Foundations of Venetian Naval Strategy from Pietro II Orseoto to the Battle of Zoncho, 1000-1500

 Venetian shipsFoundations of Venetian Naval Strategy from Pietro II Orseoto to the Battle of Zoncho, 1000-1500

John E. Dotson

Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies v.32 (2001)

For Venetians during the Middle Ages the sea was life. The prosperity, the very existence, of the Republic depended upon seaborne commerce. That commerce was inherently peaceful and prospered best in times of peace and stability. It was also competitive and aroused passions of jealousy and greed. Venetian commerce needed to be protected from predators, and Venetians, too, were often willing to use force to extend the scope of, and gain advantage for, their trade. War and trade were very often closely interlinked activities.

Warfare at sea, like any human activity, is carried out within a framework of possible actions. It is in the area of understanding the nature of this framework that maritime historians have made great strides in recent years. In the years after World War II the availability of new types of diving apparatus made possible the flourishing field of underwater archeology. As ancient wrecks were discovered and excavated, new knowledge of the design and construction of ships used in both war and commerce became available. A new foundation of knowledge based upon surviving artifacts was added to the written and artistic sources that had until then been almost the sole basis of ideas about ancient and medieval ships. This new knowledge added not only qualitatively and quantitatively to understanding of the ships used in the distant past, but stirred a new interest in a wide range of related areas. A kind of synergy developed as the findings of underwater archeologists led to a more sophisticated analysis of texts and images. There has been an accelerating accumulation of data and interpretation so that in the past decade or so scholarly understanding of the nature of the maritime enterprise in ancient and medieval times has become much more subtle and complete. A better understanding of the physical structure of ship types has led to attempts to understand their capabilities, which has, necessarily, led to study of the environment within which they were used. The result has been the emergence of a field of historical study filled with controversy and debate, a sure sign of intellectual ferment. This paper is an attempt to sketch out some of the ways in which these developments have refined current understanding of Venetian naval activities in the age of Venice’s greatness.


Since maritime trade was the life’s blood of the Venetian Republic, the naval policy of the state was aimed at defending or maximizing that trade. To understand the naval strategy of the republic, it is essential to understand Venice’s priorities regarding various geographic areas. First, both chronologically and economically, are the areas close to the city itself in the northern Adriatic.[1] Beyond that key area, the long distance trade in luxury goods of eastern origin was crucial to the elites of Venetian society. The enormous profits possible on small quantities of these wares made the difference between prosperity and wealth. These goods, ranging from spices to fine fabrics, originated over a great geographical stretch from the islands of the Indian Ocean and western Pacific to the shores of the eastern Mediterranean. From the point of view of most Italian merchants, however, these profitable wares were found in three areas in the eastern Mediterranean.

First, and most important for the Venetians, was the area of Romania, as they called the lands of the Byzantine Empire. In practical terms this subsumed the Black Sea as well, because goods originating there reached the West by passing through the Bosphorus, a passage dominated by Constantinople. Second, were the lands of the Crusader States, called simply “Overseas” (“Oltremare” by the Italians, “Outremer” by the French). Lastly, many eastern goods, especially the highly valued pepper, arrived through Egypt, via the Red Sea, most of it at Alexandria at the westernmost mouth of the Nile.

Romania was Venice’s oldest, dearest, most advantageous connection. Until 1204 Venice was a legal part of the Byzantine Empire even if it was independent in all practical ways. After the Golden Bull of 1082 exempted them from import duties, Venetians had an economic advantage over others, even native Greeks, in the trade between Constantinople and the West and even within Romania.[2]  Until the beginning of the thirteenth century the Byzantine empire remained wealthy and powerful. After 1204 the empire was weakened, but Constantinople was still significant, both economically and strategically. The city was populous and filled with active industry. The Black Sea trade came through the Bosphorus, which is very narrow with currents and winds that make navigation difficult, enabling Constantinople to dominate this route in a way that no other port could dominate any other route. This strategic control played a large role in the greatness of Constantinople, was the great Venetian prize of the Fourth Crusade, and was a major focus in the centuries-long contest between Venice and Genoa. All of these factors made Romania Venice’s number one overseas priority.

