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A ferocious battle with the Turks marked the end of Venice’s sea power.

On October 31, 1498, a Venetian merchant, Andrea Gritti, wrote home from the Ottoman capital of Constantinople: “I can’t tell you more about business and investments than I’ve told you already; if prices go down I will let you know.”

Gritti, 41, was well established in Constantinople as a grain trader. He was also a spy, sending information to the Venetian senate in coded or concealed messages to a fictional business partner. The meaning of this dispatch was plainly taken in Venice: The Ottoman sultan continues to assemble a fleet.

After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Venetian Republic had reluctantly become “the shield of Christendom,” the front-line state blocking the Ottoman advance. It had fought, and lost, a 15-year war with Sultan Mehmet II, which had ended in 1479. Since then, Mehmet’s son, Sultan Bayezit II, had been at peace with the Venetians. Now it seemed from Gritti’s reports that Bayezit was gearing up for war. As 1498 tipped into 1499, Gritti’s messages became more precise— he was providing estimates of timetables and objectives for a Turkish attack—and their dispatch more risky. On November 9, 1498, he wrote, “The corsair has taken a ship with a capacity of two hundred botte [barrels],” meaning, “The sultan is preparing two hundred ships.” On February 16, 1499, he wrote, in cipher, “It will depart in June…a great force by both land and sea, the number is not known, nor where it will go.”

In the preceding 500 years, Venice had ascended from a colony of lagoon dwellers to become the greatest power in the Mediterranean. Under the red-and-gold lion banner of Saint Mark, it had created a maritime empire—the Stato da Mar. This was a curious, cobbled- together affair, a collection of islands, ports, and strategic bastions in the Adriatic and Aegean whose sole function was to funnel the goods of the world back to the mother city. In the process, Venice became known as the richest place on earth, a brilliant mosaic fashioned from what it bought, traded, borrowed, and stole.

The city’s prosperity rested on nothing tangible—no landholdings, no natural resources, no agricultural production or large population. There was literally no solid ground underfoot. Physical survival depended on a fragile ecological balance. Venice was perhaps the first virtual economy, and its vitality baffled outsiders. It harvested nothing but barren gold and lived in perpetual fear that its trade routes would be severed and the whole magnificent edifice would simply collapse.

The path to empire for the Stato da Mar had unfolded in a succession of extraordinary contests: the sacking of Constantinople by Christians in 1204, the crushing of a series of revolts against Venetian rule on Crete, and a fight to the finish with rival maritime power Genoa within the lagoon itself in 1379. Now the prospect of another such contest loomed, and the stakes were high: the very survival of the Stato da Mar.

Both the Turks and the Venetians claimed they sought peace but prepared for war. In Constantinople it was given out that a fleet was being readied against pirates. The Venetians were not deceived; the fleet was too powerful for policing operations. “They are spending money furiously,” said Gritti. “It’s being disbursed without even being requested—this is a sure sign.”

No one, however, could be certain of the objective. Venice maintained a string of valuable bases around the south coast of Greece that irritated the Ottomans. These included two strategic harbors, Coron and Modon, on the southern tip of the Peloponnese, the island of Corfu, and the fortress at Lepanto in the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth. In March 1499, weeks after receiving Gritti’s message about the sultan’s 200 ships, Venice elected a new captain general of the sea, Antonio Grimani. At the ritual blessing of the battle standard in Saint Mark’s Basilica, Grimani held the admiral’s baton with the wrong end up. Old men later recalled other such dark portents and the disasters to which they had led.

Grimani was a moneyman, a fixer with political ambitions. He had made his fortune in the spice markets of Syria and Egypt, and his financial astuteness was legendary. Grimani had also proved his bravery in battle, but he was not an experienced naval commander and had no knowledge of maneuvering large fleets. He secured the post of captain general, which he undoubtedly saw as a steppingstone to the position of doge (the leader of the Venetian Republic), by shrewdly offering to man and arm 10 galleys at his own expense and advancing the state a large loan. He set up the recruiting benches on the quay in front of the doge’s palace with “the greatest pomp,” according to the Venetian diarist Girolamo Priuli. Dressed in scarlet, Grimani kicked off the enlistment of crews before a mound of 30,000 ducats heaped in five glittering piles, as if to advertise his golden touch. Whatever his tactics, he succeeded in organizing the fleet. Despite shortages of men and money, and outbreaks of the plague and syphilis among the crews, by July he had assembled off Modon the largest maritime force Venice had ever seen. Grimani was talked up as another Caesar or Alexander.

