Venetian Cyprus

Map of Nicosia in Cyprus, created by the Venetian cartographer Giacomo Franco, showing the Venetian walls of Nicosia that were built by the Venetians to defend the city in case of an Ottoman attack

The island of Cyprus was an overseas possession of the Republic of Venice from 1489, when the independent Kingdom of Cyprus ended, until 1570–71, when the island was conquered by the Ottoman Empire.


Further information: Ottoman Cyprus

Venice for centuries wanted to control Cyprus and venetian merchants had worked in the island since the year 1000 AD, when the Venetian (commercial and military) expansion in the eastern Mediterranean had started.

The Venetian desire for Cyprus was inspired mainly by profit. The Venetians saw Cyprus primarily as a military base. Anticipating conflict, they undertook an ambitious plan of fortification. Famagusta and Nicosia were ringed with massive earthworks, cased with stone. An outer wall was erected around Kyrenia castle, the gap being filled with earth to form an artillery rampart. The best military architects in Europe were brought in to design and execute these projects.[1]

In 1468, James II of Cyprus of the house of Lusignan became King of Cyprus. In 1468 he chose Catherine Cornaro (born in Venice from the noble family of the "Corner") for his wife and Queen consort of the Kingdom of Cyprus. The King's choice was extremely pleasing to the Republic of Venice as it could henceforth secure the commercial rights and other privileges of Venice in Cyprus. They married in Venice on 30 July 1468 by proxy when she was 14 years old.

Portrait of venetian Caterina Cornaro, the last medieval "Queen of Cyprus", by Titian

James died soon after the wedding due to a sudden illness and, according to his will, Caterina, who at the time was pregnant, acted as regent. She became monarch when their infant son James died in August 1474 before his first birthday, because of malaria fever.

The Kingdom of Cyprus had long since declined, and had been a tributary state of the Egyptian Mameluks since 1426. Under Caterina, who ruled Cyprus from 1474 to 1489, the island was controlled by Venetian merchants, and on 14 March 1489 she was forced to abdicate and sell the administration of the country to the Republic of Venice.[2]

According to George Boustronios, "On 14 February, the Queen dressed in black and accompanied by the Barons and their ladies, set off on horseback. Six knights held her horse's reins. From the moment she left Nicosia, her eyes kept streaming with tears. Upon her departure, the whole population was bewailing." So, the last Crusader state became a colony of Venice, and as compensation, Catherine was allowed to retain the title of Queen and was made the Sovereign Lady of Asolo, a county in the Veneto of Italy, in the same 1489.

The bulk of Venetian Cyprus was composed of Greek Orthodox peasants who were oppressed by the Frankish ruling class (related to the former Lusignan kings), and it was estimated that there were some fifty thousand serfs. Venice favored the catholicism, that enjoyed a huge increase in followers: there were some problems because of this with the local Greek orthodox priests.

Throughout the period of Venetian rule, Ottoman Turks raided and attacked the peoples of Cyprus at will. The Greek population of Cyprus were given weapons by their venetian rulers and fought the attacking Ottomans.

In 1489, the first year of Venetian control, Turks attacked the Karpass Peninsula, pillaging and taking captives to be sold into slavery.[3] In 1539 the Turkish fleet attacked and destroyed Limassol.[3] Fearing the ever-expanding Ottoman Empire, the Venetians had fortified Famagusta, Nicosia, and Kyrenia, but most other cities were easy prey.

In 1489, when Cyprus came under Venetian rule, Nicosia became their administrative center and the seat of the Republic of Venice. The Venetian Governors saw it as a necessity for all the cities of Cyprus to be fortified due to the Ottoman threat.[4] In 1567 Venetians built the new fortifications of Nicosia, which are well-preserved until today, demolishing the old walls built by the Franks as well as other important buildings of the Frankish era including the King's Palace, other private palaces and churches and monasteries of both Orthodox and Latin Christians.[5] The new walls took the shape of a star with eleven bastions: the design of the bastion was more suitable for artillery and a better control for the defenders. The walls had three gates, to the North "Kyrenia Gate", to the west "Paphos Gate" and to the east "Famagusta Gate".[5] The river Pedieos used to flow through the Venetian walled city, but in 1567 it was later diverted outside onto the newly built moat for strategic reasons, due to the expected Ottoman attack.[6]

The Venetians even modified Kyrenia Castle to meet the threat that the use of gunpowder and cannons posed. The castle's royal quarters and three of its four thin and elegant Frankish towers were demolished and replaced by thickset circular towers that could better withstand cannon fire.

