Genoa: Rival to Venice

Genoa the Superb, Part 1: A Merchant Rival to Venice

The Republic of Venice earned its place in history through its consummate mastery of Machiavellian scheming and diplomacy.  Creating its trade empire amidst the ceaseless wars between Christians and Muslims in the East, agents of the Serene Republic were well-versed in playing one rival off another to their commercial advantage.  But surely as piglets shove and jostle at their mother’s teat, the Venetians had to ward off other claimants to so rich a prize as trade with the Orient.  Among all the other Italian mercantile city-states, only one was potent enough to mount a formidable challenge: the Republic of Genoa.

Liguria in Italy
Region of Liguria (in red) in modern Italy

Genoa lies directly opposite the Italian peninsula to Venice in a south-westerly direction, where the boot of Italy gives way to the Ligurian coast.  Situated on a narrow strip of land between the sea and the Apennine Mountains, the city had very little room to expand.  Its only land-links with the outside world were the old Roman coastal road and a few high mountain passes.  The soil was poor; there were few nearby natural resources.  Geography determined that Genoa would be a maritime power, or would be nothing at all.

Humble Beginnings

Little is known about the early history of Genoa.  It was a small fishing village in Roman times, was sacked by Moorish raiders in 935, and received a town charter from the Kings of Lombardy in 958.  It seems to be soon after this time that it started developing itself into a significant naval and mercantile power.  Pisan chronicles record several joint expeditions with the Genoese throughout the 11th century, including raids on Moorish-held Sardinia and Tunisia.  Christian powers were reconquering islands of the Western Mediterranean at this time, which until then had been dependent on trade with Muslim Spain, Egypt, and North Africa.  These expeditions may reflect the first serious efforts of Genoa (and Pisa) to assert themselves as commercial powers, taking advantage of a turning military tide.

Although Genoa would come to build up an extensive trade network in the Western Mediterranean, it was in the East that she discovered her first real success, enabled by the timely aid she provided to the First Crusade.  In the autumn of 1097, the Christian host had settled in to besiege Antioch,  the great fortress-city that barred their entry into Syria.  Soon after, a Genoese flotilla arrived at a nearby port bearing crucial supplies, reinforcing troops, and skilled craftsmen to help assemble towers and siege engines.  This act of saving grace, without which the First Crusade arguably would have failed, earned Genoa a portion of Antioch once it had been taken.  Further assistance against the coastal cities of Syria and the Holy Land gave Genoa safe harbors and valuable trading concessions throughout the newly-formed Crusader states.

Other contenders soon came nipping at its heels, as Venice and Pisa maneuvered their way into Levantine port cities.  They too acquired parts of crucial harbors, winning for themselves a valuable portion of trade profits.  The rivalry of these maritime republics in the eastern Mediterranean would last for centuries, creating a unique merchant culture (which even had its own trade language) that would last into the 18th century.

Genoa develops her trade network

The 12th century saw a great rise in Genoa’s fortunes.  It had already won trade colonies in the Holy Land, and had been trading with Egypt for over a century.  Fueled by these profits from the East, the city-state began possessing Muslim lands in the western Mediterranean.  First seizing the Balearic Islands, Genoese ships then helped Christian lords conquer several coastal cities on the Spanish mainland, winning booty and trade colonies as a reward.

The peculiarities of geography dictated that the travel time to Constantinople or the Levant was not much longer from Genoa than from Venice.  Yet the Genoese had much more direct routes to France, Spain, or the Kingdom of Sicily.  As a consequence, they were able to build a trade network that spread all the way across the Mediterranean, from Spain to the Holy Land.

 The 13th century: A rival resplendent

In 1202, the Fourth Crusade set out from Venice with the aim of conquering Egypt.  The expedition had not managed muster enough troops to pay for the ships chartered from the Venetians, and so found itself at the mercy of the city’s political aims.  The Serene Republic enjoyed a lucrative trade with Egypt at this time, and realized that an undermanned attack was an attack likely to fail.  This would alienate the Egyptian sultan, and imperil Venice’s position in the East.

