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The Discovery of New Worlds by  M. B. Synge


 

 

QUEEN OF THE ADRIATIC

"Where Venice sate in state throned on her hundred isles."

—BYRON.

[93] ANOTHER result of the Crusades was the great stimulus given to commerce and trade in Europe. Let us take a look at the centre of Europe's trade at this time.

Away in the far north of the Adriatic Sea, which washes the shores of Eastern Italy, are some seventy-two small islands or mud-banks. They are surrounded by the shallow water of the sea, which laps peacefully round their shores—a very network of channels, and pools, and lagoons as they are called. On these islands, and amid this waste of waters, arose Venice, a city famous in the Middle Ages for the genius and industry of her people who had built up for themselves [94] a commercial greatness of which the world was justly proud.

"There is a glorious city in the sea.

The sea is in the broad, the narrow streets,

Ebbing and flowing: and the salt seaweed

Clings to the marble of her palaces.

No track of men, no footsteps to and fro

Lead to her gates. The path lies o'er the sea—

Invisible."

It seemed an unpromising foundation for such a city; but quantities of salt from the lagoons and unlimited fish from the sea supplied the people with articles of trade, in exchange for which they got timber for their ships among other things. To such a race, life on the water was yet more natural than life on land, and they soon became daring and expert sailors. With each age their ships increased in size and number, until they became the chief carriers of Europe.

The spirit of the Crusades reached this city of the waters, and she sent no less than 207 ships to help Godfrey de Bouillon on the First Crusade. It was to Venice, then, that the future crusaders looked, when they wanted to cross the Mediterranean Sea for the Holy Land. This traffic brought the Venetians into contact with the rich stores of the boundless East, and costly cargoes returned with the returning ships.

This little sea-girt state was ruled over by a duke, or doge, as he was called; and there is a curious old story about one of these doges in the olden days.

[95] Venice had joined the League of Lombardy against Frederick Barbarossa, and had gained a sea victory over the German fleet. In command of the Venetian fleet was the doge. As soon as he touched land on his return from victory, the Pope himself hastened to the shore and presented him with a ring of gold.

"Take this ring," he said, "and with it the sea as your subject. Every year, on the return of this happy day, you and your successors shall make known to all that the right of conquest has made subject the Adriatic to Venice, as a bride to her husband."

The Venetians brought forth their state ship, glorious with new scarlet and gold, its decks and seats inlaid with costly woods and rowed with long banks of burnished oars. Seated on a magnificent throne was the doge. Gliding through the silent canals, now ringing with festal music and the shouts of the triumphant Venetians, this gorgeous ship reached the harbour.

Here the doge dropped the golden ring into the clear still waters of the Adriatic, plighting the troth of Venice in these words: "We wed thee, O Sea, in token of our true and eternal dominion over thee." For six hundred years the Venetians repeated this ceremony, until Venice fell, unable to compete longer with the trade of the New World.

[96] But these were the days of her glory, when as Queen of the Adriatic she ruled the seas of southern Europe. With the start of the Fifth Crusade she showed her full strength. It would take too long to tell how the blind old Doge Dandolo led his countrymen to the wars; of the glorious fleet that sailed so proudly down the Adriatic, with gay streamers, blazoned with the cross, flying in the wind; of the lords and knights of France who sailed from Venice on their way to the Holy Land. But they turned aside from the object of the expedition and sailed to Constantinople instead. When the crusaders beheld the lofty walls and goodly towers of this "Queen of the Earth" there was not a man whose heart did not tremble within him, for "since the creation of the world," says the old chronicler, "never had such an enterprise been attempted by a handful of men."

It was mainly owing to the dauntless ardour of the old doge that Constantinople fell into the hands of the Venetians. Old and blind as he was, he stood upon the prow of his galley, with the standard of St Mark spread before him, urging his people to push on to the shore. Then, the first to leap out, he reassured the fainting hearts of his warriors; and soon the Venetian standard was flying from one of the towers of Constantinople. From the days of Constantine treasure had been collected from all parts of the world and [97] stored in this queen of cities. She had been the seat of learning for centuries, the storehouse and home of all that was beautiful. Now all was swept away: marbles, pictures, statues, prizes from Egypt, Greece, and Rome, which had made Constantine's city the wonder of nations,—all disappeared under the cruel hands of the crusaders.

Dandolo became Doge of Venice and lord of one-eighth of the Roman Empire, and the triumph of Venice was complete.

Still to-day may be seen in Venice the famous bronze horses taken from Constantinople in this thirteenth century by Dandolo, still the streets of water ebb and flow as the silent boats (gondolas) glide from house to house, and still the winged lions of St Mark command this city of the waters, though her ships no longer dominate the sea.


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