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The Doge Pietro Tradonico. Frieze by Domenico Tintoretto, Venice, Ducal Palace, Hall of the Maggior Consiglio

Coat of arms of the Doge Pietro Candiano.

Antonio Canal, called Canaletto, The Feast of the Sensa (Assumption), oil on canvas, the eighteenth century.

S. Pietro in Olivolo Church.

Port of Donzelle (Damsels), now Porto Santa Margherita.

World Map by Ibn Hawqal, Iraqi geographer .

World Map by Piri Reis Iranian geographer .

The Doge Pietro Orseolo.

Feudal Italy, 962-end of XI century.

The Pope Onorio III.
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The Independent Kingdom of Italy .


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The Doge Pietro Tradonico. Frieze by Domenico Tintoretto, Venice, Ducal Palace, Hall of the Maggior Consiglio


immagine didascalia

Coat of arms of the Doge Pietro Candiano.


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Antonio Canal, called Canaletto, The Feast of the Sensa (Assumption), oil on canvas, the eighteenth century.


immagine didascalia

S. Pietro in Olivolo Church.


immagine didascalia

Port of Donzelle (Damsels), now Porto Santa Margherita.


immagine didascalia

World Map by Ibn Hawqal, Iraqi geographer .


immagine didascalia

World Map by Piri Reis Iranian geographer .


immagine didascalia

The Doge Pietro Orseolo.


immagine didascalia

Feudal Italy, 962-end of XI century.


immagine didascalia

The Pope Onorio III.


Piracy on the North Adriatic

The northeast coastline of the Adriatic Sea had been inhabited by several peoples engaging in piracy from the earliest times. These groups varied in size and ferocity depending on the age and the economic situation. The pirates mainly seized goods from the merchant vessels passing their settlements, though they also made some rare incursions inland, to pillage settlements and grab inhabitants to turn into slaves for ransom.
Such activities were first documented in the early 1st Century ad and continued until the mid 17th Century.

There were several factors that caused the various populations  along the Dalmatian coastline to become pirates.
A particularly important factor was the strategic position of their settlements, always an obligatory route for the rich merchant ships sailing between the Levant, former Byzantine and then Ottoman, and the vast lands of Europe.

Regular sea traffic has, of course, always been the main attraction for populations that engage in piracy. Another significant factor was the morphology of the land, which made it easy to escape and hide and to conceal the spoils over the centuries.
The many islands and narrow channels also let them prepare ambushes and overcome the strength and size of the victim, who was often unaware of any impending danger. Plus one cannot ignore the support and connivance of the local populations.

Piracy was also often supported by other powers that exploited it and used it to their advantage, often as a sort of atypical commercial competition with the state or merchants being attacked.
However, the area between the eastern end of the Istrian peninsula and the islands north of the city of Zadar became the real centre of Dalmatian piracy over the centuries.

The Republic of Venice’s desire to eliminate the phenomenon of Dalmatian piracy was first seen in around 1000 when a special fleet was organized by the Doge Pietro Orseolo II  to deal with the narentan pirates (based in Neretva).

This should be seen in the light of the international balance of power of that time.
As a result, Venice was in fact able to extend its dominance over most of Dalmatia, laying the foundations for its future control the Adriatic and the transformation of the lagoon city, still under Byzantine Empire, into a genuine regional power .
By that time, Dalmatian pirates had been attacking Venetian trade for about a century and a half.

It is worthwhile, therefore, retracing the events that led to such a great change in the role and political importance of the Republic.

Ever since the time of the Doge Pietro Tradonico in 836 there had been a series of encounters that led to a substantial (though temporary) victory over the Dalmatian pirates.
In 880 raids by Slav pirates up the coast to Grado ensured that the Republic sought the alliance of Dalmatian populations who were the victims of piracy, such as the city of Zadar and others who were no longer under Byzantine rule by 820.
The victory against the Slav pirates was complete, but the fact that once Venice freed the pirates once the stolen goods had been returned indicated that Venice was still interested in keeping the status quo and in peaceful coexistence. In other words, a proper strategy to remove the problem of piracy was still not in the city’s interests and so not urgent.

Some years later, in 887, there were two unsuccessful expeditions organized by the Doge Peter Candiano , in the second of which this Venetian leader lost his life at the hands of the narentan pirates.

