The War of Curzola (1294–9)

Veduta di Genova nell’anno 1481 (‘View of Genoa in the year 1481’) by sixteenth-century Genoese painter Cristoforo Grassi, depicting a parade of carracks and galleys in port.

Battle of Curzola in 1298

The truce of 1269 was renewed several times and a chary coexistence between the two mercantile maritime powers persisted in the eastern Mediterranean for more than twenty years. What finally fractured the peace was precipitated by neither Venice nor Genoa, but by the Mamluks of Egypt. Their conquest of Acre in 1291 contracted the trading environment available to western merchants in the East and sharply elevated competition for what was left. The Venetians, who had lost their substantial quarter in Acre, grew increasingly more resentful of the Genoese presence in the region. An incident in July 1293 amply revealed the sub rosa animosity between the two. Near Coron a small Venetian squadron of four galleys by chance came upon seven Genoese merchant galleys returning from ‘Romania’. Instead of giving way, the Venetians attacked, resulting in the capture of all their vessels.

The next confrontation would not be by accident. The loss of Acre to Christianity meant that trading posts in Cyprus, especially Famagusta, and in Armenia, specifically the Cilician port of Lajazzo (modern Ayas in Turkey) were all the more vital. And the Venetians wanted these entrepôts for themselves. In 1294 they sent at least fourteen war galleys (possibly as many as twenty-five) under Marco Basegio with the annual caravan to Famagusta and Lajazzo in the apparent hope of duplicating their success in the War of San Sabas thirty-six years earlier. They first raided the Genoese enclave in Limassol, but this served to alert the Genoese of Pera, who quickly armed a flotilla of merchant galleys under the command of Niccolò Spinola. The latter caught the Venetians off Lajazzo with their sails up, ill-prepared for battle, and scored an impressive victory. The Genoese easily outmanoeuvred the Venetian vessels, driving into many of them amidships. They seized nearly all of them.

This last clash signalled all-out war and spurred Genoa to a mammoth mobilization. The Genoese chronicler Iacopo Varagine claimed that the commune’s Credenza (war council) produced a fleet of 165 galleys, mostly triremes with crews of 220 to 300, amounting to around 45,000 men. Lesser estimates put the total crew complement at about 35,000, which was still, in the words of John Dotson, ‘the population equivalent of a substantial medieval city’. In an ostentatious display of logistical execution, the Genoese actually launched this gargantuan task force in August 1295 under Oberto Doria, the hero of Meloria, daring the Venetians to challenge it. They even went so far as to deploy it to Messina to make the meeting easier. However proud of their prowess at sea the Venetians may have been, they were not arrogant fools. They declined the offer, leaving the Genoese to return home, their blood-lust unsated.

Instead, in July of the following year the Venetians charged Ruggiero Morosini (nicknamed ‘Malabranca’, meaning ‘Evil Claw’) with conducting an armada of around seventy galleys on a raid of Pera. He not only left the Genoese colony in ashes, but also sank what merchant vessels he could find in the Golden Horn. Morosini later plundered Phocaea, a port on the west coast of Asia Minor owned at the time by the Genoese nobleman Benedetto Zaccaria, famed for his role in the Battle of Meloria. Thereafter, the Venetian admiral detached a squadron under Giovanni Soranzo which then proceeded into the Black Sea to prey on Genoese shipping and ravage the Genoese colony at Caffa (present-day Feodosiya) on the coast of Crimea. Nor did La Serenissima neglect Oltremare. Nine galleys were also dispatched under Frosio Morosini to pillage Genoese possessions on Cyprus and at Lajazzo. The Venetians had quite evidently learned the value of waging the guerre de course.

The Genoese had finally recovered enough from the rigours of amassing Oberto Doria’s massive armada of 1295 to attempt some measure of retribution in 1297. They sent a sizeable fleet of eighty war galleys into the Adriatic to wreak havoc on Venetian shipping and coastal properties, but they made the mistake of placing it under the split command of two admirals who reviled each other: Gando de Mari and Tommaso Spinola. They lingered in the area until their biscotti ran low, hoping in vain to engage the main Venetian fleet. It was then that the two had their predictable falling-out. Spinola wanted to remain longer; De Mari did not. The latter took fifty galleys and departed for Sardinia; Spinola stayed with the remaining thirty galleys until the Venetian admiral Andrea Dandolo chased him back to Sicily and beyond with an estimated eighty-two galleys. The Genoese would attempt to penetrate the Adriatic again the next year, but this time it would be under the unified command of Lamba Doria, the younger brother of Oberto Doria, and the results would be very different.

The particulars of the Battle of Curzola remain clouded by a crowd of conflicting accounts, the principal one of which is an epic poem by an anonymous Genoese author whose expressed purpose was to extol the exploits of his compatriots. There are, however, some common elements from which a general picture emerges. Late in the summer of 1298, after a brief stop at Messina, Lamba Doria led his eighty-five or so galleys into the Strait of Otranto. There a fateful storm scattered his armada and he ended up seeking shelter at the port of Antivari (present-day Bar in Montenegro) with about twenty of his ships. Around fifty-seven ships joined him the next day, but at least eight remained unaccounted for. These would later prove crucial, but for the moment Doria decided to proceed north along the Dalmatian coast, pillaging Venetian possessions as he went. By the end of August his fleet of about seventy-seven galleys had made it as far as the island of Curzola (modern Korcûla off the coast of Croatia). There, in an apparent attempt to draw the Venetian fleet out for battle, the Genoese ruthlessly ravaged the Venetian-ruled town of the same name on the east end of the island.

