Volume 30, No.3 - Fall 1984
Editor of this issue: Antanas Klimas
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1984 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.



Some time ago, I was looking through a history of Lithuania1 which had belonged to my father-in-law, Joseph Ambraziejus, a well-known leader in the underground movement for Lithuanian independence during the first decade of this century. I checked the index and noted a pencil-mark at an entry for "Ambraziejus." My curiosity aroused, I discovered that the "Ambraziejus" referred to a Venetian envoy to Lithuania in the 1470's, identified as "Ambraziejus Contarini."

The combination of names was so startling that I checked out Contarini in the Encyclopedia Britannica and learned that "Ambraziejus" was in fact one "Ambrogio" Contarini. Lithuanians, like most Europeans, tend to transliterate foreign names into their own tongue, a custom that would be comparable to the Italians calling the last president of Lithuania "Antonio" Smetona. Thoroughly hooked by now, I went on to the text in the history which reproduced in Lithuanian those parts of a lengthy travel narrative by Ambrogio dealing with his official visit to the court of Casimir IV, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. I subsequently found in the Library of Congress the full account of Contarin's three-year mission (1473-1476) to Poland, Lithuania, Moscow, Crimea and Persia, published in a book of exotic voyages and travels in the 12th to the 15th centuries.2


During the 15th century, the swift expansion of the Ottoman Turks into the Levant and the Balkans had cut heavily into Venice's profitable trade with that area. Some 30 years before the start of Contarini's travels, Ladislas III, a son of Jogaila, had led a crusade against the Ottomans but was defeated and killed at Varna, a Black Sea port in present-day Bulgaria. This Turkish victory weakened the position of the capital of the Byzantine empire, Constantinople, which fell to the Ottomans in 1453. Venice, now greatly concerned about its fate, dispatched emissaries to various countries seeking support against the Ottomans. Among these was Ambrogio Contarini.3

The principal object of Contarini's mission was to persuade the king of Persia, one Uzun-Hassan, to renew hostilities against the Turks in order to relieve the mounting pressure on Venice from the Ottoman advance up the eastern shores of the Adriatic. As it turned out, Contarini accomplished his mission in Persia but this still did not prevent a humiliating defeat for Venice the year after his return. The Republic was compelled to cede important colonies in the Balkans and pay huge indemnities to the seemingly-invincible enemy.

Contarini was one of that unusual breed of intrepid and inquisitive adventurers, of which Venice boasted a goodly number, the most celebrated of whom was Marco Polo. Contarini endured severe hardships and perils during his three-year odyssey which I estimate at five to six thousand miles, much of it through lands infested with hostile Tartar bands, brigands, and primitive nomads. He crossed two mountain ranges twice, the Alps and the "terrible" Caucasus, was constantly in danger of robbers and worse, traveled by sledge on frozen rivers, often went without food or water, and almost died of fever.

Contarini's own words best reveal the drama of his foray into largely-unknown lands. One particularly memorable incident was crossing the Dnieper river in the Ukraine with Tartar guides: ". . . our Tartars cut down trees, the stems of which they fastened together into a raft, which was covered over by the branches, and upon which the whole of our baggage was placed. They fastened their horses by the tails to this raft, by means of which it was dragged across the river, they themselves swimming along-side of their horses, and holding by their manes. We likewise had to swim our horses across, in which we succeeded, by the blessing of God, but in much fear and danger at this, to us, unusual mode of navigation." Accustomed to the luxury of aristocratic life in Venice, Contarini was frequently appalled by the barbarous customs of the Tartars, their heavy drinking and their stench: ". . . the Tartars smelled so abominably, from feeding on horse flesh, that is was quite intolerable to come near them." One tribal leader gave Contarini the under-done head of a sow, at which the hungry Venetian remarked stoically: ". . . when we cannot get what we like, we must put up with what can be had." A number of times he had to pay heavy bribes and use his quick Italian wit to escape being enslaved or even plundered and murdered.

