Sailor of Fortune

Michael of Rhodes was not your typical fifteenth-century Venetian, and he left his manuscript as proof.

HUMANITIES, March/April 2010, Volume 31, Number 2

A few months ago, I developed a big-time crush on a sailor. We’re very different, he and I. Language, an ocean, spouses, and six centuries separate us.

His name is Michalli da Ruodo, or Michael of Rhodes. My mind’s eye has conjured a man who looks like Federico Castelluccio, complete with the ponytail and sideburns he sported in The Sopranos, and I imagine he behaves like Russell Crowe’s Jack Aubrey in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

Michael sailed for Venice in the glorious days when her merchants controlled a commercial empire envied from London to Constantinople. After reading Michael’s service record, I’ve decided that he’s brave, strong, and loyal. He’s definitely clever and ambitious. He wrote a book about mathematics and shipbuilding, no subjects for slouches. And his wit is mordant. Mind you, my only evidence for Michael’s sense of humor is an amateurish coat of arms he drew in his book. It shows two crowned turnips flanking a rat holding a bloodied cat. Now, I wonder, does the rat represent him, and is the cat a stand-in for the Venetians he served, possibly with resentment?

I met my centuries-old flame in The Book of Michael of Rhodes: A Fifteenth-Century Maritime Manuscript, a three-volume work released recently by MIT Press. It is the culmination of work begun in 2002 when Michael’s manuscript, which is privately held, was made available for study to the now dissolved Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology. MIT has meticulously recreated Michael’s manuscript in one volume; the second and third volumes include a transcription of the medieval Venetian, a translation, and a collection of essays put together by an international team of experts in Venetian history, shipbuilding and design, navigation, mathematics, medieval astrology and medicine, art history, and paleography.

Michael of Rhodes wrote down that he had signed on as an oarsman with a Venetian galley in Manfredonia on the coast of Apulia, in southern Italy, before arriving in his new home city in June 1401. From then until 1443, he served on forty-three voyages and reached the highest ranks attainable to a man not born of Venice’s noble families. He fought the Turks and the Genoese, served in a fleet that carried a papal delegation, and navigated the Mediterranean and the Atlantic to Flanders and England. His private life too was eventful: He lost two wives and at least one child while he was away at sea.

Other men who advanced in the Venetian fleet would have also fought, traded goods, and observed the pomp displayed for papal personages; some certainly would have had wives and children to mourn in the age before medical miracles. But the contrast between Michael being a man of war and a scribe has completely hooked me in a way that the imagined stories of his peers can not. He must have had remarkable patience first to study and then to make a book, draw and paint its illustrations, and write page after page in a tiny, neat hand on unlined paper during Venice’s wet winters.

I’m also captivated by the life of his manuscript. I wonder what turns of fate have protected it and who has touched it. Prior to the Dibner’s efforts, the manuscript had never undergone scholarly dissection, although its existence was well known. Federico Patetta, a collector and member of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Turin, had held it in the early twentieth century, and the manuscript sold at Sotheby’s in 1966 and again in 2000 to private collectors.

But there are whole centuries in the manuscript’s travels that scholars can’t account for. They know Michael’s book came into the possession of a mariner named Giovanni da Drivasto, who in 1473 wrote his last will and testament in it, and that the geographer Giovanni Battista Ramusio copied Michael’s shipbuilding section for a sixteenth-century work now known as the Fabrica di galere, which is held by the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence. So says Pamela Long, an independent expert on the history of technology and a coeditor of the project with Alan Stahl and David McGee.

Michael of Rhodes’s compendium includes the oldest extant treatise on European shipbuilding. “That alone makes it worthy of scrutiny,” says Long.

But Michael’s range—navigational directions, a saints’ day calendar, advice on when is the best time for bloodletting, galley regulations, and host of other miscellany—was much broader. Nearly every detail of his manuscript is ripe for deeper study, says Stahl, who sees his and his colleagues’ efforts as only a first crack at unraveling the manuscript.

A medieval historian and curator of numismatics at Princeton, Stahl translated Michael’s writings and took his seven-page service record, which lists when and where he worked and with whom—the whom includes the most important Venetian commanders of the time—and backfilled what he could of Michael’s story. With NEH support, Stahl combed through Venice’s archives and libraries looking at battle records, Senate reports, and wills to piece together the medieval seafarer’s life. Six years after being introduced to the Venetian mariner, Stahl sees him as “an overachiever. He was someone who was smart, but thought he was really smart.”

