ruskin (1819–1900), who loathed contemporary Venetians and bizarrely located the start of Venice's decline in 1418. However, the general trend was reflected in the description of the city offered by Charles Dickens (1812–1870) in his Pictures from Italy (1846): in contrast with the gritty realism of the rest of the book, his chapter on Venice is entitled "An Italian Dream."

the 1848 revolution and the unification of italy

The passive nature of Venice completely changed in 1848. Grievances had been growing since the late 1830s, as Venetians became increasingly intolerant of the bureaucratic and unresponsive nature of Austrian rule, of high taxation used to service the imperial debt, and of heavy-handed censorship. Matters were aggravated by the rule of the mentally weak Ferdinand I (r. 1835–1848), whose inability to provide direction was highlighted by the economic crisis of the so-called hungry forties. During 1846 and 1847, the people of Venice and its mainland increasingly criticized Austrian rule. The most eloquent opponent of the regime was Daniele Manin (1804–1857), who had risen to prominence during debates over the construction of a railway line between Venice and Milan. His persistent—although initially far from radical—attacks on Habsburg misrule landed him briefly in prison; on his release he assumed the role of champion of Venetian interests against alleged Austrian oppression. Revolution in France, the fall of Prince Clemens von Metternich (1773–1859) in the face of popular demonstrations in Vienna, increasing agitation in Hungary, and unrest elsewhere in Italy—including insurrection in Milan, which led to the retreat of the Austrian commander Count Joseph Radetzky (1766–1858)—generated panic among the authorities in Venice, and the governor, Aloys Palffy, evacuated the city. A provisional regime was swiftly established under the direction of Manin, who declared the establishment of a Republic of Saint Mark. The threat from Austria encouraged the population of the mainland to seek closer links with Milan and Sardinia-Piedmont, tying Manin's policy more closely to that of Piedmontese King, Charles Albert (r. 1831–1849), than he would have wished. However, defeat of

Charles Albert by Habsburg forces at Custoza (July 1848) forced the Venetians to rely on their own resources to safeguard their newly won independence. Although the rest of the peninsula experienced risings in 1848 and 1849, the Venetian revolution endured longer than any other, eventually succumbing to military blockade and cholera.

In the aftermath of revolution, Venice was subjected to the stern administration of the elderly Radetzky, before a milder regime was introduced under Archduke Maximilian of Habsburg (1832–1867) in 1857. Nevertheless, relations between Vienna and the local population had been badly damaged, and many Venetians increasingly looked toward Italian unity as a means to escape from Austrian rule. This stance was strengthened when Manin publicly renounced his former republican sympathies and called on Italians to support unification under the Piedmontese monarchy. Hopes that Venice might be annexed by the Piedmontese evaporated in 1859, when the French emperor Napoleon III (r. 1852–1871) broke his promise to the prime minister Count Cavour (Camillo Benso; 1810–1861) that he would free all of northern Italy from Austria. The creation of the new Kingdom of Italy in 1860 led to intermittent calls for the seizure of Venetia. In 1865, the Austrians rebuffed an Italian offer to purchase the region. Acquisition of Venetia finally took place in 1866, when the Italians fought against Austria in alliance with Prussia. Despite defeats on land and sea by the Austrians, the Italians were still able to gain Venice and its mainland provinces, thanks to Prussian victory and the diplomatic involvement of Napoleon III. Legitimacy was given to the annexation by an overwhelmingly positive vote in a plebiscite, which was nevertheless marred by rigging and intimidation.

venice under italian rule

Neither Venice nor the Venetian mainland initially benefited from Italian unity. As a port Venice continued to decline in the face of competition from other maritime cities in the peninsula. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and Venice's selection as chief port of the India Mail in 1872 did act as a slight stimulus to trade, which was increasingly located in the west of the city (near the railway) rather than around Saint Mark's Square. Venetians, however, remained generally indifferent or hostile to their new status as Italians, a fact reflected in their unwillingness to stand as parliamentary candidates in the 1870s.

