(1900 Times Atlas of the World)
1401 The Venetians acquire the island from the King of Naples
1537 First Ottoman siege of Corfu
1716 Second Ottoman siege of Corfu
1797 Assigned to France by the Treaty of Campoformido.
1798-1815 After several political changes, Corfu becomes part of a British protectorate.
The island of Corfu is separated only by a narrow channel
from the continent of Epirus, which in its widest parts is not
above eight miles in width, and in the narrowest places its
breadth is only two miles. (..) The town of Corfu, the bulwark of Italy and of the east, is
covered in all directions, towards the sea and land, by forts
which (..) seem to be
Christian Muller - Journey through Greece and the Ionian Islands: in June, July, and August, 1821
Passing on along the coast of Albania, and the wind being favourable, they sailed by Corfu without touching, but the Patron pointed out to Torkington "two strong castles standing upon two rocks"; and he adds, "I trow they had no where so strong a place, that is in Greece: and the Turkish main land lieth within two or three miles of them. And undoubtedly they said Corfu is the key, entry, and hold for the surety of the said Venetians' sails and ships and country about; and before any other they have in those parts." He was right in this surmise, as the Turks found soon after: for they spent their full strength against it vainly in 1537, and again a few years later, but Corfu continued in Venetian occupation till the fall of the republic.
Ye oldest diarie of Englysshe travell: being the hitherto unpublished narrative of the pilgrimage of Sir Richard Torkington to Jerusalem in 1517 - 1884
The Venetians called the island of Corfu Gateway to the Gulf as it controlled the maritime route giving access to the Adriatic Sea. Venice claimed her own sovereign rights over the whole sea which was also called Gulf of Venice. Corfu lies parallel to the shore of Albania and mainland Greece: the main town is located in a central position from which it controls the whole channel between the island and the continent.
Bay of Kanoni
Odysseus went on to the house of Alkinoos, and he pondered much as he paused a while before reaching the threshold of bronze, for the splendor of the palace was like that of the sun or moon. The walls on either side were of bronze from end to end, and the cornice was of blue enamel. The doors were gold, and hung on pillars of silver that rose from a floor of bronze, while the lintel was silver and the hook of the door was of gold.
The Odyssey - Book VII - translation by Samuel Butler.
Corfu was formerly called Corcyra, as I find in many Greek Medals I brought with me from thence. An Island of ancient Fame, which had, without doubt, the Emperour Septimius Severus, and his Family, for its Great Benefactors. (..) Abundance of Foundations of Temples, Arches, Pillars, and Marble Inscriptions, have been dug up here, and employed to build the new Fortifications of the present City. Here we were full of Homer, especially his relation of the Kings daughter Nausica's adventure; who going to Bathe her self with her Attendants, met with Ulysses cast upon that shore by a Storm.
A journey into Greece by George Wheler, Esq., in company of Dr. Spon of Lyons - 1682
Considering the ancient glory of Corfu, we expected to find many antiquities on the island. But this is not the fact; there are, on the contrary, less here than in any other of the smaller Ionian islands. (..) About three miles from Corfu are shewn slight and almost invisible traces of aqueducts. They are supposed to have belonged to the gardens of Alcinous. These gardens, however, are placed by the antiquaries of Corfu in three different spots. Muller
The site of Corcyra, the ancient residence of Alcinous, king of the Phaeacians, who welcomed Ulysses and granted him safe passage to Ithaca, was located a few miles to the south of the medieval town. You may wish to read a passage on how Alcinous entertained Ulysses. The bay of Kanoni, thus named after a cannon, is shown as the site where Ulysses went ashore.
Agios Gordios, a beach on the western coast of the island, which is more evocative of Ulysses' deeds
In the end Odysseus deemed it best to take to the woods, and he found one upon some high ground not far from the water. There he crept beneath two shoots of olive that grew from a single stock - the one ungrafted, while the other had been grafted. No wind, however squally, could break through the cover they afforded, nor could the sun's rays pierce them, nor the rain get through them, so closely did they grow into one another.
