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E - 212: Why are there no Genovese Settlements in Sicily and Southern Italy?

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

Entrance to the ancient port of Syracuse with the mighty Castello Maniace, summer 2020

Wherever the Genovese went for trading, they established a permanent presence in the form of a colony or a settlement. This was true for the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Levant, the Aegean and the Black Sea but strangely enough not for Sicily and the Ionian Sea, the coasts we wil be sailing along in summer 2021. How comes?

There are no Genovese colonies in Sicily, Calabria, Puglia, the Ionian Islands or the Peloponnese (blue circle)

Given that a Genovese galley – like any other medieval galley in the Mediterranean - could not stay at sea overnight and had to harbor every 30 miles to feed and sleep the crew, how did they bridge the gap from Sardinia to Crete on the way to Egypt, the Levant, Constantinople or the Black Sea?

Could not find an answer on the internet and unfortunately do not have the time for a comprehensive search in academic papers. But I found some interesting, though indirect clues. There is a Ukraine government publication which makes the case for declaring a Genovese Fortress on the Crimean a World Heritage site. In a nutshell, the paper says that the Genovese only established permanent settlements when absolutely necessary.

Funduk in the Turkish Part of Nicosia - the similarities to the early exchanges in Europe in Antwerp and London are amazing

A settlement was usually centered on a fortified Castrum with enclosing walls similar to the Islamic Fonduk – good examples can still be seen in the Turkish part of Nicosia (Cyprus) or in Acre (Israel). Next to the Castrum but still inside the enclosure was the Civitas where the Genovese nobility lived. Most of the time the Castrum and Civitas were surrounded by an undefended Burgos for the ordinary people. A Castrum could develop into a fully-fledged town or be just an enclosed neighborhood within a town (as it was in Acre). Due to their fortifications, such settlements came at a considerable cost and were an investment that Genoa only made when no other arrangements were available.

Nobody really knows when exactly Genovese long distance maritime trading began. For our trip I assume that it started around the 7th century. At that time the Byzantine Empire lost its African and Western possessions to the advancing Arabs and Italy to the Germanic Langobard. Genoa, which remained under Byzantine authority for another 100 years, must have seen an opportunity to build a business when Byzantine ships did not arrive any longer. It sent out its own ships. Still being under Byzantine sovereignty it could rely on the Empire’s infrastructure in eastern Sicily, Calabria, Puglia and Greece to sail to the Middle East. There were still remnants from the old Mare Nostrum maritime infrastructure which could be used. There was no need to set up own settlements.

The Byzantine Empire lost Egypt in 642 AD and the rest of Africa between 647 and 709 AD to advancing Arabs. Sicily was captured in 831 AD from Tunisia.

Reading Italian history books, I thought everything changed with the arrival of the Fatimid Caliphate in Tunisia in 909 AD . The Shiite Fatimids built one of the largest Arab Empires which stretched from the Atlantic coast to Damascus and the Red Sea. For me, proof of the change was the sack of Genoa in 935 by a Fatimid Fleet. But we know today that these fleets were considerably smaller than history books indicate. Sometimes sometime as small as 12 galleys. Could a dozen galleys really sack a big, well defended town? Probably not. But by 935 AD Genoa had shrunk to the size of a small village on the rock just south to the old harbor and its fortifications were dilapidated. Archeological findings show how small Genoa had become in the 10th century.

The Fatimid Empire at its peak in 1050. The Fatimid maintained extensive trade relations with India and Sung China

The Fatimid raid on Genoa was probably more an aberration than policy and maybe the result of internal strife between various Fatimid factions. We know much more about the relations the Fatimid Caliphate maintained with another trading port in Italy, Amalfi. They were amicable and mutually beneficial. The Amalfi traders were important distributors of the luxury goods the Fatimid’s mostly Jewish Merchants imported from Asia. The Fatimid Caliphate had developed extensive commercial relationships with both India and the Sung Dynasty of China. Again, Asian products (spices, jewels, cotton and silk) arrived in bulk via the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. Amalfi’s ships were granted free access to all Fatimid ports – of course – since they paid for the Asian goods in silver. Why would the Fatimid wage war against their own customers? The relationship between Fatimids and Genoa may well have been similar. With free access to the Sicilian ports (in Fatimid hands) and Calabrian ports (under Byzantine control) there was no need for establishing permanent settlements. Anyway, after the Pisan and Genovese Fleet destroyed the Fatimid Fleet in 1087, they had the upper hand and could dictate the terms of trade.

A Song painting of two cargo ships (from Wikiwand)

By 1038 AD the Muslim rule in Sicily came to an end. Norman mercenaries invaded the island from Southern Italy where they were already established and by 1072 set up a Norman kingdom with the capital in Palermo. Being allied with Genoa and Pisa against the Fatimids, they granted both towns extensive trade privileges which again made the establishment of own settlements unnecessary. These trade privileges were continued by the Kingdom of Sicily which emerged from the Norman Kingdom and eventually came in the possession of the Spanish Kingdom of Aragon. Only for a very brief time (1205 – 1220) did Genoa control Syracuse to protect its commercial interests.

We thus won’t see any Medieval Genovese settlements during our journey in 2021 – there were cost efficient alternatives. Over time, Genoa became so familiar with Spanish law and infrastructure, they never set up their own shop when trading with a Spanish port. This symbiotic relationship must have opened the way for Genoa becoming Spain’s main banker in the 16th and 17th century.


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