The Venetian Patriciate in the Mediterranean: Legal Identity and Lineage in Fifteenth-Century Venetian Crete*

Article excerpt

The fourteenth through sixteenth centuries were a time of profound transition in the political, economic, and social world of the eastern Mediterranean. The capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire in 1453 symbolized a much larger and more gradual shift in the region's balance of power, from the fifteenth century's competition among Venetians, Ottomans, Genoese, and the remnants of Crusader states in the space left by the shrinking Byzantine Empire to the increasingly dominant contest between Spanish and Ottoman powers in the sixteenth century. The Venetian maritime state was located at the intersection of a number of these spheres of influence; it straddled a geographic boundary between eastern and western Europe, forming a religious and ethnic frontier as well as a political one. In this world of fluid and constantly shifting boundaries, identity was defined within a matrix of political, religious, ethnic, and cultural affiliations, and identities were particularly malleable in border zones. Venetian Crete was located at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, at the frontier between Ottoman, Byzantine, and Venetian worlds, and the Venetians resident in Crete constituted a colonial elite with significant ties to both Cretan and Venetian society. (1) The way in which this colonial elite crafted their individual and family identities to conform to Venetian standards of political and patrician identity is a particularly revealing case because the exclusive nature of the Venetian patriciate, and the institutional and legal barriers to entry, bring the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion into high relief. (2) The negotiations of the Venetian patriciate resident in Crete and the Venetian state over this group's inclusion in the Venetian patriciate highlight the interplay of state interest, individual and family action, and legal and social definitions of status in the creation and redefinition of categories of patrician identity in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Angelo Sagredo's 1458 application for inclusion in the Venetian patriciate serves to underscore the problem of the status in Venice of Venetians resident on Crete and the negotiation between state and individual inherent in the solutions. Sagredo presented his credentials for Venetian nobility to the avogadori di comun, the Venetian office responsible for approving or denying claims to enter the city's patriciate. The procedure was a routine one for most Venetian noblemen, a rite of passage into adulthood performed among a circle of relatives, friends, and neighbors. Angelo Sagredo, however, came from a very different environment. His paternal ancestors had been among the first settlers sent to the Venetian colony of Crete in the early thirteenth century, and by 1458 that branch of the Sagredo family had resided in Crete for over two hundred years. Crete, the keystone of the maritime state, was a Venetian colonial possession from 1211 to 1669. The avogadori therefore approached Angelo's petition to enter the Venetian nobility with more than the usual care. Angelo's claim was based on a family tree in which he traced his lineage back six generations; his claim rested on his paternal uncles' status as Venetian nobles. (3) After examining the family tree, the avogadori declared that Angelo was trying to prove his nobility "with fraud and deception" because their research showed that the man Angelo claimed as his great-grandfather, Marco Sagredo, had not been married and therefore had no legitimate descendants. (4) Angelo then presented two alternate genealogies, and finally in 1459 was able to prove that his father's brother Zanachi had been accepted as noble, thus gaining a place in the Venetian patriciate for himself. (5)

Sagredo was one of a larger group of Venetians resident on Crete who claimed patrician status and who went through the process of proving this status in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. On one level, these applications show that membership in the Venetian patriciate brought material advantages; thus, claims of inclusion had a very practical element to them. …