The Odyssey - Book V
The soil of Corfu is not so fruitful, as to supply the Inhabitants with Corn. (..) It is nevertheless fertile in Wine and Oyl, and all sorts of good Fruit. We had a present sent us of Figs, Filberds, and Currant-grapes, then scarce ripe; the Figs being a large, green kind, they call Fracassans, having in the middle a round lump of Jelly, of the bigness of a Nutmeg, very delicious, and refreshing in the heats of Summer. Here are also abundance of Oranges and Limon-Trees. Wheler
The air of the island is considered salubrious. The climate is mild, but rather changeable. (..) Its mountains are barren, yet of all the mountains of the larger Ionian islands, they seem to be most wooded. Oil is the chief produce of Corfu; (..) the natives produce excellent winter melons, oranges, lemons, figs, and almonds. Muller
Venice promoted the agricultural development of the island and in particular the cultivation of olive trees. To this policy Corfu owes its countless olive groves which are a feature of its landscape. The western coast of the island is less affected by the development of tourist resorts than the northern and eastern ones.
(above): View of the town between the Old Fortress (left) and the new one (right); (below) the Old Fortress seen from the south: in the foreground Castello della Campana and in the background Castel da Mare
The next day, being the Eighteenth of July 1675, we came to the City, now called by the name of the Island. It is not a hundred years, since this City was nothing but the old Castle, and the present Suburbs of Castati. But now it is a good large City, and well fortified with Walls on the South, and two Castles at the East and West Ends; though the side towards the Harbour be not so well fortified, as not so much needing it. Wheler
Corfu played a key role in the expansion plans of the Kingdom of Naples in the XIth, XIIth and XIIIth centuries. First the Normans, then the Angevins used the island as a base for their expeditions against Constantinople. At the end of the Angevin domination the Genoese occupied the island for a short period of time, but were expelled by the Venetian admiral Giovanni Miani. The lion banner of St Mark was hoisted over the city in May 1386 and in 1401 Ladislaus, King of Naples formally sold the island to the Venetians.
The East Castle, or Fort, stands upon a Rock every way inaccessible, running out like a Promontory in the Sea. This is the place of Residence of the Venetian-Generals of the Levant by Sea and Land; and to whom, from the other Proveditours of Zant and Cephalonia, &c. Appeals may be made, and a new Hearing had of all Civil Causes before him, as Chief Judg under the Senate, as well as Chief Commander of all their Forces. Wheler
The Venetians strengthened the two fortresses which protected the small medieval town; in order to upgrade the fortifications to the development of cannon, they built some round bastions.
We being taken notice of here for designing places as we past, were taken for spies: So that order was given by the General, that none should be admitted into the Forts; insomuch, that we could not at that time well know their strength. But as I returned, and touched here, I had so much time as to see this Castle; which is well provided with Ammunition and Artillery. Wheler
During the first war between Venice and the Ottoman Empire (1463-1479) the inhabitants of Corfu fought by the side of the Venetians, but they could not avoid the conquest of some fortresses on the Albanian coast. At the end of the war Sultan Mehmet II decided to invade Italy and his army sailed from Albania towards Apulia, the south-eastern end of the peninsula. The Ottomans conquered Otranto, an important town at the narrowest point of the channel which divides Italy from Albania. In May 1481 Mehmet died and his successor Beyazit II, withdrew from Otranto. The Venetians realized that the defences of Corfu needed to be strengthened.
1582 fresco showing the island of Corfu and celebrating the 1537 failed siege at Galleria delle Mappe Geografiche in the corridors of Palazzo del Belvedere in Rome
In 1537 Hayruddin Barbarossa (Red Beard), a corsair who became admiral of the Ottoman fleet, attacked Corfu: the move was part of a larger plan conceived by Sultan Suleyman I. In alliance with King Francis I of France who was at war with Emperor Charles V he was preparing an invasion of southern Italy; in order to protect supplies to his army he needed to conquer Corfu. The decision to attack the island was made rather late: 25,000 Ottomans landed on August 25, but Barbarossa soon realized he needed more troops and cannon: his forces were doubled by the Sultan, but the Venetians managed to check the enemy attacks until the Ottomans decided to raise the siege and leave the island.
Old Fortress: (left) Savorgnan bastion; (right) Martinengo bastion
In 1538 an allied Christian fleet was defeated by the Ottomans near Preveza: this event led the Venetian authorities to develop a major plan for ensuring Corfu could withstand a new Ottoman siege for a long time. Changes were radical: a large ditch was dug between Castello della Campana and the town and two powerful bastions ensured the Venetian galleys could moor there without fear of being attacked by the enemy.
