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Deno Geanakoplos

Byzantium and Renaissance
The Greco-Byzantine Colony in Venice and its Significance in the Renaissance

From Byzantine East & Latin West: Two Worlds of Christendom in Middle Ages and Renaissance. Edit. The Academy Library Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1966.

Chapter I

Because of the development of a long-range international trade, the city of Venice seems early to have attracted a considerable foreign element. Among the first to settle there were probably Greek merchants. We know that until the ninth century the patron saint of Venice was not Mark but the Greek Theodore, and that in the eleventh century Byzantine workmen were summoned by the Doge in order to embellish, perhaps entirely to construct, the church of St. Mark. Venetian-Byzantine contacts became more frequent in the twelfth century as a result of the growth of the large Venetian commercial colony in Constantinople, numbering some ten to twenty thousand persons. So close did relations between the two peoples become that intermarriage now became common, and the Venetians of the home city adopted Byzantine habits of dress, Greek titles and ceremonies, and even introduced Greek words into the Venetian dialect.(2) Yet that the Greek merchants, craftsmen, and occasional diplomat then living in Venice were numerous enough or organized to form what may be called a colony is doubtful. A more substantial number of Greeks do not seem to appear in Venice until the Franco-Venetian capture of Constantinople in 1204, after which there came or sometimes were summoned to the lagoons many Byzantines, including skilled artists and artisans seeking employment.

But it was the danger threatening the Greek East by the advancing Ottoman Turks that brought the greatest influx into Venice. In the half century or so before Constantinople's fall in 1453, a gradually increasing number of refugees from the East poured into the West. Venice, as lord of important territories in the Greek East, especially the island of Crete, and as the chief port of debarkation in Italy, received the major part of these refugees. This stream quickened rapidly after 1453, and now a veritable flood of Greek emigrés, often well educated, in many cases indigent or in rare instances wealthy, entered Venice, there to become members of the growing Greek community. By the end of the fifteenth century this Greek colony had so burgeoned as to become one of the largest contingents of foreigners and certainly, from the political, economic, and intellectual view, the most significant in the city.

These Greek residents of Venice in the century and a half following 1453 seem to have come at first from Constantinople and the Morea, and then increasingly from Crete, the economic and social structure of which did not offer sufficient opportunities for its more energetic and talented individuals. Other Greeks also came from such Venetian-held areas as the islands of Corfu, Zakynthos, the Archipelago, Cyprus, and the Peloponnesian city of Monemvasia. From these Venetian colonies the Greek inhabitants found it only natural to gravitate to Venice itself, which always maintained close contact with its eastern possessions. The journey from Crete to Venice usually took about three weeks, a relatively short time in the period, and we know from letters of Cretan intellectuals working in Venice that such voyages were very frequent. Not all of course, especially after the first waves fleeing the Turks, were refugees. Young Cretans and, later, Cypriotes would go to seek their fortune in Venice where opportunities beckoned. If they failed to find
work they could be secure in the knowledge that provisions could easily be sent them and that in any event return home would not be difficult.(3)

Before we proceed to examine the motives, aside from the obvious desire to escape the Turks, which induced the emigrés to come to Venice and the extent to which they were able to make use of the opportunities available, let us briefly trace the history of the Greek colony from shortly before 1453 until 1600, the limits of this essay. We might begin with the convocation of the famous council held at Florence in 1439 in the aim of reuniting the Greek and Roman churches.(4) This was to have a far-reaching effect not only on the history of the colony but on the relations of all Greeks who found themselves in the West. On its way to Florence the large Greek delegation stopped first in Venice. The delegates were greatly impressed by the beauty and splendor of the city of the lagoons.(5) And indeed this memory served to induce many Greeks to return later to Venice for permanent settlement. What had impressed them was not only the material riches of the city but the evidence of a continuing appreciation for the Byzantine ways and habits. Most prominent of the Greeks who later returned to Venice was Bessarion, Archbishop of Nicaea and subsequently Cardinal of the Roman Church. As a leading member of the Curia he lost no time in preaching to the Pope and especially to the Venetian Doge, the necessity of launching a western crusade to recover Constantinople from the Turks. Of significance is the fact that, despite his many years of residence in Rome and the great reputation of Florence as the leading humanistic center, he chose Venice as the permanent respository for his collection of manuscripts, most important of which were some 500 written in Greek.(6) As is well-known, the latter constituted the greatest single collection of Greek manuscripts in the period of the Renaissance. In a letter Bessarion wrote in 1468 to the Doge of Venice, he expressed his intention of donating his manuscript collection to Venice. The letter indicates Bessarion's awareness of the growing significance of the Greek community there and reflects also the rapport developing between Venetians and Byzantines—a sharp contrast to the mutual hatred of the previous centuries as a result of the Latin sack of Constantinople in 1204. Bessarion wrote:

