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Ancestors of the First Newspapers? The Fall of Negroponte: One of the First News Events to be Discussed in Print

7/12/1470 to 1471
Epistola de expugnatione Nigropontis by Spanish bishop, historian and political theorist Rodrigo Sánchez de Arévalo (Rodericus Zamorensis). First page of the edition printed in Cologne by Ulrich Zel, about 1470-71.

Epistola de expugnatione Nigropontis by Spanish bishop, historian and political theorist Rodrigo Sánchez de Arévalo (Rodericus Zamorensis). First page of the edition printed in Cologne by Ulrich Zel, about 1470-71.

The fortified city of Negroponte, a Venetian colony, fell to the Turks on July 12, 1470. Commanding the large Greek island of Euboea (Εύβοια), the city was one of Venice's most strategic remaining possessions in the Eastern Mediterranean, and its loss was a serious blow to the republic. After the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453 Venice grew more dependent on Negroponte as a trading port and military outpost, from which, for the previous seven years, Venetian galleys had fought an increasingly isolated war against the Turks. With the loss of this crucial forward base, Venice had no way to challenge the Turkish fleet in its own waters, and after the fall of Negroponte it seemed to some European observers that the way lay open for an Ottoman assault on Italy itself.

"In many ways the aftermath recalled the atmosphere of 1453: the fall of Constantinople, too, had provoked both fear and fascination among the Italians. And, along with political wrangling and popular outpourings of grief and dismay, both catastrophes gave rise to an enormous and enormously varied body of texts. These included hastily composed eyewitness reports; poetic laments for the cities and their dead; humanist orations bewailing the barbarity of the Turks; learned tracts debating their origins and character; theological ruminations on their possible apocalyptic significance; and popular sermons that laid the blame for Ottoman depredations squarely at the feet of a sinful Christendom. Such texts both reflected and perpetuated the fevered contemporary debate over the problem of the terrible Turk. But the fall of Negroponte­­ or rather, public reaction to it­­ differed from any previous event in Italian history in one crucial way: it coincided almost exactly with the spread of printing through the major cities of the peninsula. . . .(Meserve, Margaret, "News from Negroponte. Politics, Popular Opinion and Information Exchange in the First Decade of the Italian Press," Renaissance Quarterly 59 [2006] 440-480).

Epistola de expugnatione Nigropontis by Spanish bishop, historian and political theorist Rodrigo Sánchez de Arévalo (Rodericus Zamorensis) describing the Turkish seige of Negroponte has been called an ancestor of the newspaper because it was one of the very earliest printed documents to record an event very close to the time in which it occurred. The undated pamphet was considered of sufficient interest to be printed in two diffierent editions almost simultaneously: in Rome by Ulrich Han, probably in 1470 and in Cologne by Ulrich Zell either in 1470 or 1471. In January 2015 a digital facsimile of the Zell pamphlet was available from Universitäts und Landesbibliothek Darmstadt at this link. In actuality the document, which was one of the last things the bishop wrote before his death in October, 1470, was a long consolatory letter on the fall of Negroponte written to Cardinal Basilios Bessarion, who was a personal friend. Bessarion also published on the fall of Negroponte and against the Turks, as will be seen below.

"Sanchez was a renowned scholastic theologian: in his consolation, he adduces four distinct logical causes why Bessarion must not lose heart at the loss of the city. Drawing on passages from Isaiah and Jeremiah, he demonstrates that defeat in this world is temporary and inconsequential. True victory remains to be won in the next life, where the infidel will soon know true death, the kind that lasts for eternity. And yet, as conventionally platitudinous as Sanchez's scholastic thinking may be, the bishop was clearly alert to the uses of humanist learning. He prefaces his consolation with a learned precis of ancient geographical lore concerning Euboea, its cities and coastlines, drawing on favorite humanist authorities like Pliny's Natural History and the geographies of Strabo and Pomponius Mela. It is only after this display of classical erudition that the bishop settles down to his moralizing exegesis on the subject of urban catastrophes" (Meserve, op. cit.)

Another book published in the aftermath of the fall of Negroponte was Epistolae et orationes by Cardinal, Latin Patriarch of Constantinople, Greek manuscript collector and patron of Greek humanists Basilios Bessarion, as a scholarly effort to raise money to fight the Turks. The work was edited by Guillaume Fichet, along with Bessarion's translation of Demosthenes: Olynthiaca prima, and in April 1471 produced in Paris by Ulrich Gering, Martin Crantz and Michael Friburger at their press at the Sorbonne, the first printing press in France. Bessarion translated a speech by Demosthenes warning the Athenians that the invasion of Philip of Macedon would destroy Greek culture. In the epistles that accompanied the translation, Bessarion claimed that Italy was in danger of falling to the Turks, and that immediate aid was needed to repel the threat. The volume was printed at the Sorbonne, probably in the hope of attracting financial support from the French aristocracy. Since the printers did not have any Greek type, they had the Greek passages added by hand. "Five copies are known with additional printed letters of dedication, all dated 5 Aug. 1471: to Louis XI in Paris BN, to Edward IV of England in Vaticano BAV, to Friedrich III in Vienna ÖNB; two further copies of the letter to Friedrich are in Halle (formerly in Magdeburg Gy, lacking the first leaf: GW Anm.1.4) and Freiburg i.Br. UB (without the body of the book: Sack). Several other copies have manuscript letters to various princes and prelates" (ISTC No.: ib00519000). Bessarion's work must have been considered effective since it was reprinted in Venice in 1471 and in Paris in 1500.