Economic problems persisted in the late nineteenth century, and, until the 1890s, Venetia witnessed some of Italy's highest rates of emigration, albeit usually to European destinations rather than to the New World. Yet, despite the poverty of the region, Venice gradually reconciled itself to Italian rule in the decades before World War I. This in part reflected a gradually improving economy, helped by the growth of industry in the 1880s (including the establishment of the Stucky grain mill and pasta factory on the Giudecca and construction of warships in the Arsenale), and, more significantly, by the massive expansion of tourism. Venice now appealed not only because of its romantic past, but also because of the development of the Lido as a center for sea bathing.

venice and culture, 1866–1915

Despite the establishment of a biennial international art festival in 1895, the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were not an especially fertile period for Venetian art or literature. In general, however, the city was more interesting as a stimulus to foreign artists, writers, poets, and composers than to homegrown ones. The most famous resident Italian writer in the years before World War I was the nationalist firebrand Gabriele d'Annunzio (1863–1938), whose novel The Flame of Life (1900) played with the contrasts between Venice past and modern. In very different ways, Henry James (1843–1916) and Thomas Mann (1875–1955) loaded Venice with symbolic significance.

The tension between Venice past and present was evident in the city's treatment by other creative artists. Many remained obsessed with Venice's exotic past, as evidenced in Hans Markart's painting Homage to Queen Caterina Cornaro (1873), in the Johann Strauss (1825–1899) opera A Night in Venice (1883), and the Venetian plays of Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874–1929), as well as in many of the canvases of the Venetian painter Giacomo Favretto (1898–1964). British views of the city continued to be heavily influenced by the backward-looking legacy of Ruskin. However, the city was also periodically home to a wide range of British, including the historians Rawdon Brown (1803–1883) and Horatio Brown (1854–1926), the poet and historian John Addington Symonds (1840–1893), and the novelist and fantasist Frederick Rolfe (1860–1913), who, while deeply interested in its past, engaged passionately with the modern city and its inhabitants. A similar preoccupation characterized the work of many American and British painters, such as Robert Frederick Blum (1857–1903), John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Maurice Brazil Prendergast (1859–1924), and Sir Samuel Luke Fildes (1843–1927), who sought to portray a living city (albeit in a sometimes sentimentalized form). In so doing they echoed local painters, such as Ettore Tito (1867–1941), who was anxious to portray scenes of everyday Venetian life rather than turning the city into a symbol of past glory. The most radical response to the city in this period, however, came in 1910 when the leader of the Futurists, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876–1944), declared rhetorical war against a Venice that he saw as no more than a ridiculous museum.

See alsoMilan; Naples; Rome; Trieste; Vienna.


Laven, David. Venice and Venetia Under the Habsburgs, 1815–1835. Oxford, U.K., 2002.

Pemble, John. Venice Rediscovered. Oxford, U.K., 1995.

Plant, Margaret. Venice: Fragile City 1797–1997. New Haven, Conn., 2002.

Zorzi, Alvise. Venezia austriaca, 1798–1866. Rome, 1985.

David Laven


views updated May 14 2018


The republic* of Venice, one of the major powers of Renaissance Italy, built an extensive land and sea empire in the eastern Mediterranean. It became known for its distinctive form of government, stable society, and brilliant cultural achievements. When political turmoil and foreign invasions swept across the Italian peninsula during the 1400s and 1500s, Venice was the only state that remained independent.

The Venetian Empire. Venice was settled in the 500s and 600s by refugees from the Italian mainland. They built communities on mudflats and sandbanks in a lagoon off Italy's northeastern coast. By 1000 these communities had united to form a city ruled by an elected official (called a doge) and councils of merchants. Venetian traders sold fish and salt to towns along the coast and, later, to ports around the Mediterranean Sea.

