Fortress Warfare in Renaissance Italy

French troops arriving in Naples, 1494.

The first fully mobile and effective field artillery appeared in 1494 in the train of Charles VIII of France when he invaded Italy, and Fornovo (1495) was probably the first battle where artillery played a really effective part. The eight-foot bronze guns were drawn by horse teams and could keep up with marching infantry. They made a great impression on the Italians whose few heavy pieces, being ox-drawn, usually arrived too late for battles and, according to Machiavelli, could never fire more than one or two shots before battle was joined.

The offensive on the rampage 1494-1503

Charles VIII and the advent of mobile siege artillery

In military affairs, the events of 1494 did much to bring the Middle Ages to an end. In that year King Charles VIII of France led his army across the Mont-Genevre Pass into Italy, and marched across the Lombard plain and the Apennines to the port of La Spezia, where he picked up the forty or so siege guns with which he intended to make good his claim to the Kingdom of Naples.

These guns were the lineal descendants of the state-owned artillery which had enabled the French to burst open the English strongholds in Normandy and Guyenne in the middle of the century. Craftsmen and bell-founders worked tirelessly to improve the weapon, and by the 1490S they had evolved a cannon that was recognisably the same creature that was going to decide battles and sieges for nearly four hundred years to come.

The medieval bombard was a massive pipe of wrought-iron rods or bronze, designed specifically to throw a large but relatively light ball of stone. The weapon was by no means without its virtues. In relation to muzzle velocity, the stone ball required only one-half the weight of powder as an iron shot of the same calibre, and it exercised a considerable smashing effect on targets like walls, siege towers, ships and trenches full of men. At the same time the bombard and its ammunition were undeniably bulky. The gun was usually fired from a solid block of wood, which rested directly on the earth; it put up a valiant fight against any gunners who threatened to disturb its repose. For transport, the bombard had to be lifted bodily onto an ox waggon running on disc-like wheels which, whenever the cart was canted over to one side, threatened to collapse and deposit the whole load gently back to earth again.

Another disadvantage concerned the manufacture of the missiles. Whereas the casting or forging of an iron cannon ball was a hot but satisfying business, skilled stonemasons had to be paid highly if they were to address themselves to the laborious and frustrating work of carving a stone ball that was just going to be fired from a gun.

In the train of Charles VIII, however, the bombard had been largely supplanted by cannon with homogeneous bronze barrels no more than eight feet long. These pieces could be transported and loaded with ease, and they discharged wrought-iron balls which could compete in range and accuracy with stone-firing bombards of at least three times their calibre. The barrel of the French cannon was readily elevated or depressed around the fulcrum formed by two trunnions (prongs). These were cast into the barrel just forward of the centre of gravity, and rested almost over the axle of the two-wheeled gun carriage beneath. For traversing, the trail of the carriage was lifted from the ground and swung to right or left.

The numerous and well-trained French gunners knew how to take advantage of their new weapon, and an Italian contemporary (Guicciardini, 1562, Bk I) wrote that the cannon were planted against the walls of a town with such speed, the space between the shots was so brief, and the balls flew so speedily, and were driven with such force, that as much execution was inflicted in a few hours as used to be done in Italy over the same number of days.

The enhanced mobility of the French guns was, if possible, still more important than their firepower. Over long distances the heavier of the barrels still had to be loaded onto separate waggons, as before, but gun carriages and waggons alike were now drawn by strong and trained horses, and travelled on ‘dished’ wheels which stood up stoutly to the strains imposed upon them by fifteenth-century roads.

By all reasonable calculations Charles should have been stopped short by one of the Florentine or papal fortresses long before he could reach his goal of Naples. Unfortunately for Italy, the French and their artillery were not reasonable opponents. Charles directed his march down the western side of the Apennines against the northern frontier of the state of Florence, the first obstacle in his path. Florence was on the verge of one of its bouts of puritanical, patriotic republicanism, and the poor Duke Piero de’ Medici, already insecure at home, threw himself on the mercy of Charles as soon as he learnt that the little fortress of Fivizzano had fallen to the French. Sarzana, Sarzanello, Pietra Santa and the citadels of Pisa and Leghorn, all were delivered up without resistance, and on 17 November the pale little French king made his triumphal entry into Florence, lance balanced on thigh. The terrified Pope Alexander VI followed Piero’s example, and hastened to place his strongholds at the disposal of the French.

There was nothing to stand between Charles and the kingdom of Naples. The small Neapolitan citadel of Monte Fortino capitulated as soon as the cannon were planted against it; and the French took a mere eight hours for the business of breaching the important frontier stronghold of Monte San Giovanni and massacring its garrison. The place had once withstood a siege of seven years. With horrifying consistency the French later used the same cruelty at Capua in 1501, Pavia in 1527, and Melfi in 1528.

In the short term the impact of the new French methods was devastating, and on 22 February 1495 Charles was able to ride into the city of Naples in the same style as he had entered Florence.

The French successes had conjured up a hostile league of Venice, the Pope, Milan and Spain. Charles accordingly retraced his steps and smashed open his communications back to France. The king thereafter lost interest in his new conquests, and over the course of 1496 his negligence and cowardice permitted the Spanish to starve into submission all the strongholds in Naples – an episode which indicated that it was nowadays far easier to conquer a kingdom than to hold it.

The Spanish counter-attack and the gunpowder mine

Objections may be made to the choice of the year 1494 to mark the beginning of early modern fortress warfare. Italian military technology had not been entirely static and, as we shall see, the all-important device of the angle bastion was invented seven years before Charles VIII burst into Italy. Then again, the occasions on which the French needed to plant their cannon were surprisingly few, because fortresses tended to surrender at the very wind of their coming. However, Macchiavelli, Guicciardini and almost all the people who have written since about Renaissance warfare are surely right to stress the revolutionary impact of the French and their new artillery. What the authorities are talking about was essentially a Blitzkrieg, which depended as much for its effect upon speed, energy and the potential for destruction, as the actual scale of physical damage. Warfare was prosecuted with a new urgency and tempo, and, no less importantly, big-power politics intruded on Italian affairs.

The newly-revealed power of the offensive fired the ambition of all the hungry southern princes, and upset the equilibrium which had reigned among the major Italian states since the middle of the fifteenth century. In 15°2 the French and Spaniards came to blows over the possession of Naples. Acting with admirable energy, the Spanish defeated the French field army twice over, then proceeded to mop up the isolated enemy garrisons all over Naples.

Out of all the doomed strongholds, the Castle of Uovo (by the city of Naples) was certainly the one that was taken in the most spectacular fashion. Cannon alone were powerless to reduce the place, situated as it was on a narrow peninsula separated from the mainland by a deep ditch. The Spaniards, however, had in their ranks one Pedro Navarro, ‘a thin little man’, who had perfected the gunpowder mine, the one weapon capable of blasting the French from their rocky retreat.

Gunpowder mines had figured in the treatises of Taccola, Mariano of Siena, and Francesco di Giorgio Martini, but it seems that they were first used in actual warfare in 1439, when the Italian educated John Vrano used a countermine in his defence of Belgrade against Sultan Amurath. Under the direction of Martini, the Genoese used gunpowder below ground in their attack on the Florentine held fortress of Sarzanello in 1487. The effect on this occasion was small, for the gallery had not been driven far enough under the foundations. Pedro Navarro, who is said to have witnessed the experiment as a private soldier, went on to remedy this effect at the siege of the Turkish fortress of San Giorgio on the island of Cephalonia in 1500. On that occasion Navarro tunnelled out long galleries beneath the citadel rock, stuffed them with gunpowder ‘to excite the flames’, and produced a devastating flare-up.

The wording of the descriptions of these early mines leaves open the possibility that the powder charges were not primarily explosive in character, but rather intended to hasten the burning of the props which supported the undermined masonry. No such doubt attaches to Navarro’s device at the Castle of Uovo in 1503. He piled his men and tools into covered boats, brought them unknown to the French to the side of the cliff facing Pizzafalcone, and laboured for three weeks to drive a gallery through the rock. On 26 June the Spanish touched off the charge, and part of the rock sprang into the air. The governor and his council were at debate in the chapel above, and despite their misuse of these sacred precincts they were propelled heavenwards with greater force than all the saints of Christianity. Thus Navarro ‘gained great credit at this siege, and struck a terror into everybody’ (Guicciardini, 1562, Bk I).

