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.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

The Life of Mara Brankovic

In the words of historian Donald Nicol, "Mara Brankovic was one of the most remarkable products of the melting pot of ruling families that banded together for survival in the Balkans during and after the Turkish conquest of the Byzantine Empire in the fifteenth century."

Born around 1416, she was the eldest daughter of Durad Brankovic, whom had been anointed Despot of Serbia in 1429 by Emperor John VIII but who ruled under sufferance of the Sultan. He played a hazardous game, pretending to be their faithful vassal while trying to build up a Christian coalition against the Turkish tide. He built the fortress of Smederevo on the Danube near Belgrade, the last capital of medieval Christian Serbia.

Nicol states that Mara's mother was the sister of the Trebizond Emperor, John Komnenos, however he does not attribute a source for this and it appears unlikely for a number of reasons, the main being that there is no record of a Komnenos princess marrying a Serbian Despot from the Trebizond records or any mention of it in other sources. 

The more commonly given genealogy for Mara's mother is Eirene Kantacuzenos, of the  Byzantine noble family. She is named as the mother of Brankovic's other children. Their marriage is recorded as being in 1414. 

One feature of Durad's reign was the increasing number of Byzantines at his court. Partly this was due to his marriage to a scion of the Kantacuzenoi but in addition, the fall of Thessaloniki in 1430 saw a huge influx from that region, the Kantacuzenoi heartland. Mara's Kantacuzenoi uncle, Thomas, was in command of Durad's army for much of his rein and in 1457, during the quasi-civil war that followed Durad's death, Thomas was in Mara's entourage that sought shelter at the Ottoman court. He was still among her household when he died in 1463. It is through this enduring Kantacuzenoi influence that Mara's link to the Byzantine culture can be traced.

In 1431, Durad Brankovic concluded a peace treaty with Sultan Murad II by agreeing to give his eldest daughter as a bride. (Another reason the Nicol assertion is unlikely is that Mara would be nineteen based on his dates - rather old to be unmarried or to appeal to the Sultan in this sort of arrangement). The marriage took place in 1435 at which point Mara joined his three other wives in the harem. She bore him no children (he had 9 by his other wives) and rumours from the time held that the marriage was never consummated. 

Mara appears to have had a close relationship with Murad's son, the future Sultan Mehmed II. Mehmed's own mother died two years before he came to the throne on a permanent basis in 1451 and throughout his reign he is recorded as showing special honour to Mara, his mother-substitute. She held the title of Valide Sultan, or Mother to the Sultan - a venerated position that made her top dog in the harem. She was also allowed to maintain her own estate at Daphni at the foot of the holy mountain of Mount Athos. She seems to have had a great deal of freedom of movement in the years following her husband's death, appearing in both Constantinople, Serbia and Daphni. From there she acted as a bridge between East and West and was instrumental in arranging peace talks between Venice and the Porte throughout the Long War. Her involvement in these diplomatic schemes seems quite remarkable for a woman in the 15th century. Clearly Mehmed valued her opinion but she is lauded as well by the state records of Venice. When peace finally did arrive in 1479, Mara played a full part in the go betweens.

Remarkably (but not uniquely - her Byzantine peers in the Persian court did likewise), Mara retained her Christian faith even after marriage. Furthermore, in the years following the conquest of Constantinople she became an active defender of the religious interests of the Greek Christian population. On several occasions she intervened to try and thwart corruption in the office of the Patriarchate. In 1466 Symeon successfully obtained the Patriarchal throne after he paid the Grand Vizier's faction 2000 pieces of goldMara was outraged by the simoniac action of Symeon, and she went to Constantinople to complain to Mehmed. In response to her requests, and to a donation by her of 2000 pieces of gold, the Sultan deposed Symeon and appointed to the Patriarchate the candidate of Mara, Dionysius. Similarly in 1474 the Holy Synod also accepted to pay an annual fee of 2000 florins to the Ottoman state - effectively putting the office of the Patriarch up for saleOn his return to Constantinople in early 1475, Symeon was outbid by Raphael I, probably supported & funded by Mara. 

In 1459 the Sultan granted to Mara full possession of the Monastery of St Sophia in Thessalonica and all its revenues. Mara's Christian work extended to the recovery of Holy relics and their return to monasteries and churches in the west. In 1469 she arrange for the bones of John of Rila to be returned to Rila monastery. More controversially, In 1463, she is credited with the recovery of the bones of Luke the Evangelist from Bosnia to Venice. This was a pet project of the new Doge, Christoforo Moro who was rebuilding the church of San Giobbe and wanted the saint enshrined there. Embarrassingly, the Benedictine monks of Padua had been venerating bones of the same Saint Luke for centuries and they enacted a legal challenge to the veracity of the recovered relic. Later history seems to strengthen their case. The Padua relic was tested in recent years and showed them to be of the correct vintage to be the saint. If the San Giobbe bones were a fraud, did Mara know?