Egypt was the second-oldest area of Venetian involvement, and a highly profitable one. It was completely foreign; there was no “special relationship” to be exploited there. It was also the primary source of very lucrative pepper and other spices.[3] So long as Egypt and, especially, the important port of Alexandria, were in the hands of a powerful state, it was not practical to think of capturing it. The later crusades made this clear. The Fifth Crusade (1218-1221) took Damietta, but overreached with the decision to attack Cairo.[4] The Sixth Crusade (1229), led by Frederick II, threatened, but did not attack Egypt.[5] In the end Frederick’s success was diplomatic, not military. Saint Louis’s first crusade (1249-1250) repeated with striking faithfulness the disaster of the Fifth. In spite of these conflicts, the situation at the mouths of the Nile was generally stable. Trade was concentrated at Alexandria and, on the whole, Venice traded there consistently and profitably.

The ports of Oltremare did not become important until after the First Crusade. The Venetians did not join the crusading effort immediately but when they did, they obtained grants of privileges and quarters in towns that they helped to conquer, just as Pisa and Genoa had. The whole situation in the Levant was more fluid and less easily controlled than at Constantinople or Alexandria. Ports there were numerous and the Pisans and Genoese were already established in them.

Closer to home, and vastly important to the Venetians for a different kind of commerce, was Apulia. Agricultural imports from the heel of the Italian boot played a vital role in feeding Venice. A fourteenth-century Venetian merchant’s manual speaks of wheat, oil, cheese, and nuts, as well as flax, cotton, copper, iron, and tin as typical products shipped from Apulia to Venice.[6]  These commodities might lack the glamour of the silks and spices of the Orient, but were nonetheless vital (in a literal sense) to the city in the lagoon, which had little productive farmland under its immediate control until its expansion onto Terra Ferma in the fifteenth century.

The strategic goal of Venetian naval policy was consistently to protect, enhance, or extend the city’s trade with these areas. The means at their disposal to accomplish these goals consisted of ships propelled by wind or the power of human muscle. Whether they were purely sailing ships, or galleys powered by rowers as well as sail, the capabilities of these ships were shaped by winds, currents, and geography. More emphasis will be given here to galleys, since these vessels were the backbone of the navy, but there was surprisingly little difference in the average performance of ships and galleys over long distances.[7]  The galley evolved considerably over the almost 500-year time span covered here, becoming in many ways a more capable warship. The basic parameters of its performance, however, changed very little. Galleys were designed for quick maneuver in battle and everything else was sacrificed to this requirement. In combat the need was for a ship that could dash forward and turn quickly to drive the great spur projecting from its bow over its opponent’s side, allowing the marines on its fighting platform to storm aboard. The galley was designed to carry out these maneuvers in optimum conditions, that is, on a calm sea with little wind. The result was a very long and narrow vessel designed for minimum resistance through the water and for carrying a large crew of rowers. Because oars can be most efficiently used if they enter the water at a shallow angle, these galleys were also very low in the water, with freeboard of less than a meter.[8] Galleys were very inefficient under sail; they could not heel to any great angle – as is required by a vessel sailing close-hauled-without shipping water and endangering their oars. Nor could they use their oars to overcome a contrary wind, except for a very brief time, without exhausting the crew.[9]  Because of the danger posed by strong winds and high seas galleys normally operated in summer when fine weather could be expected.

A further limitation was imposed by the narrow, shallow hull filled with men: space for food and water was severely limited. Bireme galleys had rowing crews of around 100 to 108, trireme galleys – in use after about 1300 – used around 150 men to row. French standard galleys of the seventeenth century were rowed a scallocio, with five men to a sweep, by a crew of 260 oarsmen.[10]  Besides the rowers there were officers, marines, and clerks in the crew, further raising the number of men on board. Rowing was hard, exhausting work, especially in the heat of a Mediterranean summer. To keep the crews minimally fit, let alone in good shape, required plenty of water and a high-energy diet. Water was probably the most crucial limiting factor since dehydration would quickly and visibly degrade the rowers’ performance. Most galleys could carry only about a week’s supply of water on board. That might be extended to almost three weeks by cutting the ration to the minimum, but at a considerable cost to performance.[11]  The result was that galleys put in to shore frequently – every night if possible – and rarely remained at sea for more than three or four days. On these stops the crew could be rested, watered, and fed and on-board supplies replenished. The combined result of all these limitations was that galleys almost invariably operated close to shore. There, if winds turned contrary or seas rose, they could put into port, or even be beached if necessary, since this was a relatively simple procedure with the shallow-draft vessels. Inshore operation also meant that they were always within reach of easy resupply.

