The Republic of Venice and the Ottoman Empire: war, trade, art and religion
The relationship between the Venetian Republic and the Ottoman Empire, the two dominant forces in economic and military terms in the eastern Mediterranean for three centuries, can be described through a series of conflicts, and also through commercial, scientific and artistic encounters.
Some of the best known of those conflicts concerned control over the islands of Cyprus (1570-73) and Crete (1645-69) and over Morea (1684-99 and 1714-18).
In 1570 the Ottomans invaded Cyprus, the largest and most prosperous of the Venetian territories in the east. Venice resisted and the city of Famagosta held under siege for almost a year, with a garrison of 6,000 men attacked by 200,000 Ottoman troops with 1,500 cannons. Having exhausted all other financial means and reserves in gold and silver, the Venetian commander, Marcantonio Bragadin, ordered the minting within the city of emergency obsidional (siege) coinage with a nominal value well above its real copper content, called Bisante. The coin here illustrated was produced in order to pay the troops (PRO REGNI CYPRI PRAESIDIO) and reaffirm their unfailing fidelity to the Republic (VENETORV/ FIDES INVI/ OLA BILIS/ BISANTE). It is dated 1570 and bears on one side the image of the winged Lion of St Marc with the open book of the Gospel and on the other a flying putto, recalling the myth of the birth of Aphrodite on the island.
The defence of Cyprus from the Ottoman advance was sufficiently important to help Venice assemble a Holy League under the auspices of Pope Pius V and to assemble a military fleet of more than 200 hundred galee and galeazze from Venice, Spain, the Papal States, Malta and other Italian States. That fleet destroyed its Ottoman counterpart at the battle of Lepanto on 7 October 1571. It was the first major Christian victory against the advance of the Muslim forces, under the auspices of a banner blessed by the Pope and a crusading spirit, but it was too late for Famagosta. The Ottomans, exhausted after massive losses of months of bombings, direct assaults and underground mine war, had offered generous terms for surrender in August. Life and freedom was guaranteed to the few survivors of the Venetian garrison of Cyprus but then the Turkish commander had the Venetian leadership massacred, some of the soldiers enslaved, and tortured Bragadin to death. The war dragged on for two more years, but Venice had lost Cyprus permanently. The Sultan boasted that in destroying his fleet at Lepanto the Venetians had cut off his beard, which would grow back, but with Cyprus he had cut off Venice's arm, which would not.
In 1645 the new Sultan decided to attack the other large Venetian possession in the Aegean, the island of Crete, and landed a massive army there. Once again the Venetians managed to retain a fortified city, Candia, and to resist there for 23 years, the second longest siege recorded in history (1646-1669). They managed such an extended fight thanks to the control of the sea, blockading the Straits of the Dardanelles and defeating the Turkish fleet even close to Istanbul. Ultimately, despite the arrival of mercenaries and free troops from across Europe, Venice succumbed and lost Crete.
This defeat also explains why Venice willingly joined a new Christian league in 1684, after the defeat of the Sultan's Army outsideVienna the previous year. The Venetians finally managed to reverse Muslim conquests. Another long war gave them control of Morea (the Peloponnese, the core of ancient Greece, with the exception of Athens).
The conquest of Morea was celebrated in an osella of 1686 under the Doge Marcantonio Giustinian,, here illustrated. The Osella was a special silver coin minted in Venice from 1521 until the end of the republic in 1797, to replace a traditional donation of five red footed birds ("oselle" in Venetian dialect) owed by the Doge to each of the members of the nobility present in the Maggior Consiglio. The coin represents on one side a kneeling doge receiving from Saint Marc the flag of the Republic. On the other side the God of the Christians opens the clouds to throw thunderbolts against the Ottoman crescent, in order to chase the Turks from the Peloponnesian peninsula, visible as a map below the clouds. DONEC ORBATA ORBE - VINCIT LEO indicates the victory of the Venetian lion and the continuing intent of God to hit the Turks until they are entirely deprived of their control of the region. The Venetians won the war under the leadership of Francesco Morosini who had previously commanded the defense of Candia during 15 years of siege and gained the Morea, parts of Dalmatia and other Greek islands. Most of those gains were however lost in 1715 in the eighth and last war between Venice and the Turks, followed by the economic and military decline of both contenders.
A second osella of 1764, under the Doge Alvise IV Mocenigo, shows how much the Venetian fighting spirit had declined in the course of the eighteenth century. To address the attacks of North African pirates against its merchant fleet, Venice negotiated payments to the Beys and prayed to a newly restored painting of Saint Mary of Peace, originally arrived from Byzantium in 1349 and represented in this osella.
Despite repeated conflicts of extreme violence, Venetians and Ottomans were on most occasion trading peacefully with each other for mutual benefit. Venice sent luxury textiles, glass, and metallic goods departed, and the Venetians brought back from the orient raw silk, cotton, spices and grains. Technical innovations were sometime exchanged and a clear mutual influence was visible in architecture and in decorative arts. In the late eighteenth century Venice would minted special thalers for trade with the Levant, in order to pay for its imports and to replace the Austrian thalers of Maria Theresa, which were spreading at the expense of the old fashioned and declining traditional Venetian coins. We have here a Tallero of 1769 with a female allegory of the Republic of Venice, and a seated, pacified and smiling lion of Saint Marc on the other side, foreshadowing the death of the Republic less than 30 years later.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics
Centre for History and Economics,
Cambridge CB3 0AG, UK
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