Republic of Venice

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Republic of Venice

Repubblica di Venezia
(Repubblica Serenissima)
Borders of the Republic of Venice in 1796
Borders of the Republic of Venice in 1796
Common languagesVenetian, Latin, Italian
Roman Catholic
• 1789–97
Ludovico Manin
• Established
• Treaty of Zara
June 27, 1358
• Treaty of Leoben
April 17 1797
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Byzantine Empire
Archduchy of Austria
* Traditionally, the establishment of the Republic is dated to 697.
Map of the Venetian Republic, circa 1000. The republic is in dark red, borders in light red.

The Most Serene Republic of Venice (Italian: Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia, Venetian: Republica de Venesia), was an Italian state originating from the city of Venice (today in Northeastern Italy). It existed for one thousand one hundred years, from the 8th century until the 18th century (1797). It is often referred to as The Serenissima, in reference to its title in Italian, The Most Serene.


The city of Venice originated as a collection of lagoon communities banded together for mutual defence from the Lombards as the power of the Byzantine Empire dwindled in northern Italy in the late seventh century. Sometime in the first decades of the eighth century, the people of the lagoon elected their first leader Ursus, who was confirmed by Byzantium and given the titles of hypatus and dux. He was the first historical Doge of Venice. Tradition, however, since the early 11th century, dictates that the Venetians first proclaimed one Anafestus Paulicius duke in 697, though this story dates to no earlier than the chronicle of John the Deacon. Whatever the case, the first doges had their power base in Heraclea.


Ursus's successor, Deusdedit, moved his seat from Heraclea to Malamocco in the 740s. He was the son of Ursus and represented the attempt of his father to establish a dynasty. Such attempts were more than commonplace among the doges of the first few centuries of Venetian history, but all were ultimately unsuccessful. During the reign of Deusdedit, Venice became the only remaining Byzantine possession in the north and the changing politic of the Frankish Empire began to change the factional division of Venetia. One faction was decidedly pro-Byzantine. They desired to remain well-connected to the Empire. Another faction, republican in nature, believed in continuing along a course towards practical independence. The other main faction was pro-Frankish. Supported mostly by clergy (in line with papal sympathies of the time), they looked towards the new Carolingian king of the Franks, Pepin the Short, as the best provider of defence against the Lombards. A minor, pro-Lombard, faction was opposed to close ties with any of these further-off powers and interested in maintaining peace with the neighbouring (and surrounding, but for the sea) Lombard kingdom.

Early Middle Ages

The successors of Obelerio inherited a united Venice. By the Pax Nicephori (803), the two emperors had recognised Venetian de facto independence, while it remained nominally Byzantine in subservience. During the reign of the Participazio, Venice grew into its modern form. Though Heraclean by birth, Agnello, first doge of the family, was an early immigrant to Rialto and his dogeship was marked by the expansion of Venice towards the sea via the construction of bridges, canals, bulwarks, fortifications, and stone buildings. The modern Venice, at one with the sea, was being born. Agnello was succeeded by his son Giustiniano, who brought the body of Saint Mark the Evangelist to Venice from Alexandria and made him the patron saint of Venice.

During the reign of the successor of the Participazio, Pietro Tradonico, Venice began to establish its military might which would influence many a later crusade and dominate the Adriatic for centuries. Tradonico secured the sea by fighting Slavic and Saracen pirates. Tradonico's reign was long and successful (837–64), but he was succeeded by the Participazio and it appeared that a dynasty may have finally been established.

High Middle Ages

Horses of Saint Mark, brought as loot from Constantinople in 1204.

In the High Middle Ages, Venice became extremely wealthy through its control of trade between Europe and the Levant, and began to expand into the Adriatic Sea and beyond. Venice was involved in the Crusades almost from the very beginning; Venetian ships assisted in capturing the coastal cities of Syria after the First Crusade, and in 1123 they were granted virtual autonomy in the Kingdom of Jerusalem through the Pactum Warmundi. In the 12th century, the Venetians also gained extensive trading privileges in the Byzantine Empire and their ships often provided the Empire with a navy. In 1182 there was an anti-Western riot in Constantinople, of which the Venetians were the main targets. The Venetian fleet was crucial to the transportation of the Fourth Crusade, but when the crusaders could not pay for the ships, the cunning and manipulative Doge Enrico Dandolo quickly exploited the situation and offered transport to the crusaders if they were to capture the (Christian) Dalmatian city of Zadar (Italian: Zara), which had rebelled against the Venetian rule in 1183, placed itself under the dual protection of the Papacy and King Emeric of Hungary and had proven too well fortified[citation needed] to retake for Venice alone. Upon accomplishing this the crusade was again diverted to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, another rival of Venice. The city was captured and sacked in 1204; the sack has been described as one of the most profitable and disgraceful sacks of a city in history.[1] The Byzantine Empire, which until then had resisted to several attacks and kept the Islamic invaders out of Western Anatolia and Eastern Europe, was reestablished in 1261 but never recovered its previous power and eventually was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, which later occupied the Balkans and Hungary and in two occasions besieged Vienna. The Venetians, who accompanied the crusader fleet, claimed much of the plunder from the city as payment including the famous four bronze horses which were brought back to adorn St. Mark's basilica. As a result of the partition of the Byzantine Empire which followed, Venice gained a great deal of territory in the Aegean Sea (three-eighths of the Byzantine Empire), including the islands of Crete and Euboea. The Aegean islands formed the Venetian Duchy of the Archipelago.

