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Bragadin’s Defense

By Roger Crowley
4/19/2018 • MHQ Magazine

In 1571, a Venetian captain’s fatal defiance at Famagusta hardened the lines between the Christian and Muslim worlds.

On a late September day in the autumn of 1571, Marc’Antonio Bragadin, commander of the Venetian fortress of Famagusta on the island of Cyprus, received a calling card from the Ottoman army. A Greek peasant who had walked across the dusty plain from the Venetian capital of Nicosia, 33 miles away, presented Bragadin with a dish containing the head of Nicosia’s defender, Nicolas Dandolo, lieutenant general of the island—and a demand for Famagusta’s immediate surrender. Otherwise, Bragadin would suffer a similar fate.

The events on Cyprus in 1571 were destined to trigger the final showdown in a titanic struggle between the two superpowers of the age— the Ottoman sultans in Constantinople and the Hapsburg kings of Spain—for control of the Mediterranean. Indeed, the battle for Famagusta—and shortly after, of Lepanto—would solidify not only the size and reach of Christendom and Islam at the time but the outlines of their influence down to modern times.

At the time, this contest for religion and empire had been raging across the shores, islands, and waters of that great sea for 50 years. Slave taking, sea battles, sieges, and coastal raids had inflicted huge suffering on the peoples who lived on its margins. For many years it seemed that the Ottoman Empire, aided by the Barbary pirates of North Africa, would win dominion of the whole maritime arena. Ottoman ambitions had reached their height in 1565 when Suleiman the Magnificent, greatest of all the sultans, launched a furious assault on the Christian island of Malta and was forced back by the Knights of St. John, the last of the crusading military orders, after a punishing siege. In 1570, after Suleiman’s death, his son, Sultan Selim, resolved to strike again—this time at Cyprus, the most eastern Christian stronghold in the Mediterranean.

On March 28, 1570, Selim’s emissary arrived in Venice with a blunt statement of Ottoman imperial intent that read: “Selim, Ottoman Sultan, Emperor of the Turks, Lord of Lords, King of Kings, Shadow of God, Lord of the Earthly Paradise and of Jerusalem, to the Signory of Venice: We demand of you Cyprus, which you shall give Us willingly or unwillingly or perforce; and do not irritate our horrible sword, for We shall wage most cruel war against you everywhere; nor let you trust in your treasure, for We shall cause it suddenly to run away from you like a torrent; beware to irritate Us.”

Cyprus was 1,400 miles from Venice, less than 50 from Selim’s lands, but Venice considered the island vital. The Venetians kept the Greek population of the island in abject slavery and milked Cyprus for its agricultural wealth. Large quantities of grain, salt, wine, sugar, and cotton, “the plant of gold,” were shipped back to the mother city. Despite the difficulties and the lengthy supply lines, the Venetian senate voted to ignore Selim’s terrible threats and resolved to fight. They prepared their two major cities on Cyprus, Nicosia and Famagusta, and waited for invasion. The defenders of the island could not know at the time that their actions would have consequences stretching far beyond their lifetimes.

In the summer of 1570, the Ottomans landed 80,000 men on the island under their commander Lala Mustapha Pasha, a man of nearly 70 with a reputation for savagery and a particular hatred of Christians. Despite his age, the general harbored ambitions to oust his rivals at Selim’s court and to secure the coveted position of chief vizier. A swift and brilliant victory on Cyprus was now essential to his future.

Mustapha’s initial objective was the inland capital of Nicosia. The city was defended by state-of-the-art fortress engineering, a bastion “of the finest and most scientific construction” according to one eyewitness, on which the Venetians had lavished vast sums. But the subject population of Greeks would not reliably support their Italian masters, and Dandolo botched the defense. The commander of the island was an administrator rather than a soldier; he was strategically unimaginative and overcautious in his use of the available stocks of gunpowder. When the Ottomans launched a final all-out assault, his dithering resulted in catastrophe. The city was lost in a bloody massacre that left 56,000 people slain or enslaved. “The victors kept cutting off the heads of old women; many of them as they marched along, to prove their swords, split open the heads of old women who had already surrendered,” wrote a Venetian priest who survived the slaughter. “Among the slain were Ludovico Podochatoro, and Lucretia Calepia, my mother, whose head they cut off on her serving maid’s lap.”

