Friday, 25 May 2018


When the defenses finally fell in the early hours of 29th May 1453, the fate of those inside the wall was varied. Some, like the firebrand monk Gennadios, even profited from it - within days he had been appointed patriarch. Some, such as two of the three Bocchiardo brothers, even managed to reach the harbour from the front line and get out to safety on one of the remaining boats (the other brother, Paolo, was captured & killed in their attempted breakout). In fact a reasonable company of Genoese appear to have forced their way through the crowds and boarded the boats to escape, taking their mortally wounded leader, Giustinianni, with them. The fate of the Scotsman, John Grant, is not recorded. The Venetian Bailo, Girolamo Minotti, was captured and executed but other Venetians, such as the ships surgeon and diarist Nicolo Barbaro, were able to escape by ship.

Among the Greeks, tradition holds that the emperor threw off his purple regalia and, joined by his closest bodyguard and companions such as Andronikos Kantakuzenos, flung himself into the enemy to die. Almost from that moment, myths began to form about Constantine XI - not unlike those which surround King Arthur in Britain or Charlemagne in Germany - that he is not dead but shall return one day.

Cardinal Isidore, the Greek-born Latin cleric, managed to escape disguised as a beggar. The grand logothete, George Sphrantzes was captured but his identity remained unknown to the Turks (he would likely have been executed if they had recognised him) and he joined the many thousands of Greeks taken to Erdine and sold into slavery. He was fortunate, reasonably well treated, he was ransomed within a year and able to find and free his wife. His son and daughter, however, both died in captivity.

The most notorious incident surrounding those terrible few hours and days immediately after the fall concerns the fate of the Notaras family. The daughters of megas doux, Anna, Euphrosyne and Theodora had all at some point left the city and were safe in exile. Loukas Notaras and his sons were not so fortunate. The truth is clouded in conflicting accounts, many of them spiced for political purposes by the chroniclers. The definitive facts are that Loukas Notaras and around fifty notable Greek citizens were executed three days after the siege ended and his youngest son, Isaac, was taken into the Sultan's household, from which he escaped somewhere between 7-15 years later and made his way to his sisters in Venice. Contemporary accounts pointed the finger of treason at Loukas Notaras (so much so that his daughter Anna commissioned a humanist scholar to write a refutation of the charges) and his death was put down either to Mehmed's distrust of a proven traitor or the megas doux's objection to the Sultan's sexual advances towards his son. It is quite possible that these stories were nothing more than an attempt by Christian chroniclers to horrify their audience with the barbarity of the Turkish bogeyman but it should also be noted that Mehmed was more than likely bisexual, with the Wallachian boyar Radu cel frumos reputed to have been a long standing lover. Whatever the truth of Isaac Notaras's fate, unlike other Byzantines, he does not appear to have entered into formal Ottoman service or risen to a position of authority prior to his escape to Italy.

One of the less well known and yet most incredible stories from those first few weeks of the post-Roman world comes from that slave market in Edirne. Among the busy buyers was a Greek man by the name of Demetrios Apoukakos who would serve as imperial secretary to the Ottoman Sultan. He was not at that time working on Mehmed's behalf, however. The Sultan had enslaved these hundreds and thousands of Byzantines and his stepmothter, the Valide Sultan Mara Brankovic - herself half-Greek and horrified, we might suppose, at the destruction of her culture - used her own money to pay the ransom and free a number of the miserable souls in the slave market. We do not know how many she saved, but one of them is very clearly attested. Dionysius, a Greek nobleman, who some twenty years after the fall would become patriarch in Constantinople, backed by his guardian angel, Mara in that venture as well. His tenure as patriarch was troubled - it was a time of bitter factional fighting between the Constantinopolitan and Trepuzentine Greeks for control of their millet and faith - but on retirement, Dionysius moved to be personal confessor to Mara at her estate near Mount Athos. Following her death in 1487 he once again was elected patriarch in Constantinople, was deposed 3 years later in 1490 and died in 1492.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Nicolo Barbaro, eyewitness to armageddon

"Here begins the story of the siege of the city, and now there follows the battles from day to day, as shall be seen from what follows.

On the fifth of the month of April, one hour after daybreak, Mahomet Bey came before Constantinople with about a hundred and sixty thousand men, and encamped about two and a half miles from the walls of the city."

