29 August 2010

Mistra: A Poem


Resident by Mistra

Here on the black butt of the mountain they spattered an angle
of the Morea with their strongholds, so galvanized East to West
in feudalities of stone. How, here, to disentangle
Villehardouin from Paleologues? That hawk's nest

of a keep tumbled on the crest armored the Franks' baron,
while they below of the thunderous, the now crashed and sunken lizard-written hall 

 fought him, sword to adze in the bloody defiles, pounded him from his warren.
Saints fade their eastern look on the murals now. South down the mountain wall

the Pantanassa crosses her convent in cypresses, serene
strokes on white plaster where nuns are alive next the welter
of wrecked chapels. Beyond, the staggering slopes lean
up into air angels live in, and by St. Barbara's shelter

peoples of the plain ascend in processionals red gold and white
to splash one day a year with singing in the cold growth of light.
Richmond Lattimore 

This poem, printed here for its archaeological value, was published in Poetry Magazine in 1958.  Richmond Lattimore, poet and translator, is best known for his great translations of the Iliad (1951), the Odyssey (1965) and the Oresteia (1969), among much else.

25 August 2010

Nauplion: The Siege of 1500

In the 15th century, July and August were the times for massacres -- Negroponte on 12 July 1471, Otranto on 14 August 1480, Modon on 9 August 1500. Under Ottoman law, a city that did not surrender was up for grabs.  Modon tried to surrender, but the white flag was not seen in the turmoil.  And massacres happened in late summer, because the Ottoman armies could not leave home before mid-May because of the length time needed to send messengers across the expanses of the empire and for men to get to the meeting points.  There is an adequate account of the war here.

On this date in August 1500, Nauplion was put under Ottoman siege.  Expecting a siege, Venice and Crete had sent men and supplies, but most support had to be sent to Modon and much of the available shipping was involved in that disaster. It is difficult to work out the sequence of events  now: more difficult in 1500 as reports did not get to Venice until October, being written days after the events they relate, and arriving out of order.

The Sultan, Beyazid, after watching the executions at Modon, accompanied the Ottoman governor of the Morea and 30,000, or 10,000, or 60-70,000 troops -- reports differ -- to Nauplion. They arrived on the 25th or 26th -- reports differ -- and immediately encountered a band of stratioti to whom it was suggested that Nauplion might surrender. Beyazid's tents were set up by the church of Santa Veneranda on the side of Palamidi. [Now Ag. Pareskevi, the church is still there, on private property.]

On the 26th, Ottoman messengers were sent with formal offers of surrender and were turned away. Polo Contarini, governor of Coron which had insisted on surrender against his own wishes, was used as an emissary.  Januli Stathi reported that he
was brought up to the gate by three Turks, and then there was this conversation: Contarini said, "Modon is taken, Coron has surrendered, and you, poor fellows, what are you going to do?"  Stathi replied, "We are going to fight for our faith. We have all taken an oath that we will all die rather than surrender."  Contarini, "I will die with you."  A moving account, Stathi's.

Contarini's own account said that he had been dressed up by the Turks, given a gold collar, and promised great things should Nauplion surrender.   He was brought up by ten or fifteen Turks to the walls where a row of crossbowmen trained their sights on him.  Terrified -- swords at his back, arrows at his front -- he called out, "Don't you recognize me?" -- he had formerly been castellan in Nauplion -- "I'm Polo Contarini!"  Some men came out and embraced him.  Making a gesture to negate what he was saying, he said what he was supposed to say about handing over the keys of the city.  While they were making their formal response, he broke away from his guards and darted through the city gate.

Inside Nauplion, he found a great deal of confusion, some arguing for surrender and others arguing against.  There was a good supply of food and water, but not of ammunition. That same day, the governors of Nauplion -- Jacomo de Renier and Alvise Barbarigo -- put him with 19 other men on a small boat called a gondola and sent them off to find the Captain General for more information and instructions.  Gorlin of Ravenna, a commander of foot soldiers, sent a letter with them saying they in Nauplion were all united, soldiers and residents alike, and would live and die to the honor of the Signoria.

Contarini and the boatmen spotted the Ottoman fleet down in the bay, and went ashore at Kyparissia.  They went through the mountains and down to Monemvasia, and then Vatika where the Venetian Captain General was anchored with the Venetian fleet.  Two of them were captured by the Turks, but the rest
got through safely. 

Outside the walls of Nauplion, there was frequent skirmishing ["scaramuzava"] between stratioti and Ottomans -- now reported to be 100,000. The stratioti were splendid, at least at the beginning, and were reported riding back and forth with Turkish heads on their short spears.

