Conflict with Rome

One of the most traditional policies of Venice is the State’s control over all religious aspects within the Republic. This ideal is rooted in the legend of St. Mark which says that Christianity was brought to the island by the Saint himself, therefore giving Venice the same prestige as Rome and the Doge the same right to officiate over religious ceremonies. The Doge presided over St. Mark’s in the same capacity as the Pope over the Vatican and controlled the “acquisition and custody of relics, the content of sermons […], the provision of religious services when prelates absented themselves from their posts, the administration of the mss and the cult of saints, the designation of religious festivals, parish administration, and […] discipline.”[i] This role was fortified by Pope Alexander III in 1177 by a myth. According to this myth , Venice mediated a peace between Frederick Barbarossa, who would become Holy Roman Emperor, and the Pope at the Peace of Venice in 1177. The Pope, grateful, gave Venice the candle, the silver trumpet, a banner and the sword which would become attributes of Venice, a ring of friendship, and the right to seal a document with lead. Most importantly, he declared the Pope, Emperor and Doge equals.[ii] This cemented Venice’s independence from the authority of Rome.

One example of the separation between church and state that existed in Venice is a law that existed from the Middle Ages that put a limit on the dowry, including property, money, and goods, a woman could give to the church in order to become a nun,[iii] which is an indirect way of controlling the church’s income and its relationship with the people. In January of 1604 the Senate passed a law that demanded any ecclesiastical building, be it by private donor or religious sect, be approved by the Senate before its erection.[iv] Thus, the State sent a strong message abroad that the Republic had more power than the church in Venice. Plus, in the thirteenth century it became fashionable to will one’s estate to the church as a final act of penance; however this too had to be approved by the state.[v] Venice also mandated that neither clerics nor their relatives could hold public office or participate in politics at all,[vi] which ensured that no political agenda of Rome could interfere with the Republic, eliminating the possibility of spies and of conflicts of interest, and guaranteeing complete loyalty to Venice. As an extension of the aforementioned law, as of 1498 anyone on the payroll of an ecclesiastical institution faced the same restrictions.[vii] Along the same idea, clerics were subject to the same laws as laypersons; in the seventeenth century two clerics were charged and convicted with rape and murder and were prosecuted as any Venetian would be because a law was passed in 1315 declaring that clerics could not appeal to Roman courts.[viii]

All of these laws asserted the religious and political independence of Venice; “The Venetian Republic attributed to the pope a general spiritual leadership and a primacy of honor in the church, but little authority to administer churches outside of Rome, and none in politics,”[ix] which is to say that the pope was honored but not seen as a relevant political power; the Doge Leonardo Donato declared himself “a prince who, in temporal matters, recognizes no superior save the Divine Majesty.”[x] This led to many conflicts between Rome and the Venetian Republic predating the Reformation; in 1201 Pope Innocent III put Venice under interdiction because Venice had seized the territory of Zara, a valuable Adriatic port, which connected traders of the east and west, and a port Rome had coveted. Venice was placed under interdiction again in 1282 by Pope Martin IV because Venice refused participation in the Crusades. A third time interdiction passed in 1309 by Clement V when Venice seized Ferrara. The most relevant interdiction occurred in 1606 because of Venice’s many indiscretions and anti-papa; laws, such as requiring ecclesiastical buildings to be approved by the Senate, for its treatment of the clergy, an example being the two monks that were prosecuted for rape, for its prolific controversial publications, including anti-papal works and books from the Index of Forbidden Books, but the proverbial straw that pushed Rome to the interdiction was the arrest and conviction of two clerics in the seventeenth century, aforementioned. However, as was the case for each of the interdictions, Venice proceeded as usual, supported by its belief that this interdiction was merely a political tool to force Venice into compliance with Roman policy,and not based on any religious problems, and since the pope had no political authority in Venice the interdiction was invalid. Furthermore, the Doge was considered to have an equal rank with the Pope, so under the Doge’s authority services could continue. Venice went further and laid the same restrictions on Rome; it was considered high treason to communicate with Rome and the Senate closed all conversation with Rome; guards were stationed around the city in order to inspect all non-Venetians upon entering the city and to make sure no one was posting any pro-Rome propaganda in or around the city, for which the penalty was death; resisting clerics were confined and the Jesuits, Theatins and Capuchins were automatically exiled from the city, on the basis that their orders’ principle vow was obedience to the papacy .[xi] One specific cleric refused to go through with services as usual; the Senate ordered a gibbet built outside his home as a warning to him and all passers. During peace talks between Venice and Rome concerning the interdiction the Senate officially responded to a proposal by the church to restore the status quo by saying: “Let His Holiness put things as before, and we will put things as before; as to his absolution we do not need it or want it; to receive it would be to acknowledge that we have been in the wrong.”[xii] Another example of Venice’s stalwart refusal to bend to Rome occurred with Pope Paul V, when he demanded that Rome had to approve of the Doge before he cold be officially inaugurated. Venice reacted by insisting that no one was of enough importance in the city of Venice to meet with the Papal Nuncio and so they had to elect a Doge, which they did without Rome’s consent.[xiii]

Throughout Venice’s history the city was at odds with Rome, always acting autonomously. This had to have contributed to the insistent and rebellious printing that Venice promoted, and was probably Venice’s main motive for risking international conflict. By printing anti-papal documents and documents from the Roman Index of Banned Books the Republic undermined the authority of the pope and restated its sovereignty not just as a Republic but as a spiritual center as important as Rome; Rome drew its power because it was founded by an Apostle, but according to legend Venice was founded by St. Mark, giving it equal authority.


[i] William J. Bouwsma, Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty, Berkeley:

University of California Press, 1968, page 74.

[ii] William J. Bouwsma, Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty, Berkeley:

University of California Press, 1968, page 55.

[iii] John Leon Lievsay, Venetian Phoenix: Paul Sarpi, Lawrence: The University of

Kansas, 1973, page 13

[iv] John Leon Lievsay, Venetian Phoenix: Paul Sarpi, Lawrence: The University of

Kansas, 1973, page 13.

[v] William J. Bouwsma, Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty, Berkeley:

University of California Press, 1968, page 78.

[vi] Andrew Dickson White, Seven Great Statesman, New York: The Century, Co., 1915, page 13.

[vii] William J. Bouwsma, Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty, Berkeley:

University of California Press, 1968, page 64.

[viii] William J. Bouwsma, Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty, Berkeley:

University of California Press, 1968, page 78.

[ix] William J. Bouwsma, Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty, Berkeley:

University of California Press, 1968, page 80.

[x] Doge Leonardo Donato, Ordeals, Compurgation, Excommunication and Interdict, Arthur C. Rowland, ed. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania, no date. < http://www.archive.org/stream/

ordealscompurgat0404howl/ordealscompurgat0404howl_djvu.txt >. Accessed 18 October 2008.

[xi] Andrew Dickson White, Seven Great Statesman, New York: The Century, Co., 1915, page 18.

[xii] The Senate of Venice, quoted in Seven Great Statesman by Andrew Dickson White,

New York: The Century, Co., 1915, page 21.

[xiii] Andrew Dickson White, Seven Great Statesman, New York: The Century, Co., 1915, page 17.

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