The Most Serene Republic of Venice

(Executive Summary)

It is something of a mystery that this age of thralldom and decline for the rest of Italy was for Venice a golden age. – Will Durant The Renaissance (opening of chapter XXII on Venice 1534-1576 AD).
Her unique system of government... was stern, occasionally even harsh... but [overall it had a] better record of fairness and justice than any other [European government]. – Julius Norwich (introduction to A history of Venice)
THE republic of Venice has existed longer than those of Rome or Sparta, or any other that is known in history. It was at first democratical; and their magistrates, under the name of tribunes, were chosen by the people in a general assembly of them... [but later it became more "aristocratical"]... Each of the grand counsellors... are reduced... to eleven fourth electors, and they have the appointment of forty-one, who are the direct electors of the doge. The choice generally turns upon two or three candidates, whose names are put into another box, and drawn out: the first whose name is drawn retires, and proclamation is made for objections against him; if any are made, he comes in, and is heard in his defence: then the electors proceed to determine by ayes and noes; if there are twenty-five ayes, he is chosen, if not, another name is read, and the same decision repeated, until there are twenty five in the affirmative.
The nobles are divided into six classes. 1. Twelve of the most ancient families. 2. Four families that in the year 880 subscribed to the building of the abbey of St. George. 3. Those whose names were written in the golden book, in 1296. 4. Those that were ennobled by the public in 1385. 5. Those who purchased their nobility for one hundred thousand ducats in 1646. And 6. The strangers who have been received into the number of nobility: the whole make about two thousand five hundred...
There are four councils: 1. The doge and six signoria. 2. The consiglio grande, in which all the nobles have seats and voices. 3. Consiglio de pregadi, of 250, and is the soul of the republic. 4. Consiglio proprio delli dieci – and the state inquisitors... Every province had an assembly besides, and every city, burgomasters, counsellors, and schepens or judges, besides an hooft officer, and his dienders, for the police.
The history of this country, and its complicated constitutions, affords an inexhaustible store of materials to our purpose, but, considering the critical situation of it, prudence dictates to pass it over: with all the sagacity, and more wisdom than Venice or Berne, it has always had more consideration of the people than either, and has given more authority to the first magistrate: they have never had any exclusive preferences of families or nobles. Offices have, by law at least, been open to all men of merit. – (Future US President) John Adams, describing Venice's system (quite well, but not exactly correctly) in his LETTER XIX, part of his "A DEFENCE OF THE CONSTITUTIONS OF GOVERNMENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA" London 1787. In this book Adams systematically examines every "democratical" and "aristocratical" republic (he ranks Venice among the latter) as well as the writings of many philosophers.

Renaissance Venice was a city-state quite in the ancient Greek mold. The city ruled over a large swath of non-urban territory, whose borders varied over the centuries. At its peak, Venice's annual trading exceeded that of any other city in the world and it was probably the greatest naval and merchant sea-trading power in the Mediterranean. Its shipyards could build one warship per day. Its trade-ships sailed as far as Iceland. It controlled the whole of Cyprus for 82 years starting in 1489, and it ruled Crete for 465 years. Its dominion also included big chunks of what now is Italy, Greece, and Turkey, including most of the Greek Adriatic coast and at one point Constantinople itself (sacked by crusaders led by Venice in 1204 and held for 56 years).

Venice was an improvement versus the old Greek city-states in that it did not have slaves (although its sailors risked being enslaved by foreign powers). Sorry: turns out Venice did have at least 10000 (but probably less than 50000) slaves, mainly Slavic, at one point. Lane says "at the beginning of the 14th century, most of the [Venetian] slaves were Greeks... but later a feeling against enslaving Greek Christians developed... in Venice Slave Auctions at the Rialto were forbidden in 1366. For about a century thereafter, many slaves were imported to Venice from the Black Sea, especially Tatars and Russians, but sales were by private contracts." Slave-hood was not hereditary thus slaves had to be continually imported. Both slaves, convicts, and free men served in the Galleys; there also were slaves (mostly female) serving in domestic tasks. Supposedly slaves were traded until nearly 1600 in Venice despite it being officially forbidden. Still, Venice certainly was a lot less into slavery than their rivals the Ottoman empire. Venice was an excellent democracy if you were one of the top few thousand richest males – otherwise, not so much. (There was, however, a large middle class, and some power for the other members of society – e.g. there were mechanisms for the people, even the non-rich ones, to make complaints/suggestions to the government– but it diminished quickly as you dropped in socio-economic rank. After 1300 the lower citizens gradually lost power compared to the richest. Women were not allowed to vote or hold elected office, but did own property and make wills independent of their husbands.)

