Even as the sun of Genoa set, in the summer of 1380, a new enemy rose over the eastern horizon in the shape of the Ottoman Turks. The Venetians had been accustomed to underestimate the challenge of the empire of the Osmanlis; they considered it to be locked up by land, and unable to threaten by sea. But then the waters of the Levant became the prey of Turkish pirates who could never be successfully put down; the gradual encroachment of the Ottoman Empire meant that Venetian trade routes were also being encircled. The Ottoman advance threatened the Venetian merchant colonies in Cyprus, Crete and Corfu; the islands had constantly to be defended with fortresses and with fleets. The two empires had their first confrontation in the waters of Gallipoli where, in 1416, the Venetian fleet routed the Turks after a long fight. The Venetian admiral later reported that the enemy had fought “like dragons”; their sea skills, then, were not to be underestimated. The proof came in 1453, when the Turkish forces overwhelmed Constantinople itself. It had been an ailing city, ever since the Venetian sack in 1204, and its defenders could not match the overwhelming forces of the Turks. The Osmanli dynasty was now knocking on the door of Europe. Constantinople, now for ever to be known as Istanbul, became the true power of the region.
There was, for the Venetians, business to be done. It would be better for them to turn putative enemies into customers. The pope might fulminate against the infidel, but the Venetians saw them as clients. A year after the fall of Constantinople a Venetian ambassador was despatched to the court of the sultan, Mehmed II, “the Conqueror,” declaring that it was the wish of the Venetian people to live in peace and amity with the emperor of the Turks. They wished, in other words, to make money out of him. The Venetians were duly given freedom of trade in all parts of the Ottoman Empire, and a new Venetian colony of merchants was established in Istanbul.
But the relationship could not endure. Mehmed increased the tariffs to be paid by Venetian ships, and entered into negotiations with the merchants of Florence. Then in 1462 the Turks seized the Venetian colony of Argos. War was declared between the empires. It was considered that by strength of numbers the Turks would succeed on land, while the Venetians would maintain their old supremacy at sea. The Venetians may have been hoping for an eventual truce, from which they could secure concessions. But Mehmed had a more formidable navy than the Venetians had expected. After much fighting, the Venetian fleet was expelled from the central Aegean. It was no longer a Latin sea. The island of Negroponte, in the possession of Venice for 250 years, was occupied by the Turks. The Turks conquered the region of the Black Sea, also, and turned that sea into the pond of Istanbul. The Venetians were forced on the defensive, fighting rearguard actions much closer to home in Albania and Dalmatia.
The Florentines told the pope that it would be for the good of all if the Turks and Venetians fought each other to a state of exhaustion. Yet Venice was exhausted first. It was finally obliged to sue for peace in 1479, seventeen years after the hostilities had begun. Venice kept Crete and Corfu. The Corfiote capital was described by Sir Charles Napier in the early nineteenth century as “a town fraught with all the vice and abominations of Venice”; but the real power of Venice in the Levant was gone for ever. The Turks now held the Aegean and the Mediterranean. The grand vizier of the Turkish court told the representatives of Venice suing for peace, “You can tell your doge that he has finished wedding the sea. It is our turn now.” A contemporary diarist, Girolamo Priuli, wrote of his countrymen that “faced with the Turkish threat, they are in a worse condition than slaves.” This was hyperbole, but it reflected the disconsolate mood of the people. This was the moment when Venetian ambitions in the east effectively came to an end. The eyes of the city were now turned towards the mainland of Italy.
The equilibrium in northern Italy could not endure. There were leagues and counter-leagues drawn up between the territorial powers, too weak to strike alone against their neighbours. The peace to which Venice aspired could be upheld only by the sword. While there was still empire, there would never be any rest. There were fears among other cities that the appetite of Venice had no limit, and that the city was intent upon the conquest of all Italy north of the Apennines. The republican alliance between Venice and Florence broke apart. There were endless tirades against the city’s cupidity and duplicity. The duke of Milan, Galeazzo Sforza, declared to the Venetian delegate at a congress in 1466, “You disturb the peace and covet the states of others. If you knew the ill-will universally felt towards you, the very hair of your head would stand on end.” Niccolò Machiavelli was moved to comment that the leaders of Venice “had no respect for the Church; Italy was not large enough for them, either, and they believed that they could form a monarchical state like that of Rome.”