As its commerce expanded, Venice became locked in rivalry with Genoa, another Italian trading city. The two went to war in 1379–1380. The Venetian admirals emerged victorious, and the city continued to dominate commerce in the Mediterranean.

After triumphing over Genoa, the Venetians expanded into northeastern Italy. The move brought Venice into conflict with the duchy* of Milan. In 1455 Pope Nicholas V attempted to avert war by forming the Italian League, an alliance that established a balance of power among Italy's five major states: Venice, Milan, Naples, Florence, and the Papal States.

Venice angered other members of the Italian League with its efforts to expand its territory and its trade routes. In 1508 the other Italian powers joined France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire*, and the pope in a campaign to seize some of Venice's territories. Despite the forces joined against them, the Venetians resisted the takeover, and Venice emerged with its city and empire intact. By 1530 Venice was the only Italian city-state to remain a great and independent power.

Another challenge to Venice's rule came from the Ottoman Empire*, which had begun seizing Mediterranean lands in the mid-1400s. At first, Venice negotiated with the Ottomans to continue trading. Then, in 1571 the Venetians joined other European states to defeat the Ottoman navy in the Battle of Lepanto. In the late 1500s and early 1600s, Venice's maritime* empire declined in importance. European voyages to the Americas, along with growing demand for products such as sugar and tobacco, shifted the center of trade from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.

Government. Venice was both a city and a nation. Its unique form of government combined features of monarchy, aristocracy*, and republic. The head of state, the doge, was elected through an elaborate series of committees designed to prevent any particular group from controlling the office. Every year the doge led official processions and performed ceremonies, such as casting a ring into the lagoon to symbolize Venice's marriage to the sea.

Venice's upper class kept a tight rein on the doge's powers through three councils—the Great Council, the Senate, and the Council of Ten—and many lesser councils. The Great Council consisted of the adult male members of the nobility. In 1297 membership on the Great Council was limited to the prosperous merchant families that made up the Venetian nobility. The Great Council elected most officials, including the doge, and made laws. The Senate, a smaller council, supervised ambassadors and city officials and managed the growth of the empire. The Council of Ten was responsible for state security. It became increasingly important in the late 1400s, and by the 1600s some considered its members the real rulers of Venice.

The Venetian government also included many lesser councils and committees. Only nobles could hold government office, but educated members of the middle class could serve as government secretaries. This group gained considerable status and was regarded as second only to the nobles.

Society. The nobility shaped civic life in Venice. Some nobles devoted themselves to political careers, leaving commerce to other family members. The wealthiest noble families built grand palaces and supported the arts.

Within the citizen class, those born in Venice had the highest status. Although citizens could not hold political office, they could freely pursue wealth. Many belonged to confraternities* called scuole, which provided fellowship as well as opportunities to display one's wealth and perform good deeds. The scuole commissioned artists to decorate their meeting halls and appeared in civic processions. They also took the lead in aiding the poor, providing money for orphans, widows, and others in need.

Venice had numerous professional and neighborhood organizations. Many artisans*, such as silkworkers and glassblowers, belonged to craft guilds*. The workers at Venice's immense shipbuilding center also joined guilds. Venice's neighborhood associations centered on the parish churches. Within each parish, special ceremonies strengthened neighborhood ties.

The Venetian government fought crime by closely supervising residents and promptly punishing wrongdoers. Criminals were fined, banished from the city, or executed. Justice was not uniform, however. Crimes against nobles were often punished with extra harshness, while crimes committed by nobles received light punishment.

Venice's many foreign residents formed organizations of their own. In the Greek and Slav communities, the churches served as both spiritual and social centers. German and Turkish merchants lived near the Rialto, the city's commercial center. After 1516 the Jews of Venice had to live within a closed, gated neighborhood called the ghetto, the first such confinement of Jews to a segregated neighborhood. Within the ghetto they followed their own laws and customs.

Religion and Culture. Religion played a major role in Venetian life. The primarily Roman Catholic city was filled with churches and had many priests, friars, and nuns. Venice took particular pride in its relics*, especially the body of St. Mark, the city's patron saint.

