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Venetian Republic

The Republic of Venice differed essentially from any other state in Italy; and her history was separate. The constitution of the commonwealth had slowly matured itself through a series of revolutions, which confirmed and defined a type of singular stability. During the earlier days of the republic the doge had been a prince elected by the people, and answerable only to the popular assemblies. In 1032 he was obliged to act in concert with a senate, called pregadi; and in 1172 the grand council, which became the real sovereign of the state, was formed.

In the latter part of the thirteenth century, Marco Polo, the great Venetian traveler, visited China and the far East, bringing home a knowledge of the countries of Eastern Asia. Venice - at first a perfect democracy, celebrated for its political freedom - at length became torn by internal dissensions; and the introduction of luxury and wealth brought their attendant evils-political corruption and the loss of civic virtue. In the fourteenth century the government became an aristocracy under the Doges (Dukes) and the Council of Ten, which, with its secret spies and its dungeons, was enabled to exercise a most unmitigated tyranny, and to suppress every effort to restore the democratic constitution.

By several steps the members of the grand council succeeded in eliminating the people from a share in the government, and reducing the doge to the position of their ornamental representative. These changes culminated in 1297, when an act was passed for closing the grand council, or in other words for confining it to a fixed number of privileged families, in whom the government was henceforth vested by hereditary right. This ratification of the oligarchical principle, together with establishment in 1311 of the Council of Ten, completed that famous constitution which endured till the extinction of the republic in 1797.

In the fourteenth century Venice took her place at last as an Italian power on an equality at least with the very greatest. Throughout the Middle Ages, it had been the policy of Venice to refrain from conquests on the Italian mainland, and to confine her energies to commerce in the East. The first entry of any moment made by the Venetians into strictly Italian affairs was in 1336, when the republics of Florence and St. Mark allied themselves against Mastino della Scab, and the latter took possession of Treviso. After this, for thirty years, between 1352 and 13S1, Venice and Genoa contested the supremacy of the Mediterranean. Pisa's maritime power having been extinguished in the battle of Meloria (1284), the two surviving republics had no rivals.

They fought their duel out upon the Bosporus, off Sardinia, and in the Morea, with various successes. From the first great encounter, in 1355, Venice retired well-nigh exhausted, and Genoa was so crippled that she placed herself under the protection of the Visconti. The second and decisive battle was fought upon the Adriatic. The Genoese fleet under Luciano Doria defeated the Venetians off Tola in 1379, and sailed without opposition to Chioggia, which was stormed and taken. Thus the Venetians found themselves blockaded in their own lagoons. Meanwhile a fleet was raised for their relief by Carlo Zeno in the Levant, and the admiral Vittore Pisani, who had been imprisoned after the defeat at Pola, was released to lead their forlorn hope from the city side. The Genoese in their turn were now blockaded in Chioggia, and forced by famine to surrender.

The losses of men and money which the war of Chioggia, as it was called, entailed, though they did not immediately depress the spirit of the Genoese republic, signed her naval ruin. During this second struggle to the death with Genoa, the Venetians had been also at strife with the Carraresi of Padua and the Scaligers of Verona. In 1406, after the extinction of these princely houses, they added Verona, Vicenza, and Padua to the territories they claimed on terra firma.

Their career of conquest, and their new policy of forming Italian alliances and entering into the management of Italian affairs, were confirmed by the long dogeship of Francesco Foscari (1423-1457), who must rank with Alfonso, Cosimo de' Medici, Francesco Sforza, and Nicholas V, as a joint-founder of confederated Italy.

At the commencement of the fifteenth century, Venice attained the highest pitch of greatness and prosperity, and was for more than a century the chief commercial and maritime power of the world. Venice did very important service to all Christian Europe by checking the naval power of the Ottoman Turks in the Mediterranean sea; but her long maritime wars finally exhausted her resources.

When Constantinople fell in 1453, the old ties between Venice and the Eastern empire were broken, and she now entered on a wholly new phase of her history. Ranking as one of the five Italian powers, she was also destined to defend Western Christendom against the encroachments of the Turk in Europe.