The Ottoman fleet arrived in the bay on the 28th, and anchored at Kiveri-Myloi, across from Nauplion, where it could take on fresh water.  There was general panic in Nauplion, particularly among the peasants who were unused to city walls and who knew what was happening to their homes and lands. Everyone had heard what happened at Modon. 

To defend against the Ottoman fleet, Renier and Barbarigo had the Venetian galleys unloaded and planks taken to make a great palisade along the marsh [You can see a hint of this if you click on the image below.]  Then five galleys and all the little boats -- all the fishermen's boats -- were sunk around the island fortress and along the harbor to prevent the arriving Ottoman ships from being able to get close. The rest of the boats were burnt. The sailors tented over the plateia with the sails from the galleys.  The Greek and Venetian priests concelebrated a mass on the plateia, and all the men embraced each other in turn, asking forgiveness for any offenses.

The Ottoman fleet left the bay on the 4th, and went to Spetses where it was held for several days by the bora, a N -NE wind.  Then the fleet went to Aigina, and eventually started back to the Dardanelles, with the Venetian fleet in pursuit.

A number of Greeks wanted to go over to the Turks.  The issue was settled when a band of Albanians killed twenty of them and put an end to such talk.  Somehow word of this incident was taken by land across the Morea and then to Corfu, where it was sent on to Venice. Spies were sent from Corfu to get more information about Nauplion but they were captured and killed.  Skirmishing continued, with many reports of Turks "tagliato a pezo." The Turks put a trebuchet on Palamidi, and offered the Manessi and Busichei clans 1000 horses to come over, but they refused.

Meanwhile, Coltrin, was working on the walls.  He reinforced the round tower at the end of the wall that you see below [the inlet had not been dug then] and reinforced the advance wall.  He dug out a cistern for the tower and planned four more, as the autumn rains had begun.  Since boats could now come and go, he sent off an order for 2400 planks, 200 shovels, and other implements for construction. The wall building continued under fire.  Nauplion men and women voluntarily worked day and night, carrying stones and dirt. A German cannonier, Corangian Lanier, arrived from nowhere and was put in charge of the island fortress.

A hundred and twenty-eight men were reported missing -- some known dead, some known to have levanted, some known to have been killed.  There were 551 horses within the walls, many in poor condition, and many more horsemen whose mounts were dead.  There seems to have been a good bit of coming and going, with occasional skirmishes, people going off to find their families, and some joining the Ottoman army.  Not knowing how long the food in storage would have to last, decisions had to be made about how much grain could be spared for the horses.  Gorlin was extremely ill, and was put on a boat to be taken where he could get help.

Then in the early hours of 15 October, the Ottoman army moved out, burning a few houses and leaving mounds of rubble and their dead. A small number of troops were left on the Argos-Nauplion border  -- 4,000 or 10,000 -- to continue the siege. The stratioti continued, as the report said, "to treat them badly," also raiding down in the Morea where they loaded up on loot the Ottomans had had to leave behind.

The withdrawal happened because Beyazid had seen he could do nothing to take Nauplion -- having lost 16,000 men there, or it happened because word had come of a disaster to an Ottoman army in Hungary.  There was extensive evidence of dysentery in the Ottoman camp. Beyazid had gone to Megara.  Or Negroponte.  Or Thessalonike.  Or Constantinople. Bits of news arrived in Venice from all over and no one there was sure what was happening.  What certainly must have happened is that the Ottoman army was short of food.  Without supplies from the fleet, there was no way an army of 10,000 or 100,000 could have kept itself supplied off the countryside.  Further, the Ottoman army normally disbanded in the fall so the men could return home for the winter plowing and sowing.  So an end to the siege might reasonably have been anticipated.

That is pretty much it.  There are no tidy wrap-up reports but there was no massacre in Nauplion in 1500 and very few deaths at all. Barbarigo and Renier saved the city by the simple decision to destroy their boats.  Once the Turkish army had left, there was no produce to bring into the city from the countryside, and no firewood.  People were hungry. Bartolomeo Minio, captain of Crete, sent as much food as he could -- beans, biscuit, some flour, but Crete was stretched thin, having lost many ships and men at Modon, and then having to supply the Venetian fleet.  Nauplion was safe for another 38 years, but it was always under strain as the Turks who occupied the whole Morea, with the exceptions of Monemvasia and Nauplion, put pressure on the boundaries and moved in closer.

