Zakynthos – English cemetery & Venetian castle

The island of Zakynthos, also known as Fior di Levante or Flower of the East is the southernmost of the Ionian Islands. Homer calls it “υλήεσσαν”, namely covered with forest. The island was named after its first settler, Zacynthus, son of Dardanus, the king of Phrygia. Later, it became part of the kingdom of Odysseus, and participated in the Trojan War with twelve ships. During the Persian Wars it remained neutral while in the Peloponnesian War it sided with the Athenians. It was seized by the Macedonians under Alexander the Great and later by the Romans, who allowed it to be relatively independent. In early Byzantine times the island was repeatedly attacked by the Arabs and the Goths and towards the end of this period by the Crusaders and the Franks. In 1185 it was taken along with Kephallenia by the Normans of Sicily, who created the County Palatine of Kephallenia and Zakynthos, ruled by the dynasty of the Orsini family (1197-1325), the Angevins (1325-1357), and the Tocco family (1357-1479). It was then seized by the Venetians and it remained under their rule until 1797. After the Treaty of Campo Formio it was occupied by the French (1797-1799) and temporarily by the Russians (1799) until the Septinsular Republic was established (1800). That’s when, along with the rest of the Ionian Islands, the first independent Greek state was created under the Sultan’s suzerainty. In 1807 the French returned and in 1815 the island of Zakynthos was placed under the wing of England until the 21st of May 1864, when it was united with Greece and its long period of occupation came to an end.

The Museum of Zakynthos

A magnificent neoclassical building οn the central square, named Dionysios Solomos Square, hosts the Museum of Zakynthos. It was built in 1959 to accommodate the cultural treasures which had been rescued after a destructive earthquake and a fire in 1953.The Museum features the evolution of post-Byzantine and modern Greek art, emphasizing the influence of Western art on the Ionian Islands.

In the Museum halls distinctive items are displayed and guarded, namely post-Byzantine ecclesiastical woodcarvings and stone carvings, as well as detached wall paintings from post-Byzantine temples, paintings of the most prominent representatives of the Cretan School (mid-15th to 17th centuries), such as Angelos, Michael Damaskenos, Emmanuel Tzanes, and paintings of the Heptanese School (late 17th-18th century). There is also a special section dedicated to Nikolaos Koutouzis (1741-1813), who comprehensively incorporated Baroque Mannerisms in his work and created paintings with an evocative use of the chiaroscuro effect, establishing a tradition in Zakynthos. Finally, Nikolaos Kantounis (1767-1834), a prolific portraitist with exceptional drawing skills, demonstrates a distinct variety in topics, emotional interpretation and passivity of figures.

The English cemetery

In the northeastern part of Zakynthos city, in the precinct of St Ioannis Trafos church, which is located in the Hagia Triada neighbourhood, lies the English cemetery which was established in 1675 and operated until 1870. It was mainly used for burials of English citizens – consuls, merchants, high-ranking members of the guard and their relatives – who were protestants. The English cemetery has been declared as a listed historic monument, since the burial monuments it comprises are a remarkable example of stone carving and sculpture on the island from the 17th to the 19th century.

The oldest monuments belong to English consuls who had been delegated by the Levant Company in the 17th and 18th centuries on Zakynthos and Morea. After the island was placed under British protection in 1815, high-ranking officials and members of their families, who had settled on the island to promote their country’s interests, were buried in the cemetery. The architecture of the monuments, the sculpted and carved decorations with references to the art of Renaissance, Baroque, and Neoclassicism are evidently not the work of local craftsmen, but of anonymous stone carvers, who travelled all over the Greek land and created the tombs on the spot, using local materials, depending on the given designs.

The Castle

On the top of the hill rising over the island’s capital stands the Castle of Zakynthos. There is no evidence of its Medieval fortification. It was occupied and destroyed by the Turks in 1479. In 1503 the Venetians who dominated Zakynthos, started building a fort, of which only a part is preserved today, bearing fitted heraldry carvings and the winged lion of St Mark. The recurring large-scale earthquakes throughout the 16th and the first half of the 17th century destroyed the fortification works, which consequently were often rebuilt.

The construction of the fort’s walls and fortifications were completed in 1646, when Io Bapt. Grimani was proveditor general da mar, by Venetian engineers and local workmen, with extreme care and durable materials. That’s when the main cobbled road was built, that reached the shore, the well-known Strada Giustiniana, the Sartzada as it later came to be known. A significant intervention for the conservation and repair of the walls, as well as the fort’s buildings, also caring for the water supply and sewage system, was performed by the English in 1812, when they ruled the island. The visible monuments which were revealed during the latest excavations are dated to the Byzantine times up until the British rule period (orthodox and catholic churches, state prisons, two gunpowder storages, a sports field, a military quarter, and headquarters). The exact location of other public buildings mentioned in sources, such as the nursing home, the hospital, the library and the theatre – built in 1750, when the first play ever, the Persians by Aeschylus, was presented on Zakynthοs – is not known.

St Nikolaos Megalomatis

The Byzantine church of St Nikolaos Megalomatis is located on the eastern side of Mount Scopos, next to the road leading to the Monastery of Panagia Skopiotisa, and is part of the ruins of a later monastic complex from the 18th century. The selection of its location was strategic, as it has a panoramic view over the shores of the Peloponnese, where the Kyllene castle dominates.

It is one of the few examples of Byzantine church architecture preserved on Zakynthos. Built in three-leaf Byzantine masonry, it initially had the shape of a two-columned cross-in-square church, with a vault, a narthex and three conches in the sanctuary; but at an unknown time its northern part was destroyed and the church was limited to the southern and central aisles and was covered by a double-pitched roof. Its first building phase is traced to the late 11th century. In its interior wall painting decorations were preserved, representing the conservative painting School of the 13th century, which were detached in 1975 and are on display at the Museum of Zakynthos.
The deserted monument was at an extremely poor state of preservation and the necessity for immediate interventions was imperative. The strengthening and restoration works, as well as the landscaping of the surrounding area, were integrated into a co-funded NSRF 2007-2013 project and were completed at the end of 2015.

Cristina Merkouri

Director of Ephorate of Antiquities of West Attic

Former Director of Ephorate of Antiquities of Zakynthos