Page images
PDF
EPUB

magistrates, or the assembly of the people, to decide exclusively on the validity of his reason.

It is manifest, therefore, that the preponderance of the Avvogadori was resistless, since they had only to avail themselves of the jealousies necessarily existing between the various bodies of the state, and select that one as their judge, whose views and interests were opposed to the law or decree suspended by their Veto. They thus prevented the powers of the government from being concentrated in the hands of any one of those bodies. The name, the office, the dignity, and the functions of the Avvogadori were preserved in appearance until the total ruin of the republic. But their power of opposing either the introduction of monarchy, the usurpations of aristocracy, or the licentiousness of the people, although always admitted as a constitutional and inalienable right, had been long substantially annihilated by the State-Inquisition. We shall see hereafter, that the fate of the council of forty was not very dissimilar; it was eventually bound in the chains forged for it by a magistracy which sprang from its own body. Thus were the various powers of the Doge, in whom resided the executive-of the forty, who possessed the legislative and the judicial—and of the Avvogadori, to whom was intrusted the guardianship of the popular rights, balanced according to that system which has been thought to be the contrivance of theoretical politicians. It is, however, far more probable that these checks grew out of the imperious necessity of circumstances, or out of those principles, or rather antipathies, which governed the people of Venice, than that they were formally instituted in imitation of the Republics of Greece or Rome, or in conformity to the speculations of theorists. Such speculations were, indeed, unknown to the age of which we are treating. But no human precautions, however wise, can avail against the slow but certain and irresistible influence of property. Whereever its possession has been confirmed by time, it becomes the surest basis of ambition, and at length bears down everything before it. The families which, for ages, had filled the civil and military offices of the state, while they continued to enrich themselves by commerce, had thus accumulated a stock of influence which was transmitted, increased in every generation, from father to son. Hence arose that Aristocracy which is the result of no positive institutions, but the offspring of wealth rendered venerable by antiquity. It owes its birth and its duration to itself alone, nor can princes or people either establish or abolish it. At the epoch, however, under our consideration, an aristocracy of this nature, although it existed in Venice, did not constitute a distinct body, nor enjoy any exclusive right or privilege. It formed, no doubt, the reigning class, because every people who have their government to form, and the power of choosing their governors, will prefer those who have most influence and power as individuals. The Roman people maintained a struggle for ages with the senate, for the right of electing plebeian consuls, yet, when they prevailed, they made no use of their power, but continued to choose them from among the patrician class.

In the meanwhile, the population of Venice increased; her territorial sovereignty, although still confined within the boundaries of her own marshes in Italy, was extended, in other directions, by her conquests in the Mediterranean. These acquisitions whetted her eagerness for fresh expeditions, and drew her into long wars, which were fed by the fruits of her commerce. Her principal citizens were at once warlike and mercantile,- they commanded her fleets and her armies, and exercised vigilant control over their chief; and while they thus acquired both glory and riches, they maintained the free constitution of the republic. The authority of the Doge, perilous and precarious as it always was, served to divert all popular jealousy from the powerful citizens, to whom it ought rather to have been directed. When the magistrates, who were generally selected from that class, sat in judgment on their prince, the dignity and the legal formality of their proceedings prevented the suspicion of corrupt designs, especially as, in order to get rid of a dangerous responsibility, they usually contrived to have their sentences confirmed by the popular assemblies.

It does not appear, from any existing record, that the sanguinary tumults of the populace, who sometimes constituted themselves judges and executioners of their Doges, were ever punished. On some occasions, possibly, they were; but it is probable that the number of the offenders afforded a reason, or a pretext, for granting impunity to all; and yet more probable, that they had powerful accomplices in their judges.

In whatever degree personal hatred conspired to hurl one Doge after another from the throne, the frequency of the event clearly shows, that it could not have been disagreeable to that great aristocracy in whom the power of prevention or punishment was undoubtedly vested,-and that their connivance in these frequent assassinations, was secured by their design of availing themselves of these scenes of lawlessness and bloodshed as a pretext for abolishing the popular election of the chief magistrate, who was thus summarily disposed of by his constituents. Sometimes the people deposed a Doge whom, but a month before, they had chosen by acclamation ; he was sent into exile and a successor appointed, who, in his turn, was deposed or assassinated, and the exile recalled to the throne, only, perhaps, like Peter Candiano, to be again hurled from it after a few years of power, and murdered by the populace.

The effects of liberty like this, now began to be dreaded by that class of citizens who are neither the mighty nor the mob, but who, in Venice, were numerous, and rich in that sort of property which is the best adapted for the purposes of commerce, and the most obnoxious to pillage. In them the ancient families found allies interested in curbing this popular license; but they availed themselves of their co-operation only so far as they found it absolutely necessary. The remote, but inevitable, effect of the alterations which they subsequently introduced into the constitution, was the total exclusion, not only of the lower, but of the middle classes, from every office in the state, and from every political right.

