The Duchy of Crete / Regno di Candia

Venice’s primary goal in the 16th century was full control of the south-eastern Mediterranean. As a result, Crete’s geographically strategic position made it the Serenissima’s most important colony. A strict bureaucracy regulated the public, economic and social life of the island’s inhabitants, while its high-ranking officials were appointed directly from Venice.

Trade routes
Venice’s economic supremacy and maritime dominance depended on a network of ports and trading stations. Its colonies were also the main markets for its craft products. Chandax (Candia) was Venice’s main export and transit centre in the area. Its most sought-after export product were its Malvazia wine, olive oil, cheese and wheat.

Battle of Lepanto: 7 October 1571
The naval battle marked the culmination of a drawn-out struggle for control of the Mediterranean. It was fought between the Ottoman empire and the Sacra Lega Antiturca, an alliance of Spain, Venice and the Pope. Although it ended with victory for the Christian forces, it did not leave  the Ottoman Empire drastically weakened. 

Military Power 
The Venetian fleet was largely made up of galleys, which were flexible, adaptable craft. Turkish pirate attacks on Cretan coastal areas and the island’s active involvement in the Ottoman-Venetian wars required military strength and good organization on the island. Crete’s military forces, which were entirely under Venetian control, relied both on paid professionals and on an army of local conscripts. The army was divided into infantry, cavalry and artillery.


Cultivators of the earth
Two thirds of Crete’s population worked the land. Serfs (dependent peasants / paroikoi) were bound to their lord’s estate, while freemen were either smallholders or cultivated the land of others; all, however, were burdened with onerous obligations to their feudal lords and to the Cretan administration. The gradual dismantling of the feudal system during the 16th century led to an increase in the number of freemen.

Villages and rural churches
The Cretan countryside was full of small villages, most of which were the property of feudal lords. Rural churches were found both within and outside these settlements. They were usually built with funds provided by Venetian nobles and feudal lords, though some came into being thanks to private individuals with small or middling incomes. Many of these churches served the needs of both Catholic and Orthodox congregations (dual churches) and were in receipt of an income.


Nobles and feudal lords
The nobility was divided into subcategories and drew its power from land-ownership and its control of production. The nobles held positions and ranks within the island’s political system; a number grew rich through trade. In the 16th century, the nobility had to live with the threat of Ottoman invasion and were under pressure both from the Venetian government and the disobedience of the rural population, which was rebelling against the merciless exploitation to which they were subject. 

Rural monasteries
The monasteries in the Cretan hinterland were centres of Byzantine Orthodoxy. As such, they were kept under close observation by the local feudal lords throughout the period of Venetian rule. Over time, as the doctrinal differences between the Orthodox and Catholic churches became less intense, some Cretan monasteries acquired dual churches which served the needs of both congregations. This doctrinal blending is reflected in the churches’ architecture and sculpted decoration.


City fortifications
Crete’s cities were fortified at public expense. The introduction of gunpowder and the development of new weapons of war (cannons) necessitated a change in the way cities were fortified, leading to the establishment of fortresses with bulwarks. Starting in the 16th century, Venice gradually updated the fortifications of its Cretan city-ports under the supervision of celebrated Italian architects and engineers.

The urban landscape
Chania’s fortress, the open city of Rethymnon and the Great Castle, Chandax’s (Candia’s) city-port, each present a different aspect of Crete’s urban landscape. These were cities in which life bore some resemblances to life in Italy, and whose residents were very much aware of their urban identities. In these cities, the arrangement of public space —new fortifications, port facilities, shipyards, public buildings, founts and fountains, barracks and churches— was prescribed by the Venetian authorities.


The Chronicle of Georgios Klontzas: prophesy and history
This unique manuscript interweaves the history of Man from the banishing of Adam and Eve from Eden to the Second Coming, and includes the capture of Christian territory by the Ottoman Turks, prophesies about their ultimate defeat and the history of Crete. The illustrations drive the narrative, which consists of original texts and modified excerpts from Byzantine and Italian sources.


Guilds, brotherhoods and public ceremonies
The professional guilds were simply associations of craftsmen, while the religious brotherhoods were divided between secular and monastic confraternities. There were Catholic and Orthodox brotherhoods. Each collective drew up its own rules to regulate its operation and administration, and had its own patron saint and church. They operated under the supervision of the island’s political and ecclesiastical authorities. The associations organized Crete’s citizens socially and economically, played a charitable, educational and political role on the island, and were under an obligation to participate in various festivals/processions of a secular and religious nature.

Monastic orders
The monastic orders on Crete sought to promulgate the Catholic faith, but were subject to restrictions imposed on them by the Venetian authorities. Sharing common religious goals including the combating of heresy and the desire to convert the local populace, they were intensely engaged in social and philanthropic activities. They also helped support the local economy through their building projects—the churches and imposing monastic complexes they built were emblematic of the mediaeval urban landscape. 

The Catholic Church failed to impose the terms of the Union of Churches on Crete. The Orthodox faith remained predominant (95%) numerically, but the Catholic Church retained the political power. The two churches began to converge doctrinally when the Orthodox people and the Venetian authorities joined forces against the Catholic Church. However, doctrinal difference also often became a means of expressing political differences resulting from the different social conditions of the Orthodox and Catholic populations.


The Counter-Reformation
At the Council of Trent (1545-1563), in the face of the Protestant threat, the Catholic church defined its doctrine and reorganized its institutions, forms of worship, teaching and the mechanisms in place for ensuring doctrinal orthodoxy (the Inquisition). Special emphasis was placed on the sermon and the choice of iconographic subjects in religious art. On Crete, although there were Protestants in Chandax (Candia) in the 1540s, they were driven out by the Inquisition.


The Urban phenomenon
The organization of Chandax’s (Candia’s) craftsmen into guilds in the early 16th century was a powerful indication of the emergence of a middle class, in the historic sense of the term. This was accompanied by increased activity in the arts. However, the further development of the new middle class was undermined by Venetian policies, resulting in a lack of liquidity and industrial production.


The poor
“The poor […] usually ate bread and cheese or salted fish […] both to save money and to stimulate a thirst for those strong wines that increased their desire and ability to sing as they worked. Come the evening, they would stumble their way homewards […] to the Maroulas neighbourhood […] to those caverns made tout of the hollow rock using partitions […] with food up their sleeves for the family supper”. L’ Occio, by Zuanne Papadopoli.

Lack of liquidity troubled the economy of Crete in the latter half of the 16th century. The lack of coinage in the public coffers would impact on the entire economy, first and foremost through difficulties faced in the payment of salaries, taxes and debts. The lack of liquidity also caused problems for public works and other investments. There was more money in circulation in Chandax (Candia) than in rural areas. 


The lack of money in circulation meant that many exchanges were made in the form of barter. The phenomenon was so widespread, especially in rural areas, that Crete’s could barely be described as a money economy.


Minting emergency coinage
In times of war, rough emergency coinage would be hurriedly minted. Such coins were of low intrinsic value, usually copper, and had a disproportionately high face value.


Craft & Industry
On Crete, everyday essentials like clothes continued to be produced by cottage industries. The island’s crafts never achieved large-scale production, with the exception, perhaps, of core agricultural goods, painting and wood carving.