Blog 36 04/07/2016 The Influence of Venetian Rule on Greek Art

Posted in on 3 July, 2016 in News

 The Influence of Venetian Rule on Greek Art.

Dimitrios Damilas Section of Manuscript.

Dimitrios Damilas. Section of Manuscript.

After the seizure of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204, parts of the Greek world came under Venetian rule. Venice’s rise to power flourished as the Byzantine power declined but it would continue to exert its influence in the area until the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797.

The main territories to come under their rule were: Crete: (1204/1211 – 1669, Methoni and Koroni (southwestern Peloponnese) ruled from Crete and which are often referred to as the “eyes of Venice”: 1206-1500, Evvia (Euboia): 1209-1470. Nafplio: 1388-1540, Cyprus: 1489-1570-71.

Except for Kythera; 1363-1797, Corfu (Kerkyra), Kefalonia, and Zakynthos would retain Venetian rule (albeit with slightly broken for a few years) until 1797 when the Republic fell.


The Methoni Venetian Fortress in the Peloponnese, Messenia, Greece

The Methoni Venetian Fortress in the Peloponnese, Messenia, Greece

Morosin's fountain in Heraklion

Morosini’s fountain in Heraklion showing a Venetian loggia in the background

During this period, Greek art was at a turning point. For the first few centuries, the influence of Byzantine art continued to dominate, especially in the area of painting. Towards the later part of the 15th century, Venice, other parts of Italy – most notably the seats of learning like Padua, Florence and Rome, began to have a profound effect on art. This period coincided with the flowering of the Renaissance and the development of the printing press. Artistically, Crete was the island which flourished the most under the Venetians during this time and the period between 1570-1660 came to be known as the Cretan Renaissance.

Life under Venetian rule could be extremely hard. In Crete, the feudal system prevailed and religion divided the population. Piracy was rife and many of the peasants were forced to work as oarsmen on Venetian galleys often dying in the harshest of circumstances. But for those Greeks fortunate enough to rise into the ranks of the merchant class, it did provide opportunities for trade, education and artistic creativity and Greeks began to travel further afield to work and study. By 1453 a Greek community existed in Venice where Greek and Albanian cavalrymen played a big role in the defense of the city.

There is no doubt that apart from architecture, much of which can still be seen in throughout these areas, from the decorative fountains to the heavily fortifications which dot the coastal landscape, Greek scholars and artists of this period also left their mark on Greek culture and continued to be an enormous source of inspiration for 19th and 20th century Greek artists in the fields of literature, music and painting.

Book by Dimitrios Damilas

“Summary of the Eight Parts of Speech”, by Constantine Lascaris 1434-1501.

In 1976 Greece issued a stamp to commemorate the first book printed in Greek. The type face, resembling the cursive Greek handwriting of the time, was carved by Dimitrios Damilas, a native of Crete. The book was printed in 1476 in Milan by Dionysius Paravisinus.

The inscription on the stamp reads: ΠΕΝΤΑΚΟΣΙΑ ΧΡΟΝΙΑ ΑΠΟ ΕΚΔΟΣΗ ΤΟΝ ΠΡΩΤΟΝ ΕΛΛΗΝΙΚΟΝ ΒΙΒΛΙΟΝ“500th anniversary of the printing of the first book in Greek.” It shows a picture of the book, the Επιτομή των oκτώ του λόγου μερών (Summary of the Eight Parts of Speech), by Constantine Lascaris (1434-1501).

Dimitrios Damilas, brother of Antonios, scribe and printer in Milan, came from the small mountain village of Anatoli in southern Crete. It is an ancient, traditional village often referred to as the village of the rising sun, because, as its name states, the golden rays illuminate it. Anatoli nurtured important scholars, such as Antonios Damilas, scribe and printer and Neilos Damilas, scholarly priest-monk in the Karkasia Monastery, It was also an important spiritual centre which is why there are many church monuments and monasteries with beautiful Byzantine icons in the area. Anatoli later became noted for its resistance against later Turkish rule.

Dimitrios Damilas Section of Manuscript.

Homer’s “Illiad” 1488


‘Etymologicum Magnum’, Venice, printed by Zacharias kalliergis for Nikolaos Vlastos, 1499.

Zacharias and his son, Nikolaos Kalliergis, were pioneer printers in Venice. Nikolaos produced the first printed book in Modern Greek  – Apokopos – in 1509 by the Cretan author, Bergadis. It includes a dream story of an underworld journey and is the first book of vernacular Greek literary history to be published.


