Rise of the Maritime Republics: Pisa & Genoa

The cities of Italy, Pisa and Genoa rivalled Venice and its merchants. This article explores the affiliation to protect against Islam and then the war that followed. An Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983 with small group educational tours for senior couples and mature solo travellers.

31 May 22 · 10 mins read

Rise of Pisa and Genoa Maritime Republics

Between the 10th and 13th centuries, Italian maritime republics dominated the Mediterranean Sea commercially and militarily. The numerous Italian city-states initially emerged in response to the constant attacks of Muslim raiders and pirates, developing powerful navies in order to defend themselves. By the 11th century, the Muslim fleets had been defeated, and the maritime republics started to expand their power. Over the centuries, they would take control of many of the maritime trade routes in the Mediterranean, sustained by colonies of merchants and settlers, and make key contributions to the Crusades.

Two of the earliest and most powerful city-states of Italy were Pisa and Genoa, situated close to one another on the Tyrrhenian Coast. Although the relationship between the two cities would later be marked by intense rivalry, their initial success would not have been possible without deep collaboration particularly as threat to the merchant activities of Venice. Their rise to prominence came in the 11th century, as they allied together to repel the threat of Arab expansion in the Tyrrhenian Sea. The two maritime republics then jointly launched attacks on Islamic Lands in Tunisia and Spain, expanding their control of trade across the Mediterranean. They also played essential roles in providing naval support for the First Crusade, for which they were rewarded handsomely with plunder and trading concessions in the conquered lands.

This article explores the rise of Pisa and Genoa as background reading for a number of Odyssey Traveller’s small group tours of Italy for senior and mature travellers. During these tours, we explore Italy’s incredible natural beauty, its ancient Roman heritage, its World Heritage Sites, and its world-famous cities, all with some truly spectacular scenery along the way. For even more information on Pisa and Genoa, readers are urged to take a look at David Abulafia’s The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean; Carrie E. Beneš’ A Companion to Medieval Genoa; and William Heywood’s A History of Pisa – all of which were used extensively during the writing of this article.

Pisa Italy Rooftops leaning tower
A view of Pisa’s Cathedral Square, featuring the Cathedral, the Tower and the Baptistery, taken just after sunrise.

Rise of the Italian City-State

From the 11th century a number of many different cities began to develop throughout the central and northern parts of the Italian peninsula and organize themselves into self-governing communities, known as ‘communes’ or ‘city-states’. These states emerged by declaring their independence from either the church or the Holy Roman Empire, following the collapse of central authority in northern Italy.

The Italian city-state was able to emerge due to the unique situation in Italy in the Middle Ages, compared with the rest of Europe. Several of the region’s heavily populated urban settlements, which had been established by the ancient Romans, had managed to survive and continue after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Life in the rest of Europe, on the other hand, had become more rural dominated by a feudal system of servile labour on huge tracks of land.

The Italian cities were thus able to exercise more influence than elsewhere in Europe to breakaway from their feudal overlords. They were then able to further assert their independence by capitalizing on the growing trade in Europe to expand into large prosperous trading metropoles.

Pisa and Genoa were among the earliest city-states of Italy. Each would grow to be important commercial and naval centres, controlling significant Mediterranean merchant and navy fleets. Originally part of the Lombard Kingdom, Pisa emerged as an independent city-state around the turn of the 11th century. Genoa emerged as independent around the same time, freeing itself from the Holy Roman Emperor. It was governed by the Compagna, a large association of Genoese merchants and seamen.

Cathedral (Duomo) and the Leaning Tower photographed from above the roofs, from the Grand Hotel Duomo – Pisa, Tuscany, Italy

Although autonomous from imperial control, these two city-states were hardly democratic. Oligarchy triumphed, with leadership consisting of the patrician classes, chosen through careful manipulation. These classes included the petty nobility of the region around the towns, and a body of relatively newly made men whose states depended on the wealth derived from commerce, textile workshops or banking. The patricians did not always agree, leading to bitter struggles between factions on the streets of the cities.

Between these outbreaks of violence, however, there were opportunities to make money on an unprecedented scale. The elite invested in overseas trade directed to ever more distant destinations; they bought urban property; and they continued to manage their country estates, even extending them by acquiring lands across the water in Sardinia.

Pisa and Genoa dominated trade along the Mediterranean as the most powerful maritime republics of their time. Trade routes carried luxury goods from the east, such as spices, dyes, and silks to their ports, to then be resold (at a profit, of course) throughout the rest of the European continent.

