A History of Venice (1130 - 1172) between two Empires

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The accession of the thirty-year-old Pietro Polani (1130-1148) to the ducal throne left vacant by his father-in-law Domenico Michiel occurred within only a few weeks of two other elevations that were far more momentous: of Norman Sicily from the status of a County to that of a Kingdom, and of Count Roger II de Hauteville, Robert Guiscard's nephew, to be its King. In Venetian eyes - indeed, in the eyes of most of Europe - the means by which Roger had achieved this success were not above reproach. A disputed papal election a few months before had left two rival candidates, each with an arguably good claim, struggling for the Pontificate; one of them, Innocent II (1130-1143), thanks to the passionate advocacy of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, soon had the greater part of Western Christendom behind him; the other, Anacletus, had turned to Roger, who had demanded a royal crown as the price of his support. In these circumstances, it was hardly to be expected that the partisans of Innocent would recognize the new Kingdom - which, moreover, both the Eastern and the Western Empires still claimed for their own; and their reluctance was still further increased by the disturbing speed with which Sicily, under the Hautevilles, had risen to wealth, prosperity and power. From its position in the dead center of the Mediterranean the island commanded the trade routes between North, South, East and West, constituting a crossroads and market-place for three continents; its Byzantine and Islamic past, together with its thriving Greek and Arab populations still living harmoniously together, gave the Sicilian ports a cosmopolitan character that no others could match. In the past two years Roger had absorbed into his own dominions virtually the whole Italian peninsula south of Rome, formerly the property of his careless and fortunately infertile cousins; and this latest coup, by which he was enabled to treat with the princes of Europe as an equal, augured ill for the future.

Nowhere was this alarm more deeply felt than in Venice. Already Sicilian sea power was beginning to rival that of the Republic; and while the bazaars of Palermo and Catania, Messina and Syracuse grew more and more crowded, so dealings on the Rialto had begun, gently but perceptibly, to slacken. To make matters worse, Venetian merchantmen were suffering ever more frequent attacks from Sicilian privateers and by 1135 they could estimate their losses at 40,000 talents. When therefore in that same year a diplomatic delegation from Constantinople called in Venice on its way to the court of the Western Emperor Lothair II in search of financial and naval help for a projected joint expedition against the so-called King of Sicily, Polani not only agreed with enthusiasm but attached representatives of his own to the Byzantine party to lend additional weight to their appeal.

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The expedition was duly mounted and invaded South Italy the following year; but it was military rather than naval and Venice was not asked to participate in the event. This, as it happened, was just as well because despite a few tactical successes, the venture had no lasting effect on Sicilian power or prestige. The old Emperor himself died in December 1137 on his return journey across the Alps; less that eight weeks later the anti-Pope Anacletus followed him to the grave; and in July 1139 Pope Innocent, riding south at the head of an army of his own, was ambushed by Roger and taken prisoner, and he was released only after he had reluctantly confirmed his captor as the lawful King of Sicily.

 

The Norman Menace

The Norman menace was now graver than ever, but for the time being nothing could be done; the new Emperor-elect of the West, Conrad of Hohenstaufen, was too occupied with internal problems in Germany. The papal Curia (council) had to somehow readjust its policies to the idea that the boisterous new Kingdom on its southern borders was there to stay. In Constantinople John Comnenus remained steadfast in his determination to crush "the Sicilian usurper"; but in the spring of 1143, while hunting in Cilicia, he accidentally scratched himself with a poisoned arrow and within a few days was dead of septicemia. In Venice, too, Doge Polani was busy with affairs closer to home. In 1141 the little city of Fano appealed for help against domineering neighbors who threatened to attack her. Never one to let slip a chance to extend her authority, Venice agreed; and the terms of this first treaty ever made between the Republic and another Italian city show clearly, as anything could, the position that Venice had now acquired among the populations of the Adriatic coast. Every Venetian henceforth was to enjoy in Fano the same privileges as the native citizens, with a right to Venetian judges in any lawsuit involving both cities. The Fanesi, for their part, were obliged to declare themselves subject allies of the Republic, saving only their allegiance - such as it was - to the Western Empire. They were also bound to the payment of an annual tribute in the form of 1,000 measures of oil for the illumination of St. Mark's and 100 for the Doges' Palace.

