Life in the time of Anna Notaras
By Peter Sandham
Imagine a life which begins with a childhood playing at the knee of Roman emperors and ends after the New World of the Americas have been discovered. It sounds like something out of Highlander or the Portrait of Dorian Gray, but in fact this real life belonged to a woman named Anna Notaras, who was every bit as remarkable as the era of history she witnessed.
Born in Constantinople in 1436, Anna was the youngest daughter of Loukas Notaras, the Megas Doux (Grand Duke), perhaps the richest man in the Eastern Roman Empire (also known as the Byzantine Empire). The Notaras family were relative newcomers to the upper tier of Roman society. Anna's merchant grandfather, Nicholas, had made a fortune during the Byzantine civil war (1373-1379AD). His son Loukas had gone into politics and held several of the top administrative ranks in both Byzantium's civil and military administration by the 1450s. Whilst Anna's three sisters were married off: the eldest into a powerful Aegean-based Genoese family, another to the powerful local Kantakouzenos family, Anna remained unwed, likely because Loukas Notaras had very high ambitions for his last daughter.
By the time Anna came of age, the empire - which had been in perpetual crisis for some time - had taken another shuffling step towards the abyss. Emperor John VIII Palaiologos died in 1448 and his younger brother Constantine XI took the porphyry throne. In his forties, Constantine had been widowed twice already and had no heir. It was therefore imperative that he take an empress swiftly. Circumstantial evidence suggests Loukas Notaras may have put Anna forward as a candidate, but been thwarted by his court rival, George Sphrantzes, who oversaw arranging the bridal candidates. In the event, Constantine never did marry, as Constantinople came under yet another siege from their Muslim Ottoman neighbours and this time, against newly perfected cannon fire, the walls were unable to hold out. On 29th May, 1453, the Roman Empire fell for the last time.
That might have been the end of the story for Constantine and Byzantium, but it was not the end for Anna. Historians are divided on when she escaped the city (some say her father moved her abroad years before, others think weeks and there is even the intriguing entry of the name Notaras in the passenger list of a ship which escaped on the 29th of May itself). Whatever the truth of those lost years, we know for certain that Anna resurfaced in Italy in 1459 to claim her family fortune.
As prudent men of business, both her father and grandfather had hedged the risk of Ottoman invasion by placing their material wealth with the Bank of St George in Genoa and obtaining both Genoese and Venetian citizenship for their family. Thus, among the many thousands of Byzantine refugees who moved from Greece to Italy following the fall of Constantinople, Anna Notaras was by far the wealthiest (in stark contrast to the last emperor’s brother who was little better than a beggar in Rome). She did not sit on this fortune but instead put it to work over the remaining forty-odd years of her life trying to help the Byzantine refugee diaspora and maintain their church and customs in an alien land.
In 1499, when the first dedicated Greek-language printing press began, the dedication in the initial book printed was made to ‘the most modest lady Anna, daughter of Loukas Notaras’ for financing this new technology to ensure Byzantine culture and knowledge persisted. Like her close friend, Cardinal Bessarion, Anna also helped recover humanist manuscripts from the east and bring them to Italy as part of the Renaissance’s great impetus in the late 15th century.
Anna lived most of her exile life in Venice, where she maintained a grand house with at least one of her widowed sisters. Venice was the home to the largest community of displaced Byzantine families, but there was no provision for a Greek-Orthodox church in the city. Anna began to lobby the Senate to allow the construction of such a church but met great resistance. This had been an era of religious friction between the Greek and Latin churches (one reason for the fall of Constantinople was the luke-warm assistance offered by the Pope). Faced with this problem, Anna’s solution in 1472 was to try and negotiate the lease of an old castle and tract of land from the Commune of Siena, where Greek families could resettle and live according to their religious practices and customs. The contractual documents were drawn up and survive to this day. Intriguingly they address Anna as Anna Notaras Palaiologina – from which the legend that she had been married to Constantine may well stem. There is no reason to believe Anna actually married the last emperor, but it may be that she allowed the old men of Siena to believe it to try and advance her cause. The contract was never executed, perhaps because Anna and her supporters surveyed the land – malarial, war-torn, barren - and realised what a poor prospect it represented. Instead, further badgering of the Venetian senate brought a compromise and in 1475, Anna was granted leave to build a chapel within her own house where the Byzantine rite could be performed. After twenty years, the Greeks of Venice had their temporary church, fittingly inside Anna’s home.
Eventually, in 1498, Venice relented further and agreed to the founding of the Scuola de San Nicolo dei Greci with its own church, San Giorgio dei Greci. Although Anna died in 1507 before the church was completed, modern visitors to San Giorgio can still admire the three ikons she gifted to it in her will: Christ in His glory surrounded by symbols of the 4 Evangelists and figures of the 12 Apostles; Christ Pantokrator; and an image of the Virgin Hodegetria.
She was clearly not a woman to cross lightly, as contemporary Venetian court records attest. She disapproved of her brother’s choice of wife and their conflict was played out in a series of fiery legal cases. Through these depositions it is possible to glean the outline of an incredible, intelligent, determined character. The renaissance was still very much a man’s world, but Anna Notaras was a woman who refused to allow the disadvantages of being female, a refugee and a religious minority, stop her in her mission to preserve as much of her culture from the apocalypse of her city’s collapse.
Anna’s life is the central subject of my books, the first of which, Porphyry and Ash, charts the final days of Constantinople. Subsequent books will form a thirty-year journey right across the Levantine map: from the Crimean steppe to the lagoon of Venice, from the mountains of Transylvania to the harem of Topkapi by way of Anatolian plains and Aegean islands. My Anna, like her historical inspiration, is not a woman to accept a passive lot in life and while she may not swing a sword or have magical powers, just like her inspiration, she can still kick ass and achieve a great deal for her people.
Porphyry and Ash
(The Porphyry Novels)
By Peter Sandham
After a thousand years, the sun is setting on the Eastern Roman Empire. The covetous eyes of the Ottoman Sultan have fixed themselves upon Constantinople. His great army prepares to strike. Meanwhile the Byzantine imperial court is split between those who would sacrifice everything – including their church – to defend the city, and others who would prefer rule by the Turkish turban.
But amid the deadly undercurrent of court politics, religious division and a brutal siege, Anna Notaras, youngest daughter of Byzantium’s richest family, has a more mundane issue to solve: how to rid herself of an unwanted marriage betrothal to a loathsome Venetian.
When she meets John Grant among the mercenaries flocking to the city’s defence, she thinks she might have found a solution. Scottish, world-weary and repentant, Grant hopes holy war can bring absolution for his dark past. He soon discovers that life in Constantinople is never so simple, and the cannons and scimitars of the invaders beyond the crumbling walls might prove less lethal than the dangers lurking within them: a flamboyant Genoese general with a hidden agenda, a firebrand monk with the mob in his thrall, a murderer with a taste for the theatrical. And although Grant has the requisite strength and skills to overcome all of these, in the beautiful, astute, monstrously ambitious Anna, he might have met his match.
Pick up your copy of
Porphyry and Ash
Peter Sandham was born in the west of England and spent his childhood re-fighting the Trojan war in his back garden. He attended the University of California at Berkeley and Bristol University and emerged with a joint honours in Politics and Philosophy and an unhealthy admiration for Machiavelli. He currently lives in Hong Kong with his wife and three children. Porphyry and Ash is his first novel.