(1900 Times Atlas of the World)
1200-1479 A possession of the Orsini / Del Tocco families.
1479-1485 Part of the Ottoman Empire.
1485-1699 Formally part of the Ottoman Empire, but leased to the Venetians.
1699-1797 Direct Venetian possession.
1797-1814 Occupied by the French, then by the Russians, then by the French again and finally by the British.
The town of Zante (Gr. Zakynthos) and the south-eastern part of the island seen from the Venetian fortress
Telemachus to disguised Athena: .. for the chiefs from all our islands, Dulichium, Same, and the woodland island of Zacynthus, as also all the principal men of Ithaca itself, are eating up my house under the pretext of paying their court to my mother.
- The Odyssey by Homer - Book I - Prose translation by Samuel Butler.
This quotation from the Odyssey is almost the only reference to Zante one can find in ancient literature. Zante is the southernmost island of an archipelago facing mainland Greece in the Ionian Sea; in particular Zante stands opposite the north-western coast of Peloponnese and it can be seen from Castel Tornese (Khlemutsi in the small map at the top of the page).
The ancient town was divided into an acropolis at the top of a hill and another settlement by the sea. The Venetians built a large fortress on the site of the ancient acropolis, but its thick walls are almost completely hidden by a stone pine forest.
Venetian fortress: (left) Bastione Grimani; (right) a stretch of the walls
The history of Zante was strictly associated with that of mainland Greece until the end of the XIth century when the Norman kings of Sicily and Southern Italy turned their attention towards the Byzantine Empire. In 1185 a Norman fleet led by Margarito da Brindisi seized Zante and nearby Cefalonia (Gr. Kephallonia) and Ithaca. The three islands became a personal possession of Margarito and eventually they were acquired by Riccardo Orsini, a member of an important Roman family, who married Margarito's daughter.
After the 1204 conquest of Constantinople by the Frank knights of the Fourth Crusade, the Orsini managed to expand their possessions in mainland Greece by acquiring the town of Arta. The Orsini possessions were inherited by Leonardo I Tocco who belonged to a noble family of Neapolitan origin and who expanded them to include Ioanina.
(left) Main entrance; (right) second gate of the main entrance
The Tocco managed to retain their possessions until Sultan Mehmet II, after having conquered Constantinople in 1453 and most of mainland Greece in the following years decided to expand the Ottoman Empire by invading Italy. In 1479 Sultan Mehmet II, in order to achieve his ultimate goal, seized Zante and Cefalonia to protect his back; he then captured Otranto, an important port in Apulia, which he planned to use as the starting point of a large campaign. In May 1481 however Sultan Mehmet II died, perhaps poisoned, and his successor Bayezit II, who was involved in a dynastic quarrel with his brother Cem, withdrew from Otranto. The new sultan was interested in establishing peaceful relations with the Venetians and the latter were interested in acquiring new bases for their trade routes; as a result in 1485 Zante was "leased" to the Venetians in return for a yearly payment.
1692 Map of the fortress
In 1571 Kilic Ali Pacha, an Ottoman corsair of Italian origin (you may wish to see the mosque he built at Constantinople), raided Zante; this led the Venetians to build a new fortress on the acropolis; it was not just a military complex as it housed some buildings of the Venetian administration and at least five churches and a monastery.
Third gate of the main entrance
The 1699 Peace of Carlowitz gave the Venetians full rights over Zante, but they continued to strengthen the fortress by adding new bastions and by protecting its main entrance with a series of gates placed at different angles. In 1716 Zante was on the brink of falling into the hands of the Ottomans, but their failed attempt to seize Corfu eventually led to the Peace of Passarowitz which in 1718 confirmed the Venetian possession of Zante. This situation lasted until 1797 when the Republic of Venice surrendered to Napoleon and its territories were shared between France and Austria.
(left) Winged lion and Venetian coats of arms above the third gate of the main entrance; (right) 1696 Southern Gate
Additions to the fortress such as new bastions and gates were celebrated with reliefs portraying a winged lion, the symbol of St. Mark and of
the Republic of Venice; the Provveditori (governors) added inscriptions and their coats of arms to the lion and this helps in understanding the development of the fortress.
The symbol of Venice can be seen also in some modern shop signs. The lion shown in the image which appears in the background of this page below the word "Benetzianika" (Venetian) is not the Lion of the Republic of Venice. It is the lion of the Eptanese Republic, the first modern Greek (semi)autonomous government which ruled over the Ionian Islands between 1802-10. Eptanese means Seven Islands (Corfù, Paxi, Santa Maura, Cefalonia, Itaca, Zante and Cerigo) and this lion holds seven arrows, whereas the Venetian lion held the inscription Pax tibi, Marce Evangelista meus. The fact that the Eptanese Republic adopted a flag very similar to that of Venice is evidence of strong links between the upper classes of the Ionian Islands and Venice.
