Venetian colonies: Albanians in Venice

The cosmopolitan nature of Renaissance Venice is well-known – from Shakespearean plays to Vittore Carpaccio‘s canvases. One of the earliest sources of immigration were Venice’s colonies, chiefly those extending along the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea. Among them, Albanians belonged to one of the easily identifiable communities which continued to maintain their non-Venetian identity, primarily by retaining the culture and religious rites of their place of origin.

Venetian Albania was a relatively brief colonial enterprise. It lasted barely a century between 1396 when Venice annexed Shkodër and 1501 when it lost Durrës to the Ottomans. The initial wave of Albanian immigrants to Venice included mainly artisans and workers in the glass industry at Murano. The links between Venice and Albania intensified after the loss of the main Albanian centres to the Ottomans when a large part of the Albanian nobility and the Catholic clergy took refuge in Venice.

It was a matter of time before Albanians, like other immigrants in Venice, had their confraternity. Dating back to 1442, the Scuola di Santa Maria degli Albanesi was a scuola piccola, a minor version of the scuole grandi, and served as the social centre of Albanian Christians residing or visiting Venice. It moved twice before Albanians raised enough money to erect their own building. The Albanian community in Venice gradually declined and in 1780 their confraternity was suppressed.

Although the institution is long gone, its building in San Marco still stands. It’s famous for its relief depicting Sultan Mehmet II besieging the Rozafa Fortress near Shkodër in 1479. In its heyday, the confraternity’s main hall was decorated with the Stories of the Virgin, a cycle of six large canvases by Carpaccio. The artworks were dispersed when the confraternities were closed by Napoleon but three of the six pictures are still in Venice – at the Galleria Franchetti alla Ca’ d’Oro.

Speaking of Albanians in Venice, one cannot avoid the subject of Skanderbeg. Despite Venice’s early opposition to the Albanian hero who challenged its rule in Albania, Skanderbeg has entered the Venetian lore as the defender of Christians against the Ottoman Muslims. Venice was quick to use its association with Skanderbeg, immortalised in the paintings of Paolo Veronese, to bolster its crusading credentials during its Paolo Sarpi-induced rupture with the papacy in the early 1600s.