Now only Famagusta stood between the Ottoman Empire and control of the eastern Mediterranean. Marc’Antonio Bragadin contemplated all this as he surveyed the head of Nicolas Dandolo. But he was unmoved by Lala Mustapha’s grisly calling card. He buried the head with honor and sent a ringing reply: “I have seen your letter. 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 spirit of resistance ran deep among the Venetian population. A few days later, when the Ottoman army arrived at Famagusta, Lala Mustapha brought with him the booty and the pick of the young men and women taken from Nicosia. He ordered these captives loaded onto a galleon and two other vessels as presents for the sultan. On October 3, off Famagusta, an explosion in the galleon’s magazine ripped all three ships apart and rocked the defenders’ walls. Legend has it that it was an act of deliberate destruction by the daughter of a Venetian noblewoman, determined not to be taken to the sultan alive.

Famagusta, “the city sunk in the sand” the Greeks called it, was the easternmost outpost of the Venetian sea empire, a valuable seaport and trading center for the whole of the eastern Mediterranean. Like Nicosia, the Venetians had fortified the place heavily in the years before Lala Mustapha came. The two-mile perimeter, shaped like a rhombus, comprised a formidable obstacle for the pasha. “A very fair stronghold, and the strongest and greatest on the island,” an English visitor had called it a few years earlier. Five gates, 15 bastions, a deeply excavated dry ditch, and walls 50 feet high and 15 feet thick composed the complex defensive system. The surrounding terrain, low-lying and malarial, was an unpromising place for a besieging army to occupy for any length of time. The pasha was keen for a quick result, both to preserve his army and to win the sultan’s favor.

Accordingly, as soon as he arrived in late September, he tried to persuade the Venetians to give up without a fight. He paraded heads and live captives in front of the walls, and forged letters to the Venetian ambassador in Constantinople, requesting that he give Bragadin permission to surrender.

From Bragadin himself he received a further flinty response: the Venetians would fight to the finish. Like the hapless Dandolo, Bragadin was a descendant of one of the great families of Venice, but a stouter patriot. The grave and heavily bearded commander was in his late 40s, with a career in the Venetian marine corps behind him, and a weighty sense of duty. His ardent desire to preserve the honor of the republic was to be the key to all his actions in the months ahead.

Because of Bragadin’s leadership, Famagusta was more formidable than Nicosia. There was strong internal discipline; the soldiers were paid; food distribution was systematic and fair. According to the Venetian accounts, “as long as there was a drachm of food, Bragadin distributed it; and where there was none, there remained his good will.” Despite a huge disparity in numbers—80,000 Ottomans to 8,000 defenders—morale was high. Bragadin’s evenhandedness with all the city’s people ensured that even the Greek population and its priests participated wholeheartedly in the defense. He was also wise enough to leave the details of military command to his inspirational captain, Astore Baglione, who was adored by his men.

Bragadin also had strong hopes of relief. By now Cyprus had become a cause for all of Christendom, and in the Vatican the ever-zealous pope Pius V, who dreamed of launching fresh crusades against the Islamic world, was working hard to persuade the Venetians and the Hapsburg king of Spain, Philip II, to join a “holy league” and dispatch a joint armada for the island’s relief. It was no easy task. The whole of the Christian Mediterranean was riddled with tensions and jealousies; Philip and the Venetians shared a strong mutual distrust. While Pius tried to thrash out a working agreement in Rome, Lala Mustapha spent the winter encamped at Famagusta, waiting for the new campaigning season.

During this lull, sorties and skirmishes and Homeric bouts of single combat outside the walls relieved the tedium. Captain Baglione himself took part. The whole population watched from the ramparts and accused the Turks of cheating by wounding horses and running away when beaten, rather than yielding to the victor. Baglione offered prize money to up the sporting interest— just two ducats for killing an opponent, five for unseating him from his horse.