“As all peoples of almost the entire world gather in your city, so especially do the Greeks. Arriving by sea from their homelands they debark first at Venice, being forced by necessity to come to your city and live among you, and there they seem to enter another Byzantium (quasi alterum Byzantium). In view of this, how could I more appropriately confer this bequest upon the Venetians to whom I myself am indebted and committed by obligation because of their well-known favors to me, and upon their city which I chose for my country after the subjugation of Greece, and in which I have been very honorably received and recognized.”(7)

The union signed by the Greek and Roman churches at Florence is also of significance because it induced the Venetian state to look with special favour upon the so-called Uniates— those Greeks who had accepted the union with its provision for papal supremacy while retaining the Byzantine rite. But the attitude of the Greeks of Venice toward the western church and their adherence to it oscillated in accordance with their need for support from the Venetian government. As their political and economic condition improved, they were gradually emboldened to cast aside even their usual lip-service allegiance to the patriarch of Venice and finally, openly, and with even the tacit sanction of the Venetian government, to proclaim their adherence to the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople.

This religious problem runs like a thread throughout the history of the Greek colony during the entire fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. As refugees who had lost their homeland and whose nation no longer existed, the Greeks clung tenaciously to the religion of their forefathers as the most tangible evidence of their unity as a people. Indeed, in 1456, soon after the fall of Constantinople and with the reinforcement of the community through the continuous arrival of more refugees from the east, the Greek colonists petitioned the Venetian Council of Ten for the right to establish a church 'for their own use'. Previous to this, Orthodox monks or priests had been able, unofficially it would appear, to hold services at times in certain Venetian churches—at St. Servilius, St. Lorenzo, St. Severus, St. Biagio, St. John Chrysostom, St. Agatha, St. John in Bragora, and also at St. Eustathius, where there was an altar to the ancient Byzantine St. Demetrius. Moreover, we know that as early as the second decade of the fifteenth century Orthodox priests secretly performed services in private homes—a practice forbidden by Venetian law.(8)

The spokesman for the Greek community in its petition to the government in 1456 was the Uniate Isidore, former Byzantine Metropolitan of Kiev, and now an influential Cardinal of the Roman Church. On June 18 of the same year, the Venetian Senate replied favorably to the request, granting the Greeks not only the use of a Latin church but, if this proved unsatisfactory, the right to construct their own. But circumstances were not yet ripe for the erection of a church of the Greek rite. Probably the Venetian patriarch protested. In any case later, in 1470, when the Venetians had just lost the Greek island of Euboia to the Turks and had need of the military prowess of the able Greek cavalrymen, the so-called stradioti, the Serenissima granted the colony the use of a side chapel in the Venetian church of San Biagio along the Riva dei Martiri. The proviso was made, however, that no Greek priest could celebrate the liturgy elsewhere under penalty of a fine. It might be noted that an exception to this rule was made for the famous Anna Notaras, wealthy daughter of the last Byzantine Grand Duke Lucas Notaras.(9) (It was he who reportedly said 'Better the turban of the Turk in Constantinople than the tiara of the Pope.') She was permitted to have religious services performed in her own home. Regarding Anna it is interesting to note—and this is little known—that, moved by the unhappy fate of her compatriots, whose country had now been blotted out of existence, she had developed elaborate plans to establish an independent Greek enclave in Tuscany in the territory of Siena. This particular project, the remarkable aim of which was probably the first step to the formation of a kind of small Greek nation in the West, was never realized.(10) It was rather in the Greek community of Venice that the dream of Anna seems to have acquired a certain substance.

