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 perforce; and do not awake our horrible sword, for we shall wage most cruel war against you everywhere; neither put your trust in your treasure, for we shall cause it suddenly to run from you like a torrent.
Beware, therefore, lest you arouse our wrath…
Venice had now been at peace with the Turks for almost a quarter of a century: twenty-five years in which she had had a chance to restore her finances, build up her fleet, and erect ever more sumptuous monuments with which to dazzle friend and foe alike. She well knew, however, that that peace could not last indefinitely. Suleiman the Magnificent was not yet satisfied with his conquests. Recently, it was true, domestic affairs had claimed much of his attention; but since 1559 Turkish naval activity in the Mediterranean had been noticeably – and ominously – on the increase, and though much of it was centred on the North African coast and so somewhat outside Venice’s direct sphere of interest, it was nevertheless near enough to cause her misgivings. The great Khaireddin Barbarossa, at whose name all the maritime states of Europe had once trembled, was dead – though not before he had sacked and briefly occupied Nice and actually had the audacity to winter his fleet in Toulon; but his mantle had fallen on another freebooting captain, Torghud Ra’is, known to most Christians as Dragut, who had already proved himself more than worthy of it – capturing Tripoli from the Knights of St John in 1551 and utterly routing, nine years later, a Spanish fleet sent by Philip II to dislodge him.
It was, as likely as not, these two successes that now decided Suleiman to launch a major attack against Malta, with the object of expelling the Knights from the island just as he had expelled them from their earlier base at Rhodes some forty years before. He had no reason to think that the operation would prove any harder than its predecessor. Malta might possess one of the finest natural harbours in the world, but it was not a natural stronghold, and the Knights had only their own man-made defences in which to put their trust. Moreover their resources were quite unusually poor. Compared with the greenness and fertility of Rhodes, Malta was almost a desert island, rocky and treeless, possessed of no lakes or rivers and manifestly incapable of withstanding a prolonged siege through one of its long, rainless summers.
If, however, the Knights could expect little sustenance from their scanty, stony soil, that soil would show itself still more inhospitable to a besieging army. It followed that the force which the Sultan was to hurl against them in May 1565 had from the first to be largely self-supporting. And whereas Rhodes was only ten miles from the Turkish coast, Malta was nearly a thousand. Small wonder that Suleiman’s invasion fleet, carrying as it did not only the entire army with its horses, cannon and ammunition but all its food and water too, was said to be one of the largest ever seen on the high seas.
The story of the siege, with the heroic and ultimately successful resistance of some 600 knights – many of them, like the Grand Master Jean de la Valette, already old men – and rather fewer than 7,000 soldiers, including mercenaries and local militia, is one of the great epics of history: but it has no place in this book. Since their settlement in Malta in 1530 – the island having been leased to them by Charles V at the nominal rental of a single falcon, payable annually on All Souls’ Day – the Knights of St John had lost what little strategic importance they had once possessed. As hospitallers they still had a useful duty to perform; their Great Hospital, open to all, was famous throughout Christendom. As an aggressive fighting force against the Turk, they were negligible.
Malta itself, on the other hand, occupied a key position in the central Mediterranean, being a natural stepping-stone between Turkish-held Tripoli and Sicily – which latter formed part of the dominions of Philip of Spain. Had it fallen, with its superb harbour, into the hands of Suleiman, the consequent danger to Sicily would have been real and immediate, and that to South Italy scarcely less so. In the circumstances it was only surprising that the Gran Soccorso – the 9,000-strong Spanish force which ultimately came to the relief of the by now desperate Knights in September – was not more numerous, and that it had delayed so long. None the less, its appearance was decisive. The Sultan’s army, well over half of it incapacitated by dysentery and fever, raised the siege and re-embarked; and Christendom rejoiced. After five centuries of almost unbroken advance, the Turks had been halted at last. And a year later, almost to the day, came more, equally welcome news: Suleiman the Magnificent was dead.
The Turks had been halted; but there was no indication that they had been finally stopped. Indeed, by the time the eighty-five-year-old Pietro Loredan succeeded Girolamo Priuli as Doge in November 1567, there was already reason to suspect that the new Sultan, Selim II, was contemplating a major expedition of conquest. This time, however, he had his eye not on Malta but on Cyprus.
