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«AT THE EDGE OF EMPIRE: VENETIAN ARCHITECTURE IN FAMAGUSTA, CYPRUS Allan Langdale* Abstract: This essay examines the Venetian-era architectural ...»

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Allan Langdale*

Abstract: This essay examines the Venetian-era architectural remains of Famagusta, Cyprus, Venice’s

easternmost Mediterranean colonial outpost. Famagusta’s architectural monuments are presented as components of Venice’s policies of colonial expansionism and the strategy of stamping its possessions, even this one on the periphery of its empire, with the signifiers of Venetian domination and historical predestination.

The ways in which these monuments may have been used in civic rituals, and the functions of these rituals, are also examined. The use of antique spolia and the architectural interplay with the Lusignan era gothic monuments characterize Venetian ideological tactics in Famagusta’s built environment. Also addressed is the possible influence of Giangirolamo Sanmichele, who was sent to Famagusta to renovate the city’s fortifications. These defenses, much modified by the Venetians, are virtual textbooks of early modern military architecture.

Keywords: Famagusta, Venice, Cyprus, spolia, Sanmichele, fortifications, St. Nicholas Cathedral, Lusignan, Salamis, Crete.

The 29 about two houres before day, we alighted at Famagusta, and after we were refreshed we went to see the towne. This is a very faire strong holde, and the strongest and greatest in the Iland. The walles are faire and new, and strongly rampired with foure principall bulwarkes, and betweene them turrions, responding to one another, these walles did the Venetians make.1 John Locke, English pilgrim, 1553.

During the medieval and renaissance periods, when cities were usually fortified, Venice’s main islands were distinctive in their openness. Once through the straits between the outer islands, which were defended by a series of forts—the Malamocco, San Pietro della Volta, San Nicoló, and Sant’Andrea—no battlements or towers marred the distinctive panorama of the city’s architectural jewels.2 Only the Arsenale was immured and this may have been as much to keep the industry hidden from the gaze of potential spies as it was truly defensive. The Palazzo Ducale, free of the defensive architectural vocabulary that marked its terra firma counterparts, was boldly placed at the waterfront, with the high domes of St. Mark’s hovering beyond. Venice’s confidence was thus expressed in the architectural facades that also made up the facade of her self-image.

Urban visages were less accommodating farther afield in Venice’s maritime empire where the defensive architecture tended to be sternly monumental and decidedly utilitarian. Manifold perils awaited Venetian traders and navy ships beyond the more secure waters of the northern Adriatic, including pirates, belligerent Genoese, and Venice’s principal adversaries, the Ottoman Turks. The ramparts of Corfu, Nafplion in the Peloponese, and the seaport fortifications of Candia (Herakleion), Chania, and Rethymnon on Crete, among many others, give us some indication of the types of masDepartment of Art History and Visual Culture, University of California, Santa Cruz, 1156 High Street, Santa Cruz, CA 95064. I thank Patricia Fortini Brown and Robert J. Williams for their suggestions during the preparation of this article. Thanks also to Michael J. K. Walsh, who helped instigate my interests in the art and architecture of Cyprus.

Excerpta Cypria. Materials for a History of Cyprus, ed. and trans. Claude Delaval Cobham (1908;

New York 1969) 70.

So observed Pero Tafur, who visited Venice in the 1430s. Patricia Fortini Brown, Art and Life in Renaissance Venice (Upper Saddle River, NJ 1997) 16. Tafur also visited Cyprus, though not Famagusta, see Excerpta Cypria (n. 1 above) 31–34.

Viator 41 No. 1 (2010) 155–198. 10.1484/J.VIATOR.1.100571.

156 ALLAN LANGDALE sive coastal defenses Venetians erected to protect their strategic ports. It is perhaps fitting that Venice’s easternmost stronghold in the eastern Mediterranean, Famagusta, Cyprus—merely 100 miles from the coast of Syria—would at the same time be one of her most spectacular bulwarks (figs. 1–2).3 When the Venetians gained control of Cyprus in 1489 they undertook a program of modernization which would stamp the civic center, port, and fortifications with the emblems of Venetian dominion.4 This article gives an account of the Venetians’ attempt to import to this distant outpost the essential architectonic signifiers of their empire. The most monumental projects involving military architecture—the ravelin, the Sea Gate and the Martinengo Bastion—will be singled out as exemplary of the Venetian’s most ambitious architectural expressions.

