1453–1572

Serenissima in Spite of Everything

Battle of Lepanto, in the National Maritime Museum

Pride, for your average imperialist, is supposed to come before a fall. And, directly upon digesting her new land empire, Venice’s luck began to change. Soon things turned really bad, then worse, and then worse still.

The dislocations in trade should have been fatal to such a strictly mercantile city, as earlier trade shifts had been to Amalfi, and Pisa. They were not. The rabid crusade of the great powers of Europe against her should have finished her off. It didn’t.

Politically, the 16th century was one of the ghastliest periods in European history. For Venice, it featured a murderers’ row of bitter enemies – ferocious, berserk Pope Julius II; the megalomaniac Charles V, with half of Europe in his pocket; and worst of all the invincible Turk, with a million men, a thousand galleys and nothing better to do than beat on the Venetians.

So how did Venice survive? In grand style, thank you, with masques and pageants, and an artistic achievement unequalled by any city of the Renaissance save Florence. In Istanbul’s Military Museum, you can see the sword of Attila the Hun, leader of one of the ‘twelve historical Turkish empires’. No Venetian would have been surprised to hear that their esteemed founding father had been a Turk, their foe.

Even without him, the Venetians had been trading with Turkish emirates for centuries around the coasts of Anatolia. The Ottoman Turks, who by 1400 controlled much of Greece, the Balkans and eastern Anatolia, were more of a problem. Their talents at warfare, combining great resources with a steady discipline and the most up-to-date technology, were well known to the courts of Europe.

The bad news for Venice was that they were also discovering the joys of sailing. In 1352, when the Ottomans first crossed the Dardanelles, they had to pay Catalan mercenaries to ferry them over. A hundred years later they had built a fleet of galleys. The Emir then was Mehmet II, Mehmet the Conqueror, and in 1453, he used his new navy to help realize the old Ottoman dream of the conquest of Constantinople. The pitiful force that defended the metropolis to the end included almost as many Venetians as Greeks.

The end of this peculiar symbiosis, of seven centuries of trade between the merchants of Venice and the decadent empire, did not at first seem irreparable. Mehmet signed a liberal commercial treaty, and Venice sent Gentile Bellini to paint the Conqueror’s portrait.

But the Turks were just taking a rest. In the 1460s they seized the mainland Peloponnese and made inroads in Albania and Bosnia. An exhausting war of 15 years, from 1464 to 1479, lost Venice the important island of Euboea (Evia). No assistance was available from the rest of the Italian states; engrossed in their own petty wars, they were in fact happy to see Venice’s pride taken down a peg.

In 1478, the Turks staged raids deep into Friuli; the fires they set could be seen from St Mark’s Campanile. After signing a humiliating peace treaty, Venice gained a short breathing space. Mehmet died in 1481, succeeded by his scholarly son Bayezit II, who abhorred warfare.

As if on cue, the princes of Italy stepped in to square off with Venice once more. In 1483, a trifling argument over salt pans with the Duke of Ferrara escalated into a war with Milan, Florence and Naples. Pope Sixtus IV put Venice under an interdict in May, which was politely disregarded. Four months later half the Doge’s Palace burned down when someone left a candle burning. But by the following August, while work on the rebuilding was under way, the Italian allies sued for peace. Venice picked up the city of Rovigo and some other small territories; the Pope was incensed on hearing the news, and died the next morning.

Another minor success came with the acquisition of Cyprus in 1488. This island was a curious relic of the Crusades, governed by kings of the French house of Lusignan. The Venetian Caterina Cornaro had married King James back in 1468, and when the King died five years later she gained the throne.

The Venetians lost no time and insinuated their men into all the important positions of the kingdom. Poor Caterina found herself effectively a royal prisoner. In 1488, threatened with intrigues on all sides, Venice easily convinced the Queen to give up her crown and proclaim the annexation of Cyprus by the Republic. Caterina earned in return a toy kingdom at the pretty town of Asolo, with plenty of entertainments to while away boredom until the War of the League of Cambrai chased her back to Venice in 1509.

For Venice, exasperating popes and snatching up islands were child’s play, but further disasters were in store. Another bogey of the Serenissima’s history, one wearing neither turban nor tiara, appeared in 1498: none other than an honest Portuguese captain, Vasco da Gama, who completed the first voyage around the Horn of Africa to India.

Venice’s monopoly of the East was gone for ever. The disaster was neither immediate nor fatal, but a steady decline in receipts was recorded over the next century. Venice responded with her accustomed energy, even proposing to the Sultan of Egypt that a canal be dug across the Suez, but there was little the Republic could do.

