Venice did not want to join the actual fight of the Fourth Crusade, knowing that she would lose her trade relations in multiple areas of the Middle East if she attacked there with the other European crusaders. However, the current Doge, Enrico Dandolo, was ambitious, and from the beginning of his reign, was interested in acquiring old and new trading ports for mercantile expansion.[1. John Julius Norwich, A History of Venice, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), 125.]
Venice joined the Fourth Crusade in order to protect and expand her own interests and wealth. The original plan of the Crusade was for the European crusaders to sail by means of the Venetian fleet from Venice and enter the Islamic states through Egypt, the weakest of Muslim-occupied areas.[2. John Julius Norwich, A History of Venice, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), 127.] When the crusaders rallied at Venice, the port linking the East and West, they realized they lacked the manpower to launch a successful attack in the Holy Lands. In addition, because they lacked numbers, they also lacked the funds to pay the Venetians for their transport to Egypt. Even with their reduced numbers, the crusaders knew that Venice was still the only Western power in possession of a fleet large enough to ferry them to the East.[3. Jonathan Harris, Byzantium and the Crusades, (London: Hambledon and London, 2003), 153.] Enrico Dandolo and the Venetians made an agreement with the crusaders: if they would help Venice regain the long fought-over port of Zara, recently lost again to the Hungarians, and give Venice one-half of any land or loot that the Crusades would yield, Venice would delay their payments, allow the crusaders to use the Venetian fleet, and join them in the Crusade. The Venetians proposed a deflection to Zara in order to avoid loss of their trading ports in Egypt through an attack in which they would take part.[4. Donald
M. Nicol, Byzantium and Venice: A Study in Diplomatic and Cultural Relations, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1988), 128.] The crusaders and the Venetians regained the port of Zara, but then, the Venetians proposed another deflection to once again spare their trading routes and ports int he Middle East, but this time to Constantinople. The Venetains knew, in accordance with the agreement of 1186, that Venetians made up the majority of the Imperial Navy and that they could turn the sailors to the side of the crusaders and sack the city. The crusaders, upon hearing this advantage and the descriptions of the wealth in Constantinople, abandoned their holy purposes and made the journey to the Byzantine Empire’s capital city.[5. Jonathan Harris, Byzantium and the Crusades, (London: Hambledon and London, 2003),154.]
In April of 1204, Constantinople was sacked and pillaged by the Venetians and the European crusaders. After the fall of Constantinople, the Venetians and the European crusaders established the Latin Empire.[6. John Julius Norwich, A History of Venice, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982)141.] The Latin Empire was the division of the city of Constantinople and the rest of the Byzantine territories throughout the Mediterranean region among the Venetians and the other crusader-nations. The majority of Constantinople and the other Byzantine territories were held by the Venetians, and subsequently the most strategic ports, beneficial for the continuation of trade throughout the new Latin Empire, also came under Venice’s control.[7. John Julius Norwich, A History of Venice, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982) 141.]
To visually represent their successful sack of Constantinople to the Western world and their new power in the Latin Empire, the Venetians brought many Byzantine spoils back to Venice and affixed them to the exterior of San Marco to represent their dominance over the fallen Byzantine Empire.