Even her enemies admired her government, and sent agents to study its structure and functioning. Its military organs were the most efficient navy and army in Italy. Besides her merchant fleet, which in need could be converted to men-of-war, Venice had in 1423 a navy of forty-three galleys and 300 auxiliary vessels.7 These were used even in wars with land powers in Italy; in 1439 they were dragged overland on rollers across mountains and valleys to be launched on the Lago di Garda, where they bombarded the possessions of Milan.8 While other Italian states still waged their wars with mercenaries, Venice built her army around a militia of her own loyal population, well seasoned and trained, and armed with the latest muskets and artillery. For generals, however, she relied on condottieri schooled in the Renaissance style of campaign by strategy. In her wars with Milan Venice developed the talents of three famous condottieri: Francesco Carmagnola, Erasmo da Narni “Gattamelata,” and Bartolommeo Colleoni; the last two distinguished by historic statues, the other by having his head cut off, in the Venetian Piazzetta, on a charge of privately negotiating with the enemy.
This government, which even Florentines sought to emulate, was a closed oligarchy of old families so long enriched by commerce that only the initiate could smell the money in their nobility. These families had managed to restrict membership in the Maggior Consiglio to male descendants of persons who had sat in this Great Council before 1297. In 1315 the names of all eligibles were inscribed in a Libro d’oro, or Book of Gold. Out of its 480 members the Council named sixty—later 120—Pregadi (“invited men”) to serve in yearly terms as a legislative Senate; it appointed the heads of the numerous governmental departments, who together constituted an administrative Collegio; and it selected as chief executive—always subject to the Council—a doge or leader who presided over it and the Senate, and held office for life unless the Council cared to depose him. The doge was aided by six privy councilors, who with him composed the Signoria. This Signory and the Senate were in practice the real government of Venice; the Great Council proved too large for effective action, and became a body of electors exercising appointive and supervisory powers. It was an efficient constitution, which normally maintained the people in a reasonable degree of prosperity; and it was capable of long-term and well calculated policies that might have been impossible in a government subject to the fluctuations of public emotion or sentiment. The great majority of the population, though excluded from office, showed no active resentment against the ruling minority. In 1310 a group of excluded nobles under Bajamante Tiepolo rose in revolt; and in 1355 Doge Marino Faliero conspired to make himself dictator. Both attempts were easily suppressed.
To guard against internal or external conspiracies, the Maggior Consiglio yearly chose from its membership a Council of Ten as a committee of public safety. Through its secret sessions and trials, its spies and swift procedure, this Consiglio di Died became for a time the most powerful body in the government. Ambassadors often reported to it secretly, and held its instructions more binding than those of the Senate; and any edict of the Ten had the full force of law. Two or three of its members were delegated, each month, asInquisitori di stato, to search among the people and the officials for any suspicion of malfeasance or treason. Many legends arose around this Council of Ten, usually exaggerating its secrecy and severity. It published its decisions and sentences to the Great Council;though it allowed secret denunciations to be placed in the mouths of lions’ heads scattered about the city, it refused to consider any unsigned charges, or any that did not offer two witnesses;9 and even then a four-fifths vote was required before the accusation could be put on the agenda.10 Any person arrested had the right to choose two counsel for his defense before the Ten.11 A condemnatory sentence had to receive a majority vote on five successive ballots. The number of persons imprisoned by the Ten was “very small.”12However, it was not above arranging the assassination of spies, and of enemies of Venice in foreign states.13 In 1582 the Senate, feeling that the Council had served its purpose and had often exceeded its authority, reduced its powers; and from that date the Council of Ten existed only in name.
The forty judges appointed by the Great Council provided an efficient and severe judiciary. The laws were clearly formulated, and were strictly enforced against nobles and commoners alike. Penalties reflected the cruelty of the times. Imprisonment was often in narrow cells admitting a minimum of light and air. Flogging, branding, mutilation, blinding, cutting out the tongue, breaking limbs on the wheel, and other delicacies were included among legal punishments. Persons condemned to death could be strangled in jail, or secretly drowned, or hanged from a window of the Doges’ Palace, or burned at the stake. Persons guilty of atrocious crimes or sacrilegious theft were tortured with red-hot pincers, dragged along the streets by a horse, and then beheaded and quartered.14 As if to compensate for this ferocity, Venice opened her doors to political and intellectual refugees, and dared to shelter Elisabetta Gonzaga and her Guidobaldo against the terrible Borgia, when her sister-in-law Isabella had been frightened into letting her depart from her native Mantua.