In 1501, Venice elected a doge of substance, the first since Foscari. Leonardo Loredan might have passed into history with as little notice as his predecessors. It was his fate, however, to be Doge during the greatest trials Venice would ever undergo. The Wars of Italy had already been going on for seven years, with the consequent intrusion of foreign powers that would put an end to both Italian liberty and the Italian Renaissance.

In 1494, Duke Lodovico of Milan started the commotion by inviting the King of France, Charles VIII, to give him a hand against his arch-enemy, Naples. Charles could not resist and marched his army down the peninsula and took Naples with surprising ease. The Italians, who had lackadaisically watched Charles’ parade, now finally became alarmed.

Venice took most of the initiative in forming a defensive league against the French and Venice supplied most of the money and men for the League’s army, attempting to block Charles’ return to France. When the League failed to do so, at the Battle of Fornovo (1495), it was clear to all that plenty of ltalian real estate was available to any power bold enough to snatch it.

Throughout the 1490s and 1500s, the wars continued, with another invasion by Charles’ successor, Louis XII, resulting in the conquest of Milan, and the retaking of Naples by the Spanish. Venice, scheming to expand towards the south and perhaps even to the Tyrrhenian coast, could not help becoming involved. Under the Borgia Pope Alexander VI (1492–1503), Cesare Borgia had created a little empire for the family in central Italy. He lost it to his father’s fiery and determined successor, Julius II, in 1504, and Venice took advantage of the confusion to grab Rimini and other towns of the Romagna, the property of the Papal States.

That was a mistake. Giuliano della Rovere, the story goes, won his papal election by pretending to be meek and pliable. Once enthroned as Julius II, however, he moved ruthlessly to reassert papal control over towns that had slipped away. Julius’ constant appeals to foreign princes for support kept the Wars of Italy boiling, and ultimately condemned the nation to foreign rule.

In 1508, Julius decided it was time to deal with Venice, the only state strong and determined enough to keep the foreigners out. Thanks to the diplomatic situation of the time, he easily arranged an alliance with the Holy Roman Empire and Austria, France, Spain and Naples, Ferrara and Mantua. This ‘League of Cambrai’ intended nothing less than the partition of the Venetian empire.

Julius placed Venice under another futile interdict, but much more damaging was a tremendous explosion and fire in the Arsenal in March 1509, a grave blow to the city’s preparations for defence. The next month, the League declared war and French troops invaded from Lombardy.

The Venetians had few illusions about the danger they were in, but disaster struck more quickly than anyone could have guessed. As usual, Venice depended on a mercenary army, led by condottieri whose careless tactics allowed the French to separate and defeat their forces utterly at the Battle of Agnadello on 14 May 1510. Most of the discouraged mercenary companies simply went home.

Venice, without an army, had lost its entire land empire at a single blow. The League wasted little time in dividing the spoils; only Treviso and Ùdine remained under the banner of St Mark. Some of the lost towns, hardly overjoyed at the thought of replacing Venetian rule with that of greedy foreign princes, produced spontaneous revolts.

In Venice itself, the government was in fearful disarray. But just as the Pope was the author of Venice’s calamity, he would soon become Venice’s saviour. Julius now decided that the French were the real foes of Italy and Christianity. In a typically impulsive move, Julius betrayed his allies. He made a severe peace with the frightened Venetians, requiring their ambassadors to indulge him in a double helping of the grovelling and foot-kissing so dear to Renaissance pontiffs. Not long after, he asked them to join a new League against France. After a few years of complicated changes of alliance and fortune, conflicting ambitions cancelled out and Venice, by diplomacy and the good will of its former possessions, saw nearly all of them return to the fold by 1517.

Map of the Venetian empire

(Map: Venetian territories in the early 16th century in red)

Diplomacy and luck also helped Venice stay clear of the final stage of the Wars of Italy, the deadly struggle between Emperor Charles V and French King Francis I. In 1529, when the treaties of Barcelona and Cambrai set up Spanish-Imperial control across Italy, Venice lost only Ravenna and her last few port towns in Puglia. She was fortunate to be alive – the only Italian state not under the heel of Spain or the Pope.

The Turks, who had providentially been busied with eastern conquests during the Italian Wars, now returned in force. Under Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, Ottoman power reached its zenith: Rhodes was taken in 1522, and the great, unsuccessful siege of Vienna took place seven years later. Naval campaigns against Venice occupied most of the 1530s. Corfu, the key to the Adriatic, withstood a tremendous siege in 1537, but for the Aegean islands and Peloponnese there was no hope. The Turks also fostered another menace that hit Venice much closer to home. The Uskoks, an unsavoury band of Dalmatian Slavs, repeated the story of the Narentine pirates of the 900s. Supported by the sultans, they annoyed Venetian shipping for decades.