In the midst of this low-level engagement, Venice delivered a short, sharp, military shock to its enemy that was to have unforeseen consequences. In January, it appointed the energetic Marco Querini as commander of its galleys on the neighboring island of Crete. On reaching Crete, he learned that the Ottomans had withdrawn their fleet from the winter seas, leaving only a token force to support the army at Famagusta. He decided on an audacious, high-risk, and unseasonable strike, timed to coincide with the start of Ramadan.

On January 16, 1571, he set sail with a dozen galleys and four high-sided sailing ships laden with 1,700 soldiers assigned to reinforce the town. Running east on the winter seas he reached Famagusta in 10 days. As the four ships made for the harbor, Ottoman galleys sighted them, but Querini had laid a careful trap. His own galleys, lurking out of sight, caught the Ottomans totally by surprise, and Querini shot three of their vessels to bits before towing his sailing ships into the harbor, to the great joy of the defenders. For three weeks Querini rampaged round the coast, destroying fortifications and harbor installations, capturing merchant ships, and putting new heart into Bragadin’s men.

On the day of Querini’s departure for Crete, Bragadin and Baglione organized an elaborate ambush. They ordered that no one was to be seen on the walls the next morning. They then loaded their cannons with grapeshot and chain shot, their harquebuses with bullets, and readied their cavalry behind the gate. At dawn, the Ottomans looked up at silent ramparts. Nothing moved; the ships had gone. They scrambled out of the trenches; still no sign of life. They began to think the Venetians had sailed away with Querini. When this was reported to Mustapha, the whole army moved forward. As it came within gunshot range of the fortress, a signal shot was fired, followed by a furious volley from the walls that mowed down swaths of men. Then came a devastating cavalry charge.

Querini had departed with promises of substantial relief; he also apparently left Bragadin a boatload of captured Muslim pilgrims bound for Mecca to employ as hostages, though the details would be later disputed. These unfortunates were destined to play a pivotal role in what ensued.

The “visit” by Querini served as a vivid reminder of what Venice was still capable of; it shocked the Ot- toman high command and triggered a series of re- active measures. In Constantinople the sultan was disturbed and outraged by this jolt to his pride. As protector of the Muslim faithful, keeping the haj routes open was critical. He executed one commander and ordered a fleet to sail early in the year to protect Cyprus.

The spring sailing brought Lala Mustapha fresh men—Cyprus was so close to the Ottoman coast that no matter how many men died, replenishment was an easy matter. Word of the rich pickings at Nicosia had spread, and the pasha proclaimed, perhaps unwisely, that the booty at Famagusta would be better still. Adventurers and irregulars flocked to the cause. By April he had a vast army, close to 100,000 men. The Ottomans boasted that the sultan had sent so many to the siege that if each one threw a shoe into the ditch they would fill it up. Crucially, a large number of these, armed only with picks and shovels, had worked as miners. Within the walls, there were 4,000 Venetian infantry and the same number of Greeks.

By mid-April Lala Mustapha was ready to press forward in earnest. Bragadin counted his finite food stocks and decided that there was no alternative but to expel the noncombatants. Five thousand of them—old men, women, and children—were given food for one day and marched out of a sally port. Any ruthless besieging general might now be expected to take advantage. In a similar situation, Julius Caesar had let the women and children Vercingetorix expelled from his fort in 52 BC die of starvation, hemmed in between the Roman legionnaires and the Gauls; the Ottoman admiral “Barbarossa” Khair ed-Din forced the noncombatants back to the walls of Corfu in 1537. The mercurial Lala Mustapha did neither. He let them through his lines, to return to their villages. It was both compassionate and astute, a notable gesture of goodwill toward the Greek population.

Bragadin was determined to emulate the defense of Malta, but there were crucial differences—not only was Famagusta 1,400 miles from any help but the geology was different, too. The Maltese fortresses had been built on solid rock; tunneling required superhuman efforts. The city sunk in the sand was surrounded by sand— easy to mine, even if it required constant propping. In late April, Lala Mustapha’s huge labor force started to shovel its way toward the city. The Christians jeered at the Turks for waging war like peasants, with picks and shovels, but their progress was terribly effective. A vast network of trenches zigzagged toward the moat, so deep that mounted men could ride along them with only the tips of their lances showing, and so extensive that the observers declared the whole army could be accommodated within them. Earth parapets were thrown up that concealed all but the tops of the Ottoman tents, and earth forts were constructed 50 feet wide and bulwarked with oak beams and sacks of cotton. If cannon fire destroyed them, they were quickly rebuilt. When the platforms overtopped the walls they were mounted with heavy cannons.

