ALL the while, Venice’s wealth expanded. 

In political structures, Venice was beginning to resemble a modern corporation more than a feudal State. The Great Council of Venice was dominated by a hereditary commercial oligarchy, as was the Senate, and the doge (the executive) followed the will of this class, and was usually one of its members. What was true of Venice applied to other Italian city-states. They were governed by merchants and for merchants. If ever there was rule by those chiefly concerned with the pursuit of wealth, it was in Italy during this period.

Venice stayed neutral during the early Crusades, supplying the Moslems with iron, arms, timber and naval stores. In addition, Venetians purchased Europeans captured by the Mongols in Eastern Europe and sold them at a profit to the Moslems. They then went on to buy manufactured goods from the Moslems. Indeed, it is the view of several historians that the slave trade was Venice’s largest source of revenue during the early Crusades. 

When the Pope forbade unauthorised commerce with the Moslems, Venetian merchants purchased letters of authorisation and continued their trade. With the announcement of the fourth Crusade, Venice abandoned its neutrality. 

The doge, Enrico Dandolo, assumed a leadership role, not out of a conversion of any kind, but rather to gain wealth and the assistance of the Crusaders in his military ambitions.

Dandolo also had a personal score to settle. He had been partially blinded in an accident in Constantinople and wanted revenge.

The French Crusaders who arrived in Venice in 1201 asked for transport to the Holy Land for 4 500 knights and horses, 9 000 squires and 20 000 foot soldiers, along with provisions for nine months. 

Dandolo set his price at 85 000 silver marks and half the booty taken in the expedition. In addition, the doge would provide 50 armed galleys. Impoverished and unable either to advance or return to their homes, the Crusaders rejected these terms, but they were obliged to consider another offer. The doge would accept as partial payment French assistance in the capture of rebels in the seaport town of Zara in Dalmatia (200 miles east of Venice), which had become part of the kingdom of Hungary. While some of the French refused to march against fellow Christians, others were willing to do so, and Zara fell.

When the nobles then insisted on being taken to Egypt, the doge protested. The Egyptian sultan was an ally and had promised the doge an agreeable tariff in Alexandria if he would divert the Crusaders elsewhere. The doge proposed, instead, an attack on Constantinople, which, although Christian, was not Catholic and so might be considered an enemy of the Church. There would be much to plunder there, he noted, and afterwards the Crusaders could go on to the Holy Land.

Most of the Crusaders agreed to do so, and in 1204, they were transported to Constantinople, which they ravaged, with the Venetians obtaining more than half the booty. In addition, they received preferred trading rights, most of the Mediterranean islands that were part of Byzantium, and parts of Constantinople itself as well as posts in other cities, all of which enriched Venice’s leading families. 

The Venetians then sold Byzantine prisoners as slaves to the Moslems. Byzantium was no more, and although it would be reconstituted, it was never again an important power in the region. At the time, however, it appeared the most wondrous of cities. 

Geoffrey of Villehardouin, one of the principal chroniclers of the Fourth Crusade, wrote of Constantinople: “You should know that people who had never before set eyes on Constantinople were astounded, for never had they imagined that so rich a city could exist in the world, and as they gazed at the high walls and noble towers that ringed it around, and the splendid palaces and the towering churches — there were so many of them that one could not possibly believe it until they saw it with their own eyes — they were amazed by it, and especially by the heights and breadth of the city, which was sovereign above all other cities.

You should know, too, that there was not a single man among us whose flesh did not tremble at the sight of it. It was no wonder, for never was so great an enterprise undertaken by any people since the creation of the world.

Much of the wealth of Constantinople was taken to the West and still can be seen in such places as Venice. Along with the obvious wealth — precious metals, artwork, tapestries and the like — the invaders took a large number of relics, such as that aforementioned

crown of thorns. These might be seen as wealth-producing items, since they attracted pilgrims, donations and other forms of income. Indeed, after the influx of all of these relics, counterfeiters appeared with their own versions, obliging the papacy to start certifying them.”

The Venetians were willing to act recklessly in their pursuit of wealth. In 1241, the Mongols, with an empire larger than continental Europe, defeated the Poles and Germans in the battle of Leibnitz, in part as a result of intelligence obtained from Venice, in return for which the Mongols agreed to oust the competing Genoese trading centre in the Crimea.

Venice became the leading naval power of the time and grew into an imperial force during the early 13th Century, seizing the Sporades Islands off the coast of Crete as well as cities on the Black Sea. Genoa was defeated in a struggle for supremacy on the Black Sea and the Levantine trade, but continued to control commerce on the Tyrrhenia Sea. Venetian merchants traded grain, lumber and wine with their counterparts in Constantinople, receiving manufactured goods which they subsequently sold to areas north of the city. Genoa did not go into decline as a result of the defeats. 

In 1293, Venetian Mediterranean commerce was three times that of France, whose kings, along with those of other countries, sent their emissaries to Italy for loans. In fact, most of the Italian city states prospered in this period of reviving commerce.  In the late 13th and early 14th Centuries, Venetian naval architects developed new designs for merchant galleys.  

These new ships were more than 120 feet in length, with crews of between 100 and 200 to provide the muscle power, and sails for use when the winds were favourable.  Ships such as these enabled the Venetians to trade with England and Flanders, and even with the Scandinavians.  To all these places, they would take spices, cloth, drapery, paper and glass obtained from as far East as China and India, and then load for the return trip with wool, hides, leather, iron, lead, tin, pewter and other products, some of which were obtained at the fairs. 

Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant and is a published author in her field. For comments e-mail:


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here