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The Doge on the Bucintoro near the Riva di Sant'Elena (c. 1766-70) by Francesco Guardi

The Venetian navy (Venetian language: Armada) was the navy of the Venetian Republic, and played an important role in the history of Venice, the Republic and the Mediterranean world. The premier navy in the Mediterranean for many centuries, from the medieval to the early modern period, it gave Venice a control and influence over trade and politics in the Mediterranean far in excess of the size of the city and its population. It was one of the first navies to mount gunpowder weapons aboard ships, and through an organised system of naval dockyards, armouries and chandlers, (the Venetian Arsenal, which was one of the greatest concentrations of industrial capacity prior to the Industrial Revolution) was able to continually keep ships at sea, and to rapidly make good any losses.

Driven at first by a rivalry with the Byzantine Empire, and later the Maritime Republics of Pisa and Genoa for primacy over trade with the Levant, the Venetian navy was at times technically innovative and yet operationally conservative. With the final fall of Constantinople it played a key role in checking the maritime advance of the Ottoman Empire for over three centuries. The navy's long decline mirrored that of the Republic, beginning in the 16th century and ending with the capitulation of the city to Napoleon in 1796.

Evolution of the Venetian navy

Giving shelter to refugees fleeing Hunnic invaders in the 6th century, Venice grew in the Venetian Lagoon in the northern Adriatic, from the very beginning it focused on the maritime trade routes across the Eastern Mediterranean to the Levant and beyond; Venice's commercial and military strength, and continued survival, lay in the strength of its fleet, which allowed it for centuries to check the maritime advance of the numerically superior forces of the Ottoman Empire.

Origins, 8th to 11th centuries

Model of a Venetian galley, Museo Storico Navale, Venice

The origins of the Venetian navy lay in the traditions of the Roman and Byzantine navies. Venice was originally a vassal, later an ally of the Byzantine Empire and it utilised Byzantine naval and military techniques. At this time there was little difference between the merchant and naval fleets, all ships had to be able to defend themselves if the need arose. In the event of hostilities ships and crews were taken up from trade to reinforce the war fleet, being dispersed back to the pursuit of commerce on the ending of the emergency. Even so, there were two types of vessels one primarily military and one predominantly mercantile.

  • The nave sottile (thin ship), a narrow-beamed galley, derived from the trireme, which for a millienium was the principle ship of the Mediterranean. When not in use as warships, galleys were used to transport low bulk high value cargoes.
  • The nave tonda (round ship) derived from the Roman navis oneraria, this was a stubby broad-beamed ship with a high freeboard and multiple decks, it was designed for the profitable transport of cargo. Propelled mainly by the wind, the round ship was limited to sailing before the wind, and were therefore less maneuverable and more vulnerable to enemy attack. However, in the event of war they could be used as supply and support ships.

Towards the end of the 9th Century there appeared the main instrument of Venetian power:

  • The galea sottile (thin galley), an agile narrow-beamed ship with a single deck, propelled as needed by oars or lateen sails. It was an uncomfortable ship as, save for perhaps a tent for the officers, the entire crew had to live exposed to the elements, the hold being devoted to supplies and cargo. However, the size of the crew, speed and maneuverability in combat, and the fact that it could sail against the wind or be rowed in the absence of the wind, made it ideal both as a warship and as a transport of the most valuable of cargoes. Length was about 45 metres and the beam 5, provision was made for about 25 banks of rowers.

In addition a number of other types of ships are mentioned in the Chronicles,

  • the galandria (or zalandria), a masted galley, with a raised archery platform or "castle"
  • the palandria, another type of war galley
  • the dromon, similar to contemporary Byzantine ships of the same name, but often larger, they were twin decked and equipped with "castles" and Greek fire projectors, making them useful in maritime sieges
  • the gumbaria, mentioned in the time of Pietro II Candiano, a term mostly associated with Muslim heavy warships
  • the ippogogo, a cavalry transport (from Greek: ἱππαγωγόν, "horse-carrier")
  • the buzo, the great war galley, twin or triple masted, a possible progenitor of the Bucentaur (the state barge of the Doges)
  • fireships
  • the gatto

With these ships, Venice fought alongside the Byzantines against the Arabs, Franks and Normans, winning by the year 1000 dominance of the Adriatic, subjugating the Narentines and taking control of Dalmatia, the first domain in what would become Venice's Stato da Màr.