But there were also pleasant memories. He was particularly impressed by the courtesy and hospitality extended him by Casimir IV, grand duke of Lithuania who had succeeded his brother Ladislas (killed at the battle of Varna) as king of Poland. In Moscow, the local ruler presented Contarini with a large silver goblet filled with mead.4. Although the recipient of such a gift was expected to empty it by drinking, Contarini stated (perhaps a bit disingenuously) that his hosts, acquainted with the "sobriety of the Italians," permitted him to consume not more than a quarter of the liquor. On another occasion, a "Circassian woman named Martha, who had been the slave of a person of Genoa" invited him to spend several pleasant days with her, treating Contarini with 'much kindness'." Such was the nature of the adventures of this 15th century diplomat who carried out his mission with extraordinary perseverance, ingenuity, and not a little luck.

Via Germany into Poland

Contarini left Venice on the 23rd of February, 1473,5 accompanied by his personal chaplain, an interpreter, and two servants. All the members of the group were dressed as ordinary travellers, their money sewn into their coats. Crossing the Alps, they made their way to Nuremberg where they met two Polish ambassadors to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor. The ambassadors, returning to Poland, invited the Italians to accompany them. Once in Poland, Contarini, always sensitive to life's amenities, wrote that he found ". . . neither cities nor [substantial] castles, and had much reason to remember Germany with regret, both on account of bad lodgings and every other circumstance."

The Polish ambassadors led the Italian party to Poznan, ". . . particularly remarkable on account of a great fair, which is resorted to by many merchants." This is an interesting observation by Contarini since it affords firsthand evidence of the traditional importance of trade fairs in the commercial life of Europe. The travelers finally reached

the royal court at Lencica6 west of Warsaw. Because Contarini was traveling  in plain pilgrim's clothing, he was given the customary court attire of a damask robe. The Venetian noted in his journal that he followed the "Polish" custom of touching his forehead to the ground when he approached the king and then presented him with appropriate gifts from the Republic of Venice. Invited to dine with the king, Contarini reported that it ". . . was served in much the same manner as with us, the dishes being in great abundance and well dressed."

Two days later, Casimir granted Contarini a private audience, giving ". . . orderly answers to all the proposals which I had made to him in the name of our Republic, and with so much benevolent attention towards me, that I learned by experience that he justly deserved the character of the best king who had reigned in Poland for a great many years." Like a prudent diplomat, Contarini did not reveal in his journal the nature of his "proposals" to Casimir, except to note that the king's responses to them were "orderly," by which he probably meant satisfactory. Of particular interest is the fact that Contarini attested to Casimir's reputation in the Europe of his day as an outstanding monarch.7

Casimir appointed two guides to lead Contarini to Kiev. At one time the capital of a huge non-Muscovite empire of eastern Slavs, Kiev was now part of the extensive domains of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and hence under Casimir's jurisdiction. Since Casimir's combined realm of Lithuania and Poland was coming under increasing pressure from the Ottomans, he was keenly interested in the success of the Venetian's mission to obtain support against the common enemy.

After leaving the royal court at Lencica, Contarini traveled in a southeasterly direction through Polish lands which he found to be ". . . flat and forested, without suitable accommodations and miserably poor." Reaching Lublin, "a tolerable city," he met three sons of Casimir who were residing in the city for their education. "The eldest of these princes was about fourteen years of age, and the two others were considerably younger. Learning that they wished to see me ... I waited upon them and was received with much politeness, the eldest conversing with me in the most obliging manner . . ." It is intriguing to speculate that St. Casimir, whose 500th anniversary we celebrate this year and who would have been fourteen years of age in early 1473,8 probably was the prince who impressed Contarini so favorably.

Crossing the border into "lower Russia" or present-day Ukraine, which Contarini noted was subject to king Casimir, the Italian party traveled for five days through deep forests before reaching a small settlement protected by a "wooden castle." Here the Venetians rested for sometime ". . . yet not without danger, as the inhabitants were quite mad with drunkenness on account of celebrating certain marriages. This country produces no wine, but the natives prepare a liquor from honey, which is stronger and more intoxicating even than wine." Apparently the tradition of boisterous, even violent, merry-making at weddings in eastern Europe is at least as old as the 15th century. The sober Venetian was obviously puzzled, even frightened, by the social customs of inhabitants fueled with that potent brew of fermented honey and spices which was to trouble Contarini more than once during his travels.

