16 November 2011

The Winter Voyage: Coming Home

When John Palaiologos sailed to  Italy in the winter of 1437 for the Council of Union, it was with Venetian galleys hired by the Pope. The captain of his ship was one Michael of Rhodes. None of the Venetian documents mentions Michael's name, though they do name the investors in the voyage, but a frustratingly short entry in Michael's diary says: 
I signed on as comito with the nobleman Alvise Bembo with the papal galleys to Constantinople for the emperor, in 1437, my captain the distinguished Antonio Condulmer, my paron Nicolo de Candia.*
When the Greek delegation to the Council of Union returned in the winter of 1439, Michael wrote again:

I signed up in the papal voyage to Romania. We carried the emperor to Constantinople. Captain in this the distinguished Antonio Condulmer, having the galley of the nobleman Andrea Gritti, whose patron was Nicolo Gritti, with two Tana galleys accompanying.  Their captain was Marco Zago and patrons Andrea Contarini and Francesco Manolesso, armiraio of them Nicolo Dellegende, my armiraio Benedetto Dardoin, my sworn paron Antonio Paresin.*
That is all we know about Michael's role in John's life, and given John's experiences on board ship, both trips, John probably never wanted to see him again.

The Document of Union was signed on 6 July 1439. Despite his personal misery, John made a fine impression, "with a hat in Greek style on the point of which was a beautiful jewel, a handsome man with a beard in Greek style."  There were still more days of bickering, and then, on 20 and 21 July, more signing so that all the right people could be sent copies.  A group of Greeks then left immediately for Venice, and on the 25, John's brother Demetrios left with Georgios Gemistos Plethon and Scholarios -- the three of them strongly opposed to Union. Possibly John was not well, as on the 28th, John he made a pilgrimage to a healing shrine, and then had his famous visit and lunch with Giovanni di Pigli who saw how much trouble he had walking.

He was in Florence some time longer, not arriving in Bologna until 31 August, but the ships were nowhere ready to leave. The imperial ship was blessed and launched on 13 September -- the Medici had sent up 6000 florins on behalf of the Pope for expenses -- but there was a fire in the arsenale that night and another long delay.  John made a trip to Padua.  After he got back, the Greeks had a liturgy in San Marco at the request of the Doge which was a great cause for upset once people got back to Constantinople.   John was ill and did not attend.  Then they had a funeral service for the Patriarch, Joseph II, who had died in Florence where he had been buried in the cathedral.

It was not until 14 October that the Greek delegation actually boarded their ships to leave. The Pope had insisted, because of the expense, that a hundred go on each galley, and the crowding was justifiably much resented. That night a storm broke the ships from their moorings, and smashed in the side of one. It took three days to repair the damage.  (Two years earlier, when they boarded the ships for Venice, there at been an earthquake the first night.)  The delegation actually sailed on the 19th.  Leaving Pola, they encountered contrary winds and had to wait three days.  More bad weather forced them to stop at a deserted island, where they thought they had lost the Emperor whose ship had only half the oarsmen that it should.  Then at Ragusa there was another storm, so violent that they did not expect to live through it.  Once they were able to sail again, another storm blew them far off course.

At Corfu, the ships had to wait for the Emperor's galley to catch up.  The Corfiots were upset about the Union and argued with the Emperor who gave them their own signed copy. From Corfu to Methoni the sailing went well and they arrived on 16 November. They stayed there for  more than a week, the Greeks of Methoni protested the Union, and there was a more-or-less joint liturgy celebrated by a Latin. The Mistra delegation left the group, freeing up a little space on the galleys.

The Emperor went by horseback to Koroni where there was another demonstration of antipathy to Union and where he rejoined his galley.   Passing Cape Malea, there was another terrifying storm.  The sight of the columns of the temple of Poseidon at the Cape of Columns gave a bit of hope, the wind was down, the sea calm.  Then there were two days of drenching rain while they struggled to attain Negroponte.  At Negroponte, another joint liturgy was celebrated by a Greek.  The priests of the island made a great protest about Union.

After ten days, they were ready to sail again, but John decided to wait for couriers from Constantinople, and then the weather turned nasty. It was two weeks before the other ships could sail, up the coastline, to Oreos where they waited for John.   George of Cappadocia died after a long illness and they buried him in a little island church of St. George  After ten days without the Emperor arriving, they sailed back down to Negroponte to sit out fifteen days of snow and ice.

