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.

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