From 1350 to 1381, Venice fought a intermittent war with the Genoese. Initially defeated, they devastated the Genoese fleet at the Battle of Chioggia in 1380 and retained their prominent position in eastern Mediterranean affairs at the expense of Genoa's declining empire.

Venetian fort in Nafplion, Greece. This is one of the many forts that secured the Venetian trade routes in the Eastern Mediterranean.

15th century

In the early fifteenth century, the Venetians also began to expand in Italy, as well as along the Dalmatian coast from Istria to Albania, which was acquired from King Ladislas of Naples during the civil war in Hungary. Ladislas was about to lose the conflict and had decided to escape to Naples, but before doing so he agreed to sell his now practically forfeit rights on the Dalmatian cities for a meager sum of 100,000 ducats. Venice exploited the situation and quickly installed nobility to govern the area, for example, Count Filippo Stipanov in Zadar. This move by the Venetians was a response to the threatening expansion of Giangaleazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan. Control over the north-east main land routes was also a necessity for the safety of the trades. By 1410, Venice had taken over most of Venetia, including such important cities as Verona and Padua.

The situation in Dalmatia had been settled in 1408 by a truce with King Sigismund of Hungary but the difficulties of Hungary finally granted to the Republic the consolidation of its Adriatic dominions. At the expiration of the truce, Venice immediately invaded the Patriarchate of Aquileia, and subjected Traù, Spalato, Durazzo and other Dalmatian cities.

Slavic slaves were plentiful in the Italian city-states as late as the 15th century. Between 1414 and 1423, some 10,000 eastern European slaves were sold in Venice.[2][3]

In 1489, the island of Cyprus, previously a crusader state (the Kingdom of Cyprus), was annexed to Venice.

Venetian possessions in Greece, 1450

League of Cambrai, Lepanto and the loss of Cyprus

The Ottoman Empire started sea campaigns as early as 1423, when it waged a seven year war with the Venetian Republic over maritime control of the Aegean Sea and the Adriatic Sea. The wars with Venice resumed in 1463 until a favorable peace treaty was signed in 1479. In 1480 (now no longer hampered by the Venetian fleet) the Ottomans besieged Rhodes and captured Otranto. War with Venice resumed from 1499 to 1503.

In 1499, Venice allied itself with Louis XII of France against Milan, gaining Cremona. In the same year the Ottoman sultan moved to attack Lepanto by land, and sent a large fleet to support his offensive by sea. Antonio Grimani, more a businessman and diplomat than a sailor, was defeated in the sea battle of Zonchio in 1499. The Turks once again sacked Friuli. Preferring peace to total war both against the Turks and by sea, Venice surrendered the bases of Lepanto, Modon and Coron.

Venice's attention was diverted from her usual maritime position by the delicate situation in Romagna, then one of the richest lands in Italy, which was nominally part of the Papal States but effectively fractionated in a series of small lordship of difficult control for Rome's troops. Eager to take some of Venice's lands, all neighbouring powers joined in the League of Cambrai in 1508, under the leadership of Pope Julius II. The pope wanted Romagna; Emperor Maximilian I: Friuli and Veneto; Spain: the Apulian ports; the king of France: Cremona; the king of Hungary: Dalmatia, and each of the others some part. The offensive against the huge army enlisted by Venice was launched from France. On 14 May 1509, Venice was crushingly defeated at the battle of Agnadello, in the Ghiara d'Adda, marking one of the most delicate points of the entire Venetian history. French and imperial troops were occupying the Veneto, but Venice managed to extricate herself through diplomatic efforts. The Apulian ports were ceded in order to come to terms with Spain, and pope Julius II soon recognized the danger brought by the eventual destruction of Venice (then the only Italian power able to face kingdoms like France or empires like the Ottomans). The citizens of the mainland rose to the cry of "Marco, Marco", and Andrea Gritti recaptured Padua in July 1509, successfully defending it against the besieging imperial troops. Spain and the pope broke off their alliance with France, and Venice regained Brescia and Verona from France also. After seven years of ruinous war, the Serenissima regained her mainland dominions up to the Adda. Although the defeat had turned into a victory, the events of 1509 marked the end of the Venetian expansion.

