“Brotherly Love”, Alexandre Mitchell, 2023
(Canson, 180g, 42 x 59cm, Indian ink)
This painting was inspired by the long and tumultuous relationship between Venice and Constantinople throughout the Middle Ages. These two major Christian cities were also two poles of Christianity, Latin “Catholic” and Greek “Orthodox”.
Their interaction came to an abrupt end in 1204 when Venice conspired to divert the Fourth Crusade from the Holy Land to attack Constantinople and sack the city.
The Fourth Crusade has troubled me for many years. It was the first Christian on Christian massacre on an epic scale. I always wondered how it could have happened at a time when religious fervour was especially strong among Christians.
The Latin crusaders advanced various specious arguments to justify their massacre of Greek Orthodox Christians and some Venetians at the time justified their involvement in these affairs by stating they were just trying to help the former Byzantine emperor Alexius and that everything had gone sideways. I think the brotherly relationship between the cities and Christians of different denominations was trumped by more mundane considerations.
Even though Venice was Christian and respected the spiritual supremacy of the pope in Rome – it was Pope Innocent III who had spearheaded the Fourth Crusade – Venetians were pragmatic merchants, constantly negotiating their position in an ever-changing Mediterranean world. Rather than viewing 1204 as a disaster of epic proportions between Christians, maybe we should look at this event as the inevitable culmination of Venice’s economic and geo-political ambitions.
Pope John Paul II apologised for this horrific event in a famous speech on May 4, 2001 to the chief representative of the Greek orthodox church:
(…) Some memories are especially painful, and some events of the distant past have left deep wounds in the minds and hearts of people to this day. I am thinking of the disastrous sack of the imperial city of Constantinople, which was for so long the bastion of Christianity in the East. It is tragic that the assailants, who had set out to secure free access for Christians to the Holy Land, turned against their own brothers in the faith. The fact that they were Latin Christians fills Catholics with deep regret. (…)
Many precious objects, as well as thousands of columns and building material were shipped off to Venice. Most of these are still visible in Venice’s urban landscape to this day. One of these pillaged items has fascinated me for decades: it is the sculpted group called the Tetrarchs, wedged into the corner of the facade of the basilica of San Marco. It consists of two couples of Roman rulers embracing, which is why it was called the Tetrarchs (“Four rulers”). According to an old Byzantine text a similar sculpted group stood on a public square in Constantinople called the Philadelphion. And, “Philadelphion” in Greek… means “brotherly love”.
It might or might not be the same monument, but the way in which the Tetrarchs were pilfered from Constantinople and how they were fitted into the very facade of an eminent building in Venice is for me symbolic of the doomed relationship between the two cities. This is why I show two of the brothers drowning in the grand canal, blocked by a chain, attached to Ca’ da Mosto, the oldest Palazzo on the Grand Canal, decorated in a Venetian-Byzantine style.
This chain is a reminder of two historical giant metal chains. Doge Pietro Tribuno stretched a chain across the entrance to the Grand Canal in 906 CE to block enemy fleets from entering the heart of Venice. It was modelled on a far more famous chain, in Constantinople’s harbour that protected it against enemy fleets for 700 years until 1453 when the chain was circumvented by the Ottoman forces.
Just like the Tetrarchs were exhibited on the facade of the basilica of San Marco after 1204, the chain is on display in Istanbul’s archaeology museum. Indeed, even though it has been 600 years since 1453, the chain still recalls the Fall of the greatest city in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Tetrarchs and re-used materials
- Ludovico Rebaudo, “Il gruppo dei tetrarchi: una lettura del reimpiego”, in Giuseppe Cuscito (ed.), Riuso di monumenti e reimpiego di materiali antichi in età postclassica: il caso della Venetia, Trieste, Editreg, 2012, p. 147-158.
- Spolia | for a full bibliography and current research on the topic of decorative sculpture reused in new monuments, see DiSpLay (Digital Spolia Layering), the ongoing scientific project at the university of Venice | wikipedia
- Tetrarchy | online
- Monument of the Tetrarchs | online
Fourth Crusade (primary sources)
- de Villehardouin, Geoffrey. “Chronicle of The Fourth Crusade and The Conquest of Constantinople” | online
- Robert of Clari. “The Conquest of Constantinople” | online
Fourth Crusade (secondary sources)
- “The Fourth Crusade and the Latin empire of Constantinople”, 2006 | Encyclopædia Britannica
- The fourth Crusade | Wikipedia
- The Sack of Constantinople | Wikipedia
- Angold, Michael, “The road to 1204, the Byzantine background to the Fourth Crusade”, Journal of Medieval History, Vol. 25/3, 1999, pp. 257–278.
- Bartlett, W. B., An Ungodly War: The Sack of Constantinople and the Fourth Crusade. Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2000.
- Harris, Jonathan, Byzantium and the Crusades, Bloomsbury, 2nd ed., 2014.
- Kazhdan, Alexander “Latins and Franks in Byzantium”, in Angeliki E. Laiou and Roy Parviz Mottahedeh (eds.), The Crusades from the Perspective of Byzantium and the Muslim World. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 2001, pp. 83–100.
- Kolbaba, Tia M. “Byzantine Perceptions of Latin Religious ‘Errors’: Themes and Changes from 850 to 1350”, in Angeliki E. Laiou and Roy Parviz Mottahedeh (eds.), The Crusades from the Perspective of Byzantium and the Muslim World Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 2001, pp. 117–143.
- Hodgson, Natasha, “Honour, Shame and the Fourth Crusade”, Journal of Medieval History, 39/2, 2013, pp. 220-239.
- Lester, Anne E., “What remains_ women, relics and remembrance in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade”, Journal of Medieval History, 40/3, 2014, pp. 311-328.
- Madden, Thomas F., Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.
- Madden, Thomas F., and Donald E. Queller, The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.
- Noble, Peter, “The importance of Old French chronicles as historical sources of the Fourth Crusade and the early Latin Empire of Constantinople”, Journal of Medieval History 27, 2001, pp. 399–416.
The chain in Venice and in Constantinople
- Venice on foot | online
- Georgios Anapniotis, The truth about the great chain of the golden horn | ResearchGate
- Takeno, J., Takeno, Y., “The Mystery of the Defense Chain Mechanism of Constantinople”, in Koetsier, T., Ceccarelli, M. (eds.) Explorations in the History of Machines and Mechanisms. History of Mechanism and Machine Science, vol 15. Springer, Dordrecht. 2012 | doi
- Navigation barriers | wikipedia
- Golden Horn Chain | atlasobscura | ancient-origins
Palazzo Ca’ da Mosto
- Palazzo Ca’ da Mosto | wikipedia
- La famiglia e il palazzo Da Mosto | Conoscerevenezia
I wish to thank Dr Marcella De Paoli (curator of Venice’s museum of archaeology) and Dr Myriam Pilutti Namer (Ca Foscari University of Venice and member of the DiSpLay research project) for a wonderful personal guided tour of the collections of the museum of archaeology in Venice and a very learned conversation on the ancient Byzantine spolia found in Venice.