|Portrait of Sebastiano Venier, by Tintoretto.|
"A soldier all white-haired and at the extreme of old age, Venier performed the feats of arms of a young man--like a serpent that issues out of the dark in spring, casting off his old skin for a resplendent new one, stronger than ever, his eyes flashing fire."
-- a contemporary historian, describing Sebastiano Venier at the Battle of Lepanto, October 7th, 1571 A.D./C.E.
Hard times require hard men. In the late 16th century, things were quite hard for Christian Europe. Divided by both religious and cultural differences (eg., Catholics vs. Protestants, etc), the Europeans were rarely able to present a unified front against the common foe--the Muslim Turks. The Ottomans had been overwhelmingly successful for centuries: they had crushed a Crusader force at Nicopolis in 1396, conquered Constantinople in 1453, took the Eastern European bastion of Belgrade in 1521, captured the Island of Rhodes from the Knights of St. John in 1522, smashed the Hungarians at Mohacs in 1526, & thwarted the Spanish at Djerba, in 1560.
Now, the Turks had assembled the largest fleet yet seen--over 200 war galleys, with supporting vessels. The Holy League had been formed between Spain, Venice, and the Papacy, but relations were always uncertain between the various factions. In 1570, the Venetians had seen their naval commander, Giovanni Zane, fail--and a new leader was needed. That's where Sebastiano Venier came in.
In the excellent book, "The Venetians", the authors described Venier as thus:
"But among the Venetians there was no sign of those pigeonhearted captains who had failed so miserably only a year before. This time the high command went to no priveledged merchant but to the Governor of Crete, Sebastiano Venier, a bad-tempered but thoroughly competent old servant of the republic. In the portraits of him that remain, this grizzled warrior--he was already 75 years old--stares out from beneath a thicket of white eyebrows with a look of suppressed fury. He had the appearance, and temper, of an aged lion. His body was reputedly covered with scars from countless brawls, and nobody knew how many tankards of beer had been broken over his head. Beneath him ranked two provveditori from the the august patrician families of Barbarigo and Quirini, fighters as well as merchants."
There were other talented leaders in the Holy League, both old and young--folks like Venier's second-in-command, Agostino Barbarigo, the papal general Marcantonio Colonna, the Spanish admiral Don Alvaro de Bazan, and the Commander-in-Chief of the entire Holy League Fleet, the young, dashing Don John of Austria (the bastard son of Charles V; King Philip II's half-brother).
Despite this impressive talent pool, things did not initially go smoothly. Cultural biases ran deep, and threatened to break up the League. In particular, the Spanish--being at their military height--were very arrogant, and there was considerable resentment among the various Italians in the League. The Venetians were chronically short on manpower, and they had been obliged to take on Spanish and Spanish-commanded Italian infantry, to fill out the ranks in their galleys. On one Venetian galley, the "Armed Man", a fight broke out between some Venetian sailors, and a Tuscan sergeant named Muzio. Venier sent his provost marshal to sort things out, but Muzio disregarded the Marshal's orders, and shot him through the chest. When word of this got back to Venier, the old warrior flew into a rage. He ordered the "Armed Man" to be boarded by his own troops. A senior officer from Muzio's corps attempted to interfere, claiming that he would restore order, but Venier flatly replied, "By the blood of Christ, take no action, unless you wish me to sink your galley and all your soldiers. I will bring these dogs to heel without your assistance."
Venier's scappoli (marines) then boarded the "Armed Man", and captured Muzio and the others. Although Muzio and his comrades should have been turned over to the Spanish, Venier opted to take justice in his own hands, and they were hung from the yardarm of his own galley.
When Don John heard of this, the League almost broke up right there. The Spanish immediately talked of cannonading the Venetian ships, and it was only due to the cooler heads in the League (especially Marcantonio Colonna, and Venier's second-in-command, Agostino Barbarigo) that things didn't deteriorate further. Don John was convinced to preserve the League, and move on to engage the Turks--but he did not wish to see Venier again (he spoke disparagingly of the "old fool" that Venice had placed in command of her galleys).
On the morning of October 7th, 1571, the two fleets sighted each other, at the Gulf of Lepanto. And so began the largest and arguably most bloody battle of the entire 16th century, as over 400 ships clashed with each other. Venier's flagship was painted blood-red, and he supported Don John's flagship, the "Reale" ("Royal"). Venier had a servant load a crossbow or arquebus (sources differ) for him, and he picked off Turks from the stern of his galley. His galley was briefly boarded by troops from the galley of the Ottoman army commander, but Venier led a counterattack in person, fighting tooth-and-nail in a vicious hand-to-hand melee. Although wounded in the leg, he was successful in repulsing the Turks, and he went on to sink several other Ottoman vessels.
Finally, after many hours of fighting, the Turks were defeated. Apart from the dreaded Algerian corsair, Ulich Ali, they had lost all of their commanders, most of their ships, and upwards of 30,000 men. Some 15,000 Christian galley slaves were liberated from the benches. While the Turks were able to put a new fleet in action the very next year, the ships were manned by inexperienced crews--indeed, according to John F. Guilmartin, the Ottomans were never able to fully recover from the loss of skilled manpower that was suffered at Lepanto.
Also of importance, the myth of Turkish invincibilty had finally been broken for good. As Marcantonio Colonna later commented, Lepanto showed that the Turks were "no more than other men".
And finally, despite their differences before the battle, Don John and Sebastiano Venier still embraced each other when the fighting was over, and parted as friends. The old Venetian commander--as fierce as the Lion of St. Mark that symbolized his cherished Republic--had fought just as well as the younger soldiers that day.