The Venetian doge Enrico Dandolo (ca. 1107-1205) made Venice the largest colonial power in all of Christendom.
Although Enrico Dandolo held a number of public offices throughout his life, it was not until he became doge in 1192 at the age of 85 that his career acquired historical importance. In his first years as doge he defeated an armada from Pisa. He subsequently sent a powerful squadron to the canal of Otranto to break a blockade which the Pisans, aided by the king of Sicily, had set up to injure Venetian commerce.
Dandolo's most significant political achievement was his contriving to have Venetian ships hired for the Fourth Crusade (1202). Venice's direct participation with a powerful fleet was contingent upon its receiving half of the spoils of victory. But since the doge had not received full payment in advance for transporting the French cavalry, he refused to put them aboard, and the crusade did not take place. Instead, Dandolo induced the forces to attack the city of Zara, then in rebellion against Venice. And for thus turning Christian against Christian, he and all Venetians were excommunicated by the Pope.
After the bloody defeat of Zara the French crusaders wintered there, thus providing Dandolo with a ready body of men. These he employed in alliance with Alexis Angelus, son of Isaac II, the emperor of Constantinople, against Isaac's brother Alexis III, who had deposed and blinded the Emperor. In return, Alexis Angelus promised both the assistance of Byzantine forces in the crusade and the unification of the Greek and Latin churches. Dandolo moved with the crusaders against Constantinople. The siege of the city provoked an internal revolution which ousted Alexis III and effected the return of the Emperor and his son Alexis Angelus. But when the crusaders sought the union of the Greek and Latin churches, a second revolution took place which led to the imprisonment of the aged emperor and the death of his son.
In the face of this impasse Dandolo encouraged the crusaders to reconquer the city for themselves; and in April 1204 Constantinople fell to the Latins, who established a Latin empire on the ruins of the Greek one. Although Dandolo, who had personally directed all operations, was offered the crown of the new empire, he resolutely declined it, contenting himself with the enormous advantages which the conquest had brought to his city. From April 1204 until his death little is recorded of Dandolo's activities. He died on June 14, 1205.
Further Reading on Enrico Dandolo
Margaret Oliphant devotes a colorful and sympathetic chapter to Dandolo in The Makers of Venice: Doges, Conquerors, Painters and Men of Letters (1887). Also useful are Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades (3 vols., 1951-1954), and Ernle Bradford, The Sundered Cross: The Story of the Fourth Crusade (1967).