Venice at Sea: How Medieval Venetian Seapower Grew to Shape Early Modern Warfare in the Mediterranean

realistic medieval warfare

A Rather Long Paper About Medieval and Early Modern Galley Warfare in the Mediterranean

medieval naval warfare
Ferrando Bertelli’s Battle of Lepanto (1571)

To examine how Venetian seapower grew to become an effective force in the Mediterranean, an examination of how Venice herself came to exist must be conducted. After understanding how and why the Venetian Arsenal was the leading European shipbuilding center in the Mediterranean by the sixteenth century, as well as how and why Venetian shipwrights and artillerists by the fifteenth century were world leaders in artillery- and naval-innovation, conceptualizing the outcomes of the conflicts that Venice played a role in such as the battle of Lepanto will be possible. By covering key medieval Venetian terms of vocabulary, a better picture of Venetian seapower can be envisaged. A picture of medieval Venetian seapower must be clear in order to determine how it has influenced the Mediterranean in the early modern period. To conclude, a theory attempting to scry what the Mediterranean may have looked like by the twentieth century if the Venetian Arsenal never existed will be presented.

the city of venice
Modern Venice (pixabay.com)

The Rialto lagoons of the Adriatic Sea had once been quiet and empty without a single gondola or fondaco in sight (Lane 1). In 300 A.D., all a nomad might have heard as he scoured the shore for shellfish was the lapping of water and the crying of seabirds. At this time, the land north of the Adriatic was known to the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) as Venetia and little attention was paid there (Lane 2). Then, first with the Huns in the fifth century and again with the Lombards in 568, invading armies left survivors homeless across northern Italy. To survive, the seafood-rich mudflats and sandbars (lidi) of the lagoons in the Adriatic became necessary for many Italian refugees (Longworth 2, 5). At this time, many houses were erected along the water’s edge of the Rialto, and the seeds of a seapower that would peak in the sixteenth century and decline in the seventeenth century were planted (Glete, Warfare at Sea 188). By the sixth century, the roots of these seeds had clearly sprouted, for the contemporary writer Cassiodorus, visiting the Venetians, compares their houses to “aquatic birds” and their ships to “hitched … animals” (Lane 3). The fruit of these sprouts would flourish in full display by the High Middle Ages when paved streets and numerous bridges appeared (Koch). The ceremony known as the spozalizio attached to the electing of a new doge was a full display indeed. The Doge, elected for life, would sail from the canals of Venice into the sea in the Bucintoro (a rich ship), symbolizing Venice’s marriage to the ocean (Koch).

venetian shipbuilding
Venetian Culture (pinterest.ca)

Before 1000 A.D., Venetians mostly traded up and down the many rivers that stretch from the Adriatic into the interior. The High Middle Ages would see Venice as a maritime power in the sea as well as in the rivers (Lane 1-2). Throughout the Middle Ages and all the way until 1797, while constantly dealing with the difficulties of piracy and land-reclamation, Venice managed to keep a republic government, even while surrounded by monarchies, which is one of the reasons why Venice was renowned for its government stability (Lane 423). This stability would prove to aid much in proactive behavior throughout Venice’s history. By the eleventh century, Venice had gained complete control of the Adriatic and had already helped Byzantium in the First Crusade (Rose 432-433).

realistic medieval naval warfare
Italy, 1994-1196 (manuscriptminiatures.com)

After 1000 A.D., as commercial competition rose between Byzantium and Muslims in Spain, North Africa and Syria, Venice became important as an outlet for trade in Western Europe (Lane 5). This importance would do naught but grow as the centuries pulsed onward, and by the sixteenth century Venice was seen by all of Christendom as Europe’s bulwark against Muslim expansion (Davis 2). In 1082, the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus granted the Golden Bull to Venice, giving it special trading power in Romania and access to the Black Sea, but to stabilize this privilege Venice had to coerce the Pisans into quitting their trade in Romania in 1099 (Rose 433). This Venetian privilege would be threatened again after the death of Comnenus in 1118, but, to keep relations alive, Venice aided Byzantium against Norman raiders in 1148 (Rose 433). Later in the century, however, Venice was forced to ally with the Normans in order to teach Byzantium a lesson, because keeping Byzantium in check was vital for Venice’s trade in Romania and the Black Sea (Rose 433). Then, Venice’s domination of the Mediterranean was finally marked in 1123 when Doge Domenic Michiel won a great victory against an Egyptian fleet off the coast of Ascalon (Rose 433). This dominance would soon be threatened by Genoa, which resulted in four wars. This paper will cover these wars later. In the twelfth century, while benefiting from its close relations with Byzantium, Venice gained control of Euboea, Crete and the Peloponnesian ports known as the “eyes of Venice,” Corone and Modone, as well as Acre from the Genoese in 1258 (Rose 406, 407).

