With the exception of the papacy, no polity in Europe was as frequently and consistently engaged in crusading as the republic of Venice. Unlike elsewhere in the medieval world, Venetians tended to approach crusading from a communal perspective. In other words, although they individually took crusading vows, the decision to go on crusade was usually a corporate one. In part this was due to the necessities of producing large war fleets in a republican commune, but it was also a reflection of the Venetians’ highly developed self-identity. Despite centuries of crusading, modern accounts have tended to write the Venetians (indeed, all Italians) out of crusade histories.
Venice joined the First Crusade (1096-1099) as a state enterprise, although belatedly, either because of the infirmity of Doge Vitale Falier (1084-1096) or a skepticism that he may have shared with his royal counterparts in England, France, and Germany. When the Venetians assembled to choose a new doge on Falier’s death, they turned to Vitale Michiel (1096-1101), a proponent of the crusade. Michiel immediately sent word to the towns on the Dalmatian coast to prepare for a great enterprise to free the Holy Land. In the Venetian lagoon, shipwrights began work on war galleys, while merchant vessels were pressed into service as supply transports. In the spring of 1099, Venice was at last ready: an armada of some 200 major vessels was prepared for war—the largest single contribution to the First Crusade. The fleet left in July 1099, commanded by the doge himself, and with some 9,000 Venetian crusaders on board. In June 1100 they landed at Jaffa (mod. Tel Aviv-yafo, Israel), recently conquered by the crusade. Godfrey of Bouillon was eager to extend Christian control to other port cities and agreed with Michiel to launch an attack on Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel). However, Godfrey’s subsequent death scuttled that plan. Instead, Michiel helped Tancred capture Haifa, which fell on 20 August 1100. Doge Ordelafo Falier (1101-1118) took command of another crusade fleet, sailing to Sidon, which was captured in 1110 with the help of King Sigurd of Norway. King Baldwin I of Jerusalem rewarded the republic with a street and a marketplace in Acre.
After the crushing defeat of the Franks of Antioch by the Turks at the Ager Sanguinis in 1119, the king and patriarch of Jerusalem requested assistance from Pope Calixtus II, who, preoccupied with the Investiture Controversy, passed the request on to Venice. In 1120 Doge Domenico Michiel (1118-1129) made an impassioned appeal to the people, who consented to a new crusade. Michiel suspended all overseas commerce while the Venetians prepared a fleet of approximately 120 major vessels. With the doge in command, it set sail on 8 August 1122, carrying more than 15,000 Venetian crusaders. During the winter, it tried without success to capture Corfu in retaliation for John II Komnenos’s refusal to renew Venetian trading privileges in the Byzantine Empire. The Venetian fleet arrived at Acre in May 1123, where it destroyed the Fātimid navy. The following year, the Venetians joined with the Franks to capture the coastal city of Tyre (mod. Soûr, Lebanon), which fell in July 1124. The Venetians were granted one-third of Tyre as well as a street, bakery, bath, and church in every city in the kingdom of Jerusalem. More than sixty years later, Doge Orio Mas- tropiero sent a large crusade fleet to join the Third Crusade (1189-1192), which took part in the siege of Acre.
Areas of Venetian crusading and commercial activity in the period of the crusades
Given a century of Venetian involvement in the crusades, it is not too surprising that Pope Innocent III turned to Venice for support when he proclaimed the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) in 1198. The aged and blind Doge Enrico Dan- dolo (1192-1205) was inclined to support the crusade, but he pointed out to the pope that Venetian merchants were already paying a heavy price for the good of Christendom because of the ban on trade with Muslims. The pope responded by allowing the Venetians to trade in nonstrate- gic goods with Egypt. The failure of the Frankish crusaders to meet their commitments forced Dandolo to balance the good of the crusade against the enormous financial losses of the commune. The diversion of the crusade to Zara (mod. Zadar, Croatia) solved several problems, getting the expedition under way, providing a place to winter, and in part compensating the Venetians for their losses. But the attack on Zara, which was under papal protection, convinced Innocent that Dandolo and the Venetians had hijacked the crusade for their own purposes. He excommunicated all of the Venetian crusaders, although this was kept secret from the rank-and- file, including the Venetians.
There was no direct Venetian involvement in the decision to divert the Fourth Crusade to Constantinople (mod. Istanbul, Turkey) to support the claims of the Byzantine pretender Alexios Angelos. Dandolo went along with the deal negotiated by the Frankish barons, although it posed significant risks to Venice’s profitable position in Byzantium. The crusade’s original goal, Egypt, was much more favorable from the Venetian perspective, since the low level of business that Venetian traders did there risked little, while the possible gains were great. The exhaustion of the crusade’s provisions, however, made the trip to Egypt impossible; only the diversion to Constantinople offered the opportunity to repair the crusade sufficiently so that it could repay its debts to Venice and embark on its mission.
The conquest of Constantinople in 1204 would one day be a boon to Venice, but at the time the communal government viewed the fall of Byzantium with great trepidation. In theory, Dandolo had won three-eighths of the empire, yet the Venetians did not at first act to claim much of it. They moved quickly to secure those areas that were crucial to safeguarding shipping (such as Dyrrachion, Corfu, Coron, and Modon) and only gradually extended their control over the entire eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea. The Venetians showed little interest in Crete (which Dandolo had purchased from Boniface of Montferrat) until the Genoese moved to capture it; the island, which remained in Venetian hands until 1691, became the centerpiece of the republic’s maritime empire. Over time, Venice also extended control over other nearby islands, including Negroponte (Euboea). Elsewhere in the Aegean, the Venetian government gave permission to individual Venetians to capture islands at their own expense.