For a time the older and newer methods of mining co-existed. As late as 1537 the Spaniards attacked Saint-PQI by cutting a gash in the salient of a tower, supporting the masonry by timber, and then burning away the props. In the main, however, besiegers avidly seized on the possibility of wrecking a wall by an explosion, rather than effecting its tame subsidence by the ‘burnt-prop’ method. The explosive mine furthered the work of the cannon in wiping from the strategic map the hosts of small medieval castles which had disrupted and bedevilled so many offensive campaigns in the past. Only a good wet ditch, or a deep and well-flanked dry one was capable of deterring the enemy from ‘attaching the miner’ to the scarp.


Siege of Genoa (1746)

Italy and the naval bombardment of Genoa in 1684

At the same time as Strasbourg was being swallowed up in the north, the French appeared to give a clue to their sinister intentions elsewhere in Europe when they occupied Casale, a fortress in the Montferrat forty miles east of Turin. The Duke of Mantua was one of those hard-up petty potentates who abounded at the time, and after being sounded by the French he willingly parted with his enclave at Casale in return for a bribe.

It was bad enough that Louis got Casale at all, for it supplemented Pinerolo as a base for French operations on the Italian side of the Alps. The way in which the enterprise was carried out was more significant still, because the occupying force and the subsequent reliefs marched straight across Piedmontese territory without the formality of gaining the Duke of Savoy’s leave. In a similarly cavalier fashion the French made a naval bombardment of Genoa in 1684, simply because the republic appeared to be too friendly with Spain. This drastic measure confirmed the impression that Louis regarded north Italy as part of his own domains.

Piedmont and neighbouring states in the War of the Austrian Succession.

War of Austrian Succession

At the beginning of 1745, during the War of Austrian Succession the situation was altogether, in favor of the tenacious Maria Theresa. France, however, had in the meantime found a new ally in Genvoa, irritated by Piedmont and Austria for the threat to their possession of the Finale (Treaty of Aranjuez May 7, 1745). With the help of the Genoese, the two armies of the French-Spanish under Maillebois and Gages, came into Piedmont from the Riviera and defeated the Austro-Piedmontese at Bassignana (September 28), then occupied successively Tortona, Piacenza, Parma, Pavia, Alessandria, Asti and Casale, while Philip of Bourbon finally took Milan in December 19, 1745. In the Netherlands, France were dominant. The valiant Marshal Maurice de Saxe won the Anglo-Dutch at Fontenay (11 May 1745) and occupied Tournai (May 22), Ghent (July 10), Bruges (July 18), Oudenarde (July 21) and finally Ostend (July 23). To threaten England the French organized, in the summer of 1745, the landing of Charles Edward Stuart in Scotland (August 4).

In Germany, the French influence was almost nil, while England, threatened by Stuart, tried to reconcile once again Maria Theresa and Frederick II. The latter, however, due to the stagnation of diplomatic negotiations sort a military solution: won against the Austrians in Bohemia, invaded Saxony, won the battle of Kesselsdorf (December 15), occupied Leipzig and Dresden. So achieved his goal: Maria Teresa gave up Silesia and made peace (Treaty of Dresden, December 25, 1745).

France was supported by Spain, Naples, Genoa, and Austria, had as ally the kingdom of Sardinia, England, the Netherlands. The landing of the Stuart in Scotland caused, in the autumn of 1745, a general uprising of the Scots and caused terrible panic in London. But this uprising was ended with the battle of Culloden (April 16, 1746). The only consequence was the opportunity, given to Maurice of Saxony, to extend the involvement of the Austrian Netherlands, beating an Austrian army in Rocoux in September, and threatening Netherlands. On the other hand, Carlo Emanuele III took up the arms in agreement with Maria Theresa. So he reoccupied Asti on March 8, 1746, expelled the Franco-Hispanic armies from Piedmont and Lombardy, won in battle of Piacenza (June 16), that caused the enemy’s retreat into Genoa. At this time, the King Philip V of Spain died (July 9) and his successor, Ferdinand VI, was inclined towards peace and the withdrawal of his troops from Italy. The Austro-Sardinian pressed the enemy down on the Riviera, and Marshal Botta Adorno, occupied Genoa on September 7, while Carlo Emanuele III blockaded Savona, took Finale and pursued the Franco-Hispanic Army to Varo. Genoa underwent three months of harsh occupation by Austria, but due to a violent popular uprising, adroitly directed by the Genoese government (5-10 December 1746) freed itself.

The revolt in the Portoria district in Genoa against the Austrians in 1746, led by Giovan Battista Perasso (1735-1781) known as Balilla, 19th century print. Italy, 18th-19th century.

The Austrian alliance invaded Provence, with British naval support, but they were pushed back in 1747, while the Austrians failed to regain Genoa, which had rebelled against their control. The Genoese revolt of December 1746, a successful popular rising, prefigured much that was to be associated with the revolutionary warfare of the close of the century. The swiftly changing course of the conflict in Italy indicated the volatile character of war in this period.

Meanwhile, Carlo Emanuele III was able to occupy Savona (18 December). From Vienna, he asked for an expedition against Naples to chase away the Bourbons. But England did not want an absolute Austrian domination in Italy. So, Provence was invaded, the military port of Toulon was occupied and France was forced to halt its operations in the Netherlands. The Austro-Sardinian forces advanced to Antibes, but then retreated (February 1747).

In the last major conflict in Italy prior to the French Revolutionary War, Franco-Spanish forces failed in 1743-4 to break through the alpine defences of the kingdom of Sardinia, the most important possessions of which were Piedmont and Savoy. Politics offered a new approach: by gaining the alliance of Genoa in 1745, the Bourbons were able to circumvent the alpine defences and invade Piedmont from the south. Initial successes, however, were reversed in 1746 and the Austrians and Sardinians won a decisive victory at Piacenza (16 June 1746), ending, for the remainder of the ancien regime a quarter-millennium of French efforts to dominate northern Italy.

Bishop Guglielmino degli Ubertini of Arezzo

The military commander of the Ghibellines in this battle was the city’s powerful bishop, Guglielmino degli Ubertini. Note two features distinctive of ecclesiastical leaders who went to war in person: the crest on his helm fashioned as a bishop’s mitre, and his use of a mace (mazza ferrata) rather than a sword. The latter was a cynical ploy adopted to get around the religious prohibition on churchmen `shedding blood’: they could kill enemies, but only `sine effusione sanguinis’. The second half of the 13th century saw the development of plate armour elements worn in combination with the mail hauberk. Initially plate armour was mostly made of cuir bouilli (boiled, moulded and hardened leather); here, this material is used for the domed defences mounted on quilted cuisses at the knees, at the shoulders above leather strips, and for the gauntlet cuffs, but the greaves on the lower legs are already in metal. The mail hood worn under the helm was now a separate camail. Over the hauberk the bishop wears a `coat-of-plates’, called in Italian a lameria; buckled on at the back, this is a tabard-shaped garment made of small iron plates riveted between two layers of thick fabric in such a way as to allow some flexibility of the torso. Apparently, these lamerie were first introduced in Italy on a large scale by the German mercenary knights employed by Manfred of Swabia.

At a first glance, Guglielmino degli Ubertini would appear to fit the stereotypical worldly clergyman of literature. While there is no doubt that he often practised power mongering to a high degree in his more than 40 years as bishop of Arezzo (1248-89), switching his allegiance at will from Guelph to Ghibelline, he always had in mind the interests of his city and his diocese – at least when he saw them coinciding with his own and those of his family. A man of the sword as much as of the pen, at the battle of Montaperti in 1260 Ubertini led the exiled Aretine Ghibellines against the Guelph coalition besieging Siena `capturing and killing many’. On a number of occasions he did not hesitate to use the weapon of ecclesiastical censure against his fellow citizens to obtain his political goals. As a military leader he would show his limits during the 1289 campaign, when concerns over his own possessions in the Casentino area led him to seek battle at all costs, despite being advised otherwise. At Campaldino he demonstrated his attachment to his native city, not hesitating to join the fray even when given the chance to escape from the slaughter.

