Heidi Trautmann

279 - Sidestreets in Kyrenia: Venetian Architecture and Spolia in Famagusta by Dr. Allan Langdale

 By Heidi Trautmann


Now, with the beginning of the cooler season, Sidestreets has started again its Conversations on Culture in Kyrenia, being the 16th event since its establishment.  Every last Sunday of a month an increasing circle of people are invited to come to Onar Village for lectures on art and culture; in the days of the Middle Ages it would have been one of the famous ‘Salons’ in Paris Society where the art and culture interested higher society would meet; and what we heard this last Sunday on October 23 was about the Middle Ages in Cyprus, about the Venetians in Cyprus.

Most of us know Dr. Allan Langdale, at least when I say that he wrote, directed and produced

the award winning documentary film ‘The Stones of Famagusta: the Story of a Forgotten City’ together with Dan Frodsham, during his time here in Famagusta as art historian at the EMU (Eastern Mediterranean University in Famagusta).  Some of us will remember his lectures at Sidestreets in Nicosia or the occasions when he presented his film in Ozanköy.


In  Sidestreets’ announcement  it said: …The presentation explores how the Venetians may have used architectural and sculptural artifacts from Salamis in the main square of the city of Famagusta. The presentation will focus among others on the triple arched gateway to the Palazzo del Proveditore, the ‘Tomb of Venus’, a sculpted bench set up along the square’s south flank, and the two free-standing columns in the cathedral square. The specific case of reused materials from Salamis will show how the Venetians reproduced not only a familiar built environment in Famagusta, their most distant colonial outpost, but also how they imbued this environment with the signs of Venetian predestination and authority. Ultimately, the presentation addresses how the Venetians propagated the ‘Myth of Venice’ in their colonial towns.”


It can only be with the help of art historians who make visible to us the cultural interrelations and stories behind buildings and artifacts in Famagusta, that we only begin to understand the past that we are sitting on.

Dr. Allan Langdale has published six articles on the art and architecture of northern Cyprus, and since the one we had the pleasure to listen to is not yet published, Allan gave me the permission to use another article with some parts referring to the topic of his lecture on October 23.  I want to include them here to give my readers an idea. I am always reluctant to quote something from memory.

…………………Another significant addition to the walls was the construction of a broad new circular

bastion at the port. This bastion greatly increased firepower into the harbor and provided

much needed auxiliary fire towards the sea entrance that was only partially protected

by the castle’s towers. But the Sea Gate (Porta del Mare) was also, as its name

indicates, the new principal entrance to the city from the harbor. As such, and since it

was the gate through which most Venetian visitors would arrive, the gate was articulated

in a manner that many who traveled to Venetian ports of call would have found

familiar and reassuring. The portal is framed with late fifteenth-century style revetments

with a standard architectural vocabulary and iconography: a pediment with the

lion of St. Mark, a Latin inscription in classicizing lettering, and coats of arms, in this

case those of Nicolo Priuli (fig. 8).42 The lion of St. Mark, the empire’s primary signifier,

was not merely a symbol of Venice. It assured the travelers the protection of the

saint even at the furthest fringes beyond the Venetian lagoon, thus legitimizing the

expansion of Venice’s economic and military reach under the saint’s emblem. The

portrayal of the lion is in many ways standard, but there was a particular variation on

the theme, which is represented here: the forepaws are on the land and the rear paws

are in the sea, indicating the dual terrestrial and maritime aspects of Venice’s empire,

a depiction all the more relevant after Venice’s war with the League of Cambrai,


Like some other such portals and monuments in the outer ranges of the Venetian

empire, Famagusta’s Sea Gate makes use of spolia. The white marble panels and discs

of red marble (now bleached) came from the ruins of the ancient Greco-Roman city of

Salamis just five miles north of Famagusta. Spolia had particular significance for Venetians.