At the same time, however, Venice held itself apart from the papacy*. The Venetian Senate, not the pope, appointed the bishops and other major clergy of the city's mainland territories. Venice itself had no bishop. The city's highest-ranking religious officials were the clergy at the church of San Marco, which was attached to the doge's palace. Venice was also home to many heretics*. Individuals who wanted to obtain the writings of reformist thinkers such as Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus could do so easily in Venice.

The nobles who governed Venice dominated its intellectual life. Most young nobles attended the nearby University of Padua. Venetian humanists* tended to be members of the upper class or to work for noble patrons. They discussed many popular subjects, but rarely addressed ideas such as political liberty, which might have threatened the ruling class.

Foreign humanists who came to Venice seeking employment could teach or could work in the city's printing industry. By 1500 the city had become Europe's major publishing center. Free-spirited and sophisticated, Venice was a magnet for writers of all sorts. Poetry, drama, and classical* studies flourished. In the 1500s many women writers lived and worked in Venice, including the humanist Cassandra Fedele and the poets Gaspara Stampa and Veronica Franco.

Venice produced many important artists during the Renaissance, including Titian, Tintoretto, and the members of the Bellini Family. In addition, the city was itself widely regarded as a work of art, shimmering on the waters of the lagoon, adorned with hundreds of churches and palaces. Artists from all over Europe visited Venice to paint the magical cityscape.

(See alsoArt in Italy; Italy. )

* republic

form of Renaissance government dominated by leading merchants with limited participation by others

see color plate 1, vol. 3

* duchy

territory controlled by a duke or duchess

* Holy Roman Empire

political body in central Europe composed of several states; existed until 1806

* Ottoman Empire

Islamic empire founded by Ottoman Turks in the 1300s that reached the height of its power in the 1500s; it eventually included large areas of eastern Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa

* maritime

relating to the sea or shipping

* aristocracy

privileged upper classes of society; nobles or the nobility

The Myth of Venice

In civic ceremonies, letters, and art, Venetians promoted an image that historians call "the myth of Venice." The image portrayed Venice as ideally organized, well governed, peaceful, and productive. Citizens called Venice La Serenissima (the most serene—untroubled—republic). The myth was mostly true. Although Venice had crime, greed, and corruption, it did not have social conflicts, and its citizens did not try to overthrow the government.

* confraternity

religious and social organization of Roman Catholics who were not members of the clergy

* artisan

skilled worker or craftsperson

* guild

association of craft and trade owners and workers that set standards for and represented the interests of its members

* relics

pieces of bone, possessions, or other items belonging to a saint or sacred person

* papacy

office and authority of the pope

* heretic

person who rejects the doctrine of an established church

* humanist

Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome


views updated May 23 2018


A city of northeastern Italy that was a leading center of artistic innovation through the Italian Renaissance. Venice was founded in the fifth century by Romans fleeing an invasion of the Lombards, barbarians who were overrunning northern Italy. The settlers built their shelters on a series of low-lying islands that rose above a surrounding lagoon, protected from the tides of the Adriatic Sea by a series of barrier islands. A doge, or duke, ruled the island settlements, which remained part of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire until Venice emerged as an independent city-state in the tenth century. The city extended its control to Dalmatia, the coastland along the eastern fringe of the Adriatic Sea, and began to send expeditions to the east. During the Crusadesmedieval campaigns to wrest the city of Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the MuslimsVenice established trading routes with several ports in the eastern Mediterranean. Venetian merchants such as Marco Polo voyaged via the Silk Road and other routes as far as China and other points in East

Asia. Venetian merchants grew wealthy through the control of eastern spices and other rare goods in high demand by the aristocrats and royalty of Europe. The city extended its boundaries by annexing Padua and other cities on the Italian mainland, as well as land along the Adriatic coast.

