The Nobility of Venice
The Nobility of Venice is an integral part of the reality of the Venetian state, which is born and consolidated over a thousand years, is a striking anomaly in the European context and a unique phenomenon among all the historical profiles of its age. First of all, Venice is the last example, after Athens and Rome, of a city-state. In the framework of secular fights between the papacy and the empire, Venice does not recognize the temporal supremacy of either of the two contenders. It is a republic, but with an elective sovereign, and a Catholic state, in which the Senate has the power to nominate bishops, and noblemen called “Patricians” occupy all government offices, the commander of the venetian mainland troops is a captain of adventure, and all the offices of the state are rotational and limited by time, but the head of the state administration is a non-patrician citizen, nominated for life. These are the wonderful contradictions of the legendary life of a republic dominated by a hereditary nobility.
This is the fascinating vision of a Venetian state and a Venetian Nobility that has become a historical reality and at the same time almost a myth.
The Oligarchic character of the Nobility of Venice
The builders of these glorious pages of history were a small group of families who held the state government for eleven centuries. In fact we know, because it is told to us in a letter of Cassiodorus, already Minister of Theodoric, written around the year 527, which at that time the inhabitants of the Venetian lagoons were already autonomously organized and elected as their own representatives Magistrates called “Tribuni Maritimorum”, who had jurisdiction over a land line that ranged from Grado to Cavarzere, with the centre in the Rialto and Olivolo Islands. “Tribune” officials were repeatedly elected from a very small number of families, later called “Tribuni” for this reason.
“The oligarchy of St. Mark, the future patriciate of the republic, writes Marc Anthony Bragadin, is thus formed by a process of qualification among the leaders of the insular community, democratically recognized and indicated by the people, with whom they work and of which they are Actually in service.” The “Tribuni” families would have been almost fifty, most of them extinct before the end of the thirteenth century. Only a few entered into a body called the “Major Council”, the true centre of power of the patricians, similar to the ancient “Arengo”, or the assembly of all the noble or popular Heads of Family households . The “Greater Council” was the governmental and legislative body they actually joined, although by election, representatives coming from almost the same families. This underwent a radical reform at the end of the 13th century.
The Nobility of Venice and Social Classes in the Venetian Republic
The gradual separation of the social classes was, therefore, in Venice, a slow and elastic phenomenon, which was characterized by stages and passages, blurred and very diluted over time. It was, therefore, a spontaneous genesis, a “separation” between the classes similar to the one which took place in many other Italian states, with the formation of a local patriciate. The substantial difference lies in the fact that, in this case, apart from the antiquity of the republic’s origin, it is created a “sovereign social class” within the state.
The so-called “Noble clamp or noble lock”, the restricted entry to the Greater Council, the sovereign body of the Republic dating back to the end of the twelfth century, was in reality less traumatic and definitive than it has been imagined or what has been written by historians perhaps a bit frustrated by a situation that the great genealogist of the Venetian nobility Marco Barbaro described as follows: “This dignity of noble citizens of the great council after 1296 is always and at the same time the same: because there is no member of the Greater Council who is not our noble citizen, as well as there is no citizen born into nobility that is not or cannot be or become a member of the Greater Council”.
On February 28, 1297, the Doge Pietro Gradenigo suggested that from that date onwards only the members of the families who had been present in the assemblies of the four previous years should be admitted to the council. The proposal, opposed by many at first, was approved, and had a gradual application, by virtue of which the Greater Council increased the raw statistical number of its members, but at the same time blocked the number of families that could be represented. Thus the fate of Venice, which the patricians “had very ancient descents and proclaimed their original nobility, not given by a prince,” but always recognized, from the mythical “Maritimorum Tribuni”.
The Monopoly of Office and the Rules of Access into the Venetian Nobility
Indeed, as Alvise da Mosto, another contemporary historian, also belonging to a patrician family, observes, the patrician families of the Venetian nobility did not exactly enjoy the same equality of rights among them and did not have the same access to the highest state offices as “simple membership” in a patrician family, at the practical level it was not considered sufficient. In order to qualify for the highest positions of the state it was required a genealogical and blood purity of origin, kinships of importance in the Government of the Republic and also the highest levels of rent indexed in the census of Venice. In order to maintain this situation of privilege, the main noble families of Venice, except in a few cases, did not contract unions between them.