Guglielmo Ubertini who had served for forty years as the bishop of Arezzo by the time of the battle. “A man of the sword as much as of the pen”, Ubertini had proven to be capable, ruthless and brave military commander during several conflicts before 1289, though his strategic acumen was impeded by his interest in defending the possessions of his family at any cost. This greatly influenced his decision to seek battle at Campaldino, despite having been advised against it.


A Tuscan Guelf League army, mainly composed of Florentines, faced a Ghibelline League force from Arezzo in the Amo valley. The Florentine army appeared to be on the march for Arezzo along the well-worn road of the Upper Valdarno, when all at once they swung to the left and crossed the Consuma Pass without encountering any opposition, and entered the Casentino-the highest valley of the river Arno. From there they descended towards Arezzo.

At first the local forces fell back before them, but they eventually called a halt in the wide valley immediately north of Poppi after being reinforced by the Ghibellines of the Romagna and the Marche.

The Tuscans, consisting of 1,600 cavalry and 10,000 infantry (including a large number of crossbowmen), drew up with cavalry in the centre and the bulk of their infantry formed up on both flanks slightly in advance of the cavalry, thus constituting the horns of a crescent formation. The centre was covered by a detached screen of light cavalry. Behind the whole array a line of wagons was drawn up, behind which was positioned a reserve of 200 cavalry plus some infantry. (The poet Dante fought in the front rank of the Florentine cavalry.)

The Ghibellines formed up in 4 lines with their 800 cavalry divided between the first, second and last lines while their 8,000infantry, with a few crossbows among them, made up the third. They opened the battle with a charge which, although it routed the Florentine light cavalry and drove the Tuscans back to their baggage wagons, committed their first three lines, the flanks of which were then subjected to a devastating crossfire from the crossbowmen on the Tuscan wings while the rest of the infantry, armed with long spears, closed in around them. The Ghibelline reserve line of just 50 horsemen was never committed and eventually fled, at which the Tuscan reserve came in on the rear of their disorganised first lines, which were thus trapped. Ghibelline casualties totalled 1,700 killed and 2,000 captured.

Throughout most of this period archers were present on the battlefield in relatively small numbers. They and crossbowmen were usually positioned on the flanks of the army in separate units with spearmen in the centre, though they are also to be found skirmishing ahead of the main body, or else interspersed with other infantry. Archers on the left of the line, firing into the enemy’s unshielded flank, would have been particularly effective, and with archers on both flanks it was possible to achieve a crossfire, as did the Tuscan crossbowmen at Campaldino in 1289.

Suggested reading: General Works: Villaripi, I primi due secoli della storia di Firenze, Florence, 1910, Davidsohn: Geschichte ion Florenz, Vol. IL Firenze. On the Campaign: Koehler, G., Die Entwickelung des Kriegswesens und der Kriegfuhrung in der Ritterzeit, Book III, Breslau, 1889. On the Battle: Fieri, P., ‘Alcune quistioni sepra la fanteria in Italia nel periodo comunale’, in Rivista Storica Italiana, 1934.

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.

ANALYSIS: The Italian Manned Torpedo Attack at Alexandria, 19 December 1941

Routes of the Three Manned Torpedoes (Petroliera is the tanker Sagona.) From de Risio, I Mezzi d’Assalto, 123


Were the objectives worth the risks? The Italian navy, although beaten badly in the months prior to the attack on Alexandria, was in the process of commissioning three new battleships, Doria, Vittorio Veneto, and Littorio. The British had also suffered several naval defeats with the loss of the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and the battleship Barham in November 1941. If the Italians could destroy the remaining two battleships, Queen Elizabeth and Valiant, they, along with the Germans, could dominate the Mediterranean. As it stood, however, even with its numerical superiority, the Italian fleet was insufficient to challenge the British in the eastern Mediterranean. With the British still controlling the vital sea-lanes, the Italians had to struggle to resupply Rommel’s forces in North Africa. By using the manned torpedoes to conduct underwater guerrilla warfare, the Italians were able to make maximum use of their maritime resources. With the destruction of two battleships and a destroyer, the Italians had an opportunity to control the maritime playing field and propagandize about the “weakness” of the British. Unfortunately, they did neither. Nevertheless, when one considers that only six men and three manned torpedoes were used to destroy the targets, the objectives were undeniably worth the risk.

Was the plan developed to maximize superiority over the enemy and minimize the risk to the assault force? The development of the manned torpedoes was a technological revolution in underwater warfare. It allowed the Italians to circumvent the conventional submarine marine defenses protecting the capital ships and to bypass the picketboats that were specifically designed to stop frogmen and divers. Superb operational intelligence allowed the planners to tailor the rehearsals to the mission and thereby ensured that the manned torpedo crews were properly prepared to overcome most obstacles. Although the plan maximized the possibility that the battleships would be destroyed, it did not minimize the risk to the divers. Unlike the attacks on Gibraltar, in which the divers could hit the target and swim to neutral Spain, there was little chance the Alexandria divers would return from a trip deep in enemy territory. The Scire, which would have provided the best extraction platform, departed immediately after launching the torpedoes. This reduced the submarine’s vulnerability, but certainly did not help the manned torpedo crews. There was an escape and evasion plan, but it was not well thought out and the divers did not truly expect to return.* Although this one-way trip may seem unacceptable by today’s standards, the Italians were able to maximize their combat effectiveness by eliminating the extraction phase. The torpedo’s battery power, the air in their Belloni rigs, and their physical endurance were all dedicated to mission accomplishment and not saved for escape.

Was the mission executed according to the plan, and if not, what unforeseen circumstances dictated the outcome? With some minor exceptions, the plan was executed exactly as rehearsed. Schergat said later, “From my point of view, the mission looked just like further training.” However, several problems arose that typify the frictions of war. Durand de la Penne lost his second diver, Bianchi, when the petty officer fainted and floated to the surface. One of the three manned torpedoes took on too much ballast and sank to the bottom of the harbor. One of the officers, Martellotta, got violently ill and had to direct the actions of his torpedo from the surface. All of these incidents were happenstance, but that is the nature of war. Regardless of how well the planning and preparation phases go, the environment of war is different from the environment of preparing for war. But, by being specially trained, equipped, and supported for a specific mission, special forces personnel can reduce those frictions to the bare minimum and then overcome them with courage, boldness, perseverance, and intellect—the moral factors.

What modifications could have improved the outcome of the mission? The success of the mission speaks for itself. However, it is conceivable that had a more thorough escape and evasion plan been arranged, two of the crews might have escaped. By prepositioning an agent and a small boat outside the harbor, the evading crews could have quickly linked up and sailed away from the scene before the demolitions exploded. Apparently, this was never addressed. The Italians did have an agent in Cairo who was supposed to assist the divers in their escape, but the Italians, being unfamiliar with the city and unable to speak the language, had little chance of reaching this individual. This part of the plan notwithstanding, the operation was extremely well planned and coordinated, and there are very few modifications that could have improved the outcome.

Relative Superiority

Operations that rely entirely on stealth for the successful accomplishment of their mission have inherent weaknesses; however, they have one overwhelming advantage. As long as the attacking force remains concealed, they are not subject to the will of the enemy. Therefore their chances of success are immediately better than 50 percent because the inherent superiority of the defense is lost. The attacking force has the initiative, choosing when and where it wants to attack, and if the mission is planned correctly, the force will attack at the weakest point in the defense. Consequently, if the will of the enemy is not a factor, only the frictions of war (i.e., chance and uncertainty) will affect the outcome of the mission. Clearly the frictions of war can be detrimental to success, but through good preparation and strong moral factors, the frictions can be managed. The inherent problem with special operations that rely entirely on stealth is obvious. If that concealment is compromised, the mission has little or no chance of success.