The world around Venice was changing. The rise of the great nation-states—of Spain, of France and of Portugal in particular—altered the terms of world trade. The strength of the Turkish Empire, and the intervention of France and Spain on the mainland of Italy, created further burdens for the most serene city. When the French king, Charles VIII, invaded Italy in 1494 he inaugurated a century of national unrest. His failure to take over the kingdom of Naples did not deter the other great states of the European world. Maximilian of the Hapsburgs, and Ferdinand of Spain, were both eager to exploit the rich cities of northern Italy. These states had large armies, fully exploiting the new technology of siege guns and gunpowder. The city-states of Italy were not prepared for the novel conditions of warfare. Milan and Naples came under foreign control. Then at the end of 1508 the great leaders of the world turned their gaze upon Venice. The French, the Hapsburgs and the Spanish joined forces with the pope in the League of Cambrai with the sole purpose of seizing the mainland dominions of the city. The French delegate condemned the Venetians as “merchants of human blood” and “traitors to the Christian faith.” The German emperor promised to quench for ever the Venetian “thirst for dominion.”
The allies met with extraordinary success. The mercenary forces of the Venetians were comprehensively beaten by the French army in a battle by the village of Agnadello, near the Po, and retired in disarray to the lagoon. The cities under erstwhile Venetian occupation surrendered to the new conquerors without a fight. Within the space of fifteen days, in the spring of 1509, Venice lost all of her mainland possessions. The response of the Venetians was, by all accounts, one of panic. Citizens wandered the streets, weeping and lamenting. The cry went up that all was lost. There were reports that the enemy would banish the people of Venice from their city, and send them wandering like the Jews over the earth. “If their city had not been surrounded by the waters,” Machiavelli wrote, “we should have beheld her end.” The doge, according to one contemporary, never spoke but “looked like a dead man.” The doge in question, Leonardo Loredan, was painted by Bellini and can now be seen in the National Gallery; he looks glorious and serene.
At the time it was widely believed that God was punishing Venice for her multiple iniquities, amongst them sodomy and elaborate dress. The nunneries had become whorehouses. The rich lived in pride and luxury. None of this was pleasing to heaven. So, as a direct result of the war, the doge and senate introduced sumptuary legislation, to curb the excesses of the rich, in the hope of reconciling their city to God. Men were forbidden to make themselves physically attractive. The nunneries were locked up. The wearing of jewellery was strictly curtailed. It was necessary, according to one diarist of the time, “to imitate our ancestors with all possible zeal and care.” This ancestor worship had one particular dimension. There were some in the city who believed that the Venetians should have remained a seafaring people, as they were in the beginning, and that the ventures onto mainland territory had constituted a singular and perhaps fatal error.
There was the threat, after the battle of Agnadello, of an imminent siege by the imperial forces; food and grain were stored in makeshift warehouses. The doge sent envoys to the court of Maximilian, offering to place all the mainland dominions of the city under imperial control. He even despatched ambassadors to the Turks, requesting aid against the imperial forces. It is a measure of the desperation of the Venetian leaders that they invoked the aid of the infidels against their coreligionists—unless, of course, the true religion of the Venetians consisted in the worship of Venice herself.
