It took more than three weeks for Don John to get his unwieldy armada under way. He crossed from Naples to the port of Messina on August 23, 1571, and his arrival was the excuse for elaborate ceremonies and extended celebrations. Sicily was determined not to be outdone by the cities on the mainland. A huge building of marbled stucco, ornate with suggestively symbolic pictures of Victory and Divine Favor, was quickly built, occupying most of the open ground at the landing place. Tethered under its arches was a warhorse with saddle and stirrups chased in silver, and reins of silver chain. Mounted on this lavish gift from the city, Don John rode into Messina, past huge cheering crowds, to the Cathedral of La Nunziatella, followed at a distance by his entourage. At intervals along the streets were towering triumphal arches, and his procession was showered with flower petals from the balconies above, which made a sweet-smelling slime on the ground below. Then, the festivities over, he waited with increasing frustration for the last of his command to arrive. Little had been done to put the fleet on a war footing. Don John found that no one knew where the Turkish fleet had gathered, so he dispatched a squadron of galleys under a trusted Spanish captain to discover its location. It was thought that the enemy had assembled somewhere off the long eastern coast of the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, but no one was sure precisely where, or how many ships would confront the fleet of the Holy League.
As the young commander tried to unify the Spanish flotillas with the papal contingent under Marc Antonio Colonna and with the Venetian ships of the veteran Sebastiano Veniero, he soon recognized that the fragile alliance might not survive the strain of too much delay. There were daily street fights between the holy warriors from different cities or nations. Moreover, with some 80,000 men confined in the harbor and city, there was always the danger that epidemic disease could ravage the ranks. Yet he dared not depart until his fleet was at full strength, and every day new ships continued to arrive: the Venetian contingent from Crete rowed into Messina, as did more Spanish ships filled with troops recruited in Germany. Among the last to appear were the twenty-two galleys hired by the king of Spain from Genoa, commanded by Gian Andrea Doria, and the three great galleys of the Knights of Malta.
In the weeks at Messina, Don John quickly discovered that the Venetians loathed the Genoese, mistrusted the Spaniards, and resented the Knights of Malta. Every appointment he made immediately caused feelings of slight and anger among those not chosen. There were mutterings that he inevitably favored the Spaniards, that he was delaying the advance, thereby allowing the Ottomans to ravage Venetian possessions. Each further day of delay caused partisan feelings to fester more strongly, and it was with relief that on September 16, with the scout ships returned and the weather fine, he gave the order to set sail. He wrote to his mentor and adviser, the veteran soldier Don Garcia de Toledo, that the enemy
is stronger than we in the number of his vessels, but not so, I believe, in quality of either men or vessels. So, I sail, please God, tonight for Corfu and thence according to what I shall hear. I have with me two hundred and eight galleys, twenty-six thousand troops, six galleasses and twenty-four [supply] ships. I trust our God will give us victory if we meet the enemy.
The pope had sent Bishop Odescalchi to Messina to bid his ships Godspeed. The bishop brought with him spiritual fortification for the holy warriors in the form of an Agnus Dei “of great size and beauty.” This was a wafer or biscuit mixed with balm and consecrated oil. A pope blessed only a certain number of these in the first year of his pontificate, and thereafter only once every seven years. It was stamped with the image of a lamb “reclining upon a book, bearing a banner with the sign of the Cross and surrounded by a border with the words ‘Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.’ ” It was a powerful Christian talisman, giving its possessor protection from storms at sea, earthquakes, lightning, the plague, the falling sickness, sudden death, and devils. The nuncio also carried documents containing various auspicious prophecies, written by the seventh-century Bishop Isidore of Seville, that a Holy League would be formed under a Spanish leader, who would defeat and scatter the enemies of Spain and Christ. He also brought with him the pope’s private assurance that the young commander would undoubtedly gain his own kingdom as a reward for victory. But despite these assurances of divine support and protection, Don John had some doubts about the prospects of the fleet.
