29 April 2010

The Palace at Mistra

This is a thirty-five-year-old picture of the palace complex at Mistra, back when visitors could actually go inside and see how it worked.  The bureaucrats and the archaeological wizards have seen fit -- using the excuse of needing to protect the deteriorating walls, and they did need protection -- to "restore" it, giving us a series of barricaded chancroid boxes that look like this:
The walls are preserved, but no one will ever get in there again to explore, no imagination will be permitted its freedom.  To get in, you will need to be invited to a conference. Improvements have meant classism and investigation only with permission. 

In the 1970s and 1980s, before I knew anything about the Palaiologoi and little about the Franks in the Morea, it was possible to go through the sequence of palace buildings (there were few guards in those days, and those mostly sympathetic) begun in 1261 by William Villhardouin. (It is his palace that you see as yet unrestored on the right.).  Going left from the Villehardouin building, there was the complex built by the Kantakouzenoi with a chapel upstairs -- bits of frescos remaining -- and a magnificent loggia looking out over the valley of the Eurotas.  From there you could work your way around into the third, great wing built under the Palaiologoi.  Or you could enter it properly, under the aegis of a guard, from the courtyard. 
That was a wonderful room, taking up a whole floor of the wing, with eight chimneys for heating paired down one wall, and high round windows through which you could see the snow on Taygetos or -- as I did on one occasion -- the moon.  In the center of the long wall facing the plateia was built a throne.   

Archaeologists found graffiti in there from later periods, like these that combine the 17th century with the neolithic. 

This third wing was constructed -- according to the guidebooks and archaeological statements -- between 1400 and 1460.  That is manifestly silly dating, and you can knock 14 years off immediately, as Theodoros I was not in Mistra in 1400, and he was sick between 1402 and his death in 1407.  And you can bet Demetrios wasn't building any palace after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, what with the various revolts, and Ottoman incursions, and wars with his brother. Nor did Demetrios build this palace between becoming Despot in 1449 and the Fall in 1453, for a reason that will become  clear below.

Constantine didn't build anything between 1443 and going to Constantinople in 1449 or the hagiographers would have told us.  He couldn't afford it, and he was focused on making the Morea a coherent political entity. Any money he had was used for strengthening defenses. Further, he was a realist and, had a throne room been suggested to him, he would have responded that there would very soon be no one left to sit on a throne.

Theodoros didn't build any palace between his accession in 1407 at the age of 10, and 1423, what with being quite young, the episode of getting the wall built at the Isthmus, an archon revolt, various small wars, a major Ottoman incursion, and getting married.  He didn't build a palace between 1436 and leaving Mistra in 1443, because he was focused on being named heir to the imperial throne, which no one but an idiot could have pursued at that point.  (See this entry about Theodoros.)

So the time when the palace wing must have been built was between 1423 and 1436, and it can be narrowed down more. Cleofe died in 1433, so he wasn't building after that, and we have evidence that he was planning his venture to Constantinople in 1436.  He wasn't building between 1423 and 1429 because he was dickering around about taking monastic vows, and discovering sex and falling in love with his wife and becoming a father and watching his brothers do more wars.  

This leaves us 1429-1433, the "glory days" of the Despotate of Mistra, the last years before losses and splitting changed the whole nature of the Morea. That was the period in which Theodoros felt triumphant -- and could afford the construction.  A great deal of loot had been gained with the sea battle of the Sporades, even if he did not obtain percentages of the settlements with Carlo Tocco and the Principality and the surrender of Patras.  And he had received a very large dowry from the Malatesti.

1929 was also the year Cleofe's father, Malatesta Malatesti, Lord of Pesaro, and her brother-in-law, Gianfrancesco Gonzaga, Lord of Mantua, came out to [correction] negotiated with Theodoros as representatives of the Venetian government to settle matters of Despotate incursions into Venetian territory. Malatesta owned a house in Venice.

