History of the customs elections. From arengo to balotin

Established in 697 the office of doge, except for an interruption (737-742), it remained uninterrupted until the end of the Republic (1797); let's see how it was born and how the methods of election of the head of the Republic of Venice changed over time.

Before the Doges

In the seventh century, the major islands of the lagoon were governed by tribunes elected by the Arengo or General Concione, a popular assembly in which the sovereignty of the young lagoon state resided. However, the tribunes had to account for their work as magister militum who exercised civil and military power on behalf of the exarch of Ravenna in his role as representative of the Eastern emperor under whose political sphere Venice still found itself.

At the end of the century, with the increase of the population and the need to improve the defensive system against pirate raids and Lombard raids, the local government entrusted the defense of the entire lagoon settlement to a single chief elected for life and chosen, it seems, with the approval of the emperor of the East himself.

This civil governor was given the title of dux, a Latin word meaning "commander" from which the word doge originated. The doge was initially supported by a co-regent, very often a son or a brother.

The first doges

The organization of the nascent doge thus took a new form: each island was entrusted to a minor tribune who had to answer to the major tribune, which had jurisdiction over a well-defined archipelago of islands; above the tribunes, however, there was the doge.

The first was, in 697, Paoluccio Anafesto: At the time of the emperor Anastasius and Liutprand, king of the Lombards - the deacon Giovanni, author of one of the oldest chronicles of Venice, wrote - all Venetians, patriarch and bishops, with general council determined that from then on it was more honorable to be governed by doges rather than by tribunes; and having long discussed who among them to raise to such dignity, they finally found a very expert and illustrious man, named Paulicius, whom they elected consul.

The twelve families, called "apostolic", of the Badoer, Barozzi, Contarini, Dandolo, Falier, Gradenigo, Memmo, Michiel, Morosini, Polani, Sanudo and Tiepolo participated in the election. Perhaps the Bembo, the Bragadin, the Corners and the Giustinians were also present, the four families called “evangelists”, with a few other constitutive nuclei of the most exclusive and ancient European aristocracy.

The life of the Doges, at the beginning, was anything but easy. In fact, the families of the tribunes could hardly bear to have been deprived of authority and not infrequently plotted conspiracies to overthrow the power of those who governed. As happened in 737 to Orso Ipato (727-737) third doge of Venice. During the following five years only magistri militum were elected who held office for only one year and were elected with the votes of the small circle of families of the former tribunes. The situation did not please the people, however, who, in 742, following an umpteenth riot, once again obtained a single leader, the doge.

In 1156 Vitale II Michiel (1156-1172) was the last doge to be elected by the popular assembly because on his death a new electoral system with restricted suffrage came into force.

In 1172, after careful evaluation, the Council of the Elders and the elders proposed to entrust the election of the doge to a committee of eleven members. The assembly of the "people universe" would have ratified it by acclamation.

This electoral reform removed any regalistic attribute from the Doge's office. The doge essentially became a duke in title, with functions that placed him at the level of a monarch while not having, in reality, any decision-making power.

He was therefore a very different figure from those who held power in the East and the West. Its great prestige was mainly due to the fact of representing the Republic in its continuity, in its aristocratic tradition, in its laws, in its moral intransigence and in its strength. He was the first and most faithful servant of the Republic. It was the living image of what really mattered: the state. The first doge to be elected with this system was Sebastiano Ziani (1172 -1178) on 29 September 1172.

Another novelty in electoral terms dates back to the time of Marino Morosini (1249-1253): Morosini was in fact the first to be appointed by a college raised from 40 to 41 members to prevent the number of voters from being equal.

The new election system

In 1268, on the death of Renier (or Raniero) Zen (1253-1268), a new and complex system for the election of the doge was approved, a mechanism that remained in force, without substantial changes, until the fall of the Republic.

At the beginning of the preliminary operations to the conclave, the youngest councilor went to the church of San Marco and nominated the first child between eight and ten years old he came across as a "ballottino" (the appointment automatically resulted in the rank of Notary Ducal and the right to be retained in studies). The dose balotin, as it was familiarly called, had the task of extracting the ballotte, ie the balls that were used for voting. Contained in a cloth hat, there were as many as the members of the Maggior Consiglio. Thirty of them included a note with the word elector. Thirty gold balls were later used while all the others were silver.

The ballottino was blindfolded, extracted the balls and handed them, one at a time, to the members of the Maggior Consiglio who passed in front of him. The thirty who had been given a ball of gold (finding the gold ball still today in Venice means having luck) did not have to be linked by family ties in which case they were replaced.

At this point, the unselected left the room and nine of them were drawn from the thirty. These nominated forty members who were reduced to twelve by lottery and the twelve elected twenty-five who, again by lottery, were reduced to nine. The nine were in charge of choosing forty-five voters who a further draw reduced to eleven. The eleven drawn elected the Doge's forty-one electors, each of whom had to obtain at least nine votes.

The Most Excellent Quarantaun (Forty-one) met in conclave at the Doge's Palace and proceeded to appoint the doge for which it was necessary to obtain at least twenty-five votes and which then had to be approved by the popular assembly.

The complicated procedure - the election of the Quarantaun was the result of nine ballots alternating by drawing lots - had been adopted in order to avoid any form of clientelism. The first doge to be elected with this system was Lorenzo Tiepolo (1268-1273) and the formula with which he was presented to the people Questo xe missier lo Doxe, se ve piaxe (This is mister Doge, if you like it) sanctioned the loss of authority of the popular assembly.

The complicated mechanism was also celebrated by popular poetry. That's how:

Trenta elegge il conseglio.
Di quei nove hanno il meglio;
questi eleggon quaranta;
ma chi di lor si vanta
son dodici che fanno
venticinque: ma stanno
di questi solo nove
che fan con le lor prove
quarantacinque a ponto
de’ quali undici in conto,
eleggon quarantuno,
che chiusi tutti in uno,
con venticinque almeno
voti, fanno il sereno
Principe che corregge
statuti, ordini e legge.

(Thirty elects the conseglio.
Of those nine they have the best;
these elect forty;
but who of them boasts
there are twelve that do
twenty-five: but they stay
of these only nine
that they do with their tests
forty-five to ponto
of which eleven on account,
elect forty-one,
that closed all in one,
with twenty-five at least
votes, make the serene
Correcting prince
statutes, orders and law.)


It is part of the series: Doges of Venice

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