The administrative organization was probably the best in Europe in the fifteenth century, though corruption found openings here as in every government. A bureau of public sanitation was established in 1385; measures were taken to provide clean drinking water and to prevent the formation of swamps. Another bureau fixed the maximum prices that might be charged for food. A postal and courier service was set up not only for the government but also for private correspondence and parcel transportation.15 Retired public servants were pensioned, and provision was made for their widows and orphans.16 The administration of dependent territories on the Italian mainland was relatively so just and competent that these districts prospered better under Venetian rule than ever before, and readily returned to Venetian allegiance after being detached from it by the chances of war.17 Venetian administration of overseas dependencies was not so laudable; they were used chiefly as prizes of war, much of their soil was awarded to Venetian noblemen and generals, and the native population, while retaining their local institutions of government, seldom reached the higher offices. In her relations with other states Venice was especially well served by her diplomats. Few governments possessed such acute observers and intelligent negotiators as Bernardo Giustiniani. Guided by the informed reports of her ambassadors, the careful statistical records of her bureaucracy, and the astute statesmanship of her senators, Venice repeatedly won in diplomacy what she had lost in war.18
Morally this government was no better than the others of the time, in penal legislation worse. It made and broke alliances according to fluctuations of advantage, allowing no scruple, no sentiment of fidelity, to hamper policy: such was the code of all Renaissance powers. The citizens readily accepted this code; they approved every Venetian victory, however won; they gloried in the strength and stability of their state, and offered it, in its need, a patriotism and fullness of service unmatched among their contemporaries. They honored the doge only next to God.
The doge was usually the agent, quite exceptionally the master, of the Council and the Senate; his splendor far outshone his power. In his public appearances he was clothed in magnificent raiment and was heavy with gems; his official bonnet alone contained jewels to the value of 194,000 ducats ($4,850,000?).19 Venetian painters may have learned from his garb the gorgeous colors that flowed from their brushes; and some of their most brilliant portraits are of doges in official robes. Venice believed in ceremony and display, partly to impress ambassadors and visitors, partly to awe the population, partly to give it pageantry in place of power. Even the dogaressa received a sumptuous coronation. The doge received foreign dignitaries, and signed all important documents of state; his influence was pervasive and continuous through his lifelong tenure amid persons elected for a year; in theory, however, he was merely the servant and spokesman of the government.
A long and colorful succession of doges marches through Venetian history, but only a few impressed their personalities upon the character or fortunes of the state. Despite the dying eloquence of Tommaso Mocenigo, the Great Council chose the expansionist Francesco Foscari to succeed him. Coming to the throne at the age of fifty, the new Doge, in a reign of thirty-four years (1423–57), carried Venice through blood and turmoil to the zenith of her power. Milan was defeated, Bergamo, Brescia, Cremona, Crema were won. But the growing autocracy of the victorious Doge aroused the jealousy of the Ten. They charged him with having won his election by bribery; and unable to prove this they accused his son Iacopo of treasonable communication with Milan (1445). Under the agony of the wheel Iacopo admitted or pretended his guilt. He was exiled to Rumania, but was soon permitted to live near Treviso. In 1450 one of the Inquisitors of the Ten was assassinated; Iacopo was credited with the crime; he denied it even under extreme torture; he was exiled to Crete, where he went mad with loneliness and grief. In 1456 he was brought back to Venice, charged again with secret correspondence with the government of Milan; he admitted it, was tortured to the verge of death, and was returned to Crete, where he died soon afterward. The old Doge, who had borne the perils and responsibilities of a long and unpopular war with stoic fortitude, broke down before these trials, which not all his dignity could prevent. At eighty-six he became incapable of carrying the burdens of his office; he was deposed by the Great Council with a life annuity of 2000 ducats. He retired to his home, and there, a few days later, he died of a burst blood vessel as the bells of the campanile announced the accession of a new doge.
Foscari’s victories had earned Venice the hatred of all the Italian states; none could any longer feel secure in the nearness of her grasping power. A dozen combinations were formed against her; finally (1508) Ferrara, Mantua, Julius II, Ferdinand of Spain, Louis XII of France, and the Emperor Maximilian joined in the League of Cambrai to destroy her. Leonardo Loredano (1501–21) was Doge in that crisis; he led the people through it with an incredible tenacity only partly revealed in the handsome portrait of him by Giovanni Bellini. Nearly all that Venice had won on the mainland by a century of forceful expansion was taken from her; Venice herself was surrounded. Loredano minted his plate; the aristocracy brought forth its hidden wealth to finance resistance; the armorers forged a hundred thousand weapons; and every man armed himself to fight for island after island in what seemed to be a hopeless cause. Miraculously, Venice saved herself, and recovered part of her mainland realm. But the effort exhausted her finances and her spirit; and when Loredano died—though fifty-seven years of Titian, and most of Tintoretto and Veronese, were still to come—Venice knew that in wealth and power her zenith and glory had passed.