Stato da Màr
It was Sunday and Bartolomeo Minio - although not the most religious of men - was especially fond of the Sabbath. Sundays had an order to themselves and he was a man who appreciated routine above all else. Routine was the delicate thread which held together the empire Venice had strung across half the middle sea; routine brought the spice galleys each August, bearing their precious cargo on to the republic; routine sent other carracks and caravels crisscrossing the waters with cloth to sell in Cyprus, mastic gum for Otranto or good timber for the Knights on Rhodes. Without routine there would be chaos. But unfortunately for Bartolomeo, Venetian provveditore of the tiny enclave of Napoli di Romania, chaos was a way of life in this hot and dusty corner at the southern tip of Greece.
Two years prior, when his posting to the Morea had begun, it had been a delicate moment for the republic and its colonies. The ink was hardly dry on an inadequate treaty ending the long, mindless war between Venice and the Sublime Porte, and the fortified Venetian outposts, which dotted bays and headlands of Greece from Kerkyra to Modon to this little cove the locals called Nauplia, were all as much islands in a mainland Ottoman sea as the archipelago that speckled the Turk-infested Aegean. Be on guard, they had told him - the Turks eyed the Venetian ports as they did a cluster of sweet cherries and if they did not try to pluck little Napoli this year it did not mean they were not ready to, should the chance ever ripen.
That Sunday, as always, Bartolomeo had attended mass at Panagia with his wife Elena. Of course it was the Greek faith they kept there, not his own Latin creed but it was proper, he strongly believed, that the town governor be seen to partake in the rituals of his flock.
In addition he used it as a chance to take the weekly pulse of local opinion and have his ear bent by certain town matriarchs who felt he could solve, somehow, all their petty troubles: would the provveditore not do something about the many youth who spent their days idling about the town square? Perhaps - these veiled ladies would suggest - he might press the boys into physical labour. Perhaps there was another wall to be built? Alas, the walls were now in good repair and there was no call for the licensed banditry which had sustained their fathers through sixteen years of war.
Perhaps then did the provveditore know when the next galley from Venice would call? No, the provveditore did not know, but when it did it had better contain the supplies and equipment he had requested on four occasions now without satisfaction.
Sunday mass mattered greatly to the Nauplians; it was proper to be present and, if he was honest with himself, he was not immune to the pageantry of the occasion: the procession of the blushing, angelic cross-bearer flanked by two equally cherubic boys who carved the air with censers to leave in their wake a great mist of perfume. In this sweet cloud would follow the bishop and church elders in their tall black hats and brocaded robes and behind these, a long train of churchmen, buttoned to the throat in fine satin, holding aloft icons of crimson and gold or bearing the silvered coffers of holy relics and all of them calling in unison, to God, their quartertone plea for salvation.
If he was really honest with himself he would go further and admit that he had grown very fond of this country and its people. Despite the climate, the malarial air which had almost seen him to his grave during his first summer, despite the frustrations of administration and the concerns of another bad harvest, he knew that a little of Greece had seeped into his heart and altered it a degree closer to the setting of its own.
So he counted it no hardship to join in their rituals and in turn the townsfolk appreciated the sight of their governor turned out each Sunday in his best doublet, a clean high-collar shirt and good leather boots. He took pains to trim his beard and have his servant polish up his sword the night before - he knew how to make an impression on Greeks. His predecessor, they complained, had dressed like a beggar on the few occasions he ventured from his residence and had not a word of Homer’s tongue.
That day after church, Bartolomeo had taken his usual walk around the walls of the town acropolis, casting a critical eye over his small domain before the onset of the afternoon migraine – one routine he could live without.
The water’s blue carpet lay unfurled on three sides, spangled with waves that had reached the cul-de-sac of the gulf and now gently gave themselves up to the coast’s long strand of gold. Closer to shore, in the mouth of the harbour, the newly built fortress of Kasteli reflected the flash of the sun from its angular stone flanks. At this distance it took on the appearance of a child’s castle of sand.