ship battles in the middle ages
Italy, 1100-1200 (manuscriptminiatures.com)

Since Venice was tied to the waters, she experimented and innovated with many maritime technologies and systems throughout the Middle Ages. The results of these experiments and innovations influenced and were adopted by not only neighboring city-states in Italy but also the entire Mediterranean and Europe as well. Perhaps Venice’s major contribution was innovations in shipbuilding design, which will be covered further in the next paragraph. Another not-so-obvious contribution was the aiding of the Mediterranean’s transformation of anti-artillery superfortresses (trace italienne) and state defense systems. By the 1590s, Venice was part of an allied network of fortified cities that protected each other and their mutual commerce against third parties in the Mediterranean (Parker 166). After all, a largescale maritime expedition required large-scale provisioning which only a major city could provide, and Venice in the early sixteenth century was one of the three cities in the Mediterranean that dominated commerce and naval warfare (Guilmartin 101). Venice also played a role in the Mediterranean’s gradual shift in ways of financing war. While places like Florence struggled in this regard, upsetting its population with home-splitting taxes that resulted in many uprisings, Venice found creative, peaceful ways to afford her growing fortifications with the central government covering a third of the costs (Parker 172). Venetian military systems of high command at sea also showed the effects of their influence in the Mediterranean. In the seventeenth century, while galleys were being replaced by broadside sailing ships (like English and Dutch merchantmen, which were hired into Venetian service to keep up with demands), the Ottoman Turks selected commanders under conditions of experience while Venetians on the other hand, evolving culturally with their Christian neighbors, retained the tradition of selecting commanders from the elites of society (Glete, Warfare at Sea 53).

medieval warships
Italy, 1100-1200 (manuscriptminiatures.com)

One of Venice’s fortified centers where much financing and commanding was needed was the Arsenal where her great shipbuilding innovations were born and where her two-hundred ships supplied to the Fourth Crusade in 1202 were made (Parker 161). The Venetian Arsenal was sixty acres in size, had an Industrial Revolution-like workforce formation (a precursor to the factory unlike anything else in Europe during the Middle Ages), was comprised of three major guilds and cost the Republic 150,000 ducats plus 650,000 liters of undiluted wine per annum to keep running (Davis 10-11, 33). For the reader to understand how this eighth wonder of the world, in 1574, for pure entertainment, constructed and launched a galley in the time it took the visiting French King Henry III to eat a meal, all the key roles of the workforce should be presented (Davis 4). There were master rope makers (filacanevi), cannon casters (fondatori), laborors and porters (facchini and bastasi), masons and wallers (mureri), blacksmiths (favri), sawyers (segadori), shipwrights (marangoni), caulkers (calafati), pulley makers (tagieri), oarmakers (remeri), mast makers (alboranti), a headmistress of the sail sewers (vellere), guncarriage makers (carreri), wood carvers (intagliadori), caskmakers (botteri), timekeepers (appontadori), a chief secretary (scriven grande), supervisors (sovrastanti), assistant managers (sottoprati) and let no one forget the personal helper (aiutante) whom made finer things possible (Davis 11-12, 18, 24, 50-51). There were also numerous foremen who oversaw the completion of specific tasks (Davis 50).

medieval venetian maritime seapower
Canaletto’s View of the entrance to the Arsenal (1732)