View towards the northern part of the island and towards Mt. Aenos on Cefalonia (right side of the image)
The fortress was located in a position which allowed control of the whole eastern coast of the island and of the channel which separated it from Cefalonia; the view shows how the landscape of Zante (and of the other Ionian Islands) differs from that of the Aegean islands, which are usually rocky and without much vegetation (you may wish to see Syphnos or Folegandros).
Stone pine trees inside the fortress
Unlike other Venetian fortresses in Greece, that of Zante is very well kept. There are explanations near the most important buildings, which help the visitor to understand how the fortress was structured and to identify the changes made during the British rule (1816-63: new barracks and a sports ground) and during the German occupation (1943-45: site for anti-aircraft gunnery).
In 1953 Zante was struck by a major earthquake; the gunpowder magazine is one of the few Venetian buildings which is still intact owing to its wide walls and solid construction technique; it was located in a sort of niche excavated into the rock to limit the impact of the explosion of the ammunitions stored inside.
The Republic of Venice had a long expertise in cannon casting and it is reported that the Venetians used cannon during a siege as early as 1380. Elaborately designed bronze cannon can be seen at some other former Venetian fortresses and in particular at Nauplia.
(above) Ruins of a church; (below) Venetian prison
Move to page two: the town
Excerpts from Memorie Istoriografiche del Regno della Morea Riacquistato dall'armi della Sereniss. Repubblica di Venezia printed in Venice in 1692 and related to this page:
Isola del Zante
Andò sempre fastosa fino ai suoi Natali l'Isola del Zante e per l'antico splendore
più che mai luminosa, qual giace nel Mar Ionio picciola di giro, chiamata da un
figlio di Dardano Zacinto, c'havea questo medemo nome; mà il tempo ch'ogni cosa
corrode, corrupe il vocabolo, restando il nome di Zante; alcuni però dicono
che fosse chiamata Zacinto dal fiore giacinto, che forse fù ritrovato in quest'Isola
florida, e deliciosa; riportano altri, che Gerusalemme s'appellasse, fondati nella
storia di Roberto Guiscardo Duca di Puglia, il quale risolvendo di visitare il Santo Sepolcro,
hebb'in rivelazione di dover morir'in Gierusalemme; arrivato in quest'Isola, e gravemente
ammalatosi, dimandò il nome d'essa; gli fù risposto chiamarsi Gerusalemme; per il che pensò,
che quell'era il termine del suo viaggio, com'in fatti di lì a poco morì. Hà da Levante quest'Isola
la Morea, dalla qual'è distante ottanta miglia; da Ponente confina
coll'Isola di Cefalonia, chese gli lontana dodeci; da Mezzo giorno
tiene la Barbaria con cui confina per cento cinquanta; da Tramontana hà in una parte la Morea
verso Castel Tornese per miglia sedeci, e un poco più a basso
guarda il Paese del Dichiamo, ove sono Natolicò, i Curzolari e Dragomestre, luoghi, che li sono
distanti più di cinquanta miglia.
Introductory page on the Venetian Fortresses in Greece
List of the fortresses
|Geographic area||Location||Ionian Islands||Corfù (Kerkyra) Paxo (Paxi) Santa Maura (Lefkadas) Cefalonia (Kephallonia) Asso (Assos) Itaca (Ithaki) Zante (Zachintos) Cerigo (Kythera)||Greek Mainland||Butrinto (Butrint) Parga Preveza and Azio (Aktion) Vonizza (Vonitsa) Lepanto (Nafpaktos) Atene (Athens)||Peloponnese (Morea)||Castel di Morea (Rio), Castel di Rumelia (Antirio) and Patrasso (Patra) Castel Tornese (Hlemoutsi) and Glarenza Navarino (Pilo) and Calamata Modon (Methoni) Corone (Koroni) Braccio di Maina, Zarnata, Passavà and Chielefà Mistrà Corinto (Korinthos) Argo (Argos) Napoli di Romania (Nafplio) Malvasia (Monemvassia)||Aegean Islands||Negroponte (Chalki) Castelrosso (Karistos) Oreo Lemno (Limnos) Schiatto (Skiathos) Scopello (Skopelos) Alonisso Schiro (Skyros) Andro (Andros) Tino (Tinos) Micono (Mykonos) Siro (Syros) Egina (Aegina) Spezzia (Spetse) Paris (Paros) Antiparis (Andiparos) Nasso (Naxos) Serifo (Serifos) Sifno (Syphnos) Milo (Milos) Argentiera (Kimolos) Santorino (Thira) Folegandro (Folegandros) Stampalia (Astipalea)||Crete||Grambusa (Granvousa) Castello (Kasteli/Kissamos) La Canea (Xania) Souda Candia (Iraklion) Rettimo (Rethymno) Spinalonga and Castel Mirabello Castles on the southern coast Sittia and Paleocastro|
You may refresh your knowledge of the history of Venice in the Levant by reading an abstract from
the History of Venice by Thomas Salmon, published in 1754. The Italian text is accompanied by an English summary.