Enrico Dandolo was the 39th and arguably the most remarkable Doge of Venice. He held the office from 1193 to 1205 and despite being of an advanced age; perhaps as old as 85 at the time of his accession, had an action-packed reign. Dandolo is also described as being so blind as not to be able to see his hand in front of his face but neither age nor infirmity prevented him from undertaking prodigious military efforts on behalf of the Republic.
Dandolo belonged to one of the most venerable Venetian noble families and had enjoyed a career as an accomplished diplomat and soldier by the time of his election as Doge. At the time of his accession Venice was looking to reestablish itself as the predominant trading power in the Eastern Mediterranean. This had received a major blow in 1171 when the Byzantine emperor Manuel Comnenus had rounded up and imprisoned hundreds of Venetian citizens, confiscating property and impounding ships throughout his empire in a coordinated backlash against Venetian influence. Dandolo took part in the Venetian embassy to Constantinople in the aftermath of this outrage where peace proved elusive and the envoys were treated with disdain. Dandolo is said to have lost his sight as a result of head injury received during a brawl during this embassy, whatever the truth of this, he nursed a hatred of Byzantium from that time forth.
Dandolo’s opportunity to exact the full measure of revenge against Byzantium came with the preaching of the Fourth Crusade by Pope Innocent III in 1199. This expedition, which was to be launched against Egypt, would require the significant contribution of Venetian sea power in order to transport the crusading army. This Dandolo, with a sharp eye for a profit and a determination to gain as much benefit as possible for Venice from the exercise, was happy to provide; for a price.
Dandolo declares Venetian support for the Fourth Crusade
In return for the Republic’s assistance, Dandolo had demanded nothing less than half of all the territory captured and an up-front payment of 84,000 silver marks. At the same time it is likely that the Doge was already seeking to undermine the expedition since Venice had a vested interest in maintaining peaceful trade with the Egyptians.
When the turn out for the crusade proved to be lower than expected, the expedition’s leaders Geoffrey de Villehardouin and Boniface of Montferrat found themselves unable to come up with the required sum. Dandolo now took advantage of their embarrassment to divert the crusade to serve his own purpose. In exchange for writing off some of the debt, Dandolo proposed that the crusaders could help Venice by retaking the Croatian port of Zara from the Hungarians. To this the crusaders had little choice but to agree and the city was swiftly captured and sacked when the crusaders finally set out in 1202. For their trouble the entire crusade found themselves excommunicated by the outraged Pope for making war on fellow Christians. Dandolo, though he may now have been in his nineties had accompanied the expedition and when further opportunity to divert it from its original objective had presented itself in the form of Alexius; the dispossessed heir to the Byzantine throne, he championed the young man’s cause.
Alexius had arrived in Zara with extravagant promises of money and soldiers for their cause if the crusaders would help to overthrow his usurping uncle and restore him to power.
The forces of the Fourth Crusade duly arrived in Constantinople and swiftly forced their way into the Golden Horn. The assault upon the sea walls of the city was led by Dandolo in person, who fearlessly ordered his galley run ashore and then leapt, with sword in hand and the standard of St Mark in the other, onto the ramparts. The rest of the Venetians followed him boldly and the city was taken.
The Venetians storm the sea walls of Constantinople
The usurper fled and with Alexius restored alongside his blinded father who had been released from prison, the operation appeared to have been a success. The promised payment was once more not forthcoming however as the restored emperors found their treasury somewhat bare. One can imagine Dandolo, with theatrical exasperation, wondering aloud if any of the princes of Europe were good for their debts.
When a popular uprising swept aside the two restored emperors it was clear that any reward to be had from the action in Constantinople would have to be taken by force. The crusaders had withdrawn across the Golden Horn and the defences along the sea walls were being hurriedly shored up by the new emperor Alexius Ducas. In the face of this new resistance, Dandolo proposed that the city should now be taken by storm and the Empire of Byzantium should be divided between the crusaders; with Venice gaining over a third of all imperial territory.
The city fell to a renewed assault and was put to three days of systematic plundering and burning. The destruction and desecration were terrible. Even the church of Hagia Sofia was profaned; according to the Byzantine chronicler Nicetas Choniates the high altar was destroyed, a whore was enthroned in the Patriarch’s chair and mules were brought into the church to be laden with its plundered treasures.
In the aftermath the crusader Baldwin of Flanders was elected as the first Latin Emperor of Constantinople; an entity which would last for sixty years before the Byzantines succeeded in reclaiming their capital.
All of this was of Dandolo’s making. To him must go the credit for masterminding and manipulating the course of events that had brought the Fourth Crusade, which had set out to strike at the Muslim occupiers of the Holy Land through the soft underbelly of Egypt, to sack Constantinople; the greatest city in Christendom. To him also must go the bulk of the infamy that this act deserves. Through his actions Dandolo had acquired extensive new territories for the Venetian Republic which would allow her to dominate trade with the eastern Mediterranean. Ultimately however the fatal weakening of Byzantium would hasten its eventual demise at the hands of the Ottoman Turks; an event which spelled the end for the Venetian commercial empire.
Within a year of this achievement Dandolo was dead. He was laid to rest somewhat ironically in the Church of Hagia Sofia. His legacy was long-lasting and far reaching. It is to Dandolo too that we owe the curious presence in the Basilica of St Mark of the famous bronze horses which once adorned the hippodrome of Constantinople.
The horses of St Mark
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