It was always said of Selim – nicknamed ‘the Sot’ – that his much-publicized determination to seize the island was due to an equally well-known penchant for its unusually potent wines. In fact its strategic value was as obvious as the wealth and fertility of its soil; the wonder is that his father Suleiman had not acted years before to rid himself of an unwanted Christian presence less than fifty miles from his own southern shores. In February 1568 reports reached the Rialto of various Turkish-inspired intrigues among the local inhabitants, many of whom were known to have no love for their Venetian overlords: there were ominous tales of Turkish ships taking clandestine soundings in Cypriot harbours, even of a huge mine being secretly prepared at Famagusta, ready to be detonated at the approach of the Turkish fleet. At the same time there arrived the more reliable but equally unwelcome intelligence that Selim, who had hitherto been continuing his father’s campaigns in Hungary, had concluded an eight-year truce with the new Emperor Maximilian II and was consequently free to devote all his resources to his new enterprise.
In the face of these reports, the Venetian Senate remained indecisive. Clearly some preparations must be made to meet the expected onslaught; on the other hand, Selim had willingly signed a peace treaty with the Republic on his accession. Besides, there had been similar alarms before, and quiet diplomacy – helped, on occasion, by a discreet and well-placed bribe – had usually done the trick. In any case nothing must be done that risked annoying the Sultan, who was as yet unused to power and whose character was known to be somewhat unstable. All through 1569 the argument went on, firm decisions being made even harder to reach by the disastrous harvest of that year, which caused a famine all through Italy, and – at midnight on 13 September – by a mysterious explosion at the Arsenal, which burnt out much of the area between it and the church of S. Francesco della Vigna, destroying the convent of the Celestia and three other churches besides. Inevitably, foul play was suspected, but was never proved.
Towards the end of January 1570, however, news reached Venice which impelled the Senate to action. The Venetian bailo in Constantinople had been sent for by the Grand Vizir, Sokollu Mehmet, who informed him in so many words that the Sultan considered Cyprus to be historically part of the Ottoman Empire and was determined that it should be his. A day or two later there followed mass arrests of Venetian merchants and seizures of Venetian ships in harbour. Immediate orders were given to take similar steps against all subjects of the Sultan and Turkish vessels in Venice. Appeals for help were dispatched to the Pope, Philip of Spain and various other Princes of Europe. The Captain of the Gulf, Marco Querini, hastened to Crete with twenty-five galleys and orders to fit out twenty more which were lying, unmanned and unvictualled, at Candia.
Although there was a party in the Senate that was reluctant to see the end of the long peace and that still believed that some accommodation with the Sultan might be possible, the chances of avoiding open war seemed to be diminishing fast. Then, in mid-March, came further, still more ominous reports from Constantinople. An ambassador from Selim was actually on his way with an ultimatum: either Venice must surrender Cyprus of her own free will or it would be taken from her by force. No longer could the Venetians doubt where they stood. According to a centuries-old custom, when the Doge and Signoria marched in formal procession to the various churches in the city, six banners would be carried – two white, two blue and two red. In time of peace, the white went first; during periods of truce, the blue; in war, the red. That Easter – which fell on 26 March, still two days before the arrival of the Sultan’s envoy – in the annual progress to the church of S. Zaccaria for vespers, it was the red banners that led the way; and on Easter Monday a certain Girolamo Zane was appointed Captain-General of the Venetian fleet, receiving his baton and standard from Doge Loredan at a special mass in the Basilica. Zane was seventy-nine years old, the Doge by now eighty-eight; already more than one observer of the ceremony must have asked himself whether, at this crucial moment in its history, the fate of the Republic was in entirely the right hands.
Less than six weeks later Pietro Loredan was dead, his place being taken by a former ambassador to both Charles V – who had loaded him with imperial honours – and to Pius IV, by name Alvise Mocenigo.1 Girolamo Zane, meanwhile, had sailed with seventy galleys as far as Zara, on the first stage of an expedition which was to end in fiasco and bring upon him humiliation and disgrace.
The original letter which the Sultan’s envoy delivered to the Collegio on 28 March has not come down to us. If, however – as seems likely – the version given at the head of this article is a reasonably accurate rendering, Selim’s ultimatum could hardly have been more clearly, or more offensively, presented. The Venetian reply was equally to the point: Venice was astonished that the Sultan should already wish to break the treaty he had so recently concluded; she was, however, the mistress of Cyprus and would, by the grace of Jesus Christ, have the courage to defend it. The envoy was then let out by a side door to escape the attentions of the furious crowd which had gathered outside the Doges’ Palace, and escorted back to his waiting ship.
