User:Rereward/The Siege of Shkodra (1478)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Object of the siege: a venerable Albanian citadel

The Siege of Shkodra of 1478–9 was an important confrontation between the Ottoman Empire (on one side) and the Republic of Venice and the Albanians (on the other side) at Shkodra and its Rozafa Castle during the First Ottoman-Venetian War (1463–79). It is also the title of a book describing the conflict, authored by Marin Barleti, a Shkodran priest who witnessed the events firsthand and without which we would know little about the events.[1] Ottoman historian Franz Babinger called the siege “one of the most remarkable episodes in the struggle between the West and the Crescent.”[2] A small force of approximately 1,600 Albanian and Italian men and women faced a massive force of Ottoman warriors and artillery. The campaign was so important to Mehmed II “the Conqueror” that he came personally to ensure triumph. After nineteen days of bombarding the castle walls, the Ottomans launched five successive general attacks which all ended in victory for the besieged. With dwindling resources, Mehmed attacked and defeated the smaller surrounding fortresses of Žabljak Crnojevića, Drisht, and Lezha, left a siege force to starve Shkodra into surrender, and returned to Istanbul. On January 25, 1479, Venice and Istanbul signed a peace agreement that ceded Shkodra to the Ottoman Empire. The defenders of the citadel emigrated to Venice, whereas many Albanians from the region retreated into the mountains and maintained resistance against the Turks (who maintained a hold on the city until the Montenegrin siege of Shkodra in 1912–13).


Fatih Sultan Mehmet

Shkodra, also known as Shkodër or Scutari, was a both a strategic town and an important region inhabited by ethnic Albanians and a conglomeration of European settlers. The Venetians were waging war against the Ottoman Empire to secure their trading colonies and to frustrate Ottoman advance westward. Venice held and was arming a number of Albanian towns, including Shkodra, which it had taken in 1396 and renamed Scutari. Sultan Mehmed II had already secured great victories, such as the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, but now longed to secure the Albanian coastline so he could focus his efforts on crossing the Adriatic and marching on Rome. Scanderbeg, the beloved Albanian hero who thwarted Ottoman advance for a quarter of a century, had died in 1468, but the Albanian garrisons were still holding. Shkodra was so important to the Empire’s aims that the Turkish battlecry at the walls of Shkodra was “To Rome! To Rome!”[3] In 1474, Mehmed had dispatched the beylerbey of Rumelia, Hadim Suleiman Pasha, with 80,000 men and heavy artillery, but were repulsed by commander Antonio Loredan and feared Venetian reinforcements.[4]

Forces Involved[edit]

After Suleiman’s failure in 1474, Mehmed II planned a more powerful assault on Shkodra. Four years later he dispatched both the beylerbey of Anatolia, Davud Pasha, and the new beylerbey of Rumelia, Mustafa Bey, to Shkodra with the armies under their control. Shkodran historian Marin Barleti recorded that there may have been up to 350,000 Turkish soldiers involved in the attack.[5] Ottoman chronicler Kivami wrote of 100,000 Turkish soldiers in one attack alone.[6] Venetian galleys wanted to aid the besieged and sent their galleys up the Buna River from the Adriatic Sea, but were prevented by an Ottoman blockade at Shirgj.[7]

When the Ottomans approached, Venetian commander Antonio da Lézze sent the women and children to the seaside villages, but some women stayed behind to help the men. A total of 1,600 people defended the castle from within,[8] whereas hundreds of Albanian men and youths from the lakeside villages and nearby towns helped from without, making guerilla attacks on the Ottoman tent camps. Another notable figure in the defense of Shkodra was Friar Bartholomew, who had fought with Scanderbeg before taking holy orders and who gave rousing speeches to rally the defenders.[9]

The Rozafa Fortress[edit]

The Rozafa Fortress in Shkodra, Albania

Due to its strategic position near Lake Shkodra, three rivers, and the Adriatic Sea, the fortress of Shkodra has been the site of numerous battles since its construction as an Illyrian stronghold ca. 400 B.C. Its walls have been razed and rebuilt many times. It was known as a natural bastion, esteemed to have been “a kind of Thermopylae where the high mountains narrowed the passage between the lake and the sea to the armies coming down from Dalmatia.”[10] Also known as the Rozafa Castle (in Albanian, Kalaja e Rozafës) it became the central hub of an extensive 15th century Albanian castle system. These castles protected the local citizens and simultaneously shielded Italy and Western Europe from the surge of the Ottoman Empire.