As each contingent arrived he inspected it, and despite his assertion to Don Garcia de Toledo, he discovered that not all his ships were of the best quality, nor were the fighting crews as strong as their numbers suggested. His best fighting ships were the Spanish galleys, which were a little larger, heavier, and more solidly built from well-seasoned timber than the Venetian and papal vessels. Their decks were crowded with well-trained and heavily armored Spanish and German infantry. The Venetian ships looked impressive, with their sleek lines and the speed to take on even the fastest of the Ottoman galleys. But Venice’s reputation was not wholly merited. In her Arsenal she indeed had the capacity to build the hull of a galley in a single day, but the Queen of the Sea was rarely in possession of a stock of spars, oars, and sailcloth sufficient to run at full strength. Venetian galleys were too often built quickly of second-rate timber and inadequately fitted out. Much more perilous under battle conditions was the lack of volunteers, which had made it difficult for Venice (which would not use Muslim galley slaves) to crew her ships, or to provide a full contingent of soldiers. Fortunately, Don John had seasoned Spanish troops in excess of his own needs, and he persuaded Veniero to take them aboard his ships. Accepting a Spanish battle crew in the days before Lepanto was regarded as an ignominious admission of weakness for a Venetian commander, and Veniero acquiesced only with the greatest reluctance.
Finally, in the early morning of September 16, 1571, the fleet began to move out of Messina. As the ships of the Holy League rowed out, dressed overall with war banners, flags, and pennants, their crews saluted the papal nuncio and the little knot of clergy standing at the edge of the harbor wall. As each ship passed, the church dignitaries made the sign of the cross, blessing the enterprise; in response the crew cheered. Like bees emerging from a hive, the line of ships seemed never-ending, until, standing out a little from the land, the greatest array ever assembled in the name of Christendom finally formed up for the journey east. As it headed south to round the little Cape of Porto Salvio, to anchor on the second night off Cape Spartivento, the fleet received the first definite news of the Turks.
A small ship, sailing from the village of Gallipoli in the narrow Brindisi peninsula, at the heel of Italy, came alongside Don John’s flagship and reported that twenty-four Muslim galleys had occupied the harbor of Santa Maria on the Adriatic coast, south of Otranto on the Italian side, while a larger contingent had raided Corfu. But the location of the main body of the Ottoman ships was still a mystery. Had it retired to its principal harbor at Prevesa, just south of the narrows on the eastern side of the Adriatic? Or separated into raiding squadrons to harry the Balkan ports, or Crete, or the Spanish islands and coast, all now denuded of protection? The Christian fleet moved farther east, mindful that it might be attacked at any moment by some, or all, of the Muslim ships. On September 21, it halted at Cape Colonne: the ships were advancing at about fifty nautical miles a day, hampered by the need to keep the slower supply vessels and the galleasses with the main body. There the commanders learned that the bulk of the Ottoman fleet was still moored at Prevesa, waiting for instructions from the sultan on where to attack.
With his enemy only a few days’ sail away, Don John wanted to press forward as fast as he could across the Adriatic to Corfu. But as the weather worsened, every attempt to negotiate the Strait of Otranto was thwarted. Some ships were blown onto the rocks and holed, others lost masts and rigging. Although galleys could row into an adverse wind, this sapped the rowers’ strength, and the last thing a commander wanted was to arrive at the point of battle with a dispirited and exhausted complement of oarsmen. It was not until September 27 that the fleet finally crossed the narrow sea lane to moor in the channel between Corfu and the mainland. It found the town in ruins.
A Turkish squadron raiding up the Adriatic almost to the outer islands of Venice had ravaged Corfu on its return south. It ransacked the island’s main town, destroyed churches, hacked heads off saints’ statues. But the Turks had made no impression on the citadel, which the Venetians had built up over two centuries. After several fruitless attacks, and the loss of three galleys, they sailed on. However, while their houses were being destroyed, the islanders learned that the whole Turkish fleet was not in the lagoon of Prevesa, but farther south in the more open waters of the Gulf of Lepanto. Don John immediately dispatched Gil de Andrade with his scout ships to ascertain whether the Ottoman fleet was still at anchor and how large it was. Then he called a council of war on board his flagship, the Real. His inclination was to push forward and risk all in an immediate battle with the Ottoman fleet, but the council of war was divided. Some members were unwilling to hazard everything in the lottery of a battle, and favored laying siege to some major Turkish fortress. Others suggested trying to draw out the enemy fleet from the protection of the harbor at Lepanto into more open waters. While the council was still in session, news came from de Andrade that the Turkish fleet was riddled with sickness, and not at full strength. Don John put it to the vote and all agreed that the whole Christian armada should attack at once and destroy the enemy in the Gulf of Lepanto.