Towards the end of this period Venice had accumulated a large and powerful fleet. Although still nominally a vassal of the Byzantine Empire, Venice was increasingly independent and a rival of Byzantine for primacy in the Eastern Mediterranean. Rather than depending on the Byzantines for their survival, the Venetians held, with their fleet, the balance of power, and was able to use it to leverage concessions from both the Byzantines and their rivals in Western Christendom, profiting from both. In return for Venetian aid against the Normans, in the Byzantine–Norman wars, Alexios I Komnenos the Byzantine Emperor granted the Venetians far-reaching commercial privileges in the Chrysobull, or Golden Bull, of 1082.

Twelfth Century to first half of the Fifteenth Century

The Capture of Constantinople in 1204, 1580 oil painting by Tintoretto.

In the 12th Century, following the Chrysobull of 1082, and the Crusades (for which Venice had provided transport of men and supplies), Venetian commercial interests in the Levant led to the first great revolution of the Venetian navy, the building of the Venetian Arsenal.

At this great public shipyard, under the direct control of the Republic, were concentrated all that was needed to construct and maintain the Venetian fleet. With this move, control of the galleys also passed into public ownership, private citizens being limited to chartering freightage aboard the vessels that undertook the muda trade convoys.

The 13th Century opened with overseas conquest and an expansion of the Stato da Màr, giving the Venetian a chain of bases, outposts and colonies across the trade routes to the Levant. Partially at the instigation of Venice, the Fourth Crusade diverted to Constantinople and with the Sack of Constantinople in 1204, Venice had become the pre-eminent maritime power in the Eastern Mediterranean. Venice also developed a new type of galley more suitable for the muda.

  • The galea grossa da merchado (great merchant galley), also known simply as the da mercato ("merchantman"); with a greater beam than the previous galea sottile and consequently a reduction in hydrodynamic performance in exchange for enhanced cargo capacity. Essentially a compromise between military and commercial needs the merchant galley was particularly suitable for the trade in high value cargoes with the East. Length was about 50 metres and beam about 7, provision was for 25 banks of rowers.

At this time, the decline of ducal power and an entrenchment of the republican form of government saw the Doge gradually lose the ability to appoint military commanders to the Great Council; the government of the Republic began to take on the shape that it would keep for the following centuries, until its final demise. Additionally, the desire to maintain mastery of newly conquered seas and a growing conflict with the maritime republics of Genoa and Pisa led to Venice keeping a larger fleet under arms for longer.

From 1268, virtually uniquely for the time, Venice maintained a standing fleet so as to maintain control of the Adriatic, which for Venetians was simply il Golfo, the Gulf. With this naval force, Venice imposed its authority on the Adriatic, which it regarded as its own, patrolling, inspecting all ships passing, and attacking those it considered hostile. At the Battle of Curzola in 1298, Venice suffered a major defeat at the hands of the Genoese navy, which saw the loss of 83 galleys out of a fleet of 95, 7,000 men killed[1] and another 7,000 captured. However, Venice was able to immediately equip a second fleet of 100 galleys and was able to obtain reasonable peace conditions that did not significantly hamper its power and prosperity.

The 14th Century saw a great change in construction techniques, with the replacement of the twin steering oar for the single stern rudder and with the introduction of the magnetic compass, a radical change in the nature of going out to sea. This century saw the culmination of the long smouldering Venetian–Genoese Wars which came to an end of sorts during the War of Chioggia (1378-1381), after which Genoese ships were not seen again in the Adriatic. The Battle of Chioggia, from which the wider conflict takes its name, is notable in being the first recorded use of ship-mounted gunpowder weapons being used in combat.[2] The Venetians, who were already using gunpowder siege weapons on land, mounted small bombards to many of their galleys during the battle to keep the Genoese force cordoned off in Chioggia.[2] The conflict was nearly equally disastrous for both sides, and Genoa was certainly crippled, losing the naval ascendency that the city-state had enjoyed prior to the war.[3] Venice might have suffered equally as badly, but for the existence of the Arsenal, which allowed Venice to make good its losses in next to no time. By this time the Arsenal had a mothballed fleet of at least 50 decommissioned hulks that could be rearmed and brought rapidly back into service.