So begins the diary of Nicolo Barbaro, perhaps the most detailed and accurate eyewitness account of the siege and fall of Constantinople. Barbaro was a ship's surgeon and a member of a patrician family from Venice. He arrived in Constantinople as part of a Venetian military build-up led by Gabriel Trevisano, vic-captain of the gulf. Their intention was not to defend the city per-se but to escort merchant convoys back from the Black Sea after a Venetian vessel was fired upon and sunk by the Turkish cannons at Rumeli Hisari in November 1452.

There are quite a number of personal accounts surviving from the siege from a wide range of social perspectives including a Genoese bishop (Leonard of Chios), a Byzantine court minister (George Sphrantzes), a Turkish official historian (Tursun Bey), the Genoese governor (Podesta) of Pera, a Greek bureaucrat working for the Ottoman Sultan (Hermodoros Michael Kritovoulos) and even a Slavic escaped slave who crossed from the Turk lines into the city (Nestor-Iskander, the veracity of which is admittedly dubious). Each comes with its own bias and each chooses to focus on different incidents. For Barbaro, the Venetian ship's doctor, it is, unsurprisingly, the naval affairs that are afforded the most attention. Whilst this can at times be frustrating (it was the wall, after all and not the Horn, where things were won and lost), the strength of Barbaro lies in the fact that this is very much a personal diary and not written with an audience in mind as is the case with the others. Tursun Bey's account, for example, is an uncritical eulogy to his employer, while every paragraph of Sphrantzes's account contains an axe being grinded or an act being justified to posterity. Barbaro's account, written as a daily diary, is the dry factual recounting of a man whose training lay firmly in observation and analysis. It's certainly not Shakespeare and it likely contains inaccuracies of recollection and judgement but it remains a monumentally useful piece of primary source history, "the most useful of the western sources", according to Steven Runciman.
As well as a focus on the water over the wall, another of Barbaro's biases lies in his attitude to the Genoese. He's as snide and distrustful of them (particularly those from Galata/Pera) as the stereotypical Venetian of that era of maritime republican rivalry could be. He goes so far as to accuse General Giovanni Giustiniani of abandoning his post at the crisis of the siege on the 29th May. This version of events is refuted by Bishop Leonard (who says Giustiniani was mortally injured) & given the relative positions of the two witnesses (Barbaro was not at the wall, Leonard was) and the death of the General hours later from his wounds, Barbaro's account of this incident appears to be incorrect. It is instructive, however, that the Venetians would be happy to think ill of a Genoese hero, even having fought alongside him.

Barbaro was fortunate in his position afloat at the boom. When the wall broke, the Turk galleys ignored the Italian flotilla completely in their rush to land and join in the plunder. We then get Barbaro's account of the Venetian contingent's scramble to escape: something of a medieval "last helicopter out of Saigon" moment:

"Now that Constantinople had fallen, and since there was nothing further to be hoped for, our own people prepared to save themselves and our fleet, all the galleys and ships, and get them out of the harbour, breaking the boom across the entrance. So Aluvixe Diedo, officer in command of the harbour and captain of the galleys from Tana, seeing that the whole of Constantinople had been captured, at once disembarked at Pera, and went to the Podesta of Pera, and discussed with him what should be done with our fleet, whether it should make its escape, or prepare itself to do battle with all its ships and galleys. And when Aluvixe Diedo asked the advice of the Podesta of Pera, the Podesta said, “Master captain, wait here in Pera, and I shall send an ambassador to the Sultan, and we shall see whether we Genoese and Venetians shall have war or peace with him.” But while this discussion was taking place, the Podesta had the gates of his town shut, and shut the captain inside, with Bartolo Fiurian the armourer of the galleys of Tana, and Nicold Barbaro the surgeon of the galleys. We who were shut up there realised that we were in a serious position: the Genoese had done this, in order to put our galleys and our property into the hands of the Turks, and no ambassador was sent.

