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‘Doge Pietro Loredan Beseeching the Virgin’ (detail). Source: Public Domain

The Doges of Venice: Venetian Rulers for More than a Millennium


The Doge of Venice was the highest office in the Republic of Venice. This office existed for about a millennium, from the 8th century AD till the 18th century. The title of this office traces its origin back to the time when Venice was nominally subjected to the Byzantine Empire. Subsequently, when Venice became a sovereign state in its own right, the title was retained.

Whilst the doges of Venice held their office for life, it was not a hereditary title. Instead, these officials were elected. Although the doges enjoyed extensive temporal powers, these were curbed from around the 12th century onwards. In time, the Venetian doges came to occupy a primarily symbolic role, and served as a figurehead of the republic. This office ended in the 18th century when its last holder was deposed by Napoleon.

The Emergence of Doges in Venice

The title ‘doge’ is derived from the Latin ‘dux’, which translates as either ‘duke’ or ‘military leader’. When Venice was a nominal subject of the Byzantine Empire, this title was given to the leader of the city state. According to tradition, the first Doge of Venice was Paolo Lucio Anafesto, who obtained the office in 697 AD.

The story goes that at this point of time, the northeastern part of Italy was being harassed by the Lombards. Under the Byzantine system, the region was ruled by a tribune appointed annually by the imperial administration. Consequently, the region suffered from weak leadership, which made it difficult to defend against the Lombards. The situation got so bad that the Patriarch of Grado decided to call a conference in the nearby town of Ereclea, which was aimed at electing a ‘dux’ for life to provide leadership to the region.

Election of the Doge by the Forty-one’ by Gabriele Bella. (Didier Descouens/CC BY-SA 4.0)

‘Election of the Doge by the Forty-one’ by Gabriele Bella. (Didier Descouens/CC BY-SA 4.0)

The outcome of the conference was the election of Paolo Lucio Anafesto, a native of Ereclea, as the first Doge of Venice. Tradition states that Anafesto ruled for 20 years, until his death in 717 AD. It is unclear, however, as to the nature of the office at that time, as well as how much truth is contained in this tradition.

For instance, one question that has been asked is whether Anafesto was a truly independent leader, or if he was actually subjected to the Exarch of Ravenna, the top imperial official in northern Italy. Apart from that, some historians have cast doubt on the historicity of Anafesto, arguing that such an individual did not even exist.

The first Venetian doge to be attested to historically is Orso Ipato. Traditionally, Ipato is considered to be the third Doge of Venice. Ipato attained his office during the 8th century AD, when the Byzantine Empire was gripped by the Iconoclasm Controversy. This was a dispute over the use of religious images and icons, with the Byzantine emperor, Leo III the Isaurian, banning such veneration in 726 AD.

‘Procession of the True Cross’ in Venice by Gentile Bellini. (Public Domain)

‘Procession of the True Cross’ in Venice by Gentile Bellini. (Public Domain)

Back in Italy, this ban was opposed by Rome. The Venetians sided with Rome, and launched a revolt against the Byzantines. In 726 AD, Ipato was elected by his fellow Venetians as their doge. Ipato is considered as the first ‘true’ Doge of Venice as he was elected by the Venetians, and not by an external force.

Byzantine Rule Crumbles and the Venetian Military Strengthens

In any event, the Byzantines were losing their grip on northern Italy during the 8th century. The Byzantines were still able to fill the administration of Venice with some of their own men, thereby maintaining some control over the city state for a period of time. Nevertheless, by the middle of the 8th century AD, their control was weakening. Moreover, around the same time, Ravenna, the stronghold of the Byzantines in northern Italy, was captured by the Lombards, causing the crumbling of Byzantine rule in that area.

The Doge of Venice at the time when the Byzantines lost control of northern Italy was Deusdedit, Ipato’s son. Although Deusdedit was also elected to the office, this succession may be regarded as an attempt to turn the office into a hereditary one. It seems that such attempts were common during the first few centuries of Venice’s history. Ultimately, however, none of these attempts succeeded. In the case of Deusdedit, for instance, he was deposed by a rival, Galla Gaulo, who became the next doge.

