About the Data

Current version: V.3.0.0

The “shipwrecks” project was launched during my doctoral research in 2015, with the support of the Honor Frost Foundation and The Institute of Nautical Archaeology. In the beginning, I have delimited my scope to the period of seventy years (1480–1550) covered in my dissertation. A postdoctoral fellowship in the Haifa Center for Mediterranean History (HCMH) in 2018/2019 makes possible the extension of my scrutiny to cover a broader period of 118 years (1453–1571). The findings are the result of research conducted in Venice’s archives and libraries, principally in the Archivio di Stato di Venezia and the Museo Civico Correr. Published sources were consulted as well; e.g., chronicles and descriptions of pilgrims and other travellers that sailed to the Levant. This year I have chosen to focus on the archives of Venetian Crete (now located in Venice), which are a rich source of information on the maritime history of the Island and its surroundings, and of the Mediterranean in general.

The historical context:

The period under review is marked by significant changes in the world of international maritime commerce. The discovery of the new routes to India reduced the relative importance of the Mediterranean Sea as a highway to the east. The rise of Ottoman power led to the conquest of the territories of the Mamluk sultanate (1516–1517), and the loss of Venetian territories in the Peloponnese to the Turks in three open conflicts (1463–1479, 1499–1503, and 1537–1540). To compensate for the loss of its monopolies in the Levant, Venice developed Cyprus (de facto as from 1474, de jure from 1489) to a bustling transhipment centre, and succeeded in establishing a hegemonic hold over the maritime trade of the eastern Mediterranean.


Spatial history is not a new field. In 1949 Fernand Braudel placed scale and spatial relations at the forefront of his magisterial study. Since then, many historians used the power of maps as media of presentation to make spatial arguments. Recently, GIS-based tools are used by historians to detect sometimes invisible connections and investigate how spatial relations stimulated cultural, social, and political change, and how changes in technology, economy, and policy generated entirely new spatial inter-relations. In this sense, density maps are a simple yet highly effective way of showing shipwreck dispersal, while pointing up activities and events at sea that stray from the pattern. This project is also distinct in its adoption of a bottom-up approach that is bolstered and enhanced by the combination of narratives and visualizations.

The historical and archaeological significance:

Several reports on shipwrecks are of undeniable importance. For instance, the galley Brazzana that shipwrecked in open sea between Cyprus and Rhodes in early March 1489 carried on board the personal property of Catherina Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus, recently deposed from the reign and obligated to return to Venice in a convoy of galleys. Out of 170 crew and passengers reportedly on board, only 18 survived, including the captain. Presumably, this wreck with all its treasures is still lying at the bottom of the sea. Another important shipwreck is a Mamluk fusta of 20–22 banks that set sail from Egypt on a diplomatic mission to the court of Sultan Bayezid II in 1506 and was stranded on the shores of Cyprus in the vicinity of Agia Napa. In this case the property was salvaged. Another interesting instance from both a historical and an archaeological perspective is the tragic sinking of the merchant galley Magna. In 1516 the vessel broke into three parts and sank with dozens of Jewish immigrants and Venetian colonial officials. It was last seen some 200 miles from Alexandria on a more or less direct course from Cape Salomon in Crete; I was fortunate enough to find the technical reports on the condition of the galley before the fateful departure.

Some ships were wrecked only several miles from shore, and their position can be estimated with better precision. The exact position of those that sank in open sea has proved more difficult to determine. For example, the location of the site of shipwreck of the galley Brazzana or that of the Magna is more complicated. Presently, only an estimation of the general area in nautical miles can be offered. On the other hand, there is a high probability that the remains of these vessels still lie untouched at the bottom of the sea without being looted or destroyed by modern constructions.

The sources:

The research is largely based on archival sources collected in Venetian archives and libraries. These records offer an invaluable source for the study of shipping in the Levant in the Early Modern Period. The daily correspondence between state representatives, merchants, agents, captains, and travellers includes reports on shipwrecks that occurred in the Republic’s eastern territories and the surrounding coasts. Of particular interest are the records of the Governor of Candia (Duca di Candia), the series related to the colonial chancellor’s office (Cancelleria ducale), and the notarial archives (Notai di Candia). These records have not been systematically examined from the perspective of shipwrecks before.

Primary unpublished sources:

The correspondence between state magistracies and representatives, merchants, agents, and captains, as well as numerous descriptions of travellers, contain rich information on developments in the Republic’s overseas territories in the east and the surrounding areas. When a ship was wrecked, the news reached Venice quickly, owing to the commercial and political importance of such an event. Insurance claims, judicial disputes, and notarial acts sometimes followed, and can complement the information on the ship as a commercial enterprise, and on the cause of shipwreck.

