The Venetian patriciate in modern times

According to Italian modernist historian Marino Berengo, Italy in modern times is a space made up of " patriciates "In each city, in other words of leading social groups, which hold most of the power, and which belong to the upper strata of society. Inherited from the Roman tradition and the eponymous ancient notion, the patriciate is distinguished from the nobility by the public office it holds within the city.

The nobility, of feudal origin, which can be found for example in France or Spain, based its power on the possession of land and the related jurisdictional rights. In short, in many Italian cities, the patriciate is the state; and the state is the patriciate. The two concepts are inseparable, and sometimes even tend to be confused. This phenomenon is particularly visible within the Republic of Venice, which was able to acquire, very early on, a powerful and omnipotent patriciate.

The birth of the Venetian patriciate

The Venetian patriciate did not come out of nowhere. It is the result of a process of affirmation by a determined social group, which has learned the lessons of the conjectures of its time to assert itself within the state apparatus of the Republic. We are then still in the Middle Ages, and more precisely in the 13th century. These are troubled times for Venice, which is losing momentum against its "rival sister", the Republic of Genoa. In 1261, the Treaty of Nymphaeon granted the Genoese, and to the detriment of the Venetians, considerable commercial and economic privileges. From then on, the conflict between Venice and Genoa became chronic. At the same time, the Republic is seeking to expand on earth, and to constitute what historians call a domain of "Terre Fermé". It is in this context that the Venetians led expeditions to Veneto, some of which were unsuccessful, such as that of Ancona in 1277. The fate then seemed to fall on the lagoon city, since it had to suffer, in 1284, to 'major floods, which the Venetians call the " acque alte ", In other words" high water ". That same year, Venice refused to participate in a crusade, and the Pope anathematized the city. It was in this painful context that the eminent figures of the city, the most powerful people, decided to unite, creating a new social group destined to institutionally and politically control the Republic: the patriciate.

Therefore, when the city of Venice is acquiring an urban and administrative network in " sestieri ", That is to say in quarters, the Venetians instituted in 1172 a" Maggior Consiglio ", In other words a" Great Council ". It is an assembly, republican in nature, which elects, for life, the representative of the state, namely the Doge. It is within this assembly that the patriciate will define itself, assert itself, and proclaim its birth and institutional existence. The major event is the " Serrata ". It marks, in 1297, the appearance stricto sensu of the patriciat. This is a "closure" of the ruling group: all those who had served, for the last four years, between 1293 and 1297, in the largest assembly in the city, were eligible for the newly constituted and established Grand Council. The names of the patricians authorized to sit on the Grand Council were subsequently entered, from 1506, in the "Golden Book". The original families are highly respected, and are referred to as "Fathers", "Ancestors". In other words, these are the twelve "apostolic families", constitutive of the republican regime in Venice, and the twelve oldest families of the capital, called " Longhi ". From that moment, the patricians began to develop a whole ideology, which it is possible to qualify as " forma mentis ", In the sense that it carries essential and introductory values, inherent and intrinsic to the leading group that is the patriciate. At first, this forma mentis is used to justify and legitimize the seizure of power by the patricians of the Venetian state.

Characteristics of a dominant social group

It is therefore a dominant social group, which is characterized by its own values. First of all, it is about respecting the hereditary nobility, which is truly seen as a biological characteristic and, therefore, as the keystone of the perpetuation of the state, of the Venetian republican regime. Also the status of patrician is characterized above all by the natural and "biological" propensity that he possesses in the action to govern and to hold power. In other words, political practices are inherent in the ruling group of the Republic, and are part of a fundamental "ideological fund", which defines it in its essence. Thus, the patrician, who dedicates an infinite respect to the figure of the "Ancestor", who projected him to power, is the embodiment of the very principle of the State. Nevertheless, it would be inappropriate to believe that the ruling group of the Republic of Venice constitutes a homogeneous caste, where all of its members enjoy similar social, economic and political status.

