Interview with Alessandro Barbero, historian

Italian historian, Alessandro Barbero is a medievalist, but he has also published several battle history books as well as historical novels. Today, he tells us about his work on the Battle of Lepanto, from which he has drawn a book that will no doubt be dated, The Battle of the Three Empires (Flammarion). Or how to bring the battle-story up to date while challenging many received ideas about Battle of Lepanto.

HPT: How did you come up with the idea of ​​telling the story of the Battle of Lepanto?

A. Barbero: Even though I am primarily a medievalist, I am also interested in battle history and other periods [read Waterloo (Flammarion, 2005) and The day of the barbarians, Adrianople (Flammarion, 2006)]. But there, I remember perfectly the circumstances of this choice. It was a special and specific occasion that gave birth to this book: a few years ago, I visited an exhibition in Venice called “Venice and Islam”. I discovered things there that I had no idea about, like the close relationship between Venice and the Ottoman world, commercial first. For example that the pashas and the viziers, and their wives too, bought in Venice a whole lot of things, glasses, cards, glassware, and that all this was an important part of the consumption of the Ottoman ruling group, to the point that even the war during the pashas continued to place orders in Venice. This little starting point caught my attention on the interest of this Ottoman world, and I started to read a lot of sources. Not reading Ottoman Turkish, I turned to very rich Western sources, especially the accounts of Venetian ambassadors. Being also a military historian, I also discovered that around the battle of Lepanto I could tie all the interesting elements to speak about these two worlds.

A three-year job

How long have you worked on this book?

Three years. I work quickly in general, but there was a lot of material. We medievalists are used to working on stingy sources, while the breadth of archival sources from the end of the 16th century gave me a lot of work, and I even had trouble stopping!

Have you consulted sources other than those in Venice?

Spanish sources have been used a lot, so I used sources already published or mentioned by a whole historiography starting from Braudel. I also consulted the archives of Genoa, which they have been little exploited. But the Venetian sources are the richest and are almost inexhaustible. In addition, I systematically used all that there was from Ottoman sources translated into the Western language.

Can you give us the context of the time as well as the protagonists?

What fascinated me are precisely these characters, these protagonists. I started on the Ottoman side, and there again the accounts of the Venetian ambassadors were very useful because they always portrayed the reigning sultan and his pashas, ​​anecdotes and gossip included. In the first place, Sultan Selim, an atypical character, alcoholic, suffering horribly from being the son of the great Suleiman the Magnificent. Not particularly cruel and rather peaceful at the outset, he had to undergo pressure from the military, janissaries and ulemas, who told him that a sultan had to make conquests at the beginning of his reign.

Which would explain why he ended up breaking the peace signed by his father with Venice forty years earlier ...

This is the explanation that contemporaries give. Obviously, when he demands from the Venetians the cession of Cyprus, it is not on these arguments but on the pretext of a legitimate sovereignty of the Ottomans on the island, since Venice has been paying tribute to the Sultan for a very long time; but also because Cyprus is the fulcrum of Christian corsairs against the Empire, and therefore a threat that must be eradicated. It should not be underestimated either that the Cypriot population hated Italians and was not against Turkish aid to get rid of the Venetian presence. There is therefore a set of reasons which, from the Ottoman point of view, justify this demand for the cession of Cyprus by Venice.

And the Venice of the time, where is it?

It is a very great political, financial, but above all commercial power. Its power at sea is also considerable. While it is only a small city, it can mobilize as many galleys as great powers like the Ottoman Empire or the Spain of Philippe II. Sometimes even with less difficulty. Yet despite its power at the time, Venice is in no great hurry to come into conflict with the Ottomans and there are two opposing parties over the policy to be pursued. The "old" party rather represents those who defend diplomacy against war, even if it means giving in on certain points while the "young" are more for the conflict. The vizier himself is aware of this, as shown by his advice to the Venetian ambassador to write to "old people", those who understand the world, rather than to young people who do not know the power of the sultan.

