The Most Serene Republic of Venice was a city-state in Venetia in Northeastern Italy, based around the city of Venice. It existed from the 9th century until the 18th century (1797).
The city of Venice, previously a dependency of the Byzantine Empire, had established its independence of any eastern or western emperor as early as the ninth century. In the High Middle Ages, Venice became extremely wealthy through its control of trade to the Levant, and began to expand into the Adriatic Sea and beyond. The Venetian fleet was crucial to the sack of Constantinople by crusaders in the Fourth Crusade in 1204. As a result of the partition of the Byzantine Empire which followed, Venice gained a great deal of territory in the Aegean Sea, including the islands of Crete and Euboea. Later, in 1489, the island of Cyprus, previously a crusader state, was annexed to Venice.
In the early fifteenth century, the Venetians also began to expand in Italy, as a response to the threatening expansion of Giangaleazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan. By 1410, Venice had taken over most of Venetia, including such important cities as Verona and Padua. The Venetians also came into conflict with the Popes over control of the Romagna. This led in 1508 to the League of Cambrai against Venice, in which the Pope, the King of France, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the King of Aragon came together to despoil the republic. Although the French were victorious at Agnadello in 1509, the coalition soon fell out among themselves, and Venice found itself without serious territorial loss.
At the same time, however, the expansion of the Ottoman Turks in the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean proved threatening to the Venetians. In 1570, the Turks invaded Cyprus, which was conquered by 1571 despite the victory of the Holy League (including significant Venetian forces) at Lepanto later that year. The Venetians soon after made peace, confirming the loss of Cyprus. In the seventeenth century, Crete too was lost, after a long conflict.
By the eighteenth century, the Serene Republic was largely a shadow of its former glory, although it continued to rule over Venetia, the Adriatic littoral, and the Ionian Islands. In 1797 it was invaded by the French troops of General Napoleon Bonaparte, who partitioned the republic between France and the Austrians.
In the early years of the republic, the political system can be classified as an autocracy, with the Doge as the almost absolute ruler. In 1223, the aristocratic families of Rialto drastically diminished the powers of the Doge by the establishment of an advisory body that would later be called the Quarantia and a supreme tribunal which would later be called the Signoria. 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 1. 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 Council2.
In 1335, a 'Council of Ten ' was established and became so powerful and secretive that by circa 1600 its powers had to be delimited1. Its powers varied over time, from subordinance to the Great Council to dominance over it.
- see entry "Venice", Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967. Vol. XIV, p. 602.
- The Political Ideas of St. Thomas Aquinas, Dino Bigongiari ed., Hafner Publishing Company, NY, 1953. p. xxx in footnote.
- Machiavelli also refers to Venice as a republic. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. & ed. by Robert M. Adams, W.W. Norton & Co., NY, 1992. Machiaveli Balanced Government