The Significance of Lepanto


Sembrose por la corte como negocio venido de la mano de Dios, y á todos nos parescia un sueño, por sir cosa que no se ha jamas visto oido esta batalla y victoria naval.

There is no man at the court who does not discern in it the hand of the Lord, and it seems to us all like a dream, in that never before has such a battle and victory at sea been seen or heard of.

Letter from State Secretary Juan Luis de Alzamora to Don John of Austria, 11 November 1571

The failure of the 1570 expedition had been, for Venice and the Papacy, a humiliating blow; already, however, negotiations were well under way for a firmer and more effective alliance. The prime mover of this new initiative was the Pope. Pius V had thought long and hard about the Turkish threat, and had realized that the principal obstacle to any close understanding between Spain and Venice was that Venice saw the problem in terms of her colonies in the Levant, while Spain was a good deal more anxious about the danger presented by the Sultan’s Moorish vassals to her own possessions in North Africa. To Pius, therefore, the primary aim of Christendom should be to re-establish control of the central Mediterranean, cutting off the Sultan’s African territories from those in Europe and Asia and thus effectively splitting his Empire into two. In July 1570 the Pope had accordingly called a conference to draft the charter of a new Christian League, and over the following months, by patient argument and with active Venetian, help, had gradually won King Philip round. It was a hard struggle. After eight months, just when the last obstacles seemed on the point of being overcome, the Spaniards had second thoughts and threatened to renege on all that they had so far agreed. It was only after Venice, her patience exhausted, had actually dispatched an envoy to Constantinople to try and make a separate peace that they changed their attitude once again and allowed the remaining points to be settled.

The resulting treaty was formally proclaimed on 25 May 1571 in St Peter’s. It was to be perpetual, offensive as well as defensive, and directed not only against the Ottoman Turks themselves but also against their Moorish vassals and co-religionists along the North African coast. The signatories – Spain, Venice and the Papacy (the way was left open for the Emperor and the Kings of France and Poland to join if they so wished) – were together to furnish 200 galleys, 100 transports, 50,000 foot soldiers and 4,500 cavalry, with the requisite artillery and ammunition. These forces were to foregather every year, in the month of April at the latest, for a summer’s campaign wherever they thought fit. Every autumn there would be consultations in Rome to determine the next year’s activity. If either Spain or Venice were attacked, the other would go to her assistance, and both undertook to defend papal territory with all their strength. All fighting would be under the banner of the League; important decisions would be taken by a majority vote of the three generals commanding – Sebastiano Venier for Venice, Marcantonio Colonna for the Papacy, and for Spain the Captain-General of the combined fleet, the King’s half-brother, Don John of Austria.

Don John was the bastard son of Charles V by a German lady called Barbara Blomberg. Twenty-six years old, outstandingly good-looking and a natural leader of men, he had already distinguished himself the previous year by putting down the Morisco rising in Spain. The Venetians expressed themselves delighted at the appointment – as well they might have been, since the King’s first choice, about which he had luckily had second thoughts, had been Gian Andrea Doria. They would have expressed rather less pleasure had they known that Philip, who suspected that the young prince’s courage was apt to override his judgement, had told him that he must on no account give battle without Doria’s express consent.

Although it was clearly too late to observe the timetable stipulated in the treaty, the allies had agreed that the summer of 1571 should not be wasted, and that the forces for the first year’s campaign should muster as soon as possible at Messina. By August all had arrived, and Don John drew up his sailing orders. He himself, with Venier and Colonna, would take the centre, with sixty-four galleys. The right wing, with fifty-four galleys, would be under Doria; the left, with fifty-three, under the Venetian Augustino Barbarigo. In addition there was to be a small vanguard of eight galleys and a rearguard of six, to be respectively commanded by Don Juan de Cardona and the Marquis of Santa Cruz. To each group were allotted six galleasses. The galleons and heavy transports, which – not being oared like the galleys – were considerably less manoeuvrable, were to form a separate convoy.1

Emboldened by the fall of Famagusta and by the departure of virtually the entire Venetian fleet for Messina, the Turks had by now entered the Adriatic in strength; landings in Corfu and in Dalmatia had aroused increasing fears in Venice of a sudden invasion which would find the city almost without defence. At the approach of the combined fleet, however, the Turks rapidly withdrew to their bases in Greece; they had no wish to be blockaded within the narrow sea with the enemy all round them. Thus it was from Lepanto (the modern Naupactos on the Gulf of Patras) that they sailed out, on 6 October, to meet the advancing Christians.