Provisioning large fleets of galleys was more difficult by far than for single galleys or small squadrons. A large war fleet carried the population equivalent of a substantial medieval city. The Venetians, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, never put to sea a fleet as large as the great Genoese fleet of 1295 with its 165 galleys and some 35,000 men, but still fleets of forty to fifty galleys were common and, allowing a conservative estimate of 200 men on each galley, that would give 8,000 to 10,000 men for a major battle fleet.[12]  To provide provisions for this many men was beyond the power of most communities to improvise. Permanent naval bases and careful organization were required.

The accompanying map [only included in the print version] shows the strategic situation for the Venetians in the later part of the thirteenth and the early part of the fourteenth century, but the essentials would not have been very different a hundred years earlier or later. Following the major route from Venice out, we see that it follows the Dalmatian coast to the mouth of the Adriatic. A sudden strong wind from the north or northeast could blow a ship onto the open shore of the Italian coast, while the Dalmatian coast with its many islands and inlets offered shelter. The weak counterclockwise currents provided some assistance to returning vessels, and offshore breezes helped them to make headway against the prevailing winds. When Doge Pietro II Orseolo, with a combination of diplomacy and show of force, gained the upper hand over pirates based in the Narenta River and elsewhere along that coast, he took a major step toward securing this vital sea route for Venetian ships. His expedition in 1000 was a demonstration of Venetian sea power in the Adriatic. Two years later he led a fleet that drove Muslim forces away from Bari.[13]  These actions laid the foundation of Venetian domination of the Adriatic. The conquest of the Adriatic was a long process, but vital to Venetian strategy.

Venetian access to the Mediterranean was again threatened in 1081, when Robert Guiscard, the Norman ruler of southern Italy, attacked Durazzo. Already firmly established in southern Italy, Guiscard and his son Bohemond had captured the island of Corfu. If they successfully occupied the western part of the Byzantine Empire they could control traffic in and out of the Adriatic. An even more disastrous, though more remote, possibility was the conquest of Constantinople itself. Venice joined the Byzantines in the naval war that ensued, the first undertaken by Venice against a major power. Despite a Greek-Venetian victory at Durazzo in 1081, Guiscard established a beachhead and the war continued until his death in 1085. In a series of battles in those years the Venetian fleet was the mainstay of the naval campaign against the Normans.[14] The Golden Bull of 1082 granted extensive trading privileges to Venetian merchants, rewarded them for their support of the Byzantines, and further strengthened Venetian economic ties to Constantinople.

The First Crusade extended the scope of Venetian naval operations yet again. Even so, the Byzantine Empire remained Venice’s first priority. The Venetians were very sensitive to any threat to their advantageous position in Romania and were quick to fight any interloper. Venetian priorities are evidenced by the operations of their fleet in the First Crusade. The first action fought by the Venetians in the First Crusade was not against a Muslim fleet, but against the fleet of Pisa. In 1099, when the remnants of a Pisan crusading fleet that had fought the Byzantines reached Rhodes where the Venetian fleet was wintering, it was attacked. The Venetians paroled the Pisan sailors on the condition that they would not trade within Romania. This reaction seems to show that the Venetians were more concerned with Pisan encroachment into Romania than with developments in Oltremare. After the fight with the Pisans they arrived in Levantine waters early in the summer of 1100. In return for assistance rendered to Godfrey de Bouillon in the capture of Haifa they received favorable trading terms in his lands from Jaffa to Acre. In 1123 another Venetian fleet commanded by Doge Domenico Michiel inflicted a crushing defeat on an Egyptian fleet just off Ascalon marking the beginning of Italian naval domination of the entire Mediterranean.[15]

During the twelfth century, relations between Venetians and Byzantine Greeks began to deteriorate. The Byzantine emperors, faced with the growing naval and economic power of the Italian maritime cities, saw no reason to continue the special status of the Venetians. After Emperor Alexius I Comnenus, who had granted the Golden Bull to Venice, died in 1118, his successors tried to withdraw that favored status several times. During the twelfth century the Venetian fleet was unleashed on the Empire to force the Byzantines to renew their privileges. At the same time the Venetians were quick to act to defend the Empire against third parties. In 1148, despite poisonous relations between Greeks and Venetians, they combined against a renewed Norman assault on Byzantine possessions in the Ionian and in western Greece.[16]  In 1149 a combined fleet inflicted a defeat on the Normans off Cape Malea. The Greeks then followed up by retaking Corfu. A Byzantine assault on southern Italy in 1155 took Bari, Trani, and Ancona. Control of both sides of the entrance to the Adriatic again seemed about to pass into the hands of a single power. The Venetians quickly abandoned the Byzantine alliance and came to terms with the Normans. Without Venetian support the Greeks were unable to maintain their hold on the Apulian ports and were forced to withdraw. Venetian strategic priorities are thrown into sharp relief by these developments. The route from Venice to Constantinople was like a sensitive nerve and the Venetians reacted sharply every time it was touched.

