Until recently, I didn’t know who Marcantonio Bragadin was. Born 496 years ago, the details of his life are not taught in history classes.
I only came upon his story when I was researching the Battle of Lepanto for fun. As far as I know, though I can be wrong, this famous naval engagement and its impact on western civilization is still taught in history classes.
You may recall that the Holy League, a coalition of European Catholic states, inflicted a devastating defeat on the Ottoman Empire at Lepanto, putting a halt to Ottoman expansion into Christian Europe.
This battle took place October 7, 1571.
By the time of Lepanto, Bragadin was dead almost two months. His death, particularly its brutality, has been credited with giving the Holy League, the coalition of Catholic European states battling the Ottomans, the resolve and extra determination to defeat the advancing invaders and preserve Christianity in Western Europe.
In September 1570, Bragadin, who was the Commander of Famagusta, a fort on the island of Cyprus ruled by the Republic of Venice, faced overwhelming odds during a siege by the Ottomans, led by Mustafa Pasha.
Greatly outnumbered and outgunned, and with no hope of reinforcements from Venice, Bragadin and his men faced certain defeat. Some accounts report the Ottomans had 80,000 soldiers against the Venetians 8,000.
By late July 1571, the besieged Venetians had eaten the last of the cats in the town, and they were down to about 900 ill-fed and exhausted men. On August 1, the Venetians raised the white flag of surrender. Mustafa offered generous terms, offering to allow the Venetians safe passage to Crete.
When Bragadin and his top commanders took the keys of the city to Mustafa to formally and ceremonially effectuate its surrender, things went terribly wrong, though it is not clear what exactly happened during the conversation between the two commanders.
Some accounts say Mustafa accused Bragadin of murdering Turkish prisoners and hiding ammunition. In a rage, he ordered the unarmed Venetians tied up and the commanders beheaded. Some accounts put the number of beheaded Venetians that day at 350.
Bragadin probably wished he suffered the same fate.
Instead, Mustafa had far worse plans for Bragadin.
He ordered Bragadin’s ears and nose cut off. He was then imprisoned for 12 agonizing days, bleeding and in immense pain without medical care.
On August 17, the torture would intensify. First, he was humiliated when he was dressed in a dog collar and marched throughout the city to the jeers of the Ottomans. He was also forced to carry bags full of dirt on his back and made to kiss the ground in front of Mustafa each time he passed him.
One can only imagine the intense heat on that summer day, as this proud aristocrat, still bleeding and in pain, was used for the Ottomans’ amusement.
It makes me think of Christ carrying his own cross to Golgotha, bleeding and suffering, and listening to the jeers of bystanders. One can only imagine Bragadin was comforted by the thought of the similarity of his suffering to Christ’s.
The Ottomons urged him to convert to Islam.
He refused, though he knew doing so may have lessened his own suffering.
He was then tied to a chair and dropped into the sea from the highest mast in the Ottoman’s fleet of ships.
Finally, he was brought to the town square next to the church that was converted into a mosque and stripped naked. He was then skinned (flayed) alive by an Ottoman executioner. According to eyewitness accounts, the skinning started at his head. He was dead by the time they reached his waist. The executioner was careful to keep his skin intact, so they could use it for a macabre show to follow.
They stuffed his skin with straw, dressed it in his ceremonial military clothing, and paraded it through the streets. It was then sent as a gift to the Sultan in Constantinople.
His remains were stolen by a Venetian seaman nine years later and returned to Venice where they remain interred in the Church of St. John and St. Paul to this very day. His remains were treated as those of a returning hero.
Just two months later after his torture, the Catholic League’s fleet, determined to avenge the brutality shown to Bragadin and his men, defeated the Ottomans at Lepanto.
It is hard to imagine the torture and humiliation that Bragadin endured.
I am struck by his bravery in life and in death. Facing 10 to 1 odds, with no hope of reinforcement or assistance, Bragadin and his men held out for almost a year. As is true with any siege, however, provisions and ammunition ran low, and Bragadin had to make a choice, surrender and hope Mustafa spared their lives as was the usual practice at the time, or fight to the last man in an unwinnable and suicidal situation.
He chose to surrender, not knowing that Mustafa would fail to honor the terms reached.
In response to the demand to convert, Venetian chroniclers’ credit Bragadin with saying “I am a Christian and thus I want to live and die. I hope my soul will be saved. My body is yours. Torture it as you will.”
There’s no way to be certain of the veracity of this quote, though it does seem consistent with his character.
By all accounts, Bragadin, a middle-aged man at the time, faced a gruesome death bravely and honorably.
Jack Donovan in his seminal, The Way of Men, listed Strength, Courage, Mastery, and Honor, as the four tactical virtues of men.
As Donovan said, “Strength, Courage, Mastery, and Honor are the alpha virtues of men all over the world. They are the fundamental virtues of men because without them, no ‘higher’ virtues can be entertained.”
Bragadin, through his competent leadership defending Famagusta for almost a year against insurmountable odds, demonstrated these virtues for posterity and serves as an example of each, in his actions as a commander of men and also in the manner in which he faced his own torture and death.
Even in the midst of extreme torture, he refused to relieve any of that suffering by violating his beliefs and acceding to the demand to convert.
Bragadin is an example of a man we should emulate.
We live at a time in history when most shy away from any form of discomfort. Bragadin, on the other hand, bravely faced the worst kind of discomfort, torture, and death in the service of his country and his God. Duty and honor were not mere words for him but were the fully ingrained in his character, life, and spirit.
In a society that considers professional athletes heroes, we should look towards those long-forgotten, like Bragadin, who truly deserve the title.
by: Chris D
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