In the late fourteenth century, Venice bested its most important rival, the Italian city of Genoa, in the War of Chioggia, which ended in 1380. After this key event, Venice emerged during the Renaissance as one of the wealthiest states in Europe. Representatives of the Venetian doge and its ruling Council of Ten traveled throughout Europe, playing an important role in the diplomatic conflicts of the age. A fleet of more than three thousand ships ranged the Mediterranean, and Venice had captured several mountain passes through the Alps in order to control routes to northern Europe. Venetian power and wealth also posed a threat to the Papacy; the popes also sought authority over cities of the northern Italian plains and the Catholic Church frowned on the tolerance that allowed religious dissent within Venice itself. In 1508 Pope Julius II formed the League of Cambrai with France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire to challenge Venetian might. The league failed in its mission, as Venice recaptured all of the mainland territories it had lost and emerged in the mid-sixteenth century as the strongest state in Italy.

The Venetian republic was founded on the authority of the dogewhich eventually became a largely ceremonial officeand of the Great Council, a body of several hundred rulers drawn from among the city's noble families. The Council appointed public officials and elected a Senate, which in turn chose the Council often, a committee entrusted with the state's order and security. An extensive network of spies and informers rooted out dissent and conspiracy within the city, which harshly punished the slightest threat to its oligarchic form of government.

The art and architecture of Venice had their roots in Byzantine style; the Cathedral of Saint Mark raised in the eleventh century is lavishly decorated in marble, mosaic, and gilt. Many major artists, including the Bellini family, Paolo Veronese, Palladio, Titian, and Tintoretto, had their homes and workshops in the city, and decorated Venetian churches, monasteries, and public buildings with many of the most renowned frescoes and canvases of the Renaissance. Venice was also an important early center of the printing industry, and laid claim to the busiest publishing industry in Renaissance Europe. The presses of Venice turned out the first editions of classical Greek and Latin authors who played a vital role as a foundation of the intellectual and artistic life of the Renaissance.

Venice built a huge fleet of merchant ships at its famous Arsenal, one of the largest ship works in Europe. But with the rise of the Ottoman Empire, which conquered the Byzantine Empire in the middle of the fifteenth century, Venice was again contending for control of the eastern Mediterranean. The Ottoman navy cut many of Venice's important links with the East. Despite the victory of a European alliance against the Turkish fleet at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, Venice began a slow decline that lasted two centuries. Its merchant empire in the east was being surpassed by trade with the New World, which its rivals in Europe were exploiting, while the Turks eventually captured all the Venetian possessions in Greece as well as Cyprus and the coast of Dalmatia. In 1797 Venice was conquered by Napoléon Bonaparte, and granted by the French to Austria in the Treaty of Campo Formio. This put an official end to Venice's status as an independent republic.


views updated May 29 2018


By the late fifteenth century Venice had established itself as a major Mediterranean intermediary between Europe and the East. The Venetian ducat had become common coinage in Eastern markets. Venice imported primarily spices and silk and exported metals and manufactures. The port city retained its status despite a conservative commercial and economist monopolistic policy that continued through the sixteenth century. The public banks, created for the first time in 1587, also practiced the traditional conservatism in means of exchange that nevertheless proved effective.

In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century Venice faced two challenges. One was the expansion of Turkish power in the eastern Mediterranean and Turkey's monopoly on agriculture products. The other was the discovery by the Portuguese of new oceanic trade routes round the Cape of Good Hope to India and the Far East; this discovery threatened to destroy the Mediterranean's position as the great channel of intercontinental trade and to replace Venice and Genoa as the supreme Mediterranean international entrepôts. Nevertheless, retaining good relations with the Ottomans enabled the Venetians to import spices through the Red Sea and Syria after the Ottoman conquest of Eygpt and the Levant in 1517. Eventually, due to the effective control of the Spice Islands that the Dutch gained at the early seventeenth century, they cut off the flow through the Red Sea and ended the old spice trade through the Levan.

