Already in Byzantine times Greek merchants had a regular presence in Venice.
After the Fourth Crusade (1204) it became easier for inhabitants of various Greek regions to settle in the city. It was primarily because of the Turkish threat that numerous Greeks were compelled, from the early 14th century on, to abandon their homeland and seek refuge in Venice.

After the fall of Constantinople (1453), there was a significant increase in the number of refugees. It has been calculated — perhaps with some exaggeration — that the total number of Greeks in Venice in 1479 was about 4,000.

The first problem Greeks faced was that of the free practice of their religion. At the beginning of the fifteenth century Orthodox church services were held in secret, in churches and houses, because the Venetian authorities considered the Orthodox to be proponents of church schism and hence prohibited Greek priests from saying Mass.
After the Council of Florence, the concession by the authorities of a chapel in the church of San Biagio (St Blaise) gave the Greeks the false impression that there were no further objections and that they would be able to acquire their own church. The Senate granted them the necessary licence on 18 June 1456, and the construction of a church commenced, but it was stopped the following year following an order by the Council of Ten, after which the Greeks had to continue to practice their religion in San Biagio.

The Greeks — unwilling as they were to make concessions to either the Pope or the (Catholic) Patriarch of Venice — continued their efforts over the following years, without any result. Hence they decided for the time being to abandon their main objective on the religious issue, and to move in a different direction.

On 28 November 1498 they applied to the Council of Ten to found a Confraternity (Scuola) of Orthodox Greeks or of the Greek Nation, with St Nicholas as its patron and the church of San Biagio as its base. The request was granted on the same day, and the constitution of the Confraternity was quickly drawn up and obtained the approval of the Venetian authorities.

The members of the Confraternity elected their Council of Directors (Banca) for a term of one year. It comprised the president (gastaldo), the vice-president (vicario), the secretary and ten other members. Further positions were added later: the governors, the treasurers (sindici), and a body of twenty-one persons as an adjunct (zonta) to the Council. The Confraternity’s income was derived from members’ contributions, membership fees, collections, donations and bequests, and also, when necessary, from special offers and from taxes imposed on Greek ships arriving in Venice.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century the Greeks brought up once more the issue of practicing their religion in a church of their own. The Greek soldiers (stradioti) were considered most capable of achieving this objective, since in view of their important contribution to Venice’s wars against the Turks they were held in particular respect and favour by the authorities. In their application to the Council of Ten on 4 October 1511 they asked permission to acquire a building plot on which to construct a church dedicated to their patron Saint George. Their request was granted, and final approval was given by the Doge himself on 30 April 1514, after the piece of land had already been acquired.

Subsequently the Greeks were able to obtain two Bulls issued by Pope Leo X, giving them the right to construct a church and have the use of a cemetery, as well as a third Bull from Pope Clement VII, granting them the privilege of exemption from the jurisdiction of the Catholic Patriarch of Venice.

Construction of the church began in 1536 and was finished in 1577.
The same year saw the enthronement of the first Orthodox Metropolitan, Gabriel Seviros, who had previously been chaplain of the church of St George. Seviros had just been ordained Metropolitan of Philadelphia in Asia Minor by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, but had been obliged by Venice to remain in that city.
Seviros made an important contribution to the Greeks of Venice.
In 1593 the school of Greek and Latin studies began to function, for which the Confraternity received an annual subsidy from Venice, while in 1599 a convent of nuns was founded, which also had an educational role.
All subsequent Metropolitans kept the title of Philadelphia; they were elected by the Confraternity, were directly dependent on the Orthodox Patriarchate and did not recognise the authority of the Pope.

November 1991 saw the establishment of the Holy Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Italy and Exarchate for Southern Europe, by a decision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, together with the enthroning of its first Metropolitan.

The Confraternity of Orthodox Greeks shared the fortunes of the Serenissima itself.
After the fall of Venice (1797), the decline of the Confraternity was inevitable. Its bank deposits, precious objects and sacred vestments were confiscated by Napoleon. Its members sought a new home in other Italian commercial centres, or returned to Greece. After the end of the Second World War it had only thirty members, although it still preserved an important part of its real estate and moveable property. At that critical moment the diplomatic efforts of Greece and Italy and the determination of the Confraternity’s last members combined to save not only its patrimony, but also its cultural heritage.

1948 a cultural agreement was signed by the two states, allowing for the establishment in Venice of a Hellenic Institute of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Studies as well as the re-opening in Athens of the Italian School of Archaeology and the Italian Institute.

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