Giovanni Dario between his friends, the Bellini brothers.
Gentile Bellini, Procession at San Marco, 1496.
Every week the New York Times interviews a famous person and asks which three people would be the best dinner guests. I would need several dinners, but for one I would choose Giovanni Dario, Cyriaco of Ancona, and Cardinal Bessarion. We know that Dario and Cyriaco were acquainted, and I can demonstrate the likelihood that Bessarion knew both of them. It is possibly not correct to chose only men for guests, but I would prefer an all- women's dinner another time with Cleofe, Paola, and Battista Malatesta. I have written about Cyriaco and Bessarion in recent months, but it has been a long time since Giovanni Dario was a guest here.
He came to mind because a recent publication by Nicky Tsougarakis in Dumbarton Oaks Papers of 14th-century Cretan notarial documents includes a number from 1356-57 with a Giovanni Dario as witness. This is surely my man's great-grandfather: we know he was a notary, as was my Giovanni – or Zuam or Zuan or Zan (I have all three names in a letter to him from the Signoria).
Dario was born about 1414 in Crete, a citizen of the stato da mar. He was at least the fourth generation of his family to be trained and certified as a notary, following his great-grandfather Giovanni (who also owned sheep) and his grandfather and father (both named Marco). Marco Dario fils was also a gold-worker and jeweller, protomaestro of the goldworker’s guild, a procurator of the cathedral of St. Titus, and a merchant who combined business with travels as an emissary for the duca of Crete. I am quite sure, without evidence, that Marco Dario had something to do with Commander Giovanni Delfino's acquisition of the most beautiful small antiquity in existence, that Cyriaco wrote about in 1445. Cyriaco had visited the Dario property at Pediada in Crete, possibly arranging for a shipment of cheese or wine, while looking for antiquities.
Giovanni joined his father in business and political ventures to Constantinople, Venice, Rhodes, and other ports of the eastern Mediterranean, apparently picking up useful bits of Arabic and Turkish to add to his Venetian and Italian. He was licensed as a notary in 1450, which certified him as doctissimus in litteris grecis et latinis, which means that he was compentent to write legal documents in both languages. That same year he interpreted for Nicolò da Canale, Venetian ambassador first to the court of Constantine XI in Constantinople, then to the court of Murad IV, and finally to the court of Thomas Palaiologos in the Peloponnesos, and may have translated the final agreements from Greek into Latin for Venetian records. Tradition puts him in the camp of Mehmed II as an observe during the 1453 siege of Constantinople, but documents put him in Sitia in eastern Crete.
Like his father, Dario combined government responsibilities with his own business as a merchant. His knowledge of Greek and Latin extended to the classical forms, and he found his friendships among humanists—writers and artists. One of them was the humanist and hunter of antiquities, Cyriaco of Ancona. Both of them them were engaged in the same kind of work, some of it diplomatic, some of it brokering objets des fines arts between Italy, Crete, Egypt, and Constantinople: both were men of great good humor and good conversation, Cyriaco hyperactive and ebullient, Dario quiet and inclined to sit.
By 1465 Giovanni was employed in the cancelleria in Venice which involved him in most aspects of the Venetian government, especially diplomacy within Italy. He received regular raises of salary, and promotions in titles and responsibilities, but it was was clearly the exhausting Venetian-Ottoman war (from July 1463 to January 1478/79 ) that demonstrated his unique value to the Signoria: he was sent at least four times to Constantinople with various patrician ambassadors to negotiate peace, on one trip negotiating with Mehmed's emissary on Mount Athos. It was to his great advantage that he could speak Turkish. He went at least twice to Egypt to protest abuses against Venetian merchants in Damascus and Cairo. He continued his own business—just before he left on the second Egyptian voyage, he and his brother contracted with a Paduan goldworker to buy metal and worked silver in Cairo, and exchange a silver cup for a pearl, and then he arranged in Alexandria to export wheat, always needed in Crete.
In Venice, he lived near S. Apostoli (just off the Rialto bridge) with a woman to whom he was devoted, though all we can be sure of is her name, Chiara. Their child Marieta was born, probably, in 1473. The household included his sister Salamona's sons—Francesco, Giovanni, and Andrea Pantaleo (who eventually took Dario for their last name), whom he expected to regard Chiara as if she were their mother.
