Genoa vs. Venice: A Historic and Layered Rivalry

Genoa and Venice are well-known cities in modern-day Italy, but when both were independently governed, they rivaled each other in many ways.

Sep 22, 2023By Madison Whipple, BA History w/ Spanish minor

genoa vs venice rivalry


Venice and Genoa have often been compared throughout history. They were similar in many ways: independent, governed as republics, maritime powers, and centers of art. Due to these similarities, a rivalry developed and boiled over into fierce competition. While the two city-states were similar, they wanted total dominance in the Mediterranean. The East and the West coast of the Italian Peninsula would be the background for this feud for hundreds of years. Here are a few comparisons between Venice and Genoa, all of which fueled their rivalry.


Political Structures of Genoa vs. Venice

The Genoese Palace of the Doges, via Visit Genoa


Unlike Venice, Genoa was an established Roman city and even existed before the Romans, from about 4000 BCE. Genoa was a small port from its inception and continued to grow as a center for trade, slowly building a fleet as it changed hands between numerous rulers. The Genoese were controlled by many kingdoms, namely, the Byzantines, Lombards, and Carolingians. In the 10th century CE, the city was sacked by the Fatimid Arabs, and shortly after it recovered, it was given a charter as an independent city-state.


Technically, Genoa operated independently under the rule of the Holy Roman Emperor. The nominal leader of the city was the Bishop of Genoa, but the leader who wielded the most power, starting in the 11th century CE, was the consul, an official popularly elected every year. The Republic of Genoa began to expand following its independence, growing to 100,000 residents and allowing it to control the Tyrrhenian and Ligurian Seas.


The governance of Genoa can be categorized into five stages: the consul, the Podestà (city magistrate), the Capitano del Popolo (captain of the people), and the doge (duke). These leaders were all, in theory, popularly elected, but those who practiced democracy were the consuls, the Podestà, and the Capitano del Popolo, while the doges of Genoa were an example of an aristocratic ruling class, toeing the line between oligarchy and democracy.

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Bird’s eye view of Venice, from the first volume of the Braun & Hogenberg’s City Atlas, published in Cologne in 1572, via The National Library of Russia


While Genoa was an established Roman settlement, Venice was formed as a lagoon dwelling of refugees. In an attempt to escape the invasion of the Huns and Germanic tribes, the lagoon people of Venice built their settlement in relative isolation and used this geographical position to eventually become independent. The city was governed by a doge from early in its history, and the government relied on several systems of checks and balances to operate. The main difference between Venice’s leadership and Genoa’s leadership was the existence of the Great Council, the Senate, and the Concio in Venice.


Rather than leaving governance in the hands of one person, the Republic of Venice relied on the combination of the monarchy (the doge), aristocracy (the Senate), republicanism (the Great Council), and democracy (the Concio). The Concio was a council of Venetian freemen who elected the doge, and the doge was constitutionally limited by the Great Council and the Senate. As an early republic, Venice was a model of governance and avoided autocratic rule. This led to a strictly run government, one that could build its military and economy efficiently through mutual agreement.


Economic Endeavors of Genoa vs. Venice 

The Entrance to the Arsenal, Venice by Bernardo Bellotto, c.1740s, via National Gallery of Canada


Both Genoa and Venice were maritime republics and had overlapping trade connections. One of these connections was with the Byzantine Empire. The trade routes of both republics, along with the items they traded, fueled a rivalry that would come to a head in the Middle Ages. Both republics were heavily involved in the salt, spice, and silk trade, but in slightly different areas.


Genoese trade focused substantially on moving goods from Asia and Northern Africa to Western Europe, exchanging their exports in places like the Southern coast of France. The city-state had a booming economy, but they could not compete with the monopoly Venice held on the Byzantine Empire.


The Byzantines favored the Venetian Republic because they had fought the Normans, and the Empire refused to tax Venetian trade. This made the port of Venice one of the most important trade hubs of the Middle Ages. They played the role of mediators between the East and the West. While Genoa also established sea trade as a central facet of their economy, the monopoly stood until Genoa aligned itself with the Emperor of Nicaea.


The Second Conquest of Constantinople by Domenico Tintoretto, c. 1580-1605, via the University of Mary Washington Blogs


The Venetians, who played a crucial role during the Fourth Crusade, captured Constantinople and deposed the Byzantines. However, less than a century later, Nicaean troops, assisted by the Genoese fleet, recaptured Constantinople and reestablished the former Byzantine Empire. While the empire’s power was never again fully restored, it benefited the Genoese economy by allowing it a hold, almost solely, on the Black Sea, as well as many ports in the Aegean Sea.


