(1900 Times Atlas of the World)
1204 Geoffroi de Villehardouin acquires the Principality of Achaea. His successors set their residence in Mistrà
1250 The Byzantine Emperor of Nicaea seizes Mistrà
1350 Mistrà is the capital of the Despotat of Mistrà, the only remaining possession of the Byzantine Emperor outside Constantinople
1460 The Turks seize Mistrà
1687 The Venetians occupy Mistrà
1714 The Venetians abandon Mistrà which returns under the Turkish rule
In 1439 the painter Benozzo Gozzoli was 19 when he watched the arrival in Florence of John VIII Palaeologus and his dignitaries to attend the Council of Florence. At this council terms were agreed for the reunion of the Catholic and Orthodox churches. It was a desperate attempt by the Byzantine Emperor to gain western support to counter-balance the Turkish threat. Gozzoli and all the Florentines were highly impressed by the rich costumes of the emperor and his followers and a few years later Gozzoli painted in Palazzo Medici a Magi's Procession which is actually the procession of John VIII Palaeologus, of the Patriarch of Constantinople and of another Byzantine prince at the Council of Florence (image in the background of this page). The silk dress of the emperor was most likely designed and manufactured in Mistrà, at the time a very flourishing town in Laconia, the region of southern Peloponnese which once was ruled by the Spartans.
A view of Mistrà in the late XVIIth century
At the time of its largest development in the XVth century Mistrà included the Castle on the top of the hill, an upper town immediately below the castle and a lower town reaching the foot of the hill. This XVIIth century Venetian print shows that the upper town had been abandoned and only the lower town was still populated. The decline of Mistrà continued in the XVIIIth century: in particular in the 1770s raids of Albanians pillaged the town (which had been occupied by Russians and insurgent Greeks) and greatly reduced the number of inhabitants. In 1834 Otho of Bavaria, the first King of Greece, founded the town of Sparta (on the assumed site of the ancient town) and moved the remaining population of Mistrà there.
At the foot of the hill the visitors are greeted by a monument to Constantine XI Palaeologus, the last Byzantine emperor who was crowned in 1449 in Mistrà and who was killed while defending the gates of Constantinople in 1453. Because in the last moments of his life he discarded his purple cloak, the Turks were not able to identify his body: for this reason many devout Greeks believed he had been saved by an angel and for centuries awaited his return. The hill appears very steep if seen from the plain of Sparta, but from the other side it is more easily accessible. The region is dominated by Mount Taygetus (7904 ft), which is covered with snow until early May. This is where the Spartans used to abandon their deformed or weak babies.
The fortress lost its relevance after Mistrà was seized by the Turks. The Venetians relied only on fortresses on the coast, which could be reached by their fleet and because the Venetians were the only threat to their domination, the Turks too concentrated their defence in the coastal fortresses. The walls of the fortress therefore have maintained their medieval aspect.
The walls and the interior of the fortress
Unfortunately the interior of the fortress is almost entirely lost and it is difficult to imagine from these ruins the life of the first French rulers (for a Frankish fortress in better shape see Castel Tornese). The Byzantine Despots lived in a palace in the upper town.
Fortifications of the lower town
With the expansion of Mistrà in the XIVth century both the upper town and the lower town were protected by walls and towers (there was only one gate between the two towns).
Panagia Odigitria and Agia Sofia
Mistrà retains several churches and monasteries which make the town the most important Greek location for the study of late Byzantine art. Contact with the Franks and Venetians together with the close links with Constantinople is evident in several aspects of these buildings. The bell towers in particular show the western influence.
Monastery of Perivleptos and Agioi Georgios
An explanation for the large number of churches of Mistrà can be found in the fact that the wealthiest families used to build chapels where they buried the deceased members of the family. Agioi Georgios is an example of funerary chapel.
Details of the Monastery of Pantanassa
The most significant remaining religious building of Mistrà is the nunnery of Pantanassa. It is one of the last additions to Mistrà as it was completed in 1428 and more than the other churches it shows a mixture of Byzantine and western styles. Many churches have fine frescoes showing the same combination of styles.
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:
Poiche varij sono i nomi, con che questa Città appellosi, segue anco esserne l'uno
dell'altro più antiano. Prima fù detta Sparta, poi Lacedemone, ultimamente
Misitra: questa è città famosissima della Grecia; e fù si vasta ne proprij recinti, che a tempi di Polibio
girava a 48 Stadii, in figura quasi rotonda, sopra sito parte erto, e parte giacente; comandata ad'Occidente
dal monte Taygettus. Passata coll'antichità dall'ampiezza, all'angustie, conservasi hoggidì in picciol Terra
ristretta; insepolto solo il fastiggio delle memorabil sue glorie dalle vestigie apparenti. Per ottocento anni
benche sprovvista di mura, fù ben custodita questa Città, non ostante fattegli le medeme più volte, vedesi anco
di presente, com'il Castello, così la Terra delle stesse munita. Sono mal ridotte però, e hanno solo due
gran Porte, conducendo quella da Settentrione a Napoli di Romania; l'altra da Levante
all'Exokorion, corrispondendovi due gran strade una chiamata Aphetais, ò gran Bazar; l'altra Hellerion,
gl'habitanti soggiacono ad'eccessivo calore nel tempo d'estate, perche oltre l'esser la Città esposta a
Mezzo giorno, e anco a piedi d'una Montagna, onde dal cocente riverbero raddoppiato sentesi il calore.
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.