20 August 2008

Kidnapping the Bride

In 1361, the most important woman in the Mediterranean was Fiorenza Sanudo--widow, mother to young Niccolò, heiress to the Duchy of the Archipelago, or the Cycladic islands. She was also heiress to two-thirds of the Greek island of Euboea. She is said to have been quite beautiful, but we have no evidence on that point. Given her qualifications as heiress, she could have looked like Grendel's mother and still be called beautiful.

She was interested in the young nobleman, Pietro Rechanelli, captain of Smyrna, a situation that sent the Venetian Signoria into paroxysms of anxiety: Pietro was Genoese, and islands in which Venice took a strong interest could not be allowed to come under Genoese influence. Although the islands were extremely picturesque and had abundant important antiquities above ground, they were also extremely poor and being Duchess of them was worth little more than the paper the title was written on, except that Venice needed access to these islands as safe harbours for ships trading in the Black Sea and down to Alexandria.

The Venetian Signoria wrote to Fiorenza and to both her parents expressing their distress at her careless association, and suggesting that there were a number of perfectly eligible young men in Venice. Her mother wrote back that they were shocked, shocked, that anyone could imagine Fiorenza would be allowed a marriage of which Venice did not approve.

Then another suitor appeared, the brother of the Archbishop of Patras, equally, if not more unsuitable, as he was a Florentine. More letters were written to Fiorenza who was now Duchess and possessor of two-thirds of Euboea in her own right. Contingents of guards were sent out to take over the main defenses on Euboea and in the Archipelago--a young woman grieving for her father could not be expected to be responsible for the defense of such important positions.

Various minor royalties in southern Italy expressed interest and concern. Letters were written in triplicate. The captain of the Venetian fleet was directed to keep all non-Venetian ships out of the Archipelago. The Duke of Crete was directed to kidnap Fiorenza, although that is not how the letter was phrased.

Many of the details of this story are missing, and we only have pieces of official correspondence surviving, but the Duke of Crete sent a ship that returned to Crete with Fiorenza. The Signoria talked to Niccolò "Spezzabanda" Sanudo, a minor condottiere and Fiorenza's first cousin whose father was the leading Venetian official on Euboea. They suggested he might want to visit Fiorenza on Crete. The Duke of Crete was directed to let the young people be alone together. You can see where this story is going.

They were married. The Pope was asked a year after the fact for a dispensation. While they were still on Crete, the Cretan population, provoked by administrative brutality, a lack of representation in goverment, extortionate taxes, and assorted insults, rose up and declared themselves an independent republic.
An embarassingly large number of Venetian colonists participated in the revolt. Niccolò in his role as "Spezzabanda" (this would means something like "Router of Bands" or "Disperser of Hosts") joined with Lucino dal Verme, a major condottiere from Verona who arrived with 1,000 cavalry, 11,000 infantry, twenty ships and eight galleys. After they scoured the island, uprooted fruit trees, sowed fields with salt, beheaded a number of rebels, and buried others alive, head-down, the condottieri declared victory for Venice.

Then Niccolò "Spezzabanda" apparently gave up war, took up trade in a minor way, and did whatever ruling was required in the Archipelago and Euboea on behalf of Fiorenza. She died in 1372. Her son, Niccolò, came of age that year and married another heiress, Petronilla Tocco. He was an erratic and violent ruler, and in 1383 was murdered while out hunting. No one in the hunting party saw who did it, but they all agreed it was strangers. One of the party, Francesco Crispi,declared himself Duke. Venice had never held the prejudice that criminal tendencies kept a man from having administrative competence, and let him have the Duchy, especially since that allowed them to absorb Euboea.

As this story ends, Maria, daughter of
Niccolò "Spezzabanda" and Fiorenza, was quite young but approaching marriageable age. The Signoria of Venice wrote to all those involved that she was not to be allowed to marry without their permission.


  1. I just wanted to say that I am really impressed with this blog. It has been quite interesting to see these windows into the part of Byzantine history I know the least about.

    Keep it up,

  2. It is very kind of you to take the trouble to write.



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