Venice in the early fifteenth century was in its ascendancy and drew striving men—like Michael—from the Greek islands, the Dalmatian and Albanian coasts of the Adriatic, and Croatia, to build and run the city-state’s merchant ships as well as the guard fleets that kept the Turks, Genoese, and lesser adversaries in check.

Michael was clearly of Greek origins—he uses the Greek “Michalli” in his manuscript, which also contains Greek prayers in Latin letters, but “there is nothing to prove that he actually came from Rhodes,” says Stahl. No captain would have signed him on in Rhodes—ships were prohibited from picking up men there, since they may have been runaway slaves—and it is unusual that he signed on in Manfredonia, not a usual port for military galleys. Pietro Loredan, the commander of Michael’s first galley, was there only because the Venetian Senate ordered him to protect grain ships destined for the city.

Whatever his exact origins, once in Venice, Michael, like every other would-be mariner, probably made his way to the Piazza San Marco, where much of the city’s business took place. As he wended his way through the merchant booths around the Doge’s Palace, the seat of all power in Venice, would he have taken time, I wonder, to admire the palace’s new construction or to notice the workmen adding to the façade of the basilica dedicated to the city’s patron saint, Mark the Evangelist? Or would he simply have been too busy trying to find the friendliest-looking of the paymasters who gathered there to recruit seamen to the galleys that gave the city-state her wealth and power?

In his early days, Michael likely received the standard wage of three ducats a month to row, and easily could have been in the company of up to 180 sweaty, smelly oarsmen. Together they ate their biscuits and drank their wine, gambled, blasphemed, made clothes, and generally lived three to a bench, each pulling his own oar when the galley was not under sail. The oarsmen rowed during calms, at port entrances, and in battle, says Stahl. “It was not all Ben-Hur, chained to the bench, rowing all day.”

Much of what is known about Michael’s life and time is not romantic. “Naval encounters were very different from what we know of the days of cannons. Galleys had to maneuver in and there had to be a boarding,” says Stahl.

McGee, archivist for the Canada Science and Technology Museum, reminds me—sad, but true—that Michael certainly saw his friends and crew members die, and he “undoubtedly killed people himself.”

In copying a set of captain’s orders, Michael himself writes that “at the third trumpet all shall be valiant men going to draw blood bravely with the captain and not leave battle until it is finished.”
Michael saw some of his most noteworthy action as an officer in guard fleets commanded by Pietro Loredan, one of Venice’s great heroes. As a junior officer in Loredan’s fleet in 1416, Michael was, he wrote, present “at the victory over the Turks.” Loredan’s report to the Senate indicates Michael had to have been in the thick of battle that May when the Venetian fleet fought the Ottomans under Mehmed I at Gallipoli. It was this battle that led in 1419 to a short-lived peace treaty between the Venetians and Turks.

In 1425, crews from Loredan’s galleys were again facing Turkish forces—this time with cavalry defending a fortress at Chrysopolis in Thrace. Michael most likely would have been among those who “went ashore and endured arrow and artillery attacks in a rough battle which lasted through the night,” says Stahl.

The Venetian guard fleet—this time with Michael as armiraio, the highest-ranking non-noble officer in the fleet—was troubleshooting on several fronts in 1428. A Catalan fleet was gathering in Sicily, Ottoman Turks had taken hundreds of men prisoner in the Venetian port of Modon, and Patras, a Venetian stronghold, was under threat from the Byzantine despot of the Morea. That summer the Venetian and Turkish fleets clashed once again at Gallipoli.

Michael’s service record for that year only says that he was armiraio to the “distinguished Andrea Mocenigo.” But Stahl explains in The Book of Michael of Rhodes that the battle chronicles, which mentions the armiraio without naming him, showed that Michael had a most heroic role. Mocenigo had sent Michael out in a small ship to reconnoiter the palisade protecting the Turkish fleet in late June. On July 1, Michael took a rowboat alongside Mocenigo’s flagship to make soundings with a lance so the galley would not run aground as it moved into an attack position. Once Michael returned to the galley, Mocenigo’s forces advanced into a barrage of arrows and rocks, only to withdraw because the other galleys did not follow into the fray. Mocenigo lost sixty archers and oarsmen, and the galley sustained damage. The Venetian Senate later tried five officers for insubordination for their failure to act that day.

