Cities in Collision I

View of Genoa and its fleet by Christoforo de Grassi (1597 copy, after a drawing of 1481); Galata Museo del Mare, Genoa.

Map of Italy in 1494.

There was one other significant competitor with which Venice had to deal. Genoa was known to the world as “la Superba,” Genoa the proud. Petrarch had described Venice and Genoa as “the two torches of Italy”; but fire can drive out fire. Both cities were known throughout Europe for their rapacity and acquisitiveness. The Genoese were more individualistic and inventive; the Venetians were more communal and conservative. The Genoese had a history of internecine warfare and rebellion; the Venetians were quiescent. Could they ever have lived at peace with one another?

For many centuries the merchants of Genoa competed with those of Venice in the eastern markets. But the success of the Venetians materially hindered the commerce of the rival city. It had been decreed, after the fall of Constantinople, that the Genoese were to be excluded from trade throughout the empire. But the Genoese fought back. They, too, were a seafaring people who had built up a great fleet that could challenge Venice on the seas of the known world. There were open clashes between the rival cities on the coasts of Crete and in Corfu, where the native inhabitants welcomed the arrival of the Genoese. A truce was agreed in 1218, but this was merely a prelude to further and more fatal struggles.

The tension between the two cities remained constant throughout the century, with skirmishing and assaults in all the markets where they competed; in 1258, after some particularly bloody fighting in Syria, the Venetians expelled the Genoese merchants from their quarter in Acre. There was then, for the Venetians, an unfortunate and unexpected development. In 1261 the Greeks, under the leadership of Michael Palaeologus, regained control of Constantinople. The Venetian fleet was at sea and the city was relatively unprotected. Under these auspicious circumstances the emperor’s forces mounted a rapid attack on the Latin contingent, and gained the defensive walls. Three weeks later Michael walked in glory to the basilica of Saint Sophia. He owed much of his success, however, to the Genoese who had supplied him with fifty ships; in return for their support they wished for unrestricted trade access in the markets of the city. They wanted revenge upon the Venetians for their forced departure from Acre. When the Venetians returned, they could do nothing except rescue their compatriots whose shops and dwellings had been destroyed by fire.

The Genoese were not faithful allies. Their merchants were, according to report, arrogant and avaricious. Their fleet proved unequal to a naval challenge from Venice. More importantly their representatives in Constantinople were accused of mounting a conspiracy against Paleologus himself. Ever ready to supplant a rival, Venetian envoys were sent in secret to the court of the emperor. A new trade pact was concluded. The Genoese were to be expelled from the empire, whereas Venice would be granted free privileges. In addition the Venetians were allowed to retain the former Byzantine possessions of Crete, of Negroponte, of Modon and Coron. These were sufficiently generous terms, and the emperor now understood that Venice itself was the greater power.

The Venetians were becoming accustomed to empire. At the beginning of the fourteenth century the doge, Pietro Gradenigo, made a speech to the great council of patricians in which he declared that “it is the duty of every good prince, and of every worthy citizen, to enlarge the State, to increase the Republic, and to seek its welfare by every means in his power.” It was the responsibility of the state, too, to seize every favourable opportunity for aggrandisement. Gradenigo had the mainland of Italy particularly in mind, where now the Venetians were actively promoting a policy of aggressive warfare. They had once sought neutrality in the battles between pope and holy Roman emperor over the cities of Italy. They had once wanted simply to preserve their trade routes. But now the experience of imperial expansion had hardened their sinews. They had become more belligerent. The mainland of Italy was in any case changing its nature. The principal cities no longer saw themselves as vassals of superior powers, such as the papacy, but as sovereign regions or city-states. There were some eighty of them throughout the land of Italy. Some were under the control of individual families, such as the Este of Ferrara, and others were in theory republican communities. Yet the central point was their independence. Independent cities want power and territory. They compete with each other for trade and influence. They even fight each other.

In 1308 Venice fought on the mainland in order to maintain its commercial rights within Ferrara and gain control over the Po. It allied itself with Florence and Bologna in order to fight back the expansive policies of Verona, and in the process captured much mainland territory. It fought against Padua and by its victory gained the provinces of Treviso and Bassano as well as the city of Padua itself. It won Verona and Vicenza. The Italian cities that came under Venetian domination were not subjugated. Venetian civil and military commanders were dispatched to the cities, but municipal government continued in the familiar fashion. The Venetian ruling class had a genius for administration and government. Its power was neither too lax nor too onerous. There are some indications of an imperial style but in the colonies overseas the rulers were blended within the native landscape. There was no ruling ideology of conquest. There was no attempt to impose new standards of value or new principles of belief. They came not as conquerors or as missionaries but, essentially, as traders. Their true belief was in the efficacy of commerce. They were a very practical people. They were unpopular enough, but they were resented rather than hated.