In the centuries that followed, Venice developed its military, especially naval capabilities. More importantly, it grew extremely wealthy, as a result of the republic’s control of trade between Europe and the Levant. Consequently, the doges who ruled Venice during these centuries were powerful secular leaders, and brought the republic into these conflicts. Furthermore, some of these doges even personally commanded Venice’s fleets on military campaigns.

The Crusades were arguably the most notable military campaign of the Middle Ages, and the Venetians were involved in them from the very beginning. After the success of the First Crusade, for instance, the Venetians aided the capture of the coastal cities of Syria by contributing 200 ships. In 1100, when Baldwin I of Jerusalem was attempting to capture the city of Sidon, a Venetian fleet of 100 ships was led personally by the doge, Ordelafo Faliero.

Doge Ordelafo Faliero, from Pala d'Oro, of the Basilica di San Marco in Venice. (Sailko/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Doge Ordelafo Faliero, from Pala d'Oro, of the Basilica di San Marco in Venice. (Sailko/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Needless to say, the Venetians were handsomely rewarded by the Crusaders for their support. For instance, in 1123, the Pactum Warmundi was signed between the Republic of Venice and the Kingdom of Jerusalem. This pact granted the Venetians virtual autonomy in this Crusader state.

The Most Famous Doge of Venice and His Shocking Acts in the Fourth Crusade

The most notable crusade that the Venetians were involved in was the Fourth Crusade, which lasted from 1202 to 1204. Additionally, at this time the Venetians were led by Enrico Dandolo, arguably the most famous doge in Venice’s history. Dandolo was born around 1107 and was from a powerful and wealthy Venetian family. Dandolo’s family was one of the electoral families that claimed descent from the twelve tribunes who elected Anafesto as the first doge. Thanks to the influence of his family, Dandolo had no problem in obtaining a position in the Venetian government.

Doge Enrico Dandolo preaching the Crusade. (Public Domain)

Doge Enrico Dandolo preaching the Crusade. (Public Domain)

Prior to attaining the highest office in Venice, Dandolo’s service to the republic included diplomatic missions to foreign courts. In 1171, for instance, Dandolo accompanied the doge, Vitale II Michiel, on a trip to the Byzantine capital. In the following year, he made another trip to Constantinople, this time with the Byzantine ambassador.

Rumor has it that as Dandolo defended the interests of the Venetians so fiercely, the Byzantine emperor, Manuel I Comnenus, had him blinded. Geoffroi de Villehardouin, a chronicler who knew Dandolo personally, however, reports that the future doge’s poor vision was caused by a blow to the head. In 1174, Dandolo was the Venetian ambassador to Sicily, and in 1191, to Ferrara.

In 1192, Doge Orio Mastropiero retired to a monastery, and Dandolo was elected as his successor. He is believed to have been 84 years old when he took the office. Nevertheless, considering his accomplishments, Dandolo was considered an excellent choice as the next doge.

As doge, Dandolo negotiated treatises with various foreign powers. Back home, Dandolo reorganized the republic’s currency, published Venice’s first collection of civil statutes, and revised the penal code. Moreover, Dandolo swore the ‘ducal promise’, an oath that laid out the duties and rights of the doge. It was this oath that limited the temporal powers of the Venetian doges.

When the Fourth Crusade was called, its leaders negotiated with Venice to provide transport for their troops to the East. When the time arrived, however, the crusaders found that they did not have enough funds to pay the Venetians. The situation was exploited by Dandolo, who promised to provide the transport if the crusaders helped him capture the city of Zara, which had rebelled against Venice in 1183.

‘The Crusaders Conquering the City of Zara.’ (Public Domain)

‘The Crusaders Conquering the City of Zara.’ (Public Domain)

Since the city was under the protection of a Christian ruler, i.e. the King of Hungary, and, more importantly, the Pope, attacking it was hardly a good idea. The crusaders ended up complying with Dandolo’s request anyways, and Zara was captured.

Still, this was not the most shameful incident of the Fourth Crusade. After Zara, Dandolo managed to redirect the crusaders to attack Constantinople. This resulted in the infamous sack of Constantinople, which occurred after the city’s fall in 1204. After the capture of the Byzantine capital, Dandolo took the title ‘lord of the fourth part and a half of the whole empire of Romania’.

