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Page revised in November 2011.
Zante: the town
For a brief historical outline of Zante (Zakynthos) you may wish to read first a page on its Venetian fortress.
In 1953 a major earthquake struck Zante and nearby Cefalonia; only few buildings survived the earthquake and many people fled the island. Reconstruction and economic recovery were slow, but eventually the town was rebuilt and its Venetian urban design with low buildings, porticoes and squares was retained. The reconstruction however did not bring back St. Mark's, the Roman Catholic cathedral, to its original design. This can be seen in the image used as background for this page.
This small church is the only one which survived the earthquake; it was located on an islet linked to the town by a bridge and it belonged to a brotherhood of sailors, of whom St. Nicholas is the patron saint.
Other churches suffered great damage, but they were carefully reconstructed by utilizing their original decoration and architectural elements. St. Charalambos' is located near the modern harbour and it was built in 1727 in fulfilment of a vow as stated by an inscription in Greek and Latin.
Zante was hit by a pestilence and its Greek Orthodox inhabitants implored St. Charalambos for help; this IInd century martyr was known for having healed one of his torturers. According to his hagiography at the time of his martyrdom he was 113 years old. In the Roman Catholic tradition churches built in fulfilment of a similar vow were dedicated to St. Roch.
The presence of many churches with an elaborate decoration is an indication of the relative wealth of Zante during the Venetian rule. The Republic of Venice promoted the development of the island by reclaiming marshes and by favouring the production of wine and olive oil. The fact that farming was not limited to a subsistence agriculture, but produced a surplus which could be exported in turn favoured the development of the port and of ancillary activities.
Zante was known in particular for its sweet wines and its raisins and currants of which England was a great consumer. The Venetian government levied high duties on these exports to the point that in 1581 Queen Elizabeth I reacted by favouring the foundation of the Levant Company which was aimed at finding other sources of raisins in the Levant (eventually Smyrna became a great supplier of raisins).
Zante became known for its landscape as this 1837 sonnet by Edgar Allan Poe demonstrates.
Thy gentlest of all gentle names dost take!
How many memories of what radiant hours
At sight of thee and thine at once awake!
How many scenes of what departed bliss!
How many thoughts of what entombed hopes!
How many visions of a maiden that is
No more- no more upon thy verdant slopes!
No more! alas, that magical sad sound
Transforming all! Thy charms shall please no more
Thy memory no more! Accursed ground
Henceforth I hold thy flower-enameled shore
O hyacinthine isle! O purple Zante!
"Isola d'oro! Fior di Levante!"
The last words are written in Italian and refer to Zante as Golden Island and Flower of the Levant.
Not all the churches and monasteries which were razed to the ground by the earthquake were rebuilt; in some cases their frescoes were reassembled inside the museum of the town. The exhibits show how local artists combined Byzantine and Italian styles.
In 1669 Candia surrendered to the Ottomans after a siege of twenty years. Francesco Morosini, the Venetian commander, obtained the right to leave Candia with the still large Venetian fleet under his command and to carry away not only the soldiers, but also the civilians. A large number of the Cretan refugees stopped at Zante and the island had a significant increase in population and resources as the incoming people belonged to the upper classes.
Cultural exchanges between Zante and Venice and Italy in general were customary. Primary education was given in Zante by Orthodox and Catholic institutions, but the sons of the wealthiest families were then sent to Venice to complete their studies. Some of them were enrolled at the University of Padua which was renowned for its teachers in the areas of medicine, astronomy, philosophy and law.
When eventually in 1797 the history of the Republic of Venice came to an end, the wealthiest families of Zante were imbibed with Italian culture and the works of art of the last period of the Venetian rule are not that different from those which were designed in Italian towns of the Republic such as Verona and Padua.
Zante is the birthplace of three great poets: the Greeks Andreas Kalvos and Dionysios Solomos and the Italian Ugo Foscolo. They lived between the XVIIIth and the XIXth century and they knew each other. Andreas Kalvos acted as secretary to Foscolo and wrote several poems in Italian. Solomos, of Cretan origin, wrote the commemoration of Foscolo who died in 1827 in England. Solomos is the author of Hymn to Liberty, the Greek national anthem and the largest square of Zante is dedicated to him, but the major part of his literary production was written in Italian. Foscolo, who dedicated one of his finest sonnets to Zante, is remembered by two small monuments.
We knew thee of old,
O, divinely restored,
By the lights of thine eyes,
And the light of thy Sword.
From the graves of our slain,
Shall thy valour prevail,
As we greet thee again,
Hail, Liberty! Hail!
Translation by Rudyard Kipling (1918)
Introductory page on the Venetian Fortresses
Pages of this section:
On the Ionian Islands: Corfù (Kerkyra) Paxo (Paxi) Santa Maura (Lefkadas) Cefalonia (Kephallonia) Asso (Assos) Itaca (Ithaki) Zante (Zakynthos) Cerigo (Kythera)
On the mainland: Butrinto (Butrint) Parga Preveza and Azio (Aktion) Vonizza (Vonitsa) Lepanto (Nafpaktos) Atene (Athens)
On 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)
On the Aegean Sea: 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) Candia (Kriti)
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.
Clickable Map of the Ionian and Aegean Seas with links to the Venetian fortresses and to other locations (opens in a separate window)