In the second half of the twelfth century there was a deterioration of conditions in the Aegean as relations between Venetians and Greeks continued to become more difficult and as other westerners pushed into Eastern waters. Riots in the streets of Constantinople and piracy on the seas marked the new situation in Romania. It is not necessary to retell the familiar story of the Fourth Crusade here, but the results of it are clear in the context of Venetian naval strategy. Venice’s role in establishing the Latin Empire of Constantinople assured the Republic of favorable treatment there.[17] Venice established a chain of naval bases that formed the backbone of their naval power from that time forward. Constantinople itself anchored the eastern end of the strategic chain. The Venetian colony there amounted to a substantial city by itself, able to raise its own fleets and providing a powerful base for the Venetian navy. Since the foundation of the “New Rome” by Constantine, the city named for him had been the most defensible, the most strategically placed, naval base in the Mediterranean world. If the hope of monopolizing one or more of the great entrepots of eastern commerce was the great dream of medieval merchants, only Constantinople really provided the means to do it. Constantinople dominated and could control traffic to and from the Black Sea with its rich cargoes of silks, slaves, and agricultural products. There were also the products of Constantinople itself, and trade within the empire to provide further opportunities for profit.

Crete lies across the southern end of the Aegean and defined the strategic narrows between the Peloponnesus (or the Morea as the Venetians called the peninsula) and the island’s western end and between Rhodes and its eastern end. The island was also a rich source of wine, oil, and other goods. The Venetians paid a high price for Crete and had to fight to make good their claim, but it became a prized possession and its chief port at Candia an important Venetian base. North of Crete on the island of Euboea they established another major base at Negroponte and from it extended their hold to the entire island. At Cape Matapan they established two bases, one at Modon on the western side of the cape and the other at Coron on the eastern side. Like the other two capes of the Peloponnesus, Malea and Tainaron, Cape Matapan was often difficult to round because unstable local conditions can produce rapid changes in winds and current.[18]  With a base on either side of the cape, Venetian ships had a place to pause before attempting to round the cape in either direction. The bases at Modon and Coron could also observe traffic between the Aegean and the Ionian Seas, an ability enhanced by the requirement that all Venetian ships stop there on their return voyages to exchange observations and news with local authorities. These twin bases became known as the “two eyes of the Republic.”[19]  Another base was established for a short time at Corfu after 1206 when Venice expelled Genoese corsairs from that island. The Venetians held the island only until 1214 when they were driven out by Michael Angelus, who had founded the Greek despotate of Epirus in the wake of the Fourth Crusade.[20]  This strategic island did not come permanently into Venetian possession until 1386.[21]  In the Adriatic, Zara in central Dalmatia had been gained in the course of the Fourth Crusade, and Ragusa in the south was a dependency that remained loyal throughout the thirteenth century. These two bases were the linchpins of Venetian control along the Dalmatian coast.

Examining this chain of bases on a map one can extend from each of them an arc about 150 kilometers in radius. A galley could, on average, make about 75 kilometers per day, and – without resupply – carried water rations sufficient for four days to a week at ordinary rates of consumption. One hundred and fifty kilometers then represents approximately half the normal operational range of a galley fleet so that these arcs roughly represent the optimal striking range of squadrons based in the port at the center of each arc.[22] The relation to the major Venetian routes is obvious. Besides these principal bases the Venetians established a colonial empire with many smaller ports that were available to them for both trade and naval use.

These new possessions were the basis for a Venetian maritime supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean. Only Genoa or Pisa could challenge the Serenissima, and the mutual hostility among the three Italian maritime republics maintained an uneasy balance of power until the middle of the thirteenth century. Rivalry between Genoa and Pisa in the western Mediterranean prevented them from combining against Venice in the East. The power of Pisa, which had a much smaller population than either Genoa or Venice, rested to a large extent upon that city’s special relationship with the powerful emperor, Frederick II. After his death in 1250, Pisa was soon crushed between Genoa at sea and Florence on land. For the next century and a half Genoa would be Venice’s most dangerous enemy. Four major wars and continuous friction and rivalry marked the conflict. In the first war, fought from 1257 to 1270, the Venetian navy won all the major engagements handily against remarkably inept Genoese commanders, but was stung by several successes gained by Genoese commerce raiders.[23]  The greatest Genoese success was diplomatic: with the Treaty of Ninfeo (1261) they allied with the Byzantine emperor Michael Paleologue, who had just recaptured Constantinople, in return for his promise to expel the Venetians from that city and to grant favored status there to the Genoese. He did so, but gave the Genoese a suburb across the Golden Horn in Pera rather than the docks in Constantinople itself that the Venetians had possessed since the eleventh century. Despite this precaution the Greeks found the Genoese no better to deal with than the Venetians. The emperor allowed the latter to return to the city in 1268, but the Genoese retained their increasingly powerful base at Pera and the Venetian dominance of the Bosphorus was broken.

