Generation 479, 1560-1580. Windows of opportunity

This generation saw the beginning of the decline in relative importance of the Mediterranean. For previous generations it was a mixing pot of cultures, with exchanges between all of the countries bordering on it. In this period people start to look beyond the Middle Sea, for various reasons.

First, there was a conflict between the Ottoman Empire and the christian west. The Sublime Porte (as the Ottoman Emire was known), based in Istanbul, stretched from the Balkans around the entire eastern and southern Mediterranean. The rest, from Venice westward to France and Spain, had lived and traded with the Sublime Porte in an uneasy balance which included trade, tribute, piracy, hostage taking (to man the galleys), ransom of wealthy captives, and prisoner exchange. Cervantes (the author of Don Quixote) was taken into slavery during the following generation, and after working in a galley was eventually released. In this generation Jean de Valette, who became Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, was a prisoner for a year. Having traded in galley slaves in his more piratical earlier days, he was himself caught and worked on the galleys until he was released in an exchange between Malta and the Sublime Porte.

The Sublime Porte under Suleyman the Magnificent decided to go for control of more of the Mediterranean, and so laid siege to Malta, which guarded the narrowest part of the sea between east and west. To the surprise of all, they did not succeed. A few years later, they occupied Venetian-controlled Cyprus. Venice, the papacy and Spain combined forces and met the Ottoman fleet at Lepanto in the isthmus of Corinth. The ensuing battle was appalling in the number of casualties, but politically a stalemate. From then onwards, the eastern Mediterranean including Cyprus was under the control of the Sublime Porte and the western under the christian west.

But times were changing. Spanish, Portuguese, English and Dutch sailors were crossing the Atlantic, encircling Africa, setting up trading posts as far away as the Philippines and the Americas. The Middle Sea was no longer the centre of the world. Abraham Ortelius in Antwerp drew up a world map to describe the new reality, centred on the Atlantic Ocean. Another Fleming, Girardus Mercator, devised the map projection that still has his name. He also coined the word ‘atlas’.
Not only that, Dutch and English sailors also entered the Mediterranean, with their new designs of ships, and upset existing balances. Both Spain and the Sublime Porte turned their attention elsewhere: Spain to protestant northern Europe and the Ottoman Empire to the east, with the consequence that policing of the Mediterranean was not as robust it had been. From now on, some traders decided sea travel was too dangerous and overland routes from northern Europe to the east were increasingly used.

The opening up of the world offered an opportunity to correct suffering resulting from the hardening of views in the christian west. Adherents of other beliefs, even other versions of christianity, were tortured and killed or forced to flee the country. Many Jews from Spain and Portugal left their country to set up trading posts in India or Brazil, beyond the reach of the Inquisition. So much was put to question. Even the mystic Teresa of Avila, who later became patron saint of Spain, was under suspicion of heresy for a while.

One side effect of this new hard line was a drop in commissions for painters. Altar pieces and church art, which used to be their main source of work, were no longer acceptable in the protestant north. Increasingly they looked for other subjects.
Peter Breughel the elder painted the lowest class, the peasants. This painting of the harvesters was one of a series of country scenes through the year.
Margaret of Parma
More common subjects were portaits of the elite of the day. Margaret of Parma was the sister of Philip II of Spain and was one of the political movers and shakers of the period.

Perhaps as a result of the perceived need for literacy in the protestant north (in order to be able to read the bible), many schools opened in this period, particularly in England. This had the unintended consequence of empowering a wider group of people than the small, heavily intermarried ruling class. This offered fertile ground for the revolution in learning that we have seen in subsequent generations. The impulse for independent enquiry was gathering momentum. Tycho Brahe set up his observatory in this period, building on the work of Copernicus from the previous generation and painstakingly plotting the movements of the planets. He questioned the prevailing view of the immutability of the heavens after he saw a supernova in 1572. He was one of the elite himself, but gathered a group of educated young men from more humble backgrounds, including his eventual successor, Johannes Kepler.

One of the treasures from this time was the flourishing of the musical style of polyphony, in which different members of a choir sing contrasting themes to create a complex and harmonious whole. Thomas Tallis and William Byrd in England and Palestrina in Italy created pieces of music that soar and uplift as much now as they did when first performed 450 years ago.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s