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Sacking Constantinople and Filling the Bucket
By Dario Bollacasa

Last week my booking agent asked me to come up with titles and a two sentence description for a series of lectures. The idea was to assemble a mini-catalogue of potential presentations to be marketed. The titles and the description had to be snappy and intriguing.

I mulled the matter over for a while and did a bit of solitary brainstorming. I completed the assignment coming up with 16 subject matters. It then started to dawn on me that I had invented 16 buckets that were in dire need of filling. The titles that would be selected would require content in order to fill up a 35 minutes presentation in real time.

In a sequence of panicked moments I started weaving some of the stories, and losing some sleep in the process. Now that the time has been invested, I may as well take you on a brief journey of filling in one of the buckets.

To whit: Constantinople Is Sacked.
The Fourth Crusade takes a detour and four bronze horses wind up at St. Mark's Basilica. Join Dario Bollacasa for a discussion of what happened.

The story highlights the cunning, wisdom and ruthlessness of the Venetians and some of their finest moments of merchandising. I feel connected to the way of the Venetians since Venice is only 70 miles away from where I was born and raised. If you have been in Venice during the last century or so, you can appreciate the fact that Venetians are still great merchandisers.

The story of the sack of Constantinople began in 1198, when a crazed French priest started walking around the countryside to get support for another Crusade. Innocent III, the Pope of the time, promoted the idea and offered all participants an absolution for all their sins.

The King of France approved the venture and dispatched some of his most faithful and capable Barons and Counts to Venice to make a deal for ships and provisions to go to the Holy Land.

They were greeted by Enrico Dandolo, the reigning Doge and his Council. Enrico, as it was customary for all the Doges, was quite old (in his eighties).  He was also quite sly, shrewd and blind to boot!

They all listened to the Crusaders and proposed to furnish many ships, provisions for men and horses and crews for a grand total of 85,000 marks of silver. The building of the ships was expected to take about one year and the delegation went back to France to collect the money.

There were setbacks, deaths and so on, but finally in June of 1202 the pilgrims and warriors started to leave their countries for Venice. Some decided to go to the Holy Land by other ways and promised to meet up in Syria leaving those going to Venice short of funds.

The group that got to Venice, found that the fleet was ready, but was three times larger than needed given that so many had gone east their own way.

The Venetians were sorely pissed because they had built the ships and the Crusaders were 34,000 marks short of the original 85,000.

The Doge and his Council came up with a novel idea: "How about we swing by the city of Zara, on the Dalmatian coast and capture it in exchange for the 34,000 marks of silver?" This was surely not in the original plan, but the Crusaders were over a barrel and agreed. The Doge then said:"How about if I come along with some of my compatriots and help you in the expedition and whatever we plunder on the way we split 50/50?" And so they sailed to Zara in the middle of October 1202.

Meanwhile back in Constantinople, there was a regime change and Alexius, the dethroned Emperor's son managed to escape to Germany where he sought refuge with the King who had married Alexius's sister.

Alexius found out that there was a Crusade headed east, and proposed that he would pay the Crusaders 100,000 marks of silver, the Empire of Roumania, and 10,000 soldiers to go forth to the Holy Land, if they returned him to the throne.

This offer was too good to pass up and the Crusaders, aided and abetted by the Venetians, agreed. Meanwhile they busied themselves in the conquest of Zara, spending the winter there and finally sacking the city, destroying the walls and towers and setting off for Constantinople on April 3, 1203.

They made it there in due time and were faced with a formidable task: to get over the walls, which had not been breached in 800 years. While the Crusaders attacked the gates, with no success, Enrico Dandolo led his ships and they sidled up to the walls two-by-two. The sailors climbed the masts, and scrambled to the top of the walls on planks which were laid down from the top of the riggings to the top of the walls. Pretty clever, hey? This brilliant feat was forever immortalized in a painting by Tintoretto in the Doge’s Palace in Venice.

Though Constantinople was rather easily conquered, the pretender to the throne, good old Alexius, stiffed the Crusaders and the Venetians by refusing to pay the 100,000 marks of silver etc. that he had promised.

This did not sit well with the conquering heroes, who decided to take matters into their own hands and sack the city. The spoils were collected in three churches and they were divided equally among the Crusaders and the Venetians. The Crusaders paid the Venetians an extra 50,000 marks of silver out their booty which was valued at 400,000 marks of silver and 10,000 horses.

And so it came to pass that the four bronze horses came into the hands of the Venetians and were sent to embellish the portico of the Basilica of Saint Mark for centuries.


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