In 1489, the first year of Venetian control of Cyprus, Turks attacked the Karpasia Peninsula, pillaging and taking captives to be sold into slavery. In 1539 the Turkish fleet attacked and destroyed Limassol. Fearing the ever-expanding Ottoman Empire, the Venetians had fortified Famagusta, Nicosia, and Kyrenia, but most other cities were easy prey.

In the summer of 1570, the Turks struck again, but this time with a full-scale invasion rather than a raid. About 60,000 troops, including cavalry and artillery, under the command of Mustafa Pasha landed unopposed near Limassol on July 2, 1570, and laid siege to Nicosia. In an orgy of victory on the day that the city fell — September 9, 1570 — 20,000 Nicosian Greeks and Venetians were put to death, and every church, public building, and palace was looted.[citation needed] Word of the massacre spread, and a few days later Mustafa took Kyrenia without having to fire a shot. Famagusta, however, resisted and put up a heroic defense that lasted from September 1570 until August 1571.

The fall of Famagusta marked the beginning of the Ottoman period in Cyprus. Two months later, the naval forces of the Holy League, composed mainly of Venetian, Spanish, and Papal ships under the command of Don John of Austria, defeated the Turkish fleet at Battle of Lepanto in one of the decisive battles of world history. The victory over the Turks, however, came too late to help Cyprus, and the island remained under Ottoman rule for the next three centuries.

17th century

In 1605, a conflict between Venice and the Holy See began with the arrest of two members of the clergy who were guilty of petty crimes, and with a law restricting the Church's right to enjoy and acquire landed property. Pope Paul V held that these provisions were contrary to canon law, and demanded that they should be repealed. When this was refused, he placed Venice under an interdict. The Republic paid no attention to the interdict or the act of excommunication, and ordered its priests to carry out their ministry. It was supported in its decisions by the Servite monk Paolo Sarpi, a sharp polemical writer who was nominated to be the Signoria's adviser on theology and canon law in 1606. The interdict was lifted after a year, when France intervened and proposed a formula of compromise. Venice was satisfied with reaffirming the principle that no citizen was superior to the normal processes of law.


Giovan Battista Tiepolo, Neptune offers the wealth of the sea to Venice, 1748–50. This painting is an allegory of the power of the Republic of Venice, as the wealth and power of the Serenissima was based on the control of the sea.

In December 1714, the Turks declared war when the Peloponnese (the Morea) was "without any of those supplies which are so desirable even in countries where aid is near at hand which are not liable to attack from the sea".

The Turks took the islands of Tinos and Aegina, crossed the isthmus and took Corinth. Daniele Dolfin, commander of the Venetian fleet, thought it better to save the fleet than risk it for the Morea. When he eventually arrived on the scene, Nauplia, Modon, Corone and Malvasia had fallen. Levkas in the Ionian islands, and the bases of Spinalonga and Suda on Crete which still remained in Venetian hands, were abandoned. The Turks finally landed on Corfù, but its defenders managed to throw them back. In the meantime, the Turks had suffered a grave defeat by the Austrians at Battle of Petrovaradin on 5 August 1716. Venetian naval efforts in the Aegean and the Dardanelles in 1717 and 1718, however, met with little success. With the Treaty of Passarowitz (21 July 1718), Austria made large territorial gains, but Venice lost the Morea, for which her small gains in Albania and Dalmatia were little compensation. This was the last war with the Ottoman Empire.

The fall of the Republic

In spring 1796[when?], Piedmont fell and the Austrians were beaten from Montenotte to Lodi. The army under Napoleon crossed the frontiers of neutral Venice in pursuit of the enemy. By the end of the year the French troops were occupying the Venetian state up to the Adige. Vicenza, Cadore and Friuli were held by the Austrians. With the campaigns of the next year, Napoleon aimed for the Austrian possessions across the Alps. In the preliminaries to the Peace of Leoben, the terms of which remained secret, the Austrians were to take the Venetian possessions as the price of peace (18 April 1797).


In the early years of the republic, the political system can be classified as an autocracy, with the Doge as the almost absolute ruler. Soon the Doge was subject to the Promissione, i.e a pledge he had to take when elected, which limited his powers strongly: as a result powers were shared with the Major Council so that «He (the Doge) could do nothing without the Major Council and the Major Council could do nothing without him» (Marin Sanudo). In 1223, the aristocratic families of Rialto drastically diminished the powers of the Doge by the establishment of an advisory body, the Signoria of Venice and a supreme tribunal, the Quarantia. They also created two bodies called sapientes which later grew into six bodies. The combination of sapientes and certain other groups was called a collegio, a kind of ministry to carry out the functions of government. A senate, called the Consiglio dei Pregadi was organized in 1229 with sixty members elected by the Major Council[4]. During this period the Doge had little real power left, and actual authority was exercised by the Great Council, an extremely limited parliament-like body in which only members of the great aristocratic families of the republic were allowed to participate. Venice claimed that its government was a ‘classical republic’ because it was a fusion of the three basic forms present in a mixed government: with the regal power in the Doge, the aristocratic in the senate, and the democratic in the Great Council[5].