The defenders fought with the confidence of the Knights of St. John for the honor of Venice. Baglione conducted sorties and ambushes, picked off miners, threw gunpowder into their trenches, hid planks studded with poisoned nails in the sand, knocked out gun emplacements, and killed alarming numbers of men.

The fortitude of the defense astonished and worried the Ottoman high command. Men wrote home to Constantinople that giants defended Famagusta. When Lala Mustapha sent messages to Bragadin on May 25 requesting yet another surrender, he was met with shouts of “Long live Saint Mark!” One of these parleys was rebuffed with a hotter response. The Venetians lived in eager hope of relief, and Bragadin invited the messenger to tell his master that when the Venetian fleet came, “I shall make you walk before my horse and clear away on your back the earth you have filled our ditch with.” These would prove to be rash words.

Eventually the weight of numbers started to tell. In early May, as members of the Holy League prepared to append their signatures in Rome, the Ottoman cannons began a heavy bombardment. Day after day they poured shot into the houses to break the citizens’ morale and against the walls to batter them down. Despite heroic repair work, the cannon fire inexorably degraded the walls; tunnelling allowed the Ottomans to plant mines and blast the front off the ravelins and bastions.

On June 21 they opened a definitive breach and furiously assaulted it, the first of six attacks that gradually whittled away the defense. The city’s supplies of food and gunpowder began to dwindle. “The wine is finished,” wrote a Venetian engineer, “and neither fresh nor salted meat nor cheese could be found, except at a price beyond all limits. We ate horses, asses, cats, for there was nothing else to eat but bread and beans, nothing to drink but vinegar with water and this gave out.”

On July 19, the bishop of Lemessos, a talismanic figure for the people, was killed at his table by a harquebus. The Greek citizens had supported their Venetian masters faithfully; now they had had enough. Mindful of the sack of Nicosia, they petitioned Bragadin for negotiated surrender. After an emotional Mass in the cathedral, Bragadin begged them for 15 more days. They assented.

The Ottomans too knew the end was near. On July 23 Lala Mustapha, increasingly frustrated by what he regarded as pointless resistance, shot a blunt message over the wall to Baglione: “I, Mustapha Pasha, want you milord general, Astorre, to understand that you must yield to me for your own good, because I know that you have no means of survival, neither gunpowder nor even the men to carry on your defense. If you surrender the city with good grace, you will all be spared with your possessions, and we shall send you into the land of the Christians. Otherwise we shall seize the city with our great sword, and we shall not leave a single one of you alive! Mark you well.”

Far away in Rome, a Christian rescue mission was ponderously gathering pace. It had taken Pius until late May to forge agreement on a formula for joint action. The Holy League, formed to make perpetual war against the Ottomans and Muslims, included not only Spain and Venice but also the Papal States, the Republic of Genoa, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the duchies of Savoy, Urbino, Parma, and the Knights of Malta. Don Juan of Austria, the illegitimate half brother of the Spanish king, Philip II, a dashing 24- year-old with a thirst for military glory, was appointed admiral of the Christian fleet. In the dockyards of Barcelona, Malaga, Venice, and Sicily an enormous fleet was being readied, but preparations were proceeding at a snail’s pace. Two hundred galleys slowly converged for a rendezvous in Sicily in early August. Their objective was to liberate Cyprus, but it was all happening too late: an Ottoman fleet of matching size was already ravaging other Venetian strongholds around the coasts of Greece and had penetrated into the Adriatic, where it devastated Corfu. A squadron of corsairs even briefly blockaded the Venetian lagoon.

