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Selection by Lot in Venice

Giovanni Bellini, Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan, 1501 [1]

Giovanni Bellini, Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan, 1501

3,018 words

Following the Greeks’ experiment in democracy, sortition did not play any political role in the western world until the 11th century, when a relative power vacuum in Northern Italy led to the emergence of independent city-states.

At the time, the political and social conditions in Northern Italy were vastly different from the feudal system in Northern Europe. In Northern Europe, states were ruled by hereditary monarchs to whom the land-owning nobility professed allegiance and from whom they courted favors. In Northern Italy, however, feudal ties were comparatively weaker, and the aristocracy were fiercely independent and rarely recognized any higher authority. The self-governing Italian city-states therefore needed to find a way of keeping aristocratic rivalry and ambition in check, and they developed novel political election methods known as the Brevia and the Scrutiny, in which sortition played a key role.[1]

The Brevia was a method of indirect election that was utilized by a majority of the Italian city-states at some point in the late medieval and early renaissance period. The process involved the use of sortition to select an electoral college from among a pool of eligible citizens. The specific measures varied from city to city, but in general those selected by lot were isolated in secret conclaves while they deliberated and voted on their new leaders. The individual delegates who made up the electoral college could not be known before the drawing of lots, and following their selection they were immediately separated from the rest of the community so they could not be influenced from anyone outside. This was designed to eliminate corruption and intimidation in the election process and to insure those elected by the college worked towards the common good of the community rather than factional interests of wealthy and influential groups.[2]



Venice was the most prominent city that practiced the Brevia. The Most Serene Republic was different from the other Italian city-states in that it was largely insulated by the political conflicts that dominated the Italian mainland, as the city was built upon a series of islands within a lagoon making it accessible only by boat. Consequently Venice was largely spared the violent upheavals which dominated the continent, from the barbarian armies which plundered the ruins of the Roman Empire in the West to the conflict between the Empire and the Papacy. Venice found its economic niche in trading with the orient, and it became the wealthiest city in Europe, shipping valuable goods between the Christian West and Islamic East. As a consequence, her political interests were largely orientated in that direction.[3]

Since Venice became independent of the Byzantine Empire in the late 8th century, its form of government remained broadly democratic and representative. The Doge, who was the head of state, was initially elected by the general assembly or arengo. His power was theoretically checked by two elements. The first was the veto power of 2 elected tribunes, which were later replaced by a number of elected judges or giudici, who were part magistrates, part ministers of state. Secondly all citizens had a right to speak and vote on major issues affecting their city, through the arengo.[4]

These arrangements originally seemed to serve the city well; however, as the city expanded in numbers and influence, its political institutions could not cope with the changes. Specifically, the arengo was too small to accommodate the increased population, and it became largely unworkable as a direct representative institution. In its later years, it was rarely called unless absolutely necessary, as the meetings risked degenerating into a riotous mob. It was therefore only consulted whenever votes were needed to elect a new Doge or to declare war.

The chaotic disorder of the arengo allowed the Doge to wield power without accountability. This state of affairs prompted reforms in 1172 following a massive military reversal in Venice’s war with Byzantium. The Doge Vitale Michiel, who had led the Venetians in their disastrous war, was held responsible and murdered by a mob from the very assembly that had voted him into power 14 years earlier. In the aftermath, the Venetian constitution was reformed over a period of a century to take powers away from both the Doge and the arengo while increasing it in the center, tilting the Venetian Republic into an oligarchic form of government which it retained for the next 600 years.[5]

The Consiglio Grande (Great Council) was formed in 1172 and took responsibility for electing the Doge away from the arengo, which, stripped of its powers, was called less and less frequently and slowly drifted into irrelevancy. However, as late as 1201 the arengo continued to play an important role in the Venetian constitution as the chronicler of the fourth crusade Geoffrey Villehardoun documented that the then Doge Enrico Dandolo sought the approval of the arengo, a 10,000-strong crowd, before agreeing to an short-term alliance with the Franks for the purpose of recovering Jerusalem from the Moslems.

Given that the contract of alliance did not specify the actual enemy Venice would have been fighting, it gave the Doge a blank check to engineer policy on the spot, without accountability and scrutiny. Freed of such constraints, the Doge worked to pervert the course of the crusade away from an attack on Islamic Egypt and towards the sacking of Christian Constantinople. This course of action, while immensely profitable to Venice in the short term, was not very wise, as it delivered a crippling blow to the Byzantine Empire, which would eventually be swallowed up by the Ottoman Empire as they expanded northwards reaching as far as the gates of Vienna.[6]

Initially the members of the Consiglio were elected, but this practice was ended in 1297 when elections to the council were suspended permanently. Those who were members on that date were entered into the Libro d’Oro (Golden Book) and became members for life, passing on their privileges and noble status to their sons through hereditary descent. The Consiglio formed the lottery pool in which nominating committees for vacant offices were selected via sortition. The nominating committee would withdraw to a separate chamber, and individual members of the committee would then draw a further lot to randomly allocate each committee member with a vacant office to which he was obliged to nominate a candidate. If this nomination met with the approval of the rest of the committee through a two-thirds vote, then the nomination were was referred back to the whole Consiglio who would then either vote for or against the candidate by secret ballot.[7]

These nominating committees were used to select both government officers and representatives who would make and implement the policies of the Venetian Republic. The Consiglio had no function other than as an electoral college. The senate was the legislative branch, and the Doge with his Ducal councilors performed the executive function. Despite the restrictions placed on Ducal power, the Doge still held the most powerful office in the Republic, and the Venetians used sortition in an even more convoluted and indirect electoral process to prevent the tyrannical concentration of power into a single family.