There were, however, hairline cracks in these arrangements. The Venetian Republic had the right to commandeer the state merchant galleys (“great galleys”) for war service. In June, all these galleys, already auctioned out (in essence, leased) to consortia for trading that year, were requisitioned, and each of their patròni (organizers) was given the title and salary of a galley captain. This was not popular; it exposed the tensions between the concerns of the state and the commercial interests of certain self-serving nobles of the oligarchy. Allegiance to the flag of Saint Mark was strained. Severe punishments were proclaimed for noncompliance: Patròni who did not agree to serve the state would be banished from Venice for five years and fined 500 ducats. There were still some who refused to comply. Priuli believed, presciently, that Venice was heading for a fall. “I doubt but that this glorious and worthy city, in which our nobility pervert justice, will through this sin suffer some detriment and loss and that it will be brought to the edge of a precipice.”

The news from Constantinople got bleaker. In June, all the Venetian merchants in that city were arrested and their goods confiscated. Meanwhile Gritti’s luck had run out. A messenger dispatched with an unencoded message was intercepted and hanged; another was impaled on the way to Lepanto. The merchant spy was soon in a gloomy dungeon on the Bosporus, his life in peril.

It was reported that the Turkish fleet had passed out of the Dardanelles on June 25 and that a large army had set out for Greece at the same time. Doubtless some kind of pincer movement was intended. As the fleet worked its way around the Peloponnese, many of the impressed Greek crew members ran away. Soon Grimani learned that the Turks’ objective was either Corfu or Lepanto. When the Ottoman army showed up outside Lepanto in early August, both the objective and the tactics became clear. The walls of Lepanto were substantial, and trundling cannons over the Greek mountains was not an option. The task of the Ottoman fleet was to deliver the guns; that of the Venetians, to prevent them from doing so.

The fleet that sailed out of the Dardanelles in June had been prepared for battle at a moment of change in naval tactics. Sea warfare had traditionally been a contest between oared galleys, but by the late 15th century, experiments were under way in the military use of “round ships”—sailpowered, high-sided vessels known as carracks, typically merchant vessels. The Ottomans had constructed two massive vessels of this type. Like most innovations in their shipyards, these were probably adapted from Venetian models by a renegade master shipwright, one Gianni, who had learned his craft in Venice.

These ships, with their high stern and bow castles and steepling crow’s nests, were enormous by the standards of the day. According to the Ottoman chronicler Haji Khalifeh, “The length of each was seventy cubits and the breadth thirty cubits. The masts were several trees joined together….The maintop was capable of holding forty men in armor, who might thence discharge their arrows and muskets.”

The vessels were a hybrid species, snapshots in the evolution of shipping: As well as sails, they had 24 giant oars, each pulled by nine men. Because the ships were so huge—displacing an estimated 1,800 tons—they could be packed with a thousand fighting men, and they were among the first vessels in history to carry substantial numbers of cannons that could fire broadsides through gun ports. The Ottomans believed their two talismanic vessels would be invulnerable to the Venetian galleys and smaller cannon-carrying carracks.

Sultan Bayezit had been thorough in the development of his navy: He had done more than just build the ships. Seeking expertise in naval matters, he had recruited to his naval command Muslim corsairs from the Aegean—privateers who plundered Christian vessels in the name of holy war and were skilled in both practical ship handling and open-sea warfare. Among the captains in the fleet now making its way around the coast of southern Greece were two experienced corsairs, Kemal Reis and Burak Reis, already well known to the Venetians for raids on their shipping. This injection of expertise gave the sultan the confidence to push his fleet west into the Ionian Sea, the threshold of Venice’s home waters.

The Ottoman fleet, though immense, was of variable quality. There were in all about 260 ships—including 60 light galleys, the 2 mammoth round ships, 18 smaller round ships, 3 great galleys, 30 fuste (miniature galleys), and a swarm of smaller craft. In addition to sailors and oarsmen, the vessels carried a large number of janissaries, the sultan’s own crack troops. This armada probably bore 35,000 men in total. Grimani’s far smaller fleet of 95 was a mixture of galleys and round ships, including two carracks of more than a thousand tons, carrying both cannons and soldiers. The Venetians had recently employed squadrons of heavy carracks to hunt down pirates, but they had never before brought together such a large mixed fleet of oared and sailing ships. Grimani’s force included about 25,000 men.

Despite the Ottomans’ advantage in numbers of men and ships, the captain general was supremely confident. He had learned from the deserting Greek sailors that he had more heavy ships, both carracks and great galleys, that could shatter his opponent’s line. He wrote to the senate, “Your excellencies will know that our fleet, by the Grace of God, will win a glorious victory.”

In late July, off the southwestern tip of Greece, Grimani made contact with the Ottoman fleet between Coron and Modon and began tracking its progress, seeking the opportunity to attack. The world’s two largest navies— with a total of 355 ships and 60,000 men—moved in parallel along the Greek coast. It quickly became apparent that the Turks had no interest in battle; their mission was to deliver cannons to Lepanto, and they hugged the coastline so tightly that some of the vessels ran aground and more Greek sailors deserted. On July 24, the Ottoman admiral took his fleet into the shelter of Porto Longo on the island of Sapienza. It was a place of misfortune in Venetian history. Here the Republic’s fleet had been routed by the Genoese 145 years earlier. Back in Venice, people anxiously awaited news.

