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Sicily and European politics during the second half of the 12th century

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Home arrowSicily and European politics during the second half of the 12th century

Around the 7th decade of the 12th century, the Most Serene Republic of Venice was enjoying a flourishing financial situation, above all thanks to dominant trades with the East, which came about through the Byzantine territories. Nevertheless, given the extent of the Venetian finances, the Byzantine emperor Manuel Komnenos, thought about drawing from them generously, reminding the Doge, Vitale Michele, that the Marine Republic was a debtor, due to the age-old pact with Byzantium for remarkable contributions in exchange for navigation and trade concessions within the area of the Empire. Engaging in a sort of ante litteram fiscal disobedience, the Venetians systematically tried to evade this imposition, provoking the Byzantine reaction on land and in the sea. The Emperor Komnenos ordered that the estates and merchandise of the merchants of the Most Serene Republic be seized, hunting them out of the imperial confines and conquering the Dalmatian cities in which they had set out their commercial and strategic bases. The measure was by now full and the same Doge Vitale, who headed the fleet, took action against the Byzantines, re-conquering the lost strongholds in a short time, but he committed the unforgivable mistake of trusting the strategic offers of peace of the astute emperor of Byzantium, who was seeking to gain time in view of the by now approaching consequent difficulties that the Venetian fleet would have encountered. In fact, not only the winter but also the plague arrived and it decimated the Venetian crews, forcing the Doge to order that certain infected ships be burnt. The surviving ships returned miserably to their homeland and despite all worries, the plague spread to the lagoon city. The worn-out population pinned the blame for what had happened entirely on the Doge and during a popular uprising, he was killed at the entrance to the government building. At that time Venice experienced one of the saddest and most difficult periods of its history. The various diplomatic missions sent to the court of Byzantium were of no use, Komnenos scorned all those associated with Venice, convinced that he now held the fate of the Most Serene Republic in his hands. It was at this point that the new Doge: Ziani, without breaking-off all dealings with the Greeks, sought politically and militarily more powerful allies in the Sicilians, the only population capable of fighting the Byzantine hegemony during that period.

Convinced that Palermo was his last resort, Ziani sent two of the Republic’s most influential men to the court of William II, King of Sicily: Enrico Dandolo and Giovanni Badoero, they made precise requests for help, duly informed of this, the Byzantine Emperor immediately assessed the political significance of such an event, and in an attempt to avoid a clash with the Sicilians, he recommenced talks with the Venetians, conducting them with strategic Byzantine slowness.
At this point, the Doge decided to form a definitive alliance with the King of Sicily and so he sent a new plenipotentiary delegation to Palermo, made up of two more notable figures: Duaro and Mastropaolo, whose duty it was to undersign the birth of a Sicilian-Venetian League that would last twenty years and that could be extended subject to the mutual consent of both parties. The Venetian Republic gained significant advantages from this: after the previous disasters, the fleet of the Most Serene Republic was now reduced to a minimum, while there were almost two hundred Sicilian war ships, equipped with fearful and well-trained disembarkation troops consisting of infallible crossbowmen, supported by military engineers, experts in the preparation of war machines capable of demolishing any land or naval defence. Moreover, the Venetians requested an increase in the privileges and immunity granted to their merchants operating within the territories of the Kingdom of Sicily, privileges that were translated into the management of emporia, shops and also the possibility of living in exclusive districts of the cities of the kingdom, just like the Genovese, the Pisans, the Lombards, the Jews and the Slavs. Lastly, they requested and were given conspicuous sums of money as an immediate and substantial form of aid, which they divided in Pontida with the Lombards. For their part, the Sicilians did not gain any real advantage from their alliance with the Venetians, on the contrary, they now found themselves theoretically dealing with two imperial armies: the Byzantine one to the east and the German one to the west, guided by Frederick Barbarossa.  However, the establishment of the Sicilian-Venetian League definitively convinced Manuel Komnenos to make agreements with the Most Serene Republic in order to avoid a direct dispute with the Sicilians, certain that the latter, apart from defending the interests of its Venetian allies, would have requested compensation for the promise regarding the unsuccessful marriage arrangement between the daughter of the Emperor and the King of Sicily.  From this point of view also, the Sicilians were quite astute in their dealings, in fact, they not only obtained authorisations for the re-establishment of traffic with the East, along with significant compensation for the damages of war, but when faced with the offer of the Greeks to give them back the merchandise that had been seized, they replied with the exquisitely mercantile claim that they should be given payment in gold valued at being equal to 400lbs. A sale to all effects with a guarantee from the King of Sicily of a successful outcome.