Now that we were shut up in their town, the galleys at once began to set up their sails and spread them out, and bring their oars inboard, with the intention of going away without their captain. But the captain, who realised that he was in danger of being imprisoned, was able by dint of fair words to persuade the Podesta to release them, and they got out of the town and boarded their galleys quickly; and as soon as they had done this, they began to kedge themselves up to the boom which was across the harbour. When we reached the boom, we could not get past it, because it stretched all the way between the two cities of Constantinople and Pera. But two brave men leaped down on to one of the wooden sections of the boom, and with a couple of axes cut through it and we quickly hauled ourselves outside it, and sailed to a place called the Columns behind Pera, where the Turkish fleet had been anchored. Here in this place we waited until midday, to see if any of our merchants could reach the galleys, but none of them were able to do so, because they had all been captured.

So at midday with the help of our Lord God, Aluvixe Diedo, the captain of the galleys from Tana, made sail on his galley, and then the galley of Jeruolemo Morexini and the galley of Trebizond with its vice-master Dolfin Dolfin did the same. This galley of Trebizond had great difficulty in getting its sails up because a hundred and sixty-four of its crew were missing, some of them drowned, some dead in the bombardment or killed in other ways during the fighting, so that they could only just manage to raise their sails. Then the light galley of Cabriel Trivixan set sail, although he himself was still in the city in the hands of the Turks. The galley of Candia with Zacaria Grioni, the knight, as master, was captured. Then behind these galleys there sailed three ships of Candia, under Zuan Venier and Antonio Filamati, “The Hen,” and we all sailed safely together, ships and galleys, out through the straits, with a north wind blowing at more than twelve miles an hour. Had there been a calm or a very light breeze, we would all have been captured. When we set sail for Constantinople, the whole of the Turkis fleet was unarmed and all the captains and crews had gone into the city to sack it. You can be sure that if their fleet had been in action, no a single vessel could have escaped, but the Turks would have had them as prizes of war, because we were shut up inside the boom, but they abandoned their fleet. Fifteen ships stayed inside the harbour, belonging to the Genoese, to the Emperor and to the people of Ancona; also all the Emperor’s galleys, numbering five, which had been disarmed, and also there stayed all the other vessels which were in the harbour, and the ships and galleys which could not escape were all captured by the Turks. But apart from these fifteen ships, seven belonging to the Genoese which were by the boom escaped, and one which was off Pera, belonging to Zorzi Doria of Genoa, of about two thousand four hundred botte, escaped with the other seven towards evening.

The fighting lasted from dawn until noon, and while the massacre went on in the city, everyone was killed; but after that time they were all taken prisoner. Our Bailo, Jeruolemo Minoto, had his head cut off by order of the Sultan; and this was the end of the capture of Constantinople, which took place in the year one thousand four hundred and fifty-three, on the twenty-ninth of May, which was a Tuesday."

Thursday, 8 February 2018

The Council of Mantua, 1459

It's 1459 and newish Pope, Pius II is looking for a venue to launch his big idea: Crusade against the Turks. He'd like to have it in Venetian Udine but La Serenissima - five years into a peace treaty with the Porte - is not keen to be linked so closely to a flagrant provocation. So Pius has to settle for Mantua, second-tier as far as Renaissance Italian states go. The Marquis of Mantua is an ex-Soldier of Fortune made good, Ludovico Gonzaga, a poor-man's Francesco Sforza, looking to buff his reputation. He'll earn his seventeen-year-old son Francesco a Cardinal's hat in return for hosting.

Mantua, it's fair to say, is a disappointment for Pius in every way. Firstly the place turns out to be a dump: marshy and unhealthy, the wine was poor, the food scarce and nothing could be heard save the croaking of frogs.

Secondly no one turns up; at least for some time and then, when delegations do begin to trickle in late it, is clear that few if any of the important heads of Christendom have deemed it worthy of their presence.

The Venetians send a delegation along three months after the council has begun. Ludovico Foscarini is the patrician who must have drawn the shortest straw. He does his best to mollify an angry pontiff and the Venetian case is quite reasonable - since the danger posed by the Turks is common, so should be the cost - but to Pius it sounds like the dissembling of merchants who are getting rich from trading with the enemy.

To make matters worse, the Venetian with the most prestige at Mantua is Cardinal Carmelengo, Patriarch of Aquileia and war hero against the Turks at Lesbos, Ludovico Trevisan. But rather than backing his Vatican boss and cajoling his fellow Venetians to be more hawkish, Trevisan is publicly against crusade.