Despite the disappointing results of the Fourth Crusade, Innocent still urged Venetians to take part in the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221). Buoyed up by a ten-year truce with Genoa, a Venetian fleet transported King Andrew II of Hungary and his armies to Outremer. Vessels from Venice and Crete participated in the siege of Damietta in Egypt in 1219, suspending high ladders from their masts just as they had done at Constantinople in 1204. The following year, Doge Pietro Ziani (1205-1229) sent a fleet of 14 galleys to join the crusade.
Venetians in the Latin East were not immune to the factional strife and violence that afflicted the region in the thirteenth century. The worst outbreak was in Acre, where a street fight over a house that belonged to the monastery of St. Sabas escalated into a war between Venice and Genoa. The War of St. Sabas finally ended in June 1258 when the Venetians defeated the Genoese and demolished their quarter in Acre.
After the fall of Outremer in 1291, the Venetians took their share of blame for rivalries that pitted Christian against Christian. The military orders were also blamed, as were the popes, who had increasingly been more interested in using crusades to advance political interests at home rather than the good of Christendom in the East. Venetians, who had long been committed to crusades against Muslims, had little patience for domestic crusades. When Pope Martin IV proclaimed a crusade against the king of Aragon in 1284, the communal government refused to allow it to be preached in Venetian lands. Martin responded by putting Venice under interdict, although it was lifted by Martin’s successor the following year.
Bronze horses from the fourth century b.c., seized from Constantinople in 1204 and later mounted on the Cathedral of St. Mark, Venice. (Mimmo Jodice/Corbis)
Venice’s support for crusades against Muslims found an eloquent voice in the writings of the Venetian nobleman Marino Sanudo Torsello. In 1321 he presented to Pope John XXII and King Charles IV of France his Liber secretorum fidelium crucis, which laid out plans and advice for the reconquest of Outremer. In his various writings, Sanudo sharply criticized the popes for diverting crusade energy to fight their Ghibelline enemies at home. He argued for an economic blockade of Egypt before a general invasion. With Egypt as a base, the Holy Land could then be restored.
Sanudo’s ideas did not fall on deaf ears; there was a real desire throughout the West to organize a large crusade to check Turkish expansion. When Pope John XXII called a new crusade to deal with the Turks, Philip VI of France took up the cause, sending word to Venice that he wanted to contract ships and provisions to transport his crusade army. The following year, the Venetians agreed to provide a large crusade fleet, provided that the arrangement was confirmed by the pope and that there would be no attack on Christians. In addition, the Venetians promised to join the crusade themselves and to immediately launch war galleys to engage Turkish pirates. But the enterprise was delayed by other events, including the death of the pope. Nevertheless, the Venetians sent galleys to capture Turkish vessels in the Aegean. Together with the Byzantines and Hospitallers, the Venetian crusaders defeated the Turks at Adramyttion in 1334. The French, though, never did show up. Distracted by the English threat, they dropped the idea, and Pope Benedict XII finally canceled the crusade in 1336.
In 1342 Pope Clement VI authorized the crusade indulgence for Venetians who would join with the king of Cyprus and the Hospitallers in a war against the Turks. A fleet was quickly assembled and sailed to Smyrna (mod. Izmir, Turkey) on the coast of Asia Minor, which the crusaders captured. Despite these minor successes, Turkish power continued to grow, closing off and isolating Constantinople. When Pope Boniface IX called a crusade to aid the great city in 1399, the Venetians sent a fleet that, together with crusaders from Genoa, Rhodes, Lesbos, and France, broke through the Turkish blockade and pillaged coastal territories.
After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, several crusades were called to recapture it. The most ambitious was that of Pope Pius II, finalized at the Council of Mantua in 1459. Of all the European states that promised troops for the enterprise, Venice alone kept its promise by declaring war on the Turks. Doge Cristoforo Moro (1462-1471) took the cross himself and led the Venetian crusade fleet to Ancona to rendezvous with the pope and the promised armies. However, the armies failed to materialize, and Pius died shortly before the Venetians arrived. The crusade came to nothing, except that Venice was now at war with the Ottomans, who wrested the island of Negroponte from the republic. Despite the setback, Venetians still responded favorably when Pope Sixtus IV proclaimed a new crusade against the Turks in 1471. A large Venetian fleet joined with papal and Neapolitan vessels to deal damaging blows to Antalya and Smyrna.
By 1500 the Venetians had paid dearly for their support of crusades, losing additional territories in the East (although picking up control of Cyprus by inheritance). Venetians had come to believe that the incessant crusade talk in Europe was little more than that. This feeling was amplified in 1508 when the pope formed the League of Cambrai. The league’s stated purpose was to launch a crusade against the Turks, but in reality it was the result of an agreement to destroy Venice. Thus, when Pope Leo X and other European powers began planning a grand crusade to sweep the Muslims out of the Mediterranean (which took on a new urgency after the Ottoman conquest of Syria and Egypt in 1517), Venice promised to take part only when it was clear that something other than paper was being generated. In fact, that is all that was generated. Despite this caution, the Venetians would still be stung by failed crusade promises. In 1537 Venice and the papacy planned a large crusade to recapture Constantinople. Emperor Charles V joined the following year, promising to send substantial forces. The Venetian-papal fleet was launched, but it was quickly defeated by the Turks. Charles then backed out of the crusade, leaving Venice to fight alone, which cost Venetians their last holdings in the Peloponnese and 300,000 ducats to make peace. Throughout the remainder of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Venetians continued their crusading tradition. Their most famous engagement was at the battle of Lepanto in 1571, when, in league with papal and Spanish forces, they destroyed the Ottoman fleet.