Ali Pasha & the Battle of Lepanto
This fascinating and rare print was published in Germany probably shortly after the allied Christian naval victory over the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Ali Pasha, the defeated Turkish naval commander is shown full length, wearing a kaftan of costly woven, figured silks. His exotic clothes, turban and long feathery headdress denote his high rank. Although he is shown alive, in the background is a detail of his head on the end of a pole. Behind Ali Pasha is the Turkish flagship on which he was wounded and subsequently beheaded.
Prints such as this would have been made and sold in large numbers. They may have served as a form of proclamation pasted up in a public place. They were designed for wide distribution and were cheap. The messages were simple and direct. The vast majority of such prints were bought casually and treated carelessly and very few would have survived. This print has been folded at some stage and was perhaps inserted in a book, which may have ensured its survival. The back of the sheet appears to have been used for doing some hasty sums.
The Battle of Lepanto took place between the Holy League, consisting of Spain, Venice and the Papacy, and the Ottoman Empire, which lay to the south of Poland and Russia. Two thirds of the Holy League ships were Italian, but Spain contributed most of the financing. The Holy League, under the command of Don Juan of Austria, met the Ottoman fleet, led by Ali Pasha, at Lepanto on 7th October 1571.
There had long been tensions between the Muslim Ottomans and the Catholic Spanish in the Mediterranean. Spain had captured Tripoli and Bougie in 1510, and in 1551 and 1555 the Ottomans recaptured them. By the late 1550s the Spanish felt that their coastline was threatened by the advancing Ottomans, and there were concerns that the converted Muslims (Moriscos) in Spain would assist an Ottoman invasion: between 1568 and 1570 there was a serious revolt of the Moriscos in Granada. In 1570 the Ottomans captured Cyprus from the Venetians. It was the last of the crusader states still in western European hands, and the Sultan, Selim, claimed it as King of Jerusalem. Additionally, the Venetian forces there were failing to prevent western corsairs from using the Cypriot coast to launch attacks on Muslim pilgrim ships on their way to Egypt and Mecca.
The Holy League was victorious in the Battle of Lepanto, losing twelve galleys to the Ottoman's one hundred and seventeen. The Ottomans had underestimated the fighting power of their opponent's fleet. They had heard of tensions within the Holy League and assumed that the Venetians would defect, and a reconnaissance mission carried out two days before the battle reported that there were significantly fewer Holy League ships than there actually were. Although the Ottomans still had more ships in their command, they were outnumbered in fighting men and artillery.
Ali Pasha, commanding the forces against the Holy League, is otherwise known as Müezzinzâde Ali Pasha. He was married to one of the Sultan's daughters, and was appointed to the post of kapudan by Grand Vizier Mehmet Sokoli. He fought from a ship called the Sultana, and in the Battle of Lepanto it clashed with La Real, the ship of the Holy League leader, Don Juan of Austria. Ali Pasha was a renowned archer, and it is said that it was an arrow shot by him which pierced both the breast plate and the back plate of a solider on the La Real. The Spanish troops on the La Real were repulsed from the 'Sultana' twice. On their third attempt to make it to the mainmast, Ali Pasha was either killed or seriously injured by a bullet to the head. He was beheaded by a Spanish soldier, who brought his trophy to his commander. Some sources say that Don Juan then had Ali Pasha's head mounted on a pike, and others say that Don Juan was so infuriated with the lack of respect shown to his adversary that he ordered both the head and the man who had cut it off to be thrown overboard.
The uncertainty of events and the heroic light thrown on various members of both sides show how myth has surrounded the battle. One historian of the battle relates how it 'was invested with a miraculous aura at the time'. It was the last time the papacy was able to direct violence against a rival of Christianity before the wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants divided Europe. No galley battle on such a large scale had been fought before the Battle of Lepanto since ancient times, and it was never repeated. It is perhaps this sense of it being the last battle that had made it into such a celebrated victory. Indeed at the time, it was hailed as the end of the Muslim threat to Christianity, which was felt particularly deeply, it has been claimed, because of the contemporary perception in the Christian lands that all of humanity was in crisis. To defeat the Ottomans at Lepanto, they felt, was to rid themselves of one of the greatest threats to western safety.
Ultimately, however, the battle was indecisive. There was no permanent adjustment to power in the Mediterranean. The "crusading pope", Pius V, died in 1572, and Venice withdrew from the Holy League alliance the following year, having not reached their aim of recapturing Cyprus. The Ottomans made a quick recovery, and captured Tunis in 1574. Philip II, King of Spain, was nearly bankrupt and unable to prevent them. Further Spanish and Portuguese attempts to expand their North African territories were repulsed. Nevertheless, the Ottomans were also fighting in Persia and did not have the resources to continue their Mediterranean advance. In 1578 an informal suspension of arms was agreed with Spain, and in 1580 this became a permanent truce.
Despite this, the Battle of Lepanto was very much depicted at the time as a victory of Christian forces over Muslim: as good over evil, although today we know that the Muslims in the sixteenth century were no more or less cruel than the western Europeans, and were far more civilised. In addition, they were a lot more tolerant of Judaism and Christianity than the Christians were of Islam and Judaism.
Nevertheless, both sides saw the conflict as a religious battle. Letters between the Ottoman generals refer to the Christian forces as "the Infidels", while letters within the Holy League call the battle the cause of God. For the Holy League, the military monastic orders, such as the Order of Saint John and the Order of Santo Stefano, played a significant role. The anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto is still celebrated by the Catholic Church in the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.
The legacy of the Battle of Lepanto has been strong as it was one of the first major events to occur after printing technology had become widespread, and it was a rare opportunity for late Renaissance artists to depict a contemporary victory. Therefore it saw wide coverage at the time from both printed and artistic sources. The Ottomans were celebrated as being heroic, worthy opponents, and the victory was commemorated throughout Western Europe as being a great triumph for Christianity, as the deliverance of Christendom from an oppressor, even it seems, in areas where Protestantism was favoured over Catholicism, such as in Germany. Perhaps the celebration there was, as one historian has cynically put it, more to do with the fact that the battle diverted papal attention away from the increasingly powerful Protestant strand of Christianity, which, with Catholic attentions elsewhere, was able to consolidate its hold.