Analysis of the triple gateway of the palace of the Proveditore, the Palazzo del Proveditore itself, the pair of monumental columns, and a renovated building near the cathedral (at one time a medieval grammar school) will demonstrate how the city’s center was modified to complement public ritual and hierarchize the built environment of the main square. The “Bedestan Palazzo” and “Biddulph’s Gate” will be briefly discussed and consideration will be given to the possible roles of the Venetian architects Michele Sanmichele and his nephew, Giangirolamo Sanmichele, who was sent to Cyprus to oversee architectural projects. Some attention will also be given to the Venetians’ use of antique spolia as they endeavored to construct an image of cultural dominance and verify Venice’s inheritance of the eminence of earlier Mediterranean empires.

Famagusta’s rich history and its location as a stepping stone interposed between three continents—Europe, Africa, and Asia—makes it a particularly intriguing and cosmopolitan locus at a zone of interplay between East and West, and thus it provides a challenging case study of Venice’s imperial aspirations in the eastern Mediterranean.5 This study is meant to complement recent scholarship on Venice’s cultural interaction with its eastern empire and its Levantine trading ventures.6 Defining and Numerous publications deal with the history of Venice’s rule over Cyprus, e.g., Benjamin Arbel, Cyprus, the Franks and Venice, Thirteenth to Sixteenth Centuries (Ashgate 2000). The principal chronicle of the era just before Venetian hegemony over Cyprus (just before and during the reign of Caterina Corner [Cornaro]) is George Boustronios, The Chronicle of George Boustronios, 1456–1489, trans. R. M. Dawkins (Victoria, Australia 1964). A useful primary source for Famagusta is Nicola de Boateriis: notaio in Famagosta e Venezio (1355–1365), ed. Antontio Lombardo (Venice 1973). A source for the 16th c. which deals substantially with Cyprus is the French/Italian volume of Alessandro Magno, Voyages 1557–1565, trans.

Wilfred Naar, preface Alberto Tenenti (Fasano 2002). Famagusta, however, is mentioned only a few times.

Venice had informally controlled the island since 1473, when the Lusignan king James II died (or was assassinated, along with his infant heir), leaving his young wife Caterina Cornaro queen of Cyprus. During her reign the Venetian Senate was largely in control of her decisions. See Benjamin Arbel, “The Reign of Caterina Corner (1473–1489) as a Family Affair,” Studi Veneziani n.s. 26 (1993) 67–85. Repr. in Cyprus, the Franks and Venice (n. 3 above).

Cyprus, in general, presents a compellingly layered complexity with its overlapping stratigraphies of the ancient Greek and Roman, the Byzantine, medieval (Lusignan Dynasty) early modern (Venetian), and Ottoman civilizations. The last three cases representing foreign dominance—European and Turkish—over a predominantly Greek Orthodox indigenous population. Yet in each of these eras Cyprus was also characterized by a strong cosmopolitan flavor owing to its strategic location at the crossroads between East and West.

Recent attention to Venetian Crete includes, for example, Maria Georgopoulou, Venice’s Mediterranean Colonies. Architecture and Urbanism (Cambridge 2001). The art and architecture of Venetian Crete is compiled in Giuseppe Gerola, Monumenti Veneti nell’Isola di Creta, 5 vols. (Venice 1908). For architectural interactions with the East, see Deborah Howard, Venice and the East. The Impact of the Islamic World


analyzing the outer orbits of Venetian hegemony, where it was often challenged and under constant flux, helps us understand how Venice produced an image of security in the visual culture of even its most peripheral satellites. The colonial enterprises of Venice, moreover, offer us illuminating examples of the initial manifestations of early modern colonialization, which could help us evaluate instances of European expansionism in subsequent eras.

