The Republic of Venice (Italian: Repubblica di Venezia, later: Repubblica Veneta; Venetian: Repùblica de Venèsia, later: Repùblica Vèneta), traditionally known as La Serenissima (Most Serene Republic of Venice) (Italian: Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia; Venetian: Serenìsima Repùblica Vèneta), was a sovereign state and maritime republic in northeastern Italy, which existed for a millennium between the 8th century and the 18th century. It was based in the lagoon communities of the historically prosperous city of Venice, and was a leading European economic and trading power during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
The Venetian city state was founded as a safe haven for the people escaping persecution in mainland Europe after the decline of the Roman Empire. In its early years, it prospered on the salt trade. In subsequent centuries, the city state established a thalassocracy. It dominated trade on the Mediterranean Sea, including commerce between Europe and North Africa, as well as Asia. The Venetian navy was used in the Crusades, most notably in the Fourth Crusade. Venice achieved territorial conquests along the Adriatic Sea. The city became home to an extremely wealthy merchant class, who patronized renowned art and architecture along the city's lagoons. Venetian merchants were influential financiers in Europe. The city was also the birthplace of great European explorers, especially Marco Polo, as well as Baroque composers such as Vivaldi and Benedetto Marcello.
The republic was ruled by the Doge, who was elected by members of the Great Council of Venice, the city-state's parliament. The ruling class was an oligarchy of merchants and aristocrats. Venice and other Italian maritime republics played a key role in fostering capitalism. Venetian citizens generally supported the system of governance. The city-state enforced strict laws and employed ruthless tactics in its prisons.
The opening of new trade routes to the Americas and the East Indies via the Atlantic Ocean marked the beginning of Venice's decline as a powerful maritime republic. The city state suffered defeats from the navy of the Ottoman Empire. In 1797, the republic was plundered by retreating Austrian and then French forces, following an invasion by Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Republic of Venice was split into the Austrian Venetian Province, the Cisalpine Republic, a French client state, and the Ionian French departments of Greece. Venice then became a part of a unified Italy in the 19th century.
It was formally known as the Most Serene Republic of Venice (Italian: Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia, Venetian: Serenìsima Repùblica Vèneta, or Venetian: Repùblica de Venesia) and is often referred to as La Serenissima, in reference to its title as one of the "Most Serene Republics".
The winged Lion of St. Mark, which had appeared on the Republic's flag and coat of arms, is still featured in the red-yellow flag of the city of Venice (which has six tails, one for each sestier of the city), in the coat of arms of the city and in the yellow-red-blue flag of Veneto (which has seven tails representing the seven provinces of the region).
During the 5th century, North East Italy was devastated by the barbaric invasions. A large number of the inhabitants moved to the coastal lagoons, looking for a safer place. Here they established a collection of lagoon communities, stretching over about 130 km from Chioggia in the south to Grado in the north, who banded together for mutual defence from the Lombards, Huns, and other invading peoples as the power of the Western Roman Empire dwindled in northern Italy.
These communities were subjected to the authority of the Byzantine Empire.
At some point in the first decades of the eighth century, the people of the Byzantine province of Venice elected their first leader Ursus (or Orso Ipato), who was confirmed by Constantinople and given the titles of hypatus and dux. He was the first historical Doge of Venice. Tradition, however, first attested in the early 11th century, states 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. Whichever 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 politics of the Frankish Empire began to change the factional divisions within 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.
The successors of Obelerio inherited a united Venice. By the Pax Nicephori (803-814), the two emperors had recognised that Venice belonged to the Byzantine sphere of influence. Many centuries later, the Venetians claimed that the treaty had recognised Venetian de facto independence, but the truth of this claim is doubted by modern scholars. A Byzantine fleet sailed to Venice in 807 and deposed the Doge, replacing him with a Byzantine governor. Nevertheless, during the reign of the Participazio family, Venice grew into its modern form. Though Heraclean by birth, Agnello, the first Participazio doge, 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 stole the remains of Saint Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria, took them to Venice, and made him the republic's patron saint.
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 Narentine and Saracen pirates. Tradonico's reign was long and successful (837–64), but he was succeeded by the Participazio and a dynasty appeared to have been finally established. Around 841, the Republic of Venice sent a fleet of 60 galleys (each carrying 200 men) to assist the Byzantines in driving the Arabs from Crotone, but it failed. In 1000, Pietro II Orseolo sent a fleet of 6 ships to defeat the Narentine pirates from Dalmatia.
In the High Middle Ages, Venice became extremely wealthy through its control of trade between Europe and the Levant, and it began to expand into the Adriatic Sea and beyond. In 1084, Domenico Selvo personally led a fleet against the Normans, but he was defeated and lost nine great galleys, the largest and most heavily armed ships in the Venetian war fleet. Venice was involved in the Crusades almost from the very beginning. Two hundred Venetian ships assisted in capturing the coastal cities of Syria after the First Crusade. In 1110, Ordelafo Faliero personally commanded a Venetian fleet of 100 ships to assist Baldwin I of Jerusalem and Sigurd I Magnusson, king of Norway in capturing the city of Sidon (in present-day Lebanon). In 1123, they were granted virtual autonomy in the Kingdom of Jerusalem through the Pactum Warmundi.
