Venetian Inquisition
1000 A.D. to 1799 A.D.


The Council of Ten (Consiglio dei Dieci)

Historical background

1145-53: Totius Istriae Dominator

Venice's relations with Istria were of protection, involving an obligation to provide defense by the sea. These relations had been strengthened during the reign of Pietro II Orseolo, but dated from earlier than this. In 932 Capodistria had surrendered at the end of the economic war which the Venetians had begun in retaliation for various acts of provocation. This protectorate was transformed into submission in a series of accords, with Pola and Capodistria in 1145, and with Pola, Rovigno, Parenzo and Umago between 1148 and 1153. The cities had to swear fidelity and recognize Venetian dominion over the mainland. The doge was given the title Totius Istriae Dominator.

The Querini-Tiepolo conspiracy of 1310

A single event led the Grand Council to establish the Council of Ten.

In the year 1310, the architect of the expansionist policies in Ferrara which had led to the war with the pope was the doge, Pietro Gradenigo. Other families opposed this policy. This lay at the root of the conspiracy of 1310, the leaders of which were Sier Baiamonte Tiepolo, son of the late doge Lorenzo Tiepolo, his wife the princess of Rascia, along with his father-in-law Marco Querini, and the majority of the Quierini family and and Badoero Badoer, some of the Barozzi and a few other nobles, who had several grievances against the reigning doge, Piero Gradenigo, and trusting to the support of the people, many of whom the doge had offendedf by excluding them from the Maggiore Consiglio in 1297, determined on a revolution.

Having obtained a good many followers, they started at dawn on the eve of San Vitale, June 15, 1310, the ran through the city with their banners waiving, intending to assault the Ducal Palace and depose the doge. They seized control of the Rialto and the surrounding area and began toward the Piazza. The doge, however, having been warned, was waiting for them with his followers in the Piazza San Marco. Marco Querini and his adherents, who had come by Calle dei Fabbri, were the first to arrive, and were speedily defeated, and put to flight, leaving March and Benedetto Querini dead on the ground. Baiamonte Tiepolo arrived just afterwards by the Merceria, and met the doge's followers opposite what is now called the Sottoportico e Calle del Cappello Nero, where they had a sharp skirmish, the people in the houses throwing stones and tiles from the windows and balconies with a great noise. Just at that moment a certain

Three bands of armed men were supposed to attack the Doge's Palace, Querini's band by the Calle dei Fabbri, Tiepolo's from the Mercerie, and that of Badoer from the lagoon. The doge was informed about the plot, and by night summoned the families whom he could rely upon, gave the alarm to the Arsenal and ordered the podesta of Chioggia to stop Badoer. The rebels failed to synchronize their attack, and this together with the doge's preparations resulted in their defeat. Querini died, and the two other leaders were allowed to go into exile. The Querini and Tiepolo palaces were razed to the ground, even thouigh Tiepolo's house was associated with his grandfather, Lorenzo Tiepolo, a previous and popular doge. The principal house of the Querini, was torn down and the property became the site of the buitcher's market" (Codex Morosini, 70A). As one scholar put it, "By destroying its palace, the government hoped to exorcise the spirit of the family."

The danger had been great, however, and it remained possible that the exiles might forge new alliances, a possibility which had occurred and was even then occurring in other cities. In order to prevent this and the formation of fresh conspiracies, the Council of Ten was established. Its members held office for a year, and one of three elected heads presided over them for a month at a time. The council was at first provisional, but because its small size allowed it to act with speed it was made permanent in 1335.

In 1355, twenty additonal members, called the Zonta, were added to the Council of Ten.

Un bassorilievo della vecia del morter fu posto in seguito sul luogo dove avvenne l'episodio ed è tuttora visibile (sopra). La casa di Baiamonte Tiepolo in Campo Sant'Agostin fu rasa al suolo come monito, e a perenne ricordo nello stesso luogo venne eretta la Colonna dell'Infamia. Fino alla caduta della Repubblica di Venezia fu proibito di costruire delle nuove case in quel posto.

Adesso a memoria dell'evento rimane una pietra incisa sull'angolo di Campo Sant'Agostin (sotto), con la seguente scritta: "LOC. COL. BAI. THE. MCCCX". Tali abbreviazioni hanno come significato: "Qui era localizzata la colonna di Baiamonte 1310. La conseguenza più evidente della rivolta di Baiamonte Tiepolo fu l'istituzione del Consiglio dei Dieci che per quasi 5 secoli sarà temuto dal popolo e dai nobili veneziani.

1340: The Hall of the Maggior Consiglio

The number of those entitled to sit in the Maggior Consiglio had grown, and it was decided to build a hall worthy of the council. This project took ten years to complete, and occupied the part of the Doge's Palace facing on to the Molo. The Paduan artist Guariento painted it with frescoes depicting the Coronation qf the Virgin or Paradise between 1365 and 1367.

