Recently, while sailing into the quaint Argolic fishing hamlet of Vivari I noticed a small overgrown rampart guarding the harbour’s southern entrance. New discoveries always stir my imagination, and I picture how it would have looked back in its hey-day and how it was purposed. Later that day in Nafplio I was left awe-struck as the imposing Palamidi fortress stood sentry high above the town, still seemingly on watch over the Argolic Gulf to the south. After visiting these and other fortresses of the Ionian & Adriatic, it dawned on me how little I really knew about the ‘Venetians’. How did they rise to control the eastern Mediterranean, and why did their empire ebb into history leaving only these monumental reminders of their former dominance?
‘La Serenissima’ was the moniker for this grand maritime republic in north-eastern Italy. Founded on principals of Diplomacy, justice and prosperity – until this day Venice still exudes a unique devotion inspiring charisma attracting tens of millions of visitors annually. From humble beginnings these lagoon dwelling communities grew to become a cultural icon and European commercial super-power throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
The embryonic republic found origin in the decay of the western Roman empire. Roman refugees fled their mainland cities driven by repeated raids by Germanic Lombard tribes occupying the power vacuum left in northern Italy. A Venetian proverb stated the trade in salt, essential in food preservation as the ‘foundation of the state’. This, alongside fishing sustained the fledgling society whom progressively fortified their lagoon island homes by a series of embankments to protect from the Adriatic to the south. Their relative isolation fostered a union not only for the purpose of defence, but also to form an autonomous rule of their own. Although they were traditionally Roman in origin, they resisted Byzantine, Frankish or Lombard rule through astute diplomacy, neutrality and a uniquely stable style of government for 1000 years. In total Venice had 117 Doges or ‘Dukes’ elected through their own oligarchal democratic system. Their autonomy was also bolstered by ascending Naval superiority, and freeing themselves of the grasp of the Papacy. In 828 the Republic raided supposed relics and remains of Saint Mark from Alexandria, and declared him patron saint of their homeland. This is also where their standard or motif is derived from – the banner of the winged lion.
Their tentacles of trade spread throughout Adriatic, Ionian, Aegean and Black seas and beyond through unique treaties signed with the Byzantine Empire of Constantinople. Venetian naval power had been of great importance in assuring the security of the Byzantines through the early crusades. In respect of this Constantinople reciprocated giving Venetian trading ships exclusive rights and also special tax and customs exemptions. Venice also had a highly skilled network of foreign diplomats in all corners of Europe, who sent coded messages back to Venice to inform them of developments in politics throughout the region. This ‘intel’ helped Venice articulate trade throughout greater Europe, avoiding many of the frequent conflicts of the time and keeping their trade routes open. A n extraordinary variety of goods were traded through Venice from spices, sugar, textiles in the form of cotton, wool and silk, to timber metals, armour and weapons. Also of interest were local specialties of Venice such as blown glass, the first spectacles and crystal. The republic was also a slave trading post, as was common throughout the middle ages and the bulk of slaves were white Europeans being sold to the North African market.
In the 12th century, Venice opened its own state-owned shipyard, the ‘Arsenale’ initially employing 2000 workers and capable of launching in excess of 200 ships per year. Production processes & construction techniques at this facility pre dated the industrial revolution by half a millennia and underpinned the strength of the empire for the next two centuries. At its peak the ‘Arsenale’ was a haven of high technology attracting the likes of Da Vinci and Galileo, the workforce rose as high as 16000, launching on average ship per day – unparalleled at the time. Naval superiority cleared a path through piracy to open the Adriatic to their merchant fleet. Venetian galleys were state of the art, powered by 2 lateen sails, 150 oarsmen and 30 crossbow soldiers. They were the first to replace the steering oar with a rudder allowing far larger ships to be controlled. These ships also transported the most valuable of cargo, including spices, silk and precious stones. A tribute to Venetian commercial efficiency, the state-owned ships of the ‘Arsenale’ were chartered by merchants in an auction process. If a ship had excess cargo space aboard – the charterer was legally obliged to offer that space to other merchants so the ships always departed at capacity. Sea routes in the trading empire saw galleys sail to markets as distant as the Crimea in the east & via Gibraltar to London & Bruges in the west.
Spurred by an 1182 Catholic massacre in predominantly orthodox Constantinople – Venice played a vital maritime role in the Fourth Crusade leading to the sacking of the Byzantine capital in 1205. Many of the city’s ancient treasures were destroyed or looted and removed to Venice or allied home ports. The Venetians & their ‘Holy League’ collaborators split the territories of the Empire amongst themselves. For Venice this saw gains in the Aegean Islands including Crete. Through the 13th and 14th centuries Venetian aristocracy led by the Sanudo and Ghisi families seized many of the Aegean islands as their own establishing the ‘Duchy of the Archipelago’. On Naxos alone 53 districts were declared and fiefdoms established by other families of Venetian origin.