At Famagusta, the siege was entering its final act. Lala Mustapha’s offer of negotiated surrender was fiercely resisted. The people repeatedly implored the Venetians to surrender but Bragadin refused to yield: “You must know that by the commission which I hold, I am forbidden on pain of death to surrender the city. Forgive me,” he cried, “I cannot do it.”

It took the persuasion of Baglione and two more punishing assaults to talk him round. By July 31 the city was on its knees. The last cat had been eaten; only 900 Italians were left alive, and 400 of them were wounded. The survivors were exhausted, shell-shocked, and hungry. Many of the city’s beautiful buildings were in ruins. The Famagustans had paid the highest price for their loyalty. There were no ships on the horizon. Baglione reassured Bragadin that “having discharged our debt in defense [of the city], we have not failed in any way.…I tell you, on my word as a gentleman, that the city has fallen. At the next assault we shall not be able to meet them, not only because of our few troops, now so depleted, but because of the gunpowder, which has been reduced to five and a half barrels.” Famagusta had been pummeled for 68 days, absorbed 150,000 rounds of cannon fire and used up, through warfare or disease, tens of thousands of Ottoman troops. On August 1 Bragadin gave way. In the network of interconnecting tunnels under the walls Venetian miners handed their Ottoman counterparts a letter for the pasha. The white flag was raised on the ramparts.

The generous terms were a measure of the toll on Lala Mustapha’s army. All the Italians would be allowed to leave the island with colors flying; they would have safe passage on Ottoman ships to Crete; the Greek inhabitants could go if they wished, or stay and enjoy personal liberty and property rights. The Italians wanted to take all their cannons, but Mustapha refused to allow more than five. At this point there is a small but significant difference in the sources. All the Venetians agree that these, give or take a few minor details, were the terms on which Mustapha sealed the document and granted safe conduct.

Mustapha Pasha subsequently narrated his own version to his chronicler, Ali Efendi, who took part in the siege. In this there is a further clause: the Venetians were still holding 50 Muslim pilgrims captured by Querini in January, and it was agreed by both parties that these pilgrims had to be surrendered.

In the space between these two accounts, something terrible arose.

On August 5, the Venetians started to embark on the Turkish ships. “Up to that hour the Turks’ relations with all the rest of us had been friendly and without suspicion, for they had shown much courtesy toward us in both word and deed,” wrote Nestor Martinengo, who witnessed the siege. However, against the terms of the agreement, Ottoman soldiers were already entering the city and engaging in opportunistic looting. It may have been difficult to restrain men who had been promised lavish booty by the pasha.

At the hours of vespers, with the ships almost loaded, Bragadin set out to take the city keys to Lala Mustapha. The proud Venetian aristocrat departed from Famagusta in a show of pomp—some suggested less like the defeated general than the victor. He walked in state, preceded by trumpeters and wearing crimson robes. A crimson parasol was carried above his head as the symbol of his office. With him went Baglione and the other commanders and a personal bodyguard—about 300 men in all. They walked with their heads held high between the jeering ranks of the Ottoman army, but were safely conducted with due ceremony to Mustapha’s tent. The commanders left their swords at the threshold and entered.

Mustapha rose from his seat and gestured them to stools covered with crimson velvet; they duly kissed the pasha’s hand and Bragadin began his formal declaration of surrender: “Since the Divine Majesty has determined that this kingdom should belong to the most illustrious Grand Signore (the Sultan), herewith I have brought the keys to the city, and herewith I give the city up to you in accordance with the pact which we have made with each other.” And then it all started to go horribly wrong.

Negotiated surrender hangs on a thread of mutual trust. Possibly it was Bragadin’s visible pride that vexed the pasha, or his earlier words to Mustapha, or the pasha’s exasperation at the sheer pointlessness of a siege that had cost so many men and possibly ruined his career, or perhaps it was a need to justify the lack of booty to his troops, or a justifiable grievance about the prisoners.

