Genoa Naval Strength 15th Century

Genoa, 1481, by Cristoforo Grassi. A display of naval strength in a celebration of the recapture of Otranto from the Ottomans. Genoa was a major maritime power but, like Venice, was under pressure from the Ottomans, losing its bases of Amasra (1460) and Kaffa (1475) on the Black Sea, and Samos (1550) and Chios (1560) in the Aegean, although Corsica was retained until sold to France in 1768. Genoa focused on galley warfare and in the sixteenth century aligned with Spain, providing much of its naval power, as at the Battle of Preveza in 1538. Captured by the Ottomans in 1480, Otranto, in south-east Italy, threatened to be a base for expansion but the new sultan Bayezid II faced opposition from his brother Jem and therefore adopted a cautious international stance. Otranto was abandoned in 1481.

The seeming inevitability of the advance of Turkish power in the Balkans was made plain to the rulers of Europe by the crushing defeat of a crusading army, mainly made up of French and Hungarian contingents, at Nicopolis in 1396. Most Bulgarian and Serb lands were now ruled by the Ottomans with the Byzantine Empire confined to small areas around their cities of Salonica and Constantinople. At first this confirmation of the establishment of a major new power in the area seemed to have little influence on the rivalries of naval powers. Venice benefited from extending her rule over coastal towns which sought her protection rather than that of the declining Empire. In this way Venice became the ruler of Durazzo and Scutari in Albania, Lepanto, Patras, Argos, Nauplia and even briefly Athens. To many Venetians an important reason for undertaking the task of governing these places was to prevent them falling into the hands of the Genoese, who were still seen as hostile to Venice.

Venice was able to recover her dominant position in trade in the Levant and enjoy the prosperity this brought, not because of her `command of the seas’ or the superiority of her galley fleet but because the Turkish advance in the West was halted by the need to deal with the forces of Tamerlane in Central Asia. In the first years of the fifteenth century, therefore, naval warfare in the eastern Mediterranean, apart from the continuing problem of widespread, low-level commerce raiding, consisted largely of shows of force by both Venice and Genoa each intending to overawe the other. Documents from the archives of both Genoa and Venice reveal clearly the degree of mutual suspicion which existed. Throughout 1403 the Venetian Senate was authorising its galley captains to keep a close eye on the Genoese fleet which, or so the Senate believed, had sailed from Genoa. Carlo Zeno, who was now captain general of the Gulf, was given special permission to pursue his own course rather than one prescribed by the Senate for this purpose. He was also given permission to take any Genoese property or vessels if they did harm to the property of Venetians to the value of more than 10,000 ducats. This was the sum of the damage already suffered by merchants in Rhodes and Cyprus which was the subject of negotiations. Later in June 1404, the news of a fleet of three cogs and two galleys being prepared in Genoa, led the Senate to forbid the ships of Pietro Contarini and Fantino Pisani from leaving Venice till 8 July when they might expect to have more information and be able to make better arrangements for the vessels’ security. A month later in Genoa one Niccolo da Moneglia was given permission by the governor of the city to take reprisals against Venetian ships. The most revealing of this series of documents is the deposition of Costantino Lercari taken in February 1407 when the Genoese authorities were investigating the loss of three of their galleys, part of the expedition of Marshall Boucicaut, off Modon in 1404. Lercari was the patronus of the galley on which Boucicaut sailed and therefore was an eyewitness of the events he describes. From his account, on one level relations between the cities were cordial. He describes the Venetian fleet coming out to meet the Genoese with every sign of honour and the two fleets then sailing together into the harbour and anchoring together. He himself was then involved in discussions with Carlo Zeno, the Venetian leader on the possibility of some joint action presumably against the Turks, though the details of this are not made clear. Zeno declined on the grounds that he could not exceed the very tightly drawn terms of his commission from the Signoria, making the remark that his `lordship did not give such long reins to its captains as was the custom of the Genoese’. The Genoese then left Modon but the seeming amity did not last with both sides becoming suspicious of the other; Lercari in fact has a story that the Venetian bailus in Nicosia was sending the Saracenos (the Turks) news of the Genoese movements. Finally when the Genoese wished to go into Zonchio to take on water, Zeno refused to let them enter the port and appeared with all his galleys ready for battle with lances and crossbows to hand. Boucicault then ordered his men also to arm but not to strike the first blow. When the Venetians attacked with cannon (bombardis) and crossbows battle was joined and in the ensuing melee the Genoese lost three galleys.

The use of cannon in fact is probably the most significant feature of this encounter almost the last in this area between the rival cities. As the century progressed the ability to deploy artillery was increasingly the deciding factor in war at sea. This did not only mean guns mounted onboard ships but shore batteries which could greatly hinder the use of galleys and other vessels to support or bring relief to the besieged in coastal towns. This was made abundantly clear during the siege of Constantinople in 1453. Venetian galleys were unable to contribute effectively to the defence of the city because of the weight of the Turkish onshore guns deployed against them. The fall of the Byzantine Empire stimulated the development of an Ottoman navy. Using the port and dockyard facilities which had long been in existence in or near the city and largely Greek seamen and shipwrights the Ottoman Empire came to dominate the waters of the eastern Mediterranean as it already dominated the land. The Venetians who, with the Knights of St John from Rhodes, the only other naval power of consequence active in these waters, were faced with a new and aggressive opponent; an opponent who, unlike the Genoese, controlled the greater part of the interior of the Balkans. Venetian bases in the area, without which the operation of galleys was more or less impossible, were vulnerable to attacks both from the sea and from the land. The predominantly amphibious character of naval warfare which is clear from the beginning of our period perhaps became even more noticeable in the second half of the fifteenth century, with battles fought in close conjunction with the taking of port towns and their hinterland.

Genoa and the Sea: Policy and Power in an Early Modern Maritime Republic, 1559–1684 (The Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science) Paperback – December 17, 2012

Genoa played an important and ever-changing role in the early modern Mediterranean world. In medieval times, the city transformed itself from a tumultuous maritime republic into a stable and prosperous one, making it one of the most important financial centers in Europe. When Spanish influence in the Mediterranean world began to decline, Genoa, its prosperity closely linked with Spain’s, again had to reinvent itself and restore its economic stature.

Thomas Allison Kirk reconstructs the early modern Mediterranean world and closely studies Genoa’s attempt to evolve in the ever-changing political and economic landscape. He focuses on efforts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to revive shipbuilding and maritime commerce as a counterbalance to the city’s volatile financial sector.

“This book treats a neglected subject―the maritime policy of an early modern Mediterranean state―with a new and refreshing approach.”―American Historical Review

“The essence of this book is Kirk’s detailed understanding of the economics of shipbuilding and trade, as they affected the diplomatic and economic fortunes of the city of Genoa.”―English Historical Review

“Genoa and the Sea succeeds in reintegrating the Genoese republic with its citizen bankers, its galley slaves, its competing clans and moneyed families in a fascinating, if dense, narrative of transition and transformation… Kirk has demonstrated the rich resources available for sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Genoa, and should inspire much further research.”―Historian

“Not only a valuable contribution on the history of the republic of Genoa but also a new perspective on the changing Mediterranean world and the relationship of the Mediterranean with the rest of Europe during a period of sweeping transformations.”―International Journal of Maritime History

“An important contribution to the historiography of early modern Italy and its decline in the seventeenth century.”―Journal of Modern History

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