Venice was gaudy with it, especially with materials from Constantinople,

booty from Venice’s sack of the city in 1204. For Venetians, the taking of Constantinople

was also Venice’s victory over the eastern Roman Empire and represented its

patrimony of the majesty of imperial Rome and Byzantium and their grandeur, power,

and mythical histories. Spolia of such antiquity, from a much celebrated ancient

Greco-Roman city, would have had particular dignity and would have evoked History’s

affirmation of Venice’s greatness. The antique style of the portal thus colluded

semiotically with the materials out of which it was constructed to create a multi-layered

metaphor of Venice’s majesty and ordained position in the history of “civilization,”

a metaphor all the more powerful at this dramatically remote point at the

Levantine periphery of Venetian rule. Here, too, Venice was “meant to rule,” as if

destined to take its place as the most recent heir of antique imperial splendor.

The primary visual reference for Famagusta’s Sea Gate is the gate to the Arsenale

in Venice (fig. 9) which may have been designed by Antonio Gambello in 1460. This

portal, originally much simpler in design than we see today (additions were made in

later centuries), and thus closer in appearance to the Famagusta Sea Gate, offered a

range of classical allusions in its decoration and design to convey Venice’s antique

heritage and the power of the empire as construed through the industrial and military

activities that went on in the Arsenale itself. The Arsenale’s gate used Byzantine spolia

in the columns and capitals flanking the entrance, and its general design echoed the

Roman triumphal arch in Pula in Istria.44 Michele Sanmichele, Venice’s premier military

architect of the sixteenth century, was to design his own variant in the portal of

the Palazzo Podestà in Verona. Visitors to Famagusta, thus greeted by a gateway

echoing the entrance to the Venetian Arsenale, would have been encouraged to believe

that Famagusta was similarly secure.

Upon entering the monumental gate, which had an impressive iron portcullis (still

in situ, though rusted in position), visitors found themselves in an unexpected and imposing

interior. The Sea Gate bastion’s inner structure consisted of a single, broad

dome. This expansive space and the novelty of such an architectural feature (so unlike

the usual interior spaces of military architecture) may have powerfully reiterated the

prowess of Venetian engineering skill by utilizing a complex form associated with

ancient Rome. Here, too, it must have been especially inspiring and reassuring to find

such a remarkable architectural element in the hinterland of the realm.

Passage through the Sea Gate’s outer portal and its domed interior took visitors in a

right dog-leg to the inner portal to the city.45 Opening up before the visitor was a broad

main road that led to the town’s square, as does its contemporary counterpart. Towering

magnificently to the left as one emerged from the darkness of the Sea Gate was the

lofty and richly gabled corona of the Lusignan-era gothic cathedral of St. Nicholas

(fig. 10).46 A Venetian would have been comfortable with a blending of gothic and

classicizing elements as the predominant styles of the built environment. This may

explain the anachronistic crenellated profile and arrow loops of the Sea Gate bastion………………………


I am grateful to Allen for showing us in detail the interrelations between Venice and its colonial cities. I love Venice. It is so near to the place we used to live for many years, Bavaria, so that we have often visited it, either by car or by sailing boat. We know all the small alleys, bistros and cafés, we have studied the architecture and culture and loved its people, but the explanations Allan gave us during his lecture were adding new aspects to our knowledge, also with reference to places which were under the Venetian colonial net in the old days, like Korcula, Korfu and so on which were on our way through the Mediterranean while we lived on board of our sailing boat for six years.  An experience I described in my book “Early Bird – Segelwandern von der Adria bis ins östliche Mittelmeer”  an experience which started in the Adriatic Sea and followed in some parts the route of Allan’s historical map right down to the Venetian outpost Cyprus.


Cyprus’ history does not begin with the Crusaders, but its story from then on is an important part of all our European countries, the never ending fight of religious institutions which sent their sons to fight religious enemies and conquer territories and on their way across the Mediterranean countries they left their marks, their footprints, their genes, their culture, and they saw to it that their traditions, their laws were being obeyed. And all this needed representative signs of power and ownership, a sort of a stamp engraved.


If you are interested to know more about this topic, this very important section of Cyprus’ history, email me to get the complete text of the article ‘At the Edge of Empire’ and the photos that go with it.





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