Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Megollo Lercari Incident post-Senarega

These next two texts follow along the same lines as my previous one on the letter by Bartholomeo Senarega to Giovanni Pontano on the Megollo Lercari incident. While that letter is the earliest recorded copy we have of the story, the two accounts that follow by Agostino Giustiniani (1537) and Uberto Foglietta (1585) were the two most often consulted and best known accounts of the story by later historian. Senarega’s letter was not even known until 1879 when Cornelio Desmoni discovered and published it, so almost all of the later artistic and dramatic representations of Megollo Lercari in the centuries to come were based on one or both of these accounts. Both of the original texts are now available via Google books unlike when I first went in search of them a couple years ago. Giustiniani can be found here, while Foglietta can be found here. Enjoy!!

1. Annals of the Republic of Genoa by Agostino Giustianiani, Book 4

There was in those times at the court of the Emperor of Trebizond a Genoese Megollo Lercari, a man without compare, very ardent for his honor and endowed with greatness and magnanimity for which noble qualities he was very dear to the Emperor and envied by the chief men of the court. It happened that a courtier high in favor, who it had not gone unnoted was shown unseemly favor by the Emperor, spoke words of great insolence to Megollo while playing chess with him though Megollo remained impassive to the insult patiently bearing it. Seeing then that he had not taken offense, the courtier continued to hurl abuse at him. Finally, he responded by seeking an apology for his honor for all that the courtier had said had greatly troubled him. Much more than before the courtir without the least consideration continued sparing contempt not even for the Genoese name, at which Megollo became angry and responded to him that he was lying, so the courtier slapped him on the face and Megollo unable to satisfy his honor being held back by those around him sought it out from the Emperor for whom alone he had fair words. Unable to obtain remedy for what had so enraged him, with the permission of the Emperor, Megollo departed and came to Genoa clothed in red with his beard and hair long (which at that time did not mean anything good) set completely on revenge.

There he assembled the Lercari family along with his relatives and friends and revealed to them the injury he had received and his intention to avenge himself asking them both by the affection they bore him and their honor to help in this venture. In this terrible case, they came together and helped him fit out two galleys with which Megollo set sail for Trebizond and coasting along the sea did a great amount of damage both by land and sea. Any person that fell into his hands he ordered to have their nose and ears cut off, salted, and conserved in a jar. Hearing of this, the Emperor many times fitted out lots of vessels not inferior to the great speed and valor of the Genoese, though always his forces suffered losses or remained without any profit, while Megollo and his companions sometimes increasing in boldness set fire to the galleys and other vessels on land and other times took them by force on the sea. One of these days, with just his two galleys, he took four of them, to which Megollo cunningly gave the illusion of fleeing, so they split into two parts to box him in. Cunningly, Megollo stopped them from coming together so that he had time to fight two of them before the others could come to their aid so that he was able to take them in succession.

After his victory, it happened that there was an old man before Megollo with his two young sons and the old man seeing that Megollo was going to have his nose cut off and his sons ears, he fell to his feet in tears and with entreaties earnestly and humbly begged Megollo to content himself with putting him to death and spare his sons' noses and ears. The tears and entreaties of the old man extinguished Megollo's rancor and the father's love moved him with compassion, so much so placated he responded that the Emperor was the cause of their misfortunes and losses because, he, Megollo had been unjustly treated and dishonored in his house as well as the Genoese name. He had not wanted make this display, so, nonetheless, he was content to pardon him and his sons on the condition that he bring that vase already full of noses and ears to the Emperor and explain to him that there would be no end to this destruction of his country unless he, by whom he had been injured was surrendered to him. Once freed, the old man carried out diligently his charge.