The top image is a detail from a 16thC icon  of the Crucifixion. The helmets  and spears are appropriate for 1500 and the Italian soldiers would have had them. The stratioti would have been lucky to have much of anything.  The Camoccio map of Nauplion is the first known, published in 1571 but made before 1540.  It makes clear the advance wall and the Albanian houses between it and the city wall.  The information here comes from Volume 3 of Sanudo's Diarii.

19 August 2010

Felix Fabri on Mediterranean Sailing

Felix Fabri is the guest writer for this entry.  He went twice as a pilgrim to Palestine between 1480 and 1483.  He was a Franciscan monk from Ulm, in the center of the Holy Roman Empire, and went by land from Ulm to Venice where he and his groups chartered space on pilgrim galleys.  A pilgrim galley was considerably bulkier than the light galley pictured here.  Below is a link to his fascinating account of his travels. Next month will be two entries on the miseries of winter sailing in the Mediterranean, but for late August his accounts of the joys of summer sailing seem about right.
* * * * * * 

Between these two countries [Morocco and Spain] the Mediterranean Sea flows in from the Ocean through the aforesaid strait, which is scarce a quarter of a mile in width. For washerwomen stand on either bank, pagan women in Morocco, Christian women in Spain, and abuse one another, and there Africa is divided from Europe. . .

These men [pilots] are all alike so learned in their art that by looking at the heavens they can foretell storms or calms, whereof they can also read signs in the colour of the sea,i n the flocking together and movement of the dolphins and flying fish, in the smoke of the fire, the smell of the bilge water, the glittering of the ropes and cables at night, and the flashing of the oars as they dip into the sea. At night they know all the hours by looking at the stars. Beside the mast they have one compass, and another in the uppermost chamber of the castle, and a lamp always burns beside it at night; nor do they ever turn their eyes away from it when sailing at night, but one always gazes at the compass, and chants a kind of sweet song, which shows that all is going well, and in the same tone he chants to him that holdeth the tiller of the rudder, to which quarter the rudder itself ought to be moved: nor does the steersman dare to move the tiller any whither save by the orders of him who looks after the compass, wherein he sees whether the ship be going straight or crookedly, or sideways. . .

. . . these [sailors] are the men who know how to run about the ropes like cats, who ascend the shrounds very swiftly up to the cap, run along the yard standing upright even in the fiercest storms, who weigh up the anchors, diving into deep water if they stick fast, and who do all the most dangerous work on board. They are in general very active young men, who are quite reckless of their lives, and are also bold and powerful in the galley like a baron's armed followers. Under these again there are others who are called mariners, who sing when work is gong on, because work at sea is very heavy, and is only carried on by a concert between one who sings out orders and the labourers who sing in response. So these men stand by those who are at work, and sing to them, encourage them, and threaten to spur them on with blows. Great weights are dragged about by their means. They are generally old and respectable men. . .

This fortunate wind and delightful run lasted all that day and the following night, during which we slept most peacefully, gliding swiftly and sweetly along, because the course of the galley was not sideways, but straight forward, which inclined us to slumber. For when the wind is quite fair, and not too strong, there is hardly any motion which those who are in the cabin can feel, because the ship runs along quietly, without faltering, and both the pilgrims below and the galley-slaves on deck sleep quietly, and all is still, save only he who watches the compass and he who holds the handle of the rudder, for these by way of returning thanks for our happy voyage and good luck continually greet the breeze, praise God, the Blessed Virgin and the saints, one answering the other, and are never silent as long as the wind is fair. Anyone on board who hears this chant of theirs would fall asleep, even though otherwise he could not sleep, just as restless crying children are lulled to rest by their mother's crooning song, when if all was still they would cry, and they go to sleep more because the song assures them of their mother's presence than because of its sweetness.

[At Modon] I took my lords and some other pilgrims to the church of the Preaching Friars, and there we heard high Mass. The prior of that place and the other brethren knew me well from my first pilgrimage. After Mass was over we went to the house of the bakers, where biscuits are baked for seafarers, wherein dwells an old German, and there we had our dinner cooked, and dined. The other pilgrims went over to the house of the Teutonic lords, and there provided a meal for themselves. After dinner we went up to the walls of the town and walked round upon them, and admired its impregnable fortifications. It is not an island, but part of the mainland, whereof the whole belongs to the Turks. On my return I shall tell you more about this . . . for the city of Modon is said to be midway between Venice and Jerusalem. About vespers both patrons blew their horns to call their pilgrims on board . . .