The Christians were in a fighting mood. Two days before, at Cephalonia, they had heard of the fall of Famagusta and, in particular, of the death of Marcantonio Bragadin; rage and vengeance were in their hearts. On the same day, however, there occurred an incident which almost proved disastrous. A Spanish officer and a few of his men on Sebastiano Venier’s galley insulted some Venetians, and in the ensuing fight several men were killed; Venier, without consultation and on his own initiative, had the culprits hanged at the masthead. When this was reported to Don John, he flew into a rage and ordered the captain’s arrest – a command which, had it been obeyed, might well have torn the whole fleet apart. Fortunately wiser counsels – probably those of Colonna – prevailed and John was persuaded to revoke his order; but he never forgave Venier. Henceforth all his communications with the Venetian contingent were addressed to the second-in-command.

The two fleets met at dawn on 7 October, a mile or two east of Cape Scropha, at the entrance to the Gulf of Patras. The galleons had not yet arrived, but Don John was determined to engage the enemy at once. Only slightly revising his order of battle – Barbarigo and Doria receiving ten more galleys each – he drew his ships up into formation and sailed to the attack. The Turks were ready for him, with a fleet that almost precisely matched his own, describing a huge crescent that extended from one shore of the Gulf to the other. The admiral, Ali Pasha, commanded the central squadron, with eighty-seven galleys; on his right was Mehmet Saulak, governor of Alexandria, with fifty-four; and on his left, opposite Doria, was Uluch Ali with sixty-one.

It was about half-past ten when the battle opened, at the north end of the battle lines, where Don John’s left wing under Barbarigo engaged Ali’s right under Saulak. The fighting was fierce, Barbarigo’s own flagship being at one moment set upon by five Turkish vessels which simultaneously let loose a hail of arrows, one of them wounding the Venetian admiral mortally in the eye. His nephew, Marco Contarini, took over the command, but within five minutes he too was dead. Yet the engagement ended in total victory for the Christians, who, under the-leadership of Federico Nani and Marco Querini, eventually succeeded in driving the entire Turkish right wing into the shore. The Turks abandoned their ships and tried to escape in the surrounding hills, but the Venetians pursued them and cut them down as they ran. Saulak was taken prisoner, but he was already seriously wounded and did not long survive.

Now the focus of the battle shifted to the centre, where at eleven o’clock or thereabouts Don John’s galleys, advancing in line abreast at a steady, even stroke, closed on those of Ali Pasha, the two flagships making deliberately straight for each other. They met, and entangled; to each side of them along the line, the other galleys did the same, simultaneously closing in towards the middle until the sea was scarcely visible and men were leaping and scrambling from ship to ship, fighting hand to hand with swords, cutlasses and scimitars. Twice Ali’s force of 400 picked janissaries boarded Don John’s flagship, the Real; three times the Spaniards returned the attack, the last time under heavy covering fire from Colonna, who had just set fire to the galley of Pertau Pasha, Ali’s second-in-command. It was on this third occasion that Ali was struck on the forehead by a cannon-ball. Scarcely had he fallen before his head was sliced off by a soldier from Malaga, who stuck it on a pike and waved it aloft to give courage to his comrades. With their admiral killed and their flagship captured, the Turks rapidly lost heart. Many of their ships were destroyed in the mêlée; those that managed to extricate themselves turned and fled.

To the south, meanwhile, things were going less well. From the very beginning of the advance, at about ten o’clock that morning, Gian Andrea Doria had been uneasy about his position. The Turkish left wing under Uluch Ali which confronted him was longer and stronger – ninety-three vessels to his own sixty-four – and, extending as it did further southward, threatened to outflank him. It was to avoid this danger that he had altered his course towards the south-east, a decision which left an ever-widening gap between Don John and himself. He should have known better. Uluch AH saw the gap, and instantly changed his plans, altering his own direction towards the north-west with the object of cutting straight through the Christian line and falling upon it from the rear. This new course led him against the southern end of Don John’s squadron, which consisted of a few ships contributed by the Knights of Malta. They fought bravely, but they had no chance against the overwhelming odds and were massacred to a man. Their flagship was taken in tow, and Uluch Ali raised their captured standard on his own.

By now Don Juan de Cardona, whose eight galleys had been held in reserve, was hurrying to the relief of the Knights. As he approached, sixteen Turkish galleys fell on him. There followed the fiercest and bloodiest encounter of the whole day. When it was over, 450 of the 500 fighting men of Cardona’s galleys had been killed or wounded, and Cardona himself was on the point of death. Several ships, when boarded later, were found to be manned entirely by corpses. Meanwhile others were hurrying to the rescue: the second reserve force under Santa Cruz and – as soon as he could leave his own area of the battle – Don John himself. Uluch Ali stayed no longer, ordered thirteen of his galleys to quicken their stroke and headed with them north-west at full speed towards Santa Maura (the modern Leucas) and Preveza. The remainder broke away in the other direction and returned to Lepanto.