The patriciate is therefore characterized above all by its proteiformity. It is by no means a uniform social group, contrary to the values ​​advocated by the primitive ideology of the end of the 13th and beginning of the 14th centuries. In fact, three groups make up the patriciate of the Republic of Venice, throughout the modern era, from 1297, until 1797, the year of the fall and disappearance of the regime. If we start from the "base", from the foundations, we can find a set of penniless patricians, the majority in number, but with severely limited powers. These idle patricians are content with administrative posts and minor magistracies, where they can find the means of their subsistence. They are called, in the sources, the " barnabotti ", where the " plebei ", That is, the" popular ". The group of the judicial nobility constitutes an intermediate class, an additional social stratification: these are the " Quarantotti ", Who occupy the positions of the Venetian courts, the" Quarantine ". Finally, the ruling class, which occupies the highest positions of the state, is regularly referred to as the "senatorial class", or even also called "oligarchy" from the 16th century. The oligarchs are present within the Council of Ten, the Zonta of Ten, the Council of Pregadi, the Zonta of the Senate, or of course the dogat. In other words, they hold the most prestigious positions in the state apparatus of the Republic of Venice.

The crises of the patriciat: conflict between "Vecchi" and "Giovani"

The context of the second and the last third of the seventeenth century in Venice is particular, insofar as it sees the social, political and economic division of the ruling group strengthen, but also and above all become radicalized over the years. The starting point is the institutional crisis of 1582-1583. For several months, the election mechanism of the Zonta des Dix, organized by the Grand Council, stalled. Nearly twenty years later, the Forbidden Affair (1606-1607) marked the culmination of these institutional troubles. From then on, the patriciate of the Republic split between the " Giovani " and the " Vecchi ", That is, between the" Young "and the" Old ". The former were in favor of change, of renewal, in the face of the immobility of the latter, accused of having established the state in a context of institutional and political lethargy. The opposition between these two "factions" becomes chronic and lasts over time, especially with the institutional crisis of 1628-1629, which brought the Republic into a period of trouble, because of the antagonism between the Corner family and Renier. Zeno, leader of the Ten, who accused the doge Giovanni Corner of wanting to install the members of his family in the highest offices of the State.

Thus, more than an ideological fracture which operates within the republican leading group from the Forbidden affair, it is the crisis born of the demographic decline in which the patricians are anchored in the XVIᵉ and especially in the 17th century which is essential. Therefore, in order to respond to this "social decay" and, above all, to alleviate the financial disaster represented by the Candian War (1645-1669), the Venetian State put the title of patrician on sale, breaking de facto with two centuries of strict closure of the ruling group, inherited from the Serrata of 1297. From then on, one hundred and twenty new families were integrated into the patriciat. As a result, it is interesting to observe how circumstances with a strong pragmatic connotation, relating to demographic history and the practice of foreign policy, could have had as much impact on the economy first, then on Venetian society as a whole thereafter. Also, what is called the question of “aggregations” (integration of new families within the patriciat), reveals the beginning of an intense social tension within the ruling group, characteristic of identity and moral troubles . Consequently, the group of " Giovani "Strongly opposed the newly integrated families, feeling threatened by the economic strength of these newly integrated. Fearing that the financial power of the latter could allow them easier access to state and institutional offices - and therefore to the conduct of state and government affairs -, the "Young" entered, at this precise moment, in a phase of sincere questioning of the identity of the patriciate, of what historian Anna Bellavitis calls a " in-depth reworking of what being a Venetian patrician meant ».

Thus, while it was constituted and instituted in the thirteenth century, and that it will last through the centuries without experiencing a major crisis, the patriciate was characterized in the seventeenth century by the revelation of a real identity crisis. In reaction to this phenomenon, " Giovani patrizi »Have redefined the fundamental principles of forma mentis of the Venetian patriciate, of the ideology of the ruling class.


- RAINES Dorit, “Powers or privileges of nobility. The dilemma of the Venetian patriciate in the face of the 17th century aggregations ”, Annals. Savings. Companies. Civilizations, 46, 4 (1991), p. 827-847.

- RAINES Dorit, The invention of the aristocratic myth. The self-image of the Venetian patriciate in the time of the Serenissima, Venice, Istituto Veneto di Scienze Lettere ed Arti, 2006.

- BORGNA Romain, FAGGION Lucien (dir.), The Prince by Fra Paolo. Political practices and forma mentis of the patriciat in Venice in the XVII century, Aix-en-Provence, University of Provence, 2011.

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