In 1458, Venetian architects Andrea and Francesco Venier and Malchiore da Imola drew plans for the citadel’s reinforcements and a cistern system designed to collect rain water for use during long sieges. Venice approved these plans on October 20, 1461.[11] In the failed Turkish siege of 1474, the outer walls were damaged significantly. The citizens rebuilt the walls, but when they sensed that the Ottomans were approaching again with an even stronger attack, they constructed secondary fortifications and redoubts made of wood and earth.

The Siege[edit]

Gatteri's 1860 etching of the 1478 siege

In the Spring of 1478, Mehmed II sent out advance scouts and then his commanders to march on Shkodra, inducing panic across the countryside. The citizens intensified their work to fortify the citadel, adding secondary defenses in anticipation of seeing the outer walls demolished by the Turkish cannonade. The Turks set fire to surrounding villages. The Venetian commander in Shkodra, Antonio da Lézze, sent many women and children away to safer haven in the seaside villages.

On May 14, the first Ottoman akinci and infantry soldiers arrived in Shkodra, led by Ali Bey, Iskender Bey and Malkoch. Five days later, the pasha of Rumelia, Davud Pasha, arrived and set up camp on the hill due north of the castle, known as “Pasha’s Hill,” where much of the Turkish cannonade would be positioned. Around June 5, Davud Pasha climbed today’s Mount Tarabosh (opposite the castle to the west) to survey the positions and strategize. Several days later, the pasha of Anatolia (Mustafa Bey) arrived bringing approximately 46,000 cavalry. On June 15, about 5,000 of the sultan’s janissaries came to prepare for Mehmed’s arrival on July 1. Turkish hordes continued to flow in throughout the latter half of June.[12] Around June 18, a small delegation of Ottoman leaders demanded the Shkodrans surrender threatening torture and execution if they chose to resist. On behalf of all the Shkodrans, Peter Pagnanus refused the offer with threats of his own.

On June 22, the first two Turkish cannons were installed and began to fire on the city. By July 11, eleven cannons were being employed, as well as two mortars whose projectiles exploded upon impact. The besieged also had cannons of their own. The Skodran priest Marin Barleti recorded a daily tally of incoming cannon fire, with the total reaching over 3,200 shots.

On July 11, the sultan launched the first of five ground attacks. The climb proved difficult for the Ottoman soldiers, who were repulsed in every attack. On July 27, the Turks launched their fifth and final assault. Shkodran Jacob Moneta roused his ailing troops with a thrilling speech. The sultan climbed Pasha’s Hill to observe the battle. Determined to triumph, the sultan ordered heavy artillery fire simultaneous to the ground assault, resulting in at least three instances of devestating “friendly fire” upon the Turks. Incredibly, the Shkodran garrison held yet again. Barleti notes that the arrows fired by the Turkish archers were so copious that the Shkodrans used them for kindling to start fires—and needed no other kindling for an entire month.

On July 30, the sultan gathered his general council desiring to plan a sixth ground attack, but was persuaded to halt attacks on the Shkodrans who, according to Ottoman historian Kivami, were fighting “like tigers on the mountaintops.”[6] The sultan reluctantly accepted this counsel and sent his commanders to attack the smaller fortresses nearby who were aiding Shkodra. On September 8, the sultan ordered bridges to be built on the Buna River to prevent Venetian ships from coming to Shkodra’s aid via the Adriatic Sea. He ordered a siege force to remain in Shkodra to starve the city into surrender. Then he returned to Istanbul.