The sources can be roughly divided into two categories. The first consist of official documents issued by state institutions: probably the most substantial source would be the decrees of the Venetian senate related to maritime affairs. The papers of other government bodies (collegio, consiglio di dieci, etc.) are also being examined. The second category consists of documents of non-official character, such as commercial letters, private family papers, wills, contracts, and notarial acts.

Primary published sources:

Non-official records, such as diaries, contemporary chronicles and merchant letters, are more descriptive in nature. The diaries of Marino Sanudo (1496-1533) and Girolamo Priuli, (1494-1512) include many indications of shipwrecks. Other published sources with relevance to the present study are the commercial letters of the Venetian merchant Michele da Lezze (1497-1514); the reports of a special ambassador to the sultan of Egypt between 1489 and 1490; “Lives of the Doges” (1423-1474, 1474-1494) by Marino Sanudo; and the Annales published under the name of Domenico Malipiero (currently attributed to Pietro Dolfin) (1457-1500).[1]

This data can be cross-checked with non-Venetian sources, such as the descriptions of pilgrims and other travellers on board merchant and pilgrim ships around the same period. Collaborative work with historians and marine archaeologists is welcomed.

The database:

The data is classified and searchable according to the date, ship’s name, flag, type, capacity, and any other word using the free search option. Information, such as cargo details, attempts at salvage, the ship’s background, and the causes of shipwreck, is displayed in the pop-up window. The transcriptions of the relevant sections of the original sources (mostly in the Venetian dialect and partly in Latin) are also available. The date of shipwreck was generally documented.

Estimated position:

The supposed positions of the wrecks were not always easy to reconstruct with accuracy, and the markers on the map do not represent the exact position of a wreck, but are used for marking the general area. In certain cases the position is relatively easy to identify, as, for example, at the entrance to a certain port, or near a promontory, riff or some other conspicuous element. In such cases a better precision can be achieved. The position of other wrecks proved to be more difficult to determine. In such cases only the region and an estimation of the general area in nautical miles have been indicated. It is assumed that as this project progresses a greater precision concerning the position of several wrecks would be achieved.

The markers (varieties of the color red) represent rough estimates of the radius measured in nautical miles.

  • Grey: unknown
  • Pink: > 200 NM
  • Tea rose: 100 - 200 NM
  • Coral (orange): 50 - 100 NM
  • Red: 25 - 50 NM
  • Venetian red: between 10 - 25 NM
  • Dark red: 5 - 10 NM
  • Chocolate: < 5 NM

Future research directions:

The data included in this project should be treated as threads leading to new discoveries. Important shipwrecks can be traced into official documents of state institutions, as well as in a few narrative sources and chronicles. Several cases of shipwrecks contains also the cargo books, freight rates, the expenses incurred during the voyage, the ship’s itinerary, contracts and insurance policies. Such materials enable the reconstruction of the ship’s biography with greater precision. It is assumed, for example, that more information could be discovered on important shipwrecks, such as the galley Brazzana that shipwrecked with the treasures of Catherina Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus, or the shipwreck of the merchant galley Magna on its way to Alexandria, with dozens of Jewish immigrants and some Venetian colonial officials.

The intention is also to strengthen the critical linkage between historical data and archaeological finds. As the development of underwater robots and other tools for mapping the sea bottom progress, marine archaeologists, researchers and students have wider opportunities to match archaeological finds with historical data. We welcome collaborations with institutes of marine archaeology that are mapping and dating wrecks to develop area-specific survey projects, based on the scientific importance of the findings.

[1] Marino Sanuto, I Diarii di Marino Sanuto: (MCCCCXVI-MDXXXIII), dall'autografo Marciano ital. cl. VII codd. CDXIX-CDLXXVII, Rinaldo Fulin, Federico Stefani, Nicolò Barozzi, Guglielmo Berchet, Marco Allegri, eds (Venezia, 1879-1903); Girolamo Priuli, I diarii (1494-1512), Rerum Italicarum Scriptores, Arturo Segre Roberto Cessi, eds, 4 vols (Città di Castello, 1912-38); Rossi, Franco, ed., Ambasciata straordinaria al sultano d'Egitto (1489-1490) (Venezia, 1988); Braudel, Fernand & Tenenti, Alberto, ‘Michiel da Lezze, marchand vénitien (1497-1514)’, In Wirtschaft, Geschichte und Wirtschaftsgeschichte: Festschrift zum 65. Geburtstag von Friedrich Lütge. Edited by Wilhelm Abel, Knut Borchardt, Hermann Kellenbenz, Wolfgang Zorn (Stuttgart, 1966), pp. 38-73; Domenico Malipiero [attributed to Piero Dolfin], ‘Annali veneti dall'anno 1457 al 1500 del senatore Domenico Malipiero’, ordinati e abbreviati dal senatore Francesco Longo, con prefazione e annotazioni di Agostino Sagredo, Archivio storico italiano, Tomo VII, parte prima (Firenze, 1843), 1-1138.