In 1335, a "Council of Ten" was established and became so powerful and secretive that by circa 1600 its powers had to be delimited[6]. Its powers varied over time, from subordinance to the Great Council to dominance over it.

A law of 1539 instituted the State Inquisitors, later known as the Supreme Tribunal. There were three Inquisitors, one known popularly as Il Rosso, "the red one", who was chosen from the Dogal Councillors, who wore scarlet robes, and two from the Council of Ten, known as I negri, "the black ones". They began as a security body at the difficult time when Venice felt herself encircled by the Habsburgs and gradually assumed some of the powers of the Council of Ten. By means of espionage, counterespionage and internal surveillance, they made use of a network of informers and "confidants".

In 1556, the provveditori ai beni inculti were also created for the improvement of agriculture by increasing the area under cultivation and encouraging private investment in agricultural improvement. The consistent rise in the price of grain during the 16th century encouraged the transfer of capital from trade to the land.


  1. ^ Phillips, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople, intro., xiii)
  2. ^ How To Reboot Reality — Chapter 2, Labor
  3. ^ Welcome to Encyclopædia Britannica's Guide to History
  4. ^ see entry "Venice", Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967. Vol. XIV, p. 602.
  5. ^ The Political Ideas of St. Thomas Aquinas, Dino Bigongiari ed., Hafner Publishing Company, NY, 1953. p. xxx in footnote.
  6. ^ Machiavelli also refers to Venice as a republic. Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. & ed. by Robert M. Adams, W.W. Norton & Co., NY, 1992. Machiavelli Balanced Government


  • Patricia Fortini Brown. Private Lives in Renaissance Venice: art, architecture, and the family (2004)
  • Chambers, D.S. (1970). The Imperial Age of Venice, 1380–1580. London: Thames & Hudson. The best brief introduction in English, still completely reliable.
  • Garrett, Martin, "Venice: a Cultural History" (2006). Revised edition of "Venice: a Cultural and Literary Companion" (2001).
  • Grubb, James S. (1986). "When Myths Lose Power: Four Decades of Venetian Historiography." Journal of Modern History 58, pp. 43–94 — the classic "muckraking" essay on the myths of Venice.
  • Deborah Howard and Sarah Quill. The Architectural History of Venice (2004)
  • John Rigby Hale. Renaissance Venice (1974), ISBN 0571104290
  • Lane, Frederic Chapin. Venice: Maritime Republic (1973) — a standard scholarly history with an emphasis on economic, political and diplomatic history; ISBN 0801814456
  • Laven, Mary, "Virgins of Venice: Enclosed Lives and Broken Vows in the Renaissance Convent (2002). The most important study of the life of Renaissance nuns, with much on aristocratic family networks and the life of women more generally.
  • Mallett, M. E. and Hale, J. R. The Military Organisation of a Renaissance State, Venice c. 1400 to 1617 (1984), ISBN 0521032474
  • Martin, John Jeffries and Dennis Romano (eds). Venice Reconsidered. The History and Civilization of an Italian City-State, 1297–1797. (2002) Johns Hopkins UP — The most recent collection on essays, many by prominent scholars, on Venice.
    • Drechsler, Wolfgang (2002). "Venice Misappropriated." Trames 6(2), pp. 192–201 — A scathing review of Martin & Romano 2000; also a good summary on the most recent economic and political thought on Venice. For more balanced, less tendentious, and scholarly reviews of the Martin–Romano anthology, see The Historical Journal (2003) and Rivista Storica Italiana (2003).
  • Muir, Edward (1981). Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice. Princeton UP — The classic of Venetian cultural studies, highly sophisticated.
  • David Rosand. Myths of Venice: The Figuration of a State (2001) — how writers (especially English) have understood Venice and its art
  • Manfredo Tafuri. Venice and the Renaissance (1995) — architecture

Primary sources

  • Contarini, Gasparo (1599). The Commonwealth and Gouernment of Venice. Lewes Lewkenor, trsl. London: "Imprinted by I. Windet for E. Mattes." — The most important contemporary account of Venice's governance during the time of its blossoming; numerous reprint editions.


  • Benvenuti, Gino (1989). Le repubbliche marinare. Rome: Newton Compton.
  • Norwich, John Julius (1982). A History of Venice. New York City: Alfred A. Knopf.

See also

Warning: Default sort key "Republic of Venice" overrides earlier default sort key "Venice, Republic of".