On January 25, 1479, as the besieged had resorted to eating mice and dog innards, the Republic of Venice and the Ottoman Empire signed the Treaty of Constantinople which ceded Shkodra to Mehmed II on the condition that the citizens be spared. The Shkodrans in the castle had to choose between emigrating to Venice or dwelling under the rule of their enemies. Marin Barleti records that every citizen chose emigration; many Albanians, however, did remain in their fatherland, retreating deeper into the mountains and organizing occasional uprisings.[13]


In the 1474 siege of Shkodra, between 7,000 and 20,000 Turkish soldiers are reported to have been killed, and approximately 3,000 Shkodrans. In the 1478–9 siege, Ottoman historian Kemal Pashazade recorded that “hundreds of the infidels and Muslims died each day and hundreds more escaped with wounded heads … swollen with lumps and craters like the surface of the moon.”[6] Marin Barleti and other historians record thousands of Turkish casualties and hundreds of Shkodran casualties. Albanian historian Aleks Buda calculates that of the 1,600 men and women who fought in the citadel, approximately 450 men and 150 women survived.[14]


A commemorative relief in Venice

The Ottomans' failure in the first siege of Shkodra in 1474 bought the Italians five more years to brace for Ottoman attacks. After the fall of Shkodra in 1479, the Turks effectively controlled the entire territory of Albanian lands and could focus on advancing to Italy. Indeed, the Ottomans would do so in July, 1480, at the invasion of Otranto. So important was Albania to the Otranto invasion that Gedik Ahmet Pasha (the Ottoman army and navy commander) utilized it as a supply station and place of quick retreat. Goffman records a 1548 battle off the coast of Préveza in which an inferior Ottoman fleet led by Barbarossa routed Andrea Doria’s Catholic galleys largely because of the fresh reinforcements coming from the Ottoman-controlled Albanian shores. Thirty-six of Doria’s vessels were captured, whereas Barbarossa lost none.[15]

Within Albania, the Turks immediately began transforming churches into mosques and forcing conversion to Islam. According to the Albanologist Robert Elsie, an estimated thirty to fifty percent of the population of northern Albania eventually converted by the early seventeenth century. They “converted … not for theological reasons, but primarily to escape oppression and the harsh taxes.” Franciscan missionary activity helped to stem this tide; nevertheless, conversions “continued unabated throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”[16]

Shkodra became an administrative and military center known as a sanjak, until 1867 when it merged with the sanjak of Skopje to form the Vilayet of Shkodra. In 1912, Albania declared indpendence from the Ottoman Empire, procuring the favor of the London Conference of Ambassadors. In 1912 Shkodra was under Montenegrin siege and control between 1912–13, but became officially part of modern Albania in 1914.

The Book[edit]

A page from the Latin version

The Siege of Shkodra (1504) is a rare firsthand account of fifteenth-century siege warfare and a fascinating story of heroism in the face of conquest. A seminal source of Balkan history, it provides unique insights into Ottoman campaigns, Venetian politics, fifteenth-century siege warfare, military history, and religious conflict. Marin Barleti (ca. 1450-1512), also known as Marinus Barletius, was a Shkodran priest who observed the siege and seemed to keep a detailed journal of the daily events. Along with his compatriots, he emigrated to Italy after Shkodra was ceded, and settled in Padua, becoming rector of the parish church of St. Stephen. In 1504 he wrote De obsidione Scodrensi (The Siege of Shkodra), addressing it to the Venetian Senate. Though it predates any known Albanian literature and was written in Latin, it is often called the first work of Albanian history. Consequently Barleti is considered the first Albanian historian.

The Siege of Shkodra contains an introduction addressed to the doge of Venice, Leonardo Loredan, and three lengthy chapters called “books.” The first “book” gives a historical backdrop, the second provides details of the many battles and drama about life within the besieged castle, and the third describes how the sultan halted the offensive, retreated, and left a siege force. The work concludes with the Shkodrans learning that Venice had ceded their city to their enemy and being forced to make the bitter choice to forsake their fatherland and emigrate to Italy or live in submission to their invaders.

After its first printing in 1504, The Siege of Shkodra was reprinted several times in Latin. By 1576 it had been translated and published in Italian, Polish and French. The work captured the imagination of sixteenth-century western Europeans who, in light of the Turkish Siege of Vienna in 1529, were becoming increasingly obsessed by the prospect of Ottoman conquest.