Seeing this and hearing this, the Emperor both due to the great amount of damage that had come of this and out of fear that the people would rise up, he decided to give satisfaction to Megollo and to better give satisfaction to him he resolved to personally to the sea shore to speak with him bringing with him the offending courtier, who he made go into the water up to the waist and ask Megollo's pardon. Then the Emperor said after a couple of words, "Megollo, let this be enough for you." To this, Megollo replied that he wanted his offender in his hands, and so without much resistance he got him. The man on mounting the galley's ladder was given a kick in the face by Megollo with his foot and flung at Megollo's feet he begged him for his life. Megollo stood him up on his feet and said to him, "Don't you know? Genoese men never act cruelly towards women." It was alluding not so much to his tears so much as what he had just said. And so he sent him back again free to his kin, who were all grieving thinking that he would be put cruelly to death. The Emperor sent many gifts to Megollo and made him great offers, which Megollo declined saying that neither for bloodlust nor material gain he had come from distant lands, but only to satisfy his honor and the Genoese name, and that having satisfied it he had no need of such offers. Yet, the Emperor continued insistently making offers, so Megollo asked that the Emperor have a warehouse built at Trebizond for the Genoese for their benefit along with ample privileges. On the gate of the warehouse was to be both written and engraved all that had happened in this affair. All of this was peremptorily promised by the Emperor and fully carried out. Besides that, that the emperor always keep the Genoese as his dear friends and keep optimal relations with the Genoese consul at Caffa.

2. Uberto Foglietta’s History of the Genoese Book VIII pp 159-160

At this point, we introduce into our annals a deed of bravery and boldness, as well as of singular magnanimity, accomplished by private Genoese citizen on private initiatives with private arms. Although it had nothing to do with the Commune, nevertheless, because it brought glory to our city to have produced such citizens who were strong enough to bear enmity and wage war with kings themselves and sovereign princes, I could by no means omit it.

There was one Megollo Lercari living at the court of the Emperor of Trebizond, who on account of his rare virtues, his fine manners, and pleasant temperament was extremely dear to the Emperor as well as to many chief men at the court. One day, he was playing chess by chance with a youth, who (so it was said) in the flower of his youth had obtained a position of favor and authority with the Emperor for the foul and obscene services he rendered him. An argument broke out between the two of them and after exchanging many heated words, they started to fight. The youth in a moment of arrogance and anger slapped Megollo on the face. At that moment, many people there jumped up and interjected themselves in the fight. A large part of the lords and courtiers present held back the youth (as it was necessary). Megollo could not avenge the insult, since the Emperor did not offer Megollo any redress for this injury. So Megollo, with his wrath now turned on the emperor, was possessed by such animosity against the emperor that he decided to take his revenge through difficult and precipitous endeavors.

And so, he returned immediately to Genoa in dirty and gloomy dress with his beard and hair unkempt showing his great melancholy. He gathered together his relatives and extended family as well as any one that was in any way connected with him and revealed to them what had happened to him. He asked them to stand by him in so pious and just a business. They did not hesitate to provide him with two galleys, which were suitably armed for war.

Megollo, without losing a moment, set out for the Black Sea over so great an expanse of water until he reached the shores of the Empire of Trebizond, which he ravaged in land and sea raids producing wonderful examples of his implacable spirit and inhuman cruelty by cutting off the noses and ears of his captives and then releasing them as his desire for revenge was fixed in his mind and would not tolerate any other thought. Since Megollo would not stop, the Emperor armed four galleys and sent them against Megollo to put an end to such a disgrace and arrest the constant damages being done to him. When Megollo caught sight of them sailing towards him from afar, he employed a stratagem to strengthen his forces and pretended to take flight. Two of the Trapezuntine ships followed him with a great flurry of rowing. When Megollo caught sight of this, he noticed that two enemy vessels were separated from the rest by a large distance. He then, just as he had planned to get them away from the rest to fight them, roused his ships to turn around and attack the two closest ships, which he took with hardly any effort. Then hastening to go forward so that the remaining ships which had rushed up to help the other ships and had come upon him would be unable to get away. He took them without a fight and began mutilating his captives in the usual horrible manner. Among the captives, there was a venerable old man, who had brought his two innocent and handsome young sons along with him, who flung himself at Megollo’s knees and said, “I beg you, Megollo, by your faith to spare these two sons of mine and direct all your anger at me. Take not only my ears and nose from me, but also my life.” Megollo was moved by the prayers of the old man and by sympathy for the innocent youths. He not only spared the boys, but also the old man, to whom he gave a barrel full of salted noses to bring them before the Emperor and instructed him to tell the Emperor that Megollo would never stop or leave his shores in peace until the man that had so atrociously injured him was handed over to him.

