Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books

The Battle of Konotop 1659

Oleg Rumyantsev
Giovanna Brogi Bercoff

Ukraine and Cossacks in 17th century Italian perceptions

Ksenia Konstantynenko
Traduction de Andriy Kulykov

Texte intégral

1Research on the historical context of the Konotop Battle has many aspects, one of them being perception, in Western Europe and, first of all, in Italy, of Ukraine and Cossacks, of their relations with Poland and Muscovy. Let us try to understand this using examples of several works of historical literature of the 17th century, the ones that D. S. Nalyvajko defined with the eloquent term, «the literature of facts». What is meant is works that seemingly describe specific historical facts but are openly or covertly fictionalised.

  • 1 Duodo Pietro, Relazione di Polonia del 1592, in: Relazioni degli Ambasciatori veneti al Senato, I. (...)
  • 2 Alessandro guagnino Veronese, La descrittione della Sarmatia Europea del magnifico cavaliere Alessa (...)
  • 3 Della Valle P., I Viaggi di Pietro della Valle. Lettere dalla Persia, vol. I, a cura di F. Gaeta e (...)

2It can be said that by the early 17th century, a rather stable tradition had formed in Italian literature of depicting Polish-Ukrainian lands and their population, based in the first turn on M. Miechowski’s treatise, On Two Sarmatias, rather well-known in Italy, and numerous compilations stemming from it. There, «Rusia» («Red Rusia», «Black Rusia», «Podolia», etc.) is constantly described as «the new land of Canaan», its fantastic fertility underlined, as well as great numbers of game, birds, and fish, with corn growing on its own, fish being born from the dew of the skies, a fir-tree branch that lies on the ground turning into precious stone within several years, etc.; these and similar statements are repeated in work after work, including not only compilatory cosmographies but also reports by Venetian ambassadors or Papal Nuncios, i. e. eyewitnesses. Descriptions of «miracles» here take maybe more text than descriptions of cities and fortresses. The matter is not that the miracles depicted are absolute inventions (it is known that Ukrainian soils are really rather fertile) but due to the authors’ bias and emotions real data is noticeably transformed up to a complete fancy. The Venetian ambassador, P. Duodo, speaks of ghosts in Lithuanian woods, g. Lippomano and A. M. graziani tell that in «Rusia» they saw a miracle of miracles, swallows that spend winters on the bottom of lakes and rise from there in spring1. The ghosts and the swallows seem original while other elements of Ukrainian «miracles» make their way from one work to another with little change. Starting from 13th-15th centuries, and more so from late 15th century, Ukraine was perceived as a faraway land at the boundary of Europe bordering on the totally alien Tartar-pagan world (later, the Turkish world was added.) Thus, a set of features, and a range of characteristic topics and plots, as well as the interest in miracles which just have to be in a faraway land; i. e. there has to be what the native Europe lacks: boundless steppes, absolutely impenetrable woods, strange beasts, etc. At the same time, the lands of «Rusia» are connected to the ancient Ecumene, so Ovid’s grave is found there. The main thing is that the population, not least thanks to M. Miechowski, is bestowed with traits of ancient Sarmatians and Amazons as seen according to the literary tradition. This preamble leads to the angle that should be used while considering the depiction of Cossacks by Italian writers, ambassadors among them. In 17th-century texts, the Cossacks pose as multiethnic people, often with a brigand past, but Christian people nonetheless; brave and gallant, immune to the idea of amassing wealth, living, without wives or children, on the Borysthenes’ Isles, and enmical towards Tartars and Turks. At the same time, in other mentions of Cossacks by A. guagnini or by g. Botero2, parallels in depicting Cossacks and Tartars are noticeable: armed with longbows and spears in a clearly «Sarmatian» way, bravery, lack of whimsicality and exceptional endurance on the march, etc. It is noteworthy that each of these features, when taken separately, can correspond fully or partially to historical reality but taken together and presented in a literary way, clearly or subconsciously defines the Cossack community as an exotic phenomenon, by virtue of being different from habitual social life, and so interesting and worthy of attention: a free Christian army virtually on the boundary between European and Asian universes, combining European features (staunchness in Christian faith, anti-Pagan mood) and Barbarian (anarchy in many spheres of life, except for the military hierarchy and discipline, cruelness and inclination for destruction during wars.) however, it was in early 17th century that noticeable shifts had emerged in literature related to Ukrainian topics because, in view of historical circumstances, the topic of «Antemurale», of a Christian union against Turks, became ever more timely. Thus, two aspects prevail in Italian literature of the first third of the 17th century: the Cossacks’ activity, and the religion issue. While earlier Cossacks were regarded as a people or a military entity per se, and multiethnic at that, the topics of Cossacks and Rus’ lands are closely intertwined in the 17th-century literature. As for the religion issue, it is noticeable to which extent a greater or lesser pro-Catholic inclination of each author influence their interpretation of historical events, as well as of Cossacks in general. For instance, in the literature of «pre-Khmel’nyts’kyj» period, the image of «Cossack, the Christian knight making war on non-Christians» is clearly prevalent over the image of a Cossack who is a Barbarian, a schism adherent, and a brigand. The well-known Letters by P. Della Valle may be considered the apogee of such romanticized perception of Cossacks, and the author’s personality is especially important in this case3. Thus, della Valle writes that love for «ancient knowledge that reached the West» pushed him to lengthy travels, as well as the desire to trace the paths of former travelers, Bacchus, Heracles, Jason, Alexander, Ulysses, Aeneas, Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Magellan, and Vespucci; as we see, both mythological and real characters acquire a similar level of reality for della Valle. Among other things, the traveler had the aim of involving the ruler of Persia together with Cossacks of Polish Kingdom in an anti-Turkish union, so he perceives Cossacks, on the one hand, as an «Antemurale» politician, and as an erudite of the Renaissance type, as a person who knows ancient classics, on the other. Della Valle also states that Cossacks have various origins, they are not a single people, they are

  • 4 Ibidem, 192-193.

… Christians who, without women, without children, without home, not recognizing any ruler over them, live far from cities, in places protected by woods, mountains and rivers and submit, almost as our brigands, to some of their leaders, and live on what they gain by sword. This is what distinguishes them from brigands: they do not rob or plunder the lands of those rulers whose realms they inhabit, when they are at peace with them. Moreover, often they serve them honestly and loyally during wars. However, they are constantly training in attacks and piracy on land and sea, inflicting damage on their closest enemies, i. e. Turks and other Pagans4.

3It is noteworthy that the author stresses romanticising nuances in the Cossacks’ image he creates, toning down their «Sarmatian» cruelty from already existing descriptions. He stresses the «nobleness» of Cossacks who honour peace treaties and sometimes go to war for no fee, not plundering lands of a ruler who gave refuge to them: i. e. they are not brigands. Their love for freedom, independence from family, anti-Muslim character of military action, predominantly Christian faith of the Cossack community: all this resembles, even if in a remote way, the image of a classic Crusader knight. In a rather detailed way, della Valle tells how Cossacks go to their sea raids, in what numbers, in what type of boats, and in an emotional, even emphasized, way retells their successes in naval battles with a Turkish flotilla, making expressive econclusions:

  • 5 Ibidem, 193.

… as far as I understood, they promise to capture Constantinople one day saying that for them the liberation of that land is very important, and that there are prophecies that clearly point to this. Whatever happens, they have an exceptional power these days on the Black Sea, and they lack little to become its absolute masters… As far as I am concerned, taking into account their situation and their customs… they will, in due time, create an exceptionally strong Republic, because it was on this principles that glorious Spartans or Lacedaemoneans started; same as Sicilians, Carthaginians, and similarly Romans, and the Dutch in our times5.

4A conclusion may be made that della Valle really, as he testifies, visited the places he tells about in person, and knows about Cossacks not only from third parties. Compared to other Italian texts, Letters have more specific details. So even more interesting is the way the specifics of meeting Cossacks and of anti-Turkish plans are still combined by della Valle with his adherence to the established literary tradition. Thus, as a typical European author, he stresses «exotics»: what is meant is Cossacks living in the place «inaccessible» for their enemies where as if Nature itself protects them with marshes and flooding rivers. Della Valle compares Cossacks to ancient Romans and first of all to Spartans, stressing unusual military gallantry and their stoic way of life. While doing this, the author does not omit «the topic of strong drinks» present in virtually all texts on Polish-Ukrainian subject; however, he describes the Cossacks’ drinking with soft humour. Della Valle’s descriptions of capture and plunder of Turkish settlements by Cossacks are practically devoid of barbarian-negative connotation. The «Providence» motive characteristic of the Baroque era’s literature is also present: the author tells of the existence of prophesies of future dominance by Cossacks at the Black Sea (Guagnini’s «Turkish» book in «Sarmatia» also tells about this) and, in the first turn, of the liberation of Constantinople from «the unfaithful». Considering the importance of the symbolism of Constantinople as a former Christian capital and «the second Rome», one can understand the epic character of the task of Cossacks, as seen by della Valle. His clear sympathy and interest to Cossacks are thus dictated, on the one hand, by his personal acquaintance with some of them and real possibility of Cossacks’ participation in the anti-Turkish project that the author was nurturing. however, all this, along with more contemporary and less heroic comparison of Cossacks to Barbary pirates or Uskoks, is projected against the traditional «matrix» of the image of stoic warriors, Sarmatians, Romans, Carthaginians, Spartans, or Slavs in general, as depicted by M. Orbini in The Kingdom of Slavs.

5It is interesting that over several decades the basic elements of this matrix in descriptions of Cossacks will stay the same; however, authors’ trends in depiction of Cossacks will change significantly. In deeds, the greatest number of pages devoted in Italian literature to the fact of Ukraine and Cossacks, touches upon the times of the Khmel’nyts’kyj War: the events in Poland had an enormous impact on European politics, since they concerned the complicated tangle of relations between Poles, Cossacks, Tartars, Turks, Muscovites and Swedes. The histories by M. Bisaccioni, A. Vimina, V. Siri’s Mercury, G. G. Priorato’s The History of Emperor Leopold, and later History by P. Gazzotti have much in common: the flow of events, at first glance, is the same; the literary tradition is common; compilation of sources is legitimate. However, it would suffice to compare Histories by Bisaccioni and by Vimina to understand that the subjective nature of their authors’ perception makes these works rather works of historical fiction than of fictionalized history.

  • 6 Konstantynenko K., «Relazione dell’origine e dei costumi dei Cosacchi» di Alberto Vimina: la tradiz (...)

