The History of the Confraternity (nowadays Community) of Venice
14531453Fall of Constantinople
Most Greek refugees arrived in Venice after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. People from all walks of life, either alone or with their families, sought refuge in Venice because of the perceived closeness, famously expressed by Cardinal Bessarion from Trebizond that “Venice is almost another Byzantium”. Their number was such that according to some reports - albeit with some exaggeration - it reached four thousand individuals in 1479. The Greeks considered important the need for survival and security as well as the unimpeded worship in Orthodox Christian belief. They had already lived side by side the Venetians in their homeland and in Constantinople itself, where a prosperous Venetian community had been flourishing for centuries.
The Greeks tried to meet the same needs as soon as they settled in Venice, a city that followed, of course, the Latin doctrine. From the beginning they were considered unionists (ουνίτες, uniati) because after the “Ecumenical” Council of Ferrara - Florence (1438-1439) which claimed to have achieved the union of the two churches while it was in fact a submission of the Orthodox Church to the Roman-Catholic Church. For this reason, the Venetian administration did not allow the presence of Orthodox priests, considered schismatics, and whose services were held secretly in private houses in Venice.
18 June 145618 June 1456
In some cases, rules were loosened. For example, on June 18, 1456, the Venetian Senate granted permission for the construction of a Greek Orthodox Church. However, the license was revoked the following year by the Council of Ten. The Greeks were forced to gather for formal worship, according to the Orthodox tradition, in a chapel of the church of San Biagio in the sestiere of Castello.
The efforts by the Greeks for the establishment of an Orthodox church, while trying to take advantage of possible contradictions between the Holy See and the Patriarch of Venice, continued in the following years; however without any result.
28 November 149828 November 1498
Therefore, on November 28, 1498, they submitted an application to the Council of Ten, requesting the establishment of a Confraternity of the Greek Orthodox or nazione greca - that is, a scuola. Patron saint of the scuola would be Saint Nicholas and its seat, the orthodox chapel of Saint Biasio. This request was accepted the very same day and the Statute of the Confraternity (Mariegola) was submitted to the Venetian authorities.
The members of the Confraternity elected the Administrative Board (Banca) for a one-year term. The Board consisted of the president (gastaldo), the vice-president (vicario), the secretary (segretario) and twelve other members (decani). Then, the offices of principals (governatori), auditors of the treasury (sindici) were created, as well as a collective body of twenty people, which functioned as an auxiliary administrative group (Zonta). The Confraternity’s resources came from contributions of the members, registration fees, fundraisers, donations, and bequests. In cases of special need, extraordinary contributions were also provided, as well as selective taxation paid by Greek-owned ships arriving in Venice.
4 October 15114 October 1511
At the beginning of the 16th century, the Greek Confraternity took up once more the issue of building its own church. For this purpose, the mercenary Greeks (Stradioti) were used. They served in the Venetian army on various fronts and were highly esteemed by the Venetian state. On October 4, 1511, the stradioti submitted a request to the Council of Ten asking permission to purchase a plot of land to build a church dedicated to their patron, Saint George.
30 April 151430 April 1514
Indeed, on April 30, 1514, their request was granted.
Subsequently, the Greeks managed to have two bulls (bollae) issued by Pope Leo X in their favour. With the first bull, the Greeks received permission to build a church and establish a cemetery; with the second, Pope Clement VII granted them the privilege of not being subject to the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Venice.
1536- 15771536- 1577Construction of the church
The construction of the church began in 1536 and the works were completed in 1577. In the same year, Gabriel Severus settled in Venice, as the first Orthodox archbishop of Philadelphia. He had previously served from 1573 in Venice as a pastor. He then travelled to Constantinople, where he was ordained archbishop of Philadelphia in Asia Minor and from there transferred to Venice under the same title, with the approval of the Ecumenical Patriarch. The Archbishop of Philadelphia is henceforth entitled “supreme and exarch of the region of Lydia”.
Severus’ contribution to the Hellenism of Venice was decisive. A man of rare intelligence, culture, and prestige, he managed to bridge the differences not only within the Confraternity but also between the Greeks and the Venetian state. He maintained contacts with important personalities of the city, such as the priest and legal adviser of the Venetian state fra’ Paolo Sarpi, who often intervened in favour of the Orthodox by stopping the plans of the Holy See.
Charity and benevolence deeds formed the statutory purpose of the Greek scuola; although it proved to be much broader in reality. The Confraternity saved the Greek Orthodox identity and provided a safety net for those Greeks who had since taken refuge in the city, expelled from their homeland because of the Ottomans. In 1593, within the Confraternity, a school of “Greek and Latin letters” was introduced, for which the Confraternity received annual financial aid from the Venetian state. In 1599 a nunnery was founded, which was fully functioning until 1829.
16651665Thomas Flangini's Legacy
From 1665 onwards, with the legacy of the lawyer and merchant Thomas Flangini, a higher educational institution for Greek students was founded in Venice. According to Flangini’s testament, full scholarships were to be given to Greek children aged 12-16, for six-year studies. The courses included “humanities”, rhetoric, philosophy and logic, theology, mathematics, and geography. After graduation, students could continue their studies at the University of Padua.
From the same legacy of Thomas Flangini, a hospital was established for the treatment of both the Greek inhabitants of Venice in need and the sailors who reached to the port of the city. The hospital was housed in the Scoletta building, next to St. George’s Church, and continued to operate until 1797, when, the freezing of funds in Zecca, cause severe disruption. In the middle of the 19th century, a new legacy, the one of the English Orthodox George Edward Pickering, came to give a new impetus to the hospital. The latter was then named “Flangini-Pickering Hospital”, to honour both the founder and the donor. Indeed, the hospital offered its services until the beginning of the 20th century.
Archdiocese of Philadelpia
Another cohesion pole in the world of the Greek community in Venice was the archdiocese of Philadelphia. From the first archbishop Gabriel Severus (1577-1616) and until the fall of Venice (1797) the following archbishops of Philadelphia served in the Venetian metropolis: Theofanis Xenakis (1617-1632), Nikodimos Metaxas (1632-1635), Athanasios Valerianos (1635), Meletios Chortatsis (1657-1677), Methodius Moronis (1677-1679), Gerasimos Vlachos (1679-1685), Meletios Typaldos (1685-1713), Grigorios Fatseas (1762-1768), Nikiforos Mormoris (1768-1772), (1772-1775), Sofronios Koutouvalis (1780-1790). Koutouvalis’ successor, Gerasimos Zygouras, served for thirty years as an “elected” archbishop (1790-1820), since Ecumenical Patriarchate did not ratify his election as archbishop.
Venice has been the cradle of Greek publications since the 15th century: the first Greek typographic characters were created in Italian workshops. Greek publishing houses were founded, and a variety of publications were distributed in Europe and in Ottoman-occupied Greek areas. During the two centuries prior to the Greek Revolution, the publishing activity reached its peak. The printing houses of the Greeks from Epirus were leading, such as those of the Gliki, of Saros and Theodosiou; some of them proved to be long-lived Greek companies.
17971797Fall of Venice
The Confraternity of Venice followed the fate of the Serenissima. The French occupation (1797) dealt devastating blows to both; bank deposits, as well as the Confraternity’s valuables, were confiscated by the French regime. Many of the community’s members left the city, looking for new commercial opportunities and other profitable activities in Italy (mainly in Trieste) or even returned in Greece.
By the end of World War II, the Greek Community numbered only thirty members. However, was still able to maintain a significant movable and immovable property. It was this property, which was transferred, and constituted the Hellenic Institute of Venice, in the middle of the 20th century.