On 7 October every year, I remind my faithful Twitter followers of the anniversary of the battle of Lepanto in 1571, at which the Ottoman Turkish fleet was comprehensively defeated by the combined forces of the Holy League – the Papal States, Spain, Venice, Genoa, the Knights of Malta, and various Italian duchies. After some argument among the allies, the command of the League’s forces was given to Don John of Austria, the illegitimate son of Charles V, and thus Philip II’s half-brother, but the bulk of the fleet was Venetian, under the leadership of the Capitano da Mar, Sebastiano Venier.
In the English-speaking world, largely thanks to G.K. Chesterton, Don John of Austria is given all the credit for the victory. (An aside: I learned a shortened form of the poem at primary school for one of those music festivals in the Guildhall that involved mass recitation – do they do that any more?) But at the time, as witnessed by the painting above of c. 1575, the credit was shared between Don John, Marcantonio Colonna, commander of the Papal fleet, and Venier. Indeed, I choose to believe that Colonna (note the handy mace) is by his gesture drawing Don John’s attention to the real victor.
Sebastiano Venier was born in about 1496 into one of the great aristocratic families of Venice, who claimed descent from the Roman gens Aurelia. They were also marquesses of the Greek island of Kythera (known in Italian as Cerigo) after the land-grab which arose from the Fourth Crusade and the sack of Constantinople. The family’s presence in Venice is most obviously marked by the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal, designed by Lorenzo Boschetti in 1749, which never got beyond the first storey, and is now better known as the home of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.
Sebastiano himself lived in a more modest property in Campo Santa Maria Formosa, which is now partly a pharmacy and partly the watering-hole at which we are accustomed to take lunch when visiting the Querini Stampalia Museum, the Palazzo Grimani, and SS. Giovanni e Paolo. He functioned as a lawyer (though he seems not to have any formal qualifications) and rose steadily and quietly in the administration of the city until in 1570 he was made one of the nine Procurator of St Mark’s (eighteen previous Veniers had held this position), the most important post except for that of the Doge himself.
The following year, at the age of about 75, and with no obvious relevant experience, he was appointed Capitano Generale da Mar (commander of the Venetian naval forces) for the anticipated war against the Turks. Its first aim was to save Cyprus from the Ottomans, but the failure to do so, and the gruesome death of the Venetian commander Marcantonio Bragadin, doubtless had the city intent on revenge. Of the Holy League’s 206 galleys, 109 were Venetian, and the city also sent six galleasses, the last word in naval warfare, bigger than galleys and with a lot of fire-power on board. Of 20,000 fighting men, Venice contributed 5,000, as well as its oarsmen, who were free men and armed, as opposed to the rowers in the other fleets, who were mostly slaves and mostly shackled to their benches.
The Turkish fleet had 222 galleys and some smaller vessels, but were deficient in experienced soldiers: moreover all their ships were rowed by slaves, many of them Christian, who were freed from the galleys captured in the course of the battle, and given arms to fight. The fire-power of the two sides was distinctly to the advantage of the League: it has been estimated that they had 1,800 guns as opposed to only 750 (and inadequate ammunition), though the Turks relied also on their bowmen. The possibly over-neat image below of the two fleets before the battle shows the six Venetian galleasses leading the Christian forces.
The battle took place on 7 October (Santa Giustina’s Day) in the Gulf of Patras (Lepanto is the Italian name of Greek Ναύπακτος, Navpaktos, present-day Patras), where the Ottoman fleet was based, the various components of the League’s forces having assembled at Messina in Sicily during July and August. I don’t propose to describe it, except as a horrible bloody mess which ended up as a decisive victory for the League. The scores were: 117 Turkish galleys captured, 50 other ships destroyed, 10,000 Turkish prisoners taken and many thousands of Christian slaves freed. The deaths were estimated at 7,500 Christians and 30,000 Turks. There is a story that when the Turkish forces ran out of ammunition, they started throwing oranges and lemons at their opponents …
The battle was viewed as a huge Christian triumph (not least by Chesterton), though, taking the long view, it did not halt but merely delayed the decline of Venice’s power in the East. A Turkish Grand Vizier later told a Venetian diplomat: ‘You come to see how we bear our misfortune. But I would have you know the difference between your loss and ours. In wrestling Cyprus from you, we deprived you of an arm; in defeating our fleet, you have only shaved our beard. An arm when cut off cannot grow again; but a shorn beard will grow all the better for the razor.’
The Christians wasted an opportunity to defeat the remaining Turkish fleet off Modon in 1572, the Turks did indeed rebuild their fleet, and by a peace treaty in 1573, Venice, in spite of Lepanto, had to cede Cyprus and pay an indemnity to the Ottomans. But the immediate effect was of absolute jubilation, and an outpouring of verse, music, and especially pictures, celebrating what seemed like a major turning point in the battle to restrict Ottomans power in Europe and the Mediterranean.
Sebastiano Venier was hailed as a hero on his return home, and in 1577, at the age of 81, he was elected Doge. Tragically, on 20 December that year, a fire almost destroyed the Palazzo Ducale (and did destroy works of art by Carpaccio, Bellini, Pordenone and Titian among others); and it is said that when the Doge died on 3 March 1578, it was of a broken heart.
He was first buried in the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli on the island of Murano, but in 1907 his remains were transferred to SS. Giovanni e Paolo, to rest next to his ancestor Doge Antonio Venier (c. 1330–1400), in the midst of many other Doges, and near the urn containing the flayed skin of Marcantonio Bragadin, whom he had, at least in part, avenged.