Although there were some differences in the individual profiles, basically all three torpedoes reached the critical points at approximately the same time. At midnight on 19 December 1941, all three torpedoes entered the harbor and passed by the antisubmarine net. This was the point of vulnerability, but because the British did not know the torpedoes were in the harbor, the Italians began with relative superiority, albeit not very decisively. As the manned torpedoes continued into the harbor, circumventing the picketboats and pier security, their probability of mission completion improved marginally. Their decisive advantage came when they penetrated the antitorpedo nets. After this point, there were no other defenses that could prevent them from successfully fulfilling their mission. However, as the graph depicts, there was still an area of vulnerability even after overcoming the antitorpedo net. Had the Italians been detected (for instance, when Bianchi floated to the surface), the British crews could have dropped concussion grenades and possibly stopped the attack. Fortunately for the Italians, they were able to set their charges before the British detected them. Three hours later the charges exploded, and the mission was complete.

The Principles of Special Operations

Simplicity. This mission had several advantages not normally associated with a special operation. Although the target was clearly strategic, with the balance of the naval forces in the Mediterranean hinging on the mission success, the execution was almost an extension of routine training and wartime operations. Under Borghese’s command the Scire had previously conducted three missions that paralleled the attack on Alexandria. Durand de la Penne and Bianchi were also veterans of a previous attempt to attack the British. This experience helped mold the approach the Italians took in planning and preparing for Alexandria.

The lessons of the disaster at Malta convinced Borghese, who was the overall mission commander, not to create a complex plan of operation. Borghese limited the objectives by reducing the forces assigned to attack Alexandria. He could just as easily have incorporated another three manned torpedoes and several E-boats to overload British defenses and ensure the Italians of some success. Additionally, although each manned torpedo had only one warhead, it was possible, and often rehearsed, for each crew to hit multiple targets by placing the smaller limpet mines on as many ships as feasible. Borghese chose to avoid both these pitfalls and limit each manned torpedo to only one target with “all other targets consisting of active war units to be ignored.” Although not involved in the planning, Bianchi recognized the need to limit the number of targets. He said later, “In limiting the attack to one objective [per crew] the commander considered having the offensive power increased.” Even attacking one target became difficult. In each of the three cases the frogmen were able to execute their assigned tasks, but only after overcoming significant physical problems (vomiting, unconsciousness, headaches) and equipment failures (dry suit leaks, flooded torpedoes). Had the mission called for more than one target per dive pair, it is unlikely the divers would have had the physical or technical resources to complete it. Also, with multiple targets, the fuses on the charges would have to have been set for more time to allow the divers time to attack their other targets and escape. Arguably this might have allowed the British to find the charges or move the vessels from their anchorage (in Durand de la Penne’s case, moving the vessel would have prevented any damage to the Valiant). In either case, limiting the objectives clearly simplified the plan and allowed maximum effort to be applied against the primary targets.

Borghese knew the value of accurate intelligence, and he consistently used it throughout the operation to reduce the unknown variables and improve the divers’ chances of success. Knowing the physical limitations of divers exposed to cold water, Borghese insisted on getting his submarine as close to the harbor entrance as possible. Italian agents in Alexandria provided the 10th Light Flotilla with a clear picture of the British defenses and in particular the minefields off the coast. Borghese wrote later, “I had therefore decided that as soon as we reached a depth of 400 meters [which was probably where the minefield started], we would proceed at a depth of not less than 60 meters, since I assumed that the mines, even if they were anti-submarine, would be located at a higher level.”

This information eventually allowed the Scire to maneuver to a point only 1.3 miles from the entrance of the harbor. So close, in fact, that after launching the torpedoes, Durand de la Penne stopped his assault crews for a sip of cognac and a tin of food.

The torpedo crews were also provided the latest human intelligence and aerial reconnaissance photos to allow them to plot courses and find the simplest approach to the target. Borghese noted during the preparation phase that the divers’ desks “were covered with aerial photographs and maps … daily examined under a magnifying glass and annotated from the latest intelligence and air reconnaissance reports; those harbours, with their moles, obstacles, wharfs, docks, mooring places and defences, were no mysteries to the pilots, who perfectly knew their configuration, orientation and depths, so that they, astride the ‘pig’, could make their way about them at night just as easily as a man in his own room.”

The accurate intelligence had simplified the problem of negotiating minefields and navigating in an enemy harbor. Alexandria Harbor was thirty-five hundred miles from Italy. It was ringed with antiaircraft guns and supported by Spitfires from the Royal Air Force. It seemed impenetrable from the air. On the other hand, the Italian navy, which had almost no presence in the eastern Mediterranean, posed no significant threat to the more than two hundred vessels (merchant and warships) tied up in Alexandria. The only major fears the British had were from submarines and saboteurs, and extensive precautions had been taken to overcome both these possibilities. Until the establishment of the 10th Light Flotilla and the innovations that followed (i.e., the manned torpedoes, diving rigs, limpet mines, Belloni dry suits, and submarine transport chambers), the difficulty of penetrating the static defenses of Alexandria was not worth the risk in human lives or equipment.* These innovations allowed the Italians to reconsider the possibility of a direct assault.

The most significant tactical innovation was the use of disposable torpedoes. Having to plan for only a one-way trip meant enhanced time on target for the divers and reduced the threat envelope for the submarine Scire. Obviously one-way trips have their drawbacks for the individual operators, but from a mission accomplishment standpoint they improve the possibility of success by reducing the extraction variables. The technological innovations allowed the divers to completely bypass the British defenses. The small visual signature of the manned torpedo provided the Italians a host of tactical advantages. It allowed them to surface unobserved and ride out the depth charges. They were able to navigate around the harbor undetected by ballasting the submersible just under the surface. These actions would not have been possible with either a midget submarine or a conventional submarine. The ease of handling the torpedo also allowed the crews to climb over antitorpedo nets and allowed Durand de la Penne to physically move his flooded machine to a position under the Valiant’s keel. Innovation simplified the assault plan by eliminating the defensive threats posed by the nets and depth charges, and it was without question the dominant factor in the success of the mission.

Security. The raid on Alexandria again demonstrates how the importance of security was not a function of hiding the intent of the mission but of the timing and the insertion means. By December 1941 British intelligence was fully aware that the Italians had manned submersibles capable of penetrating their harbors. The second Italian attack on Gibraltar had provided the British with one torpedo and its crew. The attack on Malta had also resulted in the capture of Italian frogmen. And the sinking of the Gondar resulted in the capture of Elios Toschi, the designer of the original manned torpedo. With all this information, the British unquestionably knew the kind of operations they could expect from the 10th Light Flotilla. As Winston Churchill later said in his speech to the House of Commons, “Extreme precautions had been taken for some time past against the varieties of human torpedo or one-man submarines entering our harbours.” Even with all these precautions, however, the Italians still managed to sneak in and destroy the fleet.

The security employed by the Italians was tight but not overbearing. It did not prevent Borghese from asking for volunteers from among all the members of the 10th Light Flotilla, nor did it prevent the crews from conducting several full-mission profiles in and around La Spezia Harbor, although in both cases it is believed that the actual target was not made known to the general participants.

Borghese was, however, cognizant of the need to conceal the timing of the operation. Upon departing La Spezia for the final voyage, he ensured that the Scire’s transport chambers were visibly empty, and he did not load the manned torpedoes until he was out of sight of the harbor. He took these actions to convince possible onlookers that the Scire was out for just another routine operation. Borghese kept up pretenses when he arrived in Leros. While in port he had the transport chambers covered to reduce speculation about the submarine’s mission, and he refused an admiral’s order to conduct another exercise for fear of compromising the impending mission.

Borghese also understood that all things being equal, operational needs were more important than security. Throughout the mission he maintained radio contact with Athens and Rome. Although interception of the message traffic could have compromised the mission, Borghese obviously felt the need for updated intelligence outweighed that concern. In the end, Italian security was instrumental in preventing the enemy from gaining an advantage by knowing the timing of the mission. A good special operation will succeed in spite of the enemy’s attempt to fortify his position, provided security prevents the enemy from knowing when and how the attack is coming. In the case of the Italians’ attack on Alexandria, security achieved its aims.

