1032-1204

Crusades and a Constitution

For the years before 1032, see here.

The Orseolo clan lost control of the dogeship in 1026, but their faction at home, and their alliances with the emperors, kept the pot boiling for another six years. When their last feeble attempt to seize power was crushed, the Venetians resolved to find a more efficient form of government.

A new doge, Domenico Flabanico, oversaw a complete reform. A senate was elected, along with dogal councillors, and doges were required, not requested, to seek their advice. Finally, the system by which a doge would ‘associate’ a kinsman with his rule as a designated successor was forbidden, eliminating the monarchical tendency once and for all.

It was a perfect time to give the ship of state an overhaul, for the Adriatic was becoming a busy place. In northern Italy the reviving towns were asserting their independence against emperor and pope, and embarking on commercial careers of their own.

In the south, the big noise was being made by the Normans, carving out their own empire in Apulia, Calabria and Sicily. Their ambitions towards Byzantium crossed Venice’s, and battles around the Apulian coast were waged between 1081 and 1085, with the Venetians usually winning.

Most importantly, this war permitted Venice to extort even greater trading concessions out of the demoralized Greeks, who had recently lost almost all Asia Minor to the Seljuk Turks. Venice attained virtual control over all Byzantine commerce, making the ancient empire a sort of gilded dependency.

Just coincidentally (and if you believe that, we have some genuine relics of St Nicholas we’ll sell you), the First Crusade was preached 10 years later in 1095. It was clear that a major power vacuum had appeared in the eastern Mediterranean, and the Venetians were not alone in seeing the opportunity. Pisa and Genoa made their fortunes ferrying crusaders, and both soon became important players in the region.

Venice, possessing little of the crusading zeal of the murderous Franks and rather resentful of being forced to share its new windfall, kept aloof from the conflict, fleecing the Franks where possible and grabbing economic control of Levantine cities such as Sidon (1102) and Tyre (1123).

Back home, the city was beginning to look more like the Venice we know. The Basilica of St Mark was consecrated in 1094. The city’s scattered shipyards and foundries were consolidated in one place, the Arsenal – for centuries the backbone of Venetian power and the biggest industrial establishment in the world. There was one notable subtraction: the island of Malamocco, Venice’s first capital, obliterated by a terrific storm in 1106. Two more great fires in the same year finally convinced Venice of the necessity of building in brick and stone.

For the first time in centuries, Venice was forced to look towards the mainland. In the 1140s she obtained control of much of Istria. In the 1150s, there were the Wars of the Lombard League, in which Venice aided the northern Italian cities against Emperor Frederick Barbarossa.

The real action, however, still lay over the sea. In 1172 Venice met a startling setback as the humiliated Greeks sought to take their revenge on their insatiable creditors; in a concerted action they imprisoned the entire Venetian trading colony in Constantinople (which numbered in the tens of thousands) and seized its property.

An enraged Venice, already heavily in debt from its other ventures, raised a forced loan from its citizens and sent a large fleet eastwards under Doge Vitale Michiel II. Clever Byzantine diplomacy stalled the Venetians until plague ravaged their force in the Aegean. It was a disaster that could have done permanent damage to Venetian ambition. In its wake, the returning Doge was assailed by a mob (in what is now the lobby of the Hotel Danieli) and murdered, resulting in a political crisis and another wave of constitutional adjustment.

‘Reform’ would not exactly be the right word, for the new measures took the relatively democratic state that had evolved since 697 and turned it into a tightly controlled oligarchy. No longer were doges to be elected by the popular assembly, but by a Great Council, the Maggior Consiglio, entirely dominated by the richest merchants. The Doge himself was forced to take an oath, the promissione ducale, vowing to be little more than a figurehead; and upon the death of each an inquisition was to be held to see if any new provisions were necessary to keep future doges in check.

The élite club of the Maggior Consiglio assumed control of every aspect of government, filling each state office from among its own members. To discourage factionalism, it made all its choices through complex procedures involving selection by lot or indirect election through several layers of committees.

The first doge selected under the new rules, Sebastiano Ziani (1172), happened to be the richest man in Venice. He served well, and under the new system Venetian prosperity made a strong comeback. In 1177, all Europe watched as Venice orchestrated the reconciliation between Barbarossa and Pope Alexander III. The visitors would have crossed the first Rialto Bridge (1173), and seen the columns of Saints Mark and Theodore recently erected in the Piazzetta.

Venice largely sat out the Third Crusade; while Cœur-de-Lion and Saladin slugged it out, the Maggior Consiglio freshened up its fleets and its bank balances. Venetians might have thought they had a score to settle.

Next...the Mainland Empire

This is a preview of the content in our Venice Art & Culture app. Get the app to:
iOS App Store Google Play