Two years later there was trouble with the Paduans, who began without warning to divert the course of the Brenta River. Their purpose was to shorten the river to the lagoon outlets; they did not realize what the Venetians knew all too well - that the slightest interference with the geographical system of the lagoon risks upsetting that almost unbelievably delicate balance between land and water which is essential for Venice's survival. Faced with the prospect of vast accumulations of sand forming around Sant' Ilario and the silting up of the existing channels on which they depended, the Venetians lodged a strong protest; and when this was arrogantly rejected they immediately took up arms. The conclusion was inevitable. The Paduans could never hope to match their neighbors in a trial of strength. After a single brief and disastrous confrontation they surrendered, with the promise to pursue their project no further and to repair the damage already done. However, what is far more important - and indeed the only reason why so trivial an incident is even worth mentioning at all - is the fact that in this, the first campaign in her history to be waged entirely on land, Venice engaged mercenaries to do the fighting for her, under two leading condottieri of the day, Guido di Montecchio of Verona commanding the cavalry and Alberto da Bragacurta the infantry. One reason was doubtless the Venetians' lack of experience on an element that had always remained foreign to them; however, they may also have felt the first stirrings of that fear that was later to become an obsession - that any native-born general, returning victorious, might enjoy a prestige and popularity unbecoming a citizen of the Republic, and possible constituting even a danger to the state. Later centuries, when the condottieri were to seize power in city after city until they came to dominate most of North and Central Italy, were to show that such a fear was by no means unjustified.

 

Manuel Comnenus

The Emperor John Comnenus had been succeeded on the throne of Byzantium by his son Manuel, a young man still in his twenties, famous for his dark good looks and possessing none of his father's xenophobic tendencies. His early life had been passed in close contact with the Frankish knights of Outremer, and his admiration for Western institutions had even led him to introduce knightly tournaments to Constantinople - an innovation which, particularly when he took part in them himself, scandalized his older subjects. He was, moreover, an intellectual and a scholar who cannot have failed to be impressed by the reports he had received of the growing brilliance of the court at Palermo, which, thanks to Roger's patronage of the arts and sciences, was rapidly becoming the cultural clearing-house of Europe, the one focal point where the leading thinkers of the three great civilizations of the Mediterranean - Latin, Greek and Arab - could meet together for their mutual enlightenment.

Manuel was fully aware of the danger posed by Norman Sicily. But he also knew that with two-thirds of Asia Minor - formerly the main recruiting-ground for Byzantine armies - now occupied by the Seljuk Turks and his western frontier also under constant pressure, his own Empire would have to fight for survival. Had his father been right in his determined hostility to the Sicilian Kingdom? Would it not be wiser to try and make common cause? Soon after his succession he sent an Embassy to Palermo to investigate the possibilities of an alliance, which he hoped might be cemented by the marriage of a Byzantine princess to one of the King's sons.

If these negotiations had succeeded, the consequences for Venice might have been serious indeed, with Roger of Sicily exercising effective control of both sides of the straits of Otranto. But they failed, and Manuel turned instead to the still more important question of his own marriage, to the sister-in-law of the Emperor-elect Conrad, which took place at the beginning of 1146. Just three months afterwards, on Palm Sunday, there followed an event that was to affect the whole civilized world. St. Bernard of Clairvaux launched the Second Crusade (1147).

St. Bernard's excursions into the political sphere - which, unfortunately throughout his life, he was unable to resist - were almost invariably disastrous. But none ever proved so humiliating a fiasco as this immense expedition, led jointly by Conrad and King Louis VII of France with the purpose of recovering the city of Edessa from the Saracens and consolidating Frankish power in the Levant. Numberless thousands died before they ever reached the Holy Land; and those that survived the journey fled after their first and only armed encounter. It is a measure of the paucity of sources for Venetian history of the time that one cannot be altogether sure whether Venice participated with a fleet or not. Although one chronicler - Marino Sanudo the elder, writing in the early 14th century - tells of the magnum auxilium sent by the Republic under the command of Giovanni Polani, the Doge's brother, his report is unsubstantiated by any other historian of the Crusade and can almost certainly be discounted. But the Venetians were not to be left in peace for long. In the first weeks of 1148 they received an urgent appeal from Manuel; a Sicilian fleet had sailed against his Empire.