The Emperor sighed and sadly was forced to do it. When the youth having mounted Megollo’s ship stood before Megollo, he fell at his feet in tears and said, “I beg you, Megollo, to not torture me before you kill me.” Megollo responded to him, “Don’t you know that brave men are not wont to torture women.” Then, after such a careful response, he rebuked not so much the young man’s tears as his reputation. He then sent him away unharmed and ordered him to tell the Emperor that his private injury had been satisfied, but that he had not yet been consoled of the glory of his home city and the Genoese name. He would not for this reason go away until the Emperor promised in his own hand-writing to build at Trebizond an large warehouse for the Genoese nation and to give them certain privileges and rights. Having had this story painted on the walls [of the warehouse], the emperor issued a new treaty. Peace was made between the two parties and the warehouse was built.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Megollo Lercari: A Vendetta of Ears and Noses

Detail of a telamon from the Palazzo Parodi (once Lercari)
in Genoa with the nose deliberately removed

In the history of the commercial relations between the Orient and the great medieval Italian maritime republic of Genoa, there is no story more colorful and more stained by ethnic pride than the story of the vendetta of the Genoese citizen Megollo Lercari in the first half of the fourteenth century. Having been forced to listen to insults to the Genoese and then by slapped by an impudent courtier of the Emperor of Trebizond (modern Trabzon in Turkey), Megollo found no redress from the Emperor of Trebizond and returned home to Genoa where with the aid of family he equiped two war vessels and set sail again for Trebizond. Returned there, he enacted his horrible vengeance for the insults inflicted upon raiding the coasts of the Empire and cutting the ears and noses off of those that he captured. His terror and vengeance were such that he brought the Emperor of Trebizond to his knees.

The story is both fabulous and terrible and has exercised an influence over the Genoese and Italians throughout the centuries that my current research is about. As I have been working through our sources for the period, I decided to translate the earliest and fullest version of the story that we possess, which you can find below. The source for the story is a letter written by the Genoese historian Bartholomeo Senarega to the famous humanist and scholar of the Italian Renaisscance, Giovanni Pontano. The text of which can be found here. Enjoy!

To the great and preeminent sir Giovanni Pontano, chief secretary for the Serenissimo King[1]

You asked me in all of your great wisdom, Pontano, when we were both at Capua last year and I told you all about our Megollo, to write out the story in Latin so that sometime amidst all the great cares that you have you might read it and lift your spirits. I have done as you asked and I am sending you the story following the conscript of some uneducated man, though he is nonetheless trustworthy set in my own humble manner of expression. And if my account is not ornate, it is at least a little bit less barbaric. You will see some things herein for which you will praise the man’s magnanimity, his severity, his persistence, and last of all you will admire his humanity. And so you do not think our city was so barren that he was alone among its famous men, it produced many men in peace and war…reputed for their study of letters, whose illustrious deeds, if I ever have the time, I will send you all gathered together so that with your exceptional humanity you may work in favor of the Genoese and may also have…[and so that] you may commend them in the circles of preeminent men of which the royal court is full.

Megollo was a Genoese citizen that came from the well to do Lercari family. When he was a teenager, as is the custom of the merchant class, he devoted himself to business and he always seemed to have something greater mind. On account of this, he left Genoa and came to our former colony at Pera, where he stayed for some years before he decided to go to Trebizond.

Trebizond at this time was ruled by an emperor descended from the Komnenos family which once ruled over the empire at Constantinople for many years[2]. In our time, it is well known there were three emperors in the world, but since we have just made mention of the fact, it will not be without point to discuss where this third one came from. As the origins of the Latin and Greek emperors are quite clear enough to everybody, although I have heard some well educated men cast doubts upon the document, which is believed to have been written by the emperor Constantine I[3], I would not totally oppose their view unless what is read about it was confirmed by the Bible, which I do not think it is totally out of the question to believe. In any case, this family produced quite a few emperors famous for their deeds on land and sea until finally a man of preeminent wit succeeded to throne who was devoted to peace and religion.

