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Venetian Nobility

There were several noble patrician families of Venice during the time of the Republic, one of which was the Pisani family. In this section I am keen to highlight some of the more notable Pisani noblemen and how they were linked to form a formidable familial force within the Republic of Venice.

The position of Venice, on the Adriatic Sea, meant that it was able to trade freely and extensively with the Byzantine Empire and the Muslim world, and it fast became the most prosperous of all European cities in the late thirteenth century. When at the peak of its powers it had 36,000 sailors operating 3,300 ships, dominating Mediterranean trade. It’s army was also sizable. It was during this time that many splendid and opulent palaces sprung up – when the leading Venetian families vied for grandeur and position, supporting the work of some of the most talented artists of the time. 

Venice was governed by the Great Council, which consisted of members of the most influential families. The council appointed all of the public officials within Venice and elected a representative senate consisting of 200 to 300 people. From this senate came the election of the Council of Ten, a secretive and powerful group which held the key to the administration of the city. From this council a Doge was elected – the ceremonial head of the Republic. 

The Venetians were very much resigned to hierarchy in their government and society. In 1315, the Venetian Golden Book of the Nobility listed the names of the most influential families in the city, allowing them membership in the Great Council and disenfranchising all others. During the entire two centuries of the Renaissance, the list of families changed on only a few occasions, and only after great hesitation and deliberation. In other words, the Venetian society was very stable. Even so, the lower classes had less to complain about in the wealthy city than they did in many other areas. The Venetian nobility differed from that of the majority of Europe in that they were often not excessively wealthy, but rather hard working businessmen of varying degrees of success. Thus, the hierarchy of Venice was less oppressive to the lower classes than that in other areas.

The Venetian nobility had a strong commitment to oligarchy and were very wary of those who wished to usurp power from the Great Council. In fact, the Council of Ten, while often working for corrupt and self-serving purposes, frequently worked to destroy the ambition of political climbers and would-be usurpers of power. In its maintenance of power, the Council of Ten held monarchy at bay. Though hierarchy was essential to the Venetian way of life, the nobility strongly believed that among their ranks there should be equality and democracy, and, as a group, acted quickly to knock down any member of their class who appeared to feel differently. The destruction of Doge Francesco Foscari assured that the Doge of Venice would never again attempt to assume monarchical power. In the case of Foscari, the Council of Ten acted firmly to re-establish oligarchy, which would last to the end of the Renaissance.

Venice, as a city primarily concerned with commerce and finance, never became a producer of artistic and literary talent; instead, it imported. Artists were attracted to Venice's wealth, and many immigrated to the city during the Renaissance, including, most prominently, the writer Pietro Aretino and the painter Titian.