Medieval Venice II

In August 1379, the Genoese are victorious in the Adriatic and seize the port of Chioggia, at the entrance of the lagoon, and besiege Venice. But the Doge Contarini and Admiral Pisani galvanize resistance and in turn attack the besiegers who capitulate June 24, 1380.

The new eminence of Venice was exemplified by one of those scenes of living theatre at which Venice excelled. The characters in this lavish spectacle were the leaders of Latin Christendom. One was the emperor of Germany, Frederick Barbarossa, and the other was Pope Alexander III. Barbarossa laid claim to the Lombard states, and in particular to Milan; Pope Alexander strenuously resisted the claim, and allied himself with the Italian cities. The emperor was excommunicated. Nevertheless Barbarossa, spurned by the Church, had success with the sword. The Lombard cities were taken. Milan fell, and was largely destroyed. Yet the dominion of Germany over this part of Italy was constantly being threatened by internal rebellion and by the open hostility of other Italian cities that looked to the pope for leadership. The weariness of continual warfare, and the inevitable cycle of victories and defeats, eventually disheartened both sides. The pope and the emperor contemplated the principles of an agreement. But where should they meet formally to ratify their pact?

Venice had largely kept itself aloof from the hostilities, on the very good ground that it is better to remain neutral in any battle between such powerful enemies. Venice did not in any case concern itself with the affairs of Italy if its own interests were not directly touched. So the most serene city became the most appropriate setting for the reconciliation of Barbarossa and Alexander. On 23 March 1177, the pontiff landed at the Lido and was received at the monastery of Saint Nicholas; he was no doubt shown the so-called “relics” of the saint himself. On the following day he sailed into Venice, where he was received by the doge. There were now long and difficult negotiations over the terms of the peace, with the emissaries of both sides raising objections and proposing alterations. Yet the pact was finally sealed. On 23 July the emperor was welcomed to the monastery of Saint Nicholas. On the following day he sailed to Venice, where Alexander awaited him. The pope sat in state upon the papal throne, which had been placed before the central gates of the basilica; he was surrounded by his cardinals, like some crowd scene from the sacred plays of the period. The emperor, disembarking from the glittering barge of the doge, walked in stately procession towards the pontiff. Before him walked the doge himself. Saint Mark’s Square was filled with spectators, eager to see the play unfold. When the emperor reached the papal throne he took off his scarlet cloak and, bowing to the ground, kissed the feet of the pope. Alexander, now weeping, raised up the emperor and gave him the kiss of peace. The audience now began to sing the Te Deum, and all the bells of the city rang out. It had been a great performance.

This dramatic scene was also used by Venice as an advertisement for the city’s strength and sense of justice. It was the seat of a general reconciliation. The city was the place of impartial judgement and of equity because it was subject to God alone. It played no part in the power politics of popes or emperors, except to heal the wounds caused by them. That, at least, was the message of the Venetian chroniclers in reporting these events from the summer of 1177. For that moment, when the bells pealed, Venice was the centre of the world. There were more immediate benefits also. The emperor granted trade privileges to Venice throughout his empire, and the pope gave Venice ecclesiastical dominion over Dalmatia.

The spectacle itself might have acted as an overture for the grander opera that was about to be performed. In the years that followed, Venice entered another, and greater, phase of its imperial power. It conquered and stripped Constantinople. A new scenario began with another holy war. The pope had declared a fourth crusade against the infidels and, in the early months of 1201, the French princes who had taken the cross came to Venice to plead for the ships that would transport them to the Holy Land. They were received in great state by the doge, and were asked to plead their case before the people of Venice in the basilica. So, after mass had been heard, one of their number stepped forward and declared that “no nation is so powerful on the seas as you”; after that piece of flattery, he implored the aid of the Venetian people. The princes then knelt down and wept. Immediately there were cries all around the basilica. “We grant it! We grant it!” It was a fine piece of stage management, in the best traditions of the city.

