- City of northeastern Italy, center of a substantial territorial state during the Renaissance period, an active participant in Italian political and military affairs, and one of only two major Italian city-states to retain its republican political forms into the later Renaissance. Venice was founded during the sixth and seventh centuries when refugees fleeing the invasion of Italy by the Germanic Lombards took refuge on a small cluster of islands just off the Adriatic coast. By the year 1000 these small communities had coalesced into a municipality ruled by an elected duke (doge in the Venetian dialect) and several councils representing the merchant community. The city became rich from foreign trade, especially in luxury commodities (spices and cot-ton and silk cloth, among others) obtained through trade with the Mus-lim world and the Byzantine Empire. Early Venice had close contacts with Constantinople and regarded itself as in many respects a Byzan-tine rather than a western European community.The city profited from the crusades by providing shipping and naval support to the crusaders, in return for which it acquired a share in the loot and (more important) commercial privileges in the Byzan-tine Empire and in the crusading states of the Levantine coast. Dur-ing the 14th century, Venice contended with the rival commercial city of Genoa in a series of wars, mostly fought at sea. The War of the Chioggia (1379-1380) ended in a definitive victory for Venice, which from that time was the dominant commercial power in the eastern Mediterranean and acquired a number of island colonies (es-pecially Crete). Although Venice had profited from its long relationship with the Byzantines, the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 was not a total loss. Venice retained control of many of its island colonies and developed an active commerce with the new Turkish rulers. In the 16th century, as the Turks became an increas-ing naval threat, Venice contributed significantly to the Christian fleet that defeated the Turks at Lepanto in 1571. Venice remained a significant maritime power into the 17th century but gradually lost status as Mediterranean commerce declined in importance.During its early history, Venice was exclusively a sea power and neither had nor desired territory in mainland Italy. Toward the end of their struggle with Genoa, however, the Venetians joined alliances against Giangaleazzo Visconti, the ambitious duke of Milan, whose expansion into northeastern Italy threatened to disrupt the city's food supply and trade links through the eastern Alpine passes to northern Europe. Venice took advantage of the temporary collapse of the Mi-lanese state after the death of Duke Giangaleazzo (1402) to acquire a large mainland territory and by 1422 had brought Verona, Vicenza, Padua, and Belluno under Venetian rule. These territorial acquisi-tions changed the relationship of Venice to the rest of Italy. Before 1402, Venice studiously avoided involvement in Italian political con-flicts. But with a mainland empire to defend, the republic could no longer function solely as a sea power tending to its business in the eastern Mediterranean.The revival of Milanese territorial expansion after 1425 forced Venice to fight on land in order to maintain its food supplies and ac-cess to its markets in northern Europe. Although the Venetians were unable to prevent the accession of Francesco Sforza to the Milanese throne and only reluctantly approved the peace treaty of 1454 that recognized his title, the settlement left Venice secure in its mainland territories, a situation that prevailed until the French invasion of Italy in 1494. In the ensuing chaos of wars, alliances, and betrayals that left the rival kings of France and Spain in contention for control of Italy, Venice was often gravely threatened, especially during the War of the League of Cambrai (1509-1517), which was essentially a plot by the pope, the emperor, Spain, France, and several Italian powers to attack and loot the Venetian mainland state. When political condi-tions stabilized between 1530 and 1559, Venice was the only Italian state to avoid control by the ultimately victorious foreign power, Spain. Although the city's relative power gradually grew less, it sur-vived as an independent republic until conquered by Napoleon Bona-parte in 1797.The success of Venice in preserving its independence and main-taining control of most of its mainland territories was due partly to its isolated geographical location offshore. But the main reason for its survival was that its republican political system provided a remark-ably stable and competent government that played the game of inter-national politics with great skill. The other major Italian republic, Florence, had an unstable and frequently violent political history and ended up as a duchy ruled by the Medici family. The very different republican constitution of Venice provided considerably less political freedom but gave the city an orderly administration that endured. The city began with a government consisting of the doge, who was popu-larly elected for life, and a number of councils dominated by the wealthy merchants. In 1297 the leading families of the mercantile aristocracy, originally numbering some 200 families, declared the permanent closure of the Great Council, the largest of the city's con-ciliar bodies. This assembly of some 240 members had already usurped the right to elect the doge. The closure of the Great Council meant that henceforth all executive and judicial offices and all pow-ers of legislation were in the hands of a legally defined noble class. Non-noble citizens (that is, members of families not represented on the Great Council) could never hold any civic office with real politi-cal power, though they could receive administrative appointments and serve as salaried employees. A handful of additional families were added to the nobility in the 14th century, but after 1380, the membership was permanently sealed.Since the Great Council was too large to formulate policy, a Senate of 60 members did most of the real work of government, making the Grand Council mostly a pool of men eligible for high office. The Sen-ate appointed ambassadors, conducted and determined foreign policy, chose the important magistrates, and appointed governors for the is-land colonies and the subject cities on the mainland. A particularly no-torious part of the constitution was the Council of Ten, created in 1310 after a faction of aristocrats had plotted a revolution. This coun-cil, appointed by the Senate, maintained internal security. Although careful rotation