In the late sixteenth century and during the seventeenth, Venice faced other crises—the decline of its shipbuilding and the wars against the Ottomans on Cyrpus and Crete. Consequently, the English and Dutch, Venice's competitors in the Mediterranean, consolidated with the French their commercial position in the Ottoman ports at the expense of the Venetians, striking a fatal blow to the Venetian monopoly on Levantine trade. The northerners shifted their activity to the free port of Long-horn, and Venice became a regional port exporting industrial products to the Ottoman Empire. A century later the city lost this role to the English and Dutch. Western trade was by then decidedly larger than Levantine trade. Venice imported manufactured goods on a large scale from England, France, and Holland, and exported agricultural and primary products or partially worked goods.

In the seventeenth century Venetian commoners performed manufacturing, and the nobility increased its landholdings in the mainland in order to diversify and preserve their capital as a hedge against commercial risks. Trade was conducted mostly by foreigners, including Jews. During Venice's wars against the Turks in the late sixteenth and seventeeth centuries restrictions on foreigners were relaxed, and they became Venetian citizens.

Beginning in the 1730s, both Venetian trade and shipbuilding were comprehensively reformed. The city's ships provided transit safe from Mediterranean pirates, and "neutral shipping" along the sea routes to the West, to London and the Americas during the American and French Revolutions, and to the Levant during the wars of the Turks against the Russians in the Eastern Mediterranean. Until Venice's fleet and merchant marine were destroyed in the Napoleonic Wars, Venice was the leading port and the busiest center of shipbuilding and shipping in the Adriatic. Assigned to Austria in 1815 by the Congress of Vienna, Venice was granted by the Austrians free-port status, and was valued more for strategic and military reasons than as a major commercial outlet for the Habsburg Empire, a role played by Trieste. A new class of rich Venetians emerged—the middle class, or borghesia.

Since 1866, when Venice was released from Austrian dominion and united with Italy, the development of Venice's industry shifted the city's urban center and the expanded its port. With the early-twentieth-century shift of industry from Venice to the hinterland, an extensive industrial zone with port facilities for large containers was developed at Marghera, next to Mestre at the end of the causeway that had brought the railway to Venice. Marghera and Mestre and the Lido were combined with the city of Venice into one unit of urban government. Venice became again a great port, second only to Genoa among the ports of modern Italy, with tourism and industry leading its international trade.

SEE ALSO Agriculture;Black Sea; Cabot Family; Canals; Cargoes, Freight; Cargoes, Passenger; Chambers of Commerce; Containerization; Egypt; Ethnic Groups, Armenians; Free Ports; Genoa; Harbors; Italy;Mediterranean;Millets and Capitulations;Port Cities;Spices and the Spice Trade.


Ashtor, Eliyahu. "The Venetian Supremacy in Levantine Trade: Monopoly or Pre-Colonialism." Journal of European Economic History 3 (1974): 5–53.

Braudel, Fernand. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, tr. Sian Reynolds. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.

Cipolla, Carlo M. Before the Industrial Revolution: European Society and Economy, 1000–1700, 3rd edition. London: Routledge, 1993.

Crouzet-Pavan, Elisabeth. Venice Triumphant. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

Faroqhi, Suraiya. "The Venetian Presence in the Ottoman Empire, 1600–30." In The Ottoman Empire and the World-Economy, ed. Huri Islamoglu-Inan. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Llorens, Francesc Albardaner i. "John Cabot and Christopher Columbus Revisited," The Northern Mariner/Le Marin du Nord 10, no. 3 (July/Juillet 2000): 91–100.

Martin, J., and Roamo, D., eds. Venice Reconsidered: The History and Civilization of an Italian State, 1297–1797. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University, 2000.

Pullan, Brian., ed. Crisis and Change in the Venetian Economy in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. London: 1968.