Venice was remarkable in two ways:

  1. Its longetivity, prosperity, and success despite what would appear to be many inherent disadvantages and dangers;
  2. Its democratic setup – which employed range voting with a 3-point scale.

The Venetian oligarcho-democracy survived many feuds, coup attempts, threats of civil war, the Black Plague, foreign wars, assassinations, duels, internal plots to gain eternal power, and ultra-dangerous schemes by foreign powers. In particular it outlasted every other Italian state despite what would seem to be the worst geographic situation. It was continually surrounded by dangerous enemies plotting to destroy it. It was located in what was regarded as a poor, waterlogged, location on a bunch of small islands in a marshy lagoon, whose soil was unfarmable – and where even the task of acquiring potable water was and remains very difficult – and the whole city was (and continues to be) slowly sinking into the sea!

Somehow, despite all that, the Venetians turned their circumstances to their advantage, became rich and successful, and out-shrewded and out-lasted all their enemies, for an amazing 529 years (1268-1796) under their range-voting-based government. The Venetian Marco Polo famously explored China and many other far lands, and many Venetian industries (glass making, silks, enamels), which led Europe, were inspired by technology transfer from China and other far places. Plus, if you count the additional years of their democracy under the non-range-voting previous rules (the first democratically elected Doge apparently was Orso Ipato in 726 AD) that would add about 300 more years to the total.

This makes Venice, after Sparta, the second-longest-lasting substantially democratic government, in all the world.

I do not believe all that was due to luck. The Venetians made good decisions and kept making them. Over time, that added up. And, quite plausibly, their government setup, involving range voting, was a reason they made good decisions.

Venice's government setup

Venice had no single written constitution, but it had an Oath Of Office for the Doge; and it codified laws in five books of statuti plus extra volumes on maritime law.

Quote [Lane p.95]:

The series of exceptionally able men who were elected [as Doge] during the century after 1172 are notable for having loyally accepted the restrictions on the office as well as for the vigor and wisdom with which they exercised the very considerable power which in that century was still retained by the Doge...
The central organs of government formed a pyramid
             Ducal Council [Collegio]
          The Forty and Senate [Pragedi]
         Great Council [Maggior Consiglio]
     ----------- General Assembly ------------
[Each body is successively larger than the last (in terms of membership) as we go down the pyramid. The Great Council had 1000-2500 active members depending on the date and which author is claiming it. This picture is an oversimplification. Lane gives a much larger and more detailed organizational chart.] Each committee or council was checked by some other... so as to assure the rule of law, even at the cost of losing some executive efficiency.
For example, the Doge was subject to prosecution (and in at least one case was executed), and the State Attorneys indeed could prosecute any official, and anyone in the Forty could sue anyone for Dereliction of Duty with the case being heard, ultimately, by the Great Council. Campaigning for office was forbidden, and indeed you could be elected without running for office, at which point it was your patriotic duty to serve – like it or not. Although this may sound crazy, it seems to have had a purpose – to prevent ambitious politicians from existing. (Also, imagine if, in, say, the contemporary United States, we could elect anybody, picking from the entire populace the person most-suited to be president, regardless of whether that person had any intention of running. Might that result in, on average, better presidents? I think it would.) I somehow doubt that those elected were entirely unwilling, though. Surely that would not have been workable?