If that was their plan, it worked. When word reached the Rialto, the Venetians hastily collected a fleet, calling on Chioggia and their colonies all along the Dalmatian coast to supply ships. Even Marco Polo, believed to be a native of Curzola, provided a galley on which he personally served as captain. In all, ninety-five galleys and three navi were gathered under the overall command of Captain General Andrea Dandolo, the son of the former Doge Giovanni Dandolo. Manning such an armada so quickly proved a daunting challenge and must have resulted in crews below the calibre of those who normally served onboard Venice’s vessels. Manfroni went so far as to term them ‘a tumultuous collection of improvised crews’. But the size of this fleet made Dandolo overconfident: he ordered Maffeo Quirini, on patrol in the Adriatic with thirteen galleys, to return to Venice because he would not need his ships.

Dandolo’s armada found the Genoese on Saturday, 6 September at the east end of the narrow channel between the island of Curzola and the peninsula of Sabbioncello (Pelješac) jutting northwestwards off the Dalmatian mainland. Lamba Doria immediately ordered his galleys to link together in a line across the strait (about 1,600m or a mile wide abeam the town of Korcûla) and moor with their bows facing northwest towards the Venetians, presumably with the south flank anchored on the town of Curzola, which the Genoese had occupied. But he made no effort to engage. It was sunset and the onset of darkness rendered combat impracticable. So the two fleets sat warily watching each other through the night. Some Venetian sources even reported that Doria, daunted by Dandolo’s enormous armada, sought terms, but this has been discounted by most modern historians. If it happened at all, the Genoese naval commander was probably just playing for time in the hope that his straggling galleys would arrive in time. In any event, Dandolo not only rejected the overtures, but dispatched the famed corsair Domenico Schiavo in a columbet (a sort of small scout ship) to ensure that the Genoese did not attempt to abscond in the night.

On Sunday morning, 7 September 1298, the Venetians advanced amid the usual missile exchange. Details are scant, but Dandolo was said to have formed his fleet into a semi-circle with the apparent intention of enveloping the smaller Genoese force, particularly the exposed north flank. Doria therefore detached a squadron of eight to ten galleys to counter the encircling wing. It was repulsed, but when the Genoese galleys withdrew back into their line, several Venetian galleys evidently gave chase and the formation’s integrity broke down. ‘Thus, the Venetians ended up in the midst of the Genoese,’ reported the ‘Templar of Tyre’. At this point it seems Doria had his ships sever their anchor hawsers and bridling cables in order to manoeuvre at will. The Genoese may have had the advantage here: contemporary reports suggest that their galleys were larger, better equipped and more manoeuvrable. For instance, they were probably employing the highly efficient terzaruolo (three oarsmen per bench) rowing system and they almost certainly enjoyed the more responsive sternpost-mounted rudders. Many must have been triremes with crews one and half times the size of the Venetian biremes. In any event, the battle seems to have degenerated into a bloody free-for-all. Doria’s own son Octaviano was mortally wounded with a crossbow bolt. Legend has it that Doria had his son’s corpse dumped over the side in mid-combat on the premise that there could have been no more fitting interment. The contest was decided at the eleventh hour by the unexpected arrival of the missing eight or so Genoese galleys. These attacked one of the nearly exhausted Venetian flanks, causing its collapse.

It would be the largest battle the Venetians would ever fight against their Ligurian adversaries. It would also be their worst defeat. Of the ninety-six galleys that took part, perhaps only a dozen made it back to Venice, commanded by the resourceful Domenico Schiavo. Over 7,000 men perished. Estimates of those captured range from 8,000 all the way up to 16,000, including Andrea Dandolo himself. Reports of his ultimate fate vary, but the most oft-repeated version is that he killed himself by intentionally bashing his head against the rower’s bench to which he had been chained. One man who survived, of course, was Marco Polo, who was transported back to a Genoese gaol, where he would dictate his famous Travels to the Pisan, Rustichello. The victory clearly belonged to the Genoese, but it was a Pyrrhic one. Although La Serenissima had been rendered virtually defenceless by the annihilation of its armada, Lamba Doria found he was unable to press the advantage. ‘It seems that his losses, including deaths and injuries, exceeded those of the Venetians,’ surmised Manfroni. Doria instead burned all the captured galleys (presumably because he did not possess the manpower to crew them) and returned to Genoa to a muted homecoming.

Domenico Schiavo attempted to salvage some measure of Venetian pride the next year by leading a raid on Genoa itself. He seized some merchantmen and planted the flag of St Mark on the port’s mole (breakwater), but the war had in reality run its course. Neither power was in any condition to continue. The Venetians had to rebuild their fleet and the Genoese were, once again, afflicted by civil war. Francesco Grimaldi, the head of the Guelph faction, had instigated a rebellion against the Ghibelline rule of the Doria and Spinola families, turning Monaco into a rebel base. Both sides willingly embraced the peace brokered by Matteo Visconti, lord of Milan, in which Venice recognized Genoese supremacy over the Ligurian Riviera and Genoa did the same for Venice in regard to the Adriatic. The pact was signed in Milan under the auspices of Pope Boniface VIII on 15 May 1299. Marco Polo was released, along with many of his compatriots, in August.

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