Repetition. The principle of repetition as it applies to the attack on Alexandria can be viewed in both the macro and the micro senses of the word. The manned torpedoes of the 10th Light Flotilla had a very limited role: to conduct attacks on ships in port. Every mission profile was similar: launch from the submarine, transit to the objective, cut through the nets, place the charge, and withdraw. Because of this narrowly defined role every training exercise added to the base of knowledge of the operator regardless of what specific mission he would eventually undertake. If one considers that each of the six divers had been on board the 10th Light Flotilla an average of eighteen months (Durand de la Penne and Bianchi almost two years), during which time they had dived at least two times a week, then each man had over 150 dives. In addition, three of the divers (Durand de la Penne, Bianchi, and Marceglia) had previously conducted wartime missions, and all of the divers had at one time or another been designated as reserve crewmembers and undergone a complete mission workup. So, in the macro sense, the only aspect of the Alexandria mission that had not been rehearsed well over one hundred times was the exact course the divers would take.

The operational and reserve crews for the Alexandria mission were assembled in September 1941 to begin mission-specific training. It was during this preparation that the crews conducted exact profiles of the Alexandria mission. Borghese reported that this training “became highly intensified, this being the key to secure the greatest possible efficiency in the men and materials composing the unit. The pilots of the human torpedoes … travelled to La Spezia twice a week and were there dropped off from a boat or, in all-around tests, from one of the transport submarines, and then performed a complete assault exercise, naturally at night; this consisted of getting near the harbour, negotiating the net-defences, advancing stealthily within the harbour, approaching the target, attacking the hull, applying the warhead and, finally, withdrawing.”

Although exact numbers are not available, Spartaco Schergat indicates that a total of ten full-mission profiles were conducted by all three crews and the reserves. Other limited dives concentrated on specific aspects of the mission, such as net cutting or charge emplacement. In the end, however, it was repetition that provided the divers familiarity with their machines and their environment. The training became so routine that Schergat later remarked, “Being in Alexandria or La Spezia was the same. For me it didn’t make any difference.”

The raid on Alexandria presents a broader view of the principle of repetition. It shows that repetition must be measured in terms of both experience and mission-specific training. Special operations forces that are multidimensional will require more rehearsals and more time during the preparation phase than a unit whose sole mission encompasses this training on a daily basis.* However, no amount of experience can obviate the need to conduct a minimum of two full-dress rehearsals prior to the mission.

Surprise. In an underwater attack, unlike other special operations, surprise is not only necessary, it is essential. As illustrated in the relative superiority graph, special operations forces that attack underwater have the advantage of being relatively superior to the enemy throughout the engagement as long as they remain concealed. Owing to their inherent lack of speed and firepower, however, once surprise is compromised, underwater attackers have little opportunity to escape. Although many commanders may find this risk unacceptable, experience shows that this type of operation is mostly successful. During World War II the Italians sank over 260,000 tons of shipping and lost only a dozen men, while the British had similar successes in both the European and the Japanese theaters. The reason for this paradox is that it is relatively easy for divers or submersibles to remain concealed, up to a certain point. Alexandria was a huge harbor with approximately two hundred vessels anchored out, and wartime conditions called for all vessels to be at darken ship. Consequently, a small black submersible, even on the surface of the water, would have been detected only by chance. However, once the manned torpedoes got within close proximity of the target, the chance of detection was greatly increased. This is true of all underwater attacks. The fatigue of the divers, the vigilance of the crew, and the uncertainty of the situation combine to make the actions at the objective exceedingly difficult. This is why relative superiority remained only marginal in this operation until the Italians actually overcame the final obstacle, the antitorpedo net. Beyond the antitorpedo net the British were least prepared to defend themselves, and now the Italians had all the advantages.

The antisubmarine and antitorpedo defenses at Alexandria also show that, contrary to the accepted definition of surprise, the enemy is usually prepared for an attack. To be effective, special operations forces must either attack the enemy when he is off guard or, as in the Italians’ case, elude the enemy entirely. But to assume that the enemy is unprepared to counterattack is foolhardy and might lead to overconfidence on the part of the attacker. It is the nature of defensive warfare to be prepared for an attack. Consequently, if the attacker is compromised, the enemy will be able to react rapidly and the attacker’s only hope for success lies in quickly achieving his objective.

Speed. Underwater attacks are rarely characterized by speed. A quick review of the relative superiority graph shows that it took the manned torpedoes over two hours from the point of vulnerability until they reached the antitorpedo net. Throughout this time they were subject to the frictions of war, and by moving slowly and methodically they only increased their area of vulnerability. However, as long as the will of the enemy is not infringing on the relative superiority of the attacker, speed is not essential, although it is still desirable. Speed becomes essential when the attacker begins to lose relative superiority. Two of the torpedo crews reached their objectives and calmly proceeded to attach the explosives and depart. Durand de la Penne, however, reached his target and immediately began to have difficulties: his torpedo sank to the bottom, he lost his second diver, his dry suit filled with cold water, and he was fatigued to the point of exhaustion. As he said in his after-action report, at that point speed was essential. Durand de la Penne was rapidly losing his advantage and knew that if he didn’t act quickly “the operation … would be doomed to failure.”50 The closer an attacker gets to the objective, the greater the risk. Consequently, speed is still important to minimize the attacker’s vulnerability and improve the probability of mission completion.

Purpose. Commander Borghese, who was in overall charge of the attack on Alexandria, ensured that the purpose of the mission was well defined and that the divers were personally committed to achieving their objectives. This was a straightforward mission without any complicated command and control issues; therefore, defining the goals and objectives—the purpose—was relatively easy. Each manned torpedo had only one warhead and one target. Therefore it was essential not to waste the warhead and the effort on an undesirable objective. Borghese ordered Martellotta and Marino to attack the aircraft carrier Eagle if she were in port, and if not, the tanker Sagona. Once inside the harbor, however, the pair accidently attacked a cruiser. Fortunately, before they could detach the warhead, they realized it was not their target, and as Borghese notes, “with great reluctance, in obedience to orders received, abandoned the attack.” Their orders were clear; they understood the purpose of the mission. They were not to waste their effort on a small cruiser, but instead were to seek out a larger target, which they eventually found and destroyed.

Men who volunteered for the 10th Light Flotilla were typical of special forces personnel everywhere. Each was a combination of adventurer and patriot. They understood the risks involved in penetrating the enemy’s harbor and fully accepted the consequences. They did so out of a love for excitement and the understanding that their missions were important to the country. Teseo Tesei, who, at Malta, detonated his torpedo underneath himself in order to achieve his objective, said, “Whether we sink any ships or not doesn’t matter much; what does matter is that we should be able to blow up with our craft under the very noses of the enemy: we should thus have shown our sons and Italy’s future generations at the price of what sacrifice we live up to our ideals and how success is to be achieved.”

Although Tesei, who had died three months earlier, did not participate in the Alexandria attack, his inspiration was apparent in the attitudes of the Alexandria crews. All six divers knew they would be either captured or killed, and yet Borghese says the difficulties and dangers merely “increased their determination.” This personal commitment to see the mission completed at any cost is, as Tesei said, how success is achieved.

Medieval Venice I

The Lion City

As Venice grew richer, it became more powerful. A city needs a ruling authority, and the acquisition of authority invites arrogance and belligerence. It encourages the will for further power. Venice, surrounded by the sea, could not grow out of its own frontier. But it could be enlarged and enriched by its extension in other lands and in other cities. It could become an empire.

In earliest times la Serenissima, the city of the Virgin, had been given a masculine identity by its citizens. It was the Lion City. The very conditions of its existence made warfare an inevitable part of its history. There was warfare against the natural world and then warfare against its competitors. It was obliged to fight for its survival. Venice had archers and oarsmen and maritime warriors. Sea powers are natural competitors. While land powers may agree to the division of land into frontiers, the ocean has no frontier. Wherever there is sea, there are hostile ships. Throughout its long history, Venice could never rest.

The drawing books of Jacopo Bellini, composed in the mid-fifteenth century, contain many studies of cavaliers and crossbowmen preparing themselves for combat. Half of Bellini’s lifetime was spent in the battles of Venice against other powers. “This nation of sailors,” Petrarch wrote, “was so skilful in the handling of horses and weapons, so spirited and so hardy, that it surpassed all other warlike nations whether by sea or by land.” So it can indeed be construed as a masculine city. The history of Venice was conceived, and composed, as the history of patriarchal families. The government of Venice was patriarchal in all of its elements. The society of Venice was considered to be patrilinear in nature. The image of the city was wholly dependent upon the exercise of paternal authority.

