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D - 44: Famous People in the Mediterranean - Andrea Doria

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

In most of Europe and the US, Andrea Doria may not be a famous name. But in Italy it is. Who has several ships named after him? Most people don’t. Have not seen an SS Hugo yet, albeit my name is used for a German drink: elderflower tea with champagne! But then I am not a celebrity ;-)

Andrea Doria is probably the most skilled and prominent statesman that Genoa ever had. Born in 1466, he lived in one of Genoa’s most turbulent times. When he passed away in 1560, he had not only changed the Republic’s strategic alliance, he also gave it a new business model and ended centuries of political infighting with a new constitution. Andrea Doria was in every sense transformative.

Andrea Doria portrait as Neptune from Angelo Bronzino 1530 AD

In the ending days of the conflict between the Byzantine Empire and the rising Ottomans, Genoa stayed neutral and – contrary to Venice – did not support Constantine XI Palaiologos, the last Byzantine Emperor. The Genovese sat out the siege of Constantinople in 1453 in the town of Galata on the opposite side of the Golden Horn. But neutrality did not help. The Ottoman entered Galata a few days after they conquered Constantinople.

Over the next decades, the Ottoman Empire took over one Genovese colony after the other. The posts on the Black Sea fell first followed by the islands in the Aegean Sea (Lemnos, Lesbos, Chios and Samos). Sometimes by force, often simply by showing up and demanding the keys to the town. By the end of the 15th century, they were all lost.

Genovese colonies

By the time Andrea Doria was a teenager, Genoa had lost most of its lucrative trading business. The slave trade from the Crimean to North Africa was gone, wheat from the Ukraine to Constantinople was now shipped by the Ottomans, buying gold in North Africa without Crimean slaves to pay with was in jeopardy. How was Genoa going to survive? These were the hotly debated questions when Andrea Doria grew up.

Doria’s birthplace in Genoa – he lost his parents early and became a Condottieri

Genoa first tried its luck with an alliance with France but it did not work out well. I won’t have enough space to talk about this in details. The alliance with France had roots in history. At Agincourt, six thousand Genovese crossbow men fought on the French side. France appreciated the military and naval capacity of Genoa and was willing to pay for it but did not have an alternative business model for the Republic. During Doria’s early years, we see him fighting as mercenary alongside the French in Corsica in 1503. As a member of one of Genoa’s most powerful and richest families, he had his own galleys. Contrary to Venice, the majority of Genovese galleys were privately owned which made the organization of trade easier but also let to a reluctance to commit to battle. A Genovese naval commander would always risk his own fortune and thus fought only when he knew he could win.

By 1522, Doria formally entered into the service of the French King Francis I. You may remember the French King from my 2019 blogs. Yes, it was Francis I who formed several strategic alliances with the Ottomans to fight Charles V, the German Emperor, and the Pope. But King Francis was a fickle person who changed his mind often and broke his word even more frequently. He agreed with the Ottoman Sultan to jointly invade Italy in 1537 but his army never showed. As to be expected, King Francis did not pay his Captain-General Doria what he promised and also reneged on the transfer of neighboring Savona to Genovese control.

Genovese Fleet outside the harbour of Genoa

By 1528, Doria had enough of empty promises and signed up with Charles V instead. He became the Emperor’s Imperial Admiral. For the rest of his life, he would side with Spain and direct Genoa’s interest to the west, the New World of the Atlantic. Across the ocean, Spain was busy building the first global empire. Its Treasure Fleets brought every year vast quantities of silver to Seville. Spain was not only a military superpower that could pay its bills. It also was an export market for Genovese technology in ship building, navigational instruments and cartography. And it needed bankers who had access to gold.

As Imperial Admiral, Doria participated from 1530 – 1552 in Spanish fleet actions against the Ottoman Empire and implemented Charles V’s Grand Strategy for the Mediterranean (subject of one of my next blogs). Even though Dora was on the Spanish payroll now, he remained Genovese in his thinking and behaving. As the personal owner of his Genovese galleys, he only committed his forces when he knew victory was certain. There are several occasions where he and Barbarossa, the Ottoman Admiral, met on open sea and avoided engagement. As we learned, galleys were expensive and difficult to man. Admirals were thus risk averse.

Barbarossa defeats the Holy League at the Battle of Prevezza in 1538

The Sea Battle of Prevezza in 1538 is a good example. The Holy League (Spain, Genoa, Venice and the Pope) assembled a big fleet for an amphibious landing at the Bay of Kotor to open a second front against the Turk. When the two fleets eventually met, Admiral Doria wanted to sink the Turkish ships from a distance with the combined firepower of his sailing ships and galleys. However, the wind calved and his sails became sitting ducks for the mobile Turkish galleys. As the chance of winning dwindled, Doria pulled his forces back and let the Venetians take the beating – something they would never forgive.

When not at sea, Doria was busy with re-arranging the constitution of his beloved Republic. To make it a trustworthy place where business could be done, Doria had to stop the quasi permanent fighting between the ruling families. He imposed an oligarchic system which gave all principal families access to power and made sure that everybody got its turn. In a way, it was similar to the government system in Venice. The town’s French faction was not too happy but their efforts to overthrow the Doria system were unsuccessful. The new constitution made Genoa stable indeed and it was only abolished when the French invaded the Republic in 1797.

Porto Venere with the Doria Family castle on top

Doria remained the most influential person in Genoa even after this retirement in 1555. He lived an extraordinary long life and passed away at the age of 94, an age that almost nobody reached. Doria was one of the last Condottieri in Europe. After him, nation states assumed the place he held. He was successful in limiting the expansion of the Ottoman Empire to the West, gave Genoa a business model that led to a new Golden Era and many new Palazzi in town and stabilized the Republic’s volatile politics. There are few people who can look back on so many achievements. No wonder ships are named after him.

Tomorrow we talk about Barbarossa, Andrea Doria’s worthy opponent.

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