Venice tries again to mend fences and pledges a significant fleet and arms to a coalition task force, stipulating only that they should be in command. Perhaps this sounds too much like 1204 and another Crusade that was hijacked by Venice for ulterior means. Milan and others won't accept it.

While all this is going on, down the road in Verona, Andrea Mantegna is painting the Agony in the Garden. His Jerusalem is clearly Constantinople - you can see the hippodrome, Theodosian walls and even Justinian's equestrian statue. The pinnacle of every tower has the Turkish crescent moon. 

The sleeping disciples might be read as the Princes of Christendom. 

Meanwhile poor Pius sits agonising in the gardens of Mantua for half a year, pestered by flies and French diplomats who want to talk about Naples, and sees his dream of emulating Pope Urban die with the autumn leaves.

Mantua was a classic example of why Crusades rarely got off the ground. Despite the clear and present danger represented by Mehmed II, despite the shock of Constantinople's fall, despite a relative lull in European conflicts, despite all the efforts of the Pope there was just too much distrust of one another among Christian rulers. For most the threat of the Turks was too distant and the benefits of a recovered Constantinople (or even Jerusalem) too intangible while the costs were certain and heavy.

Pius got his crusade of sorts in the end but it was a fragmented coalition made up of those with little choice but to fight - Venice, Hungary, Albania. The Burgundians promised much and might even have delivered but with no suitable figurehead to lead the ragtag army, Pius dutifully undertook to shoulder the cross himself and unsurprisingly given his age and health, died at Ancona while the fleet assembled. With Pius died much of the religious dynamism to confront the Turks. Venice and Hungary continued to struggle with Mehmed but that was a defensive struggle for control of trade routes and territory, stripped of all ideology. There were no plans for a reconquista of the Bosporus. Without the harangue of a pontiff it was easier for Western princes to look away from the dreadful, costly struggle that threatened to bleed Venice white and pretend it had nothing to do with them.   

Despite their name, the Tarocchi di Mantegna were not produced by him but at least 1 historian claims they were devised at the Council of Mantua. Not tarot cards but instructional humanist engravings seeking to reconcile Neoplatonism & Hermeticism with philosophical Christianity. 

Placed edge to edge they form a symbolic ladder leading from Heaven to Earth or seen from bottom to top, it teaches that man may gradually raise himself in the spiritual order and that science and virtue bring him closer to God.

What is interesting in this is the depiction of God is Aristotilian (i.e. pagan): "Prima Cause", the 'Unmoved Mover'. It is incredible that at this time we have the disciples of Neoplatonists like Plethon, humanist scholars and the upper echelons of the Vatican all interacting.

But then I am reminded also that at Mantua was Cardinal Juan de Torquemada, uncle of the infamous Tomas and we are less than 20 years from the establishment of the Inquisition.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

The Cassone, queen of renaissance furniture and tiny art gallery

The coffer was the ubiquitous piece of furniture of the middle ages. From smaller strong boxes to larger chests, they came in all shapes and sizes. The Cassone is the queen of coffers. One of the trophy furnishings of rich merchants and aristocrats in Italy from the late middle ages. The cassone was the most important piece of furniture of that time. It was given to a bride and placed in the bridal suite. It would be given during the wedding and it was the bride's parents' contribution to that celebration. 

Ornate and showy, as you might imagine, a beautiful cassone was a good opportunity to display your wealth and in the late fifteenth century there was no better way than to have a celebrated artist decorate the panels of yours. 

There survive today a number of cassone that were produced in the early decades of the 16th century by an unknown master operating in Florence. He is known to us as Maestro di Tavarnelle or Maestro di Ovidio or Maestro dei Cassoni Campana. High resolution pictures of the panels can be found here

Over several panels he tells the legend of Theseus with typically anachronistic Renaissance dress and a style that evolves the story in a single picture (so that characters appear multiple times in a single panorama). The first panel shows the passion of Pasiphae. 

1) King Minos of Crete is assumed to sacrifice a white Bull sent by Poseidon. 2) Minos thinks that it is better to sacrifice another bull which is killed and 3) sacrificed. The punishment 4, 5 ): Poseidon caused Minos's wife Pasiphae to fall in love with the bull. The result was her son the Minotaur.