The wily doge of Venice, who commanded the fleet in person, maintained a ruthless focus on his city’s mercantile interests.  Insisting on full payment from the crusaders before transporting them across the Mediterranean, he effectively used the army as an indentured force until they payed up.  After seizing the Adriatic port of Zara (and getting the entire crusade excommunicated for attacking fellow Christians), the fleet sailed on to Constantinople.  There the doge ultimately induced the crusaders to attack the city, using the spoils to pay the transportation costs.  The sack that followed was a spectacular orgy of pillage and slaughter which saw the Byzantine emperors expelled from Constantinople.

The Fourth Crusade eviscerated the bulwark of Christendom but gained Venice an empire.  Divvying up Byzantine lands with the Frankish crusaders, the Venetians chose the ports and strong-points that were most valuable for a sea power.  Having so many safe-havens along the route to the Levant gave Venice a huge commercial advantage

Rivalry with Venice forced Genoa into alliance with the so-called Empire of Nicaea, the Byzantine holdout named for its capital city.  In the midst of a long war with Venice, the Genoese managed to help the Greeks regain Constantinople, but were unable to pry away the territories Venice had gained for herself.  Three more wars were fought between the rivals over the next century which were financially draining for both, but left the balance of power largely unchanged.

The 13th century was of mixed fortune for the Genoese.  They were outstripped by Venice as a commercial power, and lost their ports in the Holy Land with the expulsion of the crusaders by the Arabs.  However the century also saw their expansion into the Black Sea and colonization of the Crimea, along with their crushing victory over Pisa in the 1284 Battle of Meloria.  This ended for good that city’s status as a rival maritime power, and gained for Genoa possession of Corsica and part of Sardinia.

A losing battle: Genoa against the Turks

After the Byzantine reconquest of Constantinople under the Palaeologi emperors in 1261, the Genoese remained faithful to that wretched husk, that Greek principality calling itself a Roman empire.  The Greeks repayed them in what way they could, by granting them control of the foreigners’ quarter in Galata, as well as valuable trade concessions.  Genoa would hold these possessions for nearly two centuries before the inexorable Ottoman military machine crushed Byzantium for good.

As good Christians and bad merchants, the Genoese sent a large contingent of troops to defend the doomed city during the final Ottoman siege of Constantinople in 1453.  There was some practical justification for this action: Genoese colonies on the Black Sea would be isolated if the Turks closed the Straits to Christian shipping.  But nothing could turn the tide at this point.  Constantinople was choked off by land and threatened by sea; deprived of the lands that were its source of manpower, the Byzantines had no hope of raising a force to counterattack even if they survived the immediate crisis.

Genoa’s Venetian rivals had made peace with the Turks in 1451, but soon realized the danger of a fast-growing power swallowing up the lands of the eastern Mediterranean.  In 1453 after much debate, Venice sent a dilatory fleet that was too late to aid in the defense of Constantinople.  With the end of Byzantium and the rise of Ottoman Turkey, both maritime republics were put on the defensive.  Being similarly deprived of the Oriental trade they had competed over, they would henceforth fight alongside as often as against each other.  Long wars with the Ottoman Empire and embroilment in Europe’s internal conflicts saw both powers subsumed into the European state system, whereby they became dependencies of more powerful neighbors.

If Genoa never rose to the splendor of Venice, it never sank to the same depths of depravity.  The duplicitous Venetians made a name for themselves as the craftiest and wiliest merchants of the Mediterranean, earning the mistrust of Christian and Muslim alike.  The Genoese, while showing a shrewdness and cunning of their own, were more faithful to their allies and less savage in their conquests.  As larger powers came to dominate the Mediterranean, the enterprising citizens of Genoa turned their energies towards finance, helping give rise to the modern world.

Part 2 is here.