The decisive role of Pope Pius V

Another major protagonist is the Pope ...

Yes, Pius V. A pope of great stature, more or less sympathetic according to the points of view, former inquisitor, and who has the dream of breaking the Moslem expansion. He saw this as an opportunity to form a coalition to put to sea a fleet superior to the Turkish fleet. At first, the Venetians believed that they could fight the Sultan on their own, but the first year of the war was disappointing and they could not stop the Turks from landing in Cyprus and seizing it, Famagusta excepted. Venice therefore accepts the Pope's idea of ​​concocting this incredible alliance between two powers which normally hate each other: Venice and the Spain of Philippe II. It is all the talent of this pope to have succeeded in convincing them, in particular the “Prudent King”, Philippe, who thinks that the Venetians will ultimately abandon him. What will actually happen after Lepanto. But it is a question of prestige, Philippe II wishes to keep his rank of first king of Christendom, and the Pope plays on it.

So Christians are capable of defeating the invincible Turkish fleet?

There is this myth that we often hear, that Lepanto is the moment when the invincibility of the Turkish fleet finally ended, but you have to know that the Turks themselves were not sure of themselves before. the battle. Texts tell us that they thought their means at sea were inferior to those of Christians. We discuss the quality of the galleys, we bring in specialists from the West and we recognize that there is a margin of Christian superiority.

Is the Christian fleet superior in number and quality?

In fact, it's more nuanced. We know quite well the number of Christian galleys in Lepanto, but for the Turks it is much more difficult. Contrary to what some works claim, it cannot be said that the Turkish fleet was superior to that of the Christians, because there is no source that supports this idea, except letters from Christians long after the battle, where we have an interest in exaggerating the forces of the enemy we have defeated. In contrast, sources mentioning reports of spies and ambassadors before Lepanto all say the number of Turkish galleys was significantly lower than that of Christian galleys. In addition, the Christian fleet is brand new, the crews and soldiers have just been recruited, while the Turkish fleet comes out of the Cyprus campaign and has suffered all summer, especially from the plague. It is even being dismantled for the winter. Technical inferiority should be put into perspective. The Turks also have artillery on board the galleys, equivalent in quality to that of the Christians, but their galleys are not as crammed with guns as those of their adversaries. For the infantry, the difference is more important: the Turks are used to fighting without armor, the Christians still use the armor; the Turks know the arquebus very well, but they have not yet given up on the bow, which equips half of their infantry. We thus have plenty of testimonies from Christians who claim not to fear Turkish arrows thanks to their armor and their very padded clothes. However, immediately after Lepanto, the Turks will correct all these errors and strengthen the firepower of their fleet ...

Lepanto, a second battle of Poitiers?

You do not approach the battle at all from a “clash of civilizations” point of view, whereas Lepanto is often seen (and politically taken up) as a major moment in the clash between Christendom and Islam.

Lepanto has always been told to us as the moment when the Muslim expansion stopped, much like a second battle of Poitiers. And so we are led to read this battle as a confrontation between two blocs. Many books on Lepanto tend to focus on a battle that would have saved the West or Europe from Muslim invasion. However, as soon as we look back at this period, we discover some somewhat disturbing facts; for example, the war was fought above all for reasons of power, geopolitics, not religious. This does not mean that we must deny that the Pope's approach was made on religious grounds, in a spirit of crusade. From his point of view, the clash of civilizations was there. But we also discover that the Ottoman Empire is indeed a European power since a good part of current Europe is controlled by the sultan. How to talk about Europe at this time? I had a hard time defining the enemies of the Turks: Christians? Half of the sultan's subjects are Christians, their clergy are supposed to pray for the sultan's victory, a good part of the rowers of the fleet are Greek Christian conscripts, the pashas are all former converted Christians, ... The image of this side is therefore very nuanced! On the other hand, Christians, but not all, like those Cypriots who sided with the Ottomans during the invasion of the island. The Protestant world is also totally excluded from this story ...