The commander of this fleet was George of Antioch, a Levantine Greek who had risen from humble origins to be the first holder of Norman Sicily's proudest title - Emir of Emirs, at once the High Admiral and chief minister of the Kingdom. He had first taken Corfu, which had surrendered without a struggle and willingly accepted a Sicilian garrison of 1,000 men. Rounding the Peloponnese and dropping further armed detachments at strategic points along the coast, he had then sailed north again as far as Euboea, raiding and pillaging as he went. A particularly rich haul had been afforded by the ancient city of Thebes, center of the Byzantine silk manufacture, where not only bales of damasks and brocades but also a number of highly skilled Jewish workwomen had been seized and carried off to enrich the royal silk factory ( which did double duty as a harem) at Palermo. Turning back, he had finally plundered Corinth, his vessels - according to his near contemporary Nicetas Choniates - "by now so low in the water that they looked more like merchantmen than the pirate ships they were really were."

Nicetas was right; piracy it was. But it was also something more. King Roger was under no delusions. An attempted alliance between himself and the Byzantine Emperor having proved unworkable, he knew that it was only a question of time before Manuel, probably in conjunction with Venice and the Western Empire, launched a major offensive against him. His own pre-emptive action might precipitate the attack - no bad thing in itself if it caused Manuel to strike before he was ready - but it had at least assured him the possession of chosen strongpoints on the Balkan peninsula and, in Corfu, the principal bridgehead from which any invasion of South Italy might be expected to come.

 

The Siege of Corfu

No Venetian ever gave anything for nothing, and Manuel had to grant further extensive trading privileges in Cyprus and Rhodes, as well as in his own capital, before he got what he wanted - the full support of the war fleet of the Republic for six months. Meanwhile he was working desperately to bring his own navy to readiness - some 500 galleys and 1,000 transports, a fitting counterpart to an army of perhaps 20,000 or 25,000 men.

From the outset, this formidable joint force was ill-starred. Though the rendezvous was fixed for April 1148, both sides were grievously delayed - the Greeks by a sudden invasion of the Kumans, a tribe from South Russia who chose this moment to sweep down across the Danube River into imperial territory; and the Venetians by the death of Doge Polani. It was autumn before the two navies could meet in the southern Adriatic, together to begin the siege of Corfu, and the following spring before the army could join them, accompanied by the Emperor himself in overall command.

The Siege, Manuel discovered on his arrival, was not going well. The citadel, in which Roger's garrison was holding out, stood on a high crag towering above the sea and safely beyond the range of Byzantine projectiles. Nicetas reported that the Greeks seemed to be shooting at the very sky itself, while the Sicilians could release deluges of arrows and hailstorms of rocks on to the besiegers. (People wondered, he could not resist adding, how they had taken possession of it so effortlessly the previous year.) More ominous still, perhaps, was the steady worsening of relations between Greeks and Venetians - reaching a climax when the latter occupied a neighboring islet and set fire to a number of Byzantine vessels lying offshore. They later managed to seize possession of the imperial flagship itself, on which they performed an elaborate charade, making fun of the Emperor's swarthy complexion by dressing up an Ethiopian slave in the imperial vestments and staging a mock coronation on deck in full view of their Greek allies.

Manuel was never to forgive the Venetians for this insult. For the moment, however, they were his allies still, and indispensable ones at that. With patience, tact and all the charm for which he was famous, he somehow restored an uneasy harmony; then he himself assumed direct personal command of the siege operations.

Towards the end of the summer Corfu fell - probably through treachery, since Nicetas writes that the garrison commander subsequently entered the imperial service. The Emperor's joy, however, must have been mitigated by the news that George of Antioch had now taken another fleet of forty ships through the Dardanelles and across the Marmara to the very walls of Constantinople. A landing had mercifully been prevented but the Sicilians, undeterred, had sailed on some way up the Bosphorous, pillaging several rich villas along the Asiatic shore, and on their return had, even for good measure, shot an impudent arrow or two into the gardens of the imperial palace. Nor, once he had recaptured Corfu, was Manuel able to follow up his victory. He was summoned urgently northward to deal with a new insurrection in the Balkans - in which Roger, whose diplomatic tentacles extended far beyond his own shores, may well have been subtly implicated.

