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A chalice from Venice for Emperor Dāwit of Ethiopia

  • Marilyn E. Heldman


The various documents concerning Emperor Dāwit's embassy to the Republic of Venice in 1402 have been brought together in Carlo Conti Rossini's article of 1927 on European influence upon Ethiopian art before the coming of Jesuit missionaries in the mid sixteenth century. The purpose of this brief paper is to expand the story of Dāwit's embassy with a short document, which sheds some light upon the motives for this and subsequent Ethiopian embassies to European nations during the period before the Adalite invasions that began in 1529.



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1 Rossini, C. Conti, ‘Un codice illustrato eritreo del secolo xv’, Africa italiana: Rivista di storia e d'arte. 1, 1, 1927, 8397.

2 Slessarev, Vsevolod, Prester John, the letter and the legend (Minneapolis, 1959), 84 ff., on the identification of Prester John with the king of Ethiopia; see Ullendorff, E. and Beckingham, C. F., The Hebrew letters of Prester John (Oxford, 1982), 110 (Historical Introduction).

3 Letter from Francesco Novello of Carrara: Rossini, Conti, op. cit., 8687, citing Cipolla, , ‘Prete Jane e Francesco Novello da Carrara’, Arch. Veneto, vi, 1873, 323.

4 Archivio di Stato di Venezia, Maggior Consiglio, Deliberazioni, Avogaria A, fol. 11; Jorga, N., Notes et extraits pour servir à l'histoire des croisades aux xve siècle, 1 (Paris, 1899), 120; Lazzarini, V., ‘Un'ambasciata etiopica in Italia nel 1404’, Atti del Reale Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Letters ed Arti, LXXXIII, 2, 19231924, 840–41; Rossini, Conti, op. cit., 86.

5 Archivio di Stato di Venezia, Senato Misti, reg. XLVI, c. 36v. See Lazzarini, V., op. cit., 841 and Rossini, Conti, op. cit., 88.

6 Archivio di Stato di Venezia, Archivio di Candia Ducali, 1402–1436. Jorga, , op. cit., 121; Rossini, Conti, op. cit., 86.

7 Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, It., Cl. VII, n. 374, coll. 7781: ‘Relatione’ di D.n Fortunato Olmo, 22–23 (cc. 39v–40). Published in Gallo, Rodolf, Il Tesoro di S. Marco e la sua storia, Civiltà Veneziana Saggi 16 (Venice/Rome, 1967), 287–88 (Inventory III). Olmo wrote:' Ho perciò a questo proposito ritrovata anco certa nota in bombasina, scritta non so da chi doppo'l 1402, che' è copie tratta da altro simile priginale inventario. Alla quale vi e il titolo: Nel Santuario.’

8 ibid., 288.

9 Mueller, Reinhold C., ‘The Procurators of San Marco in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries: a study of the office as financial and trust institution,’ Studi Veneziani, XIII, 1971, 105220, esp. 108–26. I would like to thank Professor Louise Buenger Robbert for her helpful comments and suggestions concerning Venetian economic history.

10 Mueller, , op. cit., 128 and 113, n. 15. The sale of objects in the records cited is limited to jewels.

11 Mueller, , op. cit., 125–8.

12 On the background of Ethiopian commercial trade with Egypt see Abir, Mordechai, Ethiopia and the Red Sea (London/New York, 1980), 2225.

13 Al-Muḳaffa', Sawīrus b. et al. , History of the Patriarchs of the Egyptian Church, transl. and annotated by Khater, A. and Burmester, O. H. E., vol. 111, pt. 3 (Cairo, 1970), 248–9.

14 ibid., 249–50. A note concerning the arrival of the True Cross in Ethiopia appears in the Maṣeḥafa Ṭēfut (Caquot, A., ‘Aperçu préliminaire sur le Maṣḥafa Ṭéfut de Gechen Amba’, Annales d'Éthiopie, 1, 1955, 99) and in the copy of this manuscript now at the British Library, Or. 481; cf. Tamrat, Taddesse, Church and state in Ethiopia, 1270–1527 (Oxford, 1972), 267; the relics are now at Tadbāba Māryām, as reported by MrsSpencer, Diana, ‘In search of St. Luke ikons in Ethiopia’, Journal of Ethiopian Studies, X, 2, 1972, 77–8.

15 Tedeschi, S., ‘Les fils du Négus Sayfa-Ar'ād d'après un document arabo-chrétien’, Africa: Rivista trimestrale di studi e documentazione dell'Istituto Italo-Africano, XXIX, 4, 1974, 580–87.

16 Beckingham, C. F. and Huntingford, G. W. B. (ed.), The Prester John of the Indies, being the narrative of the Portuguese embassy to Ethiopia in 1520 written by Father Francisco Alvares (Hakluyt Society, 2nd ser., nos. 114–15, Cambridge, 1961), 1, 298.

17 Lebna Dengel, son of Emperor Nā'od (r. 1494–1508), who was son of Ba'eda Māryām (r. 1468–78), son of Emperor Zar'a Yā'eqob (r. 1434–68), son of Emperor Dāwit.

18 Dombrowski, F. A., Ethiopia's access to the sea (Leiden/Cologne, 1985), 1415.

19 Bruce, James, Travels to discover the source of the Nile in the years 1768–1773 (Dublin, 1791), 111, 328.

20 Lane, Frederic C., Venetian ships and shipbuilders of the Renaissance (Baltimore, 1934), 245.

21 Lane, F. C. and Mueller, R. C., Money and banking in Medieval and Renaissance Venice, vol. 1: Coins and moneys of account (Baltimore/London, 1985), 526, Table A.I.

22 Pegolotti, Francesco Balducci, La practica della mercatura, (ed.), Evans, Allan (Mediaeval Academy of America Publication, no. 24, Cambridge, Mass., 1936), 302–4.

23 On the technique of niello see On divers arts, the Treatise of Theophilus, transl. and annotated by Hawthorne, John G. and Smith, Cyril Stanley (Chicago and London, 1963), 103–5, 108, 115.

24 Tamrat, Taddesse, op. cit, 258, citing Cerone, F., ‘La politica orientale di Alfonso di Aragona’, Archivio storico per le Province Napoletane, XXVII, 1902, 40.

25 Tamrat, Taddesse, op. cit., 265–6.

26 The Prester John of the Indies, 11, 478 (475–481, the entire letter).

27 ibid., 11, 501 (494–501, the entire letter).

28 ibid., 11, 505 (502–506, the entire letter).

29 Tamrat, Taddesse, op. cit., 265.

30 ibid., 265.

31 The Prester John of the Indies, 11, 478. The fabulous embellishment of this church, destroyed by Grāññ in 1531, is described by al-Dīn, Shihāb, Futūḥ al-Ḥabasha, ed. and transl. by Basset, R. as Histoire de la conquête de l'Abyssinie (Paris, 1897), 284–5.

32 Aregay, Merid Wolde, ‘A reappraisal of the impact of firearms in the history of warfare in Ethiopia (c. 1500–1800)’, Journal of Ethiopian Studies, XIV, 19761979, 99101. For information concerning the Circassian Mamlūk, see Maqrizi, , Historia Regum Islamiticorum in Abyssinia, ed. and transl. by Rinck, F. T. (London, 1790), 6.

33 Aregay, Merid W., op. cit., 99.

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A chalice from Venice for Emperor Dāwit of Ethiopia

  • Marilyn E. Heldman


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