While Venice’s economy slowly declined from this loss of connection, the Genoese economy prospered. This not only undermined the Venetian monopoly but created resentment and set the stage for a series of conflicts between the two republics throughout the Middle Ages.


The First Venetian-Genoese Wars

The Triumph of Lamba Doria by Fedele Fischetti, 1784, via Sotheby’s


In 1255, the Venetian quarter in the city of Acre on the northern coast of modern-day Israel was attacked by the Genoese. This began the first of four Venetian-Genoese wars that spanned the 13th century and didn’t cease until nearly the start of the 15th century.


The first conflict between the two maritime republics occurred at sea, to no one’s surprise. Both republics had robust navies, and the Venetians mainly had the upper hand throughout the war. While militarily, the Venetians dominated the Genoese navy, the economy of Genoa was bolstered by their capture of Constantinople and their monopoly on the Black Sea. Venice held onto and strengthened its military position in the Kingdom of Jerusalem but could not prevent the hegemony wrought by the Genoese in the reestablished Byzantium.


The first Venetian-Genoese War ended with the Peace of Cremona in 1270, mediated by King Louis IX of France, who needed the two powerful navies to stop fighting with one another for his own interests. The French king was keen to go on a crusade against the city of Tunis and wanted the best naval fleets of the Mediterranean to help in that fight.


Louis IX, Saint Louis, King of France by Emile Signol, c.1844, via the French Ministry of Culture


Before the end of the 13th century, the crusade failed, and King Louis IX, the peace broker, died. Time, however, would not heal old wounds between the maritime republics, and by 1294, Genoa and Venice were at war again. This time, Genoa dominated the Venetian fleet militarily throughout the five-year conflict, despite sustaining heavier damage. In 1298, the largest battle of the Adriatic Sea destroyed the Venetian fleet. Also during this time, Marco Polo, the Venetian explorer, was fighting for his republic when he was imprisoned by the Genoese. It was during this three-year period that he wrote The Travels of Marco Polo, his famous memoirs.


The Byzantines, still allied with Genoa, seized several Venetians who had survived the grueling sea battles, despite a truce that had been in place for over ten years with Venice. In doing so, the Venetians threatened war against the Byzantine Empire but could not act on their threats until the Treaty of Milan forged a truce with Genoa in 1299.


The Last Venetian-Genoese Wars

The modern city of Chioggia, where the Genoese all but lost the fourth Venetian-Genoese War, via Venice Insider Guide


The third Venetian-Genoese war occurred between 1350 and 1355, mostly over economic disputes in the Black Sea. Venice was backed by the Kingdom of Aragon, the Catalans, and the Byzantines. The latter two armies switched their alliances between the second and third wars, preferring to combine forces and save their economic interests in the Mediterranean and, for the Byzantines, their capital city. While both fleets doled out crushing defeats to their rivals, the war ended inconclusively. However, the heavy casualties of the Venetians, in addition to their declining economy, led to their loss of Dalmatia to Hungary.


The fourth and final Venetian-Genoese war took place in 1377 over the threat of Venice gaining territory, once again, in the Black Sea. The Venetians bought the island of Tenedos from the Byzantine Empire, which threatened the position of Genoa in the Black Sea. Intense fighting followed, with the Venetians prevailing after the Battle of Chioggia. Peace was finally established for good in Turin in 1381, after approximately 20 summative years of fighting.


The economies of both republics were virtually devastated by the ongoing wars. In addition to fighting with each other, both cities had enemies that threatened them from outside the Italian Peninsula, namely the newly minted Ottoman Empire, which took many of the important territories they held in the Black and Aegean Seas. While the Venetians slowly built back their finances, both through public contribution and exploitation of mainland rivals’ weaknesses, Genoa never fully recovered. This declining economic power led to instability in the Genoese government and eventually gave way to the century of foreign rule, beginning with the sovereign rule of the French in 1396.


The Renaissance in Genoa vs. Venice 

The Conversion of Saint Paul by Jacopo Tintoretto, c. 1544, via the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC


Venice’s Renaissance was distinct from the Italian Renaissance due to its isolated location and unique culture influenced by the earlier Byzantine Empire as much as by the Italian mainland. The Venetian government saw art as an important extension of government, one that could promote the city’s image as La Serenissima (the most serene) due to its stable government and rich population.


Though the Republic of Venice produced several artists, architects, sculptors, and musicians of fame, they were usually not from the city itself. Many artists came from Venetian holdings like Padua, Verona, Brescia, Istria, and Dalmatia. The city itself did, however, become known as the center for Renaissance book publishing and represented a unique style of art that would influence much of Western Europe for the centuries to come.


