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
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