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When, on 7 October 1571, the Christian and the Ottoman fleets clashed at Lepanto near the northern edge of the Gulf of Corinth in western Greece, a battle of cataclysmic proportions ensued. It was the last great sea battle between galleys in the Middle Sea and it was to assume great symbolic importance for several historians who tended to see in it the ultimate check that the Ottomans received in the Mediterranean which came just six years after they were humbled in Malta in the summer of 1565. Miguel Cervantes, who actually fought in the battle, wrote that it was ‘the greatest event witnessed by ages past, present, and to come’.
On the other hand, some modern revisionist historians see in both events mere hiccups in the Ottoman Empire’s westward advance. The Turks soon recovered their naval strength but the great number of ships they lost meant they often had to resort to new un-aged timber for their vessels which was to prove a real hindrance. Even the loss of manpower was direly felt for a few generations in spite of the huge human resources of the Porte.
The Order of St John took part in the engagement by contributing its galleys which eventually suffered extensive damage; the legendary knight Romegas was directly involved, but as the superintendent of the papal squadron.
Much has been written about this great clash. Voltaire’s oft-repeated assertion that nothing was as well-known as the siege of Malta could easily be extended to include the naval engagement at Lepanto.
Many unpublished accounts of the battle still survive in various archives all over Europe, including our National Library, in Valletta. Paul George Pisani’s heavily annotated edition of an unpublished account by Abbot Luca Cenni (1623–85) – found in the latter – is an important contribution in its own right.
The Neapolitan Luca Cenni was a regular canon of the Order of the Holy Saviour who had been chosen by the Order of St John (in Malta) to continue Bosio’s magnificently detailed history of the brotherhood that comes to an end in 1571 with the move to the new city, Valletta. He worked partly in Malta and was to be paid the con-
Battle of Lepanto ex-voto panel by Antonello Riccio (Malta Maritime Museum)
Lepanto Book - pp. 84 & 85 where the account by Cenni begins
The Battle of Lepanto book cover