the fall of Constantinople in 1453, through a series of intermittent
wars extending over more than a century, Ottoman Turkish forces
surged inexorably through the territories of Venice's empire in the
Eastern Mediterranean. By 1570 the Ottomans were ready to assault the
greatest source of Venetian wealth and power in the Eastern Mediterranean:
the island of Cyprus.
attack on Cyprus came in July 1570 after ample warning. Venice cobbled
together an alliance with the Pope and the Spanish Emperor of the
Holy Roman Empire, but the allied fleets wasted the spring and early
summer in dithering. Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, fell quickly
to the Turks. Venice then pinned her hopes on a successful defense
of the heavily fortified citadel city of Famagusta on the northern
coast. The defenders withstood the siege for a year, but Turkish forces
overwhelmed them in July 1571.
of the city, the Turks undertook a brutal torture of the Venetian
commander, Marcantonio Bragadin, that has remained one of the most
brutal and bitterly remembered episodes in all Venetian history.
The long and
heroic defense of Bragadin and his comrades at Famagusta at least
provided Venice time to re-energize its erstwhile allies, the Pope
and the Holy Roman Empire. Emboldened by the Turkish victory at Famagusta,
the Turkish fleet had entered the lower Adriatic. In October 1571
at the Gulf of Patras near Lepanto they found arrayed before them
the combined fleet of Venice and her allies. The Venetians on the
left wing totally routed their Turkish opponents. The battle at the
center, under the direct command of the Holy Roman Empire commander,
swayed longer in the balance, but victory at last fell to Venice's
allies. Only the right wing, under the dunderheaded leadership of
a Genoan commander, failed to achieve success.
Lepanto is remembered
as one of history's greatest naval engagements. The magnificent victory
of the European allies stalled--but did not stem--the Turkish tide
of westward expansion. Certainly, it did not serve to return Cyprus
to Venetian control. Nonetheless, it succeeded in dispelling the aura
of invincibility that had gathered about the Turks.