Kiev and the Crimea

Before reaching Kiev, Contarini had to find his way once more through forests ". . . in constant danger of robbers who infested the roads, and we knew not where to pass the night, or to procure any [food] insomuch that we had to sleep in the woods, keeping strict watch lest we might be surprised by the banditti." Contarini nevertheless managed to arrive at Kiev safely where he was warmly welcomed by the governor, Martinas Goštautas,9 whose family played a prominent role in the history of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Contarini observed that Kiev, an important crossroads between eastern Europe and the Levant, served as a barrier or frontier garrison against the Tartars who were continually harassing their neighbors to the north. The city was famous, like Poznan, for a great fair, to which merchants brought rich furs and other goods from "Upper Russia." From Kiev, the merchants traveled in large caravans to Kaffa10 but were often surprised and "ill-treated" by the Tartars. Kaffa, situated in southeastern Crimea, was then a prosperous commercial port and an old Genoese colony under Casimir's protection. We cannot but be impressed by the wide-ranging influence of the city-state of Genoa which rivaled Venice at this time for commercial and political preeminence in the Mediterranean area. Equally impressive were the extensive interests of Casimir IV and his political relations with far-off Genoa. Disappointing, however, but apparently reflective of the foreign opinion of the age, is that Contarini, writing well before the Union of Lublin, constantly referred to the "Polish" king and characterized the Ukraine as being under "Polish" dominion. Contarini did not appear to be aware of the separate political identity of the Lithuanian state or that the "Polish" king Casimir, while indeed the king of Poland, was of Lithuanian heritage and the Grand Duke of Lithuania as well.

As usual, Contarini paused to take stock of his new surroundings, noting that the countryside about Kiev abounded in grain and cattle. Then, always sensitive to excessive drinking, the Venetian caustically observed that "The inhabitants of this place occupy the whole day in their affairs till three o'clock, employing the rest, till night, in drinking and quarrels, the natural consequence of drunkenness."

Goštautas treated Contarini with great kindness, having been instructed by Casimir to facilitate the envoy's mission which was of considerable interest to the king. Goštautas informed the Venetian that an ambassador was shortly expected from Lithuania who was to present "gifts" to the Khan of Crimea, undoubtedly as bribes to put an end to the frequent Tartar forays across Casimir's frontiers.11 The Tartars remained troublesome even after their subjugation by the Ottoman Turks, raiding at times as far north as Moscow. Catherine the Great wrested control of the Crimean Khanate from the Ottomans late in the 18th century but the unruly Tartars could not be easily subdued.

Goštautas strongly urged Contarini to join the Lithuanian ambassador who would be escorted, ironically enough, by a company of 200 Tartar horsemen assigned by the Khan himself to ensure the ambassador — and his gifts — a safe conduct. Contarini readily agreed. He was then invited to a "magnificent entertainment; at which the bishop of Kiev, who was a brother to the governor, and many other persons of consequence were present. We wanted nothing which could contribute to make the dinner pleasant. Good company, good cheer and music during the repast. The only circumstance I did not like was, that it lasted too long; as I had more need for sleep and rest, after my fatiguing journey, than all the good cheer that could be offered."

A few days later, the Lithuanian ambassador arrived and Contarini bade a grateful farewell to Goštautas "for all his kindnesses." The governor had supplied ". . . everything I needed . . . during my stay." The governor, for his part, directed the ambassador (who remained nameless) to conduct Contarini "in perfect safety to Theodosia" as commanded by the king. The ambassador replied that ". . . he had every respect for the orders of his majesty, the sovereign arbiter of his life and death, and would carefully obey his orders." As a mark of gratitude, Contarini gave the governor his own good "German horse," an important gift in those days, especially under the circumstances.

Despite the presence of the Lithuanian ambassador, Contarini's mission almost came to an untimely end shortly after the party had left Kiev. The Tartar escort for some unexplained reason had become suspicious of Contarini and planned to abduct him. The ambassador, reminded of Casimir's strict injunction about Contarin's safety, managed to persuade the Tartars that the Venetian was really from Genoa, an interesting reflection on the relative standing of the two rival city-states among the Tartars. The deception and a "present of fifteen ducats" mollified the escort but the journey was not without its share of other dangers and hardships. Among these was enduring "a whole day and night without water" and crossing the Dnieper river in the hazardous manner described earlier. When the company finally reached Crimea, Contarini parted company with the Tartar escort which was conducting the ambassador to the Khan's residence on the other side of the peninsula from Kaffa. Contarini rejoiced in getting rid of that "smelly crew" of Tartars yet he remained understandably under "considerable apprehension of some sudden attack" from them.

