There are many historical figures waiting to be elevated to sainthood because they were killed in hatred of the faith and of Christian civilization: Simon de Montfort (1170-1218), victim of the Albigensian heretics; Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, killed in 1587 by Elizabeth I Tudor; Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, monarchs of France, guillotined in 1793 by the Jacobins and, last but not least, Marcantonio Bragadin, the heroic defender of Famagusta flayed alive by the Turks in 1571. This year is the 450th anniversary of the victory of Lepanto, but also of the sacrifice of Marcantonio Bragadin. The tragic death of the Venetian patrician was handed down to history by an eyewitness, Nestore Martinengo (1547-1598), who in 1572 presented to the government of the Republic of Venice a famous report on L’assedio et la presa di Famagosta. Those who would like to understand this event in its religious and political context can read more about it in my book Saint Pius V: The Legendary Pope Who Excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I, Standardized the Mass, and Defeated the Ottoman Empire.
It all began during the night between September 13 and 14, 1569, when a tremendous tumult shook Venice. The massive ammunition depot of the arsenal had been blown up. The Senate of the Republic attributed the incident to saboteurs hired by Josef Nasi, a rich Jew of Portuguese origin, sworn enemy of the Republic of Venice, who lived in Constantinople and pushed the Sultan Selim II to conquest all the islands of the Aegean Sea.
Selim II (1524-1574), who had succeeded his father Suleiman the Magnificent as head of the Ottoman Empire, decided to break the peace concluded in 1540 with Venice, claiming alleged rights on the island of Cyprus, a Venetian colony that had great strategic importance and constituted, with Malta, the only Christian enclave in a sea dominated by the Turks.
The authorities of the Republic of Venice were faced with a dilemma: abandon the island of Cyprus, or challenge the Ottoman power, giving up the policy of conciliation towards the Turks, held by the “Serenissima” in recent decades. On March 28, 1570 Selim sent to Venice his ambassador to deliver an ultimatum: surrender the island of Cyprus or suffer war. The conversation between the Turkish envoy and the Venetian official Pietro Loredan lasted a few minutes. “The Republic will defend itself trusting in God’s help and in the strength of its arms,” declared the old magistrate. On Easter Monday, in the Basilica of San Marco, the combat banner was handed over to the “General Captain of the Sea” of the Serenissima’s fleet, Girolamo Zane. Venice was preparing for war.
Pope Pius V (1566-1572), who had been reigning for four years, rejoiced at the news: the war would be a great opportunity to achieve the goal he had set himself from the beginning of his pontificate: the establishment of a “Holy League” of Christian princes against Islam, the geo-political enemy of the Catholic faith. He was convinced that what was at stake was not only the interest of Venice, but that of the whole of Christendom.
Meanwhile, on July 3, 1570, the troops of Lala Mustafà Pasha (c. 1500-1580), sent by Selim II, landed on Cyprus and laid siege to Nicosia, the capital of the island. The Venetian garrison deployed 6,000 men against more than 100,000 Ottomans, equipped with 1,500 cannons and supported by about 150 ships, which blocked the influx of supplies and reinforcements. Despite the fierce defense, Nicosia fell after a siege of two months, the garrison was massacred, and more than two thousand inhabitants captured and sold as slaves. Under the control of the Venetians remained, however, Famagusta, the main stronghold of the island.
The Turks sent to the defenders of Famagosta the severed head of the governor of Nicosia, Niccolò Dandolo, to admonish them to surrender, but the Venetians, led by the civil governor Marcantonio Bragadin and by the military commander Astorre Baglioni were determined to resist to the bitter end.
In January, 1571, the bold Venetian commander Marco Querini, starting from Crete, beat back the Turkish blockade with sixteen of his galleys, rescued the civilians from Famagusta and reinforced the small garrison with ammunition, food and 1600 men. Bragadin and Baglioni succeeded in resisting for the whole winter, thanks to the excellent fortified system of the city and because of the surprise raids that they carried out outside the walls in the camp of the besiegers. The Venetians also poisoned the external water wells and made it look like they had evacuated the city, pushing the enemy to approach without precautions and inflicting serious losses.
In spring the attacks of the Turks were renewed with more and more fury, while Pius V had succeeded in constituting his Holy League, with the participation of the Papal State, Spain and the Republic of Venice.
Bragadin now awaited the arrival of the Christian reinforcement, but Mustafà, who feared another disastrous defeat after the one suffered in Malta five years before, asked for further reinforcements and his army reached 250,000 units, against little more than 2000 Venetian fighters. After eleven months of heroic resistance, the continuous bombardments and the end of provisions and ammunition forced Bragadin to decree the surrender of Famagosta. It was August 1, 1571.
Lalà Mustafà had promised, with a signed document, to allow the survivors to leave the island, embarking on their ships, “to the beat of drums, with the insignia unfurled, artillery, arms and baggage, wife and children,” but he was guilty of an infamous betrayal. On August 2, Bragadin, accompanied by Astorre Baglioni went to Mustafà’s tent to give him the keys of the city, but the two Venetian commanders were abused and arrested. Astorre Baglioni and the other representatives of the Venetian delegation were beheaded on the spot, while a much worse fate awaited Bragadin. His ears and nose were cut off and he was locked up for twelve days in a cage, where he could not even move, under the burning sun, with very little water and food. On the fourth day, the Turks offered him freedom if he converted to Islam, but Bragadin disdainfully refused.
On August 17 the Venetian commander was hung from the mast of his ship and scourged with over a hundred lashes, then forced to carry on his shoulders through the streets of Famagusta a large basket full of stones and sand, until he collapsed. He was brought back to the main square of the city chained to a column and here a Genoese renegade started with his left shoulder and began to skin him alive. The Venetian commander endured his martyrdom with heroism, continuing to recite the Miserere [Ps. 50] and invoking the name of Christ until, after they had flayed his torso and arms, he cried out: “In manus tuas Domine commendo spirituum meum” [into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit] and breathed his last. It was 3:00 p.m. on August 17, 1571. Bragadin’s body was then quartered, and his skin, stuffed with straw and cotton, and covered with the clothes and insignia of the command, was carried in a macabre procession through the streets of Famagusta, and then hung on the mast of a galley and brought to Istanbul as a trophy, along with the heads of Christian leaders.
The Christian response to the massacre of Famagosta took place on October 7, 1571 in the waters of Lepanto, where the Turkish fleet was annihilated. Marcantonio Bragadin’s skin, stolen in 1580 from the Arsenal of Istanbul, was brought to Venice and is venerated as a relic in the church of Sts. John and Paul, in the back of the monument of the Venetian hero. Marcantonio Bragadin deserves to be included among the Blessed of the Fifth Heaven of Paradise, described by Dante in the Divine Comedy, and should be remembered alongside the great fighters for the faith of the last centuries, from the Vendéans to the Cristeros. One day, perhaps, the Church will canonize him as a martyr.
Translated by Kennedy Hall.
Roberto de Mattei is an Italian Catholic historian and the President of the Lepanto Foundation, an international organization based in Rome that aims to defend the principles and institutions of Christian Civilization. He directs the magazine “Radici Cristiane” and the “Corrispondenza Romana” News Agency, and was Director of the “Nova Historica” international journal from 2002 until 2013. He is the author of many books, including “The Second Vatican Council – An Unwritten Story.” His books have been translated into several languages, and have earned him an international reputation.