The doge, Enrico Dandolo, was already old and nearly blind. He was elected at the age of eighty-four, but he was one of those Venetian patriarchs whose tenacity and singleness of purpose were the visible proof of the city’s own ruthlessness. It was said that he had nourished a grievance against Constantinople ever since the mass imprisonment of 1171. According to one Byzantine Greek chronicler, “he boasted that so long as he failed to take revenge on them for what they had done to his people he was living under sentence of death.” It was even reported, in later chronicles, that he had been blinded by the Byzantines themselves when he had once travelled to the city as an ambassador; this is the stuff of legend only.

The carpenters of the Arsenal were set to work, engaged to build and equip enough ships to carry 4,500 horsemen and 30,000 soldiers. In return Venice demanded 84,000 silver marks. The efficiency of the shipbuilding yards was by now well known throughout Europe, and all of the ships were delivered on time. But there was one problem. The crusaders had been unable to find the money to pay for them. So a new arrangement was concluded. The Venetians would waive full payment, on condition that the crusaders would assist them in subduing the rebellious city of Zara on the Dalmatian coast. It was a diversion from the Holy Land, but the leaders of the forces of the cross considered it to be a necessary one. Three hundred ships left the lagoon in October 1202, to the chant of the Veni Creator, and sailed down the Adriatic. Zara, after a siege of five days, surrendered. Christian had turned against Christian rather than the common enemy of the Saracen. The pope, incensed by this unwelcome development, excommunicated the forces of the expedition. It is not reported that the Venetians, in particular, were in any way cowed or humbled by the papal wrath.

Once the Venetians were fully in possession of the town, they were surprised by the arrival of an unexpected guest. The son of the deposed emperor of Constantinople, Alexius Angelus, came to Dandolo in search of justice. He wished the crusaders to overthrow the usurper, on the throne of the empire, and reinstall his father. For his part he pledged to finance and otherwise assist the armies in their high purpose. It was an offer that could not be refused. It has often been surmised that Dandolo had held this aim in mind throughout all the preparations for the crusade, and that he had already determined that Constantinople rather than Syria was to be the destination of the Venetian fleet. There can be no doubt that Dandolo saw a great opportunity for advancement and enrichment in this war at the expense of Constantinople. But there are elements of adventitious chance in all the affairs of men. Dandolo could not have known that the French crusaders would be unable to honour their obligation, although it is likely that he knew in advance of the arrival of Alexius in Zara. The Venetians were always adept at taking advantage of chance and circumstance. Yet in another perspective the great events of the world seem, on close scrutiny, to be made up of a thousand singular elements and accidents and coincidences. In the midst of this swirling world it would be hard to detect a pattern. So we may say that it just happened. As a consequence of these events the power of Byzantium was extinguished, its city and empire weakened beyond repair.

The Venetian fleet, in aid of Alexius, moved against the city. On 24 June 1203, it sailed beside the walls. A French attack by land seemed to have failed and so, under the command of Dandolo, the Venetians tied their galleys together to form a united front; from the decks and turrets of the vessels, military engines discharged their fire into the city. Constantinople was in flames. Dandolo himself stood at the prow of the first ship that struck land. He was dressed in full armour, and the standard of Saint Mark flew at his side. At his urging the Venetian soldiers leapt from their vessels and scaled the ladders swung against the walls. There was some combat, but the forces of the Byzantines were overwhelmed by this swift attack from the sea. The banner of the republic was fixed on the rampart. The city was taken. The deposed emperor, on whose behalf Alexius had pleaded, was rescued from his dungeon and placed upon the throne. Alexius himself was crowned in the basilica of Saint Sophia, and took his place as co-ruler of the empire.

Yet the fatal decline of Constantinople was about to resume its inevitable course. Alexius had promised the crusaders more than he could achieve. He lacked finance and, more importantly, he had forfeited his authority among his countrymen by relying upon the forces of the crusaders to obtain the imperial crown. The citizens of Constantinople, instigated by fear and rumour, rebelled against the new emperor. Alexius was cut down, his father abandoned to his grief.