In 1284 Genoa crushed the Pisan fleet at Meloria off the coast of Tuscany and ended Pisa’s naval power. There has been some debate about “command of the sea,” Admiral Mahan’s ideas on the subject, and whether such a thing was possible, or even conceivable, in the medieval Mediterranean. Control of the sea in the Mahanian sense of maintaining fleets at sea and continuous blockades certainly was outside the technical capacity of galley fleets. But experience seemed to show the Italian states that domination was possible. From the collapse of Fatimid naval power after Battle of Ascalon (1123) through the Venetian gains from the Fourth Crusade’s defeat of Constantinople (1204) to the finality of Genoa’s victory over Pisa (1284), events seemed to show that a kind of domination could be gained from victory in battle. Venice and Genoa certainly fought as though they thought so.

In the second (1293-1299) and third (1350-1355) Venetian-Genoese wars the standard of Genoese leadership improved remarkably and they proved to be very dangerous opponents in a fleet action. Genoese admirals inflicted terrible defeats on the Venetians. Off Ayas in 1294 the Venetians lost a substantial portion of an escorted merchant convoy. In a fleet action near Curzola in 1298 a Genoese fleet of seventy-eight ships heavily defeated a Venetian one of ninety-eight. However, the Genoese admiral Lamba Doria also suffered such heavy losses in that battle that he did not press on to the lagoons of Venice. In the mid-fourteenth century the Genoese, from their base at Pera, and after 1348 in possession of Chios, were able progressively to close the Venetians out of the Black Sea. Venice could not allow this, and the third Genoese-Venetian war resulted, in spite of difficulties that both cities found in manning fleets in the wake of the Black Death. The Venetians assembled an alliance of Byzantines – who did not like Genoese airs of superiority any better than they had Venetian – and Aragonese, who opposed the Genoese in the western Mediterranean. In 1352 a Genoese fleet led by Paganino Doria fought a combined fleet of Venetian, Aragonese, and Greek galleys to an impasse in the Bosphorus. In 1353 the Venetians and Aragonese took the war to the western Mediterranean and won a victory over the Genoese off Sardinia. The battle was not decisive, and in the next year Paganino Doria inflicted a crushing defeat on the allies off Modon in the battle of Porto Longo. Despite this remarkable string of victories in the second and third wars, the Genoese never seriously threatened the chain of bases or the Venetian colonies that were the backbone of their power in the eastern Mediterranean. Perhaps the memory of the single stunning victory at Meloria that had left Pisa defenseless was too much in their minds. More likely, the sustained effort necessary to eliminate the Venetian bases was simply beyond the financial and military capacity of the Genoese. In the end it took the Turks with all the resources of their huge empire the better part of two centuries to accomplish the task.

In the fourth Venetian-Genoese war (1378-1381) the Genoese strategy of striking directly at Venice – for that seems to have been their consistent aim – almost succeeded. The war began when the Venetians occupied the small island of Tenedos at the mouth of the Dardanelles. A strong base there would control passage to and from the Black Sea as thoroughly as Constantinople ever had. After an initial defeat in the Tyrrhenian by a Venetian fleet commanded by Vettore Pisani, the Genoese struck directly into the Adriatic. In 1379 Luciano Doria defeated Pisani just off Pola in Istria and began the siege of Chioggia at the southern entrance to the Venetian lagoon. After a six‑month countersiege the Genoese surrendered in 1381 to the forces of Doge Andrea Contarini. Venice had barely managed to survive and the terms of the peace required them to abandon Tenedos. The immediate result looked like a Genoese victory. Soon, however, Genoa fell into internal chaos. By 1401 lordship of Genoa had been granted to Charles VI of France and was exercised by his governor, Marshal Boucicaut. Throughout the fifteenth century Genoa remained an important economic power, but a political cipher, its foreign policy dominated more often than not by France or Milan.