According to the Ottoman accounts, it started with a tetchy exchange about guarantees of safekeeping for the return of the Ottoman ships from Venetian Crete. Mustapha wanted a hostage from among the nobles. Bragadin cursed him angrily, “You shan’t have a noble, you shan’t even have a dog!” Incensed, Mustapha asked where the Muslim prisoners were. According to Ali Efendi’s account, Bragadin admitted that they had been tortured and killed after the peace treaty had been signed: “Those Muslim captives were not under my personal control,” Bragadin said. “The Venetians and native lords killed them on the day of surrender and I killed those who were with me.”

“Then,” said the pasha, “you have broken the treaty.”

There were other matters to add fuel to Mustapha’s fire including the Venetian’s destruction of a large quantity of cotton and ammunition and Bragadin’s haughty words and manner.

The Venetians told it quite differently. Querini had taken most of the hostages away with him in January; only six were left and they escaped—or alternatively, Bragadin simply did not know the fate of these men. “Do I not know,” came the pasha’s angry reply, “that you have murdered them all?” Then getting into his stride, all Mustapha’s grievances came tumbling out. “Tell me, you hound, why did you hold the fortress when you had not the wherewithal to do so? Why did you not surrender a month ago, and not make me lose 80,000 of the best men in my army?” He wanted a hostage against the safe return of his ships from Crete. Bragadin replied this was not in the terms. “Tie them all up!” shouted the pasha.

In a flash they were hustled outside and prepared for death. The executioners strode forward and Bragadin was made to stretch out his neck two or three times. Then Lala Mustapha thought again; he decided to reserve him for later and ordered his ears and nose to be cut off—the punishment for common criminals. Baglione protested that the pasha had broken his faith; he was executed in front of the tent along with the other commanders. In the Venetian account, Mustapha then showed Baglione’s head to the army: “Behold the head of the great champion of Famagusta, of him who has destroyed half my army and given me so much trouble.”

Three hundred and fifty heads were piled up in front of the ornate tent. Almost all the other Venetians were similarly put to death; a few managed to disguise themselves as Greeks, a handful more were ransomed and subsequently returned to Venice to tell the tale.

Bragadin’s end was lingering and dreadful. He was kept alive until August 17, a Friday. The wounds on his head were festering; he was crazed with pain. After prayers, he was marched through the city to the sound of drums and trumpets, accompanied by his faithful servant Andrea, who had accepted conversion to Islam in order to serve him to the last. To pay for his earlier words to the pasha, Bragadin was made to carry sackfuls of earth along the city walls, and to kiss the ground each time he passed the pasha. He was taunted to convert to Islam. The Venetian chroniclers recorded a saintly response: “I am a Christian and thus I want to live and die. I hope my soul will be saved. My body is yours. Torture it as you will.”

They probably heightened the horror for a receptive audience, but the stark facts are beyond doubt. These were ritual acts of humiliation. More dead than alive, he was tied in a chair and hoisted to the top of a galley’s mast, dunked in the sea, and shown to the fleet with jeers and taunts: “Look if you can see your fleet; look, great Christian, if you can see succor coming to Famagusta.” Then he was hustled into the square beside the church of St. Nicholas, now converted into a mosque, and stripped naked. A butcher was ordered to sharpen his knife. Tied to a column from the nearby ancient city of Salamis that is still standing in Famagusta to this day, Bragadin was skinned alive. He was dead before the butcher reached the waist.

The skin was stuffed with straw. Dressed in the commander’s crimson robes and shaded by the red parasol, it was mounted on a cow and paraded through the streets. Later the hideous dummy was exhibited along the coast of the Levant, then sent to Selim in Constantinople.

This theatrical act of cruelty was not universally applauded within the Ottoman court. Some suggested that Bragadin had given the Venetians a martyr and a cause. And this did prove to be the case. The time spent on Famagusta and the losses incurred had already seriously impeded the Ottoman war with Venice. Bragadin’s stuffed skin, now dangling from the yardarm of a Turkish galley, still had its part to play.

