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Friday, January 8, 2016

“Victory of the West: The Great Christian-Muslim Clash at the Battle of Lepanto”, by Niccolò Capponi

464 pages, Da Capo Press, ISBN-13: 978-0306816185

Victory of the West: The Great Christian-Muslim Clash at the Battle of Lepanto by Niccolò Capponi is a look at the Battle of Lepanto, the last major naval combat of rowing fleets in the Mediterranean, fought on October 7, 1571 between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy League, an alliance of Christian powers that aimed at recapturing Cyprus, conquered by the Ottomans the previous year – but this title is almost a misnomer, as the bulk of Capponi’s book deals with the diplomatic and military context of the confrontation, the intricacies of the Christian alliance, the Cyprus war, and the aftermath of the combat; the battle only gets only some 30 pages.

But what a battle, as it ended with the stunning victory of the Holy League’s fleet and the almost total destruction of the Ottoman navy…although by the spring of 1572, the Ottomans had rebuilt said navy – complete with artillery – and continued to hold Cyprus as the Holy League collapsed, with Venice concluding a separate treaty with the Sultan in March 1573 and the Spanish redirecting their resources to meet new challenges in the Netherlands. But Capponi is right to underline that the battle stopped further Ottoman expansion in the Mediterranean and that the Ottomans’ afore-mentioned rebuilt fleet was unable to dominate the Mediterranean as before, despite their recapture of Tunis in 1574.

While the strength of this book is its author’s remarkable familiarity with the relevant Italian and Spanish sources, Capponi also used Ottoman sources and specialized studies by Ottoman historians and tried to provide a balanced treatment of everyone’s strategies and tactics, strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps the most rewarding part of this book was the splendid examination of the opposing navies’ ships, weaponry, crews and recruitment methods; although Capponi is skeptical of military technology, he doesn’t deny its role, and in his reading the reasons for the Christian victory include superior technology and tactics, combined with Turkish hubris.

Niccolò Capponi has written a fascinating and detailed history of Europe and the Ottoman Empire in the 16th Century and the fractious relationships between the European states, the Venetian Republic, and the Papacy; often more suspicious of each other than of the Turks, they finally merged into a shaky Christian coalition which faced down the Sultan’s navy at the battle of Lepanto. Although full of historical and military detail, Victory of the West is a very readable book laced with humor and compassion, and much attention to good storytelling.

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