The favoured products of Genoa’s coastline for export were wine, chestnuts, hers, and olive oils. It also developed its local textile industry: blue cotton cloth was a Genoese product, and in fact “jeans” owes its name to the French name for Genoa, “Gênes”. Pisa’s own obvious assets, meanwhile, lay in the flat fields stretching down to the coast, sown with grain, and inhabited with sheep that supplied wool, leather, meat, and dairy products.

Genoa port sea view with yachts panoramic

Conflicts in the Tyrrhenian Sea

To begin with, Pisa and Genoa, close to one another on the Tyrrhenian Sea, collaborated as allies to suppress Muslim expansion in the region. By 1000, Saracen armies had taken Sicily, using it as a base to launch raids into Sardinia and coastal cities on the Italian mainland. The obvious way for Pisa and Genoa to stop their advance was to establish command positions in Sardinia.

Pisa and Genoa responded with vigour when the army and navy of the Spanish Muslim warlord Mujahid, ruler of Denia and Majorca, settled temporarily in Sardinia in 1015 and again in 1016. In both years, the maritime republics led joint expeditions to repel the invaders, who reached no further than some coastal stations in Sardinia.

Chasing Mujahid out of Sardinia by 1016 greatly enhanced the credentials of the Pisans and Genoese as exponents of a Christian holy war against the Muslim enemy. The expeditions were approved and supported by the Papacy, and modern historians often see them as proto-Crusades.

After having expelled the Saracens, the better Pisa and Genoa came to know Sardinia, the more they saw that it was valuable in its own right. The island had a vast sheep population, and the two cities soon began to see Sardinia as an extension of their own countryside or contado. There was plenty of grain; there were big lagoons in the south that could be turned into saltpans; and the Pisans and Genoese had no compunction about enslaving Sards, whom they regarded as primitive folk. Abulafia writes, “There is only one word for the way Pisa and Genoa treated Sardinia: exploitation.”

The problem was that Genoa and Pisa both aspired to dominion over as much of the island as they could grab for themselves. Bitter conflict between the two cities was the result. It was Sardinia, rather than disagreements in the Italian mainland, that brought them most often to war. By 1046, the Pisans had ousted the Genoese from Sardinia to conquer the island for itself. By 1052, the city-state had also conquered Corsica, effectively claiming control of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Sunset on Cagliari, evening panorama of the old city centre in the Sardinia capital, view of The Old Cathedral and coloured houses built in the traditional style.

Attacks on the Islamic Lands of the Western Mediterranean

Having mastered the waters near home, Pisa embarked on more ambitious ventures in the Islamic lands. In 1063 a Pisan fleet raided the port of Muslim Palermo, destroying some enemy ships and seizing the great chain that stretched across the harbour to keep away intruders such as themselves. They did not penetrate beyond the quayside, but they still carried off vast amounts of booty

Then, in 1087, Pisa put aside its many disputes with Genoa to reunite and fight their common enemy – launching an attack on the city of Mahdia on the coast of Tunisia. Standing on a promontory, Mahdia had been founded by the Fatimid rulers who eventually took charge of Egypt and was one of the major towns through which passed the gold dust gathered in the bend of the river Niger, beyond Timbuktu. Control of Mahdia might have also be seen as the key to control of the Sicilian Straits, and therefore to free passage between the eastern and the western Mediterranean.

Sunset over the Sea and Rocky Coast with Ancient Ruins and Gate to Africa in Mahdia, Tunisia

A massive fleet, composed of two hundred galleys from Pisa and Genoa, accompanied by troops from Gaeta, Salerno, and Amalfi, attacked Madia on 6 August. Although unable to capture the city, the troops managed to burn the Arab fleet in the city’s harbour before retreating. The destruction of the Arab fleet was significant as it gave the maritime republics control of the trade in the Western Mediterranean.

Four years later, Pisan and Genoa collaborated with Alfonso VI of Castille to attack and force the El Cid out of the Muslim Taifa of Valencia. They also unsuccessfully besieged Tortosa with support from troops of Sancho Ramírez, King of Aragon.

Abulafia writes, “These forays generated a sense that they were engaged in a holy struggle against the Muslims. God would reward their efforts with victory, with booty and with what were as yet ill-defined spiritual benefits.”

Genoa, Pisa, and the First Crusade

Having swept the infidel from the Western Mediterranean, the Italian maritime republics were ready for fresh adventures, and the preaching of the First Crusade pointed to the Eastern Mediterranean. At the Council of Clermont in 1095, Pope Urban II, urged faithful Christians to undertake an armed pilgrimage to Jerusalem to liberate the Holy Land from Islamic rule. The call was met with enthusiasm amongst all social classes in western Europe.