So ended the war with Sicily, from which both Venice and Byzantium had expected so much. Apart from the reconquest of a single island captured barely two years before, it had achieved nothing. Sicilian garrisons still remained strung around the Greek coast; King Roger was as secure on his throne and as powerful in Europe and the Mediterranean as he had ever been. Looking back on it in historical perspective, we can see now that the most noteworthy aspect of the war was also perhaps the most unedifying: for in that first sorry fracas between the two so-called allies in the waters off Corfu lay the seeds of a deepening hostility between the Republic and Empire which were to come to their poisonous fruition, fifty-five years later, in the Fourth Crusade (1204).

 

Frederick Barbarossa

When in the spring of 1148 Doge Polani had led his fleet out of the lagoon in response to the Byzantine appeal, the sickness that was to cause his death was already upon him. He had progressed no further than Caorle when he was forced to return, and within a few weeks he was dead. For the next seven years and seven months, Venice was ruled by Domenico Morosini (1148-1156). His family had already played a leading part in Venetian affairs for well over 200 years, and in the centuries to come was to provide the Republic with three other Doges besides Domenico. His reign marked, for his subjects, a happy time. By the end of 1149 peace had been made with the Sicilians; on the maps of the great Arab geographer Abu Abdullah Mohammed al-Edrisi, who spent fifteen years at the court in Palermo and in whose work King Roger took an intense personal interest, the northern Adriatic was clearly labeled Culfus Venetiarum, and on Roger's death in 1154 his son and successor William I formally conceded all waters north of a line drawn westward from Ragusa as a Venetian preserve. Despite the Corfu incident relations continued on an ostensibly friendly basis with Byzantium, whose recent trading concessions were beginning to bring in most gratifying returns; while the Western Empire Conrad's nephew of Swabia, who succeeded his uncle in 1152, confirmed Venetian privileges without objections. It was no wonder that Morosini's dogeship saw another building boom in the city, marked above all by the completion, 250 years after the sinking of its first foundation, of the campanile of St. Mark.

In mainland Italy, on the other hand, the clouds were gathering fast. The 32-year-old Frederick, whose reddish-brown hair and beard were soon to earn him the nickname Barbarossa, had ascended the throne with one prevailing objective. "My wish," he confessed frankly to the Pope, "is to restore to the Roman Empire its ancient greatness and splendor." It was a conception that left no room for compromise with the Empire of the East, nor with Sicily; least of all with the towns and cities of North Italy, led by Milan, whose spirit of independence, nourished by successive Popes throughout the long years of papal-imperial struggle, was every bit as determined as was Frederick's will to break it. The strength of this spirit, however, seems to have genuinely surprised him when he entered Italy in October 1154, on the way to his imperial coronation. All the cities and major towns sent emissaries to greet him at Roncaglia; but apart from the few who saw in the Empire a chance to shake off Milanese domination, the overwhelming majority left him in no doubt of their resolve to break the old feudal shackles in favor of republican self-government. Frederick was for his part determined to begin as he meant to go on; Milan was at present too strong for him but her little ally Tortona, after a heroic resistance of over two months, was destroyed until not one stone remained on another.

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Having thus set what he assumed to be a salutary example, Frederick continued, in the spring of 1155, on his journey southwards to Rome. Predictably, in view of his general arrogance and unwillingness to compromise, his way was not altogether smooth. His first meeting, near Sutri, with the newly-elected Pope Adrian IV (1154-1159) - the only Englishman ever to occupy the Throne of St. Peter - was exacerbated by his refusal to perform the traditional courtesy of holding the papal stirrup when Adrian dismounted. The Pope retaliated by denying him the Kiss of Peace, and two days were lost before conversations could begin. On this occasion Frederick was persuaded to relent; but when, a day or two later, a delegation from the Roman Senate rode out to greet him and to request the monetary payments and guarantees normally given by Emperors at the time of their coronations, his curt dismissal of them had a more serious result. Thanks to brilliant planning by the Pope, he was able to slip unobserved into Rome at dawn on June 17 for a secret coronation, but within hours the city had risen in revolt against him, and by nightfall well over 1,000 Roman insurgents and imperial troops were lying dead in the streets or drowned in the Tiber River.