The Great Council consisted of all those whose names were inscribed in the Libro d'Oro (Golden Book). Every descendant of any one of those families whose names had been inscribed in this book was eligible to enter the Maggior Consiglio at the age of eighteen. In effect, the Maggior Consiglio consisted of all adult members of the Venetian nobility, and by the year 1500, it had grown to 2,000 members.

In its early days, the government consisted of the Maggior Consiglio, the nobility, and the Arengo, the people. In 1462, The Arengo was abolished. The Maggior Consiglio had wide powers. It declared war and made peace, levied the taxes, and made alliances, but gradually many of these powers were delegated to Il Senato (Senate), also called Consiglio dei Pregadi, and the Collegio dei Savi, the Ministers, who, together with the Doge and his six counsellors was called Il Minor Consiglio (The Minor Council). However, until the fall of the Republic, the Maggior Consiglio continued to appoint all great officers of State. But the power of the State was in the hands of the few: the Doge, his six councellors, the Three Chiefs of The Quarantia, and these together formed the Serenissima Signoria. For important matters, the Collegio Dei Savi was also asked to vote, and so, when all of them convened together, they took the name of Pieno Collegio (Full Council).

During the Full Council’s meetings, the three Procuratori (Prosecutors) of the State were asked to assist. They were not allowed to vote but had control of and guaranteed the legal proceedings. In the 16th century, in matters concerning urgent State Affairs only the Doge, his six councellors and the Consiglio dei Dieci (Council of Ten; the Ten) were appointed to render decisions. As for Foreign Affairs there were the six Grandi Savi, the ministers of Foreign Affairs, together with the Doge, his councellors, and the three Chiefs of the Consilio Dei Dieci were also obliged to join. That is why, it was said that the Maggior Consiglio and Il Senato lost their powers little by little because of the great numbers of members. They were too many and wasted too much time to render decisions that were vital to the State.

The Council of Ten was formed in 1310 as a result of the Bajamonte Tiepolo conspiracy against the Republic. It was given emergency powers to deal with the resulting unrest. Although originally established for a period of two months, its authority was continuously renewed until it was made permanent in 1334 (or 1335?).

The members of the Council of Ten were appointed for one-year terms by the Great Council, as were all other members of the State, and were not eligible for re-election, nor could two members of the same family be elected simultaneously. They received no monetary compensation for their services. It was their duty to deal with treachery and conspiracy, with criminal charges against the aristocracy, and, in general, with offences against public morals. In practice, its sessions were expanded to seventeen members by including the Doge and the Signoria. For major questions, the number could be further increased by summoning additional Senators, who composed the zonta; however, this practice was rarely used after 1583.

The formal task of the Council of Ten was to maintain the security of the Republic and preserve the government from overthrow or corruption. The Council proved effective in dealing with a treacherous Doge. In 1355 Marin Faliero plotted to make himself despot of Venice, but the Ten ferreted out the plot, arrested the Doge, and condemned him to death. He was duly executed on the staircase in the courtyard of the Ducal Palace, the same place were the Doges were appointed.

The Acts of the Ten contain no record of this execution. The words " Let it not be written" are on the page where the minutes recording the verdict should have been entered. Just after the death of the doge, his image was still visible in the left corner of the Sala del Maggior Consiglio, but after the fire in the palace on May 11, 1574, the Consiglio dei Dieci decided that all the images of the doge had to be destroyed because they felt that he was not even worthy of being remembered. They had a black drape painted over his image and added the following inscription:

Hic est locus Marini Falieri
decapitati pro criminibus

Faliero's picture in the Great Council Hall. The black shroud painted in its place bears the Latin phrase, "Here is the place of Marino Faliero, beheaded for his crimes."

The story of Marino Faliero's uprising was made into a drama by Lord Byron in 1820 and an opera by Gaetano Donizetti in 1835.

The Council's small size, and its ability to rapidly make decisions, however, led to more mundane business being sent to it. By 1457, it was enjoying almost limitless authority over all governmental affairs. In particular, it oversaw Venice's diplomatic and intelligence services and local police, it managed its military affairs, and handled legal matters and enforcement, including sumptuary laws. The Council also made numerous, though mainly unsuccessful, attempts to combat vice, particularly gambling, in the Republic.

The increasing power of the Council of Ten caused some concern among the other governing bodies of the Republic, particularly after the Ten forced the resignation of Doge Francesco Foscari in 1457. In 1468, the Great Council attempted to curb what it considered to be despotic rule on the part of the Ten by passing a law limiting the Ten to ruling only on emergency matters, but these limitations were never enforced in practice.

