Drowning in the Danube

J.H. Elliott

  • Marsigli’s Europe 1680-1730 by John Stoye
    Yale, 356 pp, £29.95, February 1994, ISBN 0 300 05542 0

Outside his native Bologna, the name of Count Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli, soldier of fortune and Fellow of the Royal Society, must by now be almost unknown. Born in 1658, and surviving until 1730, he made something of a stir in his lifetime, and was the subject of two 18th-century biographies. Since then, he has not exactly been the focus of historical attention, although his memoirs were published in 1930 from an 18th-century manuscript copy. But now he has been somewhat improbably restored to life, with all his failings and foibles, by the magic touch of a sympathetic but far from uncritical biographer, John Stoye.

Why should Dr Stoye, or for that matter we, spend time on the life of a man who at best rates no more than a walk-on part on the stage of European history? A prickly, bombastic and hot-headed minor Italian nobleman, he would hardly seem at first sight an obvious candidate for historical resurrection, and still less for the years of painstaking and erudite research required for the reconstruction of his generally unsuccessful professional career. But as soon as one embarks on this book, all the doubts are dispelled. Count Marsigli, who prided himself on being a virtuoso, has called forth a virtuoso performance from his biographer.

The author of a splendid book on 17th-century travel, English Travellers Abroad, Stoye has always had an eye for the individual and the idiosyncratic, and has displayed a taste for those remote parts of Europe which other historians tend not to reach. It was, he tells us, while he was writing his study of The Great Siege of Vienna, of 1683, that he first came across Count Marsigli, himself an inveterate traveller. As he began to retrace Marsigli’s footsteps, he became aware of having stumbled on a character who, while a curiosity in his own right, was also capable, through his travels and his life, of providing a means of entry into a series of inter-connected historical worlds.

The story begins in 17th-century Bologna, a city living, as Stoye nicely puts it, in a condition of ‘holy deadlock’ with its sovereign, the Pope. To be a member of the Bolognese patriciate had its pleasures and compensations, but these were necessarily on a limited scale. It was not therefore surprising if the more spirited and ambitious looked for a wider sphere of action than the confines of their native city. One such was Count Virgilio Malvezzi, who placed his sword and his famously Tacitean pen at the disposal of the Spanish crown, and transformed himself into the sycophantic court historian of Philip IV. Marsigli, born four years after the death of Malvezzi, entertained similar cravings for international fame and fortune, but was to turn, unlike Malvezzi, not west but east.

There were good reasons, both personal and international, for his choice. After a spell performing the civic functions expected of one of his class, he succeeded in 1679 in joining a Venetian embassy to the Sultan in Istanbul. His first encounter with the Ottoman Empire excited his interest, and was to lay the foundations for a literary project which, decades later, would result in the publication of an important book on the Rise and Fall of Ottoman Military Institutions. Enterprisingly, he decided to return to Italy by land rather than sea, and made his way home through the Balkans, taking copious notes of everything of interest he saw on the journey.

Marsigli was to be an inveterate note-taker throughout his life, and that perhaps was one of his troubles. Educated by the Jesuits, fascinated by mathematics and engineering, he was a magpie collector of facts and figures. Possessed of a consuming curiosity, he observed the world around him passionately, bringing to his observations that spirit of somewhat indiscriminate intellectual inquiry so characteristic of the age of the pre-Enlightenment. Bologna, like other Italian cities, had its literary and scientific societies, its collectors and its dilettanti, eager for scientific knowledge, and enthusiastically dabbling in the history of the natural world. Marsigli, as Stoye describes him, was a characteristic product of this ‘post-Galilean’ society. But if it was Bologna that made him the kind of man he was, it was to be the Balkans, first observed in 1679-80, which gave shape and meaning to his life.

In the 1680s, as in the 1990s, the eyes of all Europe were fixed on Bosnia and Serbia. In 1683 the Ottoman Army advanced through Hungary to lay siege to Vienna, and, as the Emperor Leopold I appealed to the West for help, the future of Christendom was once again at stake. Count Marsigli, who, in his quest for a career and a patron, had signed up as a volunteer officer in the Imperial Army, cannot be said to have had a good siege. He was captured close to the Austrian border by a force of Tartars, and, when not employed by his captors on building siege works, was brewing coffee for the Turkish encampment. But, as always, he was to turn unfortunate experiences to good account. By the time he eventually made his escape he had acquired much valuable local knowledge, and had become enough of an expert in coffee-brewing to be able to publish A Tipple from Asia, a discourse on coffee and its medicinal properties, dedicated with panache to the papal nuncio.

A Balkans expert was even more valuable than a coffee expert in the 1680s, as the Imperial forces rolled back the Turkish attack and began their own advance. Buda was recaptured in 1686, and vast and little-known tracts of land, dotted with towns and villages bearing outlandish names, were now brought under precarious Imperial suzerainty. Maps, inevitably, were hopelessly inadequate, and there was an urgent need for more precise information about the great Danube territories that were so unexpectedly being recovered for Christendom. Marsigli had the luck to be the right man in the right place at the right time. He had attracted the benevolent attention of the Emperor, who was happy to draw on the expertise of this cultivated Italian noble; and in the later 1680s and throughout the 1690s, as an officer in the Imperial Army, he was to find the ideal outlet for his skills in surveying the topography of the recovered lands.

