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Venice and the east
The days of empire
     Venice's maritime empire
     Venice and the Veneto
     Heyday of the republic
     The Italian bran tub
     Italian realignment

A graceful end

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Venice's maritime empire: 13th - 15th century

In the scramble to grab Byzantine land after the fourth crusade, in 1204, the Venetians concentrate on territories suiting their maritime interests. They take the islands of Corfu and Crete.

They yield Corfu ten years later to the Greek ruler of Epirus (the nearest part of the mainland), but Crete remains a Venetian possession for more than four centuries. It is the first in a chain of valuable staging posts to the eastern Mediterranean. Venetian control over Cephalonia is established in 1350. In 1380, at Chioggia, Venice finally defeats Genoa and becomes the undisputed maritime power in eastern waters. The other links in the island chain to the east are acquired during the following century.


Corfu is recovered in 1401. The Dalmatian coast is ceded to Venice by the king of Croatia in 1420. Zante is acquired in 1482. Finally Cyprus, the jewel at the end of the chain, is annexed in 1489.

This is precisely the period during which the Ottoman Turks have been winning control of the mainland facing these Mediterranean islands, from Anatolia to the Balkans. Constantinople falls to them in 1453, Greece is in Turkish hands by 1460. For the next two centuries the Venetians in the islands confront the Turks on the mainland in a struggle which the Turks ultimately win. Meanwhile the Venetians have been establishing an extensive realm in their own backyard.


Venice and the Veneto: 14th - 15th century

While the Venetians are acquiring islands on the route to the Middle East, they also gain control of a large part of the Italian mainland. The first territory to be won is the region adjacent to their own lagoon - the Veneto (named like Venice itself from an Indo-European tribe, the Veneti, who migrated here in about 1000 BC).

Venice occupies these mainland territories by force. But the Venetian role is that of the jackal coming in after the lion.


The lion in northern Italy in the late 14th century is Gian Galeazzo Visconti, the signore of Milan. Gian Galeazzo is a voracious conqueror, suspected in his own time of harbouring the ambition to become king of all Italy. He systematically seizes the territories of lesser signori. Those lying between Milan and Venice include Verona and Vicenza, two cities ruled by the della Scala family (known also as Scaliger in the Latin version of their name).

Vicenza falls to Gian Galeazzo in 1384 and Verona in 1387. His next target is Padua, ruled by the Carrara family, which he takes in 1388.


Padua is recovered for the Carrara in 1390 with Venetian help, but its long-term independence looks unlikely as Gian Galeazzo's realm continues to expand. Pisa and Siena accept his rule in 1399; he captures Bologna in 1402; but later that year, as he is preparing to attack Florence, he dies suddenly of the plague.

The rapidly enlarged Visconti realm crumbles on Gian Galeazzo's death, and Venice is on hand to pick up some of the pieces. Vicenza is captured in 1404, followed by Verona and Padua in 1405. A generation later, with the Veneto now securely Venetian, the republic's territory is further enlarged to north and west.


Heyday of the republic: 15th - 16th century

In the 1420s Venice extends its territory on the Italian mainland to give it an unbroken stretch of rich land south of the Alps, from the northern tip of the Adriatic almost to Milan. The northern extension is the first to be secured. In 1420 Venice conquers the region of Friuli, ancient lands of the patriarch of Aquileia - from whose cathedral city the first Venetians had fled nearly nine centuries earlier.

A few years later Brescia is captured (1426) followed by Bergamo (1428), gains from Milan which are acknowledged in the peace of Lodi (1454). With this rich hinterland, and a string of Mediterranean islands all the way to Cyprus, Venice is now a Mediterranean power of exceptional splendour.


Yet at this very moment there is a worm in the bud. With the new ocean trade resulting from the discovery of America and of the sea route to India, ocean-going vessels are set to become of greater economic significance than the Mediterranean galleys which have held sway for three millennia. Venice in her prime is about to be sidelined.

But her prime is magnificent. In the 15th century Venice provides the last great flowering of Gothic architecture. By 1500 the city leads the world in its printing skills. In the 16th century Venetian culture produces Europe's leading architect of the period (Palladio) and an outstanding school of regional painting.


The Italian bran tub: 1499-1512

During the first three decades of the 16th century Italy is the scene of almost ceaseless warfare between local contenders (particularly Venice and the papacy) and foreign claimants (France and Spain), with occasional interventions from north of the Alps by Habsburgs and by armies from the Swiss cantons.

The Italian adventures of the French king Charles VIII are continued by Louis XII, his cousin and successor. To the long-standing French claim to Naples, Louis adds a new demand - he believes himself to be duke of Milan, by descent from his Visconti grandmother.


French armies seize Milan for Louis XII in 1499, and the French occupy part of the kingdom of Naples in 1501. The Spanish soon recover full control of Naples (by 1504), but the presence of the French in Milan causes an ambitious new pope, Julius II, to intervene in the unstable affairs of northern Italy. He marches north and captures Bologna in 1506.

Julius believes Venice and the French to be the two main threats to the papal states of central Italy. With ruthless diplomatic skill he organizes two different alignments of the principal players, to deal with each of his enemies in turn.


The pope forms first the league of Cambrai, in 1508, in which he persuades France, Spain and the Austrian Habsburgs to join him against Venice. The Venetians are defeated at Agnadello in 1509, after which Julius and the Habsburgs appropriate much of Venice's mainland territory.

With this achieved, the pope moves on to his second objective. He organizes the Holy League of 1511. Again there is a single enemy, but this time it is France. Venice, recently humbled, is enrolled with Spain and the Habsburgs on the papal side; and there is useful support from the Swiss, now considered Europe's most formidable fighters. Even Henry VIII of England joins in, at a distance.


In 1512 a joint army of papal, Spanish and Venetian forces weakens the French in a battle near Ravenna, after which the Swiss are able to sweep through Lombardy and drive the intruders from Milan.

At this stage Venice and France are the clear losers. But this has only been round one. In the next bout, the contest becomes much more clearly a clash between Spain and France - and in particular a personal rivalry between two young kings. Francis inherits the throne of France in 1515. Charles, a Habsburg, becomes king of Spain in the following year on the death of Ferdinand II.


Italian realignment: 1508-1540

A series of shifting alliances, often brokered by the papacy and ending in inconclusive battles, redraws the map of Italy during the first decades of the 16th century.

Between the league of Cambrai (1508) and the treaty of Cambrai (1529), the territories of Milan, Venice, the papal states and Naples grow or shrink, and abruptly suffer changes of allegiance, according to the temporary effects of battles such as Agnadello (1509), Marignano (1515), Pavia (1525) and the sack of Rome by imperial troops in 1527.


Among the Italian players in this board game, the Medici are among those who gain - being restored, with Spanish support, to their rule in Florence. Venice, an early loser when alone against all the others in 1508, later recovers most of its territory and retains its independence.

The papacy, responsible for the scheming alliances which foster so much of the conflict, appears to receive its just deserts in the sack of Rome in 1527. But it too emerges much strengthened a decade or two later. Once the Catholic Reformation is under way, Rome and Spain - allies in spiritual severity - are well equipped to exercise strict control over the entire peninsula apart from republican Venice.


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