Rapp, Richard T. Industry and Economic Decline in Seventeeth-Century Venice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Ruthy Gertwagen


views updated Jun 11 2018

Venice. Italian city, capital of region of Veneto. Its importance as a musical centre dates from 1527 when the Netherlands composer Willaert was appointed choirmaster of S. Marco Cath. Through his influence, Venice became centre of madrigal composition in private houses and academies. Under Zarlino, choirmaster from 1564, an instr. ens. was formed (1568) which, augmented, performed at large fests. Use of choral and instr. forces by dividing them into groups placed in different galleries of the cath. (cori spezzati) led to the dominating splendour of Venetian church mus. 1575–1610, notably under G. Gabrieli and A. Gabrieli. In 1612 Monteverdi was appointed choirmaster and remained for 30 years. He revivified the city's musical life, introducing younger composers, e.g. Cavalli and Grandi. The plague of 1630 ended the dominance of S. Marco in Venetian music-making and the balance was tipped towards operas, of which Monteverdi provided several masterly examples and was followed by Cavalli. Refusal of the authorities after 1642 to raise the salary of the choirmaster led to a decline in standard, halted only by Legrenzi, who achieved an increase in the size of the choir and orch. (to 36 and 34 respectively).

 After 1700 Venetian musicians made their living in the ospedali, charitable institutions for the sick and orphaned where mus. was taught and perf. in the chapels. From this milieu arose the next great sch. of Venetian composers, Vivaldi, Porpora, Sarti, Galuppi, Traetta, Jommelli, and Albinoni. Visitors to Venice included Gasparini, A. Scarlatti, and Handel.

 Galuppi excelled in opera buffa and collab. with the playwright Goldoni from 1749. Opera thrived again after the opening of the Teatro La Fenice in 1792 with a work by Paisiello. No Venetian sch. now existed, but were given at La Fenice of operas by Cimarosa, Rossini (Tancredi, 1813), Meyerbeer (Il Crociato in Egitto, 1824), Bellini (I Capuleti e i Montecchi, 1830), and Donizetti (Maria di Rudenz, 1838). Several Verdi operas were commissioned for La Fenice, notably La traviata, 1853.

 In the 20th cent. La Fenice has been the birth-place of Dallapiccola's ballet Marsia (1948), Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress (1951), Britten's The Turn of the Screw (1954), Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel (1955), Nono's Intolleranza (1960), and Bussotti's Lorenzaccio (1973). It has also staged the Venetian Malipiero's operas. These operas were given at the annual fest. of contemporary mus. held between 1948 and 1973. Stravinsky also comp. several choral and instr. works for Venice 1956–60 and was buried there near Diaghilev. The fascination of Venice for composers is epitomized by Britten's opera Death in Venice (1973) and it was in Venice that the dying composer wrote some of his 3rd str. qt. (1975). And not the least of Venice's claims to musical fame is that Richard Wagner died there on 13 Feb. 1883.


views updated Nov 30 2016

Venice (Venézia) City on the Gulf of Venice, at the head of the Adriatic Sea, n Italy, capital of Venetia region. Built on 118 islands, separated by narrow canals, in the Lagoon of Venice, and joined by causeway to the mainland. Settled in the 5th century, it was a vassal of the Byzantine Empire until the 10th century. After defeating Genoa in 1381, Venice became the leading European sea-power, trading with the Mediterranean and Asia. It declined in the 16th century, and was ceded to Austria in 1797, becoming part of Italy in 1866. Venice has many churches, palaces, and historic buildings, and is one of Europe's major attractions, drawing more than 2 million tourists a year. Tourism imposes a massive strain on a city already suffering from erosion, subsidence, and pollution. Industries: glass-blowing, textiles, petrochemicals. Pop. (2000) 275,368.


views updated Jun 08 2018

Venice a city in NE Italy, situated on a lagoon of the Adriatic and built on numerous islands that are separated by canals and linked by bridges. It was a powerful republic in the Middle Ages and from the 13th to the 16th centuries a leading sea power, controlling trade to the Levant and ruling parts of the eastern Mediterranean.