On the day of the election of the Doge, the youngest member of the Ducal Council would pray at St. Marks, and then on his return to the Consiglio stop the first boy that he came across. This boy, known as the Ballotino, would draw the lots in front of the Consiglio. Unlike for lower offices, the election of a Doge would involve sortition being used in multiple instances. The process in which the nominating committee was selected alone involved a mind boggling 5 lotteries and 4 votes.

The 41 selected members of the nominating committee would be locked away in secret conclave in the Doge’s palace and surrounded by armed guards. Each nominator was given a slip of paper to write the name of his chosen candidate who would then place it into the urn. Once completed, a list was compiled of all the candidates, and a single slip written for each candidate was put back into the urn regardless of the number of nominations.

A lot was then drawn, and the candidate selected would be scrutinized by the nominating committee who would debate amongst themselves and summon the candidate to the conclave to question him. After this a ballot followed, and if the candidate obtained the required 25 votes, he was elected Doge. If he did not, then the nominating committee drew another slip from the urn and would repeat the process again and again until a candidate received enough votes to be elected Doge.[8]

The Venetian Republic operated on the principle that the office should seek the man, not that the man should seek the office. Sortition helped ensure this, as it undermined any patronage networks an ambitious and wealthy man could expect to form. The remuneration and terms of service rarely matched the income and lifestyle that a wealthy nobleman could enjoy privately through his commercial enterprises. Service to the Republic was compulsory to those who were selected, and those who refused suffered legal penalties. Office, therefore, became a form of national service to the Republic, which the individual often found personally disagreeable but nevertheless considered to be his civic duty.[9]

It was the Venetian government which played a key role in the economic success of Venice, whose wealth was not based upon faithful adherence to “free market” principles but rather to the active management of the economy by the state. For Venice, this meant responsibility for its maritime trade. Shipbuilding became a nationalized industry managed by the Republic through the Arsenal, a complex of state-owned shipyards and armories that at its peak capacity employed over 16,000 highly skilled craftsmen who utilized the techniques of mass production to turn out fully-equipped warships in just a couple of hours. Venetian ships were of a similar design, their parts interchangeable, so that merchantmen could be quickly refitted into war galleys in times of war. These state-owned merchant galleys moved at the same speed and so formed massive trade convoys of approximately 500 vessels for protection. They followed specified routes, fixed months in advance by the senate.

Venice’s important industries were rigorously protected from foreign competition, skilled artificers were forbidden from leaving the city, and industrial secrets were guarded by the death penalty. In return, Venetian workers enjoyed strong social security provisions through the guild system. Each individual guild, whose industries were managed by the Republic, looked after their members in sickness and old-age and assumed responsibility for widows and orphans upon death.[10]

Venice was the first government in Europe, if not the world, to take significant responsibility for the public health of its citizens. In 1335, the Republic had 12 full-time doctor-surgeons on the payroll and in 1368 founded a school of medicine to advance the science. Its system of justice gave equal protection to everyone no matter his status.[11] Finally, education was not left in private hands, and the Republic subsidized universities such as Padua.[12]

Venice was considerably ahead of her time in keeping the church separate from the state, which is no doubt the reason for the remarkable fact that alone out of all the Catholic states of Europe it had never sentenced a single heretic to be burnt to death, despite living through the turbulent religious wars of the 15th and 16th centuries.[13] The degree of toleration was such that Venice became the leading intellectual center of the Renaissance, as witnessed by the fact that within 30 years of the city’s first printer license being issued in 1469, more books had been published in Venice than Rome, Milan, Florence, and Naples combined.[14]

Venice’s form of government remained essentially unchanged for the next 600 years, and the Venetian constitution would come to be known by Republican theorists such as Machiavelli and Harrington as an anchor of stability and liberty in an otherwise hostile world, the key ingredient of sortition not going unnoticed by either of them.

Externally, the Republic survived many challenges to its independence. In 1499 a new trade route to the East via the Cape of Good Hope was discovered, which quickly superseded the old overland route on which Venice’s maritime trade depended. It also survived the expansion of the Ottoman Empire into Europe from the 15th century onwards, winning successful naval engagements, such as the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, and between 1645 and 1669 almost singlehandedly resisted Ottoman attempts to capture Crete in an epic siege that lasted for 24 years.