Again and again the colonists requested permission to begin the construction of their own church. But the answer was always that they should instead 'frequent the Latin churches'. Evidently the Venetian government, influenced by its episcopate, feared that the Greeks, once in possession of their own building, would cast off any pretence of subordination to the Venetian patriarch and revert to schism.

Nevertheless, on November 28, 1494, the Greeks were finally accorded significant recognition. Following the example of the communities in Venice of Slavs, Albanians, and Armenians, as the document reads, the Greeks petitioned for and received permission to establish a 'Brotherhood of the Greek nation' (Scuola e Nazione greca). This was to be a kind of philanthropic and socio-religious society to administer to the various needs of the Greek people, under the protection of the famous Byzantine Saint Nicholas of Myra. This is perhaps the most significant date in the entire history of the colony. For it marked the formal recognition of the community as a corporate body before the law. The Venetian government, however, always wary, stipulated that the initial membership was not to exceed 250, apart from women and children. A constitution was thereupon drawn up in imitation of the Venetian, with provisions for voting procedures, representation, and the formation of a council. This organization was maintained down to the very end of the colony, although minor modifications in the constitution were at times admitted.(11) Thus in 1563 the number of the councillors, the governing body of the colony, was set at forty and later, still higher. The officials, headed by a president called Gastaldo, were salaried by the community but were under the supervision of the Venetian government. It should be emphasized that the success of the Greek petition in securing formal recognition from the Venetian government was probably due in large part to the increasing dependence of the Venetian state on the military services of the stradioti.(12)

Still not content without their own church, the Brotherhood in 1511 again petitioned the Council of Ten for permission to buy land to build a church, to be dedicated to St. George, the patron saint of the soldier. The reasons cited in the request reveal something of the relations existing between the emigrés and Venetians at the time. The Greeks emphasized the troubles arising between the two religious groups, especially the fact that the Greeks in attendance at Latin churches failed to understand what was being said during the mass. Moreover, the colonists wanted to provide proper burial for their dead. Evidently, hitherto they had been compelled to bury their dead in Latin cemeteries, where not infrequently the bones were exhumed, violated, and perhaps thrown into the sea. Finally and most important, the Greek petition declared that the chapel of San Biagio then in use could not accommodate all the worshippers, now increasing greatly in number, especially in view of the many stradioti and their families recently brought in by the Venetian government.(13)

Not until three years later, on April 30, 1514, did the Council of Ten approve the request for a church and cemetery. It was stipulated, however, that the Greeks must remain veri e Cattolici cristiani and secure also the approval of the pope for their projects. This was granted by Pope Leo X, who in addition accorded the Greeks the right to choose a priest who would officiate according to the eastern rite (juxta ritem et morem vestrum). Most important, he granted them freedom from local clerical interference. The words of Pope Leo clearly indicate that in his eyes the Greeks were not to be considered Orthodox schismatics but bona fide members of the Catholic church of the Uniate rite.

Understandably, the Venetian patriarch Antonio Contareno contested the papal decision on the grounds that the Greeks would revert to schism and might even lead Latins astray. But his efforts were unavailing. For Pope Leo, always sympathetic to representatives of Greek culture and probably influenced by the growing circle of Greek humanist scholars around him in Rome, enjoined the Venetian patriarch and episcopate from interfering in the affairs of 'Catholics of the Greek rite.'(14) After further trouble representatives of the colony, led by the old stradiot, Theodore Palaeologus, who for years had fought gallantly for Venice, decided on the purchase of a plot for the church in the section of San Antonin. Construction began and the first service took place on March 4, 1527. Yet this was only a provisional church, quickly constructed to enable the removal of the congregation from San Biagio. The famous church of San Giorgio dei Greci, which still exists, was begun in 1539. Construction took 34 years, being completely finished only in 1573 at a cost of 15,000 ducats. Much of this sum was raised by a tax which the officials of the Greek community were in 1546 permitted by the Venetian government to levy on all Greek ships entering the port of Venice.(15) This is a strong testimonial to the Greek sense of patriotism, since most of the Greek ship owners, as Turkish subjects, had no obligation to contribute. Several architects, among them the noted Italians Sante Lombardo and Zanantonio Giovo (Chiona) directed the building of the church, on the foundations of which not only Greek workers but, as the documents relate, old men and children were eager to contribute their labor. Built of fine stone and adorned with paintings by artists of Greek, particularly Cretan origin, and precious old icons, some brought earlier from Byzantium, this remarkable edifice still stands today as a monument to the efforts of the Greeks of the diaspora to preserve unbroken the traditions of their lost homeland. Other Greek churches were later constructed in Naples, Ancona, Livorno, and elsewhere in Europe. But San Giorgio of Venice, besides being the oldest of the Greek churches of the diaspora in the West, is most symbolic for the preservation of the Hellenic identity in the crucial period when the Greek nation had disappeared.

