Posted by: Dominic | November 17, 2010

Pre-Quixote Cervantes

Nafpaktos is a small town on the north side of the Corinthian Gulf in Greece. In 1571 it was the site of the battle of Lepanto, one of the greatest naval battles in the long history of conflicts between Europeans and the Ottoman Empire.

Nafpaktos harbor. The battle took place outside the harbor and to the right.

In the early 16th century, the Ottomans had been expanding into eastern Europe. They controlled Greece and the Balkans. In 1529, they attacked Vienna. The Ottomans contended with the Most Serene Republic of Venice for naval superiority in the Eastern Mediterranean. In 1570, the Sultan Selim II demanded that Venice forfeit the island of Cyprus. The request, as expected, was refused and the island was subjected to a brutal siege. The Venetians cobbled together an alliance of Western powers, and met the Ottomans at Nafpaktos in October of 1571.

The Battle of Lepanto by H. Letter (?), late 16th century. Now at the National Maritime Museum in London.

Enter Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, then a 24 year old marine. He sailed in the flotilla of the Genoan Giovanni Andrea Doria. Cervantes was severely ill with a fever and he was told to remain below deck. Not one to miss the action, he entered the battle commanding a boat of twelve men. He was shot twice in the chest and once through his left hand, rendering it useless.

In 1614 he meditated on his maimed hand, saying that the left hand was destroyed for the glory of his right – with which he wrote.

Bien sé que en la Naval dura palestra
Perdiste el movimiento de la mano
Izquierda, para gloria de la diestra. (Viaje del Parnaso, Capitulo I)

The Ottomans were decisively defeated, and the Battle of Lepanto was the last major engagement to employ oar power. A statue of Cervantes has been set up in the harbor area of the town.

Cervantes at Nafpaktos.


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