07 December 2010

Seeing the legacy of Venice, without getting your feet wet

The fortezza in Réthymnon is the most imposing Venetian structure in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

Venice is one of the world’s most beautiful cities. It should be seen with a loved one, and it should be seen before it disappears completely into the surrounding waters. Reports say Venice is sinking slowly, while the waters of the canals, the Lido and the sea are rising.

With water levels rising, flooding is contributing to the sinking of Venice. During the high tides in autumn and winter, the Piazza San Marco and the lowest areas of the islands that make up the city are totally flooded, the streets are blocked with water, and makeshift wooden walkways are set up for the safety of nimble pedestrians. The high water level has now reached what city officials see as a critical point.

Venice has always been sinking, slowly – over the last 1,000 years it has sunk an average 7 cm each century. But recent reports suggest that in the last century alone the city has lowered by about 24 cm, so that the level it is sinking to is now critical. To stop Venice sinking, the city is debating investing in huge steel gates to block the floods. The cost may be as much as €2-€4 billion. But will this be enough to stop Venice sinking?

For years, Venice has been one of my own favourite cities. But during the summer in Greece this year I was reminded that the glory of Venice is not confined to one city, and that it is possible to see Venice without getting your feet wet by visiting three charming cities in Crete – Iráklion, Réthymnon and Aghios Nikóloas.

A jewel in the crown

The remains of the Venetian bastion on the shoreline in Iráklion ... the city was fortified by the Venetians with walls, gates, arsenal, bastion, and fortress (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

During the Fourth Crusade in 1204, the Crusaders turned against the Byzantine Empire, and to satisfy the ambitions of the Venetians sacked and burned the New Rome, Constantinople. For a nominal sum, the leader of the Crusade, Prince Boniface of Montferrat, ceded Crete to Venice.

To the Venetians, Crete was known as Candia, and for four or five centuries – despite initial resistance from the rival Genoese – the island was the jewel in the crown of the Doges of Venice, offering them control of the trade routes in the Eastern Mediterranean, along with wealthy agricultural lands, supplies of timber for shipbuilding and other rich resources.

The 17th-century Loggia was once the meeting place of Réthymnon’s Venetian nobles (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Within a century, many of the descendants of the Venetian settlers had intermarried and integrated with local Greek-speaking families. After the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, Crete was culturally enriched anew with the fresh arrival of a stream of refugees.

Byzantine culture and Venetian finesse combined in Crete in a creative outpouring over the subsequent two centuries in architecture, engineering, art, poetry, music and scholarship. This Cretan Renaissance gave Europe poets like Vitsentzos Kornaros, author of the epic poem Erotókritos, and icon writers like Mikhailis Damaskinós and his pupil El Greco, who was born Domenikos Theotokopoulos.

But this Renaissance came to an end in the second half of the 17th century as a sustained Ottoman assault saw one Venetian city after another fall into Turkish hands: Hanía, Réthymnon and Aghios Nikóloas fell one-by-one in 1645; finally Candia, or Iráklion, the island capital, fell in 1669; the last offshore bastions and islets fell in 1715, depriving Europe of one of its great cultural impulses.

Crete was formally reunited with the modern Greek state in 1913. But for four or five centuries the Venetian presence on Crete was more resilient and lasted longer than the Minoan Golden Age and the Palace of Knossós.

The Candy of ‘Twelfth Night’

Saint Mark’s Basilica, the former Venetian cathedral in Iráklion, is now used for art exhibitions (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

This summer, I was staying within commuting distance of the island capital, Iráklion, known for generations to the Venetians as Candia, and to Shakespeare as Candy while he was writing Twelfth Night.

Most tourists visit Iráklion as a stop-off point on their way to the Minoan ruins and the Labyrinth at Knossós, or passing through on their way to the popular package holiday resorts strung along the coast to the east of Iráklion. But the city itself is treasure of hidden delights.

The Loggia in Iráklion has been painstakingly restored after wars and earthquakes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

In all essentials, Iráklion remains a fortified Venetian city, with its walls, gates, arsenal, bastion, fortress and harbour defences. A first impression of the solid fortress standing above the harbour is sufficient to explain why the city’s Venetian defenders were able to resist the Turkish assaults for decades. But inside the walls of the old city Iráklion is also decorated with Venetian churches, palazzos, squares and a well-preserved loggia.

Iráklion recovered its status as the island capital in 1971, and today – despite Greece’s economic woes – its people are the wealthiest population in Crete based on the average wealth of its residents.

The Morosini Fountain, once the main water source in Iráklion stands in the former Piazza San Marco (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The secrets of Réthymnon

Iráklion is the political and economic capital of Crete, but Réthymnon is the intellectual and cultural capital. One of my favourite journeys is the 85 km road from Iráklion, arriving in Réthymnon as the summer or autumn sun is setting behind the Venetian fortezza and is filling the landscape with hues of red, orange and purple that are so reminiscent of Edward Lear’s watercolours.

The Rimóndi Fountain is half-hidden in a quiet corner of a bustling piazza (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The fortezza in Réthymnon is the most imposing Venetian structure on the island. Below it, a labyrinth of narrow, tangled laneways and alleys is rich with Turkish fountains, hidden Venetian palaces, overhanging Ottoman balconies, and carved doorways inviting you into secret gardens.