There were also the rivalries you mentioned between Venice and Philip II ...

Absolutely, and it is precisely an alliance that does not hold. A year after Lepanto, Venice is already consulting the Sultan to see if there is a way to make peace. The war broke out for geopolitical reasons, then it was charged with religious values, by the Pope, but also on the Turkish side afterwards, with a call for jihad. The religious discourse therefore exists, because it is a great mobilizing factor, but this is superimposed on geopolitical interests, which finally regain the upper hand after the battle, as the attitude of Venice shows. There are also a whole bunch of protagonists who don't see the world that way. Merchants for example. Venetians were stranded in Constantinople at the beginning of the war, with the seizure of their goods, but they did not stop discussing to be released in order to be able to continue their trade. And the sultan finally accepts! So not everyone was a prisoner of the ideological patterns that motivated the war.

The history of war: "a formidable prism for studying all aspects of a society"

You are in the history-battle, long despised by historiography ...

Yes, it was shameful to do battle history for several decades, before Georges Duby made his Sunday in Bouvines. Likewise, Anglo-Saxon historiography has shown that the history of war and battle can be done in a very interesting way. I insist on both because on the one hand we have the history of the war, it is the history of the mobilization of States, their resources, finances and techniques. A bit like the dream of global history. Even if today, we are all convinced that global history is not possible, with war we have a formidable prism for discovering all aspects of a society. On the other side, there is therefore the history-battle, that of the Anglo-Saxons like John Keegan, the history of the experience of combat.

Precisely, did you have access to sources on this combat experience in Lepanto, the testimonies of combatants for example?

Obviously, we have far fewer testimonies than for World War I, or even for Waterloo [reference]. There is indeed a galley-slave's story, a few letters from ordinary soldiers, but above all we have testimonies from officers and admirals. The latter, at the time, were fighting in the fray, which gives a real interest to their testimony.

With your books, you do not hesitate to say that you do popularization, that you want to make history accessible to as many people as possible. However, we know that this is a difficulty for many historians, and that the competition is stiff, including with non-historian works ...

The profession of the professional historian is first of all research. Our duty is therefore above all to make articles and books addressed to our colleagues, illegible for the general public, filled with reference notes, quotes from sources in the original language. We are sometimes criticized for it, while no one criticizes nuclear physicists for writing articles that no one can read ... But it is also important if anyone among us discovers the desire, the talent and the joy of 'try popularization. Because too many popular works that appear, written by non-specialists, are zero and it is a shame to leave journalists or others the concern of explaining and telling the story to the general public. So I discovered the pleasure of doing this kind of work. However, I do not limit myself to taking over the work of colleagues as we often did in popularization, I also put research into it to arrive at more or less original conclusions, while remaining accessible to the general public.

Thank you.

Notice of History for all on The Battle of the Three Empires

Imposing work, The Battle of the Three Empires will convince many battle-history refractors. Far from being satisfied with a tactical account of the battle which opposed the Holy League to the Ottoman fleet in 1571, or even with the transcription of the experience of combat on a galley at the end of the 16th century, A. Barbero resides the Battle of Lepanto in its rich and fascinating context (notably the war in Cyprus), by following each of the protagonists in the different camps involved. This allows him, among other things, not to fall into the trap of the clash of civilizations, too frequent when it comes to evoking this battle so politically recuperated, even today.

A.'s talent as a writer. Barbero really allows you to slip into the courts of the various sovereigns, in the arsenals and on the bridges of the galleys, while ending with a salutary point on the real consequences of Lepanto.

A work that is not only a work relatively accessible to the general public (some passages are quite dense), but also a contribution to research on an always sensitive subject. These days it is to be greeted.

- A. Barbero, The Battle of the Three Empires, Flammarion, 2012, 700 p.

Video: Il Primo Borbone - Alessandro Barbero 2020 (January 2022).