Theophanis Strelitzas also known as Theophanes the Cretan  was a leading  icon painter of the  Cretan School in the first half of the sixteenth century. He was also the most important figure in Greek  fresco-painting of the period. Theophanes was born in Candia (modern Heraklion) in Crete. The date of his birth is unclear but it’s likely that he trained there even though all his known work was done in mainland Greece. Frescoes bearing his signature survive in the Greek monasteries of Mt. Athos especially  Stavronikita Monastery and Lavra, and in Meteora, which has his earliest dated work, from 1527. He also painted many icon panels, either for the iconostases or small portable works. Theophanes was active between the years 1527-48, and trained his sons and several other Cretan artists. By 1535 both he and his two sons had become monks in the Lavra Monastery, where many of his best works remain, but he returned to Crete before his death in 1559.  Like most Cretan painters of this date, his work shows influence from Western painting, Some of the faces are personalized or look towards the viewer and his figures are more realistic. At a time when Western religious paintings began to explore geometrical perspective, Theophanes used traditional Byzantine compositions in a rather austere and powerful manner yet he was far more conscious of visual perspective than older Byzantine artists

Theophanes the Cretan

Theophanes the Cretan

One of the most famous of artists of the Cretan Rennaissance is Domenikos Theotokotpoulos, better know as El Greco, regarded as a precursor of both Expressionism and Cubism, while his personality and works were a source of inspiration for poets and writers such as Rainer Maria Rilke and Nikos Kazantzakis. He  is best known for tortuously elongated figures and often expressive colourations and modern scholars often think of him as an artist so individual that he belongs to no conventional school His work is a blend of Byzantine traditions and Western painting, especially mannerism. Born in 1541 in either the village of Fodele or Candia in Crete, El Greco came from a prosperous urban family which had probably been driven out of Chania to Candia after an uprising against the Venetians between 1526 and 1528. His father, Georgios Theotokopoulos (d. 1556), was a merchant and tax collector. Nothing is known about his mother or his first wife, a Greek woman. El Greco’s older brother, Manoussos Theotokopoulos (1531 -1604), was a wealthy merchant and spent the last years of his life (1603-1604) in El Greco’s Toledo home.

The Crucifiction

‘The Crucifixion” by El Greco.

El Greco received his initial training as an icon painter of the Cretan school, the leading centre of post-Byzantine art. In addition to painting, he probably studied the classics of ancient Greece, and perhaps the Latin classics also. He left a library of 130 books at his death, including the Bible in Greek and an annotated Vasari. At the time, Candia was a centre for artistic activity where Eastern and Western cultures co-existed harmoniously. Around two hundred painters were active during the 16th century and organized a painters’ guild based on the Italian model. In 1563, at the age of twenty-two, El Greco was described in a document as a “master” (“maestro Domenigo”), meaning he was already a master of the guild and presumably operating his own workshop. Three years later, in June 1566, as a witness to a contract, he signed his name as Master Menegos Theotokopoulos, painter.

Most scholars believe that the Theotokopoulos family was almost certainly Greek Orthodox, although some Catholic sources still claim him from birth. Like many Orthodox emigrants to Europe, he apparently transferred to Catholicism after his arrival, and certainly practiced as a Catholic in Spain, where he described himself as a “devout Catholic” in his will. It’s quite likely that he claimed to be a catholic in order to obtain commissions for the Catholic Church.

As Crete had been a possession of the Republic of Venice since 1211, it was natural for the young El Greco to pursue his career in Venice. Though the exact year is not clear, it is thought that he went to Venice around 1567 where he lived until 1570. According to a letter written by his friend, the greatest miniaturist of the age, the Croatian, Giulio Clovio, he became a “disciple of Titian”, who was by then in his eighties. Clovio characterized El Greco as “a rare talent in painting”.

In 1570 El Greco moved to Rome, where he executed a series of works strongly marked by his Venetian apprenticeship. It is unknown how long he remained in Rome, though he may have returned to Venice around 1575-1576 before he left for Spain. Unlike other Cretan artists who had moved to Venice, El Greco substantially altered his style and sought to distinguish himself by inventing new and unusual interpretations of traditional religious subject matter. His works painted in Italy were influenced by the Venetian Renaissance style of the period with agile, elongated figures reminiscent of Tintoretto and a chromatic framework that connects him to Titian. The Venetian painters also taught him to organize his multi-figured compositions in landscapes vibrant with atmospheric light. Clovio reports visiting El Greco on a summer’s day while the artist was still in Rome. El Greco was sitting in a darkened room, because he found the darkness more conducive to thought than the light of the day, which disturbed his “inner light”. As a result of his stay in Rome, his works were enriched with elements such as violent perspective vanishing points or strange attitudes struck by the figures with their repeated twisting and turning and tempestuous gestures; all elements of mannerism.

By the time El Greco arrived in Rome, Michelangelo and Raphael were dead but the work of these great masters left a great impression on young painters, yet El Greco was determined to make his own mark. He praised Correggio and Parmigianino and dismissed Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. When he was later asked what he thought about Michelangelo, he replied that “he was a good man, but he did not know how to paint”. Because of his unconventional artistic beliefs (such as his dismissal of Michelangelo’s technique) and his personality, El Greco soon acquired enemies in Rome. Architect and writer Pirro Ligorio called him a “foolish foreigner”.