Despite the confusion and the appalling losses sustained as a result of the cowardice, treachery and sheer bad seamanship of Gian Andrea Doria – and there were plenty of his colleagues after the battle to accuse him of all three – the battle of Lepanto had been an overwhelming victory for the Christians. According to the most reliable estimates, they lost only twelve galleys sunk and one captured; Turkish losses were 113 and 117 respectively. Casualties were heavy on both sides, as was inevitable when much of the fighting was hand-to-hand; but, whereas the Christian losses are unlikely to have exceeded 15,000, the Turks are believed to have lost double that number, excluding the 8,000 who were taken prisoner.1 In addition there was enormous plunder; Ali Pasha’s flagship alone was found to contain 150,000 sequins. Finally comes the most gratifying figure of all: that of the 15,000 Christian galley slaves set at liberty. For all this the lion’s share of the credit must go to Don John himself, whose handling of his unwieldy and heterogeneous fleet was masterly and whose brilliant use of his firepower was to have a lasting effect on the development of naval warfare. In future, sea battles would be decided by guns rather than by swordsmanship. This in turn would mean bigger, heavier ships, which could only be propelled by sail. Lepanto was the last great naval engagement to be fought with oared galleys, ramming each other head-on. The age of the broadside had begun.

It was 18 October before one Giuffredo Giustinian, aboard the galley Angelo, reached Venice with the news. The city was still mourning the loss of Cyprus, raging against the bestial treatment of Marcantonio Bragadin, and fearful as to what further reverses the future might have in store. Within an hour of the Angelo’s appearance, trailing the Turkish banners in the water behind her stern, her deck piled high with trophies, the whole mood had changed. Venice had had her revenge; nor had she had long to wait for it. Suddenly the campi, the calli and the canals were filled with sounds of jubilation, as everyone hurried to the Piazza to hear the details, find their friends and celebrate. Total strangers were falling on each other’s necks, laughing and kissing each other; the gates of the debtors’ prison were opened in an act of spontaneous amnesty, while the Turkish merchants, with a contrary motion, barricaded themselves for safety inside the Fondaco dei Turchi until the excitement was over. In St Mark’s, specially illuminated for the occasion, a Te Deum was followed by a High Mass of thanksgiving; around the Rialto the cloth merchants decked the shops and houses with sky-blue draperies spangled with golden stars, while over the bridge itself there was erected a great triumphal arch bearing the arms of Venice and her gallant allies. That night there was scarcely a building in the city that was not illuminated by candles and torches inside and out, while bands played, the people danced and – in order that no one need fear to join the general rejoicing – the wearing of masks was permitted by a special dispensation. In more permanent commemoration of the event, Gambello’s great entrance portal to the Arsenal was enlarged and adorned by the addition of the winged lion (with appropriate inscription) and the two winged victories. A year or two later the pediment was to be surmounted with a statue of St Justina, on whose day the great battle had been fought and won; and from 1572 to the fall of the Republic that day was annually celebrated with a procession by the Doge and Signoria to the church of that same fortunate patron, outside which the captured Turkish standards were displayed to the populace.1 At SS. Giovanni e Paolo a votive chapel was dedicated to the Madonna of the Rosary, its ceiling painted by Veronese. Finally, in the Doges’ Palace, the great victory was twice represented – on a heroic, if ultimately uninspired, canvas by Andrea Vicentino in the Hall of the Scrutinio and, in that of the Collegio, by Veronese’s radiant painting of Sebastiano Venier and Augustino Barbarigo giving thanks, while St Mark and St Justina look on.

And so Lepanto is remembered as one of the decisive battles of the world, and the greatest naval engagement between Actium and Trafalgar. In England and America, admittedly, its continued fame rests largely on G. K. Chesterton’s thunderous poem; but in the Catholic countries of the Mediterranean it has broken the barriers of history and passed, like Roncesvalles, into legend. Does it, however, altogether deserve its reputation? Technically and tactically, yes; after 1571 sea battles were never the same again. Strategically, no. Lepanto did not, as its victors hoped, mark the end of the pendulum’s swing, the point when Christian fortunes suddenly turned, gathering momentum until the Turks were swept back into the Asian heartland whence they had come. Venice did not regain Cyprus; only two years later, as we shall see, she was to conclude a separate peace with the Sultan relinquishing all her claims to the island. Nor did Lepanto mean the end of her losses; in the following century, Crete was to go the same way. As for Spain, she did not appreciably increase her control of the central Mediterranean; and only seventeen years afterwards the defeat of the Armada was to deal her sea power a blow from which it would not quickly recover. Nor was she able to break the links between Constantinople and the Moorish princes of North Africa; within three years, the Turks were to drive the Spaniards from Tunis, make vassals of the local rulers, and reduce the area – as they had already reduced most of Algeria to the west and Tripolitania to the east – to the status of an Ottoman province.


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