Nominees were often chosen by committees, who in turn were selected by a hopefully-incorruptible random process (involving selecting balls from urns) then the election for that position was among those who had been nominated. By having multiple stages of both random and election processes the Venetians tried to make the system incorruptible (thanks to the randomness) but also striving for maximum quality (due to the democratic electing-the-best processes).

Thus the process for electing the Doge, as of 1268 (when it was employed for the election of Lorenzo Tiepolo), had reached this amazing almost-final form [Lane p.111; also described by Lines p.156]:

  1. Choose 30 of the Great Council members (of whom there were 1000-to-1500, typically; all male) by a random process;
  2. Reduce them to 9 by random processes;
  3. The 9 name 40 nominees;
  4. The 40 are reduced to 12 by a random process;
  5. the 12 name 25 nominees;
  6. Reduce them to 9 by random processes;
  7. The 9 name 45 nominees;
  8. Reduce them to 11 by random processes;
  9. The 11 named 41 (all of whom had to be age≥40 years);
  10. The 41 elected the Doge (from among nominees they chose; any of the 41 could write a name on a slip of paper, and from then onward, that name was a candidate) by range3 voting!
  11. This choice theoretically was subject to approval or veto by the mass of the people (assembly) but I am unaware of any instance in which that veto was exercised. This perhaps meant this step was a mere formality with the People not really having any power. But another interpretation is that the threat of a veto kept the Grand Council honest in its choice – they refused to risk the embarrassment of a veto.

In this process, only the penultimate step – the election – "really mattered" – the rest was mainly intended to make the identity of the 41 unpredictable hence making the process (hopefully) uncorruptible. The 41, during their deliberations, were sequestered rather like the juries in modern-day big-time criminal cases. This again was presumably intended to insulate them from corruption.

The voters employed "range3" voting to elect the Doge. That is, each voter gave a score from the 3-element set {-1, 0, +1} to each candidate (this was accomplished via a scheme involving balls you could put into boxes, where there was one box for each candidate). The candidate with the greatest score won. However, there was also a supermajority requirement: in order to win, you had to get at least 25 "approval" (i.e. +1) votes. This, note, exceeds a bare majority (which would be 21). If the winner did not achieve this 25-approval threshold, then deliberations by the 41 would continue with re-votes as necessary until somebody achieved the threshold. Incidentally, by a coincidence (?) or brilliant design (?) the 25 threshold is exactly the greatest integer below 63.2% of 41, and a paper by A.Caplin & B.Nalebuff: On 64% majority rule, Econometrica 56,4 (1998) 787-814 claims that 63.2% has theoretical advantages as a threshold. (Specifically, "preference cycles" of 63.2%-supermajority preferences are impossible under certain assumptions about voter distributions. This theorem seems unlikely to me to have much practical importance.)

In at least one case (1229 AD: Giacomo Tiepolo vs Marino Dandolo), a deadlock (perfect tie) occurred, which had to be resolved by a coin flip. The number 41, being odd, was designed to make such ties less likely.

The Great Council also elected people to hundreds of other more minor positions (ambassadors, etc). It appears that in all or some of those elections, the {+1, -1, 0} voting method with balls was again used. For example, to elect magistrates (Chambers et al. p.59) a 4-candidate {–1, 0, +1}-range voting election (with positive-total as a "quorum condition" – if nobody got a positive then there was no winner and the election was redone later with perhaps-different candidates) was held using red and green urns to hold the +1 and –1 votes, respectively.

Although there were some minor adjustments to the procedures during the 529 years after 1268, according to Lines they were minor and the system remained essentially unchanged thereafter, suggesting the Venetians were satisfied with its performance. On the other hand, the democratic procedures the Venetians used before 1268 were evidently felt unsatisfactory – too vulnerable to corruption and/or electing not-good-enough Doges, who in some cases replaced democracy with autocracy.

Why did Venice Eventually Fail?