There is no time here to relate in detail the intensified religious persecution undergone by the colony at the hands of the Venetian episcopate. The latter feared, rightly, that the community was slipping away from its jurisdiction. At one point the patriarch Girolamo Quirino, if we can believe one source, excommunicated the entire congregation and even locked the communicants in their church during the days of Holy Week. In the 1530's the noted Cretan scholar Arsenios Apostolis, a Uniate Greek and fanatical pro-Catholic who had been imposed on the community as its priest by the Venetian government, created the most serious difficulties. The conflict grew increasingly severe until 1577 when the Venetian government finally reversed its policy and, at least unofficially, permitted the Greeks to place their church directly under the authority of the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople. Their priest Gabriel Severus was permitted to assume the title of Metropolitan of Philadelphia, a title henceforth to be borne by all his successors in Venice. The triumph of the colony over the Venetian patriarch may have been due, as one modern scholar believes, to the fear the Greeks might ally with the new Lutheran movement.(16) But more important, it seems to me, was the traditional Venetian attitude of expediency (recall the famous Venetian saying, 'Siamo Veneziani poi Cristiani'), based on the benefits accruing to the Venetian state and society from the services of the Greek stradioti and mariners, and from the thriving commercial activities of Greek merchants and shipowners. Finally, not to be overlooked is the contribution made by the emigré Greek intellectuals to Venetian cultural life— a contribution we shall turn to presently.

The Greek colony was located in virtually the heart of Venice. It encompassed the area immediately surrounding the church of San Giorgio dei Greci, only a few hundred meters to the east of St. Mark's Basilica itself, on the Rio dei Greci in the area now termed Campo dei greci and in the quarter of San Antonin. In 1478 the population of the colony was between four and five thousand persons, a fairly large number when one considers that in 1509, according to the authority of Beloch, Venice itself had no more than 110,000 inhabitants. There was a continuous increase of the Greek population as a result of infusions from the Venetian possessions in the East, newly conquered by the Turks. By 1580, according to the testimony of Andreas Darmarios, a contemporary Greek copyist from Monemvasia who had come to Venice, no less than 15,000 Greeks were living in Venice. This number, he says probably with exaggeration, swelled to 30,000 with the arrival in port of many Greek ships from Alexandria, Constantinople, Crete, and the Greek islands.(17)

What was the social structure of the colony? What opportunities or professions were open to Greeks that might induce them to emigrate to the Serenissima? The archives of the Greek colony (called Mariegola), many documents of which await reading and interpretation, are still preserved in the chancery of the church of San Giorgio and reveal to us the wide range of occupations adopted by the emigres. It would be a mistake to believe that the community consisted mainly of intellectuals. Actually it embraced a wide stratum of society, from merchants, intellectuals and artists, to soldiers, mariners, shipowners and captains, tailors, iron workers and goldsmiths, laborers perhaps in glass works or the arsenal, women in charge of aristocratic Venetian households, and an occasional judge and doctor.(18)