6A. Vimina, as is known, was an unofficial ambassador of the Venice Senate to Khmel’nyts’kyj with the aim of finding a common language in military action against Turks. As a personality, Vimina approaches della Valle: his letters testify to a keen interest in travel and gaining knowledge of faraway land as such6. his 1651 trip to Poland and Ukrainian lands, and his personal acquaintance with Khmel’nyts’kyj resulted, in the first turn, in The Report on Cossacks, published later but, judging by quotes of contemporaries (Priorato, for example), possibly known earlier in hand-written copies. The Report demonstrates clear approchement of the topics of Cossacks and of Ukraine as a land, and also the eloquent fact that Vimina as a witness who was an attentive person, judging by the letters, uses a lot of clear quotations or interpretations, even if adding specific details. his manner of narration shows the emotions of a «first discoverer» of exotic Barbarian lands but ‘filtered’ through those that were described by the ancients: so Vimina does not forget to mention Ovid’s grave supposedly situated in this land, as well as to quote from his Pont Elegies telling of the Barbarian wilderness of these land and its inhabitants. His lengthy description of the richness of Ukrainian lands almost completely follows Miechowski’s treatise.

  • 7 Konstantynenko K., Reljatsija pro pokhodzhennja ta zvychaï kozakiv: istorija, ujava, real’nist’, «K (...)

7Speaking of Cossacks having a recent origin from exiles and refugees, Vimina nevertheless reminds his readers that this land had always been populated by «the most belligerent people» of Rus’: «because they have to often repel attacks by Tartars, and they considered it necessary that all the subjects were taught to handle weapons well and be ready to properly face and repel invasions by the Barbarians»7; here we have evident topoi of «Sarmatian past» and of existence «at the boundary of enemy’s world», and in this case the term «Barbarians» relates to the Cossacks’ enemies. The matter, again, is not to which extent the fact of Cossacks’ belligerence reflects reality but in that it clearly suits the author’s imagination better than many other facts. The Renaissance aesthetics of positive perception of «Spartan values» leads Vimina, just as it leads della Valle, to comparing the Cossack «republic» (he defines the Cossack system in this way) to Lacedaemon:

  • 8 Ibidem, 67.

… it is easy to draw a conclusion about the customs of these people who never crossed their land’s boundaries, except maybe for war, and among whom even the noblest remain rough and severe. They look simple on the outside, but they do not at all come across as awkward in reality, they demonstrate the flexibility of reason, they quickly grasp the essence of a conversation, they are knowledgeable about affairs of the state and show quite an experience in this… I would say that this Republic could be compared to the Spartan republic, if Cossacks respected sobriety in the same way as Lacedaemoneans. One can see how they overcome hunger, thirst, hardships, and lack of sleep. All this they experience to the utmost during sea expeditions where they, according to their words, have sometimes to fast for three days, surviving on stale bread, garlic and onions, as well as during their land expeditions where they campaign like Tartars, satisfying their needs with a small amount of panicum that they take with them on their horses. They drink water from puddles that are not clear and smell unpleasantly, and ground is their bed8.

8As can be understood from Vimina’s text, these courageous and enduring «barbarians» would be completely like Spartans if only they respected sobriety. Presenting vivid pictures of Cossacks’ drinking (at home, not during campaigns!), Vimina stresses another traditional topos: Cossacks do not have wine culture, they drink horilka and mead; again, a marker feature is stressed that often distinguishes a «barbarian» from a «European» in the literature of fact by Vimina’s predecessors. In connection with this, Vimina stresses another cliché motive wide-spread as early as in Middle Ages: he writes that Cossacks would rather go to a tavern than to a church, recreating a symbolic juxtaposition «tavern (alien, barbarian people) vs church («own», European people). In an original way, Vimina combines the motive of drinking with the motive of Cossacks’ «Spartan» contempt of luxury, because Cossacks give all valuable trophies for drinks:

  • 9 Ibidem.

… it is evident that rich trophies are not everything, and here Cossacks have only one preference – freedom. It seems that they do not value wealth at all because they are satisfied with little: the principle declared by Seneca, though he did not adhere to it himself; while amassing valuables he wrote that people become richer not increasing their wealth but decreasing their greed9.

9Cossack dwellings provoke the author’s «description enthusiasm» as they fit beautifully with the «Spartan» way of life. «Parallels» with the ancient world or, rather, with its myth, are not limited to the above-said and to quotations from Seneca: the information on Bohdan Khmel’nyts’kyj is similarly full of classical parallels. He is an ideal war leader, with simple manners that soldiers like, same as the strictness of well-deserved punishment. He is a «Spartan» and a stoic in his everyday life: any luxury is practically absent in his residence. The author’s logical conclusion is: Khmel’nyts’kyj introduced this simple non-luxurious way of life in order to remember his origin and not to become blinded with pride, as tyrant Agathocles did in his time (and there’s a proper quotation in Latin.) In his letters-reports, Vimina presents more interesting observations of both everyday-life and political nature about Khmel’nyts’kyj, and while speaking of him with respect and gratitude for hospitable reception, still does not elevate him to the level of ideal characters from the ancient world. however, Vimina does not mention details from his letters in The Report; probably, because of political considerations, as there he mentioned Khmel’nyts’kyj’s rather critical, if not contemptuous, attitude towards the Polish King. In any case, Vimina the Catholic describes the ‘schismatic’ Khmel’nyts’kyj with sympathy and comes out as a rather tolerant Catholic in general. In his report, he demonstrates his interest towards the Cossack society as to a new reality that opened up for a learned person, as well as clearly humane sympathy gained by «barbarians» with their «simple gracefulness». In general, the analysis of the text of The Report leads to the conclusion that Vimina tries to accommodate live impressions within the image of exotic, belligerent Barbarian Eastern land created by his predecessors.

