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Charalambos Gasparis

The urban centers of the Venetian colonies in Greece
(13th-14th c.): Cities in constant crisis?

In the 13th and 14th century the urban centers of the Venetian colonies in Greece, namely the cities of Candia, Rethymno and Chania in Crete and Methone and Korone in south Peloponnese, were still new cities and for this reason were vulnerable and exposed to various crises. The 13th century was the period of the establishment or reconstruction of these cities; therefore, the crises were rather structural. On the contrary, during the 14th century, being on a growth path, all of these cities, like many others of that time, have been affected either by specific local crises of any type (political, economic, environmental etc.) or by generalized crises affecting large areas of the eastern Mediterranean and western Europe. For the Venetian cities any crisis during the 13th and, at least, the first decades of the 14th centuries was the pretext for the much-needed development.

Moving towards stabilization and development, the major problems of these cities were the population and the infrastructures. Upon their arrival in Crete and Peloponnese the Venetians found old urban agglomerations both in residential and population decline, except – perhaps – of Candia. The role that Venice planned for the cities of its colonies required population growth, as well as new or reconstructed basic infrastructure in each city; in order of priority, these were the port and the naval base, the city walls, the granary, public buildings and roads. As it appears in various documents, according to the Venetian authorities each city can dream of growth only if and when it reaches a sufficient port and of course the critical population mass. Thus, Venice used to spend money on public buildings and granted privileges to those immigrants that would be settled in cities and their hinterland. As far as Candia is concerned growth was achieved quickly in the 13th century, not only because it became the capital of a large and organized colony with better infrastructures, but also because when the Venetians conquered it, in the early 13th century, Candia was a small walled town with a vivid port. In contrast, the growth of Chania, Rethymnon, Methone and Korone occurred mainly in the first half of the 14th century. The development of the Cretan cities during the 13th century was occasionally stemmed by military events, such as the numerous revolts of the Greek landlords, and the disastrous attacks by the opponent city of Genoa.

However, the effort expended during the 13th century to overcome local crises gave results that have been undermined during the 14th century by natural phenomena and pests, as well as by economic crises and the endemic revolts in Crete, fortunately not in a very decisive way. Two of the major crises due to natural phenomena were the earthquake and the tsunami occurred in Candia and the eastern Crete on 8 August 1303, and the well known Black Death of 1347-48 that hit all the cities of the Venetian colonies. The earthquake affected mainly the architecture and the urban planning of Candia, while the plague the human geography of all cities and, certainly, their economy. In short, these phenomena affected the two main areas for which a great effort had been made over the last century: namely the demographic and the infrastructures. In order to overcome crises, Venice spent money for public constructions, even with great parsimony, and implemented immigration policies. And, although Crete exceeded the passage of the deadly plague, the political crisis erupted because of the revolt of St. Titus (1363-1366) – centered mostly in the town of Candia and aimed at the autonomy of the island by the local Venetians – threatened to upset the balance that the Cretan cities had reached. On the other hand, the suppression of the revolt and the recovery of sovereignty by Venice gave to Candia, as well as to the other cities, a smoother life during the last decades of the 14th century. Thus, the 15th century found all five cities most resistant and better prepared to small or major crises caused during the new century.

I n a few words, during the 13th and 14th centuries, the cities of the Venetian colonies in Greece were affected by continuous crisis, which inevitably delayed, but not suspended, their growth. Despite the exaggeration and the political rhetoric of our official documents, it is quite evident that the urban population of the time actually experienced the results of those crises.

© EPLO 2017