In 1570, the Turkish Wars began anew when Sultan Selim II (‘the Sot’, the first of the decadent Ottomans) attacked Cyprus. For once, Venice was not alone. Four years earlier, the Turks’ unsuccessful attack on Malta had betrayed their ambition of dominating the entire Mediterranean, and Spain was alarmed enough to send a fleet to the East. That year, the effort came to naught when the Spanish Admiral, Gian Andrea Doria of Genoa, refused to attack or cooperate in any way with the Venetian fleet. (His father, the famous Andrea Doria, had twice pulled similar tricks on the Venetians; the shameless treachery of the Dorias and indeed of all Genoese is a recurring motif in Venetian history).

Cyprus, just off the Turkish coast, had no chance of surviving. The climax of the campaign was the siege of Famagusta, where a small force under Marcantonio Bragadin distinguished itself in a hopeless defence. For his trouble Bragadin was flayed alive by the Turkish commander. The following year, the embarrassed Spaniards sent a larger force under the more trustworthy Don John of Austria, a bastard son of Charles V. More help came from the least likely of naval powers, the Papal States, and the allied fleet sailed straight for Greece.

The Turks were waiting in the Gulf of Patras, and on 7 October 1571, lines of galleys four miles long joined what was perhaps the biggest sea battle ever fought in the Mediterranean, the Battle of Lepanto. It lasted less than six hours, and at the end (despite the collapse of the allies’ right wing, thanks to Venice’s old friend Gian Andrea Doria) the Turkish fleet was scattered. A hundred of their galleys were sunk and 130 captured, and some 15,000 Christian slaves were liberated.

When the ships brought the news to Venice and pyramids of captured turbans and banners were piled in the Piazzetta, Venice celebrated for four days. Ironically, the victory of Lepanto changed little in the Mediterranean. Two years after, when it was clear that Spain would provide no further aid – Philip II was more concerned with the Low Countries and England – Venice felt itself compelled to sue for peace.

Abandoned by her allies, Venice did not regain Cyprus or anything else – only an increase in the tribute demanded by the Sultan for the last few Venetian enclaves in the East. Venice’s century of trials was almost over. The peace with Turkey would last fifty years. The Ottomans, under an unbroken line of wretched sultans, were well on their way to becoming the ‘Sick Man of Europe’.

Venice, her trade declining every year, realized with a merchant’s perspicacity that there was nothing to be done – no prospects, no risks worth taking, no chance of earning an honest sequin by land or sea. Throughout the century, the Nobil Homini had been doing what any wealthy class would do under the circumstances: investing in real estate. As always, they did it with a flourish. The scores of Palladian villas across the Veneto, the last word in High Renaissance refinement, are the monuments of diminished expectations and of the Venetian businessman’s supremely enjoyable retirement.

Historians of a century ago tended to interpret this great turning point differently. To the virtuous Victorians, too much art and too many parties had sapped the city’s will to outfox her rivals. The evidence, to the morally minded, is not lacking. There is the little matter of 11,654 registered prostitutes (13% of the female population) for example, and the directory of them published for visitors.

Venice’s cinquecento, for all the wars and troubles, was conducted as one long festival. In no century were more palaces and churches built, or more beautiful ones. While keeping their enemies at bay, the Venetians had added the Rialto Bridge, San Giorgio Maggiore and the great palaces of the Grand Canal, along with the paintings of Carpaccio, Giorgione, Tintoretto and Veronese.

In 1573, the Venetians received another sovereign, Henry III of France. The King entered in a procession of gilded gondolas, entertained along the way by floating tableaux, firework shows and a barge on which the glassmakers of Murano turned out crystal goblets for him on the spot. The Doge gave him an album of miniatures to peruse; the one he liked best was of the celebrated courtesan-poetess Veronica Franco, and she soon arrived to keep him company and write him a sonnet. The King met Veronese and Tintoretto, who did his portrait in pastels; he bought a diamond sceptre from a jeweller on the Rialto, who always kept a few on hand in case a king should visit his shop. There was a dinner party at the Doge’s Palace. Earlier in the day the King had visited the Arsenal and seen the keel of a new galley being laid. At the end of the dinner, after 1,200 different dishes and an opera (one of the first ever performed) he saw the completed galley sailing under the palace windows. Like many visitors to Venice, it is recorded that after his return Henry was never quite the same again.

Next... a decline to remember.

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