In fact, the concentration of high positions within the same families was very high:
“Since the election of Orso Ipato (727) to that of Ludovico Manin (1789) there are counted 118 Doges of Venice, belonging to only 59 families of the nobility of Venice. Considering that some families had more than one Doge, an even higher concentration is evident as eight families (Contarini, Badoer-Partecipazio, Mocenigo, Sanudo-Candiano, Memmo-Monegario, Morosini, Dandolo and Corner), gave 43 Doges to the Venetian Republic”, as the historian “I. Cacciavillani Ivone” has affirmed.
The rules that blocked access to the Council became, after a transitional phase of implementation, the legal instrument of effective separation between different classes of citizens. This separation became effective only from 1323, when the criteria for access to the Council and the hereditary nature of this prerogative were defined. If in almost all other Italian states the separation between the social classes and citizens had as an ultimate goal the dominance of the nobility over the organs of local self-government, it nevertheless assumed the importance it had in Venice, because Venice was a city-state (and was the last example In history) and as such remained always with unchanged rules and institutions, even when its territory extended from Switzerland to the Aegean. The separation of the Citizens, codified by precise rules, therefore guaranteed to the nobility officially recognized by the state the sole control of the sovereign body of the republic: the Greater Council.
It becomes necessary to find out how in the analogous Italian states there was a progressive separation of the classes, and an emergence of social classes and bodies endowed with self-government and administrative functions at various levels, but always under the rule of foreign sovereign powers. Venice itself and in fact the Nobility ruled directly the Venetian state for five hundred years without formal foreign interference or submission, until the dissolution of the state and its sovereign body. “
Marriage rules and composition of the Venetian Nobility
After about two centuries from the consolidation of the situation (1323), during which discussions had been initiated regarding the access to the council of some patricians and after the reopening of the Golden Book of the Nobility of Venice by decree of 10 December 1379 to allow the aggregation of thirty families that had a distinguished behaviour during the ” War of Choggia” (the most important council took place on September 4, 1381) ,came two decrees of the Council of the Ten, one on August 31, 1506 and the following on April 26, 1526 , who entrusted to some special magistrates called the “Avogadori” control over the composition of that sovereign body through the power to accept or reject requests for admission into the Greater Council.
Successive supplementary rules forced the noblemen to deposit at the office of the Golden Book of Marriages of the Nobility of Venice a copy of their wedding contracts, and, starting from 1663, also their “marriage certificates”, which would result in the analysis and scrutiny of the nuptial rites and bylaws according to catholic canonical rules. The renewal of the members of the Greater Council was, therefore, starting from 1526, subject to the verification by the “Avogadori” of the existence of the necessary requisites, on a case-by-case basis, of those who aspired to join the Greater Council as a life member by law and, therefore, became depositaries and pro quota holders of the sovereignty of the Venetian Republic.
The cases were related to the birth and, therefore, to the marriage of the parents of the existing or prospective members of the Venetian nobility. A marriage, although it well might be perfectly legal under canonical law rules, if it had not been notified (not necessarily immediately), at the office of the “Avogadori” and subsequently registered in the Golden Book of Marriages , compiled from the year 1526, was not, according to the current nobility laws of the moment, a valid marriage.
Legal Validity of the Marriages of the Nobility in Venice
The Nobles among the Venetians are those who are part of the government of the Republic, that is, those who have been able to elect or be elected as public magistrates; this faculty is given by the birth of each, not by ordinary election by votes. Those who are born of noble parents are nobles and belong to the nobility. These noblemen, at some future time, can join the Greater Council, in which it is always necessary the canonical Dispensation or permission to join the council from the special magistrates called Avogadori. So the Venetian Nobility is given in perpetuity to all the descendants of those who were once received in this order, and with great care this quality must be preserved immaculate and pure; So that those born from those who have been admitted to the “Greater Council” have to prove not only the nobility of their fathers but also that they are born of women who are not of plebeian background and were also of an honest condition, as well as married through a legally legitimate wedding. These proofs of nobility are investigated, vetted, checked, analysed and researched impartially by a special nobility magistrate.
Here comes into play the importance of genealogy, a certification of origin, which only one entity was entitled to grant, to defend the purity of the sovereign noble body.
The Patricians of Venice
The Venetian nobleman (more commonly known as Patrician), a member by right of the Greater Council since the moment of his admission (by law at the age of 25), did not automatically create male children able to take over or sit with him in the Council due to the mere fact of the existence of the father’s nobility, of the canonically valid marriage of the parents and of the birth of the offspring inside marriage.