Fortunately, Kaffa was not far distant, and Contarini was able to arrive there without further incident, but he still prudently maintained his Genoese disguise. He did not attempt to explain the need for this curious deception but one may surmise that Venetians were not greatly esteemed in those parts. It would be interesting to know why.

After some rest at Kaffa, Contarini was about to embark on what proved to be the most difficult and dangerous part of his epic journey, the long stretch from the Crimean peninsula across the Caucasus mountains and into Persia, a virtual "terra incognita" to most Europeans at that time. His travels on this part of the mission are reminiscent of the cinematic adventures of the "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in their episodic ebb and flow of peril and salvation. They do not, however, concern us here. Suffice it to note that the Venetian accomplished his mission in Persia where he found the people civil and humane and the court of Uzun-Hassan an oriental phantasy out of the Arabian Nights.


Departing Persia, Contarini had to alter his return journey when he discovered that the Khanate of Crimea had succumbed in the meantime to the Ottomans. The resourceful Venetian detoured via the Caspian sea, which he found teeming with sturgeon and other fish, then traveled up the Volga river toward Moscow. He was well-received in that city, whose buildings he noted were of wood. Despite the friendliness of his reception by the Muscovites, including the grand duke,12 Contarini observed with considerable disdain that ". . . the natives are addicted to drunkenness, and he who excels in drinking is much esteemed among them." By this time, however, he had become partial to mead which he admitted finding "very pleasant." Apparently the rigors of his long and arduous journey had mellowed his perceptions at least so far as mead was concerned. It was in Moscow too that he attempted to empty a silver goblet of mead but was graciously excused from doing so by the grand duke. Still, disgust with excessive drinking remained a strong personal obsession, not to be forgotten easily. Discovering that a Muscovite must obtain a license from the grand duke to make mead, Contarini observed with contempt that ". . . if every person had liberty to make mead, they would drink it like so many beasts and would kill one another."13


Contarini set out from Moscow in the dead of winter, the 21st of January 1476, on sledges ". . . made like small huts, each drawn by a horse, and guided by a driver." About ten days later, the party reached Smolensk ". . . on the frontiers of Lithuania, in the dominions of Casimir, king of Poland." From Smolensk, the route led through forests and flat country-side, the only available lodgings being in "miserable hovels." More often the travellers spent the nights in forests and would have "a few bites to eat" while sitting around a wood fire. When they came to a river,14 its frozen surface enabled the group to travel swiftly, as much as 300 miles in three days and two nights. During this time, they had to break through the ice for drinking water and slept on the sledges.

Contarini finally reached Trakai, where Casimir was then holding court in its historic castle, an ancient stronghold of his Lithuanian forebears. Casimir, in fact, spent much time in Lithuania and it was at Trakai that he died in 1492 at the age of 65 while hunting.15

The king was genuinely pleased to find that Contarini had survived the perils of his journey. He invited the Venetian to dine with him and once again presented him with a damask robe, this time of purple and "lined with Scythian furs." Casimir, in fact, went out of his way to honor Contarini, ordering an impressive escort consisting of six nobles and other "distinguished" persons to accompany the envoy to the castle in a coach drawn by six horses. The monarch personally welcomed Contarini and conducted him to a "magnificent" apartment, where he introduced him to two of his sons in the presence of all the people of his court. immemorial, drink had been . . . the 'joy of the Russes' . . . Successive generations of Western travellers and residents had found drunkenness almost universal in Russia."

When Contarini offered to kneel on one knee while addressing the king, the latter ". . . had the goodness to insist that I should sit down in his presence, which I did after some hesitation." The Venetian diplomat then recounted all that ". . . had occurred in my travels, with some account of the dominions of Uzun-Hassan, and about what I had achieved with him, and the number of his forces, and of the empire and manners of the Tartars." Casimir listened so attentively to Contarini's recital that ". . . no one else dared to say a word." Obviously, Contarini's adventures, ranging from the perils of the semi-barbaric world of the Tartars to the exotic luxury of the Persian court, fascinated the Lithuanians. Casimir himself expressed great satisfaction with Contarini's safe return, candidly admitting that he had entertained serious doubts about its possibility. The king was also pleased to have Contarini's first-hand account of Uzun-Hassan and the condition of the Tartars ". . . which he believed to be more authentic than any he had received before."