Although Venice had sent representatives to make an acte de presence at Roncaglia, she had done her utmost to remain aloof from the events that followed. As an independent city-republic that had long since freed herself from imperial control, she could hardly be unsympathetic to the Lombard towns that were now striving to do the same. On the other hand, her whole political and economic development had pursued so different a course from theirs that there could be no real emotional identification. Unlike them, she was a world power with a world policy - a policy which involved increasingly delicate diplomatic maneuvering, not just with the Western Empire but with Byzantium and Norman Sicily, the Papacy and the Crusader states, to say nothing of the Saracens of both North Africa and the Middle East. At this particular moment in her history, with her relations with Manuel Comnenus growing increasingly strained and her Italian markets ever more profitable, she had no wish to antagonize Frederick Barbarossa any more than was necessary. When Doge Morosini died in 1156, he left behind him a Republic still uncommitted either way.

His successor, Vitale Michiel II (1156-1172), did his best to steer the same middle path, but it was not long before Frederick's actions in Italy forced him to abandon it. Crossing the Alps again in 1158, at the head of an army far stronger than that which he had brought with him for years before, the Emperor called a second diet at Roncaglia, where his attitude still further enraged the Lombard cities; though some towns still remained loyal to him, within weeks much of North Italy was in a state of open revolt. Meanwhile, a great wave of revulsion against the Empire swept down through the peninsula. What was needed above all was a center of resistance, some strong power able to focus the aspirations and ideals of those who stood for liberty against domination, republicans against imperialism, Italian against German. Fortunately for the beleaguered cities, two such powers were near at hand: the Papacy and the Kingdom of Sicily.

 

The Lombard League

Two years before, in 1156, Pope Adrian and King William of Sicily had signed a treaty at Benevento. Since then, working both separately and together, papal and Sicilian diplomatists had achieved a good deal; and in August 1159 representatives from four of the most determined of Frederick's enemies - Milan, Crema, Brescia and Piacenza - met the Pope at Anagni and, in the presence of envoys from King William, swore the initial pact that was to become the nucleus of the great Lombard League. The towns promised to have no dealings with the Empire without first obtaining papal consent, while the Pope in return undertook to excommunicate the Emperor after the customary notice of forty days.

 

The Papacy in Dispute

It was Pope Adrian's last political act. He was already a sick man, and on the evening of September 1, 1159 he died of angina. His death gave Frederick Barbarossa an opportunity to sow yet more dissension. Recognizing - rightly - that the next Pope, if freely elected, would be sure to continue along the lines set by his predecessor, the Emperor now deliberately engineered a schism within the Papal Curia. Consequently, just as Cardinal Roland of Siena - who, as Adrian's Chancellor, had been the principal architect of his foreign policy - was being enthroned in St. Peter's as Pope Alexander III (1159-1181), his colleague Cardinal Octavian of St. Cecilia suddenly seized the papal mantle and put it on himself. Alexander's supporters snatched it back; but Octavian had taken the precaution of bringing with him another, into which he somehow managed to struggle - getting it on backwards in the process. He then made a dash for the throne, sat on it, and proclaimed himself Pope Victor IV. It was hardly an edifying performance; but it worked. Frederick's ambassadors in Rome immediately recognized Victor as the rightful Pontiff. Virtually all the rest of western Europe soon gave its allegiance to Alexander, but the damage was done and the chaotic Italian political scene was further bedeviled, for the next eighteen years, by a disputed Papacy,