The Emperor had a man from the Palaiologos stock in his attendance who was accomplished in war and well known for his bodily virtue and intelligence, in whom the emperor often confided, who persuaded him, as he was so not at ease, that he could easily pacify those people who are between the regions of Boristenus and Taurica, and that he could make those that are nomadic surrender to him if he founded a city in the plain on higher ground. And so, Palaiologos set out for there with an army and founded the city of Cherson, whose ruins still survive, and not long after subdued almost all the neighboring peoples.

On returning home, he expelled the Emperor, who was devoted to religion rather than arms, from the palace by force. Then after most of his opponents had either been killed or sent into exile, he was made emperor helped by the favor of the army and his popularity with very little opposition.

Komnenos then fled to Trebizond in a small boat with as many treasures as he could take away amidst the upheaval. He was well received there and they as well as their descendants all venerated him as their true emperor until the Turk took possession of the entire Pontus region and subdued it[4].

Megollo stayed here a few days and became quite dear to the emperor. Among Megollo’s great virtues, his ability to win over rulers was quite marvelous and in a short time he soon was reckoned as one of the chief courtiers. When border disputes broke out with the Persians who live nearby or a quarrel broke out with our city of Caffa, which we built in the Tauric Chersonesus and held for many years until the year of Our Lord 1475 when Mehmed the Turkish sultan seized it with a huge fleet and the help of the Siths, the Emperor relied on none other than Megollo to resolve it. However, one of the Emperor’s satraps, Andronikos, to whom the Empire’s revenue was entrusted and who more or less acted as treasurer, was rumored to have been in his flower of youth beloved to the Emperor. Andronikos was enraged at Megollo’s glory and conceived of a secret hatred for him until finally he was unable to conceal his hatred any longer spewing forth poison. Finally, he made the move to openly provoke Megollo and said many impudent things about the Genoese and hit Megollo on the face with his hand. Megollo put up with this abuse, but he asked the Emperor to let Andronikos be punished according to the laws as his imperial majesty had been insulted since it was in his house that the rash man had perpetrated the crime and the Genoese name did not deserve an insult of this nature. As he was unable to pursue his case with the Emperor, Megollo dissimulated his feelings until he had collected his dispersed wares as is the custom of merchants and unknown to everyone he embarked on a ship that had been long prepared for this purpose and returned home to Genoa after a safe trip.

To some of his kinsmen who were marveling as what his so unexpected return and his unkempt hair and beard meant, he told them what happened to him and exhorted them to join his cause of revenge against the Emperor. Two galleys would be more than enough to avenge his injury. They praised Megollo and with the help of the Lercari clan he fitted out two galleys. With the Senate permitting, he then sailed out of Genoa in the start of spring and with favorable winds came to Pera, where he stayed for a very short while to have his boats maintained and buy supplies for food before he laid anchor outside of Trebizond’s harbor.

He then sent word to the Greeks who were clueless wondering why he had come that he was openly after Andronikos, whom he had sought satisfaction from. But when he tried for the third time in vain and was held almost in contempt by the Emperor, then he said that it has been amply shown that the Genoese fear nothing and do nothing rashly and that the Greeks should know that they would not be allowed to abuse a Genoese citizen. He then went around pillaging many Trapezuntine maritime cities. Since he did not want to leave anything or anyone untouched, he cut off the nose and ears of whoever he caught and sent them away ordering their cut off parts to be salted and kept in jars.

In rage at this and prompted by the tears of his people, he ordered four galleys to be made ready in great speed. In the meanwhile, Megollo had gone to Caffa and moved into his winter quarters since it was wintertime. Then when spring came, he set sail with his prepared ships and supplies and due to a favorable north wind he came in sight of the city the day after he left Caffa. Panic then reached the emperor that Megollo was there and that the galleys must be boarded, the villain must be fought. Then you would have seen the entire city aloud with shouts, one person preoccupied with one thing …while the youths, old men, and women all cursed Megollo.