The Venetians and their allies now had to extinguish this rebellion, and bring the city under their rule. They had not come so far to be simply asked to leave. So once more, in March 1204, they laid siege to the city. On the eve of the assault Dandolo declared to his men that they must “be valiant. And with the help of Jesus Christ, milord Saint Mark, and the prowess of your bodies, you shall be tomorrow in possession of the city, and you shall all be rich.”

Once their victory was assured, the Christian armies, inflamed by greed and anger, began a general sack of the city. Constantinople was pillaged and burned. The wealthiest city of the world, filled with art and sculpture, was laid bare. Its citizens were slaughtered, the frenzy of blood-lust such that it seemed that the gates of hell had been opened. The palaces and houses of the city were ransacked. The churches were despoiled. The statues were melted down, and the pictures ripped apart. The tombs were opened, and the sacred vessels removed. It is reported that a prostitute was enthroned in the chair of the patriarch, in the basilica of Saint Sophia, from where she “hurled insults at Jesus Christ, and she sang bawdy songs, and danced immodestly in the holy place.” One chronicler claimed that the rapine exceeded any other since the creation of the world. And the Venetians were the principal agents of this despoliation. Much of the plunder found its way to Venice. The four great horses that surmount the basilica of Saint Mark’s are part of the fruit of that brutal victory.

There were other spoils. The crusaders claimed the dominions of Constantinople, and carved up its empire among the victors. Venice negotiated its portion with its customary merchant zeal, and was rewarded “the fourth part and the half of the Roman empire”; that is, it commanded three-eighths of the old empire. It already claimed Dalmatia and Croatia, and now it took possession of the Aegean coasts and islands as well as parts of the Mediterranean. It controlled Crete and Corfu as well as the islands of Modon and Coron. It took the western part of Greece and the islands of the Ionian Sea. It demanded the coast of Thrace, as well as the ports on the Hellespont. It seized Negroponte in the Aegean. While the other crusaders were unsure of their geography, the leaders of Venice knew exactly what they wanted. Many of the islands were then granted to various patrician families of Venice, who held them as fiefdoms of the republic. There was now also a large Venetian colony within Constantinople itself, which acquired a large measure of independence from the home city. There were even reports that the capital of the new empire was about to remove from Venice to Constantinople, but these were discounted. Yet one central fact was clear. The markets of the east were beckoning. All thought of the war against the infidel was forgotten and, indeed, the crusaders never did reach the Holy Land. It was the last of the crusades.

The strategy of Venice was that of a sea power intent upon strengthening its command of the sea. That is why the first great conquests were in the Levant, or eastern Mediterranean, where Venice might pose as the begetter of “an apostolic empire of the East” as a fitting successor to the Christian empire established in the East by Justinian and Constantine. It is a typical example of Venetian rhetoric masking policy. To the victors, the spoils. So the imperium of Venice was largely confined to the islands and to the coastal regions. The Venetians wanted no part of the inland empire of Byzantium, whether in Asia or in Europe. The city could never have become another Rome. Instead it settled for secure trading routes across the seas, with a series of ports under Venetian control linking the market of the lagoon to the markets of the Levant. These were not so much colonies as trading posts, stretching from Venice to the Black Sea. The nature of Venetian dominion was now clear for all to observe. The power of Constantinople was effectively gone for ever. The consequences of the Venetian adventure, however, were by no means beneficent. That which is born in fire may die in fire. A weakened Constantinople became the prey of the Turks; the newly established Latin empire endured for only sixty years; the colonial possessions of Venice also left it exposed to attack in a long sequence of wars that tested its strength. For the next seventy years the serene city would be engaged in almost constant warfare with its rebellious subjects and with its rivals, with the Saracens and with the pirates of the Mediterranean.


