The Battle of Lepanto is a naval combat which took place on October 7, 1571 near the Gulf of Patras and which opposed a Christian fleet, mainly Venetian, commanded by Don Juan of Austria and the Ottoman fleet ofAli Pasha. This first major naval victory of the Christians against the Muslim Turks is a turning point in European history and marks the end of Ottoman domination in the Mediterranean.
The Battle of Lepanto, an "ideological" confrontation
Thus, and even more than for Habsburg, the battle of Lepanto is for Venice The opportunity to find a second wind, while the country is in decline, and has been experiencing more and more and for several decades the effects of a crisis both commercial and economic. The battle is also seen as a real religious crusade, led by the Holy Christian League against the Ottoman Turks, who are Muslims. Veronese magnificently underlined this religious inclination of the fighting in her “ Battle of Lepanto ", Painted in 1572 and exhibited at the Accademia in Venice. Anyway, this battleship is a major event: first of all because it is one of the most important of its kind in history in general, in particular by its painful record and its scope, but also because it represents in a way a "confrontation ideological ”very interesting in the context of the study of international relations in the 16th century.
Indeed, throughout the 16th century, southern Europe, or rather the Mediterranean world, found itself literally fractured between the two great monotheistic religions of the time: Christianity, represented by Holy League, and Islam, in the presence of Ottoman Turkss. The Sainte-Ligue, for its part, was a diplomatic alliance, which was created on May 25, 1571 by the Serene Republic of Venice, the Habsburg States of Spain, Naples and Sicily, the Republic of Genoa, the Hospitallers, the Duchy of Savoy, the Knights of Malta, the Papal States, as well as various Italian states. These states then pledged to supply nearly two hundred galleys on 1er April of each year; half of the cost was to be borne by Spain, a third by Venice, and a sixth by the papacy. Command of the fleet was given to don Juan of Austria, brother of Philippe II king of Spain and illegitimate son of Charles Quint.
Faced with this Holy Alliance was therefore the Ottoman Empire, which, since the beginning of the 16th century, had been trying to seize control of the Mediterranean. Like the Viking raids of the 9th century, the Ottomans also made rapid incursions on the Spanish and Italian coasts, taking care to plunder the territories crossed. When in 1570, the Ottomans seized Cyprus to the detriment of Venice, in particular by massacring nearly twenty thousand inhabitants of Nicosia, one more step was taken towards war. The Holy League was therefore formed, on the initiative of Pope Pius V, who called for theideal of the medieval crusade. The Christian - Catholic States, above all! - organize, and unite against the Ottoman Turks. Conflict therefore seems inevitable, so great is the tension in the Mediterranean.
One of the most important naval battles in history
Despite everything, the Spaniards continue to doubt the imminence of the clash. On October 6, 1571, the Holy League fleet stands in front of the Curzolari Islands, a tiny archipelago between Kefalonia and the mouth of the Gulf of Lepanto ; two hundred and eight galleys are present: one hundred and six Venetians, ninety Spaniards and Genoese, twelve pontificals. There are also galéasses, supplied by Venice, and between twenty and thirty sailing ships. In all, the Holy League had almost two thousand artillery pieces and eighty thousand men.
Anchored in the harbor of Lepanto, the turkish fleet is composed of two hundred and seventy galleys and seventy various vessels, employing ninety thousand men for seven hundred and fifty pieces of artillery. The Ottoman warships were discovered at Malcanton Point at dawn on October 7, 1571. Don Juan of Austria stopped his galley, the Royal of Spain, and gives the signal for the deployment of its fleet, ten miles from the enemy forces. The Turks are impatient: having had information - which turned out to be inaccurate - they then estimate the Holy League fleet at one hundred and seventy ships! Ali Pasha, the Ottoman commander, orders the deployment of his fleet.
The Spanish infantry then set off to board the Turkish galleys, literally locked in the Gulf of Lepanto. The shipAli Pasha was invaded by the men of the galley of Don Juan of Austria: the Turkish admiral was beheaded. According to legend, his head was placed at the end of the mast of the main Spanish ship ... The Christian slaves themselves, held back by the Ottomans, took advantage of the rout of their jailers to break their chains and attack them with makeshift weapons.
The victory of Lepanto: a heavy toll and an immense impact
The Battle of Lepanto is rightly considered the greatest and most bloodthirsty in history. Alvise Zorzi, specialist in Venetian history and civilization, speaks in his History of Venice of a " horrible spectacle of the sea covered with blood, corpses, broken oars, masts. ". In reality, the Ottoman rout was total: the League captured one hundred and seventeen galleys, sent sixty-two to the bottom, seized thirteen galiots and nearly four hundred pieces of artillery. Three thousand five hundred Turkish galley slaves were captured, and the Ottomans lost twenty to thirty thousand men, not to mention all those who were massacred by the Greeks in the coastal villages. In addition, fifteen thousand Christian slaves were freed. On the side of the Holy League, there are twenty thousand wounded and seven thousand five hundred dead. The Venetians paid the most heavy price, with four thousand seven hundred losses, which reinforces the legend raising them into true heroes of the battle of Lepanto.
Since the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. J.-C., the Mediterranean had never known such a naval confrontation. Therefore, theSpanish hegemony over the Mediterranean was confirmed, and even increased. Psychologically, the victory had a considerable impact in Europe, and in particular in Venice: more than a military victory, it was really about triumph of Christianity against the Ottomans, Muslims. Moreover, the Battle of Lepanto truly marks the end of Ottoman expansionism in the Mediterranean, to the benefit of Spain. But the stakes, after 1571, are already elsewhere, on the side of America, where the Spaniards must face the famous revolt of Tupac Amaru in Peru. Andrew Wheatcroft, in his work Infidels: A History of the Conflict between Christendom and Islam, speaks in particular of the existence, by the outcome of the conflict, of a certain "European conscience".
Be that as it may, more than a strategic - and especially commercial and economic - victory, the Battle of Lepanto exposed the triumph of Christendom over Islam, of the Venetian "martyrs" over the Ottomans. To the military and naval triumph, is added a ideological dimension undeniable, even capital.
In the imaginations of many Venetians, even today, Lepanto represents a real pride, a moment of glorye that many like to recall, the Venetian fighters having been hailed for their bravery. The Museo Correr in Venice, located in Saint Mark's Square, and directly facing the majestic basilica of the same name, still exhibits four gigantic and splendid paintings testifying to the harshness of these battles, while taking great care to praise the Serene and its centuries-old openness to the sea.
- The Battle of Lepanto (1571) by Henri Pigaillem. Economica, 2003.
- The battle of the three empires: Lepanto, 1571, by Alessandro Barbero. Champs History, 2014.