The Venetian style was characterized by color (colorito) and reposed, feminine shapes. It was also dominated, in sculpture as well, by the lion of Saint Mark, a classical symbol of the Republic. Some of the most well-known Venetian Renaissance painters were Giovanni and Gentile Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and Tintoretto. The Renaissance was also not limited to a period in Venice. While it started around the dawn of the 16th century, it didn’t end after the period had declined in other European regions; it flourished for ages, even as the Republic deteriorated.


The Annunciation by Domenico Piola, c.1679, via the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC


In Genoa, the economic situation was dire until the Doria family, one of the most famous aristocratic families in the city, established the Bank of Saint George in 1407. Around this time, the Doge Andrea Doria also established the city as a satellite of the Spanish Empire, regaining some of its power and independence in doing so. Genoa was known as a place for foreign artists. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 17th century that famous Genoese artists began cropping up at a time when the Renaissance was already declining in other areas of Europe.


The city’s benefactors and patrons encouraged the visit of foreign artists like van Dyck, Rubens, and Caravaggio. In doing so, they inspired a new generation of Genoese artists, many of whom are lesser known today, to create the basis for the terms of Baroque art. Several Genoese artists, like Domenico Piola and Gregorio de Ferrari, filled palaces, churches, and other public buildings with incredible amounts of decoration. The hallmark of the Genoese Renaissance is the adornment of frescoes in hundreds of buildings across the city, many of which remain private today.


The enduring art of both Venice and Genoa, supported in turn by their cities’ benefactors, allowed two distinct Renaissance capitals to thrive. A cultural rivalry, fueled by pride in their cities, was imbued in their art. It is worth noting that while Genoa was considered a center of culture and art, the rivalry was culturally dominated by the Venetians, as their art was uniquely long-lasting and distinct from other Italian art during the Renaissance and beyond.


Genoa vs. Venice in the Modern Day

Rio St. Geronimo, Venice by Franz Richard Unterberger, via Five Minute History


Venice experienced a period of decline facilitated by its loss of independence to the French Empire in 1797. After the French, Venice was passed around to different foreign powers, all of which further confused and contributed to the decline of the Venetian identity. To English tourists, Venice was a shadow of its former self, a city of grandeur in decay.


While beautiful, Venice established a reputation among tourists as a mysterious, eerie, formerly elegant city whose people were vaguely void of identity against a backdrop of decadence. Venice in the 19th century attracted adherents of Romanticism due to its dilapidated state, namely the famous English poet Lord Byron. Byron, along with other faces of the Romantic movement, such as art critic John Ruskin, saw Venice as a romantic paradise, a place of grandeur with an air of mystery.


Venice relied heavily on tourism to keep it (literally and metaphorically) afloat. Thanks to works by the likes of Byron and Ruskin, it slowly began to attract those who were wooed by its culture once again. Ruskin’s work, The Stones of Venice, was particularly important in revitalizing Venice’s tourism industry. In his book Venice: A New History, author Thomas F. Madden describes the revitalization brought about by Ruskin:


“Ruskin gave voice to a profoundly changed identity of Venice. It had become the physical city of crumbling beauty, a work of art, a world heritage. Those who read Ruskin, including thousands who traveled to Venice on package tours, began to feel that the city truly did belong to them, indeed to everyone. And they meant to take care of it.”


Port of Genoa by A. Noack, 1892, via GG Archives


After its unification into the modern Italian state, Venice remained a cultural icon and continues to mystify and delight today. It is one of the most popular cities in Italy. On the other hand, Genoa is less known for its cultural value, likely due to its early adoption of manufacturing. Genoa, too, joined the Italian state in the 1860s and became a hub for steelworks and shipbuilding, as well as a bustling port. In the post-World Wars era, it became the third corner of Italy’s Industrial Triangle, along with Milan and Turin, and contributed heavily to rebuilding the Italian economy.


A Harbour Scene, Possibly Genoa by Andries van Eertvelt, circa 1600s, via Byzantine Emporia


In theory and in terms of fame, Venice seemed to have “won” the rivalry between the two cities. However, the reality is that the two former maritime republics simply resolved their lack of independence differently. Genoa entered the Industrial Revolution earlier than Venice, as the lagoon city relied on its cultural capital to push it forward. While a medieval rivalry may have been fierce, eventually, the loss of independence, the control of foreign powers, and the unification of Italy dissolved what was left of any animosity. The two cities turned inward and are no longer considered in comparison to one another. So, regardless of who “won” the rivalry, both cities share the distinction of storied pasts and how those pasts brought them to the present.

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By Madison WhippleBA History w/ Spanish minorMadison is a contributing writer with specialties in American and women’s history. She is especially interested in women’s history in the context of the American Civil War. In her free time, she enjoys going to museums, reading, and jogging.