In Wonders in the Sky (2009) Jacques Vallée and Chris Aubeck seem intent on doing everything possible to avoid real scholarship while pretending to its honors. It’s frankly quite annoying. You may be bored with the litany of their intellectual sins that I have gradually assembled, but I find it amusing, and I enjoy the challenge of finding the original sources that the authors didn’t know. Today’s entry starts out as a rather conventional revelation that the authors don’t know what they’re citing, but, to my mind, it becomes incredibly interesting when the source texts are revealed.
As item 200 in their litany of misunderstood excerpts from various texts, they present a story about a pillar of fire seen in the sky over Lepanto on September 20, 1571, just before a famous battle between the papal navy and the Turks, which the Christian forces won. The two authors attribute the description to papal historian Father Alberto Guglielmotti, writing in La Guerra dei pirati e la marina pontificia dal 1500 al 1560 (1876), a book in which it does not appear, as might be suggested by the fact that the book stops in 1560. Apparently they are referring to his later volume Marcantonio Colonna alla battaglia di Lepanto, a completely different book in his ten-volume series on papal naval warfare.
Indeed, the passage appears in the latter volume, but it’s interesting how the authors have cut out parts that don’t agree with their point of view. I’ll give the quotation from their book and then the full passage from Guglielmotti’s book, which is not, I should stress, a primary source.
First, the text as given in Vallée and Aubeck:
It was a clear, starry night with a cool wind coming from the north. Suddenly, a colossal fire in the shape of a shining, flaming column was seen by everyone to cross the sky over a long period of time, filling all the witnesses with great admiration... All the witnesses regarded this as a good omen and sensed they were on the verge of a great victory. They believed this column of fire was showing them the way, guiding the Christian fleet in the sea in the same way the people of Israel were guided across the desert in biblical times.
Now the actual passage from Marcantonio Colonna 2.12, p. 192 (all translations are my own):
The sky was all clear, the north wind fresh, and the stars sparkling; and here in the middle of the air an immense fire in the shape of a shining, flaming column was seen by all with wonder. And although nowadays it has been shown that electrical and pneumatic events in the atmosphere, which appear most intensely in the fall and summer, can account for not only the wisps and lights of Santelmo, but also globes of fire and blazing beams like this; nevertheless, then the spectators regarded this miraculous apparition as a good omen of great victory. They believed that the pillar of fire was guiding the Christian forces on the sea, just as the people of Israel were led in the wilderness…
What’s interesting is that not only did the authors omit the skeptical explanation, but they also have minor inaccuracies throughout. I wasn’t entirely sure why, but I suspect it’s because they were using a secondhand version of the text. I’ve read several in various languages, but I can’t place the specific errors in the authors’ translation.
But who cares, really? The text isn’t just mistranslated, it’s also a nineteenth century summary of two actual primary sources, which the authors, who identify these sources only as “Sereno” and “Caracciolo,” never bothered to consult. Too bad, since they unmask the mystery and take us beyond papal historian Father Guglielmotti’s Catholic bias.
The primary sources in question are Ferrante Caracciolo, author of I commentari delle guerre fatte da Don Giovanni d’Austria (1581, p. 17), and Bartolomeo Sereno, whose manuscript account was later published as the Commentario della guerra di Cipro etc. (1845, p. 160). The latter, Sereno, gives the account that Gugliemotti follows:
Heaven was very serene, a vigorous north wind purged it of every cloud, and here in the middle of the air a flame of fire appeared so great and clear in the form of a burning column. And for a long time it was seen by all with wonder. What wonders, O God, that these are overt signs of the heavenly protection of the faithful people! Who reading happily what happened shortly afterward does not know and confess that, as with the beloved people of Israel, so too were the armed Christians preceded by God in the form of a column of fire?
Now it took me all of about two minutes to find that. Caracciolo was a little more difficult since his book has been out of print since 1581, and his Italian is a bit more difficult to translate due to some obsolete words that required an old dictionary to decipher, but he offers a very interesting variation: “In the evening, about one hour into the night, there appeared very clearly to the right of the army, just before they departed, a stripe (listra) of fire in the form of a half-moon, which seemed to fall and disappeared very suddenly.” Caracciolo goes on to say that there were many different interpretations offered of this sign when it appeared.
If I had to evaluate the two testimonies, I’d say that Caracciolo was more reliable since he records less biblically convenient details and notes the uncertainty of what the vision meant and its short duration, while Sereno seems to extend the time frame and twist the events to fit a biblical framework, read backward from the victory over the Turks many days later. Guglielmotti, writing from a papal perspective, chose to emphasize the post hoc rationalization of the sign (even if he doubted its actual cause) because it helped to support his theme that Christian faith was the driving force that secured victory over the Muslim Turks.
The long and short of it is that Vallée and Aubeck present a bad translation of a secondary source, attributed to the wrong book, and by doing so obscure the primary sources, which provide a more plausible reading of the event: They saw a meteor burn up in the sky.
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