Without delving deeper into the workforce formation, one can simply get an overall idea of how influential the Venetian Arsenal was to the world by looking at the word “arsenal” itself. The word comes from the seventh-century Venetian word “arsenale” (Davis 2). However, the Arsenal was not the only shipyard in Venice. Elites boasted many private shipyards (squeri) with private shipbuilders (squerarioli) where many galleys and merchantmen were constructed (Davis 15). Nevertheless, the Arsenal by far had the most productive shipyard in Venice, a shipyard that even had its own chapel (Davis 86). The Arsenal was the largest district in the city and the arsenalotti, the people who worked there, made up ten percent of the city’s working population (Davis 5, 92). As many as six thousand shipbuilders, whether squerarioli or arsenalotti, lived in Venice at any given time during the prosperous years of its Arsenal (Davis 84).

the arsenal and medieval shipbuilding
Fracesco Guardi’s The Entrance to the Arsenal in Venice (1777-1793)

Before delving deeper into the Venetian galley and its importance in shaping the face of early modern warfare in the Mediterranean, some key information about the nature of the Mediterranean galley in general should be explained. Since ancient times, maritime warfare and commerce activity in the Mediterranean usually took place between spring and autumn along well-defined routes where wind patterns and the weather were predictable (Rose 404). Most galleys, being able to travel seventy-five kilometers per day, could only hold a week’s supply of food, which could be extended to three weeks with minimal rationing (Rose 431, 435). This minimal rationing, however, was strenuously avoided as it would negatively affect the rowing power of a galley—its most important feature in battle. Therefore, it was optimal to keep a galley at sea for no more than four days at a time, which is why a network of allied ports across the Mediterranean was necessary for long-term expeditions (Rose 431).

medieval cannons
Francesco Guardi’s Venice: The Arsenal (1755-1760)

The galleys constructed in the Venetian Arsenal throughout the High Middle Ages and the early modern period were well-known across the Mediterranean for being the fastest galleys under oar and they had their own characteristics that the galleys of other nations did not have (Guilmartin 198, 204, 212). Perhaps the most outstanding characteristic to the eye would have been the fighting platforms on their bows, which were needed because the Venetians relied heavily on their superiority in gunnery, both mounted and hand-held, rather than in brute manpower (Guilmartin 210). Before battle, Venetian galleys would also install pavisades, which were temporary bulwarks along their gunwales made out of pavises (Guilmartin 152).

venice
Modern Venice (pinterest.ca)

This paper will dedicate several paragraphs to how and why Venetians had the best cannons and gunners in the Mediterranean before and during an extent of the Age of Sail, but first the reader should know that this had drawbacks. Just because a Venetian galley could hit a target with a cannonball at the furthest distance and move the fastest under oar does not mean they were the best at boarding or the fastest in general. Galleys of every Mediterranean nation also used lateen sails. Galley oars were only used for dashing and maneuvering in battle as well as launching and berthing in port. Because Venetian galleys were the largest, they were the slowest under sail and not optimized for boarding others but rather defending (Guilmartin 206). When it came to innovations that made boarding others more effective, the Venetians more often than not stole ideas from the Ottomans, such as the iron-shad “spur” used for ramming (Guilmartin 209).

realistic naval warfare in fantasy books
Early Modern Naval Warfare (pinterest.ca)

Venetians were aware that their galleys were slow under sail and not optimized for boarding because they were purposely optimized for long distance artillery (Guilmartin 206). The reason they developed the reputation for being the fastest under oar is as follows: they would outpace the Ottomans during engagements by dashing all the while hitting the Ottomans with their stern guns (Guilmartin 212-214). One should not underestimate how skilled gunnery can make up for lack in other areas of galley warfare. Venetian galleys were so formidable and respected, before the battle of Preveza in 1538, Barbarossa the Ottoman fleet commander was reluctant to attack Corfu while a Venetian fleet was watching from far away, even though he outnumbered them greatly (Guilmartin 45-47). It cannot be said that Barbarossa was being overly cautious, as one volley of cannon fire from a single Venetian ship could easily kill up to forty men from a great distance (Guilmartin 200).

medieval seafaring
Warfare at Sea (pinterest.ca)

