The Western reaction
The fall of Constantinople was all the more shocking for western opinion, because paradoxically it was not an event for which the West had prepared itself. For almost a century Constantinople had been surmounting threats to its existence apparently as serious as that which it faced in 1453. The reaction of the West to its fall was far from straightforward, which is understandable, given its complicated relationship with Byzantium. Constantinople was a landmark of the Latin Middle Ages. It was still regarded as an important centre of Christianity, above all as a repository of relics, which had been miraculously replenished since 1204. Byzantium was also a client of the West, but a reluctant and unreliable one. Without Western support its very existence was in doubt. Western powers regarded it as a responsibility, where the advantages marginally outweighed the disadvantages. Constantinople was the hub of a commercial network, upon which Italian trade depended. It was therefore in the interest of the Venetians and the Genoese to preserve its independence, but this was counterbalanced by the uncertainties associated with the continuing existence of Byzantium, whether in the form of the harassment of Italian merchants by Byzantine offi cials or as a result of the ingrained instability of Byzantine politics. The interest of the papacy in Constantinople was not as blatantly materialistic as that of the Venetians and Genoese. It was more a matter of reasserting its authority. The papacy understood that a regularisation of its relations with the Orthodox Church would constitute an important step in the rebuilding of its authority, which had come under the scrutiny of the so-called Conciliar Movement. The reunion of the two Churches negotiated at the council of Ferrara Florence in 1439 was an undoubted triumph for Pope Eugenius IV. However, it proved diffi cult to implement in the face of the growing resentment that it produced at Byzantium. The defeat of the Hungarian crusade at Varna in November 1444
appeared to confi rm the conviction of Byzantine opponents of reunion that the papacy was incapable of providing any effective aid. Even the Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaiologos seemed to be veering towards this point of view. He made no effort to have the reunion of Churches proclaimed offi cially in Constantinople, which only reinforced the reputation the Byzantines had among Westerners for duplicity. It would have been easy for Eugenius IV to abandon Byzantium to its fate, but this would have been to write off an important part of his programme for the restoration of papal authority, which rested, in part, on reviving old claims to hegemony over the Eastern Churches. Despite Byzantine reluctance, the papacy had a vested interest in protecting Constantinople against both the Turks and the Byzantines themselves. Its fall, as indeed turned out to be the case, would be a stain on the papacy’s reputation, but to prevent this it was necessary to persuade the Byzantines of its imminence. By 1451, when the pro-unionist patriarch of Constantinople fl ed to Rome, it had become imperative that the papacy should discipline its recalcitrant client, in order to prevent the complete collapse of the Union of Churches. The Turkish threat was of less immediate concern, but the papacy was happy to use the alarm this produced at the Byzantine court as a way of imposing order on the Church of Constantinople. Pope Nicholas V’s solution was to send the Greek Cardinal Isidore to Constantinople as papal legate, with the task of restoring order. The cardinal arrived at the end of October 1452. He made it clear to the Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI that the quid pro quo for aid from the West was the offi cial proclamation of the Union of Churches in the Church of St Sophia, which duly took place on 12 December. The papacy’s preparations for the despatch of an expedition to Constantinople were perhaps not quite as urgent as they should have been, because there was a belief that the mere threat of Western intervention would be suffi cient to deter the Ottomans. 1
This was also the feeling in the Venetian senate, which had established a good working relationship with the new sultan and was on bad terms with the Byzantine emperor because of the petty measures he had taken against Venetian merchants working in Constantinople. The patricians of Venice did not see dealing with the situation developing around Constantinople as a matter of urgency. Since the siege of 1422 there had been a number of Ottoman demonstrations against Constantinople, but that was all they were. Mehmed II’s reputation was still that of a ruler who wished to enjoy good relations with the Serenissima. Less sanguine, the Genoese took immediate steps to reinforce the defences of Constantinople in the shape of a small expeditionary force under the command of Giovanni Giustiniani Longo, whose exploits indicated what a larger force might have achieved. Otherwise,
not a great deal was done. Few in the West seemed to appreciate the full seriousness of the threat to Constantinople. Once the siege was under way the Venetian senate was still receiving optimistic reports from informants it had in place. 2 Given the diffi culties there had been with the Byzantine emperor it felt that there was no harm in letting him stew in his own juice for a while. The Venetians had more pressing concerns, such as their rivalry with the duke of Milan in northern Italy; nor should one forget the domestic distractions then weighing upon the Doge Francesco Foscari (1423-57). Not only was he supervising the completion of the Ca’ Foscari, but he was seeking his eldest son’s recall from exile on a charge of high treason. 3 Such aid as the West was willing to offer Byzantium was too little and too late. The Venetian relief fl eet commanded by Giacomo Loredan did not set sail until 8 or 9 May. When Constantinople fell it had reached the Venetian base of Negroponte on the island of Euboea. On 11 April Pope Nicholas V appointed the archbishop of Ragusa commander of the papal fl eet to go to the rescue of Constantinople, but it was still at Chios when survivors brought news of the city’s fall.