The Venetian empire in the eastern Mediterranean remained intact and a recuperated Venice continued to be a great naval power. However, new powers of a different and greater order of magnitude were waiting in the wings: Spain and France in the West, and – more ominously for Venice – the Ottoman Turks in the East. Venetian strategy continued along the same lines that had been successful for two centuries and more: maintain the trade routes to the East, especially those to the Black Sea, guarding them with the long-established chain of bases. Unlike Venice’s previous foes, the Ottomans disposed of powerful land armies. For a surprisingly long time though, Venetian vital interests could be maintained by relying on strongly fortified naval bases that could be supplied and reinforced by sea. It was not necessary to fight the huge and irresistible Turkish armies on land. Though the balance of power – a city-state and its loose string of colonies along the route to the east facing an immense, centralized empire of ever-growing power – seemed hopeless, the Venetian navy’s skill and experience enabled them to hold on. In the late fourteenth century the Venetians even managed to add to their chain of bases by buying up and fortifying ports that Greek princes or the heirs of Crusader nobles despaired of holding against the expanding Ottoman state as the Byzantine Empire was reduced to a small area around Constantinople. Athens, more lands in the Morea, and islands in the Aegean were acquired in this way, as well as Durazzo and Scutari on the Albanian coast.[24] Often the Genoese still seemed the more dangerous rival on the sea in spite of the political decline of that city.

After 1402, as the Ottoman Turks recovered from the setback dealt them by the shortlived conquests of Tamerlane, it became clear that they were the major threat to Venice’s possessions and interests in the East. There was a brief skirmish with a new Turkish fleet in 1416 that the Venetians won handily. Salonika, the second city in what remained of the Byzantine Empire, transferred its allegiance to the Venetians in the hope that they could offer better protection from the Ottoman armies than the Byzantines. This scheme failed; the Ottomans attacked and captured Salonika in 1430.[25] The Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1453 again, and more firmly than ever before, put control of the Bosphorus in the hands of a single power hostile to Venice. The sultan soon began to raise the customs duties paid by foreigners, including the Venetians, to a level above that paid by native merchants, reversing a tax advantage that Venice had held since the Golden Bull of 1082.[26]  More ominously, though it was not immediately apparent, possession of Constantinople gave the Ottomans the foundations of a navy.

In the fifteenth century the nature of the Venetian state began to change as the city built an extensive territorial state on the Terra Ferma. This provided the Republic with greater reserves of manpower.[27] While the Republic would never approach the numbers of the Ottoman forces, a changing strategic emphasis from fleets to fortifications supported by fleets required more men for garrisons. At the same time Venetian expansion in Italy brought the political complications of involvement in Italian and, increasingly, in Western European, politics. In many respects, Venice in mid-fifteenth century was wealthier and more powerful than ever before. Even so, to preserve its trade and territories in the East, an extensive alliance had to be built by skillful diplomacy. A system of alliances was created stretching from Albania and Hungary to Iran. Decisive action was called for, and was within Venice’s capability – or so it seemed. After the Turkish army took Argos from them in 1462, the Venetians made a rapid countermove to occupy the whole of the Morea. The Turkish army was, however, irresistible in the long run. In 1470 the sultan Muhammad personally led an army against the major Venetian base at Negroponte. Accompanying the army was a numerous, if not yet very skilled, Turkish fleet. Negroponte fell. Venice sought peace by recognizing Turkish gains and giving up Scutari in Albania. Even so, the city was still far from powerless. The Venetian fleet remained able to project enough power at sea to ensure that Catarina Corner became queen of Cyprus. With time Cyprus became a possession of the Serenissima.[28] But the Turkish sultan continued to press westward. In 1480 Muhammad’s forces seized Otranto at the mouth of the Adriatic. Control of this Italian port, along with the territories held by the Ottomans in Albania meant that a foreign power once again threatened Venice’s control of the mouth of that sea. This time, relief came not from European military action, but from internal developments within the Ottoman sultanate. When Muhammad died in 1482, the threat receded. His successor was less interested in Italy and Turkish forces withdrew from Otranto.

