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Monday, 6 August 2018

Battle of Meloria

Naval loss that sparked decline of Pisa as trading power


An artist's visualisation of the Battle of Meloria
An artist's visualisation of the Battle of Meloria
The decline of the Republic of Pisa as one of Italy’s major naval and commercial powers began with a catastrophic defeat at the Battle of Meloria on this day in 1284.

A fleet of 72 galleys was routed by the forces of the rival Ligurian Sea port of Genoa in a confrontation fought close to the islet of Meloria, about 10km (6 miles) off the coast, near what is now Livorno.

More than 5,000 Pisan crew were killed with 10 galleys sunk and at least 25 captured before other vessels fled the scene and the Genovese claimed victory.

Pisa and Genoa had once been allies, joining forces to drive the Saracens out of Sardinia in the 11th century, but subsequently became fierce rivals for trade, particularly from the eastern Mediterranean and the Byzantine Empire.

The city’s participation in the Crusades secured valuable commercial positions for Pisan traders in Syria, and thereafter Pisa grew in strength to rival Genoa and Venice.

A scene from the battle displayed in a commemorative plaque in Diano Castello, Liguria
A scene from the battle displayed in a commemorative
plaque in Diano Castello, Liguria
However, in the 13th century, Genoa conquered numerous settlements in Crimea, establishing a colony at Caffa. The Byzantine Empire granted free trading rights to Genoa, increasing their wealth and simultaneously reducing commercial opportunities for Venice and Pisa.

Matters came to a head in the tense relationship between Pisa and Genoa in 1282 when Pisa tried to seize control of the commerce and administration a part of Corsica then held by Genoa, on the pretext of responding to a call for help after an uprising.

The Genovese retailiated by blockading Pisan commerce near the River Arno and both sides began preparing for war. Pisa recruited soldiers from Tuscany and appointed captains from its noble families. The Genovese leader Oberto Doria massively expanded his fleet, hiring between 15,000 to 17,000 rowers and seamen.

In early 1284, the Genovese fleet acted to provoke a conflict by attempting to conquer Porto Torres and Sassari in Pisan-controlled Sardinia. Pisa responded but the force they sent to engage the Genovese was defeated.

he drawing on which a lunette fresco by Giovanni David in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio of the Palazzo Ducale, Genoa
The drawing on which a lunette fresco by Giovanni David
in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio of the Palazzo Ducale, Genoa 
The Genovese fleet then blocked Porto Pisano, the city’s naval base and commercial harbour, and attacked Pisan ships travelling in the Mediterranean Sea. Meanwhile a Genovese force of thirty ships led by Benedetto Zaccaria travelled to Porto Torres to support Genovese forces besieging Sassari.

Eventually the entire Genovese fleet massed near Meloria, where tactics were employed to draw the Pisan fleet out of the mouth of the River Arno, where they had assembled, and into conflict on the open sea.

This was achieved by the Genovese splitting into two lines of galleys, the first, under the command of Admiral Doria, comprising around 66 ships. The second, commanded by Admiral Zaccaria, was positioned so far behind Doria’s force that the Pisans would not be able to determine whether they were warships or merely support vessels.

The Pisan fleet, under the command of the city’s ruler - the Podestà Alberto Morosini - advanced on Doria’s ships with the intention of ramming and boarding them in accordance with the customary tactics of the time but were taken by surprise when Zaccaria’s fleet arrived and attacked them from the flanks, with the result that the Pisan force was almost annihilated.

Two years later, Genoa captured Porto Pisano, the city's access to the sea, and filled in the harbour. Pisa thus lost its role as a major Mediterranean naval power and its power in Tuscany diminished accordingly. In 1406 it was conquered in 1406 by Florence.

The Basilica of San Piero a Grado occupies the site where Porto Pisano once stood as the port of Pisa
The Basilica of San Piero a Grado occupies the site
where Porto Pisano once stood as the port of Pisa
Travel tip:

After the Battle of Meloria, Porto Pisano, also known as Triturrita, was rebuilt as a port and sold by Genoa to Florence. But it suffered from increasing alluvial deposits, which meant that the Tuscan coastline grew steadily further away. Florence subsequently began to use Livorno as its port and after the 16th century Porto Pisano ceased entirely to be used and disappeared. The site it formerly occupied, now some 9km (4.5 miles) inland from the Marina di Pisa, is occupied by the Romanesque Basilica of San Piero a Grado and a small village of the same name.

Marina di Pisa has become a stylish holiday destination
Marina di Pisa has become a stylish holiday destination
Travel tip:

Marina di Pisa is a seaside town located 12km (7 miles) from Pisa that began to develop in the early 17th century when Ferdinando I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, decided to move the mouth of the Arno river in a bid to reduce the effect of silting up, which he believed caused flooding in Pisa. On the left bank, a new customs building was erected and fishermen began to build houses around this structure. The official foundation of the town was in 1872. In June 1892 a steam railway line from Pisa to the Marina was opened, contributing to its rapid growth as a tourist destination, which saw the construction of many beautiful Art Nouveau and neo-medieval villas.

More reading:

How the Battle of Solferino led to the founding of the Red Cross

Galileo Galilei - Pisa's most famous son

The kidnapping of Pope Boniface VIII

Also on this day:

1519: The birth of the singer and composer Barbara Strozzi

1994: The death of singer and songwriter Domenico Modugno

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