The Venetians also gained extensive trading privileges in the Byzantine Empire during the 12th century, and their ships often provided the Empire with a navy. In 1182, a vicious anti-Western riot broke out in Constantinople targeting Latins, and Venetians in particular. Many in the Empire had become jealous of Venetian power and influence, thus when the pretender Andronikos I Komnenos marched on the city, Venetian property was seized and the owners imprisoned or banished, an act which humiliated and angered the republic. In 1183, the city of Zara (Croatian: Zadar) successfully rebelled against Venetian rule. The city then put itself under the dual protection of the papacy and Emeric, King of Hungary. The Dalmatians separated from Hungary by a treaty in 1199, and they paid Hungary with a portion of Macedonia. In 1201, the city of Zara recognized Emeric as overlord.
The leaders of the Fourth Crusade (1202–04) contracted with Venice to provide a fleet for transportation to the Levant. When the crusaders were unable to pay for the ships, Doge Enrico Dandolo offered transport if the crusaders were to capture Zara, a city that had rebelled years ago and was a concurrent to Venice. Upon the capture of Zara, the crusade was again diverted, this time to Constantinople. The capture and sacking of Constantinople has been described as one of the most profitable and disgraceful sacks of a city in history. The Venetians claimed much of the plunder, including the famous four bronze horses that were brought back to adorn St Mark's Basilica. Furthermore, in the subsequent partition of the Byzantine lands, Venice gained a great deal of territory in the Aegean Sea, theoretically amounting to three-eighths of the Byzantine Empire. It also acquired the islands of Crete (Candia) and Euboea (Negroponte); the present core city of Chania on Crete is largely of Venetian construction, built atop the ruins of the ancient city of Cydonia. The Aegean islands came to form the Venetian Duchy of the Archipelago. The Byzantine Empire was re-established in 1261 by Michael VIII Palaiologos, but never again recovered its previous power, and was eventually conquered by the Ottoman Turks.
In 1295, Pietro Gradenigo sent a fleet of 68 ships to attack a Genoese fleet at Alexandretta, then another fleet of 100 ships was sent to attack the Genoese in 1299. From 1350 to 1381, Venice fought an 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.
In 1363, the revolt of Saint Titus against Venetian rule broke out in the overseas colony of Candia (Crete). It was a joint effort of Venetian colonists and Cretan nobles who attempted to create an independent state. Venice sent a multinational mercenary army which soon regained control of the major cities. However, Venice was not able to fully reconquer Crete until 1368.
Venice expanded as well along the Dalmatian coast from Istria to Albania, which was acquired from King Ladislaus of Naples during the civil war in Hungary. Ladislaus 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 the reduced sum of 100,000 ducats.
Venice exploited the situation and quickly installed nobility to govern the area, for example, Count Filippo Stipanov in Zara. This move by the Venetians was a response to the threatening expansion of Giangaleazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan. Control over the northeast main land routes was also a necessity for the safety of the trades. By 1410, Venice had a navy of 3,300 ships (manned by 36,000 men) and taken over most of what is now the Veneto, including the cities of Verona (which swore its loyalty in the Devotion of Verona to Venice in 1405) 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 in 1420, Venice immediately invaded the Patriarchate of Aquileia, and subjected Traù, Spalato, Durazzo, and other Dalmatian cities. In Lombardy, Venice acquired Brescia in 1426, Bergamo in 1428, and Cremona in 1499.
In 1481, Venice retook nearby Rovigo, which it had held previously from 1395-1438; in February 1489, the island of Cyprus, previously a crusader state (the Kingdom of Cyprus), was added to Venice's holdings.
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, the Ionian, and the Adriatic Seas. The wars with Venice resumed in 1463 until a favorable peace treaty was signed in 1479 just after the troublesome siege of Shkodra. In 1480 (now no longer hampered by the Venetian fleet), the Ottomans besieged Rhodes and briefly captured Otranto. By 1490, the population of Venice had risen to about 180,000 people.
War with the Ottomans 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, Durazzo, Modon, and Coron.
Venice's attention was diverted from its 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 divided into a series of small lordships which were difficult for Rome's troops to control. 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 one some of another's 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 in Venetian history. French and imperial troops were occupying Veneto, but Venice managed to extricate itself 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 its mainland dominions west to the Adda River. 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. By 1563, the population of Venice had dropped to about 168,000 people.
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 2 July 1570, and laid siege to Nicosia. In an orgy of victory on the day that the city fell – 9 September 1570 – 20,000 Nicosians were put to death, and every church, public building, and palace was looted. 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 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 the Battle of Lepanto. Despite victory at sea over the Turks, Cyprus remained under Ottoman rule for the next three centuries. By 1575, the population of Venice was about 175,000 people, but partly as a result of the plague of 1575–76 dropped to 124,000 people by 1581.
In 1606, a conflict between Venice and the Holy See began with the arrest of two clerics accused 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 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.