After some further discourse, Contarini was conducted to another hall for a ceremonial dinner in his honor. The king made a grand entrance with his two sons, preceded by marching trumpeters. Casimir sat at the head of the table flanked on the right by his sons and on his left by the bishop-primate of the realm with the Venetian next to the prelate. The remainder of the table, but at some little distance, was occupied by about 40 nobles. Each service was ushered in with the sound of trumpets, and all the food was served on large silver dishes.

After the dinner, Contarini asked his royal host whether the latter had any message for the Venetian Republic. Casimir responded "very graciously," expressing his ". . . anxious desire ... to cultivate perpetual friendship and good will . . ." with it and required his two sons to give the same assurance. This last courtesy probably implied Casimir's wish to make certain that his policy of political amity with Venice would be continued after his death.

Contarini departed Trakai on the 16th of February and arrived at Warsaw on the first of March. He was now understandably anxious to return home so that he pressed forward without undue delay through Germany, arriving on Venetian soil Easter Sunday. His first act was to offer prayers of thanksgiving at a shrine of the Blessed Virgin, after which, following only a brief but joyous encounter with his brother, Contarini went directly to the Doge's palace like the conscientious public servant that he was to present an official report of his mission.

Contarini concluded his memoirs with the following: "Although I might have composed this narrative of my travels in a more eloquent style, I have preferred truth in a few words, to falsehood dressed up in ornamental language." There was no need for such a disclaimer. The Venetian's generally low-keyed style, punctuated frequently by the excitement of the unexpected danger or hardship, carries with it the ring of authenticity, providing a first-hand view of a part of the world toward the close of the middle ages about which history has little to tell. It is very interesting to have a glimpse into the court-life of a renowned monarch who was the third Lithuanian king of Poland. It is only regrettable that Contarini's sojourn in Lithuania was so brief and limited to the royal court that we have no account of the ordinary people and the condition of their life at the time.


1 Lietuvos istorija, by Dr. V. Daugirdaitė-Sruogienė, Tėvynės Mylėtojų Draugija, Chicago, 1956. Hereafter Sruogienė.
2 Voyages and Travels, Vol. II, By Robert Kerr, Edinburgh, 1811. Quotations in this article are mostly from the complete Kerr text.
3 The Contarinis were a distinguished Venetian family, numbering among them eight Doges and high dignitaries of the Church.
4 An alcoholic drink of fermented honey and water to which malt, yeast, spices, and other ingredients are added.
5 The one significant point on which the English and Lithuanian texts differ are the dates for Contarini's mission. The latter source has it occurring from 1474 to 1477.
6 "Leczyca" in the National Geographical Atlas.
7 The Encylopedia Britannica (11th edition) writes of this Lithuanian king of Poland who was also father of the future St. Casimir: "The feature of Casimir's character which most impressed his contemporaries was his extraordinary simplicity and sobriety. He, one of the greatest monarchs of Europe, habitually wore plain Cracow cloth. Yet his liberality to his ministers and servants was proverbial, and his vanquished enemies he always treated with magnificent liberality."
8 St. Casimir was born October 5, 1458.
9 Careless with foreign names, Contarini referred to Goštautas as a "Polander" named "Pamartin," probably a corruption of "Ponas Martinas." Sruogienė identified the governor as the Lithuanian Goštautas.
10 Also known as Theodosia or Feodosia.
11 Constantine R. Jurgela, in his History of the Lithuanian Nation, explains that the Crimean Tartars had at about this time abandoned their "vassalage" to Lithuania and commenced raiding its southern domains, abetted by Lithuania's northern enemy, the Muscovites.
12 Ivan III, grandfather of Ivan the Terrible. The latter's mother was Elena Glinski of a prominent Lithuanian Orthodox family.
13 Robert K. Massie, in his Peter the Great, writes: "Since time
14 Sruogienė identifies it as the Neris.
15 During one of his longer sojourns in Lithuania, the king appointed his son, St. Casimir, to govern the kingdom of Poland which the Catholic Encyclopedia describes he did with "conspicuous prudence and justice."