Because the official ambassador to the Sultan had died, exhausted from his many trips between Venice and Constantinople in the last year of the war, Dario was given broad discretion to negotiate, persuade, and cajole the final peace agreement from Mehmed. Mehmed gave him his cahd-name on 25 January 1478(9), and presented him with a horse, and three cloth-of-gold robes. Mehmed sent a kyahya, Lüfti Beg, back with Dario to Venice to receive the Signoria's confirmation of the agreement, and the Signoria gave Lüfti Beg cloth-of-gold robes of his own in return. Mehmed asked for artists: when Dario returned to Constantinople in early summer, he took with him Gentile Bellini and a sculptor.
In Gentile's painting above, Dario is shown as an elderly man. The painting was made two years after he died, in 1494 at the age of 80. He had been troubled for some years with heart trouble. In Turkey in 1485 he had pled with the Signoria to allow him to return to Venice:
To stay here in order to spend uselessly seems to me unnecessary; besides my age and the condition of my valetudinarian body require a better place than this. because if I should have another attack, it will take me with no coming back Here there is neither doctor nor medicine, nor any tending, either physical or spiritual, and one who dies here dies like a dog. It makes me extremely afraid when I think of such danger, and so I hope in the clemency of Your Most Illustrious Signoria that it will not want such a faithful servant to perish in this way, entreating from you a particular grace in reward for my fatigue, that you grant me welcome permission to come home, and that you do not leave me here to die unnecessarily – because if I live it might happen that some other time I might be a useful instrument for some need of Your Most Excellent State . . .
The Venetian bailo in Constantinople wrote:
He is much loved by the paşas. Frankly, Most Serene Prince, I will say that it would be a sin to lose this man because of his fine service, because he is profoundly fatigued because of his personal condition, incurably sick, he has spent the winter in Adrianople with the greatest discomforts of living and continual fatigue . . . I respectfully request that Your Most Illustrious Signoria grant that he be permitted to return with me on the galleys.
It was another year before he was permitted to return, but he came back to the lovely little house on the Grand Canal that the Signoria gave him in appreciation for his work. I have written about its decoration here, and about its inscription (and Cyriaco) here.
Despite his age and ill health -- he wrote three wills between then and his death in 1494 -- Dario made a final trip to Turkey in 1487, to persuade Beyazid that Venice would not join the Knights of St. John at Rhodes for a crusade against the Ottomans. In his last, handwritten, will of 1493, he directed his procuratori to free his slaves -- some of them Turkish -- with ten years of service and provide them with adequate clothing and money for the next stage of their lives.
In one of his wonderful letters he wrote: io che son de natura quieta et de etade ormai inclinata a la quiete—"I am by nature quiet and now at my age inclined to rest." That quietness shows in the mild face that gazes from Gentile Bellini's great Procession in the Piazza San Marco. Towards the lower left, where the white-robed figures break, standing between the Bellini brothers, is an elderly balding man, somewhat overweight, in the red patrician "toga" with old-fashioned sleeves to which he was entitled as a Secretary, and Guardian Grande of the scuola of S. Giovanni Evangelistra. The Bellini brothers were members, too, and Dario was the one who paid them for their work.
There are two clear reminders of Dario's Turkish experience in Venice today, in addition to his letters and the cahd-name with its great gold tugra. One is the small Turkish fountain room he had put in his house at the end of the great L-shaped room of the piano nobile. Marble benches center on a fountain in a small square pool, and windows look out on the garden behind. The second is in that Bellini painting. Dario had taken Bellini to Constantinople to paint for Mehmed. In the painting, Bellini shows Dario carrying a Turkish handkerchief. He never saw the work: it was painted two years after he died, a tribute from a friend.
Much of this blog was taken from this article, published in The Turkish Studies Association Journal. In it you can read translations of Dario's letters about stratioti, the Kladas affair, and exotic visitors and gifts to the Sultan's court. Giovanni Dario's web page is here.