Investigation of the parameters of the city walls and their
The turbulent history of the city of Chania from 1252,
when it became a Venetian colony, to 1645, when it fell to the Turks,
influenced and determined the development of each phase of its fortifications.
For the first two centuries of this period (13th – 14th),
the main opposing factor an urban centre with a pronounced Venetian
element was “the enemy within”, that is, the continual
insurrections of the Cretan population. By the 15th century, with
the gradual rapprochement of the Venetian and Cretan populations
and the establishment of peace, another problem had appeared as
the prime cause of warfare: the intensification of the pirate raids
that were to determine the fate of all the islands in the Eastern
Mediterranean until well into