In early October 1571, six weeks after Famagusta’s surrender, Don Juan’s huge fleet was loitering off the west coast of Greece. It was late in the season and the danger to the low-slung galleys from autumn storms was growing by the day. The whole operation was torn by indecision and dis- agreement. There had been trouble from the start between the Italian and Spanish soldiers; some of the men had fought and killed each other in the streets of Naples and again at Messina on Sicily. The officers had been forced to hang a few scapegoats to restore order, but the commanders continued to eye one another with jealousy and suspicion. On October 2 all the bottled-up tensions in the Christian armada exploded over a minor disciplinary matter, and the Spanish and Venetian squadrons primed their cannons with powder and threatened to blow each other out of the water. This incident brought the whole expedition to the brink of ruin.

Two days later, on October 4, morale remained fragile and debate still raged on whether they should attempt to hunt down the Ottoman fleet or turn for home, when they spied a lone ship tacking up from the south. It was a Venetian frigate from Crete carrying news of the terrible events at Famagusta.

Word of Bragadin’s fate had a sudden and electrifying effect on Christian resolve. The Venetian naval commanders clamored for revenge and declared to Don Juan that they would proceed alone if the Spanish failed to support them. Forward momentum became unstoppable. The fleet pushed on in squally weather, intending to lure the Ottomans out to fight.

On October 7, 1571, off the port the Venetians called Lepanto in the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth, the two fleets swept into battle. Sometime just before noon, the line of 200 Christian galleys collided head-on with their 280 Ottoman counterparts. The Venetians had brought experimental firepower to the contest. In advance of the fleet they towed six cumbersome oared galleasses, heavily gunned, and bulwarked with defensive superstructures. Members of the Bragadin family, itching for revenge, commanded two of these. As the Ottoman fleet closed, the Bragadins and their allies set matches to the touchholes of the cannons and proceeded to wreak a terrible vengeance on the Ottoman galleys. In the first blizzard of shot a third of the Ottoman front line was crippled or sunk.

In the ensuing battle, the Venetian squadrons on the left wing pinned their opposing enemy hard against the Greek shore. When the Ottoman sailors tried to escape onto dry land, the Venetians put out in longboats and pursued them ashore with wild cries of “Famagusta! Famagusta!” They took no prisoners.

“The greater fury of the battle lasted for four hours,” an Italian contemporary wrote, “and was so bloody and horrendous that the sea and the fire seemed as one, many Turkish galleys burning down to the water and the surface of the sea, red with blood, was covered with Moorish coats, turbans, quivers, arrows, bows, shields, oars, boxes, cases and other spoils of war, and above all many human bodies, Christian as well as Turkish, some dead, some wounded, some torn apart, and some not yet resigned to their fate struggling in their death agony, their strength ebbing away with the blood flowing from their wounds in such quantity that the sea was entirely coloured by it.”

The day ended in complete carnage. Burning hulks flared in the darkness, smoking and ruined, and the Christian ships could barely sail away, according to an eyewitness, “because of the countless corpses floating on the sea.” The battle of Lepanto saw the almost complete devastation of the Ottoman fleet. In four hours it had lost 30,000 men slain or captured, and 237 ships.

Although the Ottomans rebuilt their fleet the following year, they could not replace their experienced sailors. Lepanto effectively signaled the decline of their maritime ambitions. It nonetheless proved impossible for the Holy League to capitalize on the stunning victory. The exorbitant cost of naval warfare and the deep divisions between Spain and Venice ruined further possibilities for combined action. In 1573 the Venetians formally acknowledged the loss of Cyprus and made their own peace with Selim. In 1580, Philip II of Spain signed a truce with the Ottomans that signalled the start of a permanent disengagement of the two powers in the Mediterranean and the end of the contest. It recognized a stalemate between two empires and two worlds. From this moment, the diagonal frontier between Islam and Christianity that ran the length of the Mediterranean from Constantinople to the gates of Gibraltar hardened. The deep historical legacy of the Ottoman invasion of Cyprus remains to this day unresolved.

As for Bragadin, the martyr of Famagusta, the Venetians treasured his patriotic sacrifice and erected a memorial to his heroism in the church of St. John and St. Paul. Venetian lions flank a bust of the stern warrior; above, a lurid fresco shows him being flayed alive. His skin did eventually make it home. In 1580, someone spirited it from Constantinople to Venice, where it now nestles in a niche behind Bragadin’s monument.

 

Originally published in the Spring 2009 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.  

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