I remember sitting in St Mark’s Square, Venice, admiring what was in front me. Such a romantic city, this was the place to be. There was a gala, lots of colour, people enjoying themselves and the horses… The famous horses of St Mark’s Square are now located in the main Basilica, though until recent years the original horses were on display in the square and widely attributed as Venetian by passing tourists.
The Greek Horses of Triumph
The horses which symbolise triumph, were in fact stolen from Constantinople in 1204 by the Venetian military who had been on their way to a Crusade. Instead of pursuing the Crusade, they used their ‘stopover’ to loot this great city which had opened its doors as friends. The horses are viewed as an example of Venetian power, who at that time were probably the pre eminent maritime power.
The four bronze horses are said to have been the work of a 4th Century Greek sculptor and had adorned the Hippodrome of Constantinople, a symbol of Greek Byzantine strength. It is no coincidence that once the horses were stolen, Greek Byzantine power began declining. The Venetians found themselves in control of the capital for over 50 years until retaken by Greek forces. For the Byzantine Empire this act of treachery and the coinciding loss of the horses began their long road to ruin, which eventually came through defeat to the Ottomans in 1453.
Now back to Venice and the horses. The holder of these magnificent statues represented world influence. It’s no coincidence that their power came to end when Napoleon took them in 1797. Unlike most items that have been stolen from Greece, the statues were returned when Napoleon was defeated in 1815. Is there a pattern that when these horses are taken away, the power who loses the horses is the one that has been defeated?
I always wondered about the Greek-Venetian connection. The horses were simply one piece of a larger puzzle. For we all know the Venetian Empire controlled many Greek cities and islands, often joining forces with the local Greek population to take on the Ottomans. A famous example is the 24 years the Cretans and Venetians held out the superior Turkish forces until 1669. This was an incredible fight of bravery that neither side was willing to surrender. I should point out that a number of small Venetian outposts were allowed independence until 1715.
Crete is an example of the influence of Venice on Greece. The Venetians built higher buildings, small or no balconies and the streets were paved with arches. Fortresses can be found across Crete. They also introduced different colour schemes to a home setting. Across the Peloponnese and probably 100 islands (including Cyprus) and cities you will come across the Venetian architectural influence. I have had the pleasure of visiting as mamy of these as my budget has permitted.
With this context in mind, many people will be unaware of the Greek influence in Venice. As I strolled around Venice, you could feel the history and the splendour of Venice, however, if you blinked you would miss the Greek connection. In fact I was in Venice on holiday, not to write and it was by chance that I stumbled upon a Greek church. I remember how excited the Italian woman became when I explained I could speak Greek. I think she was trying to tell me she was of Greco origin when the smell of latte and gelato took me away to another piazza. Italian is a difficult language for me to converse in.
Venice was either founded in 421 AD as tradition tells us or in the 600s, when the small communes banded together as one community under a leader called the Doge. Most of Italy during the 500’s – 600’s was under Byzantine Greek control with the south being notable for the use of Greek as the lingua franca.
An early and important Doge, was Orso Ipato, a Greek who was born in Heraclea in Calabria. The Doge had to report to the Byzantine Emperor, however, Venice was in essence an independent state whose foreign relations and some taxes were controlled by Constantinople. In 810, the Holy Roman Empire made an unsuccessful attempt to capture Venice, resulting in a Treaty that recognised Byzantine authority.
End of Byzantine control
However, despite the Treaty that was signed in 811 AD, it is probable that this is the date Byzantine control of Venice was essentially at an end. For the Byzantine Greek military had more to contend with Bulgarians, Slavs, Arabs and Avars who were entering the Empire. Venice could be let go as a distant territory. Unfortunately, this was one decision that would ultimately prove disastrous when you consider the disgraceful act of looting Constantinople in 1204 and the rise of Venice as a rival power.
In 1082 Emperor Alexios Comnenos signed a Treaty with Venice which guaranteed them extensive trade and commerce in Byzantium in return for their military support against the Normans. The new found trade opportunities allowed Venice to grow into the great power they became within a century.
Greek migrants in Venice
When Constantinople was defeated in 1453, and in the lead up to that disastrous event, many Greek speakers migrated to Italy including Venice for protection against the Ottomans. It is estimated that 5,000 made their way to Venice (this figure can not be verified), and were a key ingredient to what became known as the Renaissance. All the great Greek writers of the period who brought their own work as well as the classics helped usher in the Renaissance.
By 1500 there was a Greek library, a printshop (probably the first in the world) was created to reproduce Greek texts, ‘tavernas’ and the teaching of the Greek language. Cardinal Bessarion, a Greek Catholic born in Trebizond, donated his entire collection of Greek manuscripts to Venice. This resulted in one of the largest Greek libraries in the world.
The man who invented the modern printshop in Venice, Aldus Manutius, was deeply immersed in Greek culture, created the Nea Acadamia for Greek and Italian intellectuals focussing on the classics.
By 1580, there were over 15,000 Greek people in Venice out of a population of 110,000. This made Venice one of the biggest Greek ‘cities’ in the world. In 1539 an official Greek church was built and whilst I am not entirely sure, this is probably the Church I had stumbled upon in Venice in what is the Castello area. Old, beautiful, serene and Greek!
Around 1498 the Greek community was an officially recognised ‘scuola.’ My Italian is a little rusty therefore I am not able to understand when the official recognition of a community or scuola ended, though I would guess after the end of the Republic just before 1800.
They always say about Greek and Italian relations, una fatsa, una ratsa, which means one face, one race. This has traditionally referred to the Greek people in Calabria, Apulia, Sicilia and Sardinia, not Venice. However, one has to spend some time in Venice and various parts of Greece to understand we have a similar historia, with an influence that goes both ways. I’m glad that such a historical city as Venice has a Greek connection…now if they could just return those horses, per favore.