"Often what was presented as news was intended to serve the wider public debate that followed after significant events. This was the case with the publications that followed the fall of Negroponte (1470), one of the first news events to be widely discussed in print. The disastrous loss of this key Venetian citadel in the eastern Mediterranean to the Turks provoked a flurry of print commentary, much of it in verse. But few readers of these works would have been learning the news for the first time. The plight of the garrison was well known, and news of their capitulation was swiftly disseminated from Venice around Italy, by letters and word of mouth. Here the publication of news pamphlets played a part in an acrimonious debate about political responsiblity; they also allowed Italy's eager humanists to display their literary virtuosity on the subject of a contemporary tragedy" ( Andrew Pettegree, The Invention of News. How the World Came to Know About Itself [2014] 67).

After her long, very informed, and highly recommended discussion, Meserve lists 19 different fifteenth century publications on the fall of Negroponte, including several in verse. Her list I quote; note that most of these publications are undated, and the dates have had to be inferred.

"Incunabula Relating to the Fall of Negroponte. Data taken with adjustments from ISTC.

1. Piante di Negroponte (terza rima)
[Venice?: Printer of the 'Fiore di virtu' (Adam de Ambergau?), about 1471]  

2. Lamento di Negroponte (ottava rima, forty­seven stanzas) [Milan: Pamfilo Castaldi, 1471]  

3. Lamento di Negroponte (ottava rima, forty­eight stanzas) [Milan: Philippus de Lavagna, about 1472]

4. Lamento di Negroponte (ottava rima, 103 stanzas)[Naples: Sixtus Riessinger, between 1471-­78] 

5. Lamento di Negroponte (ottava rima, ninety­five stanzas)[Florence: Apud Sanctum Jacobum de Ripoli, about 1477] or [Florence: Johannes Petri, ca. 1471­-73] 

6. Paolo Marsi, Lamentatio de crudeli Eurapontinae urbis excidio [Venice: Fredericus de Comitibus, late 1470 or early 1471], with additions by Ermolao Barbaro, Raffaele Zovenzoni, and Basso Romano.

7. Paolo Marsi, Lamentatio de crudeli Eurapontinae urbis excidio [Rome: Printer of (Pomponio Leto's) Silius Italicus, about 1471]

8. Giorgio Fieschi, Eubois [Naples, Sixtus Riessinger, late 1470 or early 1471] 

9. Giovanni Alvise Toscani, Declamationes in Turcum [Rome: Ulrich Han (Udalricus Gallus), 1470­-71] 

10. Raffaele Zovenzoni, Carmen concitatorium ad Principes Christianos in Turcum [Venice]: Adam de Ambergau, [about 1471] 

11. Rodrigo Sanchez de Arevalo, Bishop of Zamora, Epistola de expugnatione Nigropontis [Rome: Ulrich Han (Udalricus Gallus), about 1470] 

12. Rodrigo Sanchez de Arevalo, Bishop of Zamora, Epistola de expugnatione Nigropontis [Cologne: Ulrich Zell, about 1470-­71] 

13. Lamentatio Nigripontis [Rome: Printer of "Mercuriales Quaestiones" (Theobaldus Schencbecher), about 1472] 

14. Antonio Cornazzano, Vita di Christo (including Lamento di Negroponte); Carmen heroicum pro laudibus Venetiarum [Venice?: Printer of Cornazzano] 1472 

15. Bessarion, Epistolae et orationes contra Turcos (Italian), trans. Ludovico Carbone [Venice: Christophorus Valdarfer, 1471] 

16. Bessarion, Epistolae et orationes contra Turcos, ed. Guillaume Fichet [Paris: Ulrich Gering, Martin Crantz, and Michael Friburger, Apr. 1471] 

17. Matthias Herben, Historia Nigropontis. Factio Ferrariensium. Oppugnatio oppidi Schutrensis [Cologne: Printer of the "Elegantiarum viginti praecepta" (Johann Guldenschaff?), about 1487] 

18. Antonio Cornazzano, Vita di Christo (including Lamento di Negroponte); Carmen heroicum pro laudibus Venetiarum (reprint of the 1472 edition) [Venice: Tommaso di Piasi, 1492] 

19. Bessarion, Epistolae et orationes contra Turcos (reprint of the 1471 Paris edition) [Paris: Guy Marchant, 1500] 

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