Having solved all quarrels with Manuel Komnenos, the Venetians could now dedicate all of their energy to taking action against another Emperor, who was perhaps even more powerful and more threatening than the Byzantine one. Frederick Barbarossa! A merciless enemy of the municipalities of the Lombard Venetian League, Barbarossa had inflicted mourning and ruination on the populations of Northern Italy, but having received the moral support of the Roman Papacy, as well as conspicuous financial aid from the Kingdom of Sicily, the Leagues reorganised their ranks and trusting in their own heroism, they managed to resist the German army, defeating it in May 1176 in Legnano. Frederick managed to wisely assess the reasons for this defeat, not underestimating the new wind that was blowing in from the south. He came to understand that the Pope and the Leagues were no longer at the mercy of the Germans or Byzantines, they had a new fearful defender: the King of Sicily, a monarch capable of arranging a formidable naval fleet, and a well trained army that knew the methods of Norman warfare well, the financial resources of which were practically unlimited, with respect to the German ones which were now about to dry up. He therefore sought an honourable peace, accepting to discuss its terms with the Pope, in the presence of the Sicilians as guarantors.

On the 20th of March 1177, Pope Alexander III disembarked in Venice from a Sicilian galley escorted by a numerous fleet. Elderly and in poor health, he had wanted to participate personally in the negotiations, on the agreement that they were convenient for the Church, for the Leagues and for the illustrious King of Sicily, who protected both. Venice hosted one of the most important conventions of the history of medieval Europe. There were approximately eight thousand people in attendance. The Pope was present with all of his cardinals and numerous archbishops who had come from all over Italy. The league had sent the powerful from Milan, Bologna, Verona, Bergamo and other confederate cities, citizens and soldiers had also come from Tuscany, the Marche and other parts of Romagna. The imperial delegation was made up of high ranking German and Austrian prelates.  France and England had also sent their observers, convinced that the negotiations would lead to a new structure for European politics. But those who played the part of the lion in Venice were the representatives of the Kingdom of Sicily, present with approximately four hundred delegates, which an ancient manuscript, housed within St. Mark’s library, illustrates in detail: Romualdo, archbishop of Salerno with sixty men - Roger, Count of Andria, with two notaries from the Royal Curate and three hundred and thirty men…  The presence of Romualdo was providential from a historical point of view because, as an excellent reporter, apart from being a protagonist, he left us with a detailed account of the event.
The negotiations were not easy and extended over several days, the Emperor tried to conduct proceedings as a protagonist, drawing as much of an advantage as possible from the situation, the Sicilians wanted Barbarossa to abjure the antipope, recognising Alexander II as the legitimate pope of Rome and moreover, to undersign the peace treaties with the League and the King of Sicily without delay, according to the preliminaries already agreed upon. For his part, already intimidated by the arrogance of the Emperor, the Doge was quite hesitant, so much so that he attempted to rid himself of the Sicilians, advising them to return to Palermo assuring King William of the positive outcome of the talks. Irritated at this stage, the Sicilians answered saying that they had no need for permission to participate in the talks, nor would they need to ask for permission to leave them and in any case, beginning from the following day, the relations between Sicily and Veneto would take a different turn. With the aim of dispelling all further doubt amidst onlookers, they had the trumpets sound and they embarked their ships preparing to weigh anchor the next day. The Pope, who had refused to stay on dry land, considering the cabins of the Sicilian ships to be safer, also embarked, having decided to depart with the fleet, given that remaining alone in Venice would lead to the absolute absence of all guarantees for his safety. Having guessed what the course of events was likely to be, the representatives of the Lombard Leagues chose to withdraw prudently to Treviso. All hopes of an agreement seemed to have vanished, when a multitude of Venetians: men, but above all, women, invaded the square, railing against the Doge who was directing the talks and demanding that the Sicilians not leave and that their requests be met, thus forcing the Emperor to sign the agreements. In actual fact, the Venetians thought that not only Frederick Barbarossa would have failed to apply any agreement that was not signed by the Sicilians but that from now on, the latter would have removed all privileges and trading concessions granted to their relatives resident in Palermo. They reminded the Doge that it was not worth sacrificing his friendship with King William, from whom the Most Serene Republic had received protection and aid, in favour of that of an emperor whose sole aim was to destroy the Municipalities and Leagues.

At this stage, expecting an inevitable dispute, along with the Leagues, the King of Sicily, Barbarossa leonina feritate deposit, ovina mansuetudinem induit, turned from a lion into a lamb, and signed the peace treaties without further delay. Besides, he had asked for and obtained what he needed the most:  the right to manage the estate of the Countess Matilda, as long as pax regis Siciliae perduraret, and that is, for another fifteen years.
Once all the formalities were over with, before leaving Venice, the Emperor had a long talk with the archbishop Romualdo Salernitano, finding out, with a sense of great curiosity, about the type of life that was led at the Sicilian-Norman court, remaining pleasantly impressed by it, so much so, that a few years later he arranged the marriage between his son and heir, Henry VI and the aunt of William II, Constance, the last daughter of Roger II. The Leagues saluted this marriage with a great sense of enthusiasm as they thought that the Emperor, who was now related to their most faithful allies, would no longer have been a threat for Lombardy. The Milanese wanted the wedding to be celebrated in their city and they crowned the future Sicilian Empress with the Iron Crown.
From this marriage Frederick II was born, a wonder of the world and a precursor of the Renaissance at the court of Sicily.