October 7th, 1571: The Battle of Lepanto, 450 years ago. At the Doge’s Palace, the triumph of the Venetian army in the masterpiece by Vicentino

7 October 2021

 Venice, October 6th, 2021 – At first sight, chaos seems to prevail although eventually, the composition turns out to be a clever one. A canvas filled with galleys, soldiers, and weapons. The outbreak of the battle and soldiers who fell under the blows of swords. It’s October 7th, 1751, precisely 450 years ago and this is the greatest naval victory ever achieved by the city of Venice. 

Tomorrow the city will celebrate this day with several events that will be added to the celebrations for the birth of Venice, 1600 years ago.  

A gaze to the painting The Battle of Lepanto, is enough to fully understand the importance of this event. It is displayed at the hall of the Scrutinio within the Doge’s Palace in Venice, the heart of the city, and the political body of the Serenissima. The walls of the huge hall of the first floor – in which activities that characterized the venetian political life, such as deliberations and ballot box operations were carried out – prove the battles won between 809 and 1656, in addition to the victory of the battle of Lepanto that for sure is one of the biggest and most important masterpieces of the whole palace. This work of art was signed by Andrea Vicentino, although no date was reported in this painting. For sure, its Battle of Lepanto was realized after the fire of Palazzo Ducale in 1577, when the painting by Tintoretto was destroyed.

Allied troops differed from the Ottomans in clothes and weapons. Their admirals are on the stern of the ship, they are calm and apparently not concerned. Sebastiano Venier, the Venetian main character of the event and future Doge of the Serenissima, is portrayed together with his pageboy, standing still, bear headed in the first line, ignoring any danger. Don Giovanni d’Austria, Spanish commander and half-brother of Philip II, is portrayed almost on the right side and Marcantonio Colonna, the Pope soldier, is at the stern of the galleys, behind the flag of the League, characterized by the image of Jesus on the cross. To these three galleys on the right, three Turkish vessels are located on the left, under the control of admiral Ali Pascha.

Ottoman captains' concern underlines the tension of that moment. The  galley of Venier had just hit the Turkish one and Venetian troops went to fight their sea enemies, among dead bodies of janissaries and castaways  with turbans on their heads. The clash of vessels was so hard that Turkish lookouts were thrown into the sea. At the bottom of the painting, fighting scenes allow the observer to join the toughness and brutality of hand-to-hand combat, as well as the sufferings of the defeated, their courage and their heroic will to resist. The struggle of individual fighters reflects the conflict of the world powers of those times.

To create the painting, artist Andrea Vicentino read many books and studied graphic reproductions of that time. This is what we can see on the painting, which represents exactly what history taught us. In 1570 Venice was no longer the undisputed powerful dominator of the Mediterranean, and the Ottoman Empire put their eyes on Cyprus island, landing there in forces. The Serenissima appeals to Pope Pio V, that the following year shook the Holy League under Christian signs whilst the only city that resisted to the Turkish power was Famagosta, animated by the brave Marcantonio Bragadin that little by little, after being tortured, was killed by Ottomans.

The news sets sail the Christian fleet from Messina on September 16th,1571: thousands of galleys, vessels, and smaller units with 30 or 50 thousand sailors and rowers. It was Venice that provided the highest number of warships with hundreds of boats. On October 6th the Turkish admiral left the bay of Lepanto with as many units assuming the half-moon arrangement. The Holy League deployed six venetian galleys, heavy and solid cargo units transformed into powerful war machines inside the Arsenal of Venice. It was October 7th when the two fleets began to advance towards each other: galleys of the Holy League violently hit the Turkish that lost many units, although the final clash happened shortly after, when the two ships touched each other. Enemy ships were pushed through the coastline where they were grounded or sunk and so Turkish jumped into the water to save themselves. 

The turmoil of the Ottoman army will be followed by a carnage. The victory was huge: 13 captured galleys, 90 sunk or crashed on the shore and 3800 prisoners. Nevertheless, the League losses were also many: 7650 deaths and 7800 wounded. The enemy was harshly defeated. The League did not follow him and soon will be dissolved.

A triumph of great symbolic and emotional value. Many years will pass before the Turkish fleet will come back to face naval clashes and the supremacy of the Mediterranean, so the Serenissima supremacy will remain untouched for more than one century. From a technical standpoint, the victory of the Christian fleet marked the last great medieval battle, fought by means of rowing boats.