Faced with the need to recognize one or the other of the rival Popes, Venice could no longer stand aloof. She was moreover growing seriously alarmed at the way things were going in Lombardy. If Frederick were to continue in his present mood, he was unlikely to show any greater respect for Venetian independence than for that of any other Italian city. So she too declared for Alexander and, by implication, for the Lombard rebels. The Emperor's retaliation was swift but ineffectual. Three nearby cities that had remained passively loyal to him - Padua, Verona and Ferrara - were easily persuaded to attack their proud and often domineering neighbor, but were equally easily repulsed. Perhaps their hearts were not really in it; in 1163 two of them, Verona and Padua, joined now by Vicenza, actually combining with Venice in an association pledged to yield no more to Barbarossa than their forefathers had yielded to Charlemagne. A subsequent attack on Grado, launched at Frederick's instigation by a German-born Patriarch of Aquileia, was even less successful. A Venetian fleet sped to the rescue and took the Patriarch prisoner with some 700 of his followers, releasing him only after he promised to send the Republic a tribute of a dozen pigs - one for each member of his cathedral chapter - every year on the Wednesday before Lent, in time to be chased by the Venetian populace on the following day (Giovedi Grasso) round the Piazza.

To Venice, these two incidents were little more than pinpricks. It was her good fortune that, much as Frederick Barbarossa would have liked to see her humbled at his feet, there were three other objectives on the Italian peninsula which had prior claim to his attention and against which he now marched. One was Ancona where, on territory that in Frederick's eyes formed an integral part of the Western Empire, Manuel Comnenus had some years before established a Byzantine outpost; the second, as always, was Norman Sicily; and the third was Rome, where the Emperor was determined to remove Pope Alexander from his throne and replace him with a new imperial puppet. (Frederick's former protÚgÚ, the anti-Pope Victor, had altogether failed to establish himself in the city; in 1164 he died miserably in Lucca, where for a number of years he had eked out a living on the proceeds of not very successful brigandage (robbery) and where the local authorities would not even allow him burial with the city walls.

The details of this, the most ambitious of all Frederick's Italian campaigns, need not detain us here. It is enough to say that of his first two objectives he achieved nothing; of the third, all too much. Rome, like the cities of the north, was a commune, with a civic government of its own; and the Romans, who had detested Frederick ever since his first ill-starred coronation visit, fought heroically to keep him out. St. Peter's itself, hastily ringed with trenches and converted into a fortress, held out for eight days, but to no avail. The imperial troops burst through the great bronze doors, leaving, in the words of a contemporary, "...the marble pavements of the nave strewn with the dead and dying, the high altar itself stained with blood." Alexander was forced into hiding, and on July 30, 1167 Victor's successor, the anti-Pope Paschal, celebrated Mass in the Basilica.

For Frederick, already crowned Emperor but now additionally invested with the golden circlet of a Patrician of Rome - a deliberate insult to the Roman Senate - this was the climax of his career. He could not know that four days later his entire army would be stricken by pestilence (disease). So virulent was the epidemic that he had no course but to order an immediate withdrawal. By the time he regained his imperial headquarters at Pavia he had lost well over 2,000 men, including his Chancellor, Archbishop Rainald of Dassel, and many of his most trusted lieutenants and advisers. It was like some dreadful visitation from the Old Testament - and indeed was considered all over Europe as divine retribution for the desecration of St. Peter's and the expulsion of God's Vice-Regent on earth.

But Frederick's punishment was not over yet. He was still in Pavia, nursing the remains of his shattered army, when on December 1 no less than fifteen of the leading North Italian cities formed themselves into a Greater Lombard League. It was the supreme gesture of defiance; and such was their contempt for the Emperor that they had not even thought it necessary to wait until he had left Italy before making it.

Of this League Venice was a founder member. She had no land forces to offer, but she pledged her navy to the cause anywhere in the lagoons or in the tributary rivers where navigable. She further agreed to share with her confederates any subsidies that she might receive from Constantinople or Palermo, and to obtain their consent before declaring war or concluding peace with any other state. These undertakings were not, it must be admitted, particularly rigorous. The narrow radius within which the Venetian fleet was bound to defend League interests is surely significant; there was no question of sending it beyond the range of immediate recall if a more serious crisis were to arise elsewhere. It seems clear, nevertheless, that the Republic was now looking again - if not in her commercial policy, then at least in her diplomatic alignments - more and more towards the West. By her adherence to the Lombard League in 1167 she had in fact identified herself with the affairs of mainland Italy more closely than at any former time in the five centuries of her existence.