Despite their flaws, Venetian galleys were not completely useless at boarding. While an Ottoman galley was wont to ram and cover their boarding party with arrows, a Venetian galley was wont to arm their entire crew, even their rowing gang (ciurmi), with matchlock handguns which made boarding them a tricky task (Guilmartin 139). After Charles VIII of France, from 1494 to 1498, warred in northern Italy with his horse-drawn siege-train, word got around the entire known world that the face of warfare had changed due to gunpowder weapons, but the Venetians were one step ahead of the game (Parker 9-10). In 1490, Venice had already decided to replace all the crossbows of their professional soldiers with guns, were in fact the first in the Mediterranean to do so, and in 1508 Venice even had its new militias equipped with guns (Parker 17). Consequences of these decisions would influence the entire world. Every empire and city-state Venice came into contact with would inevitably be forced to follow suit as Venice led the way in military revolution. Finally, in 1518, the Venetian Council of Ten also decided to replace all their crossbows on galleys with matchlock rifles (Guilmartin 148). Although the Spanish had already done this for their galleys by the year 1500, the French were still using crossbows on their galleys as late as 1552 (Guilmartin 152). Even before gunpowder’s heyday, one can clearly see Venice as the European forerunner in missile technology, excluding the English longbow, by learning the fact that Venetians were the only Europeans who had ever adopted the Turkish composite recurve bow (Guilmartin 141, 155).

medieval shipbuilding design
Lantern Galley (pinterest.ca)

One battle that shows the effectiveness of Venetian missile technology is the aforementioned battle of Preveza in 1538. Although the Christians suffered a crushing defeat, the Venetian ship under the command of Allesandro Bondulmier did not, as this ship is the major reason why the Christian losses were so light (Guilmartin 53). While the Christians were fleeing from the Ottomans, Bondulmier’s ship, lagging behind due to its mass, put up a daring fight and the Ottomans were unable to board her because of her many guns and great height (Guilmartin 55). This was not nor would be the only time Venetian superiority in gunnery would earn its respect on the seas. Before the battle of Lepanto in 1571, a battle this paper will cover further, the Spanish relied on the Venetians for the bulk of their cannons because, unlike Spain, Venice had immense surplus thanks to its Arsenal (Guilmartin 234).

medieval galley
Galleys (pinterest.ca)

In modern terms, it is easy to call Venetian artillerists the snipers of the sea (Guilmartin 218-219). The effective reach of a sixteenth-century cannon, no matter how large, was naught compared to modern artillery. This, however, would not stop sixteenth-century master artillerists in the Arsenal from developing new cannons that set the rules and defined the limits of the effectiveness of long-distance cannon fire (Guilmartin 162). Venetian gunners were undoubtedly the best in the entire Mediterranean and today we can thank them for creating the expression “that was a long shot” as one master Venetian artillerist could sink an enemy vessel singlehandedly (Guilmartin 163, 174). Indeed, a Venetian cannon could shoot a sixty-pound cannonball with effective aim as far as six-hundred and forty meters (Parker 87). A sense of just how important Venetian gunnery innovation was to shaping what warfare looked like in the Mediterranean can be had by noting that Venetians were the very first people to abandon stone cannonballs and adopt cast-iron ones (Guilmartin 170). Another example of where Mediterranean nations drew inspiration from Venetian cannon practices is the Venetians’ creativity in finding ingenious ways to fit more large cannons on the crowded decks of their galleys, something the Ottomans noticed and paid much heed to (Guilmartin 207).

venetian seapower
Galleys (pinterest.ca)

Although this paper has yet to cover the development of the galleass, it has already mentioned that Venetian galleys were the largest. In the Spanish Armada of 1588, some of the biggest ships were unsurprisingly Venetian (Glete, Warfare at Sea 66). Nevertheless, because Venetian galleys were relatively large, they were also slower under sail vis-à-vis Ottoman galleys. In addition, because Venetian galleys also generally had a lot more cannons than their rivals did, it might be surprising to the reader that this had no effect on the total weight of Venetian galleys. This is because Venetian cannons, while also being superior in quality, were generally shorter and lighter than Spanish and Ottoman cannons (Guilmartin 173, 211).

realistic medieval ocean battles
Paolo Veronese’s The Battle of Lepanto (1572)

