The Doge was the oldest and highest political position in the Venetian Republic.
The word comes from the Latin dux, which means leader and was the title given to the governors of provinces in the Byzantine Empire, of which the Venice lagoon was a part in the 7th and 8th centuries, when documentation of the first doges is to be found. The initial seat of the duchy was Eracliana (Eraclea), then Metamauco (Malamocco) and finally, from 810 on, Rivus Altus (Rialto), the first nucleus of present-day Venice.
During the following two centuries, while the city was growing and becoming increasingly independent of Byzantium, the figure of the doge established itself as an elected position and became more and more powerful, with hereditary successions, conflicts and violent deaths. By the 11th century, Venice had become independent and put an end to any dynastic claims of the doge. It was decided he should be assisted by councillors and that his powers would be limited upon his election, when he was made to take the oath of the Promissione, a meticulously created set of rules that regulated both his public and private behaviour.
Elected by means of a very complicated voting procedure by the Great Council, the plenary assembly of Venetian nobility, the Doge was the only Venetian authority to hold office for life.
He was present at all state celebrations following a precise ritual and was also present on all the main collective government bodies. He had no executive, legislative or decision-making power, nor was he allowed to perform any governmental function on his own. He could only leave the Palace on official occasions and required special permission if he was to leave the city for a few days. Nevertheless, the Doge – usually elected from the oldest and most deserving Venetian nobility – did represent the State, and had various very important symbolic functions regarding both the authority and splendour of the Republic. At his death, solemn funeral rites were foreseen but the city was not in mourning, “because the Republic never dies”; two magistracies were then activated, the first established in the 16th century to ensure the deceased doge had behaved correctly, while the second was to re-word the Promissione of his successor, who was nominated very rapidly with a solemn ceremony of investiture.
The last doge was Ludovico Manin, who abdicated in 1797 when Napoleon Bonaparte’s soldiers entered Venice, thus marking the end of the ancient Republic.