Next we see the Taking of Athens by King Minos following the murder of his son Androgeos following which he imposed the annual tithe of 14 sacrificial youths.

The Third panel contains the most well known section of the legend. 
1) Minotaur, the son of the white Bull and Pasiphae, attacks and kills Cretans (In Medieval art the Minotaur is often represented as a Centaur). 2) The Minotaur is captured with the help of Poseidon. 3) The ship with Theseus arrives. Note the ship carries shields with the symbols of the Medici. 

4) Theseus meets Ariadne and her sister Phaedra. 5) Ariadne gives a ball of thread to Theseus (who is dressed like a knight) to be able to return from the Labyrinth 6). Theseus goes to the Labyrinth 7) He kills the Minotaur inside the Labyrinth, Ariadne and her sister are waiting in front of the Labyrinth 

8) Theseus with Ariadne and her sister leave Crete. 9) Their ship with the black sail (Theseus too happy has forgotten to replace it by a white sail) leaves Crete.

The final panel shows the tragic end to the legend. Theseus abandons Ariadne at Naxos but along comes Bacchus to woo her instead and there at the end the ship approaches Athens, black sails still up and the figure of Aegeus throws himself from the tower.

Quite what a bride is to make of the message of this last panel I'm not sure.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

A 15th Century Florentine-Byzantine Advent Calendar

The Procession of the Magi (or How the East was lost).

A suitably Christmas theme for a late December post. The Procession of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli can be found decorating the walls of the Medici Chapel on the first floor of their private residence in Florence. Permission for the chapel was given as early as 1442 by Pope Martin V. Piero de'Medici chose Benozzo Gozzoli to decorate the chapel which he completed over a few months in 1459. At the time the Council of Mantua was taking place not too far away, hosted by Ludovico Gonzaga and Pope Pius. The purpose of this council was to try and form a united Christian front against the growing Turkish threat which six years previously had finally conquered Constantinople. 

The significance of this to the painting Gozzoli was creating lies in the fact that exactly twenty years previously the Council of Florence had begun (having transferred from Ferrara due to plague). That Council, far better attended than Mantua, was a last desperate attempt to end the schism between Latin and Greek Churches and through that Union, rekindle enough Crusader zeal to drive back the advancing Ottoman banners before Constantinople was lost. The Council of Florence was also a remarkable coup for the Medici, who played host to Emperors and ambassadors, Patriarchs, Popes, great philosophers and humanist scholars.  

And so when Gozzoli came to decorate the Medici chapel he took the Council of Florence as his inspiration and wove into his procession of the Magi a great many life-like portraits of the great and the good who attended. For anyone with an interest in 15th century Italian or Byzantine history it is the perfect Where's Waldo.

The painting extends across the east, south and west walls of the main room above the encircling benches. These three walls were painted in about 150 days and each represents one of the three kings (Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar). The east wall leads with the youngest king, the south shows the middle king and the west has the oldest king. 

The Altar painting does not just depict the Adoration, it also showesd the Holy Trinity and perhaps significantly it is very clearly that of the Latin Church's interpretation. It was in part the contrast of this view - that the Holy Spirit emanates from both the Father and Son - which was the crux of the debate between Latin and Greek churchmen at the Council of Florence. The Greek Orthodox view held that the Holy Spirit emanates from God the Father alone. 

The real fun comes when one moves closer to the procession and tries to put names to faces. One can also imagine the unveiling of this to the contemporary Florentine society and the angst and disgruntlement among those who found themselves missing or in a less significant position than they felt they deserved!

The Young King (Caspar) is usually identified as Lorenzo il Magnifico, the son of Piero. He would have been 10 at the time the fresco was painted. Assuming this is indeed him then both he and his brother Giuliano have the honour of appearing (at least) twice (as does the artist Gozzoli). The pair appear together just beneath the Gozzoli's self portrait in the crowd of the young king's train. 

The procession behind the Young King is far larger than for the two other Magi and is made up of a number of identifiable members of contemporary Florentine society, moving left from the Young King's horse we find Piero the Gouty, the painting's commissioner on a splendid white horse and beside him the family patriarch, Cosimo on a humble donkey (which is either an indication of devoutness or a super-rich banker trying too hard).