Once the initial terror had subsided, however, the city once more came together. Its tribal instinct revived. It manifested the unity for which it would become famous in the sixteenth century. The ruling class drew together in a coherent body. The richer citizens pledged their fortunes to the defence of the city. The poorer sort remained loyal. The state reasserted itself. It was able to sow discord amongst the ranks of its enemies. Some of the mainland cities, which had come under French or imperial control, discovered that they preferred the more benign Venetian rule. Venice in fact recovered Padua with the active assistance of that city’s inhabitants. There were Venetian victories on the battlefield, too, and by the beginning of 1517 it had recovered almost all of its territories. It would not forfeit them until the time of Napoleon. It had also reached an agreement with the pope, on matters of ecclesiastical power, following the precept of a Venetian cardinal to “do what he wishes and later, with time, do what you will.” In what seems a typically ambiguous and duplicitous way, the council of ten had already secretly declared the conditions of the agreement void on the grounds that they had been extracted by force. Venice once more made its way in the world.
It had forfeited much valuable territory, in the Levant and elsewhere, but not all was lost. It acquired Cyprus, which it systematically stripped of its agricultural wealth, and it maintained its control of the cities around the Po. The grain of Rimini and Ravenna, also, was indispensable to its survival. And survival was now the key. After the League of Cambrai Venice could no longer extend any further its dominant position in the peninsula. It was surrounded by too many and too formidable foes. There would be no more aggressive expansion. Instead the patricians of Venice continued their policy of buying up parcels of territory as opportunity presented itself. There was soon a definite tendency to exchange the perils of trade for the security of land. Land was a good investment, in a world of ever-increasing population and rising food prices, and concerted efforts were made to make it more and more productive. Nevertheless it represented another form of withdrawal from the world. In the process the Venetians created a new race of landed gentry. The best chance for the state itself lay in watchful neutrality, playing one combatant against another while alienating neither. The only option was that of peace. All the notorious guile and rhetoric of the Venetians were now devoted to that purpose of balancing the Turkish, French and Hapsburg empires. And the strategy was successful until the arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte almost three hundred years later. The remains of the Venetian empire—in Crete, in southern Greece, and on the mainland of Italy—were preserved.
The reassertion of Venice was aided in 1527, by the brutal sack of Rome by unpaid imperialist troops. They raped, and killed, the citizens of the imperial city; they stole its treasures, and burned what they could not steal. Throughout the region waves of plague and syphilis compounded the despair; the ravaged fields could produce no wheat. Once more Venice seized the advantage. Rome had been one of the oldest, and most formidable, adversaries of Venice. The pope who reigned there had put the city under sentence of excommunication on more than one occasion. The papal states were challenged by Venetian power. So the sacking of Rome was welcome news to the administrators of Venice. Many of the artists and architects of the papal court left Rome and migrated to the most serene city where such riot was considered impossible. The reigning doge, Andrea Gritti, had determined that Venice would rise as the new Rome. He flattered and invited composers and writers and architects. One of the refugees from Rome, Jacopo Sansovino, was hired by Gritti to remodel Saint Mark’s Square as the centre of an imperial city. Another refugee, Pietro Aretino, apostrophised Venice as the “universal fatherland.”
Sansovino restored the public areas of Venice in Roman fashion. He built a new Mint with rusticated arches and Doric columns. He built the great library, opposite the palace of the doge in the piazzetta, in the form of a classical basilica. In the same spirit he built the loggetta, at the base of the campanile, in traditionally classical form. The shacks and stalls of the traders were removed from the square, and in their place was constructed a sacred ceremonial space. Magistrates were appointed to supervise the renovation of other areas as well as the cleansing of the waters around Venice. There was new building everywhere. The quays were refashioned. The symbolism was not difficult to read. Venice proclaimed herself to be the new Rome, the true heir of the Roman republic and the Roman empire. She saw no reason to prostrate herself before the German emperor, Charles V, or the emperor of the Turks, Suleiman the Magnificent. The city itself was conceived as a monument to this new status. According to a declaration of the senate in 1535, “from a wild and uncultivated refuge it has grown, been ornamented and constructed so as to become the most beautiful and illustrious city which at present exists in the world.” It was the city of carnival and celebration. There sprang up more parades and ceremonials, more tournaments and festivals.