In 1962, on the occasion of Albania’s fiftieth anniversary of independence from the Ottoman Empire, Latin scholar Henrik Lacaj translated the work into Albanian as Rrethimi i Shkodrës. Eminent Albanian historian Aleks Buda provided a historical introduction. The volume also included George Merula’s short essay, “The War of Shkodra,” and Marin Becikemi’s “Panegyric” to the Venetian Senate. Ismail Kadare’s 1970 novel The Siege (Kështjella) is thought to be largely based upon Lacaj’s translation of The Siege of Shkodra.

In 2002, work began on the first English translation, which will likely publish in 2012 on the centennial anniversary of Albania’s independence from the Ottoman Empire. The English edition will include new notes, appendixes, and English translations of the Ottoman chroniclers who wrote about the same events from their perspective. The new volume is currently under scholarly review by Turkish, Albanian, and western Europian historians.


Veronese's Siege of Scutari

The siege of Shkodra is depicted in several works of European art. The façade of the former School of the Albanians in Venice contains a relief created by Vittore Carpaccio around 1530. Sultan Mehmed II is depicted with his Grand Vizier below a cliff on which the Rozafa Castle is perched. The hero commanders of both the 1474 and 1478 battles—Antonio Loredan and Antonio da Lézze—are honored by the inclusion of their coats-of-arms.[17] The Latin inscription means: “The people of Shkodra put up this everlasting monument of their outstanding loyalty toward the Republic of Venice and of the Venetian Senate’s extraordinary beneficence.”

In 1585, Paolo Veronese painted The Siege of Scutari, oil on canvas, which graces the ceiling of the Doge’s Palace in Venice.

In 1860, Giuseppe Lorenzo Gatteri depicted the grand battle of July 27 with a chilling etching entitled I Turchi respinti da Scutari.


  1. ^ Barletius, Marinus. De obsidione scodrensi. Venetiis (Venice): B. de Vitalibus, 1504.
  2. ^ Babinger, Franz. Mehmed the Conqueror and His Time. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1978, p. 363
  3. ^ Merula, George. “The War of Shkodra” (1474). An English translation by Robert Elsie at
  4. ^ Jaques, Tony. Dictionary of Battles and Sieges. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007, p. 921
  5. ^ Barleti, Marin. Rrethimi i Shkodrës. Tiranë: Instituti i Historisë, 1967, pp.13, 51
  6. ^ a b c Pulaha, Selami (ed.). Lufta shqiptaro-turke në shekullin XV. Burime osmane. Tiranë: Universiteti Shtetëror i Tiranës, Instituti i Historisë dhe Gjuhësisë, 1968
  7. ^ Barleti, Marin. Rrethimi i Shkodrës. Tiranë: Instituti i Historisë, 1967, pp. 10
  8. ^ Barleti, Marin. Rrethimi i Shkodrës. Tiranë: Instituti i Historisë, 1967, pp.13
  9. ^ Barleti, Marin. Rrethimi i Shkodrës. Tiranë: Instituti i Historisë, 1967, pp.52-58
  10. ^ Ceka, Neritan. The Illyrians to the Albanians in the Dawn of Albanian History. Tiranë: Migjeni, 2006
  11. ^ Kamsi, Vili. “Kështjella e Shkodrës dhe Restaurimi i Saj” in Monumentet, 1 (ed. Gani Strazimiri). Tiranë: Ministria e Arsimit dhe e Kulturës, 1971, p. 170
  12. ^ Barleti, Marin. Rrethimi i Shkodrës. Tiranë: Instituti i Historisë, 1967, pp. 39-51
  13. ^ Shpuza, Gazmend. “La Lutte pour la défense de Shkodër dans années 1474 et 1478–1479,” in Studia Albanica, VI, 1968, pp. 181–90.
  14. ^ Barleti, Marin. Rrethimi i Shkodrës. Tiranë: Instituti i Historisë, 1967, p.15
  15. ^ Goffman, Daniel. The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe. Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 148
  16. ^ Elsie, Robert. A Dictionary of Albanian Religion, Mythology and Folk Culture. London: Hurst & Company, 2001, pp. 51–52
  17. ^ Brown, Patricia Fortini. Venetian Narrative Painting in the Age of Carpaccio. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988