The Penitent Saint Peter by El Greco 1595-1600

“The Penitent Saint Peter” by El Greco 1595-1600

In 1577, El Greco emigrated to Madrid, then to Toledo, the religious capital of Spain and a populous city with “an illustrious past, a prosperous present and an uncertain future” in 1577. During the 1570s the huge monastery-palace of El Escorial was still under construction and Philip II of Spain was experiencing difficulties in finding good artists for the many large paintings required to decorate it. Titian was dead, and Tintoretto and  Veronese refused to come to Spain. He signed contracts for a group of paintings that was to adorn the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo and for the renowned El Espolio. By September 1579 he had completed nine paintings for Santo Domingo, including The Trinity and The Assumption of the Virgin. These works would establish the painter’s reputation in Toledo. After two more commissions, he fell out of favour with Phillip. The exact reason for the king’s dissatisfaction is unclear but some scholars have suggested that Philip did not like the inclusion of living persons in a religious scene. Others say that El Greco’s works violated a basic rule of the Counter-Reformation, namely that in the image the content was paramount rather than the style.

Without the sponsorship of the king, El Greco was obliged to remain in Toledo. According to Hortensio Felix Paravicino, a 17th-century Spanish preacher and poet, even though “Crete gave him life and the painter’s craft, Toledo was a better homeland”. The years, 1597 to 1607 were a period of intense activity for El Greco and he received more major commissions. His workshop created pictorial and sculptural ensembles for a variety of religious institutions. The minutes of the commission of The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception (1607-1613), which were composed by the personnel of the municipality, describe El Greco as “one of the greatest men in both this kingdom and outside it”. Towards the end of his life. El Greco made Toledo his home. He lived in considerable style, sometimes employing musicians to play whilst he dined. His Spanish female companion, Jeronima de Las Cuevas, whom he probably never married, was the mother of his only son, Jorge Manuel, born in 1578, and who also became a painter and assisted his father. El Greco died on April 7, 1614. He was buried in the Church of Santo Domingo el Antigua. He never lost touch with his Greek origins.

Mantzaros (1)

Nikolaos Mantzaros


Dionysios Solomos

In the field of music, Nikolaos Halikiopoulos Mantzaros  (1795 –1872) remains the most important Greek composer . He was born in Corfu and became the major representative of the Ionian School  of Music. An important music theorist, contrapuntist and teacher, he was the Artistic Director of the Philharmonic Society of Corfu  from 1841 and until his death in 1872.

In the field of  poetry, Dionysios Solomos, (1798 – 1857) from Zakynthos, is considered to be the national poet of Greece. Solomos is best known for writing the Hymn to Liberty  which was put to music by Mantzaros. He was the central figure of the Heptanese School of Poetry and is highly regarded,  not only because he wrote the national anthem, but also because he contributed to the preservation of earlier poetic tradition and highlighted its usefulness to modern literature. Other notable poems include Ο Κρητικός (Τhe Cretan), Ελεύθεροι Πολιορκημένοι (The Free Besieged) and others.


Erotikritos by Theophilos Hadzimichael

Vitsentzos  Kornaros ( (1553 – 1613/1614) was a Cretan poet, who wrote the romantic epic poem Erotokritos  He wrote in vernacular Greek, and was a leading figure of the Cretan Rennaissance.  Kornaros is considered to be the greatest of all the Cretan poets and one of the most significant and influential figures in the entire course of Greek poetry. He was born into a wealthy Venetian family in Trapezonda, a village near Sitia, Crete in 1553, After his marriage he lived in Candia  where he joined the Accademia dei Stravaganti. (Academy of the Strange Ones),  founded by his brother and fellow writer, Andrea Kornaros. During the outbreak of the plague, he worked as a sanitary supervisor (1591 to 1593). Kornaros died in 1613 (or 1614), in Candia from unknown causes and was buried at the church of San Francesco.  His contemporaries were William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes.

As successive generations influenced each other, Kornaros’ Erotokritos was a source of inspiration for Dionysios Solomos and he influenced Greek poets such as Kostis Palamas who wrote the words to the Olympic Hymn, the painter, Theophilos Hadzimichael, Andreas Krystallis, a painter born in Asia Minor and who later moved to Mytilini after the Asia Minor Catastrophe and Seferis, Nobel laureate in Literature in 1963.

Andreas painting

Andreas Krystallis

Under the Ottoman Empire, Venice continued to be play a major role in the region, particularly in trade and diplomatically .  I’ll save that for a future blog.

 “The Embroiderer”

The Embroiderer
“The Embroiderer” is a beautifully written novel spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, set against the backdrop of the Greek War of Independence in Turkey and Greece. It was published on 5th November 2014 and is available to buy in paperback and as an ebook.