In 1204 the Crusaders conquered Constantinople and broke up the Byzantine Empire. Crete was not part of this fragmentation, as it had been traded to Boniface I of Montferrat for his help, who in turn sold it to the Venetians for approximately one thousand silver pieces. For this reason it was not included in the Partitiio terrarium imperii Romaniae.
The Venetians established themselves on the island gradually from 1210 A.D., turning out the Genoans who had taken advantage of the turmoil. Crete was valuable to the Venetians, because, due to its position, it would contribute to the growth of Venetian trade in the East.
During Venetian rule some of the most important technical and architectural projects on the island were constructed. One of the most characteristic examples of these are the new walls of Heraklion, the largest Venetian fortification work on Crete and in the entire Mediterranean. Despite the modern structure and character of the city, the walls are a jewel that preserves important memories. The enormous defensive work is complemented by the sea fortress Rocca a Mare (presently known as Koules) at the city port and magnificent, unique buildings such as Loggia (noblemen’s club) and the Fountain of Frascesco Morozzini, the crowning jewel in the water supply project that started at the springs of Mt. Juktas.
There are countless monasteries and churches spread throughout the Prefecture, such as Epanosifis Monastery, Kera (our Lady’s) Convent, Paliani Monastery, Angarathos Monastery, Monastery of the Odigitria (Madonna Guide), Kalyviani Monastery, etc.
Apart from architectural masterpieces, however, Venetian rule is also associated with struggles and battles that lasted for years.
The Venetian system of government was oppressive and enforced strict observation of the class system and rules. The Duke of Crete and the supreme administrators and church officials were appointed directly by Venice and took full advantage of Cretans’ wealth.
Heavy taxes, low product prices and confiscation of private property caused intense dissatisfaction among locals.
The Cretan people revolted 27 times in total. The revolutions were headed by local lords and the hatred was such that for two centuries there was an enormous gap between local Cretans and Venetian settlers. The revolutionary movements lasted approximately until the end of the 16th century. Towards the end of the century the divide became less intense and the two sides (local Cretans – Venetian settlers) began to come closer to one another.
Slowly the Venetians relaxed their reign and allowed for marriages to take place between locals and Venetians, as well as free settlement anywhere on the island.
With these changes the financial and social situation for many Cretans improved.
This is the beginning of the Cretan Renaissance, during which Crete’s arts and letters flourished. In the early years of Venetian rule the city of Heraklion created the right conditions for intellectual growth, which was to be strengthened shortly before the fall of Constantinople. Many Byzantine intellectuals saw the danger of being conquered by the Ottomans and fled to European, mainly Italian, cities, as well as to Crete, mainly Heraklion (Candia). This wave of arrivals of Byzantine intellectuals supported the cultural growth of the city in all fields.
The Sinai Monastery of St. Catherine proved to be a major spiritual and educational centre of the city, where great men of letters, such as Meletios Vlastos, Ioannis Mortzinos, Cyril Lukaris, and others taught at the school that operated there.
A large number of young people from the city travelled to Venice and other Italian cities to study, and, thus, Heraklion slowly started to experience the impact of this early renaissance, and an important autonomous intellectual output started to emerge, mainly in painting, poetry and drama.
Especially in the last few years of the Venetian rule (1594-1669) Cretan literature reached its pinnacle of growth, and ‘Cretan Drama’ is widely recognised in the same way the ‘Cretan School’ of icon painting (16th-17th century) is.
During this period the Cretan School of Painting emerged, its major representatives being Theofanis, Klontzas and Damaskinos.
The letters and literature also flourished with Georgios Chortatzis and Vincenzo Cornaro, who left us renowned works, such as Erotokritos, Erophile, and the Sacrifice of Abraham.
In the 16th century, and while the threat of an Ottoman invasion loomed, the effort to rebuild the major castles began. Towards the end of the century, ‘Megalo Kastro’ (Big Castle) was constructed using forced labour; it is the fort of Heraklion that has been preserved to this day. All major cities and ports of Crete were fortified with such castles.
THE CRETAN SCHOOL OF ICON PAINTING:
Present-day Heraklion, during Venetian rule and after the fall of Constantinople, grew into one of the most important artistic centres of Venetian territories. At around 1600 the city had approximately 20,000 residents and there were 200 painters working in it, whose reputation spread far beyond the island; soon their work was decorating major monastic centres throughout Greece and the Christian Orthodox East.
This is the background against which the ‘Cretan School’ of painting gradually began to take shape. Icons and illustrated manuscripts travelled throughout the Venetian East and significant Orthodox monastic centres.
The ‘Cretan School’ of painting created important works which are now in museums, monasteries, private and public collections, and makes up a very important and idiosyncratic chapter of the history of art.
Unfortunately, after two centuries of excellence (16th & 17th century), with the occupation of Heraklion (Candia) by the Ottomans, the intellectual flourishing of Crete’s renaissance was violently disrupted.
Significant representatives of the ‘Cretan School’ of painting were: Angelos (Akotantos) (15th century), Damaskinos Michael (16th century) Domenikos Theotokopoulos (16th century), Theofanis Kris (16th century), Georgios Klotzas (17th century), Ioannis Cornaros (18th century).
DOMENIKOS THEOTOKOPOULOS OR EL GRECO:
El Greco is one of the most important figures in painting world history. He was born in Venetian ruled Heraklion (Candia), where he received his first lessons in painting, until the age of 20, when he left for Italy. He seemed to have already mastered Byzantine art as he was mentioned in archives of the times as an established painter.
In Venice, which was his first stop in Italy, he was taught by Titian (Tiziano) and perfected his mastery of western painting. After a short stop in Rome, he settled in Toledo, Spain, in 1577, where he created his masterpieces. He never forgot his Cretan heritage and in all his works he signed “Domenikos Theotokopoulos of Crete”.
With both deep knowledge of Byzantine scholarly tradition and ancient Greek, as well as renaissance thought, he managed to illustrate in his works the secret flame of orthodox art and his own personal visions.
At present in Heraklion, at a specially set up room of the Historical Museum, ‘Mt. Sinai’, one of El Greco’s early works, is exhibited.
A masterpiece of Cretan Literature: the well-known lyrical poem by Vincenzo Cornaro is one of the most important monuments of Modern Greek letters.
It was written during the 1650-1660 period and was one of the most important educational tools of popular Cretan culture. It depicts the most beautiful aspects of Cretan culture and celebrates all the virtues that form the base of Cretan ‘leventia’ (gallantry) and is naturally part of the classic works of Modern Greek literature.
Its 10,000 lines talk of the love story between Erotokritos and Aretousa and at the same time describe important aspects of daily life in those days. It was first published in 1713 in Venice and at the time it was the “Bible” of the Cretan people.