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Genoese Wars and the Mainland Empire

Donatello's statue of Gattamelata, Padua

Continued from A Quarter and a Half of the Roman Empire

Venice's struggle with Genoa proceeded fitfully. A particularly exhausting round in the 1290s had seen battles from Liguria to Constantinople before the Genoese victory at Curzola in 1298 and exhaustion with war brought peace again. Once more, however, Venice had to concern itself with problems on the mainland, where ambitious tyrants such as the Visconti of Milan and the Scaligeri of Verona were posing a new threat.

The next decades were relatively quiet – Dante visited in 1321 and got a cold reception as an emissary from Ravenna. In 1341, the Doge’s Palace was completed in the form we see today. In the 1330s, Venice checked the ambitions of Verona, and found it expedient after a victorious conclusion to keep the city of Treviso to guard its increasingly important land trade routes over the Alps to Germany: like it or not, the city that had always turned its back on the land now found itself an actor on that stage, in the midst of all the intrigues and petty wars of that era at the dawn of the Renaissance.

The Black Death hit Italy in 1347 – Venice’s fault, in a way, since a Venetian ship transported the disease from the Crimea where it had ravaged the Mongol Golden Horde. In Venice, as in many other cities, it carried off some three-fifths of the population. Genoa suffered too, but both sides were in shape to resume hostilities only three years later.

Again the conflict was conducted on an epic scale. After victories and defeats on both sides, Genoese Admiral Paganino Doria ambushed an idle Venetian fleet at Portolungo, in the Peloponnese, in 1352, capturing 56 ships.

The subsequent peace gave few advantages to Genoa, but for Venice more reverses waited in store. Marin Falier, the splenetic 54th Doge (1354–5), attempted with the aid of disaffected Arsenale workers to stage another coup, making himself a true prince free of the constitutional burdens. The Council of Ten got wind of the plot and before most Venetians knew what was happening their Doge was missing his head and his co-conspirators were dangling from the columns of the Doge’s Palace.

Dalmatia was gobbled up by the King of Hungary, and in 1363 a revolt in Crete, joined by some local Venetian barons, gave the Ten a three-year headache until it was successful put down, and all the rebels executed: Petrarch, who would later donate his library to Venice, was present and impressed by the three days of celebrations.

The last war with Genoa, the War of Chioggia, began in 1378. At first the Venetians, under Admiral Vettor Pisani, defeated the Genoese fleet near Rome; in a repeat of 1353, though, they let the Genoese surprise them in winter quarters at Pola, in Istria. Only six ships made it back to Venice, and Pisani was tossed into the Doge’s prisons – the common fate of Venetian commanders who permitted such things to happen.

But Venice was in desperate straits, undefended, with a huge enemy fleet speeding towards the Lagoon. As in 810, during the attack by Pepin’s Lombards, the channel markers were pulled up and the Lagoon entrances blocked. The entire population mobilized itself just in time to receive the Genoese fleet.

The Genoese believed Chioggia, on the southern edge of the Lagoon, to be the key to capturing all. With their Paduan allies they stormed it in August 1379, and Venice was under siege. The Venetians, high and low, responded to the threat with their accustomed resolve, but they had a demand that even the Doge and the Ten could not withstand. They wanted Vettor Pisani for their leader, and no other.

The old Admiral’s chains had to come off, and, back in command, he produced the inspired plan of blockading the blockaders. In a fierce fight on the longest night of the year, he dragged out old hulks full of rocks and sank them in the channels, cutting off the occupying force from its fleet and from the Paduans on the mainland.

The Venetians knew they could not keep it up for long. The success of their gamble depended on the chance that their other fleet, under the mercurial Admiral Carlo Zeno, would return in time before the larger Genoese force could assert itself. At the beginning of the war, Zeno had been sent out to harass Genoese shipping. He was a year overdue, and no one even knew if his fleet still existed, or where it might be.