It would be wrong to assume, however, that there was no internal discontent. The immediate fact of conquest was, for the conquered, hard to bear. The example of Crete is representative. The lands of the local Byzantine magnates were expropriated, and given to Venetians. There were neither finances nor resources to maintain a standing army on the island, so a number of Venetian patricians were sent out as colonisers who retained their lands as fiefdoms on condition that they defended them. These Venetians tended to inhabit the towns and cities of the island. They were accustomed to cities. Cities were their natural habitat. In due course a predominantly agricultural economy was in part turned towards urban trade, trade directed almost exclusively to the mother-city. And of course the Venetian authorities imposed heavy taxation upon every transaction. They encouraged trade for the purpose of exploiting it. Yet merchants began to flourish on the island. There was also a growing market for the wares of Cretan icon-painters. It has been estimated that 95 per cent of the icon-painters, throughout the Venetian empire, originally came from the island.

The Venetian strategy was to remodel the governance of the island on the example of Venice herself. Crete was divided into sestieri. There was a duca in the principal role, modelled on the doge. The major decisions of security and trade, however, were still the prerogative of the Venetian senate. There were more visible changes. The principal square of Candia, the capital of Crete, was renamed Piazza S. Marco. It became the meeting place and market of the island, with its own basilica and ducal palace. It was remodelled and restored to lend dignity and seriousness to the new administration. It became the stage for festivals and public celebrations. A processional way was constructed between the entrance gate of the port and the basilica. Venice was re-creating its theatre of trade and of politics in a new environment. The Byzantine palaces and monuments were reused, their symbolic meaning subtly altered to reflect Venetian hegemony. Some of them were given new, “Venetian,” façades.

Venice saw itself as the natural heir to Byzantium. There was no sudden disruption but, instead, an orderly transition. The religious traditions and the public ceremonies of the old empire were appropriated and adapted. As always Venice lived by assimilation. The example of Crete is again instructive. The ecclesiastical rites of the Latin Church, in ceremonies and processions, were moulded with the rites of the Greek Church. The Venetians adopted the cult of the local saint of the island, Titus. So there were no religious wars. The Venetians were not like the Spanish. There were endless reconciliations and compromises, simply in order to maintain the momentum of what was essentially a vast trading regime. Cretans married Venetians. Venetian merchants migrated to Crete. Cretan scholars and painters migrated to Venice. A new culture emerged, of the West and of the East. After the fall of Byzantium Crete became the centre of Hellenism in the West. There were, naturally enough, influences of opposite tendency. There are still Venetian dialect words embedded in modern Greek, among them the words for steel, armada, velvet, the acacia tree and the wedding ring. Indeed there was a revival of Greek letters under Venetian rule. It was Venice, rather than Byzantium, that preserved native Greek culture in the early modern period. Its poetry was composed by men whose political, racial, spiritual and cultural allegiances were to Venice.

There were revolts and rebellions, as a result of local grievances and factions, but the island remained in Venetian hands for more than four centuries. It can be concluded, therefore, that the Venetians were effectively the first modern colonial power.

Yet in a world dominated by war and empire, there could be no end to rivalry and struggle. In the letters and chronicles of the late fourteenth century the optimism of the Venetians is in some part replaced by intimations of gloom and melancholy; the world seems more uncertain, and the role of providence ill-defined. The loss of confidence is accompanied by the search for greater security in the world. The acquisition of empire, then, brought its own burdens. In 1364 the native inhabitants of Candia rebelled against their Venetian overseers; several Venetian patricians also joined in the revolt. The insurrection was put down, its leaders executed, but it had been a troubling moment for Venice. Petrarch was in the city when the victorious force returned to the lagoon. “We augured good news,” he wrote, “for the masts were garlanded with flowers, and on the deck were lads, crowned with green wreaths and waving flags over their heads …” Relief, as well as triumph, was the emotion of the day. A high mass was celebrated in the basilica, and a great festival was organised in the square itself. Petrarch was present on this occasion, too, and remarked upon the magnificence of the ceremonies. As the empire of Venice became more assured, so the taste for spectacle and ceremonial grew more intense.


Leave a Reply