They had already provided, that the council of forty, upon whom, as we have seen, devolved the sovereign authority during the interregna, might appoint a Doge in cases of extraordinary urgency. The state might otherwise have been kept, for an indefinite length of time, without a chief magistrate, by the dissensions between the partisans of the different candidates. The popular assembly might afterwards confirm this nomination, or might proceed to another election. The fit time for beginning to reduce an occasional example into a constant practice appeared to have arrived, when the last of the forty-three Doges above mentioned was assassinated, and his death succeeded by popular commotions. (A. D. 1172.) Eleven individuals, deputed by the council of forty, then elected a Doge, upon condition that he should ratify a new constitution, the provisions of which were,That the people should have the right of confirming or annulling the elections of the Doges, but not the power of electing them That the Doge should henceforth have no power to choose his own councillors, but that six individuals should be associated with him, subject, however, to his control, who should form an integral part of the supreme magistracy, and without whose concurrence none of his decrees should be valid. (This council, enlarged in process of time by ministers subsequently introduced, and by the heads of other branches of the magistracy, was called, The Signoria.)-That whenever he might stand in need of a larger number of councillors, he should not, as formerly, request the assistance of those citizens whom he thought most capable of advising him, but should consult the forty, to whom were to be added sixty other individuals. These afterwards constituted the body called, in later times, The Senate, while its meetings retained the ancient name of Pregadi, from the very remote usage of requesting (pregare) the citizens to deliberate on affairs of state_That the people should no longer hold meetings, but should delegate the exercise of all their rights to 470 citizens, who should form a body from which should emanate every act relating to the sovereignty. (This was, both then and thereafter, called the Great Council.) —That the members of the Great Council, though liable to be displaced by the people, should not be chosen by them, but by twelve individuals selected from among the inhabitants of the city of Venice. From these twelve, therefore, virtually emanated all the powers and offices of the Republic; and as a large majority of them necessarily belonged to that class which had most influence, either from office, from antiquity of descent, or wealth, it was plainly to be expected that, in one way or other, they should consult the interest of the Aristocracy in their choice of the 470 who were to represent the nation.

The large number of representatives elected by the capital alone, and the exclusion of the inhabitants of the surrounding islands, who had, till then, formed an integral part of the Republic, and taken a share in the popular meetings, rendered the new constitution less distasteful than it would have otherwise been to the people of Venice. But while they rejoiced at seeing those who had been their partners in sovereignty reduced to the condition of their slaves, they seem not to have perceived that they had themselves lost every political right transmitted to them by their ancestors.

The first Doge elected in virtue of this constitution (1172) refused the office; but it was not difficult to find another who accepted it. He was carried in procession through the city, seated on a throne, and introduced the custom, ever after observed, of throwing gold and silver to the populace. So ready are men to sell their rights, and to admire, as munificent liberality, that despicable bribe, which they are always willing to receive as the price of their freedom. But still the aristocracy, though it reduced the people to slavery, had not yet secured to itself a constitutional and stable authority.

Meanwhile, the prosperity of the Republic, the glories of her victories, and the extent of her conquests, were constantly increasing. The silken stuffs, the Tyrian purple, the plumes, the Oriental luxuries, which the historian Eginhard, (Annales Francorum,) in the time of Charlemagne, saw conveyed by the Venetians from the ports of Syria and the Black Sea, were gradually emulated in Venice, and spreading over the north and the west, created new wants throughout Europe, and rendered the whole continent tributary to the nation who had it in her power to supply them. Her manufactures assumed a more enterprising character, and prospered by the aid of her commerce, which, in spite of the rivalry of the other Italian states, succeeded in obtaining possession of almost all the ports of the Mediterranean. Lastly, with an ambition of adorning Venice, and augmenting her splendour, her warrior-merchants brought from Greece fragments and models of ancient architecture, and precious remains, which, although, at that time, unskilfully applied, served to awaken the genius of those artists who, at a later period, embellished their city with edifices of wonderful beauty. The new constitution was established just about the time when Gregory VII. was meditating the Crusades. His design of leading expeditions from all the nations of the West, to carry on religious wars against the East, was, soon after his death, put in execution, and prosecuted through a century and a half, by a series of succeeding popes. The greater number of the vessels required by the kings and the armies of the crusaders were furnished at a high rate by the Venetians ; and the large proportion they engrossed of that commerce of which Europe knew not the value, increased their opulence, and their influence over greater empires. Though they never admitted that they owed vassalage to the Emperor of the East, they were, at first, faithful and zealous auxiliaries in his wars in Italy,-afterwards, powerful allies,-and, at length, they disposed of the throne of Byzantium, and aggrandized themselves with her spoils. The Doge, Henry Dandolo, was indisputably the most powerful of the three confederate princes who conquered Constantinople at the beginning of the thirteenth century. But although others have ascribed his rejection of the imperial crown to magnanimity, it is unquestionable that, if he had accepted it, his generals would have soon struck it to the ground, together with the head which bore it. They would thus have been guided by the two animating principles of the Republic,-resistance to the government of a monarch, and determination never to be connected, in any manner whatsoever, with the political interests of foreigners.

Dandolo, however, took advantage of his preponderance in this great confederation to extend the colonies and the power of his country, securing to her by treaty, the most valuable of the dominions of the Eastern Empire in the Archipelago. (A.D. 1204.)

About this time the popes published bulls forbidding all commerce between Christians and Infidels as sacrilegious; they did not, however, refuse to grant indulgences (like the licenses for belligerent trade of later times) which sometimes enriched the Apos

« PreviousContinue »