On the twenty-third, the eve of St. John the Baptist, we sailed before a very strong wind, and during the previous night sailed so fast that in the morning we saw no land, nothing but the . . . sea. When the sun set and it was growing dark, our sailors prepared to make St. John's fire on the galley, which they did as follows: They took many more than forty lanterns made of wood and transparent horn, and hung them one above the other on a long rope, and then, when the lamps were lighted, they hoisted them up aloft to the maintop, in such sort that the burning lanterns hung down from the maintop as far as the rowing-benches, and lighted up the whole galley. To see this sight all men came on deck from the cabin, the poop, and the innermost chambers of the galley, and stood round about it. Thereupon the trumpeters began to blow their trumpets, and the galley-slaves and other sailors sang, rejoiced, chanted, danced, and clapped their hands; whereat all who stood round about were wrought upon by the shouts of gladness and the clapping of hands to rejoice at the respect paid to the most blessed forerunner of our Lord. Before this show I never had beheld the practice of clapping the hands for joy, to which allusion is made in the forty-sixth Psalm, which saith: 'O clap your hands, all ye people; shout unto God with the voice of triumph.' Nor could I have believed at the same time, when done out of gladness, would have such great power to move the human mind to joy. So we rejoiced greatly on board of the galley until about midnight, sailing along all the while swiftly and quietly on our way. After this we laid ourselves down to sleep.

Excerpts are from The Book of the Wanderings of Felix Fabri (Circa 1480-1483 A.D.) trans. Aubrey Stewart. 2 vols. London: Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, 1896. 
 For a very different view of Mediterranean sailing, read what happened to John VIII Palaiologos in the winter of 1437. 

13 August 2010


Bones of 1480, Otranto Cathedral

When I lived in Venice 12 years ago, the manuscript I was working on contained a number of references -- from 1479, 1480, 1481 -- to the seventy crossbowmen in Nauplion's Castle of the Franks who were much overdue to be paid and so who were close to starvation. They were unimportant in the manuscript as a whole, but I became fixed on the idea of these seventy hungry crossbowmen and it became very important to know who they were. Then I learned that there was a crossbow competition at San Sepulcro -- they have done this annually with another town since 1441 -- and went with delight because I could combine crossbows with Piero della Francesca.

I learned a lot about crossbows and crossbowmen that day. There were exactly seventy men in the competition, of all ages and physical types. They sat to shoot. The quarrel -- the bolt shot by the crossbow -- was terrifying. Those men gave me my seventy hungry crossbowmen, and I saw something of the period in which I was working.

Similarly, the bones of the eight hundred honored in the Cathedral of Otranto have stood witness in my mind -- quite apart from the respect due to their own history -- to the eight hundred of Davia, the  eight hundred of Methoni, the eight hundred of Negroponte. Eight hundred seems to be the chosen number for the summer executions after Ottoman victories, but when a city fell without surrender, all lives were forfeit. 

The siege began on 28 July.  Otranto had no cannon of their own for defense, but even today it
is littered with Ottoman cannon balls. They sent messengers to Ferrante of Naples asking for aid, and hunkered down.  The Ottomans offered a chance for surrender, but Otranto rejected it, filled an Ottoman messenger with a second offer with arrows, and threw the keys of the city into the sea. 

It was a very short siege. On August 14, 1480, the male survivors were executed.  Or massacred.  Or martyred.  These eight hundred have since been honored as martyrs who refused to exchange their religion for their lives.  John Paul II beatified the eight hundred there on this day in 1980, and in 2007 Benedict XVI formally authenticated their martyrdom.

According to the story, an elderly tailor named Antonio Primaldo, was the first to die.  A renegade priest in the employ of the Ottomans tried to persuade Primaldo  to convert, but he refused with a terrific speech.  Thus, all eight hundred males over the age of 15 were condemned to decapitation.  It would be a much more moving story did it not include the detail that when Primaldo was decapitated his corpse stood up, headless, and remained standing through the next 799 decapitations.

As a historian, I am uneasy with elements of the martyrdom because of what I think know about the Ottomans in the period of Mehmed II. I have neither the language competence nor the time to do the research I would like. The story is said to come from Francesco Cerra, one of four surviving eyewitnesses. The heroism of Otranto was magnificent and the story deserves honor as it stands.  Martyrdom gives meaning to the unbearable and I will not take away meaning from this extraordinary chapel and these bones.

Otranto was retaken a year and a month later, on 13 September 1481.  The brothers and relatives and friends of the eight hundred sorted through what the birds and the dogs had left. It must have been nearly unbearable.  The account of martyrdom made their work possible. Most of the bones retrieved were saved in the cathedral, some were sent to King Ferrante of Naples.  These are the bones in the picture above, three great cases heavy with them. Tourist information calls them "spooky," "Gothic," "gruesome." For these bones, such words are obscenities.