The early 15th Century saw the spread of a new ship type, developed for use in the North Sea by the Hanseatic League, it then spread to the rest of Europe, and was adopted by Venice for its trade with the North.

  • The cog, a "round ship" designed to cope with the rough waters of the North Sea, the hulls of Venetian built cogs had a pronounced teardrop shape, with a narrow bow mounting a high forecastle.

Second half of the Fifteenth Century to Eighteenth Century

The Battle of Lepanto, unknown artist, late 16th century

A new chapter for Venice and the Venetian navy opened in 1453, with the Fall of Constantinople and the beginning in earnest of the Ottoman–Venetian Wars a centuries long confrontation with the Ottoman Empire.

Faced with a constant threat to its maritime possessions, Venice had little choice but to maintain a standing fleet of dozens of galleys on a war footing in peacetime, bolstered in times of actual war by over a hundred galleys held in reserve. To oversee the efficient supply and administration of such a force required an extensive organisational effort, leading to the creation of the office of the Magistrato alla Milizia da Mar (Commissioner of naval forces) responsible for the construction and maintenance of ships and cannon, provision of ship's biscuits and other ship's stores, weapons and gunpowder, recruitment of crews and the management of finances.

With the maturation of firearms technology, the previous Greek fire projectors were replaced with cannon positioned in the bow as chasers. This era saw the development of further ship types.

  • The brigantine, unrelated to the Northern European brigantine, the Mediterranean brigantine was a small fast ship, sail- and oar-driven,[4] it was lateen rigged on two masts and had between eight and twelve oars on each side. Like the galley it was used both as an escort and a transport, Venetian brigantines were about 20 metres long and 3 metres wide,
  • The galiot, a small galley type ship powered by both oars and sail, also known as the half galley, length was about 25 metres, beam 4 metres and with provision for 15 pairs of oars
  • The fusta, a small narrow galley, 35 metres long and 7 metres wide, with provision for 20 banks of oars.
  • The galea bastarda (bastard galley), a development of the galea sottile it had a fuller hull and was more strongly built, allowing it to accommodate a fourth, later a fifth, rower per bench,[5] its increased size made it suitable for use as a flagship in both trade and war fleets. It was so named because the vessel was a cross between the galea sottile and the galea grossa.

The 16th Century saw the gradual replacement of the traditional missile weapons (bows and crossbows) with the modern arquebus. At this time the traditional Venetian galee libere (free galleys) with crews composed of buonavoglia (free men serving for pay) and zontaroli (debtors and convicts serving out their debt, and conscripts serving in time of war) was supplemented by the first Venetian galee sforzate (forced galleys) in which the crews were composed solely of convicts sentenced to forced labour at the oars. Unfree rowers were always a rarity in Venice, Venice being one of few major naval powers that used almost exclusively free rowers, a result of their reliance on alla sensile rowing (one oar per man, with two to three sharing the same bench) which required skilled professional rowers. The use of the galee sforzate was always quite limited in the Venetian navy and did not fit into the normal order of battle of the fleet, instead such ships were formed into a separate flotilla under the command of the so-called Governator de'Condannati (Governor of the condemned).

Making a victorious debut at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 was a Venetian invention that was soon adopted by other fleets in the Mediterranean. Venetian marines fought in Lepanto, created as Fanti da Mar in 1550.[6]

  • The galleass was a warship derived from the da mercato, the galleass was a very large galley, carrying a substantial complememt of naval artillery on a continuous gun deck, located above the rowers, allowing for the first time the firing of a concentrated broadside. Length was about 50 metres, beam 8 metres, with provision for 25 banks of oars.

The contemporaneous decline in commercial traffic led to the disappearance galea grossa mercantile. By the 16th Century Venice though significant was no longer the predominant naval power it had once been; the long conflict with the Ottoman's had cut the trade routes to the East, and with the Voyages of discovery, and the opening of the Atlantic trade routes, the focus of European maritime trade had moved from the Mediterranean.

The 17th century was marked by the loss of Venice's overseas possessions; Venice found itself fighting the twenty five year long Cretan War (1645–69), also known as the "War of Candia", which saw a Venetian expeditionary fleet outside the gates of Istanbul, the former Constantinople, but ended with the loss of Venice's last and most important Eastern Mediterranean possession, the Kingdom of Candia (Crete). In September 1669 a submersible vessel was proposed with which to attack the Turkish fortifications, however a peace treaty was signed before it could be constructed.

