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."

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