31 May, 2006

7. Palazzo Dandolo

This sumptuous interior is the reception and visitors' lounge of the Hotel Danieli, one of Venice's most luxurious – and expensive – places to stay. Very close to San Marco and the Doge's Palace and facing the lagoon on the Riva Schiavoni, until the middle of the 19th century this building was known as the Palazzo Dandolo.

The Dandolo family, whose home this was for several centuries, is one of the oldest and most noble families in the history of Venice. Four of the Doges of Venice have borne the name Dandolo, and only a handful of Venetian dynasties, such as the Contarini and Mocenigo families, can boast more.

No Doge was more memorable, and few more enterprising, than the first Dandolo to become Doge of Venice in 1192. Enrico Dandolo was already old, reputedly in his early eighties, and blind, when he was first elected to the top job in the Republic, but he was a man of enormous energy and as cunning as a canal rat.

(About now, the connection with the picture at the top of this story starts to get a bit flimsy, because it was not Enrico himself but some of his later descendants who built and lived in the family palazzo, but bear with me, it's a good story)

Not many men have arrested an entire army and held it to ransom until it agreed to do what he wanted, and then used it to topple the most powerful empire in the world – in fact none other that I'm aware of – but Enrico Dandolo did just that.

In 1204, when the Crusaders couldn't pay in full for the ships Venice had built for them to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Egypt, Doge Dandolo hijacked the entire army of the Fourth Crusade which was charged with the mission to recapture Jerusalem from the Ayyubid Muslims, and used it to attack and sack Constantinople, the wealthy centre of the Byzantine Empire, instead. The Christian Crusaders never made it to Jerusalem, although after raping and savagely pillaging the largest and richest Christian stronghold in the region, many of them went home a lot wealthier than when they started out.

Pope Innocent III, the man who had launched the expedition, was furious with his Holy Crusaders when he found out what they had done: "You vowed to liberate the Holy Land but you rashly turned away from the purity of your vow when you took up arms not against Saracens but Christians…"

Enrico Dandolo ensured that his beloved Venice would never again be subservient to Byzantium as it had been for centuries, and he emerged from this violent yet almost farcical adventure with his city enriched beyond measure by some of the most priceless booty in Christendom, much of which is still in Venice and still on display to the world's tourists.

More about the stolen treasures another day.

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