The transmission of nobility in Venice
The Venetian nobility, which was recognized by the state, and which enabled the males to participate, at the attainment of the prescribed age, in the highest council of Venice, was acquired solely by birth from a marriage recorded at the office of the Avogadori, between a patrician, (a member of the Greater Council), and a recognized woman capable of procreating eligible children for that organ, without further evidence that the proof of birth and of age.
This question was not a simple one nor easy to be solved, because the same Avogadori, except for the case, frequent but not as significant as we could imagine, of the marriage of a patrician with the daughter of a legitimate patrician, had as terms of reference for Marriage registration, with its public effects, no clear and codified heraldic-aristocratic principles, but often subjective or, in any case, not exactly defined criteria, such as the evaluation of the vile condition of a mechanical work activity exercised by an ancestor as a principle of exclusion to nobility.
To complicate the situation it was decisive the fact that in Venice the principle (indeed almost universal) of the automatic ennoblement of the woman, if this was not for birth by the marriage with a noble subject (a scrupulous connoisseur of the noble rules affirmed “the children in Venice, born of noble men and non-noble women, lose their hereditary nobility and the capacity to the join the “Greater Council”, and are excluded forever with all their descendants”).
With marriage duly registered with the Avogadori office, the woman acquired the noble status of her husband and therefore no questions could arise regarding the possession of the nobility for any of their children, except for the obligatory proof of “noble quarters” in processes for admission to some Orders of Knighthood and Chivalry that required original male and female noble proofs and evidence.
The premise of a valid marriage was the approval given to the choice of the bride from the “College”, a governmental body governed by law by the Doge of Venice.
The woman, therefore, had to be a Patrician legitimate daughter, or be a legitimate descendant of patrician. Women were not eligible or appropriate when they were a “bought female slave “, “an abuser or villainous woman”, daughter or nephew of a “notorious criminal” or who had exercised a “Mechanical or manual art”, or a woman who was considered an “dishonest woman”.
Consistent with the solemn affirmations of the law on the original sovereignty of Venice and its independence from any other power (which implied an absolute sovereignty of the republic within itself) the nobility of birth, according to the rules of the native country of the woman (inside or outside the Venetian State) was considered irrelevant or, at least, secondary to the Venetian magistrates. This led to the creation of a severe system of control and certification of nobility by the State, motivated also by tax reasons. It happened that from the end of the 14th century, the need to provide support with “patrician commissions” (state subsidies for some position holders) or the attribution of some small paid public offices to the indigent components of the Greater council or their family members was necessary. The patrician body was willing to face these burdens, but only for those who belonged to the nobility of Venice.
The Purchase of Nobility in Venice
The possibility of early entry into the greater council could be achieved by the deposit of the considerable sum of five hundred ducats as bail. It was also a requirement to be at least 20 years old.
On February 15, 1646, an important venetian faction requested to reopen the golden book of nobility and marriages of Venice with a view to consider the admission into the patrician body of those of generic noble status who had offered to maintain a thousand soldiers for a year and for this purpose had signed the commitment to credit at least 60000 ducats into the state crates.
Also, in the last years of the Republic, some families could request the admission into the nobility of Venice directly by the deposit of 100,000 ducats in the state crates and, at the same time, submit a “petition” that would be put to the vote, case by case, by the senate and the top council.
The Last Ball of the Nobility of Venice
On December 4, 1796 it was held the last golden ball of the Venetian Nobility, and thirty young patricians had joined the Greater Council where they would have only sat until May 12 of the following year, when the last session was held.
There were 130 families who took advantage of the opportunity to be registered in the Golden Book of the Venetian Nobility and therefore to become part of the nobility of Venice and the sovereign body of the republic about 130 in the period between 1646 and 1757.
This massive insertion led to the reinforcement of the old patrician class, but it cannot reduce the progressive extinction of the patrician families, which were 207 in 1367, about 230 in the early decades of the eighteenth century and about 200 at the end of the same century.
The Last Golden Book of the Venetian Nobility
The new Golden Book of the Venetian Nobility printed in Venice by Giuseppe Bettinelli in the year 1792, the last one ever edited, contains the genealogical news related to 189 families that had taken a stable residence in Venice, or bought a palace in the lagoon.