Located in the eastern Mediterranean off the coast of Turkey, Cyprus has been at the crossroads between eastern and western cultures for millennia. In the 11th century Venetian ships first became acquainted with Cypriot ports while transporting Roman Catholic Crusaders to the Holy Lands. Two centuries after the Crusades, Venetian merchants had penetrated Cypriot trade markets and their merchant galleys began appearing along the island's coast. By 1372 the city of Genoa had begun to contest Venetian dominance of Mediterranean trade and, during the coronation of Peter II as King of Cyprus, incited a riot over preferential favour with the king. The riot quickly erupted into a war and Venice nearly lost. However, despite immense monetary cost Venice managed to defeat Genoa and asserted their dominance in the Eastern Mediterranean. Nonetheless, no sooner had Italian threats subsided than a new rival, the Ottoman Turks, emerged from the old Byzantine territories to the East. For the next century Venice slowly expanded ports and fought minor battles in an attempt to stem any Ottoman expansion into their trade empire.
In 1472, in an attempt to gain further Mediterranean naval bases during the war with the Ottomans, Venice ‘adopted’ eighteen-year-old Caterina Cornaro as a child of Venice and promptly wed her to Cypriot King James II Lusignan. Caterina bore a son but James died before the birth. In a coup, Cypriot councillors seized the newborn child and killed those surrounding Caterina. To establish order, a recently departed Venetian fleet returned to harbour and imposed order upon the tumultuous island until 1474 when Caterina’s child died and Venice claimed complete rule over Cyprus.
Venice governed Cyprus as a colony and the longstanding trade established with the island considerably increased Venetian power in the region. While governed by a lieutenant and aides, Venice did install Cypriot nobles and Venetian patricians on the Island, a local council with limited political powers. Venetian colonization also freed serfs and gave common professionals (previously excluded from higher social status) permission to obtain Cypriot citizenry.
For nearly a century Cyprus acted as a vital economic colony and important taxation point for the Venetian Empire. In 1569 famine gripped Venice and Cypriot grain and tax subsidised the home city. A year later the Ottoman Turks demanded the annexation of Cyprus, which was supposedly being used as a pirate base against them. Unwilling to relinquish such a valuable possession, Venice refused and the Ottomans declared war. The first year of the war went poorly for Venice and the Ottoman fleet freely attacked many Cypriot ports. With an enormous effort the Venetians equipped a fleet and the following year at Lepanto (October 1571) won a great victory.
However, the war became a huge strain on the Venetian economy: ships lost were costly to replace and sailors even more so. Famine, plague and disease were rampant in Venice and the Ottomans not only held portions of Cyprus but were also able to rapidly replace ships lost at Lepanto. A captured Ottoman Turk described the loss of ships at Lepanto as a cut beard capable of growing back.  Unable to maintain a sustained defence against such odds, Venice negotiated a peace late in 1571 which ceded Cyprus to the Ottomans. While it meant losing Cyprus, this move was a sensible one for Venice to make. Pope Gregory XVIII was infuriated by the loss but Venice was nearing collapse. By ensuring peace the Venetian empire, albeit without Cyprus, was left secure. Fears of rebellion elsewhere subsided and a slow economic recovery was initiated. Furthermore, the peace prevented furtherer losses of Venetian territory to the Ottoman Turks and also prevented Spain, Venice’s ally throughout the conflict, from gaining trade interests in Venetian waters.
1. Richard Knolles, The Generall Historie of the Turkes, from the first beginning of the Nation to the rising of the Othoman Familie: with all the notable expeditions of the Christian Princes against them. (London: Adam Islip, 1638), p. 885. Return to text
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