The page beside Cosimo's horse is clearly sub-Sahara African and might be there as a representative of the Coptic and Ethiopian delegation at Florence sent by Zara Yaqob or may depict a particular member of the Medici staff or simply be a symbol of the exotic expanse of the Medici trading influence.

Behind these two heads of the family and the city come Sigismondo Malatesta, who was not at the council but is one of the most colourful and significant characters of the politics of this era both in Italy and Greece. At the time of the painting he is one year away from excommunication, two from dealing with the Ottoman Sultan and five from leading the Venetian armies against the Turks in Greece.

Beside Malatesta the Duke of Milan Galeazzo Maria Sforza. A sometime ally, sometime rival of Florence. He was a nasty piece of work even by the low standards of the day and was assassinated in Boxing Day 1476 in a similar manner to the failed attempt by the Pazzi against the Medici in 1478.

Behind comes the multitude of the Young King's retinue, full of the great and good of Florentine humanism.

The Pulci brothers, Luigi and Luca flank the young Medici heirs, (Giuliano and Lorenzo in their second appearance).

Above the boys and identifiable by the gold lettered "opus Benotii" on his cap is the artist Gozzoli, beside him - sticking out with his alien beehive hat and beard - is the Byzantine philosopher Plethon who made such an impression at the Council of Florence, particularly on Cosimo de'Medici with his lectures on Plato, at the time largely lost to the west. 

Appropriately he is flanked by Marcelo Ficino, to whom Cosimo gave the task of translating Plato from the Greek manuscripts he had received from Plethon into Latin. 

I suspect that above Plethon's hat is John Argyropoulos, Ficino's tutor and Plethon's friend who was at the council of Florence and remained in Italy to lecture in Padua, Florence and Rome and taught Piero & Lorenzo de'Medici and possibly even Leonardo Da Vinci.

The other figures in the entourage are a mystery to me but the row behind Plethon contains some distinctive headgear which either marks them out as representatives of a profession or as people with their own particular style. 

On the hilltop behind the Young King's head stands a castle which in its form of towers corresponds to the Medici seat at Cafaggiolo but can also be interpreted as Jerusalem, the origin of the Magi's procession or indeed Constantinople, the protection of which was the subject of the Council of Florence.

The Middle King (Balthasar) depicts Emperor John VIII Palaiologos, the penultimate Byzantine Emperor who came cap in hand to Florence to try and rally aid to his beset city. It was a hellish trip for him, marked by sickness and capped by the discovery on his return that both his wife and sister-in-law had died in his absence.

The retinue of the Middle King is suitably thin in comparison to the abundant throng of the young king. The pages around his horse have the classical looks associated at the time with angels. 

To the far left of this painting there are three riders who appear to be ladies and represent the three daughters of Piero Medici, Nannina, Bianca and Maria.

The old King (Melchior) is said to depict the Greek Patriarch Joseph II who died during the Council of Florence from the strain of the journey there. He was buried at Santa Mira Novella in Florence. He was succeeded by Metrophanes who accepted the Union, much to the displeasure of the man on the Constantinople omnibus. On his return home he found the mob were calling him Mitrofonos (Mother-killer) and he was driven into exile back in Italy. 

Like the middle king, Melchior's retinue is rather sparse but ahead of him comes another gaggle of identifiable Florentine riders. Nearest the Patriarch there are again a trio of female-looking riders who may be the daughters of Piero again. Giuliano de Medici is the page with a cheetah perched on the hind of his horse. 

Beside him is the second appearance of Gozzoli, this time in a blue and white hat. The cluster of red hatted dignitaries around him are said to be the key Medici allies of the time: Bernardo Giugni, Francesco Sassetti, Agnolo Tani, Diotisalvi Neroni and Luca Pitti.

There are probably dozens of Florentines I am unable to identify and perhaps even a few of the Venetians and Greeks from the Council of Florence are hidden in the throng. Is George Amiroutzes, who worked as a translator at the Council here or Niccolo Sagundino who was spying for Venice or the other Greek priests: Cardinal Bessarion, Genndios, Isidore of Kiev? What of the Pazzi members of Florentine society who would try and fail to snuff out the Medici some twenty years later? It is a painting that reveals new details with every glance.