The two hundred galleys of the Holy League – Venice, the Spanish Empire, Genoa, the Papacy, the Knights of St John and sundry smaller states on the Mediterranean seaboard – were sailing south on the Ionian Sea in battle order when a small brigantine passed them: a Venetian ship from Crete carrying the news that the town of Famagusta, the last stronghold of the Republic of Venice on Cyprus, fell to the Turks.
The date was 4 October 1571, three days before the Battle of Lepanto.
The Unholy Fleet of the Holy League
The fleet of the Holy League, commanded by the dashing Don Juan of Austria, the bastard half-brother of Philip II of Spain, had originally been assembled to relieve the besieged Famagusta; but owing to the disagreements among the main powers, some of whom didn’t care one iota about helping the Venetians – in fact, quite the opposite – it tardied months in setting off. Even after it finally set sail, it continued to be plagued by disagreement about its objectives and by arguments among the various contingents: only a few days earlier a fight broke out on a galley between the Venetian crew and the Spanish soldiers it carried on board, leaving several dead men on both sides. The Venetian and the Spanish galleys squared up, ready to blast each other out of the water in a tense stand-off lasting several hours, until tempers cooled and reason prevailed.
Now it was the beginning of October, rather late in the season for galleys to be out and about and yet the fleet was no further than the Ionian islands off the western coast of Greece; and Famagusta, the town they were meant to help, had fallen. In Spain, Philip II, still unaware of the loss of Famagusta, was nevertheless already penning the order to Don Juan to abandon the campaign and withdraw to winter in Sicily… But the ambitious Don Juan was determined to fight, intelligence had it that the Turkish fleet was holed up in nearby Lepanto and the Venetians, shocked by the gruesome news from Famagusta, cried out for revenge.
Because Famagusta didn’t merely fall to the Ottoman forces: members of its surrendered garrison and the inhabitants had been mercilessly massacred while the captain of its defenders had been put to death in a particularly painful and grotesque fashion.
The Siege of Famagusta
The Ottoman Empire had already been expanding for a couple centuries before it started to threaten Venetian possessions in the Aegean Sea and beyond. One by one the Venetian fortresses fell: Negroponte in 1470, Modon and Coron in 1500, the Cycladic islands and Navplion in 1538. Famagusta, a port in Cyprus, came under siege in September 1570 after the Turks took Nicosia, and held out against the Ottoman army for nearly a year.
That year cost the Ottoman Empire some 60 thousand soldiers.
The defenders of Famagusta wouldn’t have been under any illusion as to what they were facing: before the Turkish army even showed up under the ramparts, Marcantonio Bragadin, the commander of the town, received a letter from Lala Mustapha Pasha, the Turkish general, demanding surrender. It was accompanied by the head of the governor of Nicosia, Niccolo Dandolo.
“I have seen your letter,” wrote Bragadin in reply. “I have also received the head of the lord lieutenant of Nicosia, and I tell you herewith that even if you have easily taken the city of Nicosia, with your own blood you will have to purchase this city, which with God’s help will give you so much to do you will always regret having encamped here.”
The Gruesome News from Famagusta
For all his bravado, after eleven months of dogged resistance, when the eagerly awaited relief fleet failed to arrive and the defenders ran out of both food and gunpowder, Marcantonio Bragadin was forced to negotiate a surrender. The customs of war at the time meant that if he surrendered, he could ask for terms; if the town was taken by force, however, all within would have been at the mercy (or lack thereof) of the victors. The terms Bragadin secured from Mustapha were favourable, a sign of how relieved the Turkish general was: the Venetians could leave the town under their own flag and were promised a safe passage to Crete while the indigenous Greek population could choose whether to leave with the Venetians or to remain living under Ottoman rule. For four days the evacuation proceeded smoothly but when Bragadin appeared before Mustapha on 5 August to formally surrender the keys of the town, Mustapha, after initially receiving him with courtesy, changed his mind. Not surprisingly, Turkish and Venetian accounts differ significantly about why he had Bragadin captured – but neither party disputes the facts.
And there’s no nice way of telling those facts.
The unarmed Bragadin was seized by Mustafa’s guards; his ears and nose were cut off. His companions and the Christians still in town then were massacred to the last man while Bragadin himself was thrown into prison with his wounds left festering. After two weeks he was dragged out, made to carry sacks filled with earth and stones round the town, forced to kiss the ground every time he passed in front of Mustapha, then hoisted on the yardarm of the Turkish flagship to be taunted by the sailors. But Mustapha wasn’t done yet…
Bragadin was taken to the main square of the town where, after stripping him naked, they tied him to a column and flayed him alive. Mercifully, he died before they were halfway through. His body was quartered and the pieces distributed among the Turkish army as war trophies. And still Mustapha wasn’t done…
Bragadin’s skin was stuffed with straw and sewn up, dressed in his uniform and put on the back of an ox and paraded through the streets of the town before being hoisted on Mustapha’s personal galley. Later it was sent as a gift for the sultan in Constantinople.
Does it come as a surprise that the Venetians wanted revenge?
Venetian legend has it that Bragadin could have avoided death: that four days after his nose and ears were cut off, he was offered to go free if he converted to Islam but he refused: “I am a Christian, and thus will I live and die. I hope my soul will be saved. My body is yours. Torture it as you will.”
In a final bizarre twist, nine years later Girolamo Polidoro, a Venetian seaman who survived the siege of Famagusta, stole the skin from the arsenal of Constantinople and returned it to Venice where it was buried with full military honours. To this day, it is buried in a niche in the Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo; the niche was opened in 1961 and it was found to contain several pieces of human skin…
The Battle of Lepanto
Three days after receiving the news of the gruesome death of Bragadin, the forces of the Holy League engaged the Ottoman navy at Lepanto. The report from Famagusta gave the disparate Christian fleet that unity of purpose it had previously lacked: a sense of outrage and a desire for vengeance. Despite being outnumbered, the Holy League won a decisive victory in the last great battle of galleys – and although at the time this wasn’t immediately apparent, the Turkish defeat meant the end of further Ottoman expansion into the Western-Mediterranean. Don Juan of Austria, aged twenty-two, won the fame he so desperately yearned for… and Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quijote, who fought (and was wounded) in the battle, later wrote:
…the battle of Lepanto… the most memorable and sublime occasion which past times have ever seen, or future times can hope to equal.
…la batalla naval de Lepanto… la más memorable y alta ocasión que vieron los pasados siglos, ni esperan ver los venideros.
Links: ⇒ The tomb of Marcantonio Bragadin in the Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice ⇒ And the fresco in close up above the tomb showing him being skinned alive (for those who like to revel in the gruesome)