13 July 2011

Nauplion's Wooden Houses

Nauplion Houses.
Detail from Camoccio map, 1571.

Towards the end of the fifteenth century, Canon Casola and Felix Fabri described Modon:

CC: I did not see either houses or palaces worthy of description; for its size it has many houses, and they are close together. . . . The majority of their houses, whether they are large or small--at least from the middle upwards--are built of timbers.   

FF: If I had waited even the sixth of a hour, the whole house would have been in flames, and consequently the adjoining houses: for this house was of wood, and very old, of the dryest kind of timbers and with party walls to similar houses in a congested narrow street.

No one described Nauplion houses, except for Bartolomeo Minio's remark when Giovanni Dario visited: "I paid the expense of a house for him and his household, the best that I could manage, considering the condition of the place."

At the beginning of the century, from 1400-1405, Giovanni Cavaza was castellan at Nauplion,the second-highest position in the administration. A Venetian merchant who was a permanent resident in Nauplion, he had been appointed to the job where we might have expected a castellan to be an official sent out from Venice. The castellan had a budget of about 500 ducats a year. Cavaza was responsible for defense of the city, police functions, security of the castro, operation of the prison, and executions. He made “foreigners” and sailors sleep outside the city at night, regulated curfews, taverns and markets, kept shops and workshops closed on holy days, gave permission to bear arms within the city, supervised guilds, punished illegal dumping of trash, and had laws and announcements proclaimed in the marketplace “in latino et greco.” In addition to the 500 ducats,which paid for staff and expenses, Cavaza collected fees from innkeepers, shopkeepers and prisoners.

Cavaza is mentioned in two brief documents from 1400 in which the Senato Mar made arrangements for repair of the house provided for the castellan. These documents make dire remarks about the “ruritura” of the house and castro, about a man without a place to house “sua familia.” The podestà, Albano Contarini, had written a number of letters about “magna reparatione omnino necessaria,” apparently to small effect until Cavaza delivered a proposal which stimulated a decision. Cavaza had offered to bear half the expense of rebuilding the official residence. Apparently his residence was even more desperately in need of repair than that of the bailo of Negroponte, described in 1403 as:
. . . in the worst condition, because the rain comes through almost the whole roof, and the wood is rotten, and in parts threatens ruin. Similarly, most of the sala magna is badly covered and it pours in, and the wood is rotten, and it is like that in the whole.

The Senato Mar, in a list that slips back and forth between specificity and “other things” itemized wood and nails--in standardized sizes--to be shipped out for repair of the house and the “turrim Sancti Marie.”
      For construction on the tower of S. Maria, larch posts de mesura 12
      Larch planks 40
      Rafters for fitting the house of the said castro 100
      Beams for fitting the house of the said castro 40
      Large nails for constructing a frame for the thatching 200
      Fir posts 10
      Fir beams 50
      Fir planks 300
      Lathes 1050 

      Large nails to repair the roofbeam and for work on other things 200
      Small nails 600
      Slats 200
      #25 nails 2500 
The important thing to note here is that all the items on the list came in standardized sizes.  It is well-known that the arsenal used standardized, interchangeable, parts for building galleys on an assembly line.  It has not, as far as I can tell, been noticed that construction materials for houses were also standardized.

The Senato also provided 200 ducats for administration, another 200 for transporting earth for land-fill, and for manual labor, and gave Cavaza a tax exemption on his half of the imported lumber. Clearly, the castellan’s house, on a standardized plan, was primarily of wood, at least above the ground floor. Cavaza’s thatched roof comes as a surprise, though it is perhaps not so surprising in an economically stressed community without a convenient supply of clay for tiles, fuel for firing, or adequate transport. Still, the image of wooden houses with thatched roofs changes pictorial assumptions of medieval Greece.

[Nauplion construction for the past 400 years -- until cement -- has been mostly half-timber above the ground floor.  But in the 15th-century, Nauplion had no one available who could cut stone, and Minio had to have stone-cutters sent out from Venice when he was working on repairing the walls of Acro-Nauplion and building the walls of the lower city, and he sent soldiers and wagons to Tiryns to collect suitable building stone for the stone-cutters to work on.  The village in the ruins of Tiryns seems to have been abandoned then.]

In the years immediately after this document, massive amounts of wood were shipped to Greece for Venetian concerns. In 1402, a shipment of wood was sent to Corfu to repair the castro. A thousand posts were sent in 1404 for construction at the “Garland” -- the castle -- of Argos. In 1403, the Senato Mar sent wood and nails for the unroofed Arsenal at Negroponte and sent 30 33-foot larch poles, 30 larch posts, 500 planks of larch or fir, 500 palm-sized nails, 500 foot-sized nails, and 6000 #25 nails. With this shipment went wood for the ruined house: 400 fir planks, 100 larch planks, 500 narrow planks, and one barrel of posts. A little later, the regimen of Methoni and Koroni needed to import firewood from Venice, and Nauplion had to import wood to construct a mill.

This is not to suggest that all Venetian houses in the stato mar were generally either wooden or shabby. Canon Casola who found Methoni tawdry apparently saw a few grand houses and non-wood houses there, and he reported that Candia had beautiful houses, beautiful palaces, beautiful gardens.

And there is a slender hint that Nauplion may have had a few substantial houses. Cavaza had been involved in building on another house: in his will, he makes reference to a house in the burgo, on which “fecerim multas expensas de meis denariis.”   I cannot help but wonder about that tax-free wood supposedly shipped out for the castellan’s official residence, and the idea that he had two houses is provocative. He also held a fief of 200 stremmata, and a few years after he died that fief was the reason for the attempts at murder here.

A house in the burgo, the part of the city outside the defensive walls, is an important piece of information: it has been an article of faith among those writing on Nauplion -- most of whom pick this up from Kevin Andrews who got it from (Pseudo)Dorotheos of Monemvasia -- that there was no construction outside the castro until the landfill projects after 1500. Cavaza’s will provides documentary evidence to supplement the visual evidence to be found in Nauplion that such construction had been taking place at least 200 years before the assumed literary date.  

 * * * * * *

Late addition: I have been thinking about the nails and wondering about their manufacture.  I asked the people at the Guru's den at Anvilfire.  This is their answer

"It depends somewhat on the size and type of nail but a nailmaker working a long (10 hour) day was said to be able to make 1,000 nails in a day. In modern nail making competitions it is not unusual for a smith to make 25 nails in 15 minutes. This adds up to 100 per hour or 1,000 in a 10 hour day.

"Such work was often done by young apprentices, women or slaves. Making your daily quota probably determined whether or not you got fed. The reason I say this is because doing such boring work is is easy to let your mind wander and your production rate to fall. So maybe it was a 12 hour day. . . Quotas may have varied according to type of nail."


This material is from my article “The Wooden Towns of the Stato Mar: Medieval Construction in Nauplion,” Studi Veneziani 40 (2000) 169-178.


  1. The 1403 roof for the arsenal at Negropont is rather a puzzle. It is difficult to find a location anywhere in or around the town walls where it might have been. Some other documents suggest that the "Negropont galley" usually spent the winter at Candia. The meager evidence for the arsenal, other than this, could be associated with the armory in the south end of town where the large store of helmets, such as the ones in the Met in New York, were found in 1840. The one possible place for an arsenal that could park a galley is the swampy Bourkos inlet, that defines the city along the south. If it was there. it certainly left no trace, and the artillery platforms and sea-gates along the south wall seem oddly placed if there was a ship-shed there. Just what was really done with all that wood?

  2. For "Lathes" read "Laths". Interesting post-- thanks, Diana.


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