The capture of the Count of Carmagnola in an ancient print.
In times of national emergency and crisis the Council of Ten acted with a grim combination of swiftness and resolution. A case in point is how they dealt with the great condottiere Francesco Bussone, Count of Carmagnola. Carmagnola (c. 1382-1432) had risen from humble peasant beginnings to become the greatest professional soldier of the period, then he deserted the Milanese to take service under Venice. He proved, however, to be exasperating in his dilatoriness. At the critical moment of a campaign he would suddenly decide to take the baths, leaving the conduct of operations to his subordinates.

Venice gradually began to suspect that Carmagnola was secretly preparing to transfer his services to the enemy, a custom justified by the highest precedent of professional generalship. The Senate decided to lure Carmagnola to Venice, and Giovanni de Imperi, secretary to the Council of Ten, was entrusted with this delicate and dangerous mission. It was dangerous because if Carmagnola suspected the truth he would have begun by hanging Giovanni, and he would then have proceeded to march on Venice. Giovanni was a pale faced, unimpressive little man, but he had a heart of steel, and he carried out his mission with complete success. They thought that being Carmagnola a mercenary soldier would offer himself to the best owner. A few days later the General was executed between the columns in Piazza San Marco.

Alessandro Manzoni made Francesco Bussone the subject of a poetical drama, Il Conte di Carmagnola (1826). He also wrote a single novel I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), which was fiction but includes a trial that was real. Also real was the backdrop of the plague, Incidientally, he did part of his research for the book in Milan under the auspices of Agostino Carli-Rubbi, son of the famous Istrian, Gian Rinaldo Carlo.

In 1539, an even smaller judiciary body was appointed. Called the Supremo Terribile Tribunale (Supreme Tribunal), they were also known as the State Inquisitors and Three State Inquisitors. The three members of this tribunal were elected from among the members of the Council of Ten to serve one-month terms just to deal with threats to state security. The State Inquisitors had  equal authority to that of the entire Council of Ten, and could try and convict those accused of treason independently of their parent body. To further these activities, the Inquisitors created a large network of spies and informants, both in Venice and abroad. Of the three State Inquisitors, one was clothed in red, sat in the middle and was called the rosso. The other two were clad in black and were called the negri.

During the month in which they served, the State Inquisitors were confined to the Doge's Palace to prevent their being exposed to corruption or bribery. Secret denunciations were placed in the Bocca dei Leoni (the Lions' mouth), were scattered around the town and at the Doge's Palace. The greatest care was taken to test the credibility of these letters before acting on them. They were called secret solely because the denunciation letters had to be signed by three people so that the actual accuser could not be revealed from the three.

In 1627, Renier Zeno, one of the Capi of the Ten, began a campaign against what he saw as despotism and corruptions on the part of the Council. The immediate pretext for his complaints was the reluctance of the Council to deal with the relatives of Doge Giovanni Cornaro who had been elected to certain posts in contravention of the law of the Republic. On October 27, Zen caused an uproar at a meeting of the Great Council by accusing the Cornaro family of corruption. Although the elections were annulled, he was unable to obtain any further sanctions.

At a meeting on July 23, 1628, Zen had called for the laws to be upheld, claiming that the Doge and the Ten were subverting the government of the Republic. Later that day, the Ten met and voted to arrest and exile Renier Zen. By this point the Great Council had begun to move, appointing a special committee of correctors to examine proposals for reform. However, by September 1628, it had become overwhelmed with procedural matters, and while it would eventually pardon Zen, it failed to produce any significant reforms. On December 30, Renier Zen was attacked by masked assassins, who were later found to include Giorgio Cornaro, the son of the Doge.

The Ten lost the ability to review decisions of the Great Council, and the giunta or zonta was formally discontinued, but their powers were otherwise left unchecked. The power of the Council of Ten only began to decline in the latter half of the 17th century. While it maintained its formal authority, it became increasingly incapable of preventing corruption, both from within its own ranks and within the Republic at large. By the 18th century, its role was largely limited to suppressing the minor plottings of the poorer members of the nobility, although the Ten continued attempting to reassert their authority until the fall of the Republic and the dissolution of the Council in 1797.


  • Frederic Lane, Venice. A Maritime Republic. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1973.

  • Paolo Preto, I servizi segreti di Venezia, Il Saggiatore, Milano 1994.

  • G.Cozzi, M.Knapton, G.Scarabello, La Repubblica di Venezia nell’età moderna. Dalla guerra di Chioggia al 1517, in Storia d’Italia, vol. XII / 1, UTET, Torino, 1992.

  • http://www.oldandsold.com/articles03/venice7.shtml
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Council_of_Ten
  • http://www.veneto.org/history/serenissima2.htm
  • http://alloggibarbaria.blogspot.com/2009/10/baiamonte-tiepolo.html
  • Hugh A. Douglas, Venice on Foot: with the itinerary of the Grand Canal and several direct routes to useful places. C. Scribner's Sons (1907), p. 373-4.

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