History repeated itself until the middle of the 10th Century.
Certain events from this period are still celebrated today in Venice. For example, the feast celebrated on the Day of Purification, January 31st, commemorates the Venetians’ victory over the pirates of Istria and Neretva.
These had captured some Venetian maidens ("donzelle") who traditionally attended the Cathedral of San Pietro in Olivolo to bless their dowries before marriage. It would appear that the pirates took them to a place near Caorle still called "Porto di Donzelle", where they were caught up by the Venetians, defeated and forced to hand over the women.
On a more general note, piracy obviously affected everyday life and the celebration of religious festivals and holidays in the Republic of Venice.

A kind of “protection money” was paid by Venice to the pirates until 1080 or so. This was seen as choosing the lesser evils for the leaders of the Republic, trade being so important to the local economy. Paying sums to the Narentan pirates meant they could "guarantee" the city’s rich traffic from attack. It is easy to imagine that the cost of fighting the pirates was considered too high compared just paying a small percentage of the profits from trade.
Peace and the relative flourishing of trade would have largely offset the sums paid out to the pirates.
It would, however, be wrong to consider the payment of such sums as a sign of any military or political weakness of the Republic.
Indeed, the Adriatic was known as the "Sea of the Venetians" (used by the Iraqi geographer Ibn Hawqal  da Palermo as early as 972). This trend increased in step with the growing economic and political importance of the Republic. Indeed, in 1513 the Ottoman admiral and geographer Piri Reis  called the Adriatic the "Gulf of Venice."

The election of Peter Orseolo II helped upset the precarious balance achieved between the Republic and the pirates. The Doge decided to stop paying the protection money and unleashed a reprisal by the Narentan pirates on Venetian trade. A fleet was sent from Venice under the command of Badoario (known as "Bragadino") up the coast to Lissa. The city was destroyed and looted, leading to bloody reprisals by the Narenta pirates all along the Dalmatian coast. Not being able to trust in any help from Byzantium, the towns and harbours saw Venice as the only power capable of opposing the Narentan Slavs. This led to a common interest and outlook throughout the area from Venice to Dalmatia (still under Byzantium rule, but having wanted its independence and self-rule for over a century).

This was an opportunity too good to be missed for Venice and so the Doge Orseolo did not hesitate in replying favourably to this request for help from the Dalmatians. He himself headed two highly successful military expeditions. As a result of the first, the populations of Grado, Porec, Pula and Kvarner surrendered spontaneously, providing help for the Venetian army.
Also, the Slavs of Cres and Osor swore fidelity to the Doge. The same happened in Zadar and the islands of Rab and Krk. 

After negotiations with the Croats, the Doge signed the first ceasefire that involved cessation of all payments by the Venetians to the Narentan pirates and an undertaking by these not to harass Venetian ships.
When this clause was violated, a second expedition set out on Ascension Day and led to the subjection of Korcula and the destruction of Lastovo, which refused to surrender. Its inhabitants were then deported to Venice as slaves.

Thanks to these two expeditions, Venice became a genuine regional power recognised by the conquered cities, although their institutions and rules were still respected. This fact was to become a typical feature of Venetian rule, even in later centuries and places with different cultures.

Venice’s political and economic power merged to become increasingly inseparable.
It is reasonable to ask what happened to the pirates who had so stubbornly opposed the emergence of Venetian power. The answer lies in the opportunities offered by the Dalmatian coast to the local inhabitants. The coastline, frequented by rich merchant ships, offered the pirates great opportunities to hide in mountain strongholds, protected from behind and surrounded by a maze of islands and a series of narrow canals. Political and economic factors should then be added to these strategic and geographical ones, i.e. the desire by competing states to control some of the lucrative Levantine shipping heading to and from Venice. The coastal populations reorganized and the attraction of easy pickings clearly outweighed any fear of repression.

The fight against piracy along the Dalmatian coast continued throughout the 13th Century, at times becoming very fierce due to the resurgence of the phenomenon.

In 1221 Pope Honorius III called for a crusade against pirates in this region.
In 1278, the pirates lost control of two crucial islands: Brac and Hvar. Yet it was only in 1444 that the Venetians managed to capture the stronghold of Omiš, thus ensuring the Adriatic was free of pirates for about a century.

Then, in the middle of the 16th Century, piracy returned with a vengeance for various reasons, this time involving different people.
After the Ottoman advance in the Balkans, heterogeneous groups settled along the coast once occupied by the Narentan pirates. The Uskoks (a Croatian term for "refugees") made a nuisance of themselves until the middle of the  17thCentury.

Salvatore Pappalardo


400 - 1000  -   - rev. 0.1.12

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Venice and its lagoons

World Heritage, a dialogue between cultures: which future?

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