The patrician youth were trained to use the bow, and to command galleys at sea. They were educated in all the knightly virtues, in a period when the chivalric code of warfare was honoured throughout Europe. The first jousts, in Saint Mark’s Square, are recorded as early as 1242. From that time forward they were staged at regular intervals. In Bellini’s drawing books, chivalric opponents dash upon each other in spectacular tournaments. On these occasions the city was given up to the celebration of militarism and the military virtues. It provided the theatre of war. Painters were employed to embellish shields and armour as well as icons and portraits. Artists, among them Bellini himself, were used to design fortifications and draw military maps. In the sacred paintings of Venice the saints are often seen wielding swords. Saint George, one of the patrons of the city, was the archetypal military saint. This is very different from the picture of Venetians as quick-witted traders or as earnest statesmen. But knightly valour was once an aspect of their culture. How else could the Venetians have created an empire?

So they knew how to use force when it was required. They were quick to strike, when the opportunity presented itself. One conquest led to another conquest. In fact, one conquest demanded another conquest. In a state that never felt itself secure, the condition of the world was always perilous. Unsuccessful generals and admirals were imprisoned, exiled, or killed. When they employed the newly invented cannon against a recalcitrant Italian town, an old chronicle reported that “one would think that God were thundering.” One cannon was named “the Venetian Woman who Casts down Every Wall and Spike.”

The first colonies of Venice were in the lagoon itself; originally the smaller islands had self-ruling or self-sustaining communities. Once each island had its monastery, and its church. But, soon enough, they all became part of Venice itself. The leaders of the city might then take comfort from the opening words of the ninety-seventh psalm: “The LORD reigneth; let the earth rejoice; let the multitude of isles be glad thereof.” The multitude of islands were swallowed up by the great city growing in their midst. Or their communities simply withered away.

Torcello, seven miles (11 km) to the north of the most serene city, was once a thriving place. Before the city of Venice ever rose from the waters, it was a great civic centre for the exiles from Venetia. They had first come in the middle of the fifth century. A cathedral of Byzantine form was raised here in the seventh century. It was built as a refuge and a strength by exiles fleeing from the mainland; the windows of the church have shutters of stone. Wealthy monasteries were founded on its fertile soil. In the tenth century it was described by the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus as “magnum emporium Torcellanorum.” Yet the success of Venice led ineluctably to the decay of Torcello. There was no room for two thriving centres of trade in the lagoon. There are some, however, who say that it was poisoned by the malarial waters of the lagoon. The sea was silted up, and the island was surrounded by stagnant ponds. There may be truth to this, but the visitation of disease added only the final blow to a long process of disintegration. Ineluctably Torcello sank in the significance of the world. In the nineteenth century a nobleman of spurious or dubious origin was dubbed as “a count of Torcello.” Now the once thriving island supports a handful of people; all around are wastes of mud-filled creeks and rivulets and what Ruskin described as “salt morass.” The brick campanile, and the mosaics within the cathedral itself, are the only remnants of its faded splendour. The civic square is covered by wild grass. Yet the silence of this island, interrupted sometimes by the soughing of the wind through the reeds or the rustle of rippling waters, is a vivid token of the primeval lagoon to which the first Veneti came. Another symbol can be found here of the Venetian world. There is a restaurant on the island, frequented by the tourists who journey to Torcello as an outdoor museum. It is really no more than that. And might it then somehow anticipate the fate of Venice itself?

On the majority of the islands could once be found a tall campanile and brick-built church; there was a small piazza, with the image of the lion on wall or pillar; there were little clusters of whitewashed houses, their gardens protected from the depredations of the salt wind by neat red fences. Then they were touched by decay more insidious than the wind. The island of Ammiana once boasted eight churches; then it was depopulated and turned into a salt farm. And where did the inhabitants go? They migrated to Venice. All of these dead towns and cities and settlements could once have been proposed as alternatives to Venice; they might have flourished and grown strong, as Venice did. If we were to follow the precepts of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, we might create the possible cities of the lagoon; the distinct customs and dialects of each island might then have created several different cities, resembling and yet not resembling Venice itself. But, then, this would be a fantasy.

Other islands, once under Venetian control, have disappeared. The island of Constanziaca was engulfed by the waters. It had once contained monasteries and churches. It became so woeful, however, that it was turned into a burial site where the bones of the dead were left to bleach in the sun. Then with all its churches and bones it simply subsided into the sea. No one knows its precise position. Other islands suffered a similar fate, among them Terra dei Mani and Terra dei Soleri. Five little islands encircling Murano have been washed away by tides and currents. There is seaweed now where once tall cypresses grew. Some islands were overcome by earthquakes or tidal waves; others were claimed by a slow and general desuetude. They could not compete against the most serene city.

The Venetian authorities turned some of these once flourishing islands into prisons or hospitals. It was one way of pushing the undesirable elements of the population to the margins. It was also an exercise in total power. The island of S. Servolo was turned into a lunatic hospital for men, while the island of S. Clemente was a mental asylum for Venetian women. Sacca Sessola was a place of exile for those suffering from consumption, while the Isola della Grazia held those who burned with fever. On the island of Poveglia were laid out huts for the lepers banished from the city. All these islands were known to the Venetians as “isole del dolore” or the islands of sorrow.

The island of S. Biagio, now called Giudecca, was once a green haven of orchards and gardens; here were a convent, a home for penitent prostitutes and a pilgrims’ hostel. But the secular world of Venice intervened. It became essentially a suburb of the city. Other islands were used as agricultural factories for the markets of the Rialto. In the second half of the fifteenth century the island now known as the Lido became an extension of Venice’s port. It became part of the economic zone that now encircled and sustained the city.

The beginning of the Venetian empire beyond the lagoon can be found in the ninth century. Venice was not as yet a leading sea-power. That position was reserved for the Spanish and for the North Africans. But it needed to control its immediate environment. It had to find, and maintain, a reliable food supply for an increasing population. It needed to secure access to water and to agricultural land. It needed to control the lifelines of its trade. So Venice turned to the mainland. The people of the sea were obliged to conquer terra firma.

Towards the close of the ninth century Venice sacked the rival cities on the Italian coast and took control of the mouths of the Adige and Po rivers. The rivers gave them access to the markets of northern Italy; within a short time the bargemen of the city were offering their wares in Pavia, the capital of Lombardy. The merchants of Venice were prominent, too, in the markets of Verona and Cremona. In the tenth century Venetian markets and warehouses were built on the banks of the rivers Sile and Piave. The Venetians occupied a castle beside the Livenza river, so that their goods could reach the German traders coming down into Italy. By 977 the Venetian traders had a colony in Limoges, and by the next century they had diffused themselves into Marseilles and Toulouse. The corn-growing areas of Treviso and Bassano were acquired. In this period, too, the Venetians began the slow process of purchasing mainland property and territory. Some of the great families of Venice, like the Badoer and Tiepolo, acquired land around Treviso. The larger monasteries purchased estates along the coastal plain. This gradual enlargement of Venetian property continued for seven centuries. The key issue, as always, was that of commerce and in particular of the supply of grain.

Once the trade with northern Italy and much of Europe was considered secure, the governors of Venice turned their attention towards the sea. The merchants already effectively controlled the trade in eastern goods, but the success of that trade demanded that the routes to the East should be strengthened and defended. The sea was to be made safe for the mass transport of goods. The principal cities of Istria, immediately across the sea from Venice, submitted. The northern part of the Adriatic became known as the Gulf of Venice. Then the Venetian navy worked downwards. By the end of the tenth century it effectively controlled the Middle Adriatic, and set about the conquest of Dalmatia (now part of modern Croatia). The islands and cities of the region surrendered to the superior force and numbers of the Venetians. Some cities, more alarmed by the depredations of the pirates who found safe haven in the small islands and inlets along the Dalmatian coast, invited the doge and his troops to enter their gates. Other cities were tormented by the demands of the petty despots, characteristically living in fortress outposts, and preferred the more benign sovereignty of Venice. Other places were simply happy to enter stable trading relations with the great sea-city. All of them were treated as allies, rather than as subjects, of Venice. Yet in truth the empire was being born. The pirates were defeated. The marauding Slavs were pushed back from the coast. In 998, the doge added the honorific of “dux of Dalmatia” to his title.