The development of early modern galley rowing systems is something the historian Guilmartin in his book Gunpowder and Galleys goes into great depth in explaining, but this paper will not. However, there is something remarkable about Venetian oarsmen worth noting here. Before 1543, all Venetian oarsmen that made up the ciurmi of each galley were freemen that worked voluntarily (Guilmartin 116). Although this meant that the oarsmen of Venice rowed in the navy out of their own free will, unlike Spanish or Ottoman rowers whom were mostly all convicts (forzati) serving a sentence, and although Venetian rowers performed better as a result, this also meant that Venice frequently faced a shortage of rowers. A crisis came in 1543 when the Venetian fleet could not find enough rowers due to a shift in the attitudes of its people toward serving in the navy, whereas before it had always been a great honor to serve in the navy (Glete, Naval History 134-135). This crisis also came about because the Ottomans, after conquering Constantinople in 1453 as well as Venice’s most important possessions in the Greek world, Corone and Modone in 1503, had gained all of the best recruiting ports in the eastern Mediterranean by the sixteenth century (Guilmartin 114; Rose 438-439). Therefore, not only did Venice have one of the very last fleets in the Mediterranean that adopted the use of convict oarsmen, they only did so due to a crisis. Venice very well might have kept using free oarsmen (buenas boyas) if this crisis never arose, which says a lot about Venetian competence and character. Nevertheless, Venice adopted well to the new system. For the War of Cyprus, their fleet borrowed convicts from the dukes of Mantua, Modena and Ferrara in northern Italy (Glete, Naval History 136).

early modern naval warfare
Early Modern Naval Warfare (pinterest.ca)

As abovementioned, it was considered an honor to serve in the Venetian fleet, and this never changed for the arsenalotti whom actually built the ships. Masters working in the Arsenal were given much honor by the ruling elite and many became public figures and politicians (Davis 150-151). This public respect held toward tradesmen is not something every medieval or early modern city had and it undoubtedly played a role in the success of the Arsenal and its fleet. An underlying reason why arsenalotti were given much honor is because, much like land-reclamation, workforce discipline was a perpetual problem in the Arsenal and ignoring the effort of a worker is no way to maintain it. Despite the lauds they received, there were times when dire politics were needed to keep arsenalotti discipline in check (Davis 22-26). However, this is a tricky matter to judge in modern terms. When considering medieval standards and the fact that no slaves or whips were used in the Arsenal, historians, rather than point out how bad things were for the Arsenal compared to modern shipbuilding, should be impressed with how Venice maintained large-scale shipbuilding projects despite their difficulties. Indeed, people today, alongside the aforementioned aspects of military revolution, can thank Venice for the amazing order we see in factories and on construction sites today. Throughout the Middle Ages, managing booming construction had always been extremely difficult, but Venice increasingly found ways to manage large-scale construction (Davis 20). Long before the Industrial Revolution, the Venetian Arsenal was the only autonomous shipyard in Europe, and the kinds of problems it faced do not exist in the West anymore (Glete, Naval History 131).

Mediterranean medieval warfare
Battle of Lepanto (pinterest.ca)

As the decades rolled along, Venice continued to face commercial interference from pirates. In the 1520s, with their merchants all sailing in a single convoy to combat the singling out of lone merchantmen, the Arsenal began to frantically experiment with new ship designs. This is when, in 1529, Venice famously revived the ancient Roman quinquereme, building what could have been the biggest ship ever made out of wood, being eleven meters wide and seventy-four meters long (Parker 87). One can only imagine what this sea-monster resembled when embattled, manned and decked out with cannons. Unfortunately, it was found to be too unwieldy for effective use in battle. Still unable to quell the rise in pirate activity and the strangling effects of guerre de course, another attempt at a solution was needed. By 1540, the solution came as the world’s first galleass was birthed in the Arsenal, a warship that was at least ten meters longer than most galleys in the Mediterranean with eight guns in the bow compared to the typical three (Parker 87). As this paper will soon reveal, the galleass would prove highly effective in the battle of Lepanto. Just like Venice’s transformation of handheld gunpowder weapons, its transformation of warships, defining new limits, would inspire the entire Mediterranean to follow suit. By 1572, after Lepanto had come and gone, the Turks had five galleasses of their own, constructed in the Sultan’s own shipyards (Parker 89).

