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Byzantine Women in Venice after the Fall of Constantinople

By Julia Wohlforth

In January I traveled to Venice, Italy, to study the Byzantine women who sought refuge there after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. My thesis considered women’s agency throughout the late period of the Byzantine Empire, and I found that community in Venice to be especially intriguing. My research was focused around one woman who was particularly influential in Venice, Anna Notaras, who had been sent to Italy shortly before Constantinople fell, and therefore avoided the death that came to her fathers and brothers in the aftermath. She, along with other Byzantine women in Venice, sought to preserve those aspects of Byzantine culture that they feared would disappear, such as art, architecture, writing and religion, each of which is still evident in Venice, a testament to their efforts.

My research pointed me to the State Archives of Venice and the Hellenic Institute for Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Studies, not only for investigation of Anna and the refugee women, but also for important Byzantine documents from other periods, brought over for safekeeping. In the will of Anna Notaras at the State Archives I found mention of her efforts regarding San Giorgio Dei Greci, the church that the Byzantine community in Venice petitioned the government to be allowed to build. Anna left 500 ducats to the project, hoping to attain for her community the right to practice the Greek Orthodox faith in Catholic Venice. Walking only 25 minutes I was able to go to San Giorgio itself, still decorated with Byzantine icons, and attend a service there. One of the icons decorating the interior was among the three Anna saved when she brought them over from Constantinople, that she then donated to the Church. Next door to San Giorgio is the Hellenic Institute where I was able to see the other two icons Anna brought over, and to look at the letter signed by Doge Leonardo Loredan in 1514, first authorizing the Byzantine community to build a Greek Orthodox Church. During my trip I had many experiences like this, where my research connected immediately with my surroundings, the evidence of the Byzantine refugees showing up everywhere I looked.

Some of the most common sources on the Byzantine community in Venice were court records. Women often had to advocate for themselves in Venetian court, something they would have never had to do in Byzantium, as their husbands and male relatives were generally absent or dead due to the fall of Constantinople. While most involved seeking positions for themselves or their children, Anna Notaras was unwaveringly fierce in her efforts to preserve Byzantine culture, and court records reflect that. At the State Archives of Venice, I was able to look in to a case in which Anna accused her deceased brother’s wife of stealing a manuscript of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, a document she calls vital to Latin and Greek culture. Anna’s navigation of the Venetian court system got her in to some trouble, however, as her loyal agent Vlastos was arrested and tortured in 1493 for bribing witnesses and falsifying records on her behalf. I was able to track this story through documents in the State Archives, finding in Anna’s will complaints about the unfair treatment of her agent, and visiting the court room in the Doge’s Palace where the case was tried.

When you know what to look for, evidence of the Byzantine Empire is everywhere in Venice. The two cultures were very linked well before 1453, and this relationship was the reason that so many refugees chose to settle there after the fall. Just within Saint Mark’s Basilica, the most iconic Venetian building in Venice, there are Byzantine mosaics and a Byzantine style altarpiece, as well as the famed horses of Saint Marks and the portrait of the four tetrarchs, taken from Constantinople in 1204. Being surrounded by these pieces of Byzantine history, as I read through records of that history, made me feel enormously connected to the moment I was writing about, and the historical characters that populated that moment. I would like to thank the History Department and the Clark Fellowship Committee for making this possible for me.