For all the dangers he faced in battle, Michael only mentions injuries sustained in 1431 during a battle off the coast of Portofino. “We had a victory along the coast over the Genoese and I went home over land, wounded and broken,” he wrote, but he gave no hints about where and how his wounds were treated. Was he carried with festering wounds to a monastery or to one of the hospitals that had opened following the great plague, or did his friends patch him up and throw him onto the back of an ass for the long journey back to Venice? Given his age—he would have been in his mid forties—and the high likelihood of infection if he were struck with a filthy weapon, Michael must have had a most resilient constitution.

Michael has had me thinking about mental toughness as well. For centuries before he embarked on his adventures, the waters Michael sailed had swallowed ship after ship. The Mediterranean is a graveyard for thousands of vessels and countless people. Yes, he had to make a living to feed and shelter his family. But there were other ways to do that. What kept him going?

In his book, there is a well-worn drawing of Saint Christopher carrying the Christ child. Was he or a later mariner who used the manuscript among the medieval believers who thought that just looking at the saint’s image would protect them on their travels? Or maybe it was the seductive nature of the Mediterranean itself—calm and beautiful, tempestuous and unpredictable—that called him back year after year.

Michael’s motives for writing his entire opus are unknown, but Stahl’s research suggests that the service record was written in response to a 1434 Senate directive. The mathematics pages may have been started as a personal abaco, a manual of practical mathematics that would have given Michael the skills to get off the oars. It appears to have grown into a work of recreational mathematics, written for the intellectual pleasure it gave. Later, the math treatise along with the navigational directions and shipbuilding texts also would have lent gravitas to his person as he consorted with the merchants and the young nobles sent to sea to learn how to become senior officers.

It seems unlikely that he would “make an illustrated manuscript solely for perusal at home,” writes McGee in his essay on Michael’s shipbuilding text. “On the contrary, we know that Michael was an ambitious man who not only rose up the chain of command but undertook a program of self-education in order to obtain further promotion.”

McGee believes shipbuilders were never Michael’s intended audience—one could not build a ship from Michael’s description and illustrations, at least not easily. Rather it was meant to teach the merchant investors about “completing a ship for sea”—preparing the costly rigging, hanging rudders, and ensuring that all stores and equipment were aboard the galley. There is some irony in the fact that “the earliest treatise in the history of naval architecture was written neither by nor for shipbuilders themselves,” says McGee.

Venice’s rich trove of records has made it possible to pinpoint Michael’s whereabouts during most of his maritime career and to speculate about his motives, but many details of his life remain sketchy. In shaky handwriting, Michael wrote in his manuscript that his first wife, Dorotea, died during his 1415 duty with the guard fleet, and that his son Teodorino died a few years later. He lost his second wife, Cataruccia, in 1437, while serving in the Flanders fleet.

Cataruccia’s wills from 1432 and 1437 suggest Michael’s second wife had some means. In the first will, she requests that her mother Perenzina receive a dark red dress and a purple garment “with sleeves of carmine cloth,” and to her adopted daughter Pulisena, possibly the child of Dorotea and Michael, she gave a “belt of carmine with silver” for her wedding.

Michael’s will of July 5, 1441, established that he lived in San Pietro di Castello, a quarter of Venice with a large Greek community, and that he had a third wife named Menegina, who was to inherit his unnamed goods. The hospice of Santa Maria Stella Coeli and the poor of San Lazaro each were to get a gold ducat, and two ducats were to be given to the notary, a priest named Nicolò Gruato, to “celebrate masses of St. Gregory for my soul.”

In 1445, Michael again called for Gruato. From his sickbed, Michael asked the notary to change the earlier will. Gruato wrote that Michael had reduced the gift to the hospice because he “remained in the greatest poverty because of his illness.” Whether Michael sold his manuscript to another aspiring mariner before he took ill or Menegina did so after he died remains unknown, but its survival has ensured Michael’s legacy. His manuscript contains texts “that might not otherwise have survived had he not had the inspiration to set them down,” says Stahl.

The manuscript is indeed magnificent, but after months of considering Michael, I can’t help wondering what his last thoughts were. Were they memories of a boyhood spent in the Aegean’s blue-green waters off the island of Rhodes? Did he think he might see Dorotea and Teodorino again? Maybe he simply said goodbye to Venice.