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Victory of the West: The Great Christian-Muslim Clash at the Battle of Lepanto

by Niccolò Capponi, Da Capo Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2007, $27.50.

Miguel de Cervantes—who lost the use of his left hand in combat at the Battle of Lepanto—called that 1571 sea engagement “the most noble and memorable event that past centuries have seen or future can ever hope to witness.” Many historians concur, declaring it a turning point in the intermittent conflict between Christendom and Islam that, of course, still resonates today.

In Victory of the West, Niccolò Capponi, a fellow at the Medici Archive Project and curator of the Capponi Archives, sets the stage by describing the situation in Europe, where the rivalry between the Hapsburgs and the kings of France frustrated efforts by the popes to unify Christendom against the Turkish threat. Certainly the outside threat was real, for the 16th century saw the Ottoman Empire achieve its greatest expansion, propelled by vast manpower, its skillful use of heavy and light artillery, strong leadership and the fundamentalist spirit of Islam. In that same century, the Ottoman Empire grew, little by little, into a great naval power.

Florentine-born Capponi details Cosimo de’ Medici’s concurrent efforts to establish his power as grand duke of Florence behind a loyal army and permanent fleet. The author also explains why King Philip II of Spain hesitated to aid Pope Pius V when he called for a crusade against the Turks: Philip faced not only a strange alliance between the French king and the Ottoman sultan, but also a revolt in the Netherlands, the Protestant movement in Germany and the presence of a sizable Muslim minority in Spain.

The delicate balance of power in the Mediterranean region finally tipped when the Turks occupied Chios and their party advocating war in the West pressed for the invasion of Cyprus, then a Venetian dominion. The author describes the siege of Famagusta, its fall by treaty on August 4, 1571, and the death and postmortem humiliation of Venetian commander Marco Antonio Bragadin at the hands of the Turks. That incident finally helped Pope Pius unify most of the Christian forces into a “Holy League” against the Turks. The Spanish found a leader for the polyglot collection of naval units in the person of Don Juan of Austria, bastard son of Emperor Charles V and half brother of Philip II. The master engineers of Venice provided the fleet with the galleass, a ship able to carry as many heavy guns as necessary.

Fortune placed the Holy League’s fleet of 250 ships in the right place, the Gulf of Lepanto, where it waited patiently for the enemy on October 7, 1571. The 277 Turkish galleys soon arrived in a single line. By that afternoon, following a battle involving risky maneuvers, gun duels and fierce hand-to-hand combat, the Christians had sunk or captured 233 of those vessels.

Overall, Victory of the West is a masterpiece of comprehensive research into the complexities behind a battle that marked the limit of Ottoman—and Islamic—expansion into Western Europe. It deserves a place in every academic library and is particularly worthy of study by anyone with an interest in the Renaissance.


Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here