In spite of setbacks, Venice in the last decades of the fifteenth century still had sufficient wealth and naval strength to continue to act as a great naval power. The stakes were raised again when the French king, Charles VIII, invaded Italy in 1494. A coalition of Italian states, most importantly Venice and Milan, forced him out of the peninsula by attacking his lines of communication to Naples. Nonetheless, it was evident that war had taken on a new dimension. Italy was about to become a battleground in the struggle between the Habsburg and Valois dynasties, a drama in which the Italian states would be but bit-players. Venice continued to defend its position in Italy and the Mediterranean aggressively. In 1495 Venetian forces occupied important cities in Apulia, creating the League of Venice to force the French out of Naples. This move should be seen also as a step to secure the vital lower Adriatic passages.[29] As Venice maneuvered militarily and diplomatically in Italy, the Turks struck in the East. Without warning in 1499 Sultan Bayazid II dispatched a huge fleet commanded by Kemal Re’is into the Ionian Sea, pushing toward the Gulf of Corinth. The Venetian commander, Antonio Grimani, had little naval experience and was soundly defeated at Zonchio. The Turkish fleet and army quickly overwhelmed most of the Venetian possessions in Greece. Modon and Coron, the “two eyes of the Republic” were lost. Turkish cavalry raids reached Venetian territory in northern Italy, and, in 1503, Venice again had to seek peace, recognizing the Turkish gains.[30]

After 1503 the struggle in the Mediterranean became a conflict between the new great powers: France, Spain, and the Ottoman Empire. The Italian cities were relegated to supporting roles. Squadrons of Venetian (and Genoese) galleys were present and played a vital part at the battle of Lepanto in 1571, but supreme command was in the hands of a Habsburg prince. Venice gave ground slowly, but was never again one of the great powers.


1. Mainland areas and routes to Transalpine markets were also of great importance to Venice, but these are not subject to naval power.

2. Frederic C. Lane, Venice, A Maritime Republic (Baltimore 1973) 68. See also David Jacoby, “Italian Privileges and Trade in Byzantium before the IVth Crusade. A Reconsideration,” Annuario de Estudios medievales 24 (1994) 349-369; and Michel Balard, “Bisanzio ed i mercanti occidentali (secc. XII‑XM),” Rassegna del cultura a storia Amalfitana 17 (June 1999).

3. The merchant manuals of the period all give evidence of the key role played by Alexandria in the spice trade.  See Merchant Culture in Fourteenth Century Venice: The Zibaldone Da Canal, ed. and trans. John E. Dotson, Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, vol. 98 (Binghamton, NY 1994) 116, 119; Francesco Balducci Pegolotti, La Pratica Della Mercatura, ed. Allen Evans (Cambridge, MA 1936) 69ff.; and especially Tarifa zoe noticia dy pexi a mexure di luogi a tere the s’adovra marcadantia per el mondo, ed. V. Orlandini (Venice 1925) 27ff., 39, 60.

4. Venetian participation in the Fifth Crusade was long ignored, but certainly occurred. See Louise Buenger Robbert, “Venetian Participation in the Crusade of Damietta,”Studi Veneziani N.S. XXX (1995) 15-33. This article suggests that at least some Venetians may have hoped to repeat the success of the Fourth Crusade in which the might of a crusading army captured a key port to the great advantage of Venice. This is not a conclusion that Robbert draws, but participation of Jacopo Gradenigo, who profited considerably from the Latin capture of Constantinople, in the Crusade of Damietta might well have been so motivated.

5. For an extended examination of the role of naval power in Frederick II’s crusade see John H. Pryor, “The Crusade of the Emperor Frederick II, 1220-29: The Implications of the Maritime Evidence,” The American Neptune 52, no. 2 (Spring 1992) 113-132.

6. Zibaldone da Canal (n. 3 above) 42-44.

7. The galley, if we take that word to be a generic term denoting a slender ship designed primarily to be propelled by oars, was the warship par excellence of the Mediterranean from early antiquity to the seventeenth century, and continued to find some use well into the eighteenth. For a survey of the current state of knowledge of these ships see The Age of the Galley: Mediterranean Oared Vessels Since Pre‑classical Times, ed. John Morrison and Robert Gardiner, Conway’s History of the Ship, vol. 2 (London, 1995).

8. The Venetian Senate repeatedly established the minimum laden freeboard (vivo) for galleys at 2½ to 2æ Venetian feet. Allowing 34.8cm for a Venetian foot, that would be 87 to 96cm. See Le Deliberazioni del Consiglio Dei Rogati (Senato), Serie “Mixtorum,” vol. 1 (Venice 1960) 64, 88, 116, 118, 131, 134. These requirements are all from the early fourteenth century and likely were needed to regulate the new, larger trireme galleys. Earlier galleys may have had a freeboard as low as 0.55m (John H. Pryor, “From Dromon to Galea: Mediterranean Bireme Galleys AD 500-1100” in The Age of the Galley (n. 7 above) 113-114; John F. Coates, “The Naval Architecture of European Oared Ships,” Royal Institution of Naval Architects [Spring 1993] 4.

