Daily Archives: 5 September 2013

Venetian Portrait of Mehmed II after 1453

From: City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, by Roger Crowley (Random House, 2012), Kindle Loc. 4642-4663:

A few years after the fall of Constantinople, the physical appearance, character, and ambitions of the young sultan with whom the Republic now had to deal were analyzed by a Venetian visitor to the city. Giacomo de’ Languschi’s account was both chilling and acute:

The sovereign, the Grand Turk Mehmed Bey, is a youth of twenty-six, well built, of large rather than medium stature, expert at arms, of aspect more frightening than venerable, laughing seldom, full of circumspection, endowed with great generosity, obstinate in pursuing his plans, bold in all undertakings, as eager for fame as Alexander of Macedonia. Daily he has Roman and other historical works read to him by a companion called Ciriaco of Ancona and another Italian.… He speaks three languages, Turkish, Greek, and Slavic. He is at great pains to learn the geography of Italy and to inform himself … where the seat of the pope is and that of the emperor, and how many kingdoms there are in Europe. He possesses a map of Europe with the countries and provinces. He learns of nothing with greater interest and enthusiasm than the geography of the world and military affairs; he burns with desire to dominate; he is a shrewd investigator of conditions. It is with such a man that we Christians have to deal. Today, he says, the times have changed, and declares that he will advance from east to west as in former times the Westerners advanced into the Orient. There must, he says, be only one empire, one faith, and one sovereignty in the world.

Languschi’s sharply drawn portrait was prescient of all the trouble that lay ahead. It caught exactly the truth about the new sultan’s personality: intelligent, cold, quixotic, secretive, ambitious, and deeply frightening. Mehmet was a force of nature; relentless and ruthless, unpredictably prone both to bouts of homicidal rage and moments of compassion. His role model was Alexander the Great; his ambition was to reverse the flow of world conquest; his interest in maps and military technology, supplied in large part by Italian advisers, was purely strategic. Knowledge for Mehmet was practical. Its purpose was invasion. His goal was to be crowned as Caesar in Rome.

In the thirty years of his reign, he would wage almost unceasing war, during which time he led nineteen campaigns in person; he fought until his exhausted troops refused to fight on; he spent money until he had devalued the coinage and emptied the treasury; he lived a life of personal excess—food, alcohol, sex, and war—until gout had swollen and disfigured him. He was estimated to have caused the deaths of some 800,000 people. His life would be bookended by a second Venetian portrait, this time in oils by the painter Gentile Bellini. In the interval between the two, Mehmet would test the military and diplomatic skills of the Venetian Republic to the outer limit.

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Venice’s Victory at Gallipoli, 1416

From: City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, by Roger Crowley (Random House, 2012), Kindle Loc. 4426-4457:

On June 1, 1416, the Venetians engaged an Ottoman fleet at sea for the first time. The captain-general, Pietro Loredan, had been sent to the Ottoman port at Gallipoli to discuss a recent raid on Negroponte. What happened next he related in a letter to the doge and the Signoria.

It was dawn. As he approached the harbor, a signal to parley was misinterpreted as a hostile attack. The lead ships were met with a hail of arrows. In a short time, the encounter had turned into a full-scale battle.

As captain, I vigorously engaged the first galley, mounting a furious attack. It put up a very stout defense, as it was well manned by brave Turks who fought like dragons. But thanks to God, I overcame it and cut many of the Turks to pieces. It was a tough and fierce fight, because the other galleys closed on my port bow and they fired many arrows at me. I certainly felt them. I was struck on the left cheek below my eye by one, which pierced my cheek and nose. Another hit my left hand and passed clean through it … but by fierce combat, I forced these other galleys to withdraw, took the first galley, and raised my flag on her. Then, turning swiftly about, … I rammed a galliot with the spur [of my galley], cut down many Turks, defeated her, put some of my men aboard, and hoisted my flag.

The Turks put up incredibly fierce resistance because all their [ships] were well manned by the flower of Turkish sailors. But by the grace of God and the intervention of Saint Mark, we put the whole fleet to flight. A great number of men jumped into the sea. The battle lasted from morning to the second hour. We took six of their galleys with all their crews, and nine galleots. All the Turks on board were put to the sword, amongst them their commander … all his nephews and many other important captains.… After the battle we sailed past Gallipoli and showered those on land with arrows and other missiles, taunting them to come out and fight … but none had the courage. Seeing this, … I drew a mile off Gallipoli so that our wounded could get medical attention and refresh themselves.

The aftermath was similarly brutal. Retiring fifty miles down the coast to Tenedos, Loredan proceeded to put to death all the other nationals aboard the Ottoman ships as an exemplary warning. “Among the captives,” Loredan wrote, “was Giorgio Callergis, a rebel against the Signoria, and badly wounded. I had the honor to hack him to pieces on my own poop deck. This punishment will be a warning to other bad Christians not to dare to take service with the infidel.” Many others were impaled. “It was a horrible sight,” wrote the Byzantine historian Ducas, “All along the shore, like bunches of grapes, sinister stakes from which hung corpses.” Those who had been compelled to the ships were freed.

In this first hostile engagement, Loredan had almost completely destroyed the Ottoman fleet—and the means quickly to re-create it. The Venetians understood exactly where the source of Ottoman naval power lay. Many of the nominal Turks in their fleet were Christian corsairs, sailors, and pilots—maritime experts without whom the sultan’s embryonic navy was unable to function. The Republic’s policy was to remain unbending in this respect: Snuff out the supply of skilled manpower and the Ottomans’ naval capability would wither. It was for this reason that they butchered the sailors so mercilessly. “We can now say that the Turk’s power in this part of the sea has been destroyed for a very long time,” wrote Loredan. No substantial Ottoman fleet would put to sea again for fifty years.

The accidental battle of Gallipoli bred a certain overconfidence in Venetian sea power. For decades after, galley commanders reckoned that “four or five of their galleys are needed to match one of ours.” Touchy about their Christian credentials, they also used the victory to point out to the potentates of southern Europe their reputation as “the only pillar and the hope for Christians against the Infidels.”

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