Venice and the Ottomans: Best of frenemies

The relationship between the Republic of Venice and the Ottoman Empire is the story economic pragmatism doing its best to overcome religious and political differences. Working together across cultural and religious divides, the doges of Venice and the Ottoman sultans became rich through mutual trade, even as they fought each other in multiple wars. For Venice, maintaining this relationship was a diplomatic high-wire act and the ultimate proof that its only loyalty was to capitalism.

Ottoman expansion into Europe began just as the Christian reconquest of Spain ended: as Muslims lost territory in the West, they gained it in the East. In Europe, many saw these epic battles as a struggle between two rival religions, each competing for world supremacy. Conflict was seen as inevitable. When the Ottomans reached Vienna, it seemed that the very survival of Europe and Christendom was at stake. Of all European powers, only Venice seemed to know how to manage the Ottomans.

The Venetians had ships and unrivalled nautical expertise while the Ottomans had access to many of the most valuable goods in the world, especially grain, spices, cotton and silk. Whenever the religious tensions between Muslims and Christians boiled over, the popes would place restrictions on trade with the Ottomans. But the Venetians, eager to assert their independence from papal authority – and make money, circumvented these bans by trading surreptitiously through Cyprus and Crete.

Unlike the land-locked Mamluks – the other major trading partners, the Ottomans aspired to drive Venice out of the eastern Mediterranean. The war of 1463-1479 is now seen as the beginning of the end of Venetian colonialism. All successive territorial wars – over Corfu in 1537, Cyprus in 1571, Crete between 1646 and 1669, and Morea between 1684 and 1716 chipped away at Venice’s colonies but in the end it was Napoleon who finally conquered Venice itself in 1797, not the Ottomans.

Ever so duplicitous, Venetians traded with Muslims even during the Crusades. They even turned the Fourth Crusade into an opportunity to attack Christians of Byzantium, not Muslims of Egypt. After the Ottomans took Constantinople, Venetians found a way to endear themselves with its new ruler by sending Gentile Bellini, their best painter, to paint Sultan Mehmet II. The Bellini portrait catapulted Ottoman painting into the 15th century and kept commercial routes open for years to come.