of its membership kept any individual member from being powerful, as a group this council had great power. It could ar-rest, interrogate secretly, torture, or do anything else it judged neces-sary to ferret out plots. It was always alert to make sure that the doge was not plotting with outside forces to introduce foreign troops and seize power for himself, and in 1355 it arrested and executed a sitting doge who had conspired to do just that. This was an incredibly com-plex political system, but it functioned with remarkable efficiency. Despite occasional personal misdeeds and peculations, the Venetian nobility maintained a high standard of dedication to public service.Venice had a large ecclesiastical establishment and was deeply ob-servant of the external forms of religion, an observance reflected in the prominent role of the clergy in the many processions and cere-monies that embellished public life. The city treasured the supposed relics of St. Mark, acquired from Egypt at great cost in the ninth cen-tury. It had many elegant and costly churches (137 in 1493) and a large population of priests, monks, and nuns. Wealthy men and women left large sums to churches, monasteries, and hospitals, and Venetians of every rank participated in the scuole or fraternal organizations that fi-nanced poor relief, care of orphans, assistance to the sick, and other social services. Yet even while it was enthusiastically pious and strictly orthodox, the city was in many ways very secular and ratio-nalistic in its management of religion. Members of the clergy were to-tally excluded from eligibility for all political offices and from the de-liberations of the Senate and Great Council. The city appointed all bishops in its territories. Although Venice remained solidly Catholic during the Reformation, both individual heretics and heretical books and ideas were common. The local government exercised its own cen-sorship of the press but refused to allow the papacy or any other ex-ternal agency to exercise any control that might endanger the prof-itability of the local press, which had made Venice the greatest publishing center of Renaissance Europe. The city had its own inqui-sition, appointed and controlled by its own secular government.After the Roman Inquisition was created, the city insisted on hav-ing its own observers present whenever papal inquisitors held a trial of a Venetian citizen. While it expected its own citizens to be loyal Catholics, it did not trouble the many foreign Protestants (especially Germans) who came there to do business or to study at its great uni-versity in Padua. Neither did it tolerate any open proselytizing by foreign heretics among its own citizens. Although direct confronta-tion with the papacy on ecclesiastical matters (as distinct from purely territorial and political issues) was difficult for any Catholic state of the Renaissance, Venice lived through a period of papal interdict dur-ing the War of the League of Cognac after 1509 and a far more diffi-cult period of interdict in 1606, when the city government required the clergy to administer the sacraments of the church in defiance of the papal interdict.Even in the Renaissance period itself, Venice was widely hailed as the most beautiful city in the world because of its location on many small islands and the use of bridges and boats rather than streets and wheeled vehicles for most local traffic. The principal church, the basilica of St. Mark, was a medieval structure (11th century) showing strong Byzantine influence. The Doge's Palace, the central loca-tion of government, was built in the 14th century and has many Gothic elements. Venetian art remained very traditional, but a dis-tinctive Venetian Renaissance style of painting emerged in the work of the Bellini family. The Venetian style became influential beyond the Veneto region through the work of Giovanni Bellini's short-lived pupil Giorgione and Gentile Bellini's extremely long-lived pupil Tit-ian, who is generally acknowleged as the city's greatest painter and worked not only in Venice but also for leading Italian and foreign rulers. His successors were the realist painter Veronese and the man-nerist Tintoretto, both of whom were highly regarded.Venice was also traditional in educational and literary culture and adopted the new Renaissance humanism rather slowly. Florentine humanism dominated the 15th century, though Venice, with its long tradition of contact with the eastern Mediterranean, was a principal point of contact for the entry of Greek language and literature into the West. The transplanted Byzantine bishop and scholar Johannes Bessarion willed his rich library of Greek classical and patristic texts to the city of Venice, not to Florence or papal Rome. By the end of the 15th century, the Venetian humanist Ermolao Barbaro was one of the most highly regarded humanist scholars in Italy, attaining a rep-utation rivalled only by his Florentine contemporary Angelo Poliziano. From late in the 15th century, the city had several of the rare female literary figures of the Italian Renaissance, Cassandra Fedele being active from the 1480s, the courtesan-poets Gaspara Stampa and Veronica Franco in the earlier 16th century, and Lu-crezia Marinella toward the end of that century. The city had a rich society of academies and informal salons where both Latin and ver-nacular literatures were discussed. It had many private schools and tu-tors and maintained at public expense two excellent schools, the Latin grammar-school at San Marco and a more advanced school on the Ri-alto for lectures in philosophy. The intellectual life of the city was also influenced by the scholastic culture of the nearby University of Padua, which came under Venetian control in the early 15th century.Venice was the center of a rich musical culture in the 15th and 16th centuries, and the basilica of St. Mark was second only to the papal curia at Rome as a center of church music. The choir directors and or-ganists of St. Mark's included some of the greatest figures in early music, even though many of them in the earlier period came from the region of northern France and Flanders dominated musically by the court of the dukes of Burgundy. Figures like Adrien Willaert, Cipriano de Rore, Gioseffo Zarlino, Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, and Claudio Monteverdi were associated with St. Mark's for important parts of their careers, and Venice shared with several princely courts a central role in the development of Italian opera in the opening decades of the 17th century.
Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. Charles G. Nauert. 2004.