If you go into the church of SS. Giovanni e Paolo in Venice through the west door set in the magnificent façade carved by Bartolomeo Bon, and look up to the right, you will see high on the wall a monument consisting of a rather crude urn, surmounted by a marble bust of a man, with a painting above it and a long Latin inscription below. The painting depicts, and the inscription describes – with the highlighting of the word ‘PELLIS’ (‘skin’) on a single line and in larger lettering – the gruesome death in 1571 of Marcantonio Bragadin, the Captain-General of Famagusta in Cyprus.
Sir George Hill tells the story of the Venetian acquisition of the island, and the subsequent conquest by the Turks, in great detail in Volume 3 of his magisterial History of Cyprus. It is almost unbearably painful reading: the day-by-day, almost hour-by-hour narrative of the siege of Famagusta is made all the more poignant because we know how it ends.
Almost two hundred years after the Turkish conquest, the Abbé Giovanni Mariti was sent to the island as a consular official of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1769, he published Viaggi per l’Isola di Cipro, an account of the geography, history and antiquities, political system and economy (including the agricultural and other produce) of Cyprus. Seventeen years after Great Britain had acquired Cyprus from the crumbling Ottoman Empire at the Congress of Berlin, as immortalized in this music-hall hit:
There’s another little baby Queen Victoria has got,/ Another little colony, although she’s got a lot,/ Another little island, very wet and very hot,/ Whatever will she do with little Cyprus?
Claude Delaval Cobham, C.M.G., translated parts of Mariti’s work into English, and his book was published by Cambridge University Press, with a second edition following in 1909.
Mariti’s account is fascinating: he clearly travelled widely in the island, noting distances, landmarks, crops, villages and ruins (there are many attempts to put the correct ancient name on to a pile of fallen columns and pediments). On the very day of his first arrival in Cyprus – 3 February 1760 – news started circulating that there was an outbreak of plague on the island: he describes the fear instilled in everyone, and the precautions against contamination. (On this occasion, as on many others, one regrets that Cobham gives us only fragments of the narrative, and no notes – Mariti leaves immediately for Syria (why?), and later learns that the plague lasted for five months and killed 22,00 persons.) He also describes in great detail the major insurrection of 1764 against corrupt and inefficient Turkish rulers, and its eventual suppression in 1766, highlighting the noble role played by the British Consul, Mr Timothy Turner, who had tried to act as intermediary and peace-maker between the governor and the rebel factions.
The account of the produce of the island is really interesting, but makes one (me, anyway) thank goodness for Google. The lack of notes has one keyboarding to find out what ‘storax’ is (gum of the liquidambar tree, apparently used in making perfume). And how about ‘ladanum, a kind of dew’, harvested by driving goats into the areas where it has appeared on plants: it stick to the goats’ beards and can then be combed out? This too is a resin, from rock-roses (Cistus ladanifer or Cistus creticus), also used in perfumes, but apparently also believed to be a herbal remedy for coughs and colds – did one suck it, swallow it, inhale it or rub it on the throat?
At the end of his version of Mariti’s work, Cobham places two contemporary accounts of the Turkish conquest (both also used as sources by Hill). The first is the story of the siege of Nicosia, extracted from Giovanni Pietro Contarini’s account of the whole war, published in Venice after the victory of Lepanto in 1571. Contarini does not give sources, though on the siege he writes as though he had been present, and the names, numbers and sequence of events he unfolds match what is known from elsewhere. The second is the report made to the Doge of Venice in 1572 by Nestore Martinengo, who had survived the siege of Famagusta, was enslaved but escaped, and made his way home via Syria. It was published as a small pamphlet, and was quickly translated into French, German and English.
Martinengo describes the climax and ending of the siege. Having arrived outside the city in October 1570, the Turks received reinforcements in April 1571, and from then until August the Venetians succeeded in beating off six major assaults. Their numbers dwindling and their supplies depleted, they believed that they had no choice but to surrender, and a treaty of capitulation was agreed, under the terms of which the officers and soldiers of Venice would come to no harm. Something went wrong: on 15 August the Turkish general had the most senior officers beheaded, and himself cut off Bragadin’s ears and nose. The Captain-General was then led round the bastions of the city, and at each one had to carry a basket of earth up and down the battlements. Finally, he was strapped to a pillory in the centre of the city and flayed alive: ‘with never a sign of wavering he commended himself to God, and gave back his spirit to his Maker’. The skin was stuffed with straw and paraded through the cities of Syria to mark the victory: it was later retrieved (bought back by the Bragadin family, or stolen from the arsenal of Constantinople by an enterprising Venetian sailor), and laid to rest first in the abbey church of San Gregorio and later in SS. Giovanni e Paolo, burial place of many Doges.
Some scholars think that Titian’s chilling masterpiece, The Flaying of Marsyas, was inspired by these events. Later Turkish writers denied that it ever happened; but Hill, with his usual thoroughness, has found a Turkish account which agrees broadly with that of Martinengo, and cites other instances of flaying as a punishment. In Venice, the battle of Lepanto (7 October 1571) is still remembered, and its hero, Sebastiano Venier, still commemorated as the man who destroyed the menace of the Turkish fleet in the Mediterranean (despite what G.K. Chesterton might have led you to believe about the role of Don John of Austria). But the disaster of the loss of Cyprus is not dwelt upon, and not many people in SS. Giovanni e Paolo look up at the urn on the wall.