 Architect Anastasios Orlandos who began the excavations and restorations at Mistra drew this sketch of the front of the palace wing as he found it.  It is essentially what you see in the first photograph above.  Here is his drawing of a restored building, which is probably fairly close to what was once there:

This is why Demetrios didn't build the palace. It is Italian. Like the poem Theodoros wrote for Cleofe which is assumed Byzantine because it is in Greek, but which is actually an Italian poem.  Demetrios was anti-West, though he had been to Venice, twice, which Theodoros hadn't. (And, yes, there are Byzantine similarities, but Byzantine and Italian both came out of the Roman, and they had been in dialogue for 1100 years.)  

If you compare the palazzo of the Venetian doges with the palace of Mistra, and if  you allow for less skilled builders, different materials, and less public financing and will, you have very similar buildings. I have never seen these images juxtaposed before and I can only assume it is because either (1) no one who has seen the palazzo has seen Mistra, and vice versa, or (2) an unwillingness to admit that the last great production of Byzantium wasn't Byzantine. 

It is a provincial building, much smaller than the palazzo, but compare the programs. There is the same sequence moving up from the ground of large arches, then arches along a balcony, arched windows with late Gothic ornamentation (some still in situ at Mistra) on a throne room, and a top row of round windows.  The numbers of windows and arches differ, but there is also a central imperial "signifier" -- the throne alcove on the Mistra facade where Orlandos has intuited a double-headed eagle, and a balcony for appearances on the Palazzo of Venice.

There is also a certain similarity -- because of the period and because it is Italian -- with the palace of Cleofe's sister in Mantua, but hers was built 100 years earlier.

It is striking that with all the mounds of paper and parchment exhausted by the Mistra writers, there is never a mention of the palace construction, beyond a remotely possible oblique mention by Bessarion that Cleofe had been a generous patron. All imperial ladies were generous patrons.  This tells us nothing.  However, all the Malatesti were enthusiastic builders and specifically patrons of architects.  Cleofe's brother rebuilt the cathedral at Patras, and apparently some of the palace at Patras.  Her father had much to do with architectural enhancements in Pesaro.  Her sister Paola built a church and convent and palace additions in Mantua and a palace outside Mantua.  So what with one thing and another, it is quite possible that Malatesta "dei Sonetti" Malatesti  arranged for master builders and stone cutters to come over and help build the throne room wing for Theodoros.*
The monodies for Cleofe make very clear how dependent Theodoros was on her for decisions about everything -- such as building this wing of the palace.  She had extracted him from the bullying of his advisors and made him feel like a man.  He ruled the whole (nearly) united Morea, and he was in an emotional and financial position to act like a real ruler. It would be quite in keeping with what we know of his psychological makeup for him to model his palace on his idea of what a real palace should be.  Venice was at her peak in the 20s, and he knew the Eastern Empire was on the skids, not to mention what he must have heard about the poor condition of John's palace in Constantinople.

This throne room whose high round windows look out at the snows of Taygetos is unique in its arrangements for the throne is in the center of one of the long sides of the hall, while benches run around the whole perimeter of the room. I cannot find any possible contemporary Greek or Italian prototype (though I would be very glad to know of one), but possibilities come to mind. For one, a number of ancient bouleteria were constructed with a single line of equitable seating around the perimeter, though none so large, and none of these was visible in the 15th century. For another, the philosopher Plethon was deeply convinced of the superiority of the ancient Spartans and their equality under that system, and it is just possible that he convinced Theodoros to set an example in that regard in the throne room.   I like to think that Plethon had manuscripts, lost to us, that mention seating of this sort: unknown manuscripts are a great comfort to historians and art historians.

[Late note: forget the comments about bouleteria.  I have now learned this speculation is quite irrelevant and that there are other reasons for the seating arrangement.]

The guidebook says this throne room had frescos, and since there is absolutely no information on these unknown frescos, they may be recreated along with the unknown manuscripts. A hundred and more years before this throne room, the castles of Geraki and Thebes had frescos of Joshua taking the land of Canaan, and of the crusaders taking Palestine-- the same thing, really, if you think about it. The gatehouse of the castle at Nauplion had a series of saints commemorating a treaty. There is a reference I have lost about fine frescos in the castle in Patras.  [Late correction: I found my reference.  The frescos in Patras related the Fall of Troy. Also, the bishop's palace in Coron had extensive frescos of Troy.] But there is no other information about secular frescos in Greece.

