05 March 2009

Dressed in Gold like a Greek

Zorzi Cernovich was, said Sanudo, "a most handsome man, tall, and dressed in gold like a Greek." This is not Zorzi, but he is dressed in gold like a Greek, and suggests how marvellously exotic Cernovich must have appeared to the Venetians that wet grey day in December 1496 when he and his wife Isabetha, also in gold and covered with jewels, were introduced to society by Alvise Pasqualigo, the ship owner, at his home.

Cernovich had escaped with Isabetha and his sons and court from the province of Montenegro which the Cernovici had ruled under the Venetian aegis until Ottoman pressure became too strong. Once in Venice, Cernovich was strategically removed from public access and assigned to command a troop of horsement stationed at the winter camp in Ravenna. Ravenna was wet and marshy, and Cernovich who was used to command everyone else had to obey orders.

He was there for a year and a half. Ravenna was put under quarantine because of plague. The two rivers flooded the fortress. His soldiers were miserable from lack of pay. Venice had a war going on with Florence and he was not allowed to participate. There was another episode of plague. Half his soldiers decamped and went to fight for Florence which was currently paying.

Cernovich finally got back to Venice in June, a year and a half after leaving, and made a complaint, several complaints. It was reported that he used "blasphemous" language. Nothing happened. He left, collected a band of armed soldiers from Ravenna, and reappeared with them in the piazza in Venice on July 1.

This was tantamount to revolt. He was seized and put into prison. On July 4 the Dieci met and ordered him transferred to the Toreselle, a tower where the Bridge of Sighs is now. Imprisonment was not too severe, and he was allowed visitors.

Then on July 12 Cernovich escaped. He left behind him his two guards, hands bound to their testicles. He walked out of the prison just before sunset and got into a boat there by the palazzo. A Greek guard who recognized him commented to the oarsman to take note of where they went, in case it was important.

The oarsman took him to the north end of Lido, perhaps a half-hour journey, where he managed to acquire the garb of a Dominican friar.
Meanwhile, the escape was officially discovered. The Dieci sent out boats across the lagoon in the dark Cernovich was recognized again, by a tax official who had been in conversation with the oarsman, who agreed to sail him across to Trieste for 16 ducats and a silver cup. He persuaded Cernovich to hide below the deck, and then sailed him back into Venice.

Within four hours of his escape Cernovich was in the torture chamber. What happened there was not recorded, but Sanudo was able to go and see the friar's robe. Cernovich was held for eight days--public opinion thought a great deal of fuss was happening over very little--and then officially imprisoned for several months.

In October, the Doge received a letter from Louis XII expressing deep interest in the Cernovich case--Louis was working with Cernovich's uncle Constantine, regent of Montferrat, on a possible war against the Turks. The Doge passed the letter on to the Dieci. In November Louis received a gift of furs and falcons from Venice with a comment that Cernovich had been released. He left town. He was seen again in August, dressed again like a Greek, and then joined his uncle and Louis XII in the attack on Milan.

It was in Milan that he wrote his will in October 1499.
This will was written as a letter to Isabetha, and it may be the earliest dated Venetian love-letter, not that it was either Venetian or a love-letter.

More of the Cernovich story another time.

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