There were, and are, historians who assert that in this transition the Venetians themselves lost their energy and their tenacity. They became “softer.” They were “weakened.” They lost their fighting spirit when they embraced the principles of neutrality. They became addicted to the pleasures of comfortable living. It is perhaps unwise to adopt the language of human psychology in such matters. The life of generations is more robust and more impersonal than that of any individual. It is accountable to different laws. All we can say, with any approach to certainty, is that Venice was revived in the sixteenth century. And it was a truly astonishing renewal, first born out of defeat and humiliation. It says much about the ingenuity, as well as the pragmatism, of the Venetian temperament.
There was one more great test. In the first months of 1570 the Turkish forces of Suleiman the Magnificent seized the Venetian colony of Cyprus. Venice unsuccessfully appealed for assistance to the leaders of Europe. Philip II of Spain, fearing a Turkish advance in northern Africa, despatched a fleet; but it arrived too late and proved curiously unwilling to follow Venetian strategy. The demoralised Venetian fleet, under Girolamo Zane, sailed back before ever sighting Cyprus. The island was lost. One of the Venetian dignitaries was beheaded by the Turks, and another was flayed alive. His skin is still preserved in an urn in the church of SS. Giovanni e Paolo. Meanwhile Zane had been ordered to return to Venice, where he was consigned to the doge’s dungeons; he died there two years later.
A year after the capture of Cyprus, Pope Pius V devised a confederation of three European powers to contain and to confront the Turks. Venice, Spain and the papacy itself formed a new Christian League or Holy League with the avowed aim of regaining control of the Mediterranean and of banishing the Turkish fleet from the Adriatic. It was a crusade under another name. A naval battle was staged at the entrance to the Gulf of Patras. The battle of Lepanto, as it became known, resulted in a great victory for the Christian forces. There were 230 Turkish vessels that were sunk or captured, with only thirteen losses for the Europeans. Fifteen thousand Christian galley slaves, obliged to work under Turkish masters, were given their liberty. There was another singular outcome. Lepanto was the last battle in which the use of the oar held the key. In later engagements the sails were raised. It was the last battle, too, in which hand-to-hand combat was the chosen method of assault; artillery and, in particular, cannon took over.
After Lepanto, when a Venetian galley returned to its home port trailing the Turkish standard, the city gave itself up to rejoicing. At a funeral oration in Saint Mark’s, honouring the dead, it was declared that “they have taught us by their example that the Turks are not insuperable, as we had previously believed them to be.” The predominant feeling was one of relief. The Venetians thought it prudent to follow the victory with further assaults on Turkish power, but the pope and the Spanish monarch disagreed. There was an inconclusive campaign in the spring of the following year, but the spirit had gone out of the Christian League. Venice returned to diplomacy, and signed a treaty with Suleiman. Cyprus was lost for ever. Of all the Greek islands colonised by Venice, only Corfu remained free of the Turkish embrace. Yet the victory at Lepanto had emboldened the leaders of Venice. There was some talk of regaining commercial supremacy in the Mediterranean. A new generation of younger patricians came to dominate public affairs.
So by the end of the sixteenth century Venice could pride itself on having survived the encroachments of the Europeans as well as the belligerence of the Turks. It had proved to be a formidable opponent in peace as well as in war. The stability of its government, and the loyalty of its people, had remained steadfast. It was the only city in northern Italy that had not endured rebellion or suffered invasion. The pope compared it to “a great ship that fears neither fortune nor commotion of winds.” There emerged now what came to be known as “the myth of Venice.” Its antiquity and its ancient liberty were celebrated by Venetian historiographers; it clothed itself in the glory of new public buildings. The republic of Venice, free from faction and guided by sage counsellors, was deemed to be immortal. It refashioned itself as the city of peace and the city of art. Even as its overseas power entered a slow decline, so the spirit of the city manifested itself in another fashion. It is evident in the work of Bellini, of Titian, and of Tintoretto who emerged as the influence of Venice began to wane. But who can speak of decline or decay when the city produced such riches? Venice had merely changed the nature of its power. It now claimed the power to impress—to dazzle. As its imperial power declined, so its image in the world became of vital importance.