Mediterranean medieval naval warfare
Luca Cambiaso’s Batall of Lepanto (1527-1585)

Moreover, the rise in pirate activity in the sixteenth century that led to the invention of the galleass was not the first time Venice had to find a way to cope with guerre de course. As promised, an examination of the four Genoese-Venetian wars is worth examining. In the First Genoese-Venetian War (1257-1270), Venice dominated in fleet battles against Genoa because the Venetians had more experience and their admirals were more competent (Rose 407). However, this does not mean that the Venetians dominated in commerce raiding as well. One of the main reasons why Venice grew its Arsenal into such a beastly powerhouse was because time and time again the Genoese managed to attack Venetian merchant shipping with great success. The Arsenal was constantly on guard and had a policy for, as well as an obligation of, keeping fitted war galleys ready for use during every hour of the day in order to safeguard commercial traffic, provide immediate defense against possible sieges and, most importantly, uphold prestige (Glete, Warfare at Sea 82-83).

In 1262, the Genoese captured a Venetian fleet carrying home the year’s trade from the Black Sea, a devastating operation tantamount to a year’s blockade (Rose 408). An even more devastating action against Venetian commerce by the Genoese was successful in June 1264, with Admiral Simone Grillo taking yet another year’s trade. However, Genoese commercial raiding would not continue with such success after 1266 when the Doge of Venice gave the fleet escorting the convoy the strict command to never disperse (Rose 408). It had been the unwillingness of the fleet to stick with the convoy which had left commercial shipping vulnerable in the past, especially as Venetian stragglers could be picked off by Genoese lurkers singly. Things would be much different from now on.

medieval warfare
Andries van Eertvelt (1620-1630)

For the Second (1293-1299), Third (1350-1355) and Fourth (1378-1381) Genoese-Venetian Wars, Genoa had learned to become a much more formidable enemy in fleet battles compared to before. Venice very well may have lost the fourth war if it were not for a negotiation of peace over Tenedos in 1381 (Rose 436). Luckily for Venice, there would never be a fifth Genoese-Venetian war after the lordship of Genoa fell into the hands of Charles VI of France (Rose 437). Meanwhile, Venice would continue to prove its power, gaining ports from “Greek princes” and “Crusader nobles”, but, as mentioned above, Venetian success in the East would be threatened after the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453. Things would nevertheless be somewhat balanced as Venice looked to expanding in Italy and by the mid-fifteenth century Venice was more powerful than it had ever been (Rose 438). This is precisely when Venice was starting to become known in Christendom as the bulwark against Muslim expansion in Europe as Venice and the Ottomans battled back and forth over the possession of Otranto and did so until 1492 when the Ottomans finally lost interest in the Italian peninsula (Rose 438). Then, however, as also mentioned above, Charles VIII of France’s invasion of northern Italy in 1494 would bring new threats. Fortunately, a coalition of Italian city-states pushed Charles out of most of Italy, and in 1495 Venice pushed the French out of Naples, too (Rose 438).

realistic naval warfare in fantasy
Andries van Eertvelt’s The Battle of Lepanto (1622)

Almost a century later at the battle of Lepanto in 1571, the Republic of Venice, as part of a major Christian alliance known as the Holy League, played the most vital role which ultimately was responsible for the great Christian victory against the Ottomans (Guilmartin 237). Although almost all of the Venetian galleys were manned by Spanish mercenaries due to Venice’s perpetual problem of having a lack of manpower, Venice contributed more galleys to the Holy League than any other Christian nation which made the relief of Cyprus possible (Guilmartin 238, 242). At the battle of Lepanto proper, the Venetians’ remarkable defense of the Holy League’s left wing with their new galleasses resulted in the action that caused the Ottomans to panic and rout (Guilmartin 248). Although this was a great victory for Venice and its allies, it marked the steady decline of Venetian seapower in the Mediterranean as the Arsenal cancelled its shipbuilding in order to fix and refit the battered Ottoman galleys they had gained as spoils (Davis 16). Production in the Arsenal would never be the same. Venetian seapower had already reached its heyday prior to Lepanto. Therefore, Venice, in order to stay in the game with France, Spain and the Ottoman Empire, would no longer be able to act independently like it had in the fifteenth century. Venice was no longer one of the great powers, hence its dependence on Spanish mercenaries and the Holy League (Rose 439).