  • 10 Caccamo D., L’insurrezione ucraina e la crisi della Polonia nobiliare, in: L’Ucraina del XVII secol (...)
  • 11 Vimina A., Historia delle guerre civili di Polonia divisa in cinque libri, Venetia, 1671.
  • 12 Ibidem, 2-3.

10As D. Caccamo put it, Venetians saw in Cossack society the process of formation of a new autonomous body fighting for recognition of its sovereignty10. As for the cultural aspect in Venetian literature, a new concept of «Barbarism» took root based on Ukrainian-Cossack matter, stemming out of the discovery of the Sarmato-Ruthenian world, Barbarism that corresponds with Tacitus’s model as a free conquest of the world through natural strength and positive personal traits. Thus, Vimina’s next, large-scale work The History of Civil Wars in Poland, can be viewed in this respect11. It tells of the events of 1648-52. The very first impression is the author’s inclination towards a narration as objective as possible, and a drier tone than in The Report. However, facts are being fictionalized here as well. The author’s concept is that a war, even more such a fratricidal war, is a disaster. So the story of events in Poland is constructed in such a way as to become a matter for reflection over causes and consequences of cataclysms, over human imperfection, and on the fate at the universal level. Vimina draws a poetic generalization that Bohdan Khmel’nyts’kyj’s personal grudge against Koniecpolski became an embodiment of a more universal offense that people inflicted on God by «injustice, exploitation and offenses». And one can expect «that even rivers of blood would not be enough to extinguish this fire…»12, this is how, with pathos, the author prepares his readers for the subsequent description of disastrous events. The name «Bohdan» is interpreted as «God-Given» to Cossacks, in order to liberate them from overt tyranny and return former privileges to them. Thus Ukraine is described in the established image of the vast rich land, and its population, Cossacks in the first turn, is presented as an image of forcibly enslaved proud, wild warriors used to freedom who want to gain this freedom back. It is true that in his narration the author does not idealise Cossacks citing quite a number of examples of their cruelty. However, in description of Poles, one can note a clear parallelism up to the mirror depiction of what had been said of Cossacks: practically every episode of «Cossack cruelty» in the work is later compensated for by a similar episode about Poles. At the same time, Vimina applies the term «Barbarian» both to Cossacks and to Polish nobility. One should not talk just about a coincidence of historical facts independent of Vimina who just wrote them down: M. Bisaccioni describes those same events interpreting them nonetheless from a pro-Polish, pro-Catholic, monarchic viewpoint. Let us assume that A. Vimina intentionally put corresponding stresses in his work in order to show all the complexity and destructive nature of a civil war where there is no «white» or «black». The image of the hetman, which used to be in the centre of attention of other historians, too, appears to be controversial as well: while he is a «simple and strict» war leader of the ancient sort in The Report, he is «an educated barbarian» in History, cunning, double-faced, power-loving but moderate and reasonable in the first turn.

  • 13 Ibidem, 92-93.
  • 14 Bisaccioni M., Historia delle guerre civili di questi ultimi tempi […] IV edizione ricorretta […], (...)

11Vimina’s vision of Ukrainian-Muscovite relations is one of the aspects of Ukraine’s image. In his Report on Muscovy, published together with The History of Civil Wars, the author is fully aware of Muscovites and Rus-Ukrainians being akin and having joint historical beginning, same as he is aware of the fact of rather old historic division into various political units and their different development. In Vimina’s notes on Muscovy, where he later also went as an ambassador, a sober view of the tyrannical way of rule is felt, of the cult of the Tsar, the servility of subjects. In The History of Civil Wars he expresses, albeit from third parties, the conviction that the situation of Ruthenians who are Polish subjects can only become worse in case of union with Muscovy: «… under Muscovites Ruthenian peasants would soon feel that instead of improvement of their lives they could expect only worsening, if they find themselves under the yoke of the Prince of Muscovy who is unable to get satisfied with the constant increase of his enormous wealth, and this is why he undresses his Subjects and juggles with his Ministers…»13. In M. Bisaccioni’s History of Civil Wars of Recent Times, written and, what is most important, published a lot earlier than Vimina’s work14, the author bestows the same evaluation on agreements between Cossacks and Muscovites; however, it is more emotionally marked: for Bisaccioni, the union with Muscovy is Khmel’nyts’kyj’s mistake and, simultaneously, a well-deserved punishment for the evil and cunning «Cossack Ulysses» (this is how Bisaccioni presents the hetman):

  • 15 Ibidem, 392-394.

… abandoned by Tartars, he tried to find support with Muscovites… allowing the Tyrant into his own home… These negotiations gave some hope to Poland that expected a split of that nation as many were against the Muscovite dominance… The grand Prince had already envisioned himself the master of entire Ukraine without the need to raise his sword… Khmel’nyts’kyj almost repented while proving that he recognized the rule of the Tsar but wanted to retain the command of the Country and the army. These are the underwater rocks of a riot who, fleeing one evil, runs into a worse one. To seek support of the great means to become small and lose freedom… Seeing that Muscovites put into Registers everything that Ukraine had, both the population, and animals, cities and settlements, and estates, Bohdan, engulfed by envy…, began to seek union with Tartars again... looking for where to find support, from among Tartars, Muscovites, and Poles he chose a monster who wanted to ruin all humanity15.