Meanwhile, relations with Byzantium were growing worse and worse. There were a number of reasons, for which neither party was altogether free of blame. The number of Latins permanently resident in Constantinople at this time has been estimated at not less than 80,000, all enjoying the special privileges that Manuel and his predecessors, in moments of weakness, had been forced to grant. Of these, the Venetians were the most numerous, and most favored and, in all probability, the most objectionable. Nicetas Choniates, chief of the palace secretariat in Constantinople, complains that their colony had become "...so insolent in its wealth and prosperity as to hold the imperial power in scorn." He may have been right, up to a point: Venetians were never noted for their humbleness of demeanor and they doubtless gave their Byzantine hosts plenty of cause for complaint. But however much Manuel Comnenus may have been mocked by the Venetian sailors off Corfu no Venetian merchant, whether resident on the Rialto or the Bosphorous, would have dreamt of underestimating him. For some years now, the Republic had watched with misgiving while its chief commercial rivals - Genoa, Pisa and Amalfi - had slowly consolidated their positions in what had once been its own exclusive preserve; and its people were fully aware that this process was part of a deliberate policy by Manuel and his father to reduce Venetian influence. They were worried, too, about recent developments in Dalmatia. Since 1162 they had been at war with Stephen III of Hungary, who in the five succeeding years had managed to capture virtually every coastal city except Zara. Then in 1167 Manuel Comnenus had entered the lists and gained a decisive victory over Stephen, taking these newly conquered territories for himself. It was an act hardly calculated to endear him to the Venetians; and when shortly afterwards he had the audacity to seek their support in establishing a permanent Byzantine colony at Ancona - with the longer-term objective of reviving the old Exarchate of Ravenna - they had left him no doubt of their feelings.

 

The Ill-fated Expedition

It was in this atmosphere of mutual suspicion and resentment that, some time early in 1171, the new Genoese settlement of Galata - the district of Constantinople on the further side of the Golden Horn - was attacked and in large measure destroyed. Who was responsible we shall never know. For Manuel, however, here was precisely the chance that he had been looking for. Casting the blame squarely on the Venetians, on March 12 he gave the order for all citizens of the Republic on Byzantine territory to be placed under immediate arrest, their ships and property confiscated. A few managed to escape in a Byzantine warship, put at their disposal by a Venetian-born captain in the imperial service; but the majority were less lucky. In the capital alone, 10,000 were seized; and when all the prisons had been filled to bursting point, monasteries and convents were requisitioned to accommodate the overspill.

The reaction in Venice can be imagined when the news reached the Rialto. The impression that the attack on the Genoese had been nothing but a pretext was confirmed when the Genoese themselves declared that the Venetians had had nothing to do with the incident; the smoothness with which the operation had been carried out simultaneously across the length and breadth of the Empire, showed beyond all doubt that it had been carefully planned in advance; and this reflection served in turn as a bitter reminder of how only two years before, to stamp out rumors that he was contemplating an action of this kind, the Emperor had given the emissaries of the Doge specific guarantees for the security of their countrymen - guarantees which had actually attracted further Venetian capital to the East and so increased the spoils he was now enjoying.

The last of the old ties that had bound Venice to Byzantium were forgotten. Forgotten too were the solemn promises of consultation made less than four years previously to the Lombard League. The government had been overspending, and Venice had in addition been paying the League heavy annual subsidies. In settlement of debts already incurred, all the revenues of the Rialto had been pledged for the next decade. A forced loan was ordered, for which every citizen would be liable according to his means, and to facilitate its collection the city was divided into the six districts, or sestieri, which still exist today: Castello, Cannaregio, Dorsoduro, Santa Croce, S. Polo and S. Marco. There was also a serious shortage of manpower; Venetians living abroad - such of them as were not languishing in Manuel's prisons - were recalled home and expected, if not actually forced, to rally to the colors.