While Venice possessed many redeeming qualities, the government was not perfect and did not always act wisely. This is no doubly partly due to the mercantile spirit of the Republic, which tended to place commercial interests center stage, and partly due to the inherent limitations of the government structure.

Venice was a willing participant in the white slave trade transporting Christians from the Caucasus to the Islamic world to be sold as domestic servants, bodyguards, and concubines. They also sold them to the vast sugar plantations in Crete and Cyprus, which served as a model for later slave plantations in the new world.

Venice’s reputation for religious toleration and its role as an economic hub in the slave trade helps explain why the city became a magnet for Jews. In 1374, the Jews from the surrounding mainland were invited to settle in the city. However, their sharp money-lending practices prompted their expulsion 21 years later. The familiar cycle of toleration followed by restriction played out in Venice, much like in all other cities across Europe. The political elites would invite Jews to invest in their cities. However, Jewish moneylenders established a pattern of exploitation of the population through usury until the situation became intolerable, and the government passed laws designed to restrict Jewish activity. Venice was no different in this regard.[15]

It should also be pointed out that the Most Serene Republic, despite its rulers being elected, was also a police state. This of course made Venice hardly unique, as so was every other state in the period we are describing. The only difference was that Venice’s intelligence and security services were far more efficient than the rest in uncovering plots that threatened to overthrow the Republic, which helps explain why it survived for over 600 years and did not succumb to internal coups or revolutions. Also, the permitted range of opinion was far wider in Venice than among its contemporaries, especially in the area of religion, which dominated political life.[16]

Abuse of these powers was rare, however, as the Council of Ten, originally formed in 1310, which directed the apparatus was an elected body and subject to annual rotation, with no member being allowed to serve twice in a row and no more than one family member present at one time. Unlike most other offices of the Republic, they were not elected through a sortition-based electoral college but rather from lists drawn up jointly by the Council of Ten and the senate. But the Council of Ten were powerless to act without the consent of the Doge and his Ducal councilors who owed their position to a sortition-based electoral college.[17]

The oligarchic system was also handicapped by the size and the nature of the nobility who ran Venice. A nobleman’s seat in the great council and eligibility for office was hereditary and restricted to the great commercial families of the 13th century. Very few new families were admitted in the subsequent period. Over the centuries, the composition of this ruling class changed quite starkly, some family lines disappearing altogether, shrinking the size of an already small lottery pool.

But more significant was the corrupting effect of the massive disparities in wealth and social status of the later nobility. Over the centuries, economic misfortunes fell upon many of the noble families, and there emerged an impoverished noble class referred to as the barnabotti after the parish in which they resided. These barnabotti were too poor and uneducated to occupy any but the lowest administrative positions in the Republic, and being nobles they were legally barred from earning a living as tradesmen in the numerous craft guilds of Venice. Destitute, these barnabotti increasingly drifted into selling the only thing they had of value: their votes. The selling of votes and the rigging of minor elections became a recurrent theme throughout the later years of the Republic, in which power was effectively wielded by only 42 families.[18]

It is clear in its final years that Venice had fallen far from its ideal maxim that “the office should seek the man.” Corruption enabled ambitious men with wealth and connections to gain office through pathways of patronage and trading favors.[19] Against the very intentions of its founders, de facto power became concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Centralization of power into individual hands, as Aristotle argued, can potentially do a great deal of good, but it is always a double-edged sword.

Leaders such as Andrea Tron in the late 18th century emerged to lobby against Venetian decadence and in one case managed to enact legislation in 1777 to remove the Jewish stranglehold over the Venetian economy by barring Jews from manufacturing and forbidding them to employ Christians or own property in the city.[20]

However, wise and competent leadership was rare, and more often than not, ultimate power ended up in the hands of those who deserved it least. In 1789 Venice elected a mediocrity by the name of Lodovico Manin as their Doge, who in concert with his incompetent officers completely mismanaged the crisis of the French Revolution. There is not space here to detail the catalog of blunders which ultimately led to the fall of the Republic at the hands of Napoleon in 1797, but it is safe to say that the political institutions that had allowed Venice to weather six centuries had become entirely corrupted, so the Republic was unable to cope when it finally faced a serious challenge.[21]


[1] Dowlen, 69-70.

[2] Dowlen, 75-76.

[3] John Julius Norwich, A History of Venice (London: Penguin, 2003), 5.

[4] Norwich, 34.

[5] Norwich, 108-10.

[6] Norwich, 127.

[7] Dowlen, 100-102.

[8] Norwich, 166-67.

[9] Norwich, 119.

[10] Norwich, 84-85, 272-74.

[11] Norwich, 275.

[12] Norwich, 285.

[13] Norwich, 282, 594.

[14] Norwich, 412.

[15] Norwich, 270-73.

[16] Norwich, 525.

[17] Norwich, 197-98.

[18] Norwich, 596.

[19] Dowlen, 103.

[20] Norwich, 602.

[21] Norwich, 605-31.