Late Medieval Crete and Venice: An Appropriation of Byzantine Heritage

Article excerpt

The complex relationship between Venetian and Byzantine culture in the thirteenth century poses intriguing questions to the art historian. A Byzantine province in the sixth century, Venice became a politically independent state in the early eleventh century. Well into the twelfth century, however, Venice turned to Byzantium for cultural inspiration.(1) In the early thirteenth century, when the republic of Venice transformed itself from a small state into an imperial power at the expense of the Byzantines, a change can be observed in the reception of the Byzantine heritage in Venice. The present essay attempts to uncover the reasons for this change by looking at specific cultural, political, and social events that shaped the emerging role of Venice in the Eastern Mediterranean.

In broader terms my study explores the potential of cultural symbols to foster new power relationships when reused in novel political situations. To what degree can their symbolic value be transferred from one culture to another! How are such objects or traditions incorporated in a new setting? Why are certain cultural treasures deemed worthy of preservation in a new political context? These issues are succinctly manifested in extreme situations of cultural confrontation, such as colonization and the construction of an empire, and will be dealt with here in the context of the Venetian colony of Crete.

The Fourth Crusade of 1204 was the most critical moment in the history of Veneto-Byzantine relations. The crusaders and the Venetians divided the former Byzantine lands between them. The Venetians multiplied their territorial holdings, became the leaders in Mediterranean trade, and claimed hegemonic rights over Byzantium.(2) From the sack of Constantinople, the city richest in relics in the Middle Ages, Venice acquired precious Christian relics and imperial treasures which had been symbols of Byzantine authority and sacred rule. The incorporation of these objects into the civic center of Venice played a major role in shaping her political identity, as they were used by the republic to demonstrate her supremacy over Byzantium and to support her claims in the Mediterranean.(3) The relics, icons, and liturgical vessels were preserved in the treasury of the basilica of S. Marco, enhancing the sacred character of the state church and legitimizing Venice's involvement in the crusade.(4) The rest of the spoils--the four Bronze Horses possibly from the Hippodrome in Constantinople,(5) the porphyry Tetrarchs,(6) and the so-called columns of Acre,(7) to mention only the most famous--were set up outside the basilica to proclaim Venice's military success against the Byzantines. As Michael Jacoff has amply demonstrated for the Bronze Horses, the spoils were displayed in innovative ways that did not simply duplicate earlier practices of exhibiting antiquities in other Italian cities.(8) Without forgetting the source of these Byzantine treasures, the Venetians assimilated them into their ceremonials and succeeded in transforming them into symbols of the republic.(9)

Here I argue that the Venetian colonies may be seen as proving grounds for the manipulation of Byzantine traditions by the Venetians in the course of the thirteenth century. After 1204, Venice came into direct contact with Byzantine culture not only through commercial ventures in Constantinople and the ports of the Mediterranean, but also through colonization in the Levant. Instead of imposing their hegemony in the colonies violently, the Venetians appropriated certain Byzantine traditions to secure a smooth transition from Byzantine to Venetian rule. The outcome was the formation of a blend of Venetian and Byzantine cultures that served the needs of Venice as a new world power.

My objective is twofold: first, to investigate how the Venetians dealt with Byzantine culture in their maritime empire, focusing on one of their key possessions, the island of Crete; second, to examine the impact that the experience of the Venetians in Crete may have had on the formation of the new political and cultural identity of Venice itself in the course of the thirteenth century. …