June 3, 2011

Judge Arthur Tompkins on The Four Horses of the Basilica San Marco, Venice: A Short History (Part I)

The Byzantine Empire before the Crusades
by Judge Arthur Tompkins, ARCA Lecturer

Constantinople, or Byzantium, had been founded by Constantine I in 330 (F Baez, A Universal History of the Destruction of Books, English Translation by A MacAdam, Atlas & Co, New York, 2008, page 94):
“It became the capital of the Byzantium Empire, where the traditions of Greece and Rome were maintained. ... [T]he world is indebted to Constantinople for the possibility of reading authors who would otherwise by nothing more than names. Without its contribution to the transmission of ancient texts, we would probably not have the works of Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, or Archimedes – to name just a few.”
Constantine the Great, or to give him his full name, Caesar Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus, was the first Christian Roman Empire, and ruled either jointly or alone from 306 until his death in 337. He had turned the Greek colony at Byzantium into an imperial residence, renaming it Constantinople. Subsequently it became the capital of the Empire in 476 CE, thus triggering the entry of Rome "into its thousand years of medieval slumber" (Francis Henry Taylor, The Taste of Angels, Atlantic Little, Brown, Boston, 1948).

The Fourth Crusade saw what might be termed one of the great detours in world military history. Pope Innocent III had become Pope in 1198, and immediately started to preach for a Fourth Crusade.

One of the churches in which it is claimed by some writers that he proclaimed the crusade, the Chiesa Sant'Andrea, stands in the central piazza in Orvieto.

The Third Crusade had failed abjectly, and in Western Europe there was little stomach for another go at the Muslims, now firmly in control of the Levant, including Jerusalem and much of the adjacent territory.  

But, despite that, the Fourth Crusade finally got underway in October 1202. A largely French Army, but crucially also comprising a significant Venetian contingent, set out from Venice for Cairo in Egypt, intending to invest Jerusalem overland through Egypt.

Fewer crusaders (memorably described by Michael Palin as “wandering psychopaths with really sharp swords ...”) than expected had turned up in Venice, whose merchants and bankers had expended a large amount of money and effort preparing for a much larger army - much like, nowadays, a city will spend up large preparing for the Olympics, to the bemusement and often resentment of local taxpayers. Venice expected a significant return on its investment.

Venice insisted on payment up front of the princely sum of 85,000 silver marks , which the crusaders only partially managed by beggaring themselves. The result was that when the crusade sailed, the Venetians were feeling decidedly out of pocket. A displaced prince of Constantinople, Alexius Angelis, seized the opportunity presented by the presence of a large but strapped-for-cash army, and offered money, transport, knights, and control of the Greek Orthodox Church if the Crusaders would but place him back on the Byzantine throne in Constantinople.

So the Crusade detoured to Constantinople.

The sack of Constantinople was not, it seemed, initially part of the deal. After an attack on a trade rival of Venice’s, Zara on the east coast of the Adriatic , carried out despite express prohibition by the Pope, Venice offered the Crusaders winter residence in Zara. In effect, Venice was taking "profit wherever it could be found" (Taylor, page 40).

Another source for this material is Wilhelm Treue's Art Plunder: The Fate of Works of Art in War and Unrest (Translated from the German by Basil Creighton, The John Day Company, New York, 1961)

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