early modern warfare in the Mediterranean
Giorgio Vasari’s The Battle of Lepanto (1572)

Before this paper ends with its promised theory of how the Mediterranean might have looked by the twentieth century if Venice never existed, a brief overview touching on key points is in order. It is arguable that the main reason why Venice became one of the Mediterranean’s greatest sea powers is its location. Venice was able to look west toward Spain, north toward Germany and France (even as far as the English Channel) and east toward the place that had the highest influence on its culture, Byzantium. Venetians could even look south to North Africa. In other words, Venice was on the edge of all worlds, the “chief port of the Adriatic,” the entrepot ‘twixt cultures and since its government was so stable and effective it took full advantage of this special station (Lane 5). All this combined with its connection to the sea and the many nearby rivers that stretched up into the interior provided Venice with an upper-hand in the Mediterranean. As early as the Dark Ages, Venice took full advantage of the rising demand for luxury goods in Europe by using its seapower to ship spices from North Africa up into the interior via river barges, and the making of the Arsenal and its eventual galleass could not have existed without this early advantage (Lane 7).

venice
Venice (pixabay.com)

Since Venice had the only autonomous arsenal in Christendom during the High Middle Ages and the sixteenth century, if it never existed, the only autonomous arsenal in the Mediterranean would have belonged to the Ottomans (Glete, Naval History 135). This would have left Christendom with a great disadvantage in the many battles it fought with the Muslims in the early modern period. The Venetian Arsenal was an inspiration to all of Europe, often referred to as the eighth wonder of the world, and the British Arsenal that built steel dreadnoughts during WWI, theoretically speaking, may not have had the inspiration it needed to exist autonomously without first having such a great example to follow. Since Venice was responsible for supplying countless ships to the many Christian campaigns in the East such as the Fourth Crusade and the battle of Lepanto, it is hard to say if Christendom would have won as many battles as it had without this vital support. The consequences of Venice never existing as a seapower could have been extraordinary, with the Ottomans having no Christian bulwark in Italy to keep them from conquering the peninsula and possibly invading Germany and France in the fifteenth century. This would have nonetheless left the Ottoman Empire with a lot more resources at its exposal and the outcome of WWI, assuming the Ottomans would have still allied with the Axis side, could have ended a lot differently, perhaps having the resources to beat the British back into their own waters.

pirates in the mediterranean
Pieter Mulier’s The Elder Fresh Breeze in the Mediterranean (1640s)

Overall, it cannot be argued that the Republic of Venice played more of a role in shaping what early modern warfare looked like in the Mediterranean than the Ottoman Empire. Another paper written about the medieval and early modern Ottomans could prove that they were the most influential in shaping the face of early modern naval warfare in the Mediterranean. Either way, despite Venice’s decline in seapower after the battle of Lepanto, Venetian influence in shaping warfare at sea can still be observed today and will continue to be so for as long as shipyards riddle the shores and ships sail the high seas.

battle of lepanto
Flag of the Holy League at the Battle of Lepanto (1571)

 

Works Cited

All images are in the public domain.

Davis, Robert C. Shipbuilders of the Venetian Arsenal: Workers and Workplace in the

        Preindustrial City. Vol. 109. JHU Press, 2007.

Glete, Jan. Naval History 1500–1680. Routledge, 2017.

Glete, Jan. Warfare at Sea, 1500-1650: Maritime Conflicts and the Transformation of

        Europe. Routledge, 2002.

Guilmartin, John Francis. Gunpowder & Galleys: Changing Technology & Mediterranean

Warfare at Sea in the 16th Century. Victoria & Albert Publications, 2003.

Koch, Mathew. History 337A: The Birth of the Renaissance. 17 Sep. 2018, University of Victoria.

        Class lecture.

Lane, Frederic Chapin. Venice, a Maritime Republic. JHU Press, 1973.

Longworth, Philip. The Rise and Fall of Venice. Constable Limited, 1974.

Parker, Geoffrey. The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West,                 

        1500-1800. Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Rose, Susan. Medieval Ships and Warfare. Routledge, 2017.

 

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