Closer, between the harbour and the foot of this steep sided citadel, a terracotta field of rooftops clustered about the town’s market square. He preferred the view of the town from this lofty perch. The ubiquitous clay tiles gave the illusion of order to the confusion of streets below and masked the shabby state many of the properties stood in; the stooping timber frames, the crumbling stonework in need of attention for which no mason could be found. He had written to Venice with a wish-list of larch planks, fir posts, large nails and small; beams and rafters and lathes. He held little expectation of anything arriving, for the Duke of Ferrara had seized the salt works at Comacchio and with it Venice’s full attention. For now the Morean colonies were on their own.
That did not overly worry Bartolomeo. He considered it something of a paternal duty as governor to bring self-sufficiency to his little protectorate. They had stone enough, harvested from the ancient sites that littered the countryside, but the nearest stone cutter was in Argos and Bartolomeo would need to convince the Turkish governor there to give him leave to come. He liked Ahmed Beg, but he was loathe to venture too far into the Ottoman Pasha’s debt.
He sat for a time in the shade of a myrtle and breathed in its soft scent. His thoughts that day were heavy with concern for a missing boat, missing men, and the sad report he must compose on the matter. He had put it off, hopeful of miracles, but there came a point when hope became foolish. He had resolved to report the matter to Venice that afternoon and so as the first twinges of pain began to stir at his temples, he gave a last anxious glance toward the empty waters of the gulf and set off down the hill.
By mid-afternoon the weak November sunshine had capitulated behind a pearly field of cloud and a rheumatic cold had drifted in off the water. In his inadequately heated house, Bartolomeo had slept off the headache and was hunched over the town financial ledger which was four weeks in arrears. It was his clerk’s job to maintain them but his clerk had died of a flux the prior summer and the republic was yet to furnish him with a replacement.
It was his duty to dispatch every three months to Venice a written report along with the clerk’s accounts. His predecessor had only managed one report every nine but Bartolomeo insisted on sending his on time and accompanied with a fully reconciled treasury. In absence of a living clerk, he had taken the task upon himself. He was yet to have a response to any of these reports or the frequent other communications, requests, and letters home.
His secretary, Eustacio, had the other desk in the room, over by the window with the good light and the bad draft. Eustacio, a priest’s bastard from Cannaregio, was now the only other living Venetian male in the town - a fact Bartolomeo morbidly revisited as he rubbed his neck and looked down at the words of the report he had written so far.
‘It is my solemn duty to inform the ministry of the disappearance of my contestabele, Antonio Marinato, along with sixteen of his men. Thirty-three days have passed since this party set out from Napoli in a seaworthy fusta with orders to recover the hulk of a caravel, which floundered last winter on rocks off the island of Spetses (please refer to my previous report dated January of this year). I believed - and Marinato agreed - that this wreck could be towed back up the gulf and broken apart for firewood (please refer to my previous report on the deficient supplies of heating fuel in the town). When the fusta did not return for two days, a search party was sent to Spetses but found the caravel hulk unmoved and no trace of boat or men. Before a landing party could investigate, two Turk ships were spotted and gave them chase. It is therefore my conclusion that Messer Marinato and his men fell victim to Turk pirates. These have been especially active in our waters over the past several months (please refer to my many previous reports on this matter).’
Bartolomeo put down his pen. That fusta! He shook his head and smiled at the memory. There could be no better measure of the resourcefulness of his friend Antonio Marinato than that sleek little boat.
It was only eighteen months since a sinewy figure with holes in his boots and a smile as crooked as a clipped coin marched into Napoli at the head of fifty Albanian mercenaries who, to judge by their wolfish gazes and overlong whiskers, appeared at least as dangerous as the Turks they had been hired to keep from the town.
To begin with Bartolomeo had not expected much of his new contestabele; he seemed overly young, lacking in both kit and discipline and Bartolomeo had neither requested his company of fanti nor possessed the means to pay their salaries. Despite several letters it would be many months before a boat from the lagoon brought funds and then only half the pay owed.