In 1619 the Venetian Senate instituted a naval academy, the Collegio dei Giovani Nobili (College for Young Nobles), on the island of Giudecca to provide a naval education.

The Venetian navy continued to introduce and adopt new ship types.

  • galea bastardella (barstardling galley), a galley intermediate in size between the galea bastarda and galea sottile
  • galleon, the galleon was a Venetian development of a sailing ship (the gallioni), first appearing in the early 16th Century and intended to fight piracy,[7] Multi-decked and carrying a broadside of guns on a gun deck the galleon was adopted by other European powers and readopted by Venice. Initially at least it was hybridised by the provision to allow rowing.

The large scale adoption of the galleon by Venice was prompted by her experience with sailing ships chartered from the English and Dutch against the forces of Habsburg Spain and the Ottomans. Its adoption led to a division of the Venetian navy into two, one a sailing branch, (the Armada grossa) and the second rowing (the Armada sottile).

During the 1600s galleys remained an important protagonists in Mediterranean warfare, however they were no longer the decisive weapons they had once been; since the 1500s galleons and other "round ships" (i.e. triple masted sailing ships with a deep draught) had become the most important component of Northern European and other fleets.

Rank and command structure

The high command of the fleet in peacetime was entrusted to the Provveditore generale da Mar ("Superintendent general of the Sea"), who resided at Corfu. In times of war, a Capitano general da Mar ("Captain general of the Sea"), with very extensive powers, was appointed.[8] Following the division of the fleet in the mid-17th century into rowed (sottile), comprising galleys and galeasses, and sailing ships of the line (grossa), the former formed three distinct squadrons, under the command of the Provveditore d'armata ("Superintendent of the fleet"), the Capitano del Golfo ("Captain of the Gulf"), and the Governatore dei condannati ("Governor of the condemned ones"). The galeasses were sometimes placed under their own commander.[8] The commanders of the ships of the line were the Capitano delle Navi ("Captain of the Sailing Ships"), the Almirante ("Admiral"), and the Patrona.[8]

A number of junior and subordinate commanders could be added to these, and a number of temporary or specialized posts were created over the centuries as well, such as the Capitano della Riviera della Marca, the Capitano delle fuste in Golfo ("Captain of the light galleys in the Gulf"), the capitani of bastard galleys and heavy galleys, the Capitano contro Uscocchi ("Captain against the Uskoks") and the Capitano alla guardia delle isole del Quarnero e delle Rive dell’Istria ("Captain on the watch of the islands of Quarnero and the Coasts of Istria").[8] In the 15th and 16th centuries, Venice also maintained riverine fleets in the Po and Adige, as well as in Lake Garda in the 17th century.[8] Crete and Cyprus also had their own fleet squadrons, under a capitano.[8]

Individual galleys and galeasses were commanded by a sopracomito or a governatore, and the ships of the line by a governatore di nave, or nobile di nave. Like the higher command positions and the senior commissariat of the fleet, all of them were filled by members of the Venetian patriciate.[8]

See also


  1. Nicol, Donal M. (1992). Byzantium and Venice: A Study in Diplomatic and Cultural Relations. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521428941. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Guilmartin, John Francis. "The Earliest Shipboard Gunpowder Ordnance: An Analysis of Its Technical Parameters and Tactical Capabilities." The Journal of Military History 71.3 (2007): 649-69. Web.
  3. Lucas, Henry S. (1960). The Renaissance and the Reformation. Harper & Brothers. p. 42. ISBN 0404198155. 
  4. Dik; Hans (2006). Aken, tjalken en kraken: zeilschepen van de Lage Landen : de binnenvaart. De Alk. ISBN 978-90-6013-274-6. 
  5. Morrison, John; Gardiner, Robert, eds (2004). The Age of the Galley: Mediterranean Oared Vessels Since Pre-classical Times. Conway Maritime Press Ltd. p. 248. ISBN 978-0851779553. 
  6. Domenico Carro, Vox Navalis, 2015, Roma Aeterna, pag. 107
  7. Gould, Richard (2011). Archaeology and the Social History of Ships. Cambridge University Press. p. 216. ISBN 978-0521125628. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 Da Mosto 1940, p. 5.


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