The seaway was open for increased traffic with Egypt and, more particularly, with Byzantium. Venice had already become that ancient city’s single most important trading partner, sending slaves and timber in exchange for wine, oil and wheat. In 991 Greek and Arab envoys travelled from the East to pay respect to the new doge, and a year later a treaty confirmed that Venice had been granted “most favoured” status by the Byzantine emperor. It confirmed what was already known. Venice had become the dominant trader of Europe, its commercial supremacy sustained by a vigorous and expanding navy. In return Venice offered its ships as transport for Byzantine soldiers crossing the Adriatic. The city was also, for all practical purposes, inviolable. At the time of the Magyar invasions of Lombardy, at the end of the ninth century, a stone wall was built to defend the islands of the Rialto. A great chain was placed across the water to prevent enemy ships from entering the Grand Canal. But the precautions were unnecessary. The Magyars could not reach the sea-girt city. They were beaten off in the shallow waters of the lagoon, where their ships foundered and sank. The great wall itself was demolished in the fourteenth century. It was not required.

By the eleventh century, therefore, Venice had become an autonomous and influential state. In the latter part of that century it fought with the troops of Byzantium against the Norman invaders of Sicily. The reason for the Norman adventure, as well as all the other policies and actions of Venice in this period, was very simple. No other state or city could be allowed to block the mouth of the Adriatic, thus imprisoning Venice within its own waters. This was the great fear and the abiding preoccupation.

It has become customary to describe the eleventh century as the period in which Latin Christendom emerged triumphant. This is nowhere more powerfully evinced than in the history of the Crusades. They have been construed as a direct attack upon the Muslim world, or as a form of spiritual imperialism, but the participation of Venice in the First Crusade had no such motives. The Venetians were waging economic warfare by other means. They were not concerned with the cross, or with the sword, but with the purse. The point was that rival trading cities, Genoa and Pisa in particular, were already taking part. Venice could not permit its competitors to gain an advantage in the lucrative markets of Syria and Egypt. To have a permanent presence in Antioch, or in Jerusalem, would be a source of innumerable commercial benefits. So, in the summer of 1100, a fleet of two hundred Venetian ships arrived at Joppa (Jaffa); the Venetian commanders agreed to help the crusaders on condition that the merchants of their city were given the rights of free trade in all dominions recovered from the Saracens. The terms of this practical bargain were accepted. The Venetians were then despatched to besiege the town of Caifa (Haifa) and, having achieved the surrender of that place, they returned to the lagoon before the end of the year. They were not content, however, with this single and relatively simple victory. They wished to acquire more profit from their participation in the holy cause. They established trading stations within the Syrian ports, and began a lucrative business in transporting pilgrims to the newly captured Jerusalem.

On their way to Joppa, too, they had engaged in a peculiarly Venetian piece of business. The fleet had cast anchor at the ancient Lycian town of Myra (Bari), in search of the bones of Saint Nicholas who had been bishop of that place; the saint is now better known as the progenitor of Santa Claus but, in the eleventh century, he was revered as the patron saint of sailors. The Venetians, naturally enough, wanted him. It is alleged that they arrived in the town and put to the torture four Christians, the keepers of the shrine. They learned nothing of any consequence from these unholy proceedings, however, and made do with the theft of the bones of Saint Theodore. Theodore had been the patron saint of Venice before the arrival of Mark; he was a good second-best. Yet before their departure, according to the Venetian chronicles of Andrea Morosini, a wonderful fragrance issued from a recess beneath an altar in the church itself. The scent was that of Saint Nicholas. So he was removed, too, and brought back in triumph to Venice where his bones were lodged in the monastery of Saint Nicholas on the Lido. That is the story, at least. In fact the remains of Saint Nicholas, if such they are, have remained in Bari to this day. Whether the tale reveals more of Venetian mendacity, or of Venetian greed, is an open question.

The crusading venture had been a success for Venice, and in 1108 the Venetian fleet once more sailed under the flag of the cross. It may be noted that the governors of the city were particularly interested in the seaports of the Mediterranean, and that Venetian merchants were established in Acre, Jerusalem and elsewhere. Yet the attentions of the doge and senate were not confined to the principalities and powers of the Middle East. They thought it prudent to maintain and consolidate their presence on the mainland. They took Ferrara and Fano under their control, and moved against Padua. In the process they reasserted their rights over the principal rivers of the territory. On the other side of the Adriatic, they struggled with the Hungarians over the coastal regions of Dalmatia. They now had many enemies. The cities of the mainland were jealous of Venetian wealth, and fearful of Venetian power. The Norman kingdom of Sicily had long regarded Venice as a foe. The German empire of Hohenstaufen still laid claim to northern Italy.

There emerged one other formidable enemy. In 1119 the new emperor of Constantinople decreed that the trading privileges of Venice were at an end. He ordered all Venetian residents within the boundary of his empire to remove themselves and their business. He also proposed a treaty with the king of Hungary, thereby recognising Hungarian claims to the Venetian settlements in Dalmatia. The reaction of Venice was slow but assured. The Venetian fleet raided and sacked a number of Byzantine territories; Rhodes, Chios, Samos, Lesbos and Modon were some of the objects of their vengeance. They had set out to prove that they were now the single most important sea power in an area previously deemed to be the preserve of Constantinople. The emperor signed a new trade agreement with Venice in 1126.

The Venetian empire could justify its existence with the claim that trade, and not conquest, was its purpose. It naturalised its subjects with a spirit of enlightened commercialism. The motive was one of constructive self-aggrandisement. There was no true cult of empire, as there was in nineteenth-century London or in third-century Rome. There was no interest in massiveness or monumentality for their own sake. The only concession to the appetite for glory lay in the construction of gateways at key points in the city—the Torre dell’Orologio, the Porta della Carta, and the Arco Foscari among them. The gateway to the Arsenal is in every guide to the city. These were the Venetian equivalent of the triumphal arch, all the more striking in a city without a defensive wall.

Yet the Venetians who lived and traded in Constantinople, and in the other markets of the kingdom, became increasingly unpopular. They were judged to be arrogant and greedy. Away from Venice, the Venetians became insecure and fractious. They attacked their Genoese and Pisan rivals in trade, and refused to obey Byzantine edicts. They even stole the relics of saints from the churches of Constantinople. They were generally considered by their hosts to be vulgar, mere merchants looking for bargains. In turn the Venetians despised the Greeks, as effete and indolent. Then in 1171, on the command of the emperor, all the Venetians in Constantinople and elsewhere were arrested and imprisoned. A Venetian fleet, despatched to threaten the lands of the emperor, was reduced to impotence by the onset of plague. The commander of the unsuccessful expedition, on his return to Venice, was assassinated in the streets. It was the condign justice meted out to all perceived failures. The Byzantine emperor then sent a message to the doge in which he asserted that the Venetian nation had acted with great foolishness. He noted that they were “once vagabonds sunk in the utmost poverty” who had somehow claimed the right to imperial ambitions. But their abject failure and “insolence” had rendered them “a laughing stock.”

The leaders of Venice reacted cautiously. They formed alliances with some of the emperor’s enemies, and began an insidious campaign against Byzantine territories. There were secret talks and clandestine meetings. An accord was eventually reached and in 1183, twelve years after their arrest, the Venetian merchants were finally permitted to leave the prisons; a formal peace treaty between Venice and Byzantium was signed. It had represented a great crisis, and a vivid token of the real enmity between Constantinople and Venice; one city was dying, and the other was impatiently waiting to emerge supreme. Over the next few years there were pacts and agreements and messages of mutual confidence between the two cities. But in truth there could be no end to the struggle other than a fatal one.

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.


Born in Nice to a sea captain father, the young Garibaldi was a professional revolutionary. He took part in the Mazzinian uprising against the Piedmontese monarchy in 1834 and, following its suppression, was condemned to death for his role in the fighting. Garibaldi, however, had fled to Brazil. There, he met his first wife, Anita, and fought gallantly for six years (1836–1842) on behalf of the South Rio Grande republic, trying to achieve independence. Garibaldi ended the war as admiral of the would-be republic’s small fleet. In 1846, he organized and commanded the Italian legion that fought for Uruguay in its war against Argentina. Garibaldi’s reputation as the “hero of two worlds,” and his familiar penchant for South American peasant garb, dates from this period.