Among the earliest occupations was that of stradiot (from the Greek stratiotes, soldier). The stradioti, as noted, were a body of light cavalry troops consisting of youths from the Greek and Albanian territories held by Venice in the East, and constituted one of the most important arms of Venice in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. They were noted for their daring and swiftness, and their esprit was doubtless inspired by pride in their Byzantine heritage and revenge against their traditional enemy the Turks. The Venetian humanist Pietro Bembo has left us a description of a band of Cretan stradioti who held a joust on a frozen canal in 1491 in honor of the ex-Queen Catherine Cornaro of Cyprus. The exploits of the stradioti against the Turks as well as western enemies of Venice, such as the Germans in the early sixteenth century, became legendary. Frequently mentioned in the official Venetian documents, the services of the stradioti to the Venetian state, it should again be emphasized, were in large part responsible for the gradually increasing favor shown to the colony by the government of Venice.(19)

The Venetian Republic also recruited sailors from its Aegean island possessions to fight against the Turkish navy. But the exploits of the Greek mariners, while of significance, have attracted less attention than those of the stradioti. Research reveals that the Greek colony included among its inhabitants also those who performed life's more menial tasks—common laborers, tailors, stone workers, and so on, who in fact comprised the majority of the population. Pisani would have us believe, and perhaps rightly in view of the number of Greeks who were what we would now call 'displaced persons,' that some assumed the less savory professions of spying, counter-spying, or acting as go-between for questionable purposes.(20) On the other hand we know that not infrequently highly educated Greeks were used by the Venetian government as interpreters, as for example the humanist-professor at the University of Padua, Marcus Musurus, and the high-born leader of the stradioti, Theodore Palaeologus, who for his services as Venetian envoy and interpreter before the Sultan was paid by the Venetian Senate 360 ducats a year. At his death in 1532, we are told, he was honored by his compatriots with burial in the church of San Giorgio.(21)

Except for the conspicuous cases of the Byzantine aristocrats Anna Notaras, Eudocia Cantacuzene, and Nicholas Vlastos, we have little record of the presence of wealthy Greeks in the colony during the earlier period. Often fleeing the Turkish advance, many refugees could carry few, if any, possessions with them— perhaps a precious manuscript or two, or a valuable Byzantine icon. Beginning in the later sixteenth century, however, and extending through the seventeenth, the period which marks the colony's greatest prosperity from the economic point of view, there gradually emerged a surprisingly large number of wealthy Greek merchants, and, more commonly, of Greek ship captains and owners. Some had probably worked for others until they had amassed sufficient funds to venture on their own. Others had made their fortunes through trade with Constantinople and other areas of the Turkish occupied East. A striking example is that of the wealthy merchant, Thomas Flanginis, who in 1626 presented to the Greek community a large sum of money which enabled it to add to its existing elementary school a kind of college.(22) There many of the outstanding Greeks of his and the following century, from all over the Greek world, were to receive at least part of their education before continuing perhaps at the University of Padua. A number of these students later returned to the East, to take up positions as teachers and priests.(23)


2. On the Greek settlement in Venice before 1453 and its influence on Venice in general no work has been written: see allusions in A. Frothingham, 'Byzantine Art and Culture in Rome and Italy', American Journal of Archaeology, X (1895) 160 ff. and M. Armingaud, Veniss et le Bas-Empire (Paris, 1868). Byzantine art, of course, and its influence on the Venetian has been studied.

3. The only study on the history of the Greek colony (extending to the nineteenth century) is the old one of the Greek librarian of St. Marks, G. Veludo: Hellenon Orthodoxon apoikia en Venetia (in Greek) (henceforth referred to as Greek Colony) (Venice, 1893), and a brief Italian version, 'Cenni sulla colonia greca orientale', Venezia e le sue lagune (Venice, 1847) I, 78 ff. (Veludo was not, as some say, a Greco-Italian but a Greek born on Tinos). See now the recent work of Geanakoplos, Greek Scholars in Venice, Chap. 3, on the Greek colony.

4. See above Chapter 3.

5. See their reactions in J. Gill, Qnae supersunt Actorum Graecorum Concilii Florentini (Rome, 1953) pt. 1, pp. 4-5. Also M. Creyghton's ed. of S. Syropoulos, Historia vera unionis non verae . . . Concilii Florentini (Hague, 1600) sect. 4, Chapter 16, for the impressions of two Greek delegates to the Council, Dorotheos of Mytilene and Syropoulos. Cf. account in Ducas (Bonn ed.) 212.