Indeed, commercial activity under the Republic of Venice turned Famagusta into a place where merchants and ship owners led lives of luxury. The belief that people's wealth could be measured by the churches they built inspired these merchants to have churches built in varying styles. These churches, which still exist, were the reason Famagusta came to be known as "the district of churches". The development of the town focused on the social lives of the wealthy people and was centered upon the "Lusignan palace", the Cathedral, the Square and the harbour.

Ottoman Turks attacking the last Venetian stronghold in Famagusta 1571.

In the summer of 1570, the Turks struck again, but this time with a full-scale invasion rather than a raid. About 60,000 troops, including cavalry and artillery, under the command of Lala Mustafa Pasha landed unopposed near Limassol on July 2, 1570, and laid siege to Nicosia. The city fell—September 9, 1570 fell—20,000 Nicosians were put to death, and every church, public building, and palace was looted. Only women and boys who were captured to be sold as slaves were spared.[7][8] Word of the massacre spread, and a few days later Mustafa took Kyrenia without having to fire a shot. The Venetian walls of Nicosia were not useful -even because incomplete- in stopping this powerful Ottoman Army, that was reinforced in the last 1570 months.

However Famagusta, strengthened by Cyprus' governor Astorre Baglioni,[9] resisted with the Siege of Famagusta and put up a strong defense that lasted from September 1570 until August 1571.

On 15 September 1570 the Turkish cavalry appeared before the last Venetian stronghold in Cyprus, Famagusta. At this point already, overall Venetian losses (including the local population) were estimated by contemporaries at 56,000 killed or taken prisoner.[10] The Venetian defenders of Famagusta numbered about 8,500 men with 90 artillery pieces and were commanded by Marco Antonio Bragadin. They would hold out for 11 months against a force that would come to number more than 200,000 men, with 145 guns,[11] providing the time needed by the Pope to cobble together an anti-Ottoman league from the reluctant Christian European states.[12]

The Turks lost some 52,000 men in five major assaults in early 1571, until in summer the Venetians -despairing to receive any rescue from the homeland and requested to do so by the local starving civilians- decided to surrender. In July, 1571 the Turks eventually breached the fortifications of Famagusta and their forces broke into the citadel, being repulsed only at the cost of heavy losses. With provisions and ammunition running out, his soldiers able to fight reduced to just seven hundreds and no sign of relief from Venice on August 1,[13] Bragadin asked for terms of surrender. The Turk commander, Lala Kara Mustafa Pasha, accorded the survivors to safely return to Crete, but he did not keep his word: he was enraged even because of his older son death attacking so few Venetian defenders. There followed a massacre of all Christians still in the city, with Bragadin himself most brutally abused.

From a military point of view, the besieged garrison's perseverance required a massive effort by the Ottoman Turks, who were so heavily committed that they were unable to redeploy in time when the Holy League built up the fleet later victorious against the Muslim power at Lepanto: this was the legacy of Bragadin and his Venetians to Christianity, as Theodore Mommsen wrote. Historians to this day debate just why Venice did not send help to Bragadin from Souda, Crete. It is alleged that some Venetians thought about putting their limited military assets to better use in the forthcoming clash, already in sight, which would climax in the Battle of Lepanto.

The fall of Famagusta (with the death of venetian Marcantonio Bragadin) marked the beginning of the Ottoman period in Cyprus. It is noteworthy to pinpoint that this is the historical setting to Shakespeare's Othello, the play's title character being the commander of the Venetian garrison defending Cyprus against the Ottomans.


  1. Whatson-Northcyprus:Venetian control of Cyprus
  2. H. E. L. Mellersh; Neville Williams (May 1999). Chronology of world history. ABC-CLIO. p. 569. ISBN 978-1-57607-155-7. Retrieved 13 March 2011.
  3. 1 2 Library of Congress
  4. "Nicosia Municipality". Retrieved 10 March 2012.
  5. 1 2 "Nicosia Municipality". Retrieved 10 March 2012.
  6. "Nicosia" (PDF). Retrieved 12 March 2013.
  7. Turnbull, Stephen (2003). The Ottoman Empire 1326–1699 (Essential Histories Series #62). Osprey Publishing. p. 58
  8. Hopkins, T. C. F. (2007). Confrontation at Lepanto: Christendom Vs. Islam. Macmillan p.82
  9. Astorre Baglioni biography (in Italian)
  10. Setton (1984), p. 990
  11. Turnbull (2003), pp. 58–59
  12. Hopkins (2007), pp. 87–89
  13. Madden. Page 330.


See also

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