When we visited in January 2005, we spent a long time with the bones.  It was easy to spot wounds and fractures in skulls, smashed jaws, damage from abscesses, and after a while we were able to work out faces, some older, some very young. We were surrounded by a great crowd of witnesses to 14 August 1480, and we stood among them as witnesses ourselves.

06 August 2010


15th C. Ag. Nikolaos Orphanos, Thessalonike
Scene from the life of Ag. Gerasimos. 

 I have been saving images of blacks in Byzantine painting. I have not seen any work on this topic though surely there has to be something. I would be grateful for information, and for more images to add to the catalog here.  I have given what identifications I have, and would appreciate help with the ones that are not properly identified. This first image is unique because blacks are shown apparently in their own country, and two of them are possibly of higher status than the traveler who is going to be the beneficiary of a miracle by Ag. Gerasimos' lion.  

Otherwise, the blacks I have found -- nearly all by Cretan painters -- are with one exception slaves/servants or magi/kings. The images of slaves are reasonable.  That is how blacks would have, for the most part, been visible in the Greek-speaking world.  Since they are slaves, they get the unpleasant jobs: smashing things, cutting off heads, crucifying saints, massacring babies.

 [Ivrion ms.]

16th C Ag. Nikolaos, and do admire the slave's fashion sense.

Michael Damaskenos, 16th C.
Detail from Crucifixion of Ag. Andreas.

17th C Cretan Massacre of the Innocents
an enthusiastic combination of Herod's banquet, and Herod's massacre.

Blacks  are also shown as high-status servants, as in these details from a Crucifixion and two Adorations of the Magi.
Andreas Pavias, 3rd quarter, 15th C.
Alexander Tsoutsos Museum, Athens.

Ioannis Permeniatis, early 16th C.
Private collection, from Boulgaropoulou.

Ioannis Permeniatis, early 16th C.
Benaki Museum, Athens.
Similar icon in New York in a private collection.

But there is a second black in the Pavias icon, this one dressed like a wealthy Western merchant, completely outside the servant/king dyad of blacks in icons.  Unlike the surrounding faces, this is a portrait of a person known to the artist.
Andreas Pavias, 3rd quarter, 15th C.
Alexander Tsoutsos Museum, Athens.

In this next image, the black is the third Magus, following the pattern set in Western painting.  This icon is additionally interesting because of the inclusion of the man who seems to be portrayed as a stratiote.  I am tempted to think of him as the donor.  Donors frequently kneel, but here the first Magus is kneeling, again following the Western pattern, and standing shows the red trousers to best advantage.  There are a number of Venetian documents that refer to gifts of red cloth for the kapetanioi.

Early 16th C. Byzantine Museum, Thessaloniki.

Detail from late 15th C.  Alexander Tsatsos Museum, Athens.

A black Magus, in a late 16th C icon by Damaskenos is unusual in that the black is not the one most distant from the Child, common in Western images. It is also unusual in that there are black servants back holding the camels.
Michael Damaskenos, 16th C.
 Collection of Ecclesiatical Art, St. Catharine's, Heraklion.

A final Magus, this in a painting by Domenikos Theotokopoulos so indistinct he is best seen by his gift and stockings.
Mid-16th C. Domenikos Theotokopoulos.
Benaki Museum, Athens.

The next is a child at a Last Supper, and this is the first slave we have seen indoors.  That fits with what is known about slavery on Crete: normally, adult male slaves worked the land, or on ships.  The potential for violence in a violent culture was generally considered too great to risk male slaves in the home or the city.
Michael Damaskenos, 16th C.
 Collection of Ecclesiatical Art, St. Catharine's, Heraklion.

Finally, this manuscript image of the races of the world.  There is a problem with ink color, and reproduction.  Again, I need help with identification.

That makes twenty-two blacks.  All male.  I may have one more, but I cannot tell from the photograph if the dark skin is discoloration from aging, or if the man is really a black.  I speculate that there was an increase in the portrayal of blacks in post-Byzantine painting because of the new West African exploration and slave trade, in which Venice had a small part.

I found several of these images in the color catalog in Margarita Boulgaropoulou's dissertation [Thessaloniki, 2007] on the influence of Venetian painting on Greek art from the mid-15th to the mid-16th century. Επιδρὰσεις της βενεσιὰνικης ζωγραπηικὴς στην ελληνικὴ τὲχνη απὸ τα μὲσα του 15ου ὲως τα μὲσα του 16ου αιὼνα.
The other main source of images is the catalog, The Origins of El Greco: Icon Painting in Venetian Crete, edited by Anastasia Drandaki for the Onassis Foundation.