6. On Bessarion's Ms collection see H. Omont, 'Inventaire de manuscrits grecs et latins donnés à Saint-Marc de Venise (1468)', Revue des bibliothèques, IV (1894) 129-87. More recent is L. Labowsky, 'Manuscripts from Bessarion's Library found in Milan', Medieval and Renaissance Studies, V, 108-31.

7. My translation, from Omont, loc.cit., 139. Also on Bessarion's donation see preceding note, Labowsky article.

8. Veludo, Greek Colony, 5.

9. On this first Venetian ecclesiastical concession see now M. Manousakas, 'The first permit (1456) of the Venetian Senate for the church of the Greeks in Venice and Cardinal Isidore' (in Greek), Thesaurismata (Venice, 1962) 109-18.

10. On this project see Geanakoplos, Greek Scholars, 62 and note 26. Also details in G. Cecchini, ‘Anna Notaras Paleologa: Una Principessa greca in Italia e la politica senese di ripopolamento della Maremma', Bolletino Senese di Storia Patria, XVI (1938) 1-41. References in M. Manousakas, 'Recherches sur la vie de Jean Plousiadenos', Revue des études byzantines, XVII (1959) n. 78. The Maremma project may not have been carried out because the area is marshy.

11. Geanakoplos, Greek Scholars, 62-63; Veludo, Greek Colony, 9.

12. The constitutional changes are reflected in the still extant Mariegola (archives) of the Greek community. Cf. Veludo, 11. On the importance of the stradioti to both the Greeks and Venice, no really satisfactory study has been made. See C. Sathas, 'Greek Stradioti in the West and the Revival of Greek Tactics', (in Greek) Hestia, XXIX (1885) 371-76 and later issues. Also his Documents inédits relatifs à l'histoire dela Grèce an Moyen Age, IV (Paris, 1882) esp. liv ff. and passim.

13. Petition printed in F. Cornelius, Ecclesiae venetae antiquis monumentis (Venice, 1749) pt. I, 372-73. See Greek transl. in K. Bires, Arvanites, the Dorians of Recent Hellenism (in Greek) (Athens, 1960) 186-87.

14. On this whole episode see now Manousakas, 'The First Permit of the Venetian Senate'. Cf. Veludo, 20.

15. On the tax see S. Antoniadis, 'Porismata apo ten meleten procheiron diacheiristikon biblion ton eton 1544-47, etc.' (in Greek), Praktika Akademias Atbenon, XXXIII (1958) 466-87. On the construction of the church see esp. Veludo, 19 ff.

16. P. Pisani, 'Les Chrétiens de rite oriental a Venise et dans les possessions vénitiennes (1439-1791)', Revue d'histoire et de litterature religieuses, I (1896) 209ff.

17. For opinion of G. Beloch, 'La popolazione di Venezia nei secoli XVIe XVII’, Nuovo archivio veneto, n.s. III, p. 1. On the size of the Greek colony see Veludo, Greek Colony, 60 and S. Antoniadis, Museo di Dipinti sacri (Venice, 1959). Also for Darmarios' remark see E. Legrand, Notice biographique sur Jean et Theodose Zygomalas (Paris, 1889) 254-55.

18. See Antoniadis, 'Porismata', 477ff.

19. See note 12 above and Geanakoplos, Greek Scholars, 55-56. Many references to stradioti may be found in M. Sanuto's famous I diariidi Marino Sanuto (1496-1533) ed. R. Fulin, etc., 58 vols. (Venice, 1879-1903). 20. Pisani, loc. cit., 202.

21. See Veludo, 14-18 on Theodore and other stradioti.

22. See esp. C. Mertzios, 'Thomas Flanginis kai ho Mikros Hellenomnemon', (in Greek), in Pragmateiai tes Akademias Atbenon, IX (1939) 47-52 and passim.

23. See the recent article (with little on this subject however) of C. Tsourkas, 'Gli scolari greci di Padova nel rinnovamento culturale dell'Oriente Ortodosso', (Padua, n.d.) 36 pp. Also G. Typaldos, 'The Greek Students at the University of Padua' (in Greek), Epeteris Hetaireias Byzantinon Spoudon (1929).

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