The discovery of a sea-passage to India by way of the Cape of Good Hope in 1497 sealed the fate of Venice, and her commercial and maritime glory, in a great measure, departed from her; but for several centuries longer Venice continued formidable, and her fleets contended successfully against the Ottoman Turks, who endeavored to secure the control of the Mediterranean sea.

When, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, Venice attempted to extend her territorial possessions in Italy, the powerful League of Cambray was formed against her by Pope Julius II., King Ferdinand the Catholic of Spain, King Louis XII. of France, and the Emperor Maximilian I. of Germany (AD 1508). The Venetians soon succeeded in winning the Pope and the King of Spain to their interest, and so contrived to dissolve the league; and the French, who had threatened the independence of Venice, were soon expelled from Italy.

The city of Venice, by reason of the many islands it possessed in the Mediterranean, could still be considered as queen of the seas. But by the middle of the 16th Century it had lost much of its former splendor, since the Spaniards had become masters of America, and opened up a new field for commerce with those distant countries.

The Turks in the meantime, who had now held Constantinople for more than one hundred years, saw with regret that the Venetians possessed islands and cities in the very midst of their vast empire, and began by demanding of them the island of Cyprus. When this demand was steadily refused, they put on foot an army of eighty thousand infantry, three thousand cavalry, and a formidable artillery. With this host of barbarians, the Emperor Selim II. besieged Nicosia and Famagosta, the two strongest cities in the island. Nicosia fell after a valorous defence; Famagosta, commanded by an illustrious Venetian named Bragadino, repulsed the Turkish army no less than six times, and destroyed so large a number of the men that it had to be continually reinforced. But as the Turkish fleet prevented the Italians from bringing succour to the besieged, Bragadino soon found himself in the most extreme want both of provisions and of men. Bragadino, after having conquered, put to flight, or killed 50,000 Turks, fell into the hands of the enemy, who against all law and faith had ordered him to be flayed alive.

The Turks, elated by this success, now with one accord directed their steps towards Italy, and came into conflict with the Italian fleet near Lepanto, a city of Greece. A hundred years previously the Turks had besieged Lepanto for four months, and had suffered a terrible defeat, with the loss of 30,000 soldiers. For this reason they were the more anxious to maintain their honour on the present occasion. The Christians on their side, burning to avenge the death of the great Bragadino, and impatient to measure their strength with the enemies of God and man, assaulted the Turks with the greatest ferocity, who on their part made a brave resistance. The battle on 07 October 1571, became a slaughter; the sea was covered with garments, with splinters from the ships, with the bodies of the slain. Thirty thousand Turks fell in the conflict, and two hundred of their galleys were left in the hands of the enemy. The news of this victory brought universal joy into all the countries of Christendom.

Pope Paul V advanced so far as to extend his spiritual jurisdiction over Venice, which, up to the date of his election (1605), had resisted all encroachments of the Holy Sec. Venice offered the single instance in Italy of a national church. The republic managed the tithes, and the clergy acknowledged no chief above their own patriarch. Paul V now forced the Venetians to admit his ecclesiastical supremacy; but they refused to readmit the Jesuits, who had been expelled in 1606. This, apart from the proclamation of James I of England (1604), was the earliest instance of the order's banishment from a state where it had proved disloyal to the commonwealth.

Venice rapidly declined throughout the seventeenth century. The loss of trade consequent upon the closing of Egypt and the Levant, together with the discovery of America and the sea-route to the Indies, hacl dried up her chief source of wealth. Prolonged warfare with the Ottomans, who forced her to abandon Candia in 1669, as they had robbed her of Cyprus in 1570, still further crippled her resources. Yet she kept the Adriatic free of pirates, notably by suppressing the sea-robbers called Uscocchi (1601-1617), maintained herself in the Ionian Islands, and in 1684 added one more to the series of victorious episodes which rendered her annals so romantic. In that year Francesco Morosini, upon whose tomb still may be read the title Peloponnesiacus, wrested the whole of the Mi Tea from the Turks. But after his death in 1715 the republic relaxed her hold upon his conquests.

The Venetian nobles abandoned themselves to indolence and vice. Many of them fell into the slough of pauperism, and were saved from starvation by public doles. Though the signorv still made a brave show upon occasions of parade, it was clear that the state was rotten to the core, and sinking into the decrepitude of dotage.




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