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Wednesday, May 01, 2002

Book Reviews

Cultural Exchange in the Medieval Mediterranean

Venice’s Mediterranean Colonies: Architecture and Urbanism by Maria Georgopoulou. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001, 383 pp, 136 b/w ill., $80.95.

In the midst of the Mediterranean Sea, the island of Crete has been the site of cultural exchange for centuries. In the Middle Ages, Byzantine, Jewish, and Latin-rite Christian communities interacted on Crete, creating a multicultural region similar to the islands of Sicily and Cyprus, as well as to the Latin kingdoms of the Peloponnese and Palestine. On Crete, however, Latin rule lasted from 1211-1669 under the aegis of the powerful city-state of Venice. Venice’s Mediterranean Colonies: Architecture and Urbanism explores the thirteenth-century foundations of this rule. The book is centered on the island’s capital, Herakleion, called by its Latin name, Candia. An enormous amount of archival evidence is brought together in this study, and the author effectively reconstructs the city’s setting and examines its walls, churches, and community spaces.

Part One of Venice’s Mediterranean Colonies considers the colonies’ creation. It offers a brief historical overview of Venetian colonialism and distinguishes the spread of Venetian power in the thirteenth-century from the colonialism of the modern period. This is an important point for the study of the Mediterranean in the Middle Ages, particularly in relation to the visual evidence. During this early period, colonialism was not informed by systematic racial or ethnic distinctions, and visual evidence from these regions was not always perceived according to such divisions.

The sources that form the foundation of this study are varied and vast. Surviving photographic material, sixteenth-century maps, and topographical studies, along with travelers’ accounts as well as governmental and monastic records, offer insight into Candia ‘s construction and reception of its urban space. Maria Georgopoulou proceeds by identifying features that signify specific cultural groups, including Venetian piazzas, markets, and governmental palaces. These signs are complicated by the colonists’ interest in Byzantine structures. The author explains that Venetian identity on Crete was constructed to make Venice the heir of Byzantium. In Candia, this included incorporating Byzantine buildings into the structure of the Venetian government, and transforming the Byzantine cathedral and its patron, Saint Titus, into the Latin cathedral and patron.

The second part of Venice’s Mediterranean Colonies continues to focus on Candia by reconstructing several churches, and comparing their styles and functions to comparable churches in Venice. The Venetians adopted the cathedral of Saint Titus without major modifications apart from interior adaptations for its use as a Latin-rite church. Georgopoulou contrasts the Cathedral of Saint Titus with the smaller church of Saint Mark and explains the role of each church in the creation of Venetian identity on the island. Venice’s patron saint, Saint Mark, and his symbol, the lion, were the city’s visual markers in the Mediterranean. Unlike the large church of Saint Mark in Venice, however, the church of Saint Mark in Candia was less prominent than the local cathedral, with its relics of Saint Titus. Surrounding this central core of Venetian monuments in Candia, large Latin monasteries framed the city and offered additional visual markers of the Venetian colony.

The last two chapters of this section consider the positions of Greeks and Jews on Crete. Chapter Six offers an important discussion of the definitions of ethnicity and identity during the Middle Ages. The author explains that ethnic differences were less significant than religious differences during the Middle Ages, and that the divisions were primarily legal distinctions. These definitions are crucial for understanding the interaction of cultures during the Middle Ages.

A brief introduction to the political issues behind the removal of Byzantine aristocrats and bishops from Candia is followed by a discussion of the city’s Orthodox churches. Although outside the urban center, the new Orthodox cathedral, dedicated to Saint Mary of the Angels, was a highly visible marker of Greek space. There were many Orthodox churches within the city, and Latin documents record decrees against the increasing number of churches built within and outside the city’s walls during the fourteenth century. Travelers’ accounts, however, rarely tell of Orthodox churches but reveal a strong interest in Greek customs. The Greek community on Crete during Venetian rule was vibrant and a visible participant in Candia’s urban life. 

The second part of Venice’s Mediterranean Colonies ends with a discussion of the Judaica, Candia’s Jewish quarter. This chapter traces the development of a specific walled section of the city for Jewish residence. Georgopoulou contrasts the situation of the Jewish community within the city with that of the Greek community in the suburbs. On the basis of each groups’ participation in civic/religious ceremonies, she concludes that the segregation of Jews aided government regulation and made the community invisible within the visual statement of the Venetian colony. Because it was more fully integrated with the public life of the Latin-ruled city, however, the Greek community played an essential part in the creation of the colonial image.

Part Three continues the examination of the rituals that wove together different communities in the Venetian colonies. Specific attention is given to the colonists’ incorporation of Byzantine religious symbols, including sacred icons. On feast days, the Venetians carried the miracle-working icon of the Virgin Mesopanditissa throughout the city of Candia. The icon was considered a peacemaker between the Greek and Latin communities. The ceremony required both Latin and Greek clergy, which carried the icon in procession to both Latin-rite and Orthodox churches. This evidence of exchange and interaction among communities further complicates our notions of colonialism and broadens our understanding of multicultural regions during the Middle Ages.

The final chapter returns to the city of Venice, which clearly owed much to Byzantium. The mosaics of Saint Mark’s in Venice are the most prominent evidence of this Byzantine influence. Georgopoulou expands the sources of Byzantine influence on Venice beyond Constantinople to include Crete. She suggests that the renewed interest in the cult of Saint Mark in Venice was inspired by the strong dedication of Candia to its patron, Saint Titus. Georgopoulou also submits that the prominent use of icons on Crete stimulated the cult of icons in Venice.

Venice’s Mediterranean Colonies is an ambitious book that offers new insights on cultural exchange in the Medieval Mediterranean. Georgopoulou’s discussion of colonialism and ethnicity in the Middle Ages is important. She has compiled a large body of research and documentary evidence that sheds new light on the complex realities of the Venetian colonies. Yet, the title of the book does not reveal its true focus and strongest argument. At the center of this study are Crete and its capital city, Candia. As with many cities of the Middle Ages, evidence, including descriptive documents and monuments, has been lost. Because of these gaps in specific evidence from Candia, comparative evidence from other cities in Crete and other Venetian colonies in the Mediterranean is included. This comparative evidence is not always introduced clearly, however, with confusing chronological and geographical jumps within chapters. Nevertheless, beyond these minor obstacles, Georgopoulou’s exploration into the formation of collective identities before nationalism, and her use of visual materials, are a vital contribution to studies on multicultural societies. With its numerous photographs and extensive bibliography, Venice’s Mediterranean Colonies is a valuable resource for scholars of Byzantium and the Medieval West.

Justine Andrews is an intern in the department of illuminated manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Her dissertation, Imagery in the aftermath of the Crusades: A Fourteenth-Century Illustrated Commentary on Job (Paris Grec. 135), was completed this spring at the University of California, Los Angeles.
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