It was estimated by the reigning doge, in 1423, that the city possessed thirty-five galleys, three hundred round ships and three thousand other vessels; they required a complement of thirty-six thousand sailors, almost a quarter of the entire population of 150,000 people. There were ships christened La Forza, La Fama and La Salute. They were used to protect the armed galleys of the trade convoys that left Venice on prearranged dates; they were used to combat pirates and to harass enemy traders. No foreign ship was safe in the waters Venice considered its own. The officers were elected from the patrician class of the city. Service at sea was an indispensable part of the education of the young patrician.

The crews were at first all free men, volunteers found in Venice or in Venetian possessions. By the beginning of the sixteenth century conscription had been introduced. This of course so lowered the status of galley labour that it became a burden to be avoided. To be an oarsman, a galeotto, was considered to be part of a “low” profession. So by the middle of the sixteenth century there was a change in the nature of these crews. It was said that they comprised drunks and debtors, criminals and other outcasts. The courts of Venice sometimes consigned the guilty to the galleys rather than the cells. By 1600 prisoners made up the principal part of the crew. The measure of their servitude can be computed by the records of the Venetian courts—eighteen months of galley service was considered equivalent to three years of close imprisonment and a period in the pillory, while seven years in the galleys was considered to be equal to twelve years of confinement. Their rations were made up of biscuit, wine, cheese, salt pork and beans. The diet was designed to feed the sanguinary humour. A Franciscan friar was always on board to rouse them. Yet there are reports of disease and of early death, of exhaustion and despair. Carlo Gozzi, in the eighteenth century, saw “some three hundred scoundrels, loaded with chains, condemned to drag their life out in a sea of miseries and torments, each of which was sufficient by itself to kill a man.” He noticed that, at the time, “an epidemic of malignant fever raged among these men.” It is not clear, however, that the changed personnel were in general any less proficient as oarsmen. They helped to win a famous victory against the Turks at Lepanto.

The maritime marvel of Venice was the Arsenal, the greatest shipbuilding concern in the world. The word itself derives from the Arabic dar sina’a, or place of construction, thus affirming the strong connection of Venice with the East. It was built at the beginning of the twelfth century, and was continually being extended and expanded until it became a wonder of technology. It was variously described as “the factory of marvels,” “the greatest piece of oeconomy in Europe” and “the eighth miracle of the world.” The epithets are a measure of the respect in which new technologies were then held. Its famous gate, made up of Roman and of Byzantine elements, was raised there in 1460. The Arsenal had become the centre of another empire. It was the engine of trade. It was the foundation of naval might. It was a token of the supremacy of industrial enterprise in the most serene city.

Eventually two and half miles (4 km) of walls, and fourteen defensive towers, surrounded sixty acres (24 ha) of working space. It was the largest industrial enterprise in the world. A population of skilled workers and labourers grew up around the site. The number of workmen has been estimated at anything between six thousand and sixteen thousand; in any event they worked in large numbers. This shipbuilding neighbourhood in the eastern part of Venice became a recognisable part of the city, with its own prejudices and customs. People lived and died, were baptised and married, within the three parishes of S. Martino, S. Ternita and S. Pietro. It is still an area of tiny houses, crowded tenements, small squares, dead-ends and narrow alleys.

The inhabitants became known as arsenalotti, and such was their importance to the state that the male population of ship-makers was also used as a bodyguard for the doge. They were also employed as fire-fighters. Only the arsenalotti were allowed to be labourers in the Mint. They alone rowed the ceremonial barge of the doge. Proud of their status, they never united with the other artisans of Venice. It is a case of divide and rule. It is also a signal example of the subtle way in which the leaders of Venice co-opted what might have been an unruly group of people within the very fabric of the city. The loyalty of the arsenalotti materially helped to secure the cohesion and the very survival of Venice.

