Written by Henry Midgley
The Early Modern period of European history is dominated by the rise and fall of Great Powers. Few powers were greater in that era than the mercentile empire of Venice or the power of the Porte, radiating through the Balkans from the fortress of Istanbul. The Venetians and the Turks enjoyed a relationship punctuated by tension and pride. Both heirs to the empire of Constantinople, the second Rome, both empires vied for control and supremacy in the Eastern Meditereanean. And between them there were a group of shifting client states, sometimes independent, sometimes not, whose fortunes rose and fell with factional conflicts in Venice and Istanbul and the boundary between the Republic of Saint Mark and the realm of the Sultan.
Amongst those powers which thrived for a small time was the princely state of Montenegro. Ruled by the house of Crnojevic during the latter 15th Century, Montenegro existed in the shadow of the two great powers and its rulers attempted to secure the backing of Venice to retain an independent base in the Balkans. Their allegiance to Venice was far from sure, several times they demonstrated their independence of their patrons by going to war with the Venetians. By the death of Ivan in 1490, the Crnojevic were facing dangerous times. A Turkish army was on the march through the Balkans, Ivan's son Djuradj went with his Venetian wife to Venice itself to get desperately needed help in 1496. Djuradj ended up though being arrested, he was released in 1498, and present at the seige of Milan in 1499 but then fearing for his freedom he fled to the Turks in 1500 and remained in Turkey till he died. The attempt to build a Crnojevic state had failed.
These events have become the stuff of national history. Montenegro once again is asserting its independence and sites like this one link that Montenegro to the present state. Indeed that site asserts in discussing the Crnojevic that they were nationalists before the term was invented, fighting for the freedom of Montenegro and left a legacy of patriotism in their people's hearts. They cared for the Montenegran state and ultimately were a Balkan version of William Tell, deserted ultimately by the perfidious Italians to the evil designs of the Turks. Nothing could be further from the truth. New research by Diana Wright has brought to light the true nature of the Montenegran principality, through exploring a document left in Venice by Djuradj, his last will and testament. Exploring its concerns allows us to see that Djuradj, far from being a Montenegran patriot, was typical both of his time and place.
Wright's research suggests that Djuradj was an innovater but not in the theatre of politics, in the theatre of love. She suggests, and she uses an Italian form of his name Zorzi that Djuradj was the first writer of love letters in Venice. Reading the testament its possible to see what she means. 17 times Djuradj uses the word consorte to refer to his wife, he leaves her as sole executor of his will. This kind of thing is typical of Venetians at the time: 88% of husbands by this point were leaving their wives as sole executors of their wills. The innovation here may lie less in Djuradj than in the limits of our evidence- its perfectly possible that this isn't the first love letter but it is the first love letter that has survived. In that Wright is justified in asserting Djuradj's importance as a historical figure.
But notice how far we have come from the nationalistic hero of myth- far from being Montenegran and motivated by patriotism, Djuradj was a typical Venetian of his day and married to another Venetian. Reading the testament something else emerges. Djuradj cared little if nothing about his own country, he doesn't mention it. He cared deeply about family honour. He reminded his wife that she had no equal on earth save for Kings and other princes. He plans for his sons, wishing that one be sent to live with the King of France, the other with the Sultan of Turkey, no matter who wins Djuradj wanted a Crnojevic to be on their side. He tells his wife that the rulers of Venice are obligated to them because of what his father did, he tells her that if he dies and she gets back to Montenegro he wants her to endow a monestory with money to whom he gave a vow. All of this revolves not about Montenegran nationalism but around the House of Crnojevic and its prosperity, in heaven and earth.
Looking at Djuradj, one might almost see him in a line stretching forward to Ali Pasha, the despot of Eastern Greece in the early 19th Century. A whole series of figures arise to my mind, men who attempted to survive under Ottoman rule or with Western support. Djuradj doesn't form part of the history of Montenegran nationalism, his part in history is as a sign of the double face of the Balkans. Looking westwards and northwards towards Italy and southwards and eastwards to Turkey, rulers in the Balkans were constantly caught in a dangerous dance, where they could very easily miscalculate. Djuradj did and his patrimony did not survive, and he is fairly typical of that.
That part of the world has seen vast changes in the twentieth century, probably the greatest since the era of Djuradj's grandfather and the final fall of Constantinople. The Turkish empire has vanished and a series of independent states have replaced it. Attempting to read the history of those states as though the political and ideological world of today is that of yesterday is folly. Djuradj is an interesting example of the way that 15th Century politics worked. His principality was consumed in conflicts over which he had no control and his attempts to control it relied on his ability to influence others, notably the Venetians and even at times the King of France. Attempts which ultimately failed.
Djuradj is an interesting figure- there is more that we don't know about him that could be found out- but Diana Wright's work leaves me in no doubt that the best way to think about him is as a 15th Century prince not a 21st Century patriot.
Sunday, 23 September 2007