The galleys were just ready when Megollo who had approached the land from the sea and unaware of everything that was going on came closer until he was within the range of scorpion before he began to feign flight.

The Greeks enraged at their recent disgrace and seeking vengeance thought that Megollo really was fleeing and so they raised anchor and pursued him, who was able quite easily in a short time to get far away from them though his rowers had already rowed so much. He retreated no more than three times an arrow shot. Two of the Greek galleys advanced rapidly, while the other ones moved more slowly along. The first group was five thousand paces away from the others, when Megollo exhorted his men to reach the end and announced to his longtime companions that the galleys of their enemies were covered not with arms, but with gold and expensive decorations and that they would soon have the Trapezuntine nobility totally in their grasp. They would soon fight with women and catamites[5]. He turned the ship around and moved upon the first ship that was coming at him and he turned to the captain of his other ship and said, “You get side by side with the other ship” and he ordered iron hooks and barbs to be thrown not wanting to be pushed away.

Both sides fought fiercely. Our side fought for booty and glory, while they fought to avenge the disgrace inflicted upon them. Both sides shot at each other with arrows. They used bows, while our side used scorpions. However their arrows were easy for our side to avoid because of the size of the barriers which our galleys had on their sides. Their shields were so small that that it hardly protected their forearms where they held their bows, while the rest of their bodies were uncovered.

Even if anybody was wearing a coat of mail, they were not protected from force of the arrows.

Soon the remaining two ships approached and he decided to try getting side by side with them like before and soon a clamor went up and the fight was renewed. He was the first to board the enemy vessels with his men following him. He took the first one with the Greeks resisting only a short time; while the other one was captured after a short fight. As the remaining vessels came near, since it could not be known how fortunate fortune had been, they soon fell to his power before they could turn around. Some of the Greeks surrendered themselves during the battle, while the greater part of them jumped in the sea, while our galley attacked the Greek one.

Exalted with this victory, he towed the galleys in view of the city and again bid via messenger Andronikos, whom he had previously called upon to give satisfaction, to come to him. And when it seemed a response was not forthcoming, he got angry and ordered all of his prisoners’ noses and ears to be cut off. On one of the vessels, two brothers were serving as rowers on the fifth bench with their father, whom their old father had followed as they were still teenagers in order to protect their incautious youth from danger as much as he could. When he saw Megollo with a savage look standing near and having a servant about to cut off his sons’ noses, he burst into tears and said, “Please, good hearted sir, on the Genoese name, I beg and implore you to cut off my hands and head before my sons’, whom I raised with so much pain. Take pity! I ask this one comfort in my old age that you send them away intact.”

Megollo came to his senses and said to him, “Your tears have moved me and your beautiful concern for your sons so that I have tempered my indignation. But take these vases which I have saved for your Emperor. When you deliver them, add that I will send him more soon unless he orders Andronikos to come to me immediately.

He took the gifts and came to the Emperor and prostrating himself in the manner of his people he said, “Accept these gifts of your Megollo, Caesar, which though they are few now, you will soon receive more unless you surrender to him forthwith the man he seeks.”

They say that the Emperor did not respond to this, but let out a great sigh and said in Greek what in our language means “That is enough.” Then he summoned Andronikos and said, “If you wanted to test how much I esteem you and how immense my love is for you, you should have done so in some other way. You have stood by and watched my people be disfigured, our galleys captured. I cannot any longer take your side without danger to my throne. Megollo is seeking you and if he gets what he wants, he promises to make peace with me and my kingdom.” Andronikos replied, “I know how much you esteemed me and still esteem me. I owe much to your kindness and you have stood by me enough. Let Megollo have me and let you and your people, who do not deserve it, be delivered of him. Yet I ask this one last thing of you that you let me set my affairs in order.

The Emperor consented, and after he had set his affairs in order as though he was about to go to the gallows and be put to the rack, he pulled himself out of his wife’s and children’s embrace with floods of tears and sobbing. He then made his way to the sea accompanied by several people as though he was going to the grave and took a skiff to Megollo. He fell to Megollo’s feet with tears in his tears. “I do not ask you, Megollo, to forgive me. I do not dare hope for this or think that you would grant me this. I ask this you and I pray by immortal God, who granted you this fortunate outcome, and by the Mother of Our Savior, in the name of the Genoese, whose glory you will increase with this egregious crime. It has always refrained from cruelty and please do not subject me to prolonged torture. Let it be enough for you that you will no longer see me living.