While Famagusta’s military architecture was functional in an obvious and utilitarian way, the management of the civic space of the central square employed more refined visio-cultural operations. Famagusta’s main square is seen herein as a locus around which the built environment was decisively and deftly manipulated to assert Venice’s ownership, to naturalize the urban surroundings for Venetians, and to acculturate the local population. This process of acculturation, however, while strongly motivated by a desire to import and impose the architectural signifiers of Venetian style and culture—thus also positing Venice as center, origin and mother city—is also marked by a particularly resourceful re-assignation of artifacts from local Greco-Roman culture. As in Venice itself, the Venetians’ use of antique spolia in Famagusta is deployed to propagate a myth of imperial greatness and Venice’s inheritance of the mantles of the earlier Greek, Roman, and Byzantine empires, just as Venetian humanists, similarly, could alternately configure Venice and its republic to be a New Athens, a New Rome, a New Byzantium, or even a New Jerusalem. The examples of the strategic uses of spolia in Famagusta illustrates, as Patricia Fortini Brown has put it, the “... Venetian ability to seize opportunity when unexpected treasures came to hand…”7 Maria Georgopoulou has shown that the Venetians were very conscious, even as early as the mid-thirteenth century, of the roles architecture and the manipulation of urban spaces could play in the assertion of Venetian culture and authority on subject cities.8 In the words of the sixteenth-century chronicler Antonio Calergi, the rulers must “... know how to maintain the loyalty of the people and the subjugated cities, how to avoid and resist all the evils that can sometimes incite rebellion …”9 Architecon Venetian Architecture 1100–1500 (New Haven & London 2000). See also Carolyn Campbell, Alan Chong, et al., Bellini and the East (London 2005). For a survey of the general visual culture of Venetian Cyprus, see the exhibition catalog Cyprus. Jewel in the Crown of Venice (Nicosia 2003). A recent study of Venetian and Hospitaller defense networks in the Aegean is Venetians and Knights Hospitallers. Military Architecture Networks, ed. Anna Triposkoufi and Amalia Tsitouri (Athens 2002). The standard text on Venetian fortifications, however, is Pietro Marchesi, Fortezze Veneziane 1508–1797 (Milan 1984). Intercultural exchange between Greek Cypriots and Venetians during the Venetian era, which was a mere 81 years on Cyprus, is still an area awaiting further study. See David Holton, “A History of Neglect: Cypriot Writing in the Period of Venetian Rule,” Modern Greek Studies Yearbook, vols. 14–15 (1998–1999) 81–96.

In the same volume Annemarie Weyl Carr outlines the issues of interaction with Greek traditions and the Lusignans: “Correlative Spaces: Art, Identity, and Appropriation in Lusignan Cyprus,” ibid. 59–80; see as well Weyl Carr, “Byzantines and Italian on Cyprus: Images from Art,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 49 (1995) 339–357. Economic relations are discussed in Marie-Louise von Wartenburg, “Venice and Cyprus: the Archaeology of Cultural and Economic Relations,” Bisanzio, Venezia e il Mondo Franco-Greco (Venice 2002) 503–517; and Benjamin Arbel, “Greek Magnates in Venetian Cyprus: The Case of the Synglitico Family,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 49 (1995) 325–337.

Patricia Fortini Brown, Venice and Antiquity. The Venetian Sense of the Past (New Haven & London 1996) 21.

Georgopoulou, Venice’s Mediterranean Colonies (n. 6 above) 15–16.

Ibid. 15. For an account of one such revolt on Crete see Sally McKee, “The Revolt of St. Tito in Fourteenth Century Venetian Crete: A Reassessment,” Medieval Historical Review 9 (1994) 173–204.

158 ALLAN LANGDALE ture played a role in this process. I suggest that one of the primary objectives of the modifications of the built environment of Famagusta’s main square was to serve public rituals. Given the centrality of processions and public ritual in Venetian culture, it is not surprising that such practices would have been exported and modified in various colonial contexts. Examining how both these strategies and tactics—long and short term methods of dealing with the political and social realities of specific colonial cases—had both generic and specific, localized manifestations, is crucial.

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