The citizens of the maritime republics were motivated to partake in these military endeavours by a holy fervour, hoping to gain spiritual benefits by spreading Christianity as a world-religion. But just as important was the expectation of material reward, whether in the form of plunder or of trading concessions in the conquered lands. William Heywood writes, “If, at one and the same time, a man may save his soul and fill his pockets, what need he ask for more? In the maritime republics the crusading spirit was metamorphosed to commercial enterprise.”

The First Crusade coincided with the establishment of the first commune (the compagna) in Genoa, with its aim primarily to build and arm ships for the crusade. In this sense, the Genoese participated in the crusade as a community, in contrast to elsewhere in Europe where participating knights were bound solely to their lord.

Genoa was the first to of the Italian maritime cities to offer support to the First Crusade, and its first engagement was in summer 1097 when its fleet of twelve galleys, one ship, and 1,200 men arrived at the port of Saint Symeon near Antioch. When Antioch fell a year later, the Genoese crusaders were rewarded with their first concession – a church in Antioch, thirty houses nearby, a warehouse and a well – creating the nucleus of a merchant colony. This grant was the first of many that the Genoese were to receive in the states created by the crusaders.

In the early summer of 1099 members of a prominent Genoese family, the Embriachi, anchored off Jaffa bringing aid to the crusader army besieging Jerusalem. The admiral of the Genoese fleet, Consul Guglielmo Embriaco the Elder (called “Hammerhead”), commanded his people to dismantle their own ship sand carry the wood to Jerusalem for use in the construction of siege engines. Without this, the siege might not have succeeded.

Antique illustration – World History – crusaders before Jerusalem

The successful Siege of Jerusalem marked an end to the First Crusade. As a result, four Crusader states had been established in the Holy Land: the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the County of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, and the County of Tripoli. But Genoa’s military and financial commitments were far from over, with the maritime republic contributing to the consolidation of the Crusader states for almost a decade more, between 1100 and 1109.

In August 1100, twenty-six galleys and four supply ships, carrying about 3,000 men, set out from Genoa to the Kingdom of Jerusalem to begin a slow process of conquering a coastal strip. Lacking a navy, the young Frankish states were unable to conquer the cities along the coast by themselves, and Genoa was a reliable partner in their effort.

Most significantly, the Genoese sacked the ancient coastal city of Caesarea in May 1101, bringing back the Sacro Catino – an ancient green bowl they believed was the Holy Grail. Genoese fleets also assisted in the conquests of Arsuf (1101), Tartus (1102), Acre and Gibelet (1104), Tripoli and Jableh (1109), and Beirut (1110). In return for its help, Genoa received charters securing commercial privileges and possessions in the kingdom of Jerusalem, the Principality of Antioch, and the County of Tripoli.

The Pisans followed Genoa’s example, contributing to the first crusade by sending out a fleet in 1099 under their archbishop, Daimbert, to help seize Jaffa. They were rewarded with valuable commercial positions for their efforts and Daimbert became the first Latin patriarch of Jerusalem. Pisa merchants were then among the initiators of the 1113-115 Balearic Islands expedition, which was launched in the form form of a Crusade. Thanks to the power of its fleet, Pisa went on to find colonies in the Middle East and spread economical relationships with the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world.

Tour of Pisa and Genoa

Odyssey Traveller visits Pisa and Genoa during several of our tours of Italy. Join us in Pisa to visit its infamous leaning tower, cathedrals, museums, and palazzi, or visit Genoa’s busy modern port, maze of medieval streets, 100 plus palazzi, and countless art museums.

We conduct a tour of Pisa during our:

For a Genoa tour, you can join our:

Our Mediterranean Small Island tour (25 days) meanwhile covers Malta, Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica – Pisa and Genoa’s former territories.
Odyssey Traveller has been serving global travellers since 1983 with educational tours of the history, culture, and architecture of our destinations designed for mature and senior travellers. We specialise in offering small group tours partnering with a local tour guide at each destination to provide a relaxed and comfortable pace and atmosphere that sets us apart from larger tour groups. Tours consist of small groups of between 6 and 12 people and are cost inclusive of all entrances, tipping and majority of meals. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.


Articles about Italy published by Odyssey Traveller

The following list of articles published by Odyssey Traveller for mature aged and senior travellers to maximise their knowledge and enjoyment of Italy when visiting;

You can also browse all the articles published on Italy by Odyssey Traveller.

External articles to assist you on your visit to Italy

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