Grimani, meanwhile, waited for the Turkish fleet to push on from Sapienza. When it sailed, he hung his ships out to sea and continued tracking it north from headland to headland in a game of cat and mouse. On hot summer days, the breeze dies in the middle of the day off the Greek coast; the captain general was forced to await the advantage of a steady onshore wind to bear down on his prey. His moment seemed to come on the morning of August 12 as the Ottomans pulled clear of a bay the Venetians called Zonchio into a stiff onshore breeze.

Grimani now had the target within his sights; the long line of enemy ships was scattered along miles of open water in front of him and to leeward. He was faced with some unique difficulties coordinating his ships—the combination of sail-powered carracks, heavy merchant galleys, and light but faster war galleys was tricky. But he drew up his ships in line with established practice: the heavy vessels—the sailing ships and great galleys— in the vanguard to shatter the enemy line; the lighter racing galleys behind, ready to dart out as their opponents scattered.

He had given specific written instructions to the commanders to advance “at sufficient distance [so as] not to get entangled or break oars, but in as good order as possible.” He made it clear that men would be hanged for booty hunting during the battle; any captains who failed to engage the enemy would also be strung up. Such orders were standard before battle, but perhaps Grimani had caught wind of some dissent from the patròni of the requisitioned merchant galleys. The clarity of his orders would later be disputed. The galley captain Domenico Malipiero considered them to be “riddled with flaws”; Alvise Marcello, commander of all the round ships and a man who later cut and ran from the battle, declared that the orders had been altered confusedly at the last minute. Whatever the truth, Grimani had just hoisted a crucifix and sounded the trumpets for the attack when his composure was ruffled by the unbidden arrival of an additional detachment of small Venetian ships under their commander, Andrea Loredan, an experienced hands-on seaman popular with crews.

Loredan was in fact guilty of a breach of discipline. He had abandoned his post at the Venetian naval base at Corfu to share the glory of the hour. Grimani was annoyed at having the attack disrupted; he was also put out at being upstaged. He reproved the newcomer for flouting orders but decided to let him lead the charge in the Pandora, one of the round ships, accompanied by the Venetian captain Alban d’Armer in another. These were the largest ships in the fleet, each about 1,200 tons. Loredan had also come with scores to settle. He had spent considerable time hunting the corsair Kemal Reis; he now believed that he had his prey in sight, commanding a carrack that was the largest of the sailing ships built by Gianni. He was mistaken; its captain was in fact the other corsair leader, Burak Reis. Nevertheless, excited cries of “Loredan! Loredan!” rang across the Venetian fleet as the seamen watched their trophy ships closing on the 1,800-ton floating fortress.

What ensued was a signal moment in naval warfare, a foretaste of Trafalgar: a duel between heavily armed sailing ships fought with cannons and from the fighting tops. As the three superhulks closed, both sides opened up with broadsides from their heavy guns in a terrifying display of gunpowder weaponry. The roar of the guns at close range and the smoke and spitting flashes of fire astonished and unnerved those watching from the other ships. Hundreds of fighting men, protected by shields, massed on the decks and fired a blizzard of bullets and arrows; 40 feet up in the crow’s nests, crested by the lion flag of Saint Mark or the Turkish crescent, men fought an aerial battle from top to top, or hurled barrels, javelins, and rocks onto the decks below; 40 light Turkish galleys worried the stout wooden hulls of the Christian round ships that reared above them. Men struggled to climb the sides and fell back into the sea, bobbing helplessly in the wreckage.

In contrast, the other Venetian front-line commanders hardly moved. The vanguard of the Christian fleet seems to have been gripped by a terrible indecision. Alvise Marcello, the captain of the round ships, captured one light Turkish vessel and withdrew—though Marcello himself would give a much more dramatic account at the end of the day. Only one of the great merchant galleys entered the fray, under its heroic captain, Vicenzo Polani. It was set upon by a swarm of Turkish galleys in a battle that lasted two hours. According to Malipiero, the Venetian galley captain who had criticized Grimani’s orders, “Everyone thought it lost; a Turkish flag was hoisted on her, but she was stoutly defended and massacred a large number of Turks…and it pleased God to send a breath of wind; she hoisted her sails and escaped from the clutches of the Turkish fleet…maimed and burned; and if the other great galleys and round ships had followed her in, we would have shattered the Turkish fleet.” Almost none of the other great galleys and carracks did. There was no response to Grimani’s frantic trumpet calls. The command structure collapsed. Orders were given and disobeyed or countermanded; Grimani failed to lead by example, while many of the more experienced captains were locked in the rear.