If my dating is correct, a military victory can be assumed as one theme, and because they were all such self-conscious intellectuals it was probably Troy. They may have put to work the fresco painters who were just finishing up on the Pantanassa, or Malatesta or the Gonzagas may have sent painters from home.  Paola couldn't send Pisanello because he was frescoing the Gonzaga throne room at the time, but if her husband had mentioned that to Theodoros, of course Theodoros would have wanted his own throne room frescos. In fact, since Gianfrancesco and Paola started a workshop for the production of tapestries, he may have brought sent one or more to Cleofe and Theodoros.

There may also have been military saints painted as portraits of the victorious brothers.  Because Plethon was much focused on Plato, and because of Plato's Republic and proximity to the site, equally focused on Lykourgos, there were possibly portraits of Plato and Lykourgos, probably based on the statues remaining in Sparta that they identified as Plato and Lykourgos.  Missing statues are almost as assuring as missing manuscripts.

There is one other aspect of this wing to which I would call attention, and that is an area behind it (the throne room wing is to the right of this photo) that has arched constructions on three sides.  I was refused permission to go into this area last year, and was given two reasons: (1) it might be dangerous, and (2) the archaeological service did not have the authority to give me permission.  So from what I could see standing at the rope, some of the arches have been filled in, and clearly the constructions have had various uses.  But I believe there was there, once, an enclosed garden with arched walkways on one side -- possibly on more than one side but this photo is what I could see in person.

It is possible that the Orlandos sketches are questionable.  Certainly I have seen nothing from the Archaeological Service -- or anyone else -- to replace them, and beyond the publication in 2000 of the findings from the 1955 discovery of a Mistra burial (forty-five years!  What was going on there?) I have been able to find no substantive new archaeological information since I first saw Mistra on Holy Saturday of 1977.  There have been shiny overpriced books on frescos, and there is an over-determined publication that informs us about the occasional well, olive press, defense angle, and buttons, mostly illustrated with images from somewhere else, but when I was looking for publications on Mistra last year in Athens, the only thing I found I did not already have was a collection of papers from a Plethon conference.
* * * * *
An additional comment, two weeks later: I discover that the comparison of the throne room wing of the palace has been compared to the Palazzo in Venice.  Jordan Demakopoulos,  Ta Spitia tou Rethemnou (Athens, 2001), 21-22, superimposes the floor plans of the throne rooms to demonstrate that the Mistra space is less than a quarter of the Venetian.  He would date it between 1408 and 1416, and have it built by Manuel II.  I think this dating impossible to justify.
[LATE NOTE: For more on the architecture of the palace, go here.]
* A future blog will discuss the lack of technically-trained workmen in the Morea. 


  1. I get the feeling the palace may have been a lot more ornate and Italian looking than Orlandos imagined. Some gothic features from the palace of the Doges would fit quite nicely even if they would have looked out of place in Mystras.
    Theodoros' in-laws had very high expectations - the pope made no secret he wanted to see him on the imperial throne - so a decent palazzo was the least he could do to meet some of them. Building Byzantine style was probably not the best way to impress anyone in his time.

    Best regards,

  2. Very, very interesting! Thank you for alerting me to aspects of Mistra that I had no previous knowledge of. The Italian influence seems quite clear now that I see the pictures.

  3. There is a book "MANI" of Melissa editions which finds common features between the palace of Palaiologos and the popular architecture of Mani peninsula. Really it is with a great pleasure that I read your article.

  4. The palace doesn't have Italian features. It's just Romanesque architecture and nothing more. Almost all palaces, churches and buildings from medieval period look the same because of that apparent influence. Of course Byzantines followed different church architecture than Italians, but netherless the similarities with a little research become exposed.

  5. Do they have any more plans to renovate any of the other buildings? Have they completed the palace now?


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