The expectation had therefore formed in Bartolomeo that these men would soon grow rebellious and he had steeled himself for a confrontation with their leader Antonio, but instead the man proved to be easy natured and understanding of the provveditore’s problems.
When ships put in to the harbour he would appear at the doorway of this study with a single raised eyebrow to see if the paymasters of La Serenissima had remembered their brave soldati keeping watch along the frontier of the priceless trade route. A sympathetic shake of Bartolomeo’s head was all that was required to send Antonio away with a philosophical shrug but Marinato would often return later with a jar of wine to share and show he bore no grudge.
Along with his easy nature, Marinato proved to have a sharp mind, and the long march south had hidden his men’s professionalism beneath a veneer of dust. Despite the lack of pay, the fanti did not remain idle and proved resourceful hands around the town, always ready to help mend a broken well or pull up a stubborn tree stump; so there was perhaps less surprise than there would otherwise have been when Antonio Marinato and his men sailed into port one day at the helm of a gaily painted, three mast fusta.
Once Bartolomeo had satisfied himself that the previous owners had been Turks and more than likely employed in a rougher trade than fishing, the provveditore had chosen not to ask too many more questions about how Marinato had got his hands on the boat. Since they were no longer at war, a Venetian governor could not knowingly condone piracy of any sort.
Still, he regretted his leniency now that it appeared God, in his divine, ironic wisdom, had chosen the illicit vessel to deliver Antonio to an untimely fate.
Bartolomeo took up his pen once more and turned his attention back to the letter.
‘I have twice written to the Ottoman governor at Argos - whom I know to be a good man - and vigorously protested the matter, but he begs no control over the corsairs and claims to have no knowledge of any incident in the waters off Spetses. I have waited some time in hopes of gaining further news but regrettably, it now seems certain that Messer Marinato and his men are all either dead or enslaved. May God have mercy upon their souls.’
It was at this moment, as Bartolomeo Minio set down his pen, rubbed his brow and contemplated the faint smell of lamb coming from the kitchen, that the sound of heavy boots rang up the staircase, the door of his study flew wide and a grinning figure leaned against the frame with a cry of ‘Ciao ragazzi!’
It was Antonio Marinato.
Behind him, Bartolomeo heard his secretary blaspheme; he shared the sentiment but as a patrician, mastered his surprise. Instead he made sure his mouth was not gaping and stood to meet the offered embrace of his lost contestabele. Then he picked up the report from his writing desk and theatrically tore it into quarters. ‘I shall have to write a new one,’ he said.
Marinato came into the room and deftly perched himself on the table’s corner. He was followed by a second man, who neither spoke nor was introduced by the contestabele. This second guest had the tanned complexion and salt-scoured features of a mariner and there was the shyness of a fish out of water in the glance he cast toward the Venetian governor in his fine doublet. He lingered by the doorframe, stroking his whiskers as a priest might worry a rosary.
Bartolomeo said, ‘I shall have to write a new one and explain to the ministry that the disappearance of the republic’s dear citizen Marinato - the recovery of whom we have been spending precious diplomatic capital upon - owed nothing to Ottoman aggression but a sudden need to hide from a husband. Unless I miss my guess and you have a better explanation?’ He was still smiling but Marinato would not miss the bass note of irritation in his voice.
‘Oh, be sure I have a story,’ said Marinato.
The provveditore did not doubt it.
‘Pirates?’ Eustacio said from the window.
A smile spread across Marinato’s face like butter in a hot pan. ‘Pirates, oh yes! Boatfuls of them. Before we ever reached the island they had our little fusta covered by their guns. We could do nothing but hove to and pray.’
‘You didn’t fight?’ said Bartolomeo. It sounded unkind even to himself but it was his hand that counted out the salaries of these men - men who were paid to fight Turks - and he felt at that moment an overwhelming sense of having been short changed.