Relief showing the town and the fortresses of Corfu at S. Maria del Giglio in Venice (ca 1680)
The Old Town of Corfu, on the Island of Corfu off the western coasts of Albania and Greece, is located in a strategic position at the entrance of the Adriatic Sea, and has its roots in the 8th century BC. The three forts of the town, designed by renowned Venetian engineers, were used for four centuries to defend the maritime trading interests of the Republic of Venice against the Ottoman Empire. In the course of time, the forts were repaired and partly rebuilt several times.
From the UNESCO synthesis of the universal value of the Old Town of Corfu which in 2007 was added to the World Heritage List.
The plan developed by the Venetian military architects was not limited to the new bastions: almost all the inhabitants who lived in the old town were relocated in the burg beyond the canal. Walls surrounded the burg and a new fortress was built on a hill at its western end.
(left/centre) Winged lions "in moleca" inside the Old Fortress in the 1990s and today (one of them is shown in the image used as background for this page); (right) King George IV's monogram on a British gun
Over time Castello della Campana and Castel da Mar were jointly called the Old Fortress. Venetian military architects developed state-of-the-art fortresses/town walls, many of which are known as star fort because of their overall shape; you may wish to see those of Candia and Palmanova.
It would be a Town almost impregnable, were it not for a Rock that standeth towards the West, and commandeth the adjoyning Fort, with a great part of the Town. Wheler
In 1669 the loss of Candia (Crete) made Corfu even more important for the protection of Venice.
The second great siege of Corfu took place in 1716. That year Sultan Ahmet III appeared in Butrinto opposite Corfu. On July 8, a fleet carrying 30,000 men sailed across to Corfu from Butrinto; the Ottomans landed on the island where they established a beachhead. On the same day the Venetian fleet engaged that of the enemy off the Channel of Corfu and gained an important victory which delayed the attack. On July 19 the Ottomans reached the hills to the west of the town and laid siege to it. The time had come for the New Fortress to show its strength.
New Fortress: view of a ravelin of the main fortress
The Ottomans managed to conquer all the fortress outposts, but they found themselves under the fire of the fortress gunsn; in addition Venetian ships could easily attack the left flank of their encampment. A sally by the defenders proved unable to dislodge the Ottomans, but led their commander to realize he was in a weak position: he then decided to make a final attempt to seize the fortress. On the night of August 18 the assault was launched and the Ottomans managed to seize a ravelin which projected from the fortress: from there they tried to climb the fortress: the fight went on for the whole night, but the defenders were able to check the enemy until a sally routed them.
In the day after the last Ottoman assault a furious thunderstorm (typical of the season) flooded the Ottoman encampment and that was the end of the siege. The victory was attributed not only to the leadership of Johann Matthias Count von Schulenberg, the commander of the defence, but also to the miraculous intervention of St. Spyridon, patron saint of the town. The Venetian Senate decided to honour von Schulenberg by dedicating a statue to him and St. Spyridon by donating to his church in Corfu a finely decorated lamp to be kept lit in perennial memory of the event.
New Fortress: British alterations
A great partiality for the Russians is still entertained in the
good families, which was fomented by the presence of a renowned
statesman in the Russian service, who had lately been here for
the purpose of visiting his native country. Corfu gave birth to the minister Capo d'Istria.
The Venetians ruled the island for more than four centuries until 1797. Corfu and the other Ionian islands went through a period of continuous changes which included the presence of Russian troops in 1799-1807. The 1815 Treaty of Paris established that the Ionian Islands constituted a republic under British protection: this explains why some buildings of the New Fortress are dedicated to Victoria Regina.
(left) A remaining section of the town walls; (right) entrance of the Venetian barracks
The walls which surrounded the southern part of the town were in part pulled down to facilitate the development of new quarters. Some of the Venetian buildings in this area do not exist
any longer or have been modified to serve different purposes; a theatre has become the Town Hall and barracks house state offices.
The northern part of the town retains its old Venetian appearance: you may wish to visit it.
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) or you may wish to read excerpts (in Italian) 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.
Move to the Introductory page on the Venetian Fortresses in Greece
List of the fortresses
|Geographic area||Location||Ionian Islands||Corfų (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, Passavā and Chielefā Mistrā Corinto (Korinthos) Argo (Argos) Napoli di Romania (Nafplio) Malvasia (Monemvassia)||Aegean Islands||Negroponte (Chalcis) 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|