CONTARINI, AMBROGIO (1429-99), Venetian merchant and diplomat, author of a noteworthy report on Persia under the Āq Qoyunlū Uzun Ḥasan. He was descended from a patrician family, and in his youth he lived in Constantinople as a merchant until the Turco-Venetian war began in 1463. In 1470, aboard the Aegeus, he participated in sea battles against the Ottoman fleet of Moḥammad (Mehmet) I (848-86/1444-81, with interruption). The Venetian Republic sought to open a new front and charged Contarini with a diplomatic mission to Uzun Ḥasan, at that time allied with the Venetians, in order to plan a simultaneous attack on the Ottomans. Contarini departed in February 1474, traveled through central Europe, passed through Kiev and Georgia, and reached Tabrīz in August. In October he met Uzun Ḥasan at Isfahan. His message was benevolently received, but there were no practical results. The sovereign declined the ambassador’s proposal with the comment “I was on the point of setting out against the Ottoman, but, having heard that he was in Constantinople, I did not deem to go in person against his people.” Until June of the following year Contarini remained at court and in touch with the sovereign. He did not return to Venice until April 1477, having had a difficult return voyage, with many delays.

On the day of his arrival in Venice Contarini presented to the Council of the Venetian Republic an oral report on his mission. A written version was drawn up in the same year and published in 1486 in Vicenza by the printer Leonardo from Basel, with the title Questo e el viazo de mister Ambrosio Contarin ambasador de la illustrissima signoria de Venesia al signor Uxuncassan Re di Persia. A second edition (Venice, 1524), entitled Itinerario del Magnifico et Clarissimo messer Ambrosio Contarini was included by G. B. Ramusio in the second volume of his collection Navigationi et Viaggi (Venice, 1559). Contarini’s report was translated into Latin and French in the l7th century and, under the auspices of the Hakluyt Society, into English in 1873.

In Contarini’s concise travel diary narration of personal vicissitudes prevails over historical and geographical information. The report opens and closes with sections on the different regions through which Contarini traveled: Tartary, Armenia, Muscovy, Poland, and so on. In the main body of his text he described the Persian towns he visited (Tabrīz, Kāšān, Qom, Isfahan) and referred to the troubled situation in the country as a consequence of the revolt of Uzun Ḥasan’s son Oḡorlū Moḥammad. He described the king as “a pleasant gentlemaṇ . . . tall and thin, with a slightly Tartar expression of countenance.” Court life was also described, briefly but in lively fashion. In the royal palace at Isfahan Contarini noted “a painting representing the decapitation of Sultan Busech [Abū Saʿīd) and showing how he was brought by a rope to execution.” He also witnessed a parade of 25,000 horsemen organized in his honor. The geographical position of Persia and its relations with the neighboring powers are outlined in an appendix, which also contains an inaccurate list of Uzun Ḥasan’s sons and a clear underestimate of his cavalry at 50,000 men.



L. Amat di San Filippo, Biografie dei viaggiatori italiani, Rome, 1882, p. 162.

N. Di Lenna, Ambrogio Contarini, politico e viaggiatore veneto del secolo XV, Padua, 1921.

L. Lockhart, R. Morozzo della Rocca, and M. F. Tiepolo, I viaggi in Persia degli ambasciatori veneti Barbaro e Contarini, Rome, 1973.

M. Milanesi, “Contarini,” in Dizionario biografico degli italiani, Rome, 1961, pp. 97-100.

(Filippo Bertotti)

Originally Published: December 15, 1992

Last Updated: October 28, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. VI, Fasc. 2, p. 220