A few years after the fall of Constantinople, the physical appearance, character, and ambitions of the young sultan with whom the Republic now had to deal were analyzed by a Venetian visitor to the city. Giacomo de’ Languschi’s account was both chilling and acute:
The sovereign, the Grand Turk Mehmed Bey, is a youth of twenty-six, well built, of large rather than medium stature, expert at arms, of aspect more frightening than venerable, laughing seldom, full of circumspection, endowed with great generosity, obstinate in pursuing his plans, bold in all undertakings, as eager for fame as Alexander of Macedonia. Daily he has Roman and other historical works read to him by a companion called Ciriaco of Ancona and another Italian.… He speaks three languages, Turkish, Greek, and Slavic. He is at great pains to learn the geography of Italy and to inform himself … where the seat of the pope is and that of the emperor, and how many kingdoms there are in Europe. He possesses a map of Europe with the countries and provinces. He learns of nothing with greater interest and enthusiasm than the geography of the world and military affairs; he burns with desire to dominate; he is a shrewd investigator of conditions. It is with such a man that we Christians have to deal. Today, he says, the times have changed, and declares that he will advance from east to west as in former times the Westerners advanced into the Orient. There must, he says, be only one empire, one faith, and one sovereignty in the world.Languschi’s sharply drawn portrait was prescient of all the trouble that lay ahead. It caught exactly the truth about the new sultan’s personality: intelligent, cold, quixotic, secretive, ambitious, and deeply frightening. Mehmet was a force of nature; relentless and ruthless, unpredictably prone both to bouts of homicidal rage and moments of compassion. His role model was Alexander the Great; his ambition was to reverse the flow of world conquest; his interest in maps and military technology, supplied in large part by Italian advisers, was purely strategic. Knowledge for Mehmet was practical. Its purpose was invasion. His goal was to be crowned as Caesar in Rome.
In the thirty years of his reign, he would wage almost unceasing war, during which time he led nineteen campaigns in person; he fought until his exhausted troops refused to fight on; he spent money until he had devalued the coinage and emptied the treasury; he lived a life of personal excess—food, alcohol, sex, and war—until gout had swollen and disfigured him. He was estimated to have caused the deaths of some 800,000 people. His life would be bookended by a second Venetian portrait, this time in oils by the painter Gentile Bellini. In the interval between the two, Mehmet would test the military and diplomatic skills of the Venetian Republic to the outer limit.
05 September 2013
Venetian Portrait of Mehmed II after 1453
From: City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, by Roger Crowley (Random House, 2012), Kindle Loc. 4642-4663: