Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Venice - gateway to the east

Venice: built on the infamous Fourth Crusade

The sun was shining in Venice this morning, where I've just spent a few days. What I liked most about the city was the feeling that it is the gateway to the east. Lofty campanili poke like minarets above the skyline. Buildings like the fifteenth century Doge's Palace have distinctly arabesque architecture. The canals smell rankly of sewage. The galleries are full of paintings of the martyrdoms of saints by men in turbans. The zenith of this genre came in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, just as the threat from the Muslim Ottomans was at its height. The paintings were designed to rally public opinion against the enemy in no less compromising a way than the crusading rhetoric of George W Bush.

Venice was the starting point for the infamous Fourth Crusade. Viewing the expedition as a commercial opportunity, the Doge apparently offered the crusaders transport and armed galleys if they would agreed to a straight split of any booty. Having watched money evaporate from my wallet over the last four days, I know the sensation.

The numbers volunteering for the crusade proved disappointing however, and the expedition plunged into debt. At this point, the Venetians offered to restructure what they were owed if the crusaders would help them capture the city of Zadar on the opposite coast of the Adriatic. The only hitch was that Zadar was then part of Hungary, whose king had himself supported the crusade. The pope - who had called for the crusade in the first place and could see its momentum ebbing - forbade this diversion. When the crusaders ignored him and captured Zadar late in 1202, he excommunicated them. It was there that the crusaders were approached with yet another plan, to restore the former Emperor of the Byzantine Empire, Isaac Angelus, on the throne. The Doge, who wanted to cut a better set of trade agreements with Constantinople, supported this idea. Thus it was that Constantinople was sacked by the crusaders in 1204, who had entered the city on ladders made from the spars of the Venetian ships which had carried them there. St Mark's Cathedral in Venice today is a rococo confection of stones taken from Constantinople. Venice, the gateway to the east, was built on the profit of this most infamous crusade.

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