News of the 1848 revolutions, however, prompted his return to Turin. Garibaldi fought bravely against the Austrians in Lombardy and in defense of the Roman republic in the spring of 1849. Together with a faithful band of volunteers and Anita, Garibaldi broke out of Rome and retreated toward Venice, which was still resisting Austrian rule. After suffering heavy casualties, they were forced to take refuge in the swamps surrounding Ravenna, where Anita died of exhaustion.

Garibaldi, at the lowest ebb of his fortunes, was expelled from Piedmont-Sardinia and was forced to lead the life of an exile once more. He worked briefly as a candle-maker in Camden, New Jersey, before returning to Europe in 1854. He established himself in a house on the Sardinian Island of Caprera and gradually became more politically realistic. Under Camillo Benso di Cavour’s influence, Garibaldi accepted that the Piedmontese monarchy offered the best hope of unifying Italy. This renunciation of his Mazzinian and revolutionary principles restored him to favor in Turin, and in 1859 Garibaldi was made a general in the Piedmontese army.

Garibaldi was violently critical of the Treaty of Villafranca. In January 1860, he endorsed the latest venture launched by Giuseppe Mazzini, the “Action party,” which openly espoused a policy of liberating southern Italy, Rome, and Venice by military means. To this end, in the spring of 1860, Garibaldi led a corps of red-shirted patriots from Genoa to the assistance of a Mazzinian uprising in Palermo. The “Expedition of the Thousand” is the most famous of all Garibaldi’s military exploits. After landing near Palermo with the support of ships from the British fleet, Garibaldi swiftly took command of the island. On 14 May 1860, he became dictator of Sicily and head of a provisional government that was largely dominated by a native Sicilian who would play an important role in the political future of Italy, Francesco Crispi.

With the support of thousands of Sicilian peasants and workers, Garibaldi then invaded the Italian mainland, intent on marching on Rome. He entered Naples in September 1860. He was joined there by the principal republican theorists, Mazzini and Carlo Cattaneo, and for a brief moment it looked as if the process of Italian unification would take a radical turn. Cavour’s shrewdness enabled him to outmaneuver Garibaldi. Piedmontese troops invaded the Papal States, blocking the road to Rome. Garibaldi decided not to compromise Italian unity by risking a conflict with the Piedmontese. On 26 October 1860, he consigned southern Italy to the monarchy.

Garibaldi, however, was unable to consider Italian unification complete while Rome remained under clerical domination, protected by French troops. He became a thorn in the side of the first Italian governments by carrying on his own independent foreign policy. In 1862, Garibaldi returned to Sicily to raise another army of volunteers willing to march under the melodramatic slogan “Rome or Death.” The outraged reaction of Napoleon III compelled the Italian government to intervene, and Garibaldi’s advance was halted by Italian troops at Aspromonte in Calabria. There was a skirmish, and Garibaldi was shot in the foot. Garibaldi was briefly imprisoned, but his international fame (especially in England, to which he made a triumphal visit in 1864) soon led to his release.

In 1866, Garibaldi led Italian troops in the Trentino, liberating a great part of the Italian-speaking territory under Austrian rule before being ordered to relinquish his gains upon the end of the hostilities between Prussia and Austria. His short reply amply conveyed his disgust at the command: Garibaldi sent a one-word telegram saying obbedisco (I obey). His exploits in the Trentino were a prelude to further impolitic attempts to take Rome in the fall of 1867. Escaping from house arrest on Caprera, he joined 3,000 waiting volunteers in Tuscany. The courage of his amateur troops, however, was no match for the French army defending Rome, and at the small but bloody battle of Mentana on 3 November 1867, Garibaldi was decisively beaten. Once more, he was forced into exile on Caprera.

Garibaldi played no role in the liberation of Rome in 1870. His last campaign was on behalf of the French Republic. Garibaldi led a corps of Italian volunteers at the battle of Dijon in the fall of 1870, and his efforts were a useful contribution to what was the only French victory of the Franco–Prussian War. In his last years, Garibaldi dedicated himself to writing his memoirs (and heroic poetry) and became a declared socialist. He died on Caprera in 1882, but his myth has been a powerful influence on Italian political life ever since


In Italian, the Risorgimento means the awakening of national sentiment that led to the creation of the modern Italian state. The decisive moment for Italian political unity was the wars of 1859–1861. Thanks to a felicitous combination of international and domestic factors and skillful diplomacy, Italy was substantially united under the rule of the House of Savoy. First, the international context was favorable for the reduction of Austrian power in Italy. Austria had isolated itself during the Crimean War by staying neutral and was facing France’s challenge to its role as the power broker in Europe. Liberal England, moreover, wished to see the end of the anachronistic absolutist regime of the Bourbons in southern Italy. Within Italy, Piedmont-Sardinia, thanks to the modernizing efforts of Camillo Benso di Cavour, had emerged as a power of some weight capable of attracting the middle classes of Lombardy, Tuscany, and the rest of northern Italy to its cause. Liberal and nationalist ideas, moreover, were widespread by the end of the 1850s. The views of Vincenzo Gioberti, Cesare Balbo, and Massimo D’Azeglio had been read by every educated Italian, and republicans and democrats such as Carlo Cattaneo and Giuseppe Mazzini also had a substantial following, particularly in central Italy.

Cavour’s unique diplomatic skills turned these favorable conditions into political action. First, he persuaded Napoleon III to ally France to Piedmont in July 1858 at Plombières by promising France Nice and the duchies of central Italy (the eventual status of Savoy was left open) in exchange for French assistance to liberate Lombardy and Venetia from Austrian rule. The four northern Italian regions so liberated were then to form a federation under the presidency of the Pope. Cavour then goaded Austria into declaring war in April 1859, allowing Piedmont-Sardinia to appear as the innocent victim of an act of aggression by a larger power. As the bloody battles of Magenta and Solferino demonstrated, without French support the Piedmontese army would never have been able to defeat the Austrians. Simultaneous insurrections in Tuscany, Modena, and Parma in favor of unification with Turin were in large part organized by Cavour’s agents, thus nullifying the Plombières agreement by thwarting Napoleon III’s ambitions. The peace of Villafranca in July 1859—which granted Lombardy to Piedmont but insisted on the return of absolute rule in central Italy—was a tardy attempt by Napoleon and the Austrians to close the Pandora’s box opened by their own ambition. The treaty provoked Cavour’s resignation, but by now the movement for unification with Piedmont in central Italy was too strong to be blocked by anything short of a bloody war of repression. Cavour returned triumphantly to office in January 1860 and, in exchange for the cession of Savoy as well as Nice to France, was allowed to incorporate all of north-central Italy into Piedmont-Sardinia.

Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi regarded Cavour’s patient diplomacy as too cautious, however. At the beginning of 1860, the so-called Action Party was founded with the specific goal of liberating Rome, Venice, and southern Italy from absolutist and Papal rule. In April 1860, Garibaldi and his “Thousand” redshirts sailed from Genoa to Palermo to assist the Mazzinian uprising that had broken out against Bourbon rule. With the assistance of the British fleet, Garibaldi disembarked and swiftly established his personal dictatorship over Sicily. In August 1860, he crossed the Strait of Messina at the head of an army of Sicilians and marched on Naples, which he entered in September without encountering resistance. He was joined by Mazzini and Cattaneo, who openly argued that the red-shirts’ conquests should herald a democratic and republican solution to the unification of Italy.

Cavour, alarmed by this project, used the threat of a democratic revolution in Italy to persuade France to give him a free hand in southern Italy. Piedmontese troops invaded the Papal States and blocked Garibaldi’s road to Rome, and at Teano on 26 October 1860, Garibaldi ceded his conquests in person to Victor Emmanuel II. This decision was confirmed by regional plebiscites in February 1861. Only the wealthiest citizens were allowed to vote, and, particularly in the south, ballot fraud was widespread. Italy had completed its liberal revolution but had installed a regime that was ignorant of the needs of the southern peasantry and strongly identified with the interests of the northern upper classes. It is not fanciful to claim that many of Italy’s subsequent problems stemmed from the political settlement of the process of unification.