Despite these difficulties and thanks to the draconian measures he adopted to overcome them, in just over three months Doge Michiel was able to raise and man a fleet of over 120 sail. It was an extraordinary achievement, of which no other state would have been capable; and in September 1171 the Doge led his armada out of the lagoon against the Empire of the East. He stopped at various points in Istria and Dalmatia to pick up such Venetian subjects as he might find, then continued round the Peloponnese to Euboea. There he found ambassadors from Manuel awaiting him. They were in a conciliatory mood. Their master, they assured him, had no wish for war. The Doge had only to send a peace mission to Constantinople; he would then find that all differences could be satisfactorily resolved, and on terms that he would not consider unfavorable.

 

The Curse of the Riva

Vitale Michiel accepted. It was the worst mistake of his life. While his emissaries (including Enrico Dandolo who would later play so fateful a role in European history) continued their journey to the Bosphorous and spent much of the winter in fruitless discussions with Byzantine officials, he took his fleet on to Chios to await developments. It was there that disaster struck. Plague broke out in the overcrowded ships and spread with terrible speed. By early spring thousands were dead, the survivors so weakened and demoralized through sickness and prolonged inactivity as to be unfit for war or anything else. At this point the ambassadors arrived back from Constantinople. They had been treated horribly and their mission had proved a total failure. The Emperor obviously had not the faintest intention of changing his attitude; his only purpose had been to gain time while he improved his own defenses.

And so, to top all the Doge's other misfortunes, there was now added a further burden - shame and humiliation for his gullibility in falling into so obvious trap. He could go no further. His expedition had been disastrous; the flower of Venetian youth lay dead or dying, without having once set eyes on the enemy. The fleet, or what remained of it, was on the brink of open mutiny. His only course was now to return with all speed to Venice and face the wrath of his subjects.

He arrived in the middle of May, 1172 and immediately called a general assembly in the palace to which he reported all that had occurred, defending his own actions and decisions as best he could. He was heard in tight-lipped silence - the more so because, to crown all the other misfortunes he had inflicted upon the Republic, he was now seen to have brought back the plague as well. This final incompetence could not be forgiven. The assembly itself rose up against him; and though outside the palace a mob had gathered and was even now calling for his blood, Vitale Michiel saw that he must flee. Slipping out through a side door, he hurried along the Riva towards the convent of S. Zaccaria.

He never reached it. The way to S. Zaccaria led over the Ponte della Paglia and then, 100 yards or so further along the quay, up a narrow alley known as the Calle delle Rasse. Just as he was about to turn the corner, he was set upon by one of the mob who sprang out from the shadows of a neighboring house and stabbed him to death. (His successor was Doge Sebastiano Ziani 1172-1178).

It is hard not to feel sorry for Vitale Michiel. With the implacable Frederick Barbarossa on one side and the unpredictable Manuel Comnenus on the other, with the north of Italy now unified by the Lombard League and the south by the alliance of Norman Sicily with the greatness of 12th century Popes, he had a far more delicate and difficult course to steer through the shoals of European diplomacy than any of his predecessors. For fifteen of his sixteen years as Doge he had steered it beautifully. Only in his last year, in a moment of crisis and in conditions to which he was utterly unaccustomed, did he make a wrong decision. Even so, he can hardly be blamed for the plague - not even altogether for returning with it to Venice, since to have delayed his homecoming any longer would have provoked certain mutiny.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, there is no monument to his name in Venice today; and yet, until only some thirty years ago, his death was more clearly commemorated - for those who knew the story - than that of any other Venetian. Soon after the murder, when his assassin had been brought to justice and executed, orders were given that the latter's house in the Calle delle Rasse should be razed to the ground, and that no stone building should ever be constructed on that spot. This decree was observed until after the Second World War - which is why all pictures and photographs of the Riva dating from before that time show, just beyond the Ponte della Paglia, on one of the most architecturally strategic sites in all Venice, a humble group of old houses of wood and plaster. Only in 1948 were the authorities at last persuaded to set the old tradition aside; and even now, as we glance up at the fašade of the Danieli Royal Excelsior Hotel, some of us may wonder whether, in a slightly different and infinitely more disagreeable form, the old curse does not linger over the spot where Vitale Michiel met his death eight centuries ago.

>Excerpts from "A History of Venice" by John Julius Norwich, copyright 1982, pgs 91-107


Compiled by Marko Marelich, Retired Mechanical Engineer
San Francisco, California USA
April, 2008