No, we’re not talking about the meme, the dog, or the cryptocurrency.
The Doge of Venice was an elected ruler/figurehead who presided over the most powerful Italian city at the onset of the Renaissance. Why that city and this guy and this remarkable palace that would become his gilded cage?
Refugees Who Grew Rich as Ferrymen
Venice was little more than a mud bank at the height of the Roman empire. However, when barbarians sacked Rome for the umpteenth time, stragglers fled northeast and built up the mud into what they hoped was a more-easily defended stronghold. Goths and Visigoths tended to be on horseback, and Venice was designed to be a city of waterways at the end of a long narrow causeway. The Venetians became seafaring experts by necessity, and there was a lot of sea.
Between 600 and 1200 CE, Venice built up its maritime capabilities to becoming one of the strongest navies and trading fleets in the world. They became a conduit of goods that traveled across the Silk Road and Black Sea, as well as a ferry for sailing the pope’s army of Crusaders down to Jerusalem. They learned how to transport horses and armor; later, that knowledge would lead to bigger cargoes and higher profits from risky voyages.
At one point, they passed through Alexandria, Muslim-controlled at the time. Allegedly fearful that the Caliph was going to destroy the bones of St. Mark, they helpfully removed the remains and brought the body back to Venice–reappropriating the relics for Christianity, as it were. They built a basilica, proclaimed Mark as their patron saint, and afterward tended to make their own rules.
The Fourth Crusade Turns Doge from Consul to Conqueror
When Venice was still building up its lagoon community, the emperor in Rome had moved over to Constantinople. That Byzantine Empire made Venice one of its provinces, labeling the governor hypatos and dux (counsel and duke). The word “doge” then evolved from the vernacular as Latin morphed into Italian.
In 1204, Pope Innocent III decided it was time for a Fourth crusade to take Jerusalem back once and for all for Christianity. (How’d that work out? Not so much…) As before, the pope wanted the Venetians to provide the naval support. They agreed. However, when it turned out that the crusaders didn’t have enough money to pay the Venetians, Doge Enrico Dandolo suggested an alternative. First, the Venetians and the pope’s army attacked Zara (a city in Croatia), and then they sacked Constantinople.
Thus, the Venetians, originally established as part of the Christian Byzantine Empire, decided to depose the Byzantine Emperor and put in their own hand-picked successor. They then sacked Constantinople, pillaging and looting, bringing back four bronze horses that they mounted above St. Mark’s basilica.
Who Was the Doge and What Was his Role?
In the earliest days, then, the Doge was both military leader and governor. Doge Dandolo, the Fourth Crusade guy, was described as “shrewd and pious” and in his seventies and blind when elected. Yet he was able to pull international puppet strings and decree with absolute power. Another of his other early acts was to expel “all foreigners” who had lived in Venice for less than two years. If they didn’t leave, their goods were confiscated. The Doge could also change the metal in the currency, which is another way rulers could adjust the money supply in their favor.
Hence, the Doge became all-powerful at a time when the power of the city was reaching its supremacy. The other nobles of Venice became a little concerned. In 1141, they created the Great Council of Venice to reduce the Doge’s power.
Power to the People–the Oligarchy People
The Great Council was a group of city nobles who gained their power, in part ,by reducing the Doge’s. Although Doge was a position for life, life expectancy wasn’t all that long, so when the ruler died, he was replaced by the Council. The process was complex. The large group would select a smaller group by lottery, which would select another, another, another, until a final group of 41 chose the new Doge. This randomizing reduced the ability for any aristocrat to lobby too much for the role.
Doges were granted access to a sumptuous palace, filled with art, luxury items, bedrooms, and administrative offices. Their line of succession lined the walls and portraits lined the ceiling. But the palace was described by some as “a gilded cage.”
Once chosen as a Doge, the ruler and his family couldn’t leave. He wasn’t allowed to own property, had to wait for other officials to be present when performing official business, and could not be followed by a family member as Doge. Once a year, he would perform a ceremony called “marrying the sea,” but otherwise, the Doge didn’t get out much. He also couldn’t be more than titular ruler. When one did try a coup, in 1355, his picture was excised from the portraits around the ceiling.
If that seems a little harsh, consider the other little goodies around the palace, which happened to house the city prison. Here’s a place in the wall where citizens could drop anonymous notes, informing on their neighbors.
Inside the palace is a wooden closet that leads to the interrogation cells for prisoners. And the palace has a hallway that leads from the prison cells to the executioner’s room. As the condemned walk across it, they can see a last glimpse out of the window before losing their freedom forever. That hallways is called the Bridge of Sighs.
The signs are all around for visitors and for the Doge. Don’t mess with the Venetians!