In reply, Megollo said, “Get up! Genoese citizens are not in the habit of abusing women. It is enough that you have been given me. Your death was not so important to me that I deserved to be called cruel by the inhabitants of the Pontus. What I have done, it was the injustice of the Emperor that caused it. It is enough for us to have conquered you and demonstrated to whoever will abuse a Genoese citizen what are the consequences. And so that the monkey that you are you will not be ignorant, there are many men in our city whom I am not at all the equal of. If I had died midway through my work, they would have done more than I have done. But so you do not take pride that you have the smallest part of my things, I had a horse, which the emperor gave to me, and a monkey which wonderfully imitated people. As I have heard, you got these animals, so see to it that they are returned to me or return to me.

The Greek, though he knew the horse had been taken away to greater Persia, he nevertheless said that he would do it. He sent agents to buy back the animals with a large sum of gold and bring them back and they were returned to him in the allotted time.

All that remained was for the business to be taken up with the Emperor by whom he and wounded dignity of the Genoese people were made amends. It was agreed first so that in the future the Genoese could not be oppressed in memory of this indignation, and that each year a man should be sent from Caffa whom they called consul who would decide their legal matters, and that a large residence would be constructed at the Emperor’s expense for the consul to live in as well as a hall for our merchants, which we call a fundicum, built in a more frequented part of the city, as well as a bakery and a bath assigned specifically for the Genoese to wash in. Also they were to be granted immunity from many things. Although these concessions were more than enough, he nevertheless forced the emperor to promise by swearing on the Bible during Mass that he would not seek revenge on Megollo. All of this, he bore witness to in a treaty which was sealed with his signet ring[6]. And so that time might not wipe away the memory of so great a deed, he had a rich picture painted of what had happened in the residence [of the consul]. Many of our citizens have seen the painting, from whom I was able to gather diligently some details, while I learned of the picture and the story, which I have written to you, above all from the man who was consul there.

[1] Ferdinand I King of Naples (1454-1494)
[2] Here Senarega refers to the Komnenos dynasty which ruled over the Byzantine empire (the Constantinople empire) from 1081-1185). After their deposition, Alexios Komnenos and his brother David founded the empire of Trebizond in 1204.
[3] Senarega here is referring to the so-called Donation of Constantine, a medieval forgery, in which the emperor Constantine supposedly granted the Pope authority over Rome and the Western Roman Empire. It was later invented to justify the position and power of the Pope as well as the German Holy Roman Emperor. It was believed to be truthful until it was proved a forgery by Lorenzo Valla in 1440 in his work De falso credita et ementita Constantini donatio declamatio, though this reference by Senarega shows that Valla’s and others’ objections were not fully accepted even in the late fifthteenth century due to Papal pressure. See Fubini, Riccardo (January 1996). "Humanism and Truth: Valla Writes Against the Donation of Constantine". Journal of the History of Ideas 57 (1):
[4] This story of the downfall of the Komnenos family and the rise of the Palaiologos family is total fiction. The Komnenos family ruled from 1081 until 1185 when Andronikos I was deposed after he had spilled many people’s blood. The Angeloi family then replaced the Komnenoi and it was not until 1259 that a member of the Palaiologos family succeeded to the throne. In wake of the succession of the Angeloi, Alexios and David Komnenos, grandsons of Andronikos I, founded the Empire of Trebizond in 1204.
[5] Chachamitis in the Desimoni’s Latin text poses quite a problem and even Desimoni has no idea what the word is as he indicates with a (?) in the text. Chachamitis appears to be a deformation of what in Classical Latin would have been written as catamitis, which we have translated as Catamite, a young boy lover for an older man in the tradition of Greek paederasty.
[6] What Senarega is undoubtedly referring here to is an imperial chrysobull (chyrographo), which were imperial grants and documents sealed with the a golden seal.