12It seems interesting that Bisaccioni arrived at this conclusion virtually right after the Treaty of Perejaslav: we are quoting the 1655 edition. In M. Bisaccioni’s work, Bohdan Khmel’nyts’kyj becomes an anti-hero of a Shakespearean sort: this is a tragedy of traitor-rioter upon whom Fate measures a worthy punishment, he finds himself in such a trap that seeks help from a «monster», either from the Muscovite tyrant, or from Pagan tartars. According to Bisaccioni, the reason for the tragedy is the fact that Khmel’nyts’kyj, being a person not born for power, got power in his hands and became drunk of it. Bisaccioni describes the same flow of events that Vimina does but he puts stresses of a royalist and expressly «caste» politician; thus, readers receive a different portrait of Cossacks and the hetman. For instance, Bisaccioni draws a clear-cut parallel between Cromwell’s England and Khmel’nyts’kyj’s Poland-Ukraine, i. e. he generalizes the uprising against a King. he cannot totally ignore oppression of Cossacks and peasants by nobility but speaks of it in a very covert way. On the contrary, he constantly notes that it was an enormous mistake to give weapons to peasants, i. e. Cossacks, from the very start, because they are wild animals, curs; and so now they have to be «thrown food» in order to calm them abit:

  • 16 Ibidem, 272.

… if somewhere else people shad to rise because of bad attitudes towards them from the side of royal ministers, here, where the subjects were justly ruled according to the laws of there alm by the Crown ministers and the impeccable King himself, the reason for cruel riots lies only in the Barbarian nature of Cossacks, in whose breasts pride and arrogance prevailed, and even if there is any guilt with the Republic or the King, this is only the guilt of those who first gave weapons to people sooner wild than civilized and humane...16

  • 17 Ibidem, 273.

13In previous works, even addressing Cossacks’ battles with Turks, Bisaccioni presents Cossacks negatively, as «people without brakes». Virtually everywhere in the work, the Cossack victories are explained by helpful weather and landscape, while Polish victories are due to their military advantages and the King’s perfection. It can be said, in general, that with Bisaccioni both Cossacks and their hetman become embodiments of destructive, anticivic force, a vivid example of what happens when commoners are given the privileges of patricians: «There is no mistake bigger in politics than to give power to a person of lowly origins…, because he who was not born for power does not use it within the boundaries of the allowed; so those warlords, full of pride, more than once craved battles with Lord benefactor…»17. By the way, both Vimina and Bisaccioni begin the history of the Khmel’nyts’kyj War from Khmel’nyts’kyj’s conflict with Czaplinski (Koniecpolski in Bisaccioni’s work). However, Vimina stresses that this was, so to say, the tip of the iceberg, and that Khmel’nyts’kyj’s grudge was just a small part of the general «offence» and oppression of Cossacks and peasants by the nobility. Bisaccioni does not agree at all that «commoners» had real reasons for dissatisfaction, and he describes the conflict in a completely different way (an argument because of the stay of Czaplinski’s soldiers in Chyhyryn) and defines the main factor of the destructive war as the principled mistake of those who from the very start thought of arming «Barbarian» Cossacks. The idea of defending the cause of the entire Cossack nation, of the return of old privileges is just beautiful words of the cunning Khmel’nyts’kyj who becomes a «tyrant», not a liberator. As we see, Bisaccioni’s work contains a consistent destruction of positive elements of the Cossacks’«Sarmatian» image. Only some episodes in the description of the Battle of Berestechko are an exception: the well-known story of a nameless Cossack who battled on his own against the enemies who surrounded him in a boat, refusing to surrender to the King himself and to save his life. However, given all the novelties and literary refining by Bisaccioni of a great number of actual events, even if subjectively perceived, there still are many clichés in the work, connected to the image of «Barbarian» country and people. One should perceive Bisaccioni’s work through the prism of the author’s mentality, that of a royalist and devout Catholic, adversary of any uprisings that ruin everything that is civilization by his standards. Bisaccioni’s work is tied both to the literary tradition of depicting «Barbarians», and to thematic-and-storyline topoi of tragedies and dramas of the «Shakespearean» sort. However, alongside this, there is a statement about state-building intentions of Khmel’nyts’kyj and Cossacks.

  • 18 Siri Vittorio, Del Mercurio, overo Historia dei correnti tempi […], xii, Parigi, 1672.