The Arsenal was the first factory established upon the assembly line of modern industry, and thus the harbinger of the factory system of later centuries. One traveller, in 1436, described it thus:

as one enters the gate there is a great street on either side with the sea in the middle, and on one side are windows opening out of the houses of the arsenal, and the same on the other side. On this narrow strip of water floated a galley towed by a boat, and from the windows of the various houses they handed out to the workers, from one the cordage, from another the arms …

It was known as “the machine.” The armed galleys were constructed here. The relatively unarmed “round” ships, with sails instead of oars, were also made here. The key to its efficiency lay in the division, and specialisation, of labour; there were shipwrights and caulkers, rope-makers and blacksmiths, sawyers and oar-makers. Thirty galleys could be built and fitted within ten days. When the French king visited the place in 1574, a galley was built and launched in the two hours it took him to eat his dinner. The whole process of industrial collaboration, however, might be seen as an image of the Venetian polity itself. Everything is of a piece.

Dante visited the Arsenal in the early fourteenth century, and left a description of it in the twenty-first canto of the Inferno:

As in the Arsenal of the Venetians

Boils in the winter the tenacious pitch …

One hammers at the prow, one at the stern,

This one makes oars and that one cordage twists

Another mends the mainsail and the mizzen.

It may not be coincidence that Dante places this vision in the eighth circle of hell, where corrupt public officials are punished eternally. The blatant sale of public offices became a problem in Venetian governance.

Eventually the Arsenal was outmoded. The development of craft technology in the seventeenth century rendered it obsolete. It continued producing galleys when no galleys were needed. It became inefficient, its labourers underpaid and underworked. Yet it did not finally close until 1960, when eleven thousand families were removed from their ancient neighbourhood. Now the factories and production lines are used to house exhibitions for the various festivals that visit Venice. It is an apt token of the nature of the city.

The Venetian army was as effective by land as the Venetian navy on the oceans. By the middle of the fifteenth century it could afford to maintain a standing force of twenty thousand troops, with extra militia ready to be called up in an emergency. By the beginning of the following century, that number had doubled. It was of mixed identity. Venetian engineers were well known for their skills in siege weaponry, but it was said that the Venetians themselves did not make good soldiers. To a large extent, therefore, the city relied upon mercenaries for its defence. Its soldiers came from Dalmatia, Croatia and Greece as well as from Germany and Gascony; there were light horse from Albania and cuirassiers from other parts of Italy. When some Venetian gunmen were captured at Buti in 1498, and their hands cut off, some of the unfortunate troops were from England and Holland.

The acquisition of a land empire, at the beginning of the fifteenth century, was the direct motive for the creation of a standing army. Yet such an army posed problems for the leaders of the city. An army could move through its streets. An army could threaten its mainland possessions. That is why no Venetian was ever made general or commander. The danger of a military coup was always present to the administration. Venetian patricians were not allowed to command, at any one time, more than twenty-five men. It was a safeguard against faction. Instead a foreign commander was always chosen, although he held his office under the watchful care of two senior patricians in the field with him. It was not an ideal arrangement, especially in the very heat of battle, but it served Venetian interests well.

The foreign generals were known as condottieri, from the Italian word for contract. They were contracted men. But they were also adventurers, and sometimes brigands, who were suited to the theatre of Venice. They aspired to the type of the classical Roman general, ferocious in war and gracious in peace; they were deemed to be no less wise than courageous, no less virtuous than judicious. And they were paid well. Venice was known as a generous, and prompt, employer. The condottieri were given ornate houses along the Grand Canal, and were granted large estates on the mainland. They seemed to be indispensable to the state, but there were some who questioned the wisdom of employing them. They could be persuaded to change sides, if large enough bribes were offered, and they could sometimes be feckless and excessively independent. Machiavelli blamed the collapse of Venice, in his lifetime, on the use of mercenaries and mercenary commanders. If the Venetians did not excel at warfare, they would soon become deficient in the arts of peace. Sir Henry Wotton, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, commented that “by the lasciviousness of their youth, by the wariness of their aged men, by their long custom of ease, and distaste of arms, and consequently by their ignorance in the management thereof” the Venetian state was in sad decline. Yet decline was always being predicted for Venice, even at the acme of its power.


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