Art History History Painting

History Painting: ‘The Crusader army attacks Constantinople’ by Jacopo Palma il Giovane, circa 1587.

If you are a curious visitor to Italy, and make your way to Venice, in the Great Hall of the Palazzo Ducale, is a painting that all Byzantine and Crusader enthusiasts will find quite interesting. It is a painting that is shared on the internet almost every time an enthusiast or scholar is making a reference to the Fourth Crusade. Interestingly, it is known by many names such as The Siege of Constantinople, but no matter what we call this masterpiece, Italian painter Jacopo Palma il Giovane, has captured a fascinating glimpse at one of history’s most important events.

For those that want to read more on the subject there is a wealth of material elsewhere about the Fourth Crusade. For the purposes of this article, I’ve decided to give the reader here below a brief outline.

The siege and sack of Constantinople was the final shameful act of the Fourth Crusade that began on the 8th of April 1204. It was a culmination of events that first led the crusader armies to the walls of the eternal city in 1203, in which the Latins had entered in an agreement to restore the rightful heir of the Byzantine Empire, Isaac II. In short, Isaac II was restored as Emperor, with his Latin puppet son Alexios IV to rule as co-Emperor, a condition of his reinstatement as Emperor. Moreover, as part of the deal to compensate the Crusaders, the Byzantines would have to cough up a huge sum of money and swear an allegiance to the Pope in Rome.

Almost immediate, Isaac and Alexios rule would prove unpopular, especially when Constantinople’s citizens heard what was being asked of them. When the hated Alexios IV was deposed and subsequently murdered by a popular uprising early in 1204, the Crusaders were absolutely furious and immediately asked the new usurper Alexios V to honour the agreements and debts owed to them by Alexios IV. The new Emperor, of course, refused.

The armies of the Fourth Crusade thereafter began a new offensive against the city on the 8th April 1024. It was time it seemed to put an end to the old Roman Empire. At first the siege almost came to a standstill, as the Crusaders failed to make headway with their attacks, but on the 12th April with the assistance of favourable winds, Venetian ships were finally able to get close enough to Constantinople’s sea walls.

If I can divert the reader’s attention here for a moment away from the siege’s story, you can see (here above) in Jacopo Palma il Giovane epic painting that he has chosen roughly to paint the moment in time where the Venetian Fleet has run its galleys onto the narrow strip of beach. It is a scene that also depicts the utter chaos that ensued as the Crusaders seemingly overwhelmed the Byzantines as they scaled Constantinole’s magnificent sea walls.

And so, after a brief successful attack, the Crusaders eventually opened one of the gates in the wall and entered into the city. The fighting continued in the city, but by the next morning on the 13th, the will of the defenders to fight came to an end. What followed has been described by witnesses and historians ever since, as the greatest shame inflicted on Christians by other fellow Christians, in faithlessness and deception, in cruelty and sheer utter greed.

For three days straight days, the inhabitants of Constantinople were open to rape and murder, as the Crusaders systematically pillaged the city. The Crusaders targeted everything in their wake, sacking churches and mansions of the rich. Battle axes, swords and tools hacked and wrenched out gold and precious stones from walls and objects of beauty. Religious treasure, which included the relics of saints, was particularly sort after and shipped to Italy and France. So much more was melted down to mint coins or damaged by senseless destruction or lost in the chaos. It was the Venetians who gained some of the greatest ‘booty’. They carefully selected beautiful enamels and precious oriental marble-works. Most famously, the Venetians brought back to their lagoon, the four bronze horse statues, that stood in Constantinople’s hippodrome for centuries, which would now adorn the central doorway of the Basilica of San Marco.

Interestingly, and as Jacopo Palma il Giovane might lead us to believe in this Venetian version of the siege, the Crusaders are depicted with heroic determination. On  personal note, I’m not so sure that it was heroic determination but calculated self-interest and greed. That said, the Fourth Crusade did more than just strip the great city of Constantinople of its wealth. It had decidedly mortally wounded the Byzantine Empire that had stood for almost a thousand years. The Crusaders would share-out Byzantium’s lands and Constantinople would become the heart of a new Latin Empire of the East, until the Byzantine’s eventually recaptured its precious city in 1261. But it was never the same again.

Photo credit: Jacopo Palma il Giovane’s epic painting depicting the siege of Constantinople is in the public domain.

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