Rowson is of the apparent opinion that Venice gradually became corrupt. The problem was that their democracy was intended to be for the benefit of the rich male "nobles," which was not the same as for "everyone." That may have been good at first because those were the smartest most successful people in Venice and their interests coincided well with "everyone's." But toward the end, they weren't the smartest who got rich due to their shrewdness and merchant success; they were just the ones who happened to be born into the right family lines, and they stayed rich by corrupting government power (e.g. customs duties) for their own purposes. According to Rowson, "Venice was being bled dry so that the aristocrats could keep gambling at the tables." And, we might add, cavorting with prostitutes. By the time Napoleon the juggernaut came, the once-huge Venetian navy was down to only a few ships and there was nothing they could do to defend themselves.

Rowson doesn't complain so much about the election results being bad decisions – he thinks they were still adequate – so much as the entirety of government becoming corrupted. Further, with time the power of the Doge gradually diminished relative to the other branches of government (he was hemmed in by more and more restrictions and counterbalances) to the point where he was a tool of the Noble Families. That, in the end, was bad.

(Of course, it might be that even without all those problems, Venice would still have been unable to stop Napoleon. If so, then these problems did not ultimately matter.)

As evidence for his corrupt-aristocracy theory, Rowson offers the following table concerning the last 8 Doge-elections. The right-hand column shows the bill, submitted by the sequestered committee that elected the Doge, for all the conspicuous consumption (gluttony of immense amounts of luxury foods, footmen, rose water, tobacco, etc) during their deliberations. The numbers keep growing. The cost of electing Manin was over five times that of electing Ruzzini, and the total bill of 378000 Lire was a fortune, exceeding a lifetime income. [Note: Venetian money was gold coins each specified to contain a certain amount – unchanged since the 1200s – of gold. This is not inflationary paper-money era here.]

Election YearElectedLira (in 1000s)
1732Carlo Ruzzini69
1734Alvise Pisani71
1741Pietro Grimani134
1752Francesco Loredan121
1762Marco Foscarini225
1763Alvise Giovanni Mocenigo222
1779Paolo Renier222
1789Ludovico Manin378

Rowson thinks any Committee of Venice's Finest that could submit such bills with a straight face had lost its honesty and was purely about reaming what was left of Venice for their personal benefit.


There is no shortage of knowledge about the history of Venice. My local university library's book collection on this topic is at least 5 meters thick. Every Doge is known (see list below). Among the weightier tomes I noticed (but hardly examined) were:

Pierre A.N.B. Daru: Histoire de la Republique de Venise, F. Didot, Paris 1821 (8 volumes totaling about 5200 pages)
William Carew Hazlitt: The Venetian Republic, A.&C. Black, London 1900 (2 volumes totaling about 1620 pages).

You can also read this wonderful online history of Venice. I found the Encyclopedia Brittanica (1896 edition) article helpful and found these more modern and shorter books useful:

Frederic Chapin Lane: Venice, A Maritime Republic, JHU Press 1973.

Maurice Rowden: The silver age of Venice, Praeger London 1970.

D.S.Chambers, D.Chambers, B.Pullan, J.Fletcher: Venice: A Documentary History, 1450-1630, University of Toronto Press. This book includes the actual text of some of the election rules the Venetians employed.

The first article I saw describing Venice's voting protocol (by Lines, who was at the time on the Faculty of the University of Venice) was

Marji Lines: Approval voting and strategic analysis, a Venetian example, Theory & Decision 20,2 (1986) 155-172.

Lines leans heavily on this book:

Andrea da Mosto: I dogi di Venezia; nella vita pubblica e privata, A. Martello, Milano 1966 (2nd ed) and 1977 reprint.

Another article was

Miranda Mowbray, Dieter Gollman: Electing the Doge of Venice: analysis of a 13th Century protocol(pdf) , IEEE Computer Security Symposium (July 2007) Venice Italy

which leans heavily on this book:

John Julius Norwich: A history of Venice, New York: Vintage Books, 1989. (Based in part on notes left by Norwich's father.)