Marinato carelessly shrugged. ‘They had bombast and we did not. The alternative wasn’t fighting, it was dying. They gave us another choice shortly thereafter. Their captain turned out to be a pious man and felt it his duty to pillage souls for Allah as much as he did bounty for his Sultan. Once they had come aboard and put us under guard he offered each of us our freedom if we converted to his faith and joined his crew. Some of those dogs could not wait to put on a Mahomeddian turban but I’m a good son of the church and I did not flinch towards Mecca.’
‘How many of your men took up this offer to become Muslim pirates?’ said Bartolomeo. He had picked up a new sheet of paper and begun to take notes.
Marinato said, ‘All of them. All of them except Antonio Marinato!’ He proudly prodded a thumb into his puffed-out chest.
‘Which must have presented the pious pirate captain with something of a problem,’ said Bartolomeo. ‘One Christian head and a well-used fusta was not much of a prize. He cannot have foreseen such widespread enthusiasm for the crescent.’
Crossing the room, Marinato helped himself to Eustacio’s pot of warmed wine. ‘He might have done,’ he said, wiping his chin. ‘When you looked closely under the turbans of his crew there were few real Turks to be found. But yes, all they had to show for their effort was a leaky boat and me, and even I would not put my value beyond forty ducats on the local auction block. Their optimistic captain thought I might fetch four thousand aspers in the Chios slave market so he instructed some of his men to take me there in the fusta.’
‘Well now,’ said Bartolomeo, ‘that seems a short sail to double a man’s value.’
Marinato said, ‘He should have heeded Aesop. Much can happen on the shortest of voyages. For instance a man might talk to his captors and learn that the land on the southern horizon is Crete, where their mothers had birthed them. A man might see the thirst for home in their eyes and guess that the life of a Muslim pirate had not proven all they might have once hoped; a man might guess that they had arrived into it in a manner not unlike his own former crew.’
‘They were Candians?’ Bartolomeo said with surprise.
‘Homesick Candians,’ Marinato said with a nod. ‘Guilt-riven, regretful Candians who feared they had endangered their souls to follow a mutton-headed captain in an unprofitable trade.’
‘So they let you go?’
‘Ha! Not even the devil has such luck,’ said Marinato. ‘No, the boat continued to Chios but we began to haggle. I struck the deal within sight of the slave market, God be praised. My freedom in exchange for fifty ducats, a letter of good character from a respected Venetian official to the Governor of Candia and the arrangement of an abjuration with an open-minded Greek priest. Neither party seemed much interested in the fusta.’
Bartolomeo looked up from his note taking. ‘Antonio, where does a half-starved soldati, who has not received so much as a silver tornesello in six months, find fifty ducats whilst under conveyance to the slave auction block?’
Marinato grinned. ‘I undertook a loan.’
‘Not from any bank, I shouldn’t wonder,’ said Bartolomeo. There was a momentum to Marinato’s tale that seemed to him to be heading with unstoppable force in a particular direction and he was not at all sure he liked it.
‘No. Not from any bank,’ Marinato said. ‘From the pirates themselves. I took the liberty of assuming the republic would underwrite my credit.’
‘You took the…oh no.’ Bartolomeo stopped his note taking and reached for a fresh sheaf of paper. He had a strong suspicion he was about to write another letter.
Marinato had put down the empty pot of wine and said, ‘Do you happen to know if the bishop is in town?’ He was already moving towards the doorway.
Bartolomeo thought of the morning procession; of the innocent boys, the icons and relics and all the high pageantry of the rite. He looked at his contestabele, in his patched hose and dirtied shirt and thought of another procession he had once seen; wretched men chained and beaten across the Argolid plane towards an auction block where the call of strangers would set their life’s worth. That was a fate he could blame no man from avoiding. He wondered if the bishop had known only incense. He wondered if the bishop could reconcile those two worlds into one; he himself could not.
‘Yes, I expect the bishop is hereabouts,’ Bartolomeo said as he wrote out the Governor of Candia’s name.
‘I shall give him your regards,’ said Marinato. He had stopped at the threshold and placed a hand firmly on the shoulder of his silent companion. ‘Oh, and Bartolomeo, would you be so kind as to pay this fine gentleman his fifty ducats.’