As if in an attempt to make up for so much lost time, war preparations in Venice now proceeded apace. The Arsenal, its fire damage hastily repaired, was once again working flat out; to raise funds, meanwhile, the government was adopting ever rmore desperate measures, even going so far as to increase the number of Procurators of St Mark – the highest dignitaries in the state apart from the Doge himself – by eight, disposing of the new titles in return for loans of 20,000 ducats. Neighbouring towns and cities contributed according to their means, and, just as in the old days, rich citizens undertook to build or equip ships, or enlist private militias – sometimes of several thousand men – at their own expense. From the other Christian states to which appeals had been sent, the response was less enthusiastic. The Emperor Maximilian pointed out that his formal truce with the Turk still had five more years to run. The King of Poland was equally reluctant in view of his own exposed position. From France Catherine de’ Medici, now effectively the Regent, was quarrelling with Spain over Flanders and pleaded her nation’s old alliance with the Sultan, though she offered the services of her son, Charles IX, as mediator – an offer which was politely declined. The King of Portugal pointed out that he was fully engaged in the Orient, and that anyway his country was being ravaged by plague. The Knights of St John – who were, incidentally, the biggest landowners in Cyprus – offered five ships, but four of them were to be captured by the Turks soon after they left Malta. A letter had even gone off to the Tsar of Muscovy, but it seems unlikely that it ever reached him; in any event Ivan the Terrible was at war with Poland and it is hard to see what assistance he could have given. No appeal was addressed to Queen Elizabeth of England, who had been under sentence of excommunication since February.
That left Pope Pius V and Philip II of Spain. The Pope had agreed to equip a dozen vessels if Venice would provide the hulls. Philip, for his part, had offered a fleet of fifty ships, under the command of Gian Andrea Doria, great-nephew and heir of that Andrea whose hatred of Venice had twice led him to betray the Republic’s trust, at Corfu and Preveza, some thirty years before. Even this was a niggardly enough contribution; Venice had produced a fleet of 144 ships, including 126 war galleys. But Philip had always mistrusted the Venetians, whom he suspected (not without some cause) of holding themselves ready to make terms with the Sultan if the opportunity offered; and, as events were to show, he had given Doria – whose feelings against the Republic were no whit less hostile than those of his great-uncle – secret instructions to keep out of trouble, to let the Venetians do the fighting, and to bring the Spanish fleet safely home again as soon as possible.
From the start, the expedition seemed to be ill-fated. The Captain-General, who had understood that the Spanish and papal squadrons were to join him at Zara, waited there in vain for two months during which time his fleet was ravaged by some unidentified epidemic, causing not only many deaths but a general demoralization which in turn led to scores of desertions. On 12 June he sailed to Corfu, where he picked up Sebastiano Venier, the erstwhile Proveditor-General of the island who had recently been appointed to the same position in Cyprus. Here he heard that the papal squadron under Marcantonio Colonna was awaiting the Spaniards at Otranto – but of Philip’s promised fleet there was still no sign. Not till July was it learnt that Gian Andrea Doria had simply remained in Sicily, on the pretext that he had received no instructions to go further. After urgent protestations from the Pope, Philip finally sent his admiral sailing orders, which arrived on 8 August; even then, it was another four days before the fleet set forth from Messina and a further eight before it reached Otranto – a journey which, in the perfect weather conditions prevailing, should have taken no more than two.
Having at last joined his papal allies, Doria made no effort to call on Colonna or even to communicate with him; and, when Colonna decided to ignore this studied piece of discourtesy and take the initiative himself, he was answered with a long speech implicitly recommending that the whole expedition should be called off. The season was late; the Spanish ships were not in fighting condition; and, as Doria was at pains to point out, though his instructions were to sail under the papal flag, he was also under the orders of his sovereign to keep his fleet intact. Colonna somehow forbore to remind him who was to blame for the first two misfortunes, merely pointing out that both King and Pope expected their fleets to sail with the Venetians to Cyprus; accordingly, sail they must. Finally, and with ill grace, Doria agreed.
Girolamo Zane had by now moved on to Crete, where the papal and Spanish fleets joined him on 1 September – almost exactly five months since his departure from Venice. A council was called, at which Doria at once began raising new difficulties. This time it was the Venetian galleys that were unfit for war: if the allied fleet were to come to grips with the enemy, it would be either destroyed or ignominiously put to flight. Moreover, once they had left Crete there were no harbours in which to take refuge. Now, too, he revealed a fact that he had not, apparently, thought necessary to mention before: he must return to the West by the end of the month at the latest.