An unusual footnote to her history was the incident in 1451 when, newly widowed, she became briefly a candidate to wed the Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI. He had been married twice and lost each without producing an heir. The imperial advisors considered a number of ladies as suitable Empresses, possibly Anna Notaras among them. When Mara came on the matrimonial market, some thought she was the ideal choice. The matter was put to her father who welcomed the idea. It would have made Mara unique - the wife of both Sultan & Emperor. She firmly declined to have anything to do with the idea. She vowed to live a chaste and celibate life from the rest of her days but she did not - as was common for widows of her station - become a nun. She resisted another marriage proposal in 1454 from Jan Jiskra, the Czech mercenary captain who would arrest Vlad Dracula in 1463.  

Mara died at Daphni in September 1487. 

Sunday, 8 October 2017



As context, a summary of some events in the year leading up to the Fall of Constantinople:

Kuwae, a large volcano off Vanuatu in the Pacific erupts. The event released an enormous amount of sulfur and is credited with causing a global cooling event. It is also one explanation for the unusual and extreme weather conditions which blighted Constantinople in its final six months and gave rise to a tangible sense of doom.  

Byzantine ambassador to Venice reports a massive build-up of Ottoman troops in preparation for an assault and begs assistance. He is told Venice has too much on her plate in Italy to commit to war with the Turks. 

Frederik III was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Rome. The first Habsburg Emperor, he would reign for almost 40 years. 

Leonardo da Vinci born.
Mehmed begins work on his 'Throat Cutter' castle on the Bosporus.
War flares between Venice and Milan once again but although armies take to the field there is little open battle.

Philip the Good of Burgundy officially declared war on Ghent.

Pope Nicholas V issues the bull Dum Diversas which allowed for non-Christians to be enslaved in perpetuity. It was primarily a license for the Portuguese King Alphonso V to begin the trading of slaves on the newly discovered West Africa routes if they did not swiftly convert to Christianity.

Mehmed II launches his first campaign against Skanderbeg in Albania. The initial force of 25,000 men under Hamza Pasha and Tahip Pasha is split in two, allowing the swift, smaller Albanian forces to deal with each in turn. 

Rumeli Hisar, The Throat Cutter, is completed, giving Ottoman guns full control of the Bosporus on the Black Sea side of Constantinople. 
Venice dispatches Gabriel Trevisano to Constantinople in response to defend Venetian muda convoy from the Black Sea.
A motion is tabled in Venetian senate to officially abandon Constantinople to its fate. It is rejected. 

Durad Brankovic attacks the Venetian city of Cattaro (Kotor)
Savanarola born in Ferrara

Isidore of Kiev arrives in Constantinople with a body guard of 200 Papal archers from Naples and Bishop Leonard of Chios. He is charged with officially overseeing the consecration of Hagia Sophia to the Latin creed and thus the consummation of the Union of the churches which is more of a submission of the Greek church into the Latin faith.
Birth of future Richard III of York

The Hundred Years War was drawing to a close. England sent troops under John Talbot to Guyene (Bordeaux). 

Turukhan Beg, Ottoman governor of Thessaly breaks the Hexamilion wall at the Isthmus of Corinth and raids the Peloponnese.

Byzantine ambassador in Venice is officially told that he should take his plea for aid to the Pope and that Venice had her own contingency plans. It is as close to an official abandonment as la Serenissima will make.

12th of December. Isidore conducts the official ceremony that consecrates Hagia Sophia as a Latin cathedral. It is abandoned from that day by the populace of Constantinople until the eve of its fall in May 1453.

Grand Pricne Vasily of Moscow establishes the Qasim (Kasimov) Khanate as a buffer client-state between his territory and the Khanate of Kazan. Qasim is one of Ghengis Khan's (many) grandsons. His Tatars will fight for Moscow and conduct raids into Kazan. 

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Stato da Mar

Bartolomeo Minio was Venetian official who cut his teeth during the long war with the Ottomans but whose career really spanned the post-war period. As governor (provvenditore) of Nauplia he had the tricky task of managing a Venetian enclave in the Peloponnese, surrounded by Ottoman territory. His letters and reports are preserved in the Venetian state archives. The below is a short story I wrote about Bartolomeo and an incident he recorded. It takes place shortly after the time period of the Fall Series. 

 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.’