The end of the second Byzantine period was a troubled one generally – one of decline in the Empire and its provinces.
After the 1204 AD sack of Constantinople, the island of Crete was offered first to Count Boniface of Monferrat, the leader of the Crusade. Unable to stamp his authority on the large island he sold it to the Venetians for 1000 silver pieces. Formal possession was taken by the Republic of Venice on 12th August 1204 AD, and by 1212 they had consolidated their authority, ousting the initially successful usurpation of the Genovese; they then began a systematic colonization by settling Venetian nobles and soldiery.
Their dominance of the island lasts almost uninterrupted until 1669 AD.
The Kingdom of Candia - Regno or Ducato di Candia - was divided first into 6 and then in the 14th c AD into 4 districts (which last correspond roughly to the modern 4 prefectures).
The system of government set up was centralized and required strict order and discipline. For the Sphakia area a special semi-autonomous status was introduced, under a Venetian official or Pronoete. The overall Governor of Crete had the title of Duke: together with the Pronoete of Sphakia they formed the Signoria. The Cretans themselves were in a disadvantaged state, working on the estates of the nobles or their own small-holdings generally in poor terrain in the mountains or other inaccessible areas.
A very small segment from the older noble houses received titles of lesser worth – becoming the so-called Cretan Nobility.
The Venetian conquerors held sway under this semi-feudal system for 450 years: times were often very tough.
The heavy taxation and the frequent seizure of the private property of the locals engendered a constant state of insurrection by the natives, particularly in the first two centuries of Venetian control: 14 are counted between 1207 and the 1360s, 27 in all.
The greatest and hardest fight was that of Alexios Kallergis: it lasted 18 years (1282-1299) and was centred in the region of Mylopotamos, whence it spread across the entire island. It was brought to an end by the Treaty of Alexios Kallergis, by which for the first time provisions were made for the civil and ecclesiastical rights of the Cretan people.
Revolutionary movements continued right up to the first decades of the 16th century.
These struggles, even if they did not result in the freeing of the island, nonetheless did bring about an improvement in the living conditions of the locals.
Gradually with the passage of time, the Venetians relaxed their regime: they permitted mixed marriages and the right of the locals to dwell anywhere they liked on the island. Thus, the social and economic positions of the Cretans were improved: a new and ambitious bourgeoisie grew up, zealous for trade. Matters monetary and to do with business experienced a remarkable progress; the arts and letters bloomed.
After the final fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 AD, Byzantine scholars sought refuge in Crete: the island becomes a centre of culture – Byzantine arts and letters continued to evolve and survive. The influence of the Italian Renaissance, combined with Byzantine features and styles, created the so-called Cretan School of painting and iconography: this retains the basic Byzantine approach but borrows elements from Italian painting. Damaskenos, Theophanes and Domenico Theotokopoulo (El Greco) are its famous practitioners.
It is estimated that in Candia (modern Heraklion) in the Cretan Renaissance some 200 painters worked between 1450 and 1525, about the same number as in Florence!
Another great intellectual result of the Renaissance on the island was the flowering of Education, Humanities and Literature. Monasteries, such as Agkarathos, became centres of learning ; the scholar-monks of Crete occupied important positions within the Orthodox Church.
A feature of the time was the high literacy level in the general population: this reached some 30%, notable for the period. This educational advance brought about a high point of literature: major exponents of this are Giorgos Chortatzis, author of the play ‘Erofili’; Marcos Antonios Foskolos, a comic poet who penned ‘Fortunatos’, and Vitsentzios Kornaros with his “Erotokritos’ – acclaimed by all, and still sung today all over Crete.
Venetian architecture is worthily represented by examples the length and breadth of the island.
Huge defensive works - such as those of the fortified cities of Candia, Rethymnon and Chania, ports and magnificent dockyards, impressive forts, churches, monasteries, plazas and public buildings – all designed by Venetian architects.