Incredibly, Dandolo, who was nearly 100 years old at the time, was personally directing the Venetian forces during this campaign. Dandolo remained in Constantinople after its capture, and died there in 1205. He was buried in the Hagia Sophia.

Their Power Could Not Sustain the Passing of Time

The doges who succeeded Dandolo continued to expand the power of the republic. For instance, the Venetians expanded on territories on mainland Italy at the beginning of the 15th century, during the reign of Doge Michele Steno. Towards the end of the century, in 1489, Cyprus, which had been a Crusader state, was annexed by Venice.

The Venetians, however, were only able to hold on to Cyprus until 1571, when the island was captured by the Ottomans. In the same year, the Ottomans were decisively defeated by the Holy League, which included Venice, at the Battle of Lepanto. Sebastiano Venier, the doge at the time, participated in the battle as the commander of the Venetian forces.

Sebastiano Venier, commander of the Venetian fleet at Lepanto (1571). (Public Domain)

Sebastiano Venier, commander of the Venetian fleet at Lepanto (1571). (Public Domain)

The battle for supremacy over the eastern Mediterranean between the Venetians and Ottomans continued after the Battle of Lepanto, and into the next two centuries. The prolonged conflict took its toll on the Venetians, and 1718, the republic had lost its major possessions on the Greek peninsula. In addition to this territorial loss, the Venetian merchant fleet was also in decline, being reduced to a mere 309 merchantmen by 1792. Furthermore, by 1796, all that was left of the once mighty Venetian navy were four galleys and seven galliots.

Who Was the Last Doge of Venice?

The last Doge of Venice was Ludovico Manin, who was elected in 1789. By this time, the office of the doge had become a symbolic one, and Manin served as a figurehead. Manin had the difficult task of deciding what to do with the French, who were advancing into Italy under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The last Doge of Venice, Ludovico Manin. (Public Domain)

The last Doge of Venice, Ludovico Manin. (Public Domain)

The doge decided to stay neutral, instead of joining the coalition of Italian states that was formed to resist the French. Unfortunately for the Venetians, Napoleon had signed a secret deal with the Austrians. Under this deal, the Austrians would cede Venice in exchange for territories in the Netherlands. In other words, Venice’s neutrality meant nothing.

The city fell in 1797, and Manin was forced to abdicate in the same year. Thus, the Republic of Venice, and the office of the doge, came to an end.

The Legacy of the Venetian Doges

Over their 1000-year rule over Venice the doges left their mark on the cityscape. Some of their monuments survived the dissolution of the office and can still be seen today. The most notable of these is the Doge’s Palace. The first palace is believed to have been built during the 9th century AD. No traces of this original building, however, have been found.

The palace that stands today dates to the 14th century, and its construction was initiated in 1340 by Doge Bartolomeo Gradenigo. In the centuries that followed, various doges extended, renovated, and reconstructed the palace complex. For instance, a new wing was added to the side of the palace overlooking St. Mark’s Square by Doge Francesco Foscari in 1424.

The Chamber of the Great Council in the Doge’s Palace, Venice. (Pascal06 /Adobe Stock)

The Chamber of the Great Council in the Doge’s Palace, Venice. (Pascal06 /Adobe Stock)

The Doge’s Palace played a significant role in the political life of Venice. The residence of the doge, the seat of government, and the city’s courtrooms were all to be found in the palace complex. Furthermore, it was here that the doges were elected. The doge was chosen by 41 electors, who in turn were selected through a rather complicated process. In order to obtain the office of doge, a candidate was required to get at least 25 votes out of 41. If no candidate received 25 or more votes, the electors would continue to vote until a suitable result was attained.

To conclude, the office of the doge is linked closely with the history of Venice, and it was maintained from the founding of the republic till its collapse. Although the doge served as the leader of the republic, his powers, rights, and responsibilities changed as the centuries progressed.

Some doges, such as Enrico Dandolo and Sebastiano Venier, are more widely known thanks to their contributions to the republic, whilst others are less so. The mark left by the doges on Venice can still be seen today, including the monuments that they built, such as the Doge’s Palace.

Top image: ‘Doge Pietro Loredan Beseeching the Virgin’ (detail). Source: Public Domain

By Wu Mingren                                                                                                                                      


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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