The oarsmen in these galleys urged the heavy ships forward with shouts of “Attack! Attack!” When this yielded no response, howls of “Hang them!” rang across the water. Only eight ships joined the action. Most were the lighter vessels from Corfu, vulnerable to gunfire. One was quickly sunk, which further dampened enthusiasm for the fight. When Polani’s ship emerged, scorched and battered but miraculously still afloat, the other great galleys followed it to windward.

Meanwhile the Pandora and d’Armer’s ship continued to grapple with the carrack of Burak Reis. The three ships crashed together so that the men were fighting hand to hand, ship to ship. The battle continued for four hours until the Venetians seemed to be gaining the advantage; they clasped their opponent with grappling chains and prepared to board.

Exactly what happened next is unclear; the ships were interlocked, unable to separate, when fire broke out on the Ottoman vessel. Either by chance or as an act of self-destruction—for Burak Reis was pressed hard and close to despair—the powder supply on the Turkish ship exploded. The flames ran up the rigging, seized the furled sails, and burned alive the men in the foretops of all three ships. The blackened stumps of the masts crashed to the decks. Those below were engulfed in flames where they stood or hurled themselves over the side. The waiting ships observed this living pyramid of fire in rigid horror. It was maritime catastrophe on a new scale.

But the Turks somehow held their nerve. While their indestructible battleship, carrying a thousand of the sultan’s finest soldiers, ignited in front of them, light galleys and frigates scuttled about rescuing their men from the debris and executing their opponents in the water. The Christians just watched, aghast. Burak Reis disappeared in the inferno along with Loredan, who, according to legend, still held the flag of Saint Mark. More painfully, there was no effort to rescue the Venetian survivors. The captain of the other large carrack, d’Armer, escaped from his burning ship in a small boat but was captured and later killed. “The Turks,” wrote Malipiero miserably, “picked up their own men in long boats and brigantines and killed ours, because we on our part showed no such pity…and so was done great shame and damage against…Christianity.”

The Battle of Zonchio had not been lost. But Venice had muffed the chance to stem the Ottoman advance. And in psychological terms August 12 was an utter catastrophe. At the day’s end, the Venetian fleet withdrew out to sea and the battered Ottoman fleet inched on around the coast toward Lepanto harbor, protected by a contingent of the army following on land. The running fight continued, but Venetian morale was gone. There were several more ineffectual jabs to prise the enemy into open water; fireships were driven into the enemy fleet, a few galleys were sunk, but the bulk of the Ottoman armada proceeded intact. Within Lepanto, the beleaguered garrison had already beaten off several assaults by the Ottoman army and expectantly watched the sails pricking the western horizon. The garrison’s denizens rang the church bells with joy at the approach of a Venetian fleet. As the ships grew in size, they realized, to their horror, that the ships’ flags were not lions but crescent moons. When they learned that the Turkish vessels carried siege guns, the town promptly surrendered.

The Venetians fought on for three more years after the loss of Lepanto; they regained some minor islands but were unable to reverse the tide of war. In 1503, they accepted the inevitable and signed a humiliating treaty with Bayezit that confirmed everything he had won. The treaty marked a major shift in naval power. Henceforward no Christian power could alone compete with the Ottomans. Soon the Venetians would dip their flags to passing Ottoman ships in implicit recognition of a vassal status they were too proud to acknowledge publicly. By the time the spy Gritti—who returned to Venice after being pardoned by Bayezit—himself became doge in 1523, cooperation with their powerful Muslim neighbor had already become an axiom of Venetian foreign policy, and he and the city concentrated on building a land empire in Italy.

The image of the fireball at Zonchio remained seared into the Venetian imagination, as evidenced by the brilliant contemporary woodcut [pages 36-37, 42] depicting the battle just as the flames started to take hold. It was the moment when Venetian naval supremacy fell guttering to the deck. The Venetians had been overawed by the dramatic effects of gunpowder and the apparent strength of their opponent, then betrayed by faults in their own command structure. Zonchio inflicted deep wounds that became long-lasting scars on their maritime psyche.

There was another, wider legacy of Zonchio. The spectacular destruction of the colossal sailing ships served to discourage both sides from further experiment in ship development. Henceforth, battles in the Mediterranean would follow established practice; ever-larger fleets of oared galleys would hurtle toward each other, firing their lightweight guns as they closed, then attempt to down each other in hand-to-hand combat. Beyond the gates of Gibraltar it would be first the Portuguese, then the Spanish, the English, and the Dutch whose wind-powered galleons, packed with heavy cannons, would construct world empires unimaginable in the landlocked sea. Those ships had already set sail.


Roger Crowley is a British historian specializing in the medieval Mediterranean region. This story is adapted from City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, copyright © 2012 by Roger Crowley, and published by arrangement with Random House.

Originally published in the Spring 2012 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.