List of Venetian Doges

All Doges are known, and we list them below. (They usually served for the remainder of their lives, but sometimes quit or were forcibly removed.) However I do not know the non-winners of Doge elections, nor the stories of how the elections proceeded (except in just a few cases described in the sources above).

Norwich p.300 describes one alleged example of strategic voting leading to the 1423 election of the underdog candidate F.Foscari. (Foscari wanted Venice to go on offense militarily and expand by force – a highly controversial policy which later turned out to be very successful for Venice, but made both Foscari and Venice a lot of powerful enemies.) He got 17 approvals out of 41 in the 9th ballot, then was elected in the 10th ballot by 26. Supposedly his supporters had engineered that by voting in earlier ballots for a candidate nobody wanted, thus enticing others to vote for Foscari – then suddenly unexpectedly switching their votes to Foscari. This is, essentially, a manipulation of "pre-election polls" to affect future strategic voting decisions in the "real election." DYN is a modification of approval voting, invented by Forest Simmons, intended to prevent that sort of manipulation.

In a different interesting election recounted by either Lane or Norwich (I lost my notes), one candidate was viewed as almost certain to win. However, a raucous demonstration against him (which the book claimed was probably organized and paid for by one of his rivals) was held outside the area in the Doge's palace in which the 41 were deliberating. The 41 took this into account – they did not want to risk that this candidate would lead to discord – and therefore elected another. So while theoretically the 41 were supposed to be sequestered and totally immune from outside influences, this evidently was not perfect.

It would not surprise me if a great amount of that information still exists (Venice was never destroyed and never suffered serious damage – e.g. they yielded to Napoleon essentially without a fight – and there is a tremendous literature on Venetian history) but if so, I do not presently have it. But even if I did know all that, it would be difficult to use it to "prove" to you that range3 voting "worked well" for Venice. What we need is to condense all that info into some kind of time-average measure of how well it worked. What could that measure be? Well... how about the remarkable prosperity and longetivity of Venice despite its circumstances...

From the founding of city to 1000 AD

Orso Ipato
726-737 (assassinated)

Interregnum with return to an autocratic form of rule 737-742

Teodato Ipato
742-755 (deposed, blinded, and exiled; ditto for the next 3 doges)
Galla Gaulo
Domenico Monegario
Maurizio Galbaio
Giovanni Galbaio
787-804 (fled)
Obelario degli Antenori
804-811 (killed when attempted to regain power; the year 810 was important since it is then the mainland was officially abandoned and the islands made the seat of power )
Agnello Participazio
811-827 (forced into exile by son)
Giustiniano Participazio
Giovanni Participazio I
Pietro Tradonico
836-864 (assassinated)
Orso Partcipazio I
864-881 (found and executed the assassins)
Giovanni Participazio II
881-887 (resigned; health problems)
Pietro Candiano I
887 (killed in battle)
Pietro Tribuno
Orso Participazio II
Pietro Candiano II
Pietro Participazio
Pietro Candiano III
Pietro Candiano IV
959-976 (killed in riot)
Pietro Orseolo I
Vitale Candiano
Tribuno Memmo
Pietro Orseolo II

From 1000 AD to 1268 AD

Otto Orseolo
1008-1026 (arrested & banished for nepotism)
Pietro Centrancio
1026-1032 (abdicated under pressure)
Domenico Flabancio
Domenico Contarini
Domenico Selvo
Vitale Falier
Viatle Michiel I
Ordelafo Falier
Domenico Michiel
Pietro Polani
Domenico Morosini
Vitale Michiel II
Sebastiano Ziani
Orio Mastropiero
Enrico Dandalo
1192-1205 (In 1204, Western Crusader forces led by Venice conquer Constantinople. As her share of the spoils, Venice gets control over Crete, the Cyclades and Sporades Aegean island groups, and some of mainland Greece.)
Pietro Ziani
Giacomo Tiepolo
Marin Morosoni
Renier Zeno

