The Fourth Crusade saw the most appalling war crime when crusaders funded by Venice destroyed a Christian city – Constantinople.
Venice is now an over-visited historical tourist resort in northern Italy subject to flooding and beset of late by the Coronavirus. But go back several centuries and the city was a mighty maritime power taking on the Byzantine empire and its neighbours. Ruled by a prince called the Doge, it was responsible for the destruction of the Byzantine capital of Constantinople in the year 1204.
All of which must have been delicious to savour for the Venetians. They’d once been a younger brother to Constantinople. The junior power in the eastern Mediterranean. Wandering around Venice in 2014, I could see the Byzantine influence everywhere but especially the churches. However, as Byzantium went into decline during the Templar period, Venice advanced.
So much so that by the year 1204, the 41st Doge of Venice – Enrico Dandolo – agreed to fund the Fourth Crusade. Unfortunately, his creditors – the crusaders – were a financially disorganised bunch up to their necks in debt already.
Fearing that Venice would never get its money back, he prodded the crusaders into an unthinkable act. They would sack the still wealthy city of Constantinople (a Christian city!!) – which also just happened to be a trading rival of Venice. That included looting the beautiful basilica of the Hagia Sofia – and I’m pictured there (below) on one of my many visits to Istanbul.
Fourth Crusade – diverted by Venice to Constantinople
When the Pope got wind of this plan, he was furious. The crusade was supposed to be against Muslim kingdoms – not other Christians. But nothing was going to stop Venice getting its money. And Dandolo went with the army. Astonishingly, he was about 97 years old at the time. This is an impressive age now but in the medieval period, it was antediluvian!
Not only did Dandolo, the Venetians and the crusaders take Constantinople but the old Doge made sure plenty of great monuments were shipped back to his city. The four horses on top of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice came from Constantinople.
Dandolo himself never saw Venice again – he died on the crusade and was buried inside the Hagia Sofia. This was the great cathedral in the centre of Constantinople that is still standing. His grave was later desecrated but there is a marker stone put on the spot centuries later.
Below is a statue of four Roman emperors that originally stood in Constantinople but is now wedged into the side of a building in Venice.