The latter half of the 17th century also had prolonged wars with the Ottoman Empire; in the Cretan War (1645–1669), after a heroic siege that lasted 24 years, Venice lost its major overseas possession, the island of Crete, while it made some advances in Dalmatia. In 1684, however, taking advantage of the Ottoman involvement against Austria in the Great Turkish War, the republic initiated the Morean War, which lasted until 1699 and in which it was able to conquer the Morea peninsula in southern Greece.
These gains did not last, however; in December 1714, the Turks began the last Turkish–Venetian War, when 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 in the Battle of Petrovaradin on 5 August 1716. Venetian naval efforts in the Aegean Sea 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 its small gains in Albania and Dalmatia were little compensation. This was the last war with the Ottoman Empire. By the year 1792, the once-great Venetian merchant fleet had declined to a mere 309 merchantmen.
Although Venice declined as a seaborne empire, it remained in possession of its continental domain north of the Po Valley, extending west almost to Milan. Many of its cities benefited greatly from the Pax Venetiae (Venetian peace) throughout the 18th century.
By 1796, the Republic of Venice could no longer defend itself since its war fleet numbered only four galleys and seven galliots. In spring 1796, Piedmont fell and the Austrians were beaten from Montenotte to Lodi. The army under Bonaparte 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 in the Balkans as the price of peace (18 April 1797), while France required the Lombard part of the State.
After Napoleon's ultimatum, Doge Ludovico Manin surrendered unconditionally on 12 May, and abdicated himself, while the Major Council declared the end of the republic. According to Bonaparte's orders, the public powers passed to a provisional municipality under the French military governor. On 17 October, France and Austria signed the Treaty of Campo Formio, agreeing the sharing of all the territory of the ancient republic, with a new border just west of the Adige River. Italian democrats, especially young poet Ugo Foscolo, viewed the treaty as a betrayal. The metropolitan part of the disbanded republic became an Austrian territory, under the name of Venetian Province (Provincia Veneta in Italian, Provinz Venedig in German).
Though the economic vitality of the Venetian Republic had started to decline since the 16th century due to the movement of international trade towards the Atlantic, its political regime still appeared in the 18th century as a model for the philosophers of the enlightenment.
Relief of the Venetian Lion in Parenzo (Poreč)
Relief of the Venetian Lion in Cattaro (Kotor)
Relief of the Venetian Lion on Candia (Crete)
Relief of the Venetian Lion on Corfu
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was hired in July 1743 as Secretary by comte de Montaigu, who had been named Ambassador of the French in Venice. This short experience, nevertheless, awakened the interest of Rousseau to the policy, which led him to design a large book of political philosophy project. After the Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men (1755), he published The Social Contract (1762).
In the early years of the republic, the Doge of Venice ruled Venice in an autocratic fashion, but later his powers were limited by the promissione ducale, a pledge he had to take when elected. As a result, powers were shared with the Maggior Consiglio or Great Council, composed of 480 members taken from patrician families, so that in the words of Marin Sanudo, "[The Doge] could do nothing without the Great Council and the Great Council could do nothing without him".
Venice followed a mixed government model, combining monarchy in the doge, aristocracy in the senate, and a "democracy" of Rialto families in the major council. Machiavelli considered it "excellent among modern republics" (unlike his native Florence).
In the 12th century, the aristocratic families of Rialto further diminished the doge's powers by establishing the Minor Council (1175), composed of the six ducal councillors, and the Council of Forty or Quarantia (1179) as a supreme tribunal. In 1223, these institutions were combined into the Signoria, which consisted of the doge, the Minor Council, and the three leaders of the Quarantia. The Signoria was the central body of government, representing the continuity of the republic as shown in the expression: "si è morto il Doge, no la Signoria" ("If the Doge is dead, the Signoria is not"). During the late 14th and early 15th centuries, the Signoria was supplemented by a number of boards of savii ("wise men"): the six savii del consiglio, who formulated and executed government policy; the five savii di terraferma, responsible for military affairs and the defence of the Terraferma; five the savii ai ordini, responsible for the navy, commerce, and the overseas territories. Together, the Signoria and the savii formed the Full College (Pien Collegio), the de facto executive body of the Republic.
In 1229, the Consiglio dei Pregadi or Senate, was formed, being 60 members elected by the major council. These developments left the doge with little personal power and put actual authority in the hands of the Great Council.
In 1310, a Council of Ten was established, becoming the central political body whose members operated in secret. Around 1600, its dominance over the major council was considered a threat and efforts were made in the council and elsewhere to reduce its powers, with limited success.
In 1454, the Supreme Tribunal of the three state inquisitors was established to guard the security of the republic. By means of espionage, counterespionage, internal surveillance, and a network of informers, they ensured that Venice did not come under the rule of a single "signore", as many other Italian cities did at the time. One of the inquisitors – popularly known as Il Rosso ("the red one") because of his scarlet robe – was chosen from the Doge's councillors, two – popularly known as I negri ("the black ones") because of their black robes – were chosen from the Council of Ten. The Supreme Tribunal gradually assumed some of the powers of the Council of Ten.
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.
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