9. Sea trials with the reconstructed Athenian trireme Olympias found the crew exhausted after rowing for 70 minutes into a wind gusting only to 25 knots with waves of a meter (Coates, n. 8 above, 4). Coates judges that the crew of a medieval galley, whose rowers were all on a lower level, would not have done that well.

10. For bireme galleys see John H. Pryor, “The Galleys of Charles I of Anjou, King of Sicily: Ca. 1269-84,” Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History 14 (O.S. 24) 81-83. There are as well, numerous references in Genoese notarial sources that confirm this range, e.g., Archivio di Stato di Genova Cart. 27, attributed to Bartolomeo de Fornari, fol. 206r, published in Eugene H. Byrne, Genoese Shipping in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, Monographs of the Medieval Academy of America, vol. 5 (Cambridge, MA 1930) doc. XXVIII; and Renee Doehaerd, Les Relations Commerciales Entre Genes, la Belgie et l’Outremont d Apres les Archives Notariales Genois Aux XIlle et XIVe Siecle, Etudes d’Histoire Economique et Sociale, vol. 2 (Rome-Bruxelles 1941) doc. 747, in which ten galleys were contracted to be furnished for a merchant voyage with crews of 116 men each, but this may have included some who did not row. Admiral Fincati’s famous reconstruction of a Venetian trireme galley shows a crew of 138. For the quinquireme a scalloccio see Mauro Bondioli, Rend Burlet, and Andre Zysberg, “Oar Mechanics and Oar Power in Medieval and Later Galleys” in The Age of the Galley (n. 7 above) 190.

11. John E. Dotson, “Economics and Logistics of Galley Warfare” in The Age of the Galley (n. 7 above) 219-220.

12. The great Genoese fleet was a freak, impossible to control or supply, and after an ostentatious voyage to Sicily which accomplished nothing of strategic importance it returned to Genoa and its like was never attempted again by the medieval maritime cities. Only when the Ottoman Turks began to send very large fleets to sea in the late fifteenth century were great numbers of ships regularly assembled.

13. Lane (n. 2 above) 24-26.

14. Lane (n. 2 above) 28-29.

15. See John H. Pryor, Geography, Technology, and War: Studies in the Maritime History of the Mediterranean 649-1571 (Cambridge 1988) for an extended analysis of the advantages enjoyed by Italian navies in this period.

16. Lane (n. 2 above) 34.

17. Lane (n. 2 above) 42.

18. John H. Pryor, “The Geographical Conditions of Galley Navigation in the Mediterranean” in The Age of the Galley (n. 7 above) 213.

19. Lane (n. 2 above) 43.

20. William H. McNeill, Venice, The Hinge of Europe: 1081-1797 (Chicago 1974) 32; Speros Vryonis, Byzantium and Europe (London 1967) 154; Freddy Thiriet, La Romanie Venetienne Au Moyen Age, Bibliotheque Des Ecoles Franqaisees D’Athenes et de Rome, vol. 193 (Paris 1959) 85-86.

21. Lane (n. 2 above, 198) points out that the occupation of Corfu during the thirteenth and most of the fourteenth centuries would have brought confrontation with the Kingdom of Naples. When the southern kingdom became weakened, Venice was able to purchase the island from one of the claimants to its throne as a strategic replacement for Ragusa (modern Dubrovnik), which had renounced Venetian suzerainty in 1358.

22. This is the most conservative estimate which assumes that the galleys were not resupplied in any way and that the crews were not put on short rations.

23. John E. Dotson, “Naval Strategy in the First Genoese-Venetian War, 1257-1270,” The American Neptune 46, no. 2 (Spring 1986) passim. For an examination of specific representative operations see John E. Dotson, “Fleet Operations in the First Genoese-Venetian War, 1264-1266,” Viator 30 (1999) 165-179.

24. Lane (n. 2 above) 198.

25. McNeill (n. 20 above) 86; Lane (n. 2 above) 229.

26. McNeill (n. 20 above) 86.

27. M. E. Mallett and J .R. Hale, The Military Organization of a Renaissance State: Venice c. 1400 to 1617 (Cambridge 1984) 212.

28. McNeill (n. 20 above) 87-88; Lane (n. 2 above) 236; Mallett and Hale (n. 27 above) 43-50.

29. Lane (n. 2 above) 242.

30. Lane (n. 2 above) 362.

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