It was learned -- couriers actually arrived -- that John's wife, Maria, was ill with plague but no one told John.   They were ready to sail when a relative, Konstantinos Palaiologos, died  and it was arranged that the interpreter, Nicolo Sagundino, would see to his burial.

They were able to use their sails past Skyros and Skiathos, but then were forced to stop at the little island of Cheliodromia for a storm.  They ran out of food and water, then sent a galley to Skopelos to get provisions.  Two days later the galley brought back seventeen loaves of bread and a donkey to use for dog food. (Had you realized John's hunting dogs were sailing, too?) There was debate as to whether they should return to Negroponte, or go to Crete, or to Lesbos.  Then the ships became separated -- the details get lost at this point -- and they met up again in the harbor at Pelagonisi.

John wanted to leave immediately: Condulmer's secretary announced that they would be there for a week, and contrary winds made sure that would be true.  When they sailed, Condulmer, "forgetting his great age," encouraged the oarsmen by calling them his brothers, and promising them a great deal of wine.  Meanwhile the galleys of John and Demetrios were held back by wind.  They reached Lemnos after another day, and there John went hunting. While he was out hunting, the Venetian oarsmen got their wine and pillaged the port of Kotzinos.  (I had said they pillaged on the outward journey, but I was wrong on this.)

Also while he was out hunting, word arrived of the death of his wife, the Empress Maria, and of Demetrios' wife Zoe.  It was decided not to tell either of them, or else it would be two weeks before John would be able to sail.  Another storm.  A four-hour sail to the Hellespont. Gallipoli where they encountered a Venetian ship that had left Venice two weeks after them.  The Emperor took on board several men, lions (lions? that's what the Greek says), and dogs that he wanted to take to Constantinople.

At Gallipoli the Turkish governor sent greetings to the Emperor, and John sent him a silver vase in return.  From there, it was two days to the port of Hebdomon, just outside Constantinople, where the governor of Constantinople -- Paul Asan -- came with a small group of people to greet them. They sailed around to the Golden Horn  and dropped anchor near the arsenale where they  received another welcome and spent the night.  It was necessary to prepare a grand entrance for the Emperor's return.

The next morning, on 1 February, a galley with Constantine and a great many Italians came to conduct them formally into port.  Trumpets and chanting accompanied them from along the shore. Once on shore, Constantine led a horseback procession to the palace.  Since it was known that John did not know of his wife's death, there was a great show of celebration.

But at the palace they encountered mourning. John had been told privately that Demetrios' wife, Zoe, had died of plague, and  Demetrios had been told privately that John's wife had died, so each thought it was for the other's loss.  The "holy Empress" Helena took her sons into a private room and told them that both their wives had died.  John was immediately ill, in bed for three weeks, his exhaustion, gout, and grief worsened by the fury of the anti-unionists.  No one bothered to report about Demetrios.  I have no idea what happened to the lions.

* Comito: actual commander of the ship, what we understand by captain.  When Michael says captain, he means the individual in command of a group of ships or galleys.  Paron, dialect for patron,  or the investor in the voyage who takes the physical risk of travel. Armiraio : responsible for navigation.

The drawings are from the Michael of Rhodes manuscript in which Michael recorded information about his voyages, routes, notes for shipbuilding, cures for illnesses, and much else. The 200-page manuscript has been splendidly edited and published in three volumes at M.I.T. Press by a group of scholars which included Alan M. Stahl, Curator of Numismatics at Princeton, Pamela Long, and David McGee, and has recently won the biennial Eugene S. Ferguson Prize for the best reference work or edition from the Society for the History of Technology, and the Jameson Prize for the best edition of a primary source important for historians from the American Historical Association.


  1. Wonderful piece, thank you!

    Best regards,


  2. Did sea travels become such oddiseys very often? If not, maybe John felt it was some sort of penitence for the Union!

  3. Thank you, Pavlos.

    MR, there is certainly a long tradition of very bad sailing experiences in the Mediterranean, starting with Odysseus, & classical literature gives us a great many more. I know of nothing that would indicate anyone thought of the miserable trips to and from Italy as penance. Certainly Byzantine literary tradition hates sailing at all times and advises avoidance.

    The timing of John's two trips has to do with the theological negotiations for a council, combined with the difficulties of the Pope in finding financing for the ships. At Venice, the ship does not even have a crew until it is ready to sail and it cannot be made ready to sail until the money is at hand. Then they sign up a crew. So at each point there is delay. Winter sailing was normal for Venetian ships which sailed all year round in the eastern Mediterranean, and in a collection of 100 letters I have, about 2/3 were dispatched in the winter months.


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