On 12 May 1797, His Serene Highness Ludovico Manin, Doge of Venice, signed away his position, authority, and country to the French, concluding forever, the history of the Republic of Venice. Manin was the last in a line of 120 men to have borne that title. Most of us are familiar with the name ‘doge of Venice’ but who were these men, what powers did they have, and what did they actually do?
The word ‘Doge’ is an italianisation of the Venetian Doxe, or Dose‘(the pronunciation is the same), which comes from the latin dux meaning leader. The same word has become in English, ‘duke’.
The first doges, were probably local governors, reporting ultimately to the Roman Emperor in Constantinople but the origins of the position and the independence of Venice occupy pretty much the same point in history.
The position of doge got off to a false start. After the first three, there was a brief period of direct control from Constantinople before the position was reinstated. Early doges tried to form dynasties but their power was always curtailed by the people who often deposed and replaced them. Long before the ‘locking of the Great Council’ in 1297, the position had become what it was to remain for the rest of the history of the republic: a ‘first among equals’ elected for life, by and from the ruling class and subject always to their authority.
At the beginning of a doge’s reign, he was made to sign a document known as the promissione ducale, the ‘doge’s promise’. This was in effect a personal contract and job description in which the doge was informed of the limits of his powers and duties and to which he promised to stick. On his death, a committee examined his reign in the light of the promissione and had the power to prosecute and fine his family if any breaches were deemed to have occurred. He was also expected to provide for himself and to spend much of his own money on state affairs.
During his reign, the doge acted as the president of all the councils of state, being the link between them. The other officials who were members of these bodies and committees were temporary and subject to limited periods of office in order to stop one family having too much power. The doge, however, was there for life and so provided a useful continuity.
In order to keep the doge himself in check, he was not allowed to leave the Doge’s Palace without permission and also was not allowed to meet anyone or open any letters alone. Everything had to be done in the presence of a group of six elected councillors who were changed regularly.
The doge was also required to appear in public a lot for a series of ceremonies and festivals during which he wore the state regalia including the corno a strange hat with a raised back, which even today appears on the crest of Venice city council. He was also accompanied by a large entourage carrying various other symbols of state.