Providence was evidently in a poetic mood, and now the city that had lived so long by fabricating legends and miracles found its reward. On New Year’s morning, the sails were sighted. It was Carlo Zeno, and Venice was saved. After a year of sweeping Genoese shipping off the seas, he had come with an enormous load of booty and a fleet in fighting trim. The counter-siege continued until June, but it ended in the total annihilation of the Genoese army and fleet.

Both sides were now completely exhausted. Venice, its commerce and navy intact, would recover quickly; Genoa would soon drop from the ranks of the major powers in a maelstrom of civil war and economic decline.

One lesson learned from the war was the danger of allowing the hinterlands or entroterra to be in enemy hands. The Paduans, in cutting off the city’s food supply, had given Venice a greater fright than all the galleys of Genoa. In addition, economic forces now made clear the need for an assured market for Venetian goods and guaranteed access to the markets of the north.

Despite the dangers, Venice held her nose and plunged head first into the confusing, sordid world of Italian power politics. Treviso, lost in the War of Chioggia, was retaken in 1382. After a perilous involvement in the wars of Gian Galeazzo Visconti of Milan, who nearly gained control of all northern Italy before his death in 1402, Venice learned about the necessity of maintaining the Italian balance of power. She also emerged with two very gratifying prizes, old enemies Padua and Verona.

Mostly by diplomacy – not surprisingly for a nation that had learned subtlety from the Byzantines themselves – Venice’s new career went from success to success. By 1420, she had regained Dalmatia from the Hungarians and acquired Vicenza, Friuli and most of the Veneto, a natural frontier that perfectly suited her modest ambitions. Some Venetians wanted more, and in 1423 a growing war party secured the election of its leader, Francesco Foscari, as doge.

At the time, Venice was at her height, the richest city in Europe, and probably the largest, with the biggest and best fleet. Her trade – increasingly a state-run affair, too costly and complex to be managed by the old merchant adventurers – dominated the Mediterranean, and her efficiency and fair-dealing earned her the grudging respect even of competitors.

Some historians see 1423 as a turning point for Venice. The old Doge, Tommaso Mocenigo, had made a rouser of a deathbed speech, warning the Venetians not to elect Foscari in his place and not to turn their backs on the sea for adventures on land, and his words are always recalled by those who would claim that it was with Foscari that Venice went wrong.

Doge Foscari had some problems of his own, particularly a corrupt waster of a son (see Byron’s The Two Foscari). He tried twice to resign, was refused, then finally (1457) had to be removed by the Ten on grounds of senility. But he hardly deserves the reproaches he gets from the more superficial histories. The wars of his time were only a continuation of those that had won Venice her land empire and they were certainly unavoidable.

And Venice hardly turned her back on the sea; in that direction there simply was nothing left to achieve. The wars, rather genteel after the conventions of the age, were almost continuous from 1425 until 1454. And they were colourful enough. Venice employed famous mercenary captains such as Carmagnola, the greatest soldier of his generation, Gattamelata (the ‘Honey Cat’ from Umbria) and Francesco Sforza. The first turned traitor, and ended up hanging between the Piazzetta columns; the second stayed true and got a famous equestrian statue in Padua; and Sforza played his own game and finished as Duke of Milan.

In the end Venice came out ahead, gaining the metal-working towns of Bergamo and Brescia to round out her borders and her new continental economy. As the events of the next two centuries were to demonstrate, the land empire was a sound investment despite all the trouble it took to keep it. It would pay for Venice’s retirement; she in turn would rule it (unlike her colonies elsewhere) with justice and sympathy – often, when an invader seized one of the mainland towns, he would find himself up against a popular insurrection bellowing ‘Viva San Marco!’.

This is part of the developing ‘Myth of Venice’ that commanded the world’s admiration: stability, continuity and impartial justice under its unique constitution. No state in Europe planned its economic affairs more intelligently or took better care of its own people. Perhaps it was only Venice’s head start that made it a society more highly evolved than any in Europe – the Venice of Foscari was already a thousand years old.

Next...great perils and cultural brilliance.

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: Rodney, Creative Commons License