Colonna remained firm. The season, though advanced, was not yet prohibitively so; there were still two clear months before the onset of winter. Cyprus was rich in admirable harbours. The Venetian ships had admittedly been undermanned, but their long wait had given them plenty of time to find replacements and their crews were all once again up to strength. Altogether the combined fleets now comprised 205 sail; the Turks wer£ thought to number 150 at the most. Why, therefore, should they fear an armed encounter? Flight would indeed be ignominious, but to retire now, before even sighting the enemy, would be more dishonourable still.
At this point Zane – who at Colonna’s discreet suggestion had remained absent from the opening discussion – joined his colleagues and immediately tabled a written request that the expedition should be allowed to proceed. Doria still prevaricated, finally agreeing only on condition that the Spanish ships should be given preferential treatment: that they should be exempt from rearguard duty and that they should sail in a group apart, in such a way as to be able to disengage completely if they felt so inclined. It was no wonder that, by 7 September, while discussions were still dragging on, Zane addressed an almost desperate letter to the Council of Ten, complaining that Doria was obviously determined not to fight, that he was continually raising new objections and resuscitating old ones, and that although with patience and tact it had so far been possible to overcome these objections, he was throwing all their plans into confusion and disrupting the whole enterprise.
On the 13th, the fleet moved on to Sitia, at the eastern end of the island; and there, at Doria’s insistence, there was a general review at which it was revealed, to his ill-concealed satisfaction, that the Venetian galleys were indeed below strength, with only some eighty righting men per vessel as compared with the hundred-odd in the papal and Spanish squadrons. Once again he advised withdrawal, and although once again ultimately overruled he managed to delay departure three full days, long enough for Zane to sustain another severe blow: a report that the Turks had landed in Cyprus. It was now or never. On the night of 17 September the fleet sailed for the beleaguered island.
But off Castellorizo there came worse news still. Nicosia had fallen. Another council was called, at which Doria predictably redoubled his protestations. And now, for the first time, the Marquis of Santa Cruz, who as commander of the Neapolitan contingent was technically a subordinate of Doria’s but who had hitherto taken a considerably more robust line than his chief, also advised turning back. The capture of Nicosia, he pointed out, would mean a vast increase in the number of fighting men available for the Turkish fleet, and a corresponding upsurge in enemy morale – at the worst possible time, when the allied crews were becoming more and more dispirited. Colonna agreed with him; so, sadly and reluctantly, did old Girolamo Zane. One voice only was raised in favour of a continued advance: that of Sebastiano Venier, who argued that, however strong the Turks might be, they would almost certainly be a good deal stronger next year – when, incidentally, the allies were most unlikely to have a fleet of over 200 sail to throw against them.
They were brave words, but they failed to convince; and the mighty fleet, flying the banners of Christendom, turned about and sailed for home without having once sighted the enemy. In an almost pathetic attempt to salvage the last shreds of his reputation, poor Zane proposed that the allies should at least try to inflict some damage on enemy territory during their return journey; but once again his hopes were sabotaged by Doria’s impatience to get home. By the time he reached Corfu on 17 November – having stopped in Crete on the way – a new epidemic had broken out in his ships and he himself was, mentally and physically, a broken man. Lacking even the heart to return home, he wrote to the Senate asking to be relieved of his post. His request was granted, and on 13 December Sebastiano Venier was appointed Captain-General in his stead.
So ended one of the most humiliating episodes in the history of Venice. Unless it were argued that, having provided some three quarters of the combined fleet, she should not have lost time waiting for her allies but should have pressed on alone in June, she could not in fairness be held responsible; but neither could she escape her share of the disgrace, much of which fell on the undeserving head of old Girolamo Zane himself. Ordered back to Venice early in 1571, in the following year – the cause of the delay is unknown – he was summoned by the Council of Ten to answer several grave charges relating to his conduct during the expedition. After a long inquiry he was acquitted – but too late. In September 1572 he had died in prison.
The fate of Gian Andrea Doria was somewhat different. Philip II had been left in no doubt of the bitter feelings his admiral had aroused; Pope Pius, indeed, on receiving Colonna’s report, had sent the King a formal letter of complaint. But Philip chose to ignore it. Doria had obeyed his instructions to the letter, and was rewarded by immediate promotion to the rank of General, with seniority over all the commanders of the fleets of Spain, Naples and Sicily – in which capacity he was to do still further damage to the Christian cause before his unedifying career was over.