Marsigli’s activities form the basis of a fascinating story, which Stoye tells with exemplary skill. In effect he is using Marsigli to introduce us, as Marsigli himself had to be introduced, to the unfamiliar and infinitely complicated world of the Balkans at a turningpoint in their own, and European, history. The Turks were on the run – although not quite so much on the run as a victorious Christendom had at first believed. In retreating, they left behind them a vacuum which the petty potentates and principalities – the princes of Transylvania and Wallachia, and the Serbian patriarch, Arsenius III – scrambled to fill. But their manoeuvres were overshadowed by the three superpowers all with designs of their own: the Ottoman Empire, down but not yet out; the empire of the Austrian Habsburgs, which wanted Serbia and Bosnia for itself; and, away to the East, Muscovy, suspected of planning to intervene as the protector of the Orthodox population if the Habsburg forces should continue their advance.

In the event, the advance faltered and ground to a halt, as the Turks counter-attacked and, in 1690, recovered Belgrade. At the same time the whole international conjuncture was changing, as William III struggled to put together a coalition to check the ambitions of the petit Turc of the West, as Louis XIV had been derisively called in 1683 for his failure to come to the help of Vienna. The Emperor would not be able to participate effectively as long as he was heavily engaged in war in the Balkans, and the pressures therefore mounted for a Balkan settlement. In 1699 Vienna and Istanbul negotiated a peace settlement in the Treaty of Carlowitz. The treaty required the delimiting of a new frontier between the Ottoman and Habsburg empires, and for the following two years General Marsigli, as he now was, served as Imperial boundary commissioner, measuring, surveying and mapping the land through which the boundary line was to run, and negotiating with his Turkish counter part for a strip of territory here and a village there.

A similar process had occurred in the Cerdagne following the Treaty of the Pyrenees between France and Spain in 1659. But the defining of a boundary in the Balkans was altogether a much more complicated and ambitious affair. Europe was becoming increasingly frontier-conscious, although old notions about the recovery of outlying pockets of jurisdiction justified by ancient historical claims jostled with newer ideas about the creation of defensible frontier lines. Stoye’s description of the process by which ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ boundaries were laboriously drawn in Croatia and Hungary by a combination of on-the-ground inspection and patient negotiation should be required reading for Europe’s foreign ministers. They might find it helpful, too, to take a glance at Marsigli’s maps.

In terms of public service, the drawing of the new frontier in the Balkans marked the high point of Marsigli’s career. It was to be swiftly followed by personal disaster when he was court-martialled for alleged dereliction of duty at Breisach, and was condemned to have his sword broken into pieces and to be dismissed with ignominy from the Imperial service. It was a shattering blow to his honour and self-esteem from which he never fully recovered, although it also had the liberating effect of allowing the man of arms to dedicate himself full-time to his other vocation, the pursuit of letters.

Ever since he first set eyes on it, Marsigli had been fascinated by the River Danube, and, as he inhaled more and more of the ‘boggy bad air’ of the Balkans, he conceived the ambitious idea of writing an Opus Danubiale, in effect a ‘total’ study of the Danubian world, its geographical and physical characteristics, its natural history and its Roman antiquities. Through it all wound the river, which, as he accumulated more and more notes and sketches, came to dominate his life and his thoughts. At one point he was described as ‘drowning in the Danube’, but, miraculously, he was to reach the shore.

Long before the handsome work appeared in print with a Dutch publisher in 1726, his researches had brought him a public acclaim and recognition which must have been balm to the wounded spirit of the disgraced soldier. Already in 1691 he had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1721, on a visit to London, he was admitted in person to his fellowship, and had the privilege of being welcomed by Sir Isaac Newton. During his later years he pursued his researches in Italy, Provence and Switzerland, and – obsessed as ever by water – collected materials for another book, a Physical History of the Sea. He turned back, too, to his native Bologna, which he endowed, after the usual acrimonious wranglings, with an Institute, along with an observatory, to house his collections and promote true science in an environment beyond the deadening reach of the university.

The native Bolognese, proud of his city to the end, was a living example of that cosmopolitanism which was such a distinguishing feature of later 17th and 18th-century European life. He made his military career in the service of the Holy Roman Emperor, whose Italian-speaking court was the most cosmopolitan in Europe. By his researches and publications he earned his credentials as a fully-fledged citizen of the Republic of Letters, as welcome among the cognoscenti in Paris, London and the Hague as in Vienna or the cities of his native Italy. Moving easily between one world and another – between Eastern and Western Europe, between the life of the soldier and the life of the virtuoso – he was also a transitional figure between the mental world of the pre-Enlightenment, with its enthusiasms for collecting and classifying everything of interest that came within its purview, and the dawning age of science and technology.

The great achievement of John Stoye has been to illuminate each of Marsigli’s many worlds, and, in so doing, to give us a new and distinctive vision of Europe itself in an age of transition. He might perhaps have devoted rather more space to Marsigli’s works themselves, and have given us some assessment of their value to contemporaries and to later generations. But his book is a remarkable achievement. For all the recurring criticism of biography as a form of history, it contains possibilities for combining the individual with the general which can bring both to life. Stoye has made the most of these possibilities, and writing with wit and grace has produced a brilliant, and immensely enjoyable, book.

Stoye’s choice of subject may appear unconventional, and the regions discussed remote, although not now as remote as they seemed a few years ago. But those who choose to follow the twists and turns of Count Marsigli’s career will not soon forget this vain, quarrelsome and infinitely curious figure, who may have been drowning in the Danube but kept waving to the end.