The Battle of Lepanto

In Our Time: Series 18, Episode 7

It was hard not to think of two things while I was listening to a podcast about The Battle of Lepanto; one personal and one political.  The former was a trip Cathy and I made to Venice thirteen or fourteen years ago, and the latter the supposed clash of Christian and Muslim empires which some like to say is happening now, and that played out its most recent act in Paris.

I am fairly confident that when I went to Venice with Cathy and Matt we saw a huge painting of a naval battle and Matt tried to impress upon me the significance of that battle.  I had never heard of the Battle of Lepanto at that point, and was largely inured to Matt banging on about obscure pieces of history, but it seems to have stayed with me.  It was in the Doge’s Palace, and Wikipedia tells me there is a depiction of the Battle of Lepanto in the Doge’s Palace, so I think this dim memory must be right.  Reviewing the various paintings of the Battle of Lepanto I have to say that they don’t make very good art works from a distance, but are pretty interesting close up when you can take in all the details.

I was already reading about Venice while we were there having picked up a bunch of overpriced books in a bookshop off St Mark’s square.  I had two books by Jan Morris, and one on the architecture by Ruskin.  I never finished the book by Ruskin but read enough of it to look at the architecture there with slightly more educated eyes.  I found it fascinating, thanks to Ruskin, that one face of the Doge’s Palace was able to be so pleasing to the eye for its seeming symmetry but was in fact clearly not symmetrical above its frilly two-tiered colonnades.


Before going to Venice I only really knew it from the films Death in Venice, and Don’t Look Now both of which are about Venice long after its empire, and both of which are rather grim and unsettling.  As soon as we got to Venice it was obvious that it was once enormously wealthy.  It’s something you realise when you walk around downtown Dunedin (of all places); all the grand buildings were paid for by something.  In Dunedin’s case it was the gold fields, in the case of Venice it was its maritime trading empire.

Trading to the east naturally drew it into contact and sometimes conflict with the Ottomans.  The Battle of Lepanto was one of those conflicts.  A naval battle on the west coast of Greece ultimately won by an alliance of European nations.  It seems that this battle has always been described in religious terms.  At its simplest level it was a clash between Christianity and Islam.

…they are really threatened from the 14th and 15th century with the thought that Christian Europe might be overwhelmed by this terrifying new force…

– Diarmaid MacCulloch

One thing this episode made clear was that it wasn’t really like that.  Firstly, Europe was post-reformation Europe, and the powers who fought the Ottomans were Catholic and not Protestant.  Secondly, the Ottomans were not a particularly religion-focused group of people.  Finally, the battle makes much more sense geo-politically.  Yes, the countries fighting the Ottomans were Catholic, but of more significance was the fact that they were on the Mediterranean and therefore threatened by Ottoman expansionism.  Venice, with its bases in places like Cyprus, Crete and Greece, was hugely vulnerable; Italy, jutting into the Mediterranean was an obvious target to a power from the east wanting to expand its reach.

Dressing up Lepanto as a victory for Christianity seems, on reflection, much more like what we would now call spin, or perhaps more apt would be propaganda.

Paolo Veronese (c.1572)

With the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November the language around the East and the West has been heightened again.  No longer fashionable in the West to talk religion, the West has talked the religion of secular values.  Hollande declared France the mother of human rights which is both true and not true.  True and not true in so many senses as to be a meaningless statement.  Are we talking about that revolution which quickly descended into something very far from the idea of human rights?  We’re certainly not talking about, say, Algeria.  In America Republican presidential candidates talk about “rabid dogs” and Muslim databases and ID cards.  This for people who are fleeing the same enemy that America is attacking.

Ironically, given how the Battle of Lepanto is presented as a victory for the Christian West, my trip to Venice was as close as I have come to the East.  It makes sense that after centuries of contact with Muslim countries and their culture that some of those architectural mores would begin to show up in the fabric of Venice.  Being inside St. Mark’s is a little like being inside a burglar’s shed.  That church is stuffed full of ideas and actual artifacts taken from the East.  The Doge’s Palace next door is said to have been influenced in its design by the Iwan al-Kabir in Cairo.  This is to name but two examples of fruitful cultural fusion (side-stepping the issue of actual theft).

Just as in 1571 we are not in 2015 talking about two simple sides in a battle of civilisation.  The East is clearly not united in support of ISIS who represent a particular interpretation of Islam that appeals to a particular group of people.  The West is equally divided over how to respond.  It is natural to condemn the murder of civilians; harder to determine what to do about it.  But more than that, the whole East-West binary itself is not helpful.  They have been in each other’s business for well over 1300 years now and, it should be added, both worship the same God.

Whether or not the actual Battle of Lepanto was a crucial moment in history was debated at the end of the podcast. Its value as an idea seems to be of more significance now.  Not as a symbol for a genuine ideological war, but as a reminder of how conflicts can be painted as other things for the benefit of motivating more violence, and misunderstanding.