News from Negroponte: Politics, Popular Opinion, and Information Exchange in the First Decade of the Italian Press*

Article excerpt

Ai Negroponte mio, che in tanto afano
Te vedo in su la rocha esser percosso
Nel quattrocento di setanta all'ano. (1)


Negroponte fell to the Turks on 12 July 1470. (2) The fortified city commanded the island of Euboea in the Aegean Sea and was one of Venice's most important remaining possessions in the Eastern Mediterranean. Its loss was a serious blow to the republic. After the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, Venice had fallen back heavily on Negroponte; the city was a major commercial entrepot as well as a vital military outpost, the site from which, for the past seven years, Venetian galleys had pursued an increasingly isolated war against the Turks. With the loss of this crucial forward base, Venice had no way to challenge the Turkish fleet in its own waters. The way lay open, or so it seemed to European observers, for an Ottoman assault on Italy itself. (3)

The political implications of Negroponte's fall were compelling: imperial Venice had its back to the wall. No less riveting were the dramatic details of how the event had unfolded. The story held a gruesome fascination. (4) When the Turks launched their assault in mid-June, 1470, the citizens of Negroponte mounted a spirited resistance, but their efforts were no match for the determination and craft of Sultan Mehmed II (1432-81). To confront the island fortress, the sultan had ordered a new fleet of galleys to be constructed--the largest in Ottoman history--and devised an ingenious system of pontoon bridges over the treacherous straits of the Euripos separating Euboea from the mainland. (5) With his men and artillery safely over the bridges, he set forty-two massive bronze guns to battering the city walls. His janissaries flung themselves in waves against the fortifications till the dead filled the moats to overflowing. But the city still held out. There were moments of high drama: a treacherous captain, Tommaso Schiavo, was caught trying to open the city gates to the besiegers. The cunning Negropontines cut the traitor down, then lured his unsuspecting Turkish accomplices into a deadly trap. But there was also tragic disappointment. On the morning of 11 July, the embattled citizens of Negroponte woke to see a Venetian fleet approaching at speed down the straits of the Euripos. In hope and delight the defenders raised the flag of St. Mark over the battlements to show the city was not lost. But the captain-general of the fleet, Niccolo Canal, was a tentative commander. Seeing the extent of the sultan's operations--the pontoon bridges, cannon arrays, and thousands of Turkish tents ringing the walls--Canal held his ships back. His troops stood helplessly on the decks the following day as the Turks stormed the walls and, on the sultan's orders, killed every adult male in Negroponte, took the women and children prisoner, massacred the families of the Venetian administrators, and (at least some reports said) strapped the governor Paolo Erizzo between two thick wooden boards and sawed him in half at the waist. Within a week, the remaining towns of Euboea had made a hasty surrender.

When news of the disaster at Negroponte reached Italy at the end of July, it set off a chain of political and popular reactions that would dominate the civic discourse of the peninsula for months to come. The loss of the colony precipitated a flurry of diplomatic correspondence and negotiations among the Italian states. Meanwhile, the Italian public responded to the news with a strident mix of panic, self-recrimination, and prurient interest in the gruesome details.

In many ways the aftermath recalled the atmosphere of 1453: the fall of Constantinople, too, had provoked both fear and fascination among the Italians. (6) And, along with political wrangling and popular outpourings of grief and dismay, both catastrophes gave rise to an enormous and enormously varied body of texts. These included hastily composed eyewitness reports; poetic laments for the cities and their dead; humanist orations bewailing the barbarity of the Turks; learned tracts debating their origins and character; theological ruminations on their possible apocalyptic significance; and popular sermons that laid the blame for Ottoman depredations squarely at the feet of a sinful Christendom. …