1268 AD (when adopted, essentially, the final election method based on range3 voting) to 1485 AD

Lorenzo Tiepolo
Jacopo Contarini
Giovanni Dandolo
Pietro Gradenigo
1289-1311 (In 1310, the mysterious "Council of Ten" is formed. They were elected to 6-month terms by the Great Council, and reported back to them.)
Marino Zorzi
Giovanni Soranzo
Francesco Dandolo
Bartolomeo Gradenigo
Andrea Dandolo
Marino Faliero
1354-1355 (convicted of treason, executed)
Giovanni Gradenigo
Giovanni Dolfin
Lorenzo Celsi
Marco Corner
Andrea Contarini
1368-1382 (In 1380 Venice, exhausted by war with Genoa, ceded Treviso to Austria and looked to be in trouble. But it recovered through brilliant diplomacy.)
Michele Morosoni
Antonio Venier
1382-1400 (In 1386, Venice takes control of the Ionian Islands in Southern Greece.)
Michele Steno
1400-1413 (In 1405, Padua comes under direct Venetian rule; becomes educational center of the Venetian empire.)
Tommaso Mocenigo
1414-1423 (In 1420, Venice takes control of Friuli in NE Italy and the Istria peninsula.)
Francesco Foscari
1423-1457 (In his 80s, a pissed-off Foscari cut off communication with the rest of government and then was forced, or at least highly successfully pressured, to abdicate by the "Council of Ten," a mysterious group which reported to the Great Council; war with Milan 1425-1454 ended victoriously; Venice swallows the E-Italy city of Ravenna in 1441 and similarly swallowed Cremona, Bergamo, Brescia, Crema)
Pasquale Malipiero
Cristoforo Moro
Nicolo Tron
Nicolo Marcello
Pietro Mocenigo
Andrea Vendramin
Giovanni Mocenigo
1478-1485 (In 1479, Venice loses Negroponte, aka the Isle of Euboea in the Aegean sea, to the Turks; similarly loses Scutari [city near Constantinople] and the Greek Morea region.)

From 1485 to 1655 AD

Marco Barbarigo
Agostino Barbarigo
Leonardo Loredan
1501-1521 (The "League of Cambrai," an alliance between Spain, France, Ferrara, Mantua, Julius II, and Emperor Maximilian, join to destroy Venice... but it survived.)
Antonio Grimani
Andrea Gritti
Pietro Lando
Francesco Donato
Marcantonio Trevisan
Francesco Venier
Lorenzo Priuli
Girolamo Priuli
Pietro Loredan
Alvise Mocenigo I
Sebastiano Venier
Nicolo da Ponte
1578-1585 (In 1582, the governmental powers of the mysterious "Council of Ten" are removed.)
Pasquale Ciconga
Marino Grimani
Leonardo Dona
Marcantonio Memmo
Giovanni Bembo
Nicolo Dona
Antonio Priuli
Francesco Contarini
Giovanni Corner I
Nicolo Contarini
1630-1631 (1630 was the year of the worst depredations by the Black Plague; some claim this epidemic triggered the decline of Venice's power leading to its ultimate fall to Napoleon and the Ottomans)
Francesco Errizo
Francesco Molin

From 1655 AD to 1797 AD (when Venice was conquered by Napoleon and soon was handed over to Austria under the Hapsburgs)

Carlo Contarini
Francesco Corner
Bertuccio Valiero
Giovanni Pesaro
Domenico II Contarini
Nicolo Sagredo
Luigi Contarini
Marcantonio Giustinian
Francesco Morosini
Silvestro Valiero
Alvise II Mocenigo
Giovanni Corner
1709-1722 (The 1718 Treaty of Passarowitz between Austria and Turkey ended Venice as a major European power. Her navies became outdated and her merchant sea-trading no longer important compared to that of the western European countries.)
Sebastiano Mocenigo
Carlo Ruzzini
Alvise Pisani
Pietro Grimani
Francesco Loredan
Marco Foscarini
Alvise Giovanni Mocenigo
Paolo Renier
Ludovico Manin
1789-1797 (forced to abdicate by Napoleon)

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