From the initial conquest of the Cyclades, the new Duchy chose not to report to Venice but directly to the more geographically appropriate Constantinople. However, both overlords were still closely aligned and the status quo still ensured security of trade in Aegean for the Venetian trading fleet. Export from the Cyclades was minimal, and most goods were only traded locally during this period with the exception of carborundum or ‘Emery’ and marble from Naxos & Paros. Each island had its speciality such as wine from Santorini, salt from Milos, wheat from Sikinos and wood from Folegandros.
The Duchy in the Aegean Cyclades lasted 3 centuries until the rising Ottoman empire systematically laid siege to each of the islands with almost all ceded. One exception, the island of Tinos originally ruled by the Ghisi family provided a resistance lasting almost two centuries beyond the fall of Naxos and Paros. The ‘Kastro’ or castle atop a large natural rock outcrop at Exombourgo was virtually impregnable. Attacks by the Turks were repelled in 1570, 1655, 1658, 1661, and 1684. In 1715 the small Venetian garrison only relinquished the fortress faced by 25000 Turkish troops. Without a battle a deal was struck to exile the remaining Venetians, with their commander later receiving a life-sentence for treason.
The landscape of international trade proved the determining factor in the decline of Venice – with western European powers opening up seaborne trading routes to the orient largely depriving Venice of its previous monopoly. Compounding the issue was the advance of the Ottomans in the east virtually cutting off the ‘silk road’ trading route from Asia. Now economically constrained, Venice was unable to maintain its former levels of defence spending and with a diminished military presence their possessions became easy pickings for the aggressive expansion of the Ottoman Empire. With war ravaging many other states in western Europe through the early 18th century Venice’s traditional allies were also heavily committed elsewhere. By 1700 the Ottomans had already taken almost complete control the Aegean, but Venice still clung to the Peloponnese (Morea) as well as it’s Ionian and Adriatic possessions. An overwhelming offensive by the Turks in 1715 easily took the remainder of Greece, and only by the miracle of a major storm was Corfu spared. Austrian intervention oversaw a peace treaty in 1717, however the power of the Venetian Republic had truly been usurped, and for another 80 years it survived under the protection of the Austrian Hapsburg Empire.
Finality came in 1797 when Napoleon lead a French force across what is now northern Italy. Venice refused French demands to abandon its neutral stance and support their advance on the Austrians. Napoleon also demanded egalitarian governmental reforms, removing the rights of the elite. With the French ultimatum within hours of expiring, in hope of saving the city from destruction the Venetian republic capitulated and dissolved bringing to a close 1000 years of autonomous rule. A period of uncertainty followed, the allied Adriatic city states fragmented and control of the lagoon and ‘terraferme’ territories switched between France and Austria. As previously with Constantinople, now Venice was plundered for many of its riches, artworks and fine monuments. In 1866 as a part of the Lombardo Venetia Kingdom, the city of Venice was absorbed into the new state of Italy.
Nowadays throughout the Cyclades fine Venetian homes and the remnants of their Castles or ‘Kastro’ still exist in many forms. Islands such as Syros and Tinos have some entirely Catholic villages and parishes, while many Greeks from the Cyclades have surnames with a distinctly Italo-Venetian origin. Throughout Crete, the Peloponnese, Cyprus and up the whole Ionian and Adriatic coasts an impressive network of largely intact fortresses remain. Dovecots – or dove houses are a beautiful reminder of farming technology embraced from the Venetian era. ‘Santorini’ or Saint Irene is actually the Venetian name for the island of Thira, two of the villages are still named Imerovigli and Firostefani, very Italian indeed! No sailing trip in the Adriatic, Ionian or Aegean is complete without discovering a little of the historical and cultural legacy of the Venetian Republic and the experiencing echoes left in their wake.
Major Venetian forts and forts on our Greece route
Aegina, Poros, Hydra, Spetses, Vivari, Nafplio, Monemvasia, Serifos, Sifnos, Milos, Folegandros, Kimolos, Naxos, Paros, Syros, Skiathos, Skopelos, Alonnissos and Skiros.
Major Venetian ports and forts on our Croatian route
Dubrovnik (Ragusa),Split, Korcula, Hvar, Brac, Sibenik & the rest of the Dalmatian Archipelago