Renaissance Men of Venetian Crete

While many people have heard of a certain Cretan painter nicknamed El Greco, most visitors would be surprised to learn just how significant Cretan scholars and humanists were to the Italian Renaissance, and to early modern thought in general.

When the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, many Byzantine scholars took refuge in Venetian-held Crete, bringing with them priceless manuscripts and knowledge. The island became a way-station for intellectuals and ideas – at precisely the moment when a hunger for learning ancient Greek and Latin texts in the original was growing in Italy and other Western European countries. Indeed, wealthy Italian noblemen such as that great Florentine, Cosimo de’ Medici, were funding whole Platonic ‘academies’, where aspiring scholars sat enraptured at the feet of learned Greek emigres.

Further, the simultaneous invention of the printing press meant that ancient texts suddenly could be made widely available. And a Cretan typesetter and calligrapher, Markos Mousouros (1470-1517), designed the typeface in which Europeans would read many of the first printed Ancient Greek texts. His employer, Aldus Manutius, a Venetian publisher who revolutionised and popularised the study of Ancient Greek philosophy and literature, used the typeface based on Mousouros’ own handwriting to print his editions of the Greek classics.

According to Dr George Karamanolis, professor of ancient philosophy at Crete’s University of Rethymno, ‘Cretan scholars and humanists played a considerable role in transmitting Greek texts and learning to Renaissance Italy’. The unique mixed culture on the Venetian-administered island, he says, meant that, ‘cultural activity and scholarly life in Crete was quite similar to intellectual currents in Western Europe. Whole academies flourished, like the Accademia degli Stravaganti in Candia, while fiery contests of rhetorical oratory took place.’

One significant reason for the high level of Crete’s intellectual life was the excellent education provided by the Catholic Venetians. Promising Cretan students were educated under church supervision, and this aided their travels. Dr Karamanolis, a noted expert on the subject, cites some of these prominent Cretans. Maximos Margounios (1549-1602), for example, was educated in Sitia by the learned Catholic bishop there, Gaspare Viviano. He later studied in Padua and finally lived in Venice, where he wrote on philosophy, rhetoric and theology, translating ancient and Byzantine texts. Margounios, who would have close collaboration with leading humanists in Italy, Germany and even England, was commended in a contemporaneous Venetian document as being ‘very expert in Greek and Latin, with few equals in all Greece in erudition.’

According to Dr Karamanolis, Margounios ‘retained close ties with humanist circles in his native Crete, and played an important role in assisting the projects of several European thinkers. Margounios’ humanist peers considered his commentaries on philosophical texts by Aristotle and Porphyry very valuable.’

Another Cretan, Frangiskos Portos (1511-81), was a distinguished professor in the University of Geneva, ‘appointed by Calvin himself’. The most beloved Cretan Renaissance man of all, however, was a poet. Over the four centuries of Venetian rule there was a unique and mutually influential fusion of Greek and Italian literature in Crete, at the same time as similar literary innovations elsewhere in Europe.

Vitsentzos Kornaros (1553-1617), a contemporary of Shakespeare, is today considered the father of Cretan poetry and one of Greece’s greatest poets. Born into a Venetian-Cretan aristocratic family near Sitia, Kornaros penned Crete’s national epic poem – the ‘Erotokritos’, a ballad dealing with traditional themes such as love, courage, bravery and friendship. A massive work, at 10,012 rhyming verses, the ‘Erotokritos’ was composed in the Cretan dialect, and in the traditional Byzantine dekapentasyllabic (15-syllable) verse style. It was meant to be sung as a mantinadha – Crete’s traditional song style both then and now. Until quite recently, one could encounter elderly village women reciting the entire poem by heart while doing their work.

Today, Crete’s Renaissance men are still obscure to all but specialists (and some proud Cretans). Yet their contributions, says Dr Karamanolis, enriched and expedited the progression of Western European thought tremendously. ‘Without these Cretan humanists,’ he attests, ‘the Renaissance as we know it could not have unfolded as it did – we do owe them a debt of gratitude.’

-Text by Chris Deliso. Published in Lonely Planet Greece and Crete 2010.