Despite the massive tourist developments to its east, Réthymnon has retained much if its charm and many of its traditions. For many years, I enjoyed staying here for weeks on end at the end of summer, taking a small apartment over a jeweller’s shop. A balcony on one side looked out across the harbour; on the other side, I looked into those tangled streets of the old Venetian town, where women sat in groups making lace and old men in their traditional black headscarves and baggy trousers played backgammon or simply watched life passing by … slowly.

A carved Venetian doorway in the labyrinth of narrow, tangled laneways and alleys in the old town of Réthymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The Venetians knew this city as Castel Vecchio and held it for four and a half centuries. The fortezza is said to be the largest castle ever built by the Venetians. It was erected in the late 16th century in response to the pirate raids of Barbarossa, and took ten years to build. It was designed by the Sforza Pallavicini, but it failed its purpose and Réthymnon fell to the Ottoman fleet in less than 24 hours in 1645. The fortezza was adapted to Turkish uses, and the Venetian cathedral became a mosque, dedicated to the ruling sultan Ibrahim and with a truly fabulous dome.

A mixed heritage

The old Venetian harbour in Réthymnon, below the fortezza, is now lined with restaurants, cafés and tavernas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Below the fortezza, the old Venetian harbour, with an elegant 16th-century lighthouse, is now filled with small fishing caiques and pleasure boats. Its function has been replaced by a new harbour, and the old harbour is lined with restaurants, cafés and tavernas.

The Porta Guora was once the main entrance through the thick Venetian walls of Réthymnon, built by Michele Sanmicheli (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Beyond the harbour, the town’s surviving Venetian heritage includes the 17th-century Loggia, once the meeting place of Venetian nobles. The Rimóndi Fountain, built in 1588 and rebuilt in 1626, is named after a Venetian governor. It is half-hidden under a blocked-off arcade in a quiet corner of an otherwise bustling and busy piazza, and has spouting lions’ heads, a marble bowl and four fluted Corinthian columns. The Porto Guora, once the main entrance to the city through the thick Venetian walls, was built by Michele Sanmicheli, the best military architect of the day, and was once crowned by the Venetian Lion of Saint Mark.

The Kara Musa Pasha Mosque, close to the Heroes’ Square in Réthymnon, now houses the Cretan Department of Byzantine Archaeology (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The Turks too left their architectural legacy in the old quarter, including the Kara Musa Pasha Mosque, with a small garden and vaulted fountain; the Veli Pasha Mosque, with its minaret; and the Nerantzés Mosque, which was converted from a Franciscan church in 1657 and now houses the Hellenic Conservatory, with its music school and concert hall. The minaret of the Nerantzés Mosque was built as late as 1890 and once offered breathtaking views across the town. But it was being restored when I visited it a few weeks ago and was closed for repairs.

The minaret of the Nerantzés Mosque offers breathtaking views across Réthymnon, but is now closed for repairs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Throughout the town, Turkish fountains appear in the most surprising and hidden corners, some elaborate, many simple. The former Turkish cemetery is now laid out as the Public Gardens.

A Turkish fountain near the Public Gardens in Réthymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The Turks held on to Réthymnon until 1897. After the ethnic cleansing of the early 1920s, the town’s artistic, intellectual and cultural life was enhanced from 1923 on following the arrival of new waves of Greek-speaking refugees from Smyrna in Asia Minor, and life in Réthymnon was captured charmingly by Pandelis Prevelakis in his book Tale of a Town (Το χρονικό μιας Πολιτείας, 1937), a nostalgic depiction of life there from 1898 to 1924. Strolling through the streets of Réthymnon recently, it is hard to imagine at times that much has changed.

The beauty of Mirabéllo

Lake Voulisméni in the centre of Aghios Nikólaos is said to be bottomless (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Aghios Nikólaos lies 65 km east of Iráklion. Although it has no fortezza, and little of the heritage or hidden Venetian and Ottoman charms of the other island cities, it has a charming setting on a hilly peninsula surrounding Lake Voulisméni, a supposedly bottomless lake, and looking out to bay the Venetians name the Gulf of Mirabéllo or “Beautiful View.”

This is the centre of upmarket tourism in Crete, and experiences little of the brash or vulgar nightlife that is part of the packages in the resorts between here and Iráklion.

When the Venetians acquired Crete in the early 13th century, Castel Mirabéllo was built on this site. Each time it was levelled by earthquakes and burned by pirates the castle was rebuilt, on the last occasion by Sanmicheli in the mid-16th century. But when the Venetians surrendered Castel Mirabéllo to the Turks in 1645, they blew up the castle rather than hand it over, and left it in ruins.

Today, nothing remains of the area’s Venetian heritage. But a Venetian presence lingers in the names of towns, villages, islands and islets around, including Eloúnda, Spinalónga and Neápoli, Crete’s very own “Naples” and the birthplace in 1339 of Petros Philargos, who became the only Cretan-born pope, Alexander V.

A faith that survives

An old church in Aghios Nikólaos ... a reminder of how the Christian faith and the Christmas message have survived since the days of the first ‘Santa Claus’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The town’s Byzantine heritage has been more persistent than its Venetian legacy. Many years ago, when two small boys were beginning to doubt the story of Santa Claus, we walked up the hill from the bottomless lake to the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity. There, where a few elderly women were women were praying and lighting candles, was an icon of Aghios Nikólaos, the original Saint Nicholas of Myra, who gave his name to the town in the eight century.

They took delight in the story of a saint whose name survives in the town’s name and whose faith persists to this day. The cathedral is a reminder of how the Christian faith and the Christmas message survive the changes and turbulence of the centuries.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was first published in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory) in December 2010.

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