14In V. Siri’s Mercury, an original «almanac of contemporary events» by genre, the «rehabilitation» of the established image of Cossacks takes place. With all the specific details and with descriptions of battles with their participation, he is again inclined towards «classical» generalizations and allusions: a belligerent nation that on small boats contains the powerful Ottoman Empire on its own while inflicting a lot of trouble on it. Siri does mention some financial disagreements with Polish leadership but «in the name of the King whom they all respected», as well as by reminding of «numerous important services provided by invincible warriors to the Republic» and «their known bravery that made Turks shiver as far away as Constantinople» the matter was settled and Cossacks remained with Poles because at stake were «the interests of Christian faith, the good of the State, and their own glory, until then unblemished». In Volume XII, where he writes about the Khmel’nyts’kyj War, Siri gives a lot of space to descriptions of Ukraine and history and everyday life of Cossacks but this narration, in fact, repeats the lines of Vimina’s «Report» and, as the author himself admits, the texts of «The Scythian-Cossack War» by J. Pastory and «The history of the War of Cossacks Against Poland» by P. Chevalier18. Here, one can read about the richness and fertility of soils, and about Ovid’s grave, and about Cossacks’military qualities, and about their rule’s similarity to that of Sparta. Siri is drawing the reasons for the Khmel’nyts’kyj War from the nobility’s despotism and does not spare colour in order to describe the oppressed state of peasantry:

  • 19 Ibidem, 984-985.

… it can be said that Polish Nobility enjoys something like an Earthly Paradise while their subjects experience all the trials of Purgatory; because if they have a cruel master, they live worse than criminals on galleys. It is this cruel slavery that becomes the reason for their frequent uprisings when they fight for their freedom with great vigour, and the most desperate ones flee to Zaporizhzhja, the camp of th Cossacks of the Borysthenes… this enormous fire was born of a tiny spark, and this really great movement started from a small push, as happens usually19.

  • 20 Ibidem, 571.

15Evidently, the compiled picture of the history of Cossacks and the realities of Ukrainian lands, created by Siri, is complicated: it contains both stereotypes and actualized specifics, from «Sarmatian-Spartan» qualities to stressing roughness and strictness of Cossacks’ and peasants’ everyday life, from notes on Cossacks’ inclination to raiding and bloodshed to the changeable character and unreliability of their politics. Khmel’nyts’kyj is given a detailed portrait devoid of Bisaccioni’s «negativism»: his intrigues are justified by circumstances. Even speaking of his «impertinence and pride» towards Poles, the author reminds that he could «raise eighty thousand Cossacks at the same time… and create a separate state under the protection of the Turkish Sultan»20 thus being aware of state-building ideas of the Hetman. Generally, Siri’s Khmel’nyts’kyj may be defined as a controversial but charismatic person. In general, this author, in his depiction of Khmel’nyts’kyj and Ukraine, focuses on the already mentioned «Tacitus’s» motive of «regaining old liberties» and tries to be balanced in his depiction of «warring sides».

  • 21 Priorato galeazzo gualdo, Historia di Leopoldo Cesare, […], in Vienna d’Austria, 1670.

16In The History of Emperor Leopold by G. Gualdo Priorato21, «Cossack-Ukrainian-Polish» episodes come out as prequel to the Polish-Muscovite conflict. The Khmel’nyts’kyj War does provide a rich matter for reflections on birth of uprisings, on advantages and disadvantages of this or that state structure; understandably, in a History dedicated to an Emperor, the author clearly from the start denotes the topic of excessive lawlessness of Polish nobility and their insufficient respect to the person of the King as reasons for the fratricidal war. At once, he states that the Cossack rising was provoked by lawlessness and despotism of the nobility. giving the history of the very notion of «Cossack» the author unequivocally identifies Cossacks as «Ruthenian» people, retells the story of the organization of Cossack community in order to protect borders against Tartars, of giving privileges to them, creates an exemplary image of a Cossack who tills the land with a sword at his side and takes his entire family to war with him, which is a clear echo of the traditional idea of Sarmatians and their Amazon wives. Thus, in general we see the repetition of major traits of «Sarmatian portrait». The author’s stance is rather eloquently shown in the following phrase: «While Polish gentry are enjoying laziness and luxury and go in for arguments and suits among themselves, both free and registered Cossacks stand on guard for the Republic». And later:

  • 22 Ibidem, 2,2: 149.

Because they came to know the rights of a separate Nation, their own political institutions and other such things, inquiries of their Deputies and articles of the hadiach Treaty contained many controversies and were destructive for their institutions, so they demanded cancellation of this treaty and were going to demand, during the forthcoming Sejm, an increase in their benefits and privileges as an army…22

17As we see, the same events present another different picture when presented by another author: the King and Cossacks are a positive factor while the corrupted nobles are negative. Following Siri, Priorato is using the theory according to which the Cossack rising was agreed with the King in order to deal with the nobility who did not allow Władysław to organize an anti-Turkish campaign:

  • 23 Ibidem, 1679, 1,6: 600.

… the Cossacks were the King’s most loyal subjects, and deadly enemies of the nobility because, as was said earlier, the nobles treated them worse than they would treat slaves, and it was impossible to gain justice for violence, murder and other atrocities committed by nobility in relation to those poor people… The Cossacks do not want to submit to alien commanders but only to those from their own people, always brave and courageous soldiers, irrespective whether they are from land tillers or from shepherds. Before we go on with our narration, it is noteworthy that the role of Cossacks was very significant in all the most glorious campaigns of the great Władysław that he undertook in the times of King Sigyzmund, his father23.

18With the aim of constantly stressing that all the problems of Poland are created by nobility, Priorato moves some events: so, Cossacks join forces with Tartars after Poles capture Kyiv and their Patriarch (not earlier), etc.; a conclusion comes to mind that most of these «author’s amendments» are aimed at direct or indirect justification of actions by Cossacks and the King. Not a word about the Battle of Berestechko; besides, King Władysław as if does not die and remains present constantly, although even before the story of the reasons for the uprising there was a story of the death of the King that supposedly untied Cossacks’ hands; in any case, if not to approach the text from the objectively-historical viewpoint but to consider it as a historical-and-literary matter organized by its author with a certain aim in view, it will look rather whole and understandable. This is a sidewise discursion in the story of Polish-Muscovite conflict, and Priorato explains that the Muscovite and other enemies got a pretext and an opportunity to attack Polish lands due to disagreements and arguments in the nobility’s circles and their confrontation with the King. In this context, even an originally fictional story of Khmel’nyts’kyj looks natural: he appears to be a son of a miller,

  • 24 Ibidem, 603.

… he had famous victories over Turks and Tartars on his record, and he had a high reputation serving under command of general Koniecpolski. They say that this general, when thinking about Khmel’nyts’kyj’s actions and watching his appearance, prophesied that in the future he will become god’s punishment for the Republic. The prophecy materialized which will be narrated later. When Khmel’nyts’kyj’s father died, he asked for the King’s permission to rebuild his father’s broken Mill and to add three or four little houses to it in memory of his father. he was allowed to do this considering his merits, and the construction was completed. Colonel Iarinski stated that water from the Mill inflicts damage on his estate. he started demanding from Khmel’nyts’kyj that he destroy the Mill. Khmel’nyts’kyj replied that he built it according to the King’s permission. The Colonel replied that the King may do what he wants with his possessions but not with those of others. They went from words to actions. The Colonel ordered the Mill to be burnt, and many say that he treated this Khmel’nyts’kyj’s wife and son brutally. The Cossacks felt so offended by this unheard-of violence that, being, as was told earlier, sworn enemies of Nobility, they decided to take revenge for injustice inflicted upon the Miller, by killing all Poles whom they could find, expelling everybody who did not belong to their Religion from their land thus dealing a deadly blow to the entire Polish Nobility... it can be said that one water Mill had spawned many blood mills, many provinces were ruined and thousands of souls were destroyed, innocent as well. The Senators of the Kingdom, deeply indignant about those barbarians’ actions, begged the King to join their campaign against the rioters. The King refused, reproaching them for the burning of the Mill, described earlier24.

  • 25 Ibidem.

19In the end, the King, whose stand was becoming ever more susceptible in the eyes of nobility, joined the campaign, although hewished, according to the author, an other way of solving the conflict, being aware that «… the Cossacks’ hand sheld the doors through which Tartars and Turks could enter the Kingdom. However, the Cossack cruelty towards women and innocent children cried out for merciless revenge…»25. As we see, Priorato makes the «King-Cossacks-nobility» conflict a personal conflict between Khmel’nyts’kyj and «Iarinski» (probably meaning Czaplinski) that presumably started because of a mill. It seems to me that Priorato became interested in the story of the mill (if of course it was not a result of his literary fancy based on some uncertain rumours) because of its «parable» nature and an opportunity to suggest a new development to the metaphorical image «from a smalls park, a great fire» (Khmel’nyts’kyj’s personal grudge as, infact, the reason for the uprising), already established in previous stories of the Khmel’nyts’kyj War, as well as the ominous image of the «bloodmill» of carnage and ruination born of a common water mill. The «Khmel’nyts’kyj-Poland’s Doom» is present, as it was in works of predecessors, but it is being treated in an original way: allegedly, Koniecpolski himself prophesied his future ruining role. We note that while other historiographers cited Khmel’nyts’kyj’s personal grudge as one of numerous offences and ill-treatments of Cossacks, so it was not hard for him to launch the uprising, Priorato as if shifts accents here as well: Cossacks had been suffering from nobility’s lawlessness for a long time but it was offence against Khmel’nyts’kyj that they perceived as the drop that filled the cup, as «unheard-of violence» requiring revenge from the entire Cossack community; wasn’t it because «Iarinski’s» action had not just offended Khmel’nyts’kyj but was also proof of a nobleman’s contempt towards the will of the King? This could explain the naïve, at first glance, reason due to which the King, in Priorato’s book, at first does not agree to join the nobility’s campaign against Cossacks who, according to the author had already ruined a lot of Polish lands and killed a great number of innocent people: he reproaches them with «the burnt mill»; i. e. the incident with the mill per se justifies the mass bloodshed? Of course not: it is that the mill becomes for the writer a metaphor of the nobility’s violence and its disobedience to the King. As can be seen from a quote, the author does not hide the barbarian cruelty of Cossacks even to «innocent souls». As other writers do, the author mentions the Cossacks’ «weathercock» behavior: they are used to change their allies and «turn to every wind as witnessed by Turks, Swedes, Transylvanians, and Poles themselves». Thus, Priorato’s image of the Cossacks is far from being idealized but because the role of the «negative force» is accorded to nobility who caused the destruction of the Kingdom by their violence, disagreements and disrespect to the King’s will, it can be said that Priorato explains the reasons for the Cossack protest with full understanding and sympathy and by all available means underlines Cossacks’ loyalty to the King as a positive factor. In the same key, conflicts between Cossacks and Muscovites are explained: they are the King’s subjects and do not want to submit to the Tsar. Thus, in the rather rich in detail description of election of Yuri Khmel’nyts’kyj as hetman in Korsun’in 1661, Priorato stresses that Cossacks do not agree with Muscovite statutes and «cruelties» and that they want to be under «fatherly hand» of the Polish King:

  • 26 Ibidem, 1679, 2,2: 137-138.

The wojewoda, in a half-hour speech described first of all his Majesty’s fatherly concern about the People… he unfolded before their eyes their mistakes and errors they had made in many cases in various times, bad advice and the traps they had fallen into that they approved of. In conclusion, he said that the King has forgotten and buried everything under the perpetual Amnesty. They applauded this speech vigorously. Some thanked god and the King. Others blamed their leaders for enticing them for their private interests. There was no lack of those who swore to kill with their own hands those who will just think about an uprising in the future, whether this would even be their father or brother. They resolved to cancel and repel all the Statutes and orders by the Muscovite26.

20The History tells of those Cossack detachments that continued to fight Poles but at the same time an example is given of Cossack ambassadors to the Polish Court who state that they joined the Muscovites in war not of their own will but because they were forced to do so, and they offer as proof the fact that they «moved slowly». Thus, the author’s stand is evident, while historical facts become the painting by an artist who mixes colors in a rather subjective way…

21It can be stated that in all the works mentioned above Ukraine and Cossacks, just as Ukrainian-Polish-Muscovite relations are described through the subjective prism of their authors’ vision, with a greater or lesser degree of fictionalization. The same events and characters acquire different, sometimes juxtaposed coloring. Sustainability of characteristic «Barbarian-Sarmatian» features in depiction of Cossacks can be marked; they are present even in the work by M. Bisaccioni who clearly destroys the image of «Christian knights» of whom his predecessors made heroes. In any case, while taking into account the scale of works of literature mentioned above, general information on Ukrainian land and their population, beyond the battle theme, look like an almost total tribute to the established literary tradition that even writers who were witnesses to events do not want to change. The interest towards Ukraine, provoked by «Cossack» wars, is gradually waning, and Ukraine’s image in Italian literature remains «hermetically sealed» on topoi set by Miechowski, and on the generalized image of «Cossack-Sarmatian».


1 Duodo Pietro, Relazione di Polonia del 1592, in: Relazioni degli Ambasciatori veneti al Senato, I. VI, Firenze, 1862: 333; Lippomano girolamo, Relazione di Polonia 1575, in: Relazioni degli Ambasciatori veneti al Senato, I. VI, Firenze, 1862: 277; Graziani Antonio, De vita Ioannis Francisci Commendoni Cardinalis libri quator, Padova, 1685.

2 Alessandro guagnino Veronese, La descrittione della Sarmatia Europea del magnifico cavaliere Alessandro Guagnino Veronese, tradotta dalla lingua Latina nel volgare Italiano dal reverendo M. Bartholomeo Dionigi da Fano, in: secondo Volume delle navigationi et viaggi raccolto gia da m. gio. Battista Ramusio…, in Venetia, appresso i giunti, 1583: 1-72; Botero giovanni, Relazioni universali […] divise in quattro parti […], 1.2.1, Brescia, 1599: 42.

3 Della Valle P., I Viaggi di Pietro della Valle. Lettere dalla Persia, vol. I, a cura di F. Gaeta e L. Lockhart, Roma, Istituto poligrafico dello Stato, 1972.

4 Ibidem, 192-193.

5 Ibidem, 193.

6 Konstantynenko K., «Relazione dell’origine e dei costumi dei Cosacchi» di Alberto Vimina: la tradizione umanistica e la personalità dell’autore, in: Conferenza Internazionale «Umanesimo latino in Ucraina», a cura di Fondazione Cassamarca, Treviso, 2004: 115-123.

7 Konstantynenko K., Reljatsija pro pokhodzhennja ta zvychaï kozakiv: istorija, ujava, real’nist’, «Kyïvs’ka starovyna», 1999, 5: 50-69.

8 Ibidem, 67.

9 Ibidem.

10 Caccamo D., L’insurrezione ucraina e la crisi della Polonia nobiliare, in: L’Ucraina del XVII secolo tra Occidente e Oriente d’Europa, materiali del I Convegno italo-ucraino, Kyjiv – Venezia, 1996: 190-231.

11 Vimina A., Historia delle guerre civili di Polonia divisa in cinque libri, Venetia, 1671.

12 Ibidem, 2-3.

13 Ibidem, 92-93.

14 Bisaccioni M., Historia delle guerre civili di questi ultimi tempi […] IV edizione ricorretta […], 2 vv., Venetia, 1655.

15 Ibidem, 392-394.

16 Ibidem, 272.

17 Ibidem, 273.

18 Siri Vittorio, Del Mercurio, overo Historia dei correnti tempi […], xii, Parigi, 1672.

19 Ibidem, 984-985.

20 Ibidem, 571.

21 Priorato galeazzo gualdo, Historia di Leopoldo Cesare, […], in Vienna d’Austria, 1670.

22 Ibidem, 2,2: 149.

23 Ibidem, 1679, 1,6: 600.

24 Ibidem, 603.

25 Ibidem.

26 Ibidem, 1679, 2,2: 137-138.


She studied at the “Taras Shevchenko” University of Kyiv, Ukraine. She teaches at the University of Venice and investigates cultural and artistic relationships between Italy and Ukraine. She also works as specialized guide in Venetian art.

Andriy Kulykov (Traducteur)