22 Jul The Peloponnese: Kingdom and Colony
Esatta notitia del Peloponneso volgarmente penisola della Morea …
Printed in Venice in 1687 by Girolamo Albrizzi.
In 1687, the rather dryly titled work ‘A Precise Description of the Peloponnese’ was published in the prestigious Venetian printing house of Girolamo Albrizzi. Indeed, this book, which is illustrated with numerous copper engravings, systematically guides the reader through the different areas and districts of the Greek peninsula, and describes the region’s history, geography and political situation in detail. It was published in a dramatic time and it’s only when we examine it in its historical context that we see just how political a text it is. After all, Albrizzi’s book is by no means a cultural travel guide for retired Greek teachers …
The Peloponnese: A Bone of Contention between the Ottomans and the Venetians
Let’s set the scene: for centuries, the Christian states of Europe were repeatedly at war with their Muslim neighbours on the Bosporus, the Ottoman Empire. In 1683, the Ottoman forces besieged Vienna, the capital of the Habsburg Empire. In the following year, the Holy Roman Empire, Poland and Venice came together to form the Holy League – it sounds rather grandiose, but its fight against the ‘infidels’ couldn’t have been any less epic. While armies were circling, besieging and slaughtering each other all across the Balkans, the Venetians seized the moment and struck in a secondary territory: Greece.
At that time, Greece was extremely provincial; there weren’t any ‘cultured’ princes like in Italy and there wasn’t any unifying political power. The great cultural power of the ancient world was a small province of the Ottoman Empire, which had to be defended time and again against Venetian advances. After all, Greece and the numerous Aegean Islands were in a strategically advantageous location for trade: for the commercial power of Venice, they were a constant temptation. At the same time, the Venetians had to be careful not to overstep the mark, as the Sublime Porte controlled the trading routes to East Asia, on which Venice depended.
In 1684, however, the Venetians recruited soldiers in Hanover and Saxony and sent a fleet across the Adriatic Sea, led by their General Francesco Morosini. Over the next 15 years, while the main Ottoman forces were engaged elsewhere, Morosini conquered the Peloponnese as well as large swathes of mainland Greece.
Travel Guide, Commercial Register or Simply Propaganda?
By 1687, the entire Peloponnese region was firmly in Venetian hands. At that very moment, Girolamo Albrizzi published his work ‘A Precise Description of the Peloponnese’. He doesn’t name any writers (so we’ll just assume for the sake of simplicity that he wrote the text himself) or mention his sources. The work is dedicated to Christian Ernst of Brandenburg-Bayreuth, who had demonstrated his military prowess in the Battle of Vienna. Did the Margrave co-finance the book? We don’t know. Perhaps Albrizzi wanted to highlight the close relationship with the German allies. After all, it’s very clear that Albrizzi was pursuing political goals.
His work is laid out systematically. Following a brief summary of the Peloponnese region’s history, he presents the peninsula’s individual districts, one by one. He details each region’s economic output: olives, silk, linen and much more. Here and there, Albrizzi starts raving about the riches of the Peloponnese, or the Morea, as it is generally called in the Romance languages. The chapters are illustrated with a number of detailed engravings of fortresses and villages, ports and towers, with plenty of dramatic battle scenes besides.
Amongst these, he weaves in descriptions of the region. He provides the very latest information, as up to date as the print medium allowed. Albrizzi was a newspaper publisher at heart, and it really shows here. He worked for several journals that circulated far beyond Venice and which, in the style of leaflets, provided information about the latest geopolitical developments that was short and snappy, but probably not very objective, much like the Twitter of their time. Even in the book’s subtitle, he emphasises his claim to be presenting the ‘latest conquests from 1684 to the present day’.
And of course, his account portrays the Venetians in a very favourable light – and that’s putting it mildly. The book’s angle is clear right from the introduction: the Greeks rejoiced at the Venetians’ arrival, for they had finally been liberated from their Ottoman oppressors and could now move into a time of freedom and prosperity.
To put it simply: the entire book reads like propaganda, intent on showing Venetians how essential it had been to wage war in Greece, what sort of riches were to be found there and, of course, how successfully General Morosini represented the interests of La Serenissima.
Morea: A Kingdom Without a King
Albrizzi, it turned out, had backed the right horse. Morosini was so successful that, in 1688, he was elected Doge of Venice. A few years later, much like a Roman general or emperor, he was given a Latin victory title, ‘Peloponnesiacus’, which translates roughly as ‘Conqueror of the Peloponnese.
This title is actually a very good fit for what happened in the Peloponnese, as the narrative of restoring freedom to the Greek people couldn’t be further from the truth. The Muslim inhabitants fled. The first censuses in 1691 document around 97,000 inhabitants in the newly founded Kingdom of Morea, which is less than half the number of people thought to have lived there before the ‘liberation’. This supposedly independent ‘kingdom’ was a farce; there was no king, and especially not a Greek one, just a Venetian governor general (provveditore generale) and a streamlined organisational structure, with which La Serenissima bled the peninsula dry like a colony. At the same time, Venice’s attempts to boost the economy were failing, and soon there were so many Greek subjects fleeing across the border into the Ottoman Empire that the Venetians had to guard the border to make sure they didn’t lose all their servants.
The Greeks had fallen out of the frying pan and into the fire. The same Greek guerrilla fighters that had recently helped the Venetians to defeat the Ottomans from within were now defecting to the side of their former rulers and working against their new oppressors. In 1714, a 70,000-strong Ottoman army overwhelmed the occupying Venetians, whose forces comprised barely 5,000 men, and regained control of the Morea.
What remained of the Venetian interlude? The ruins of the Parthenon, which was destroyed in 1687 when a plucky German gunner directly hit and blew up an Ottoman ammunition store that was stationed there – and with it, the emblem of Ancient Greece; an impoverished province; and a book that dreamt of the economic wealth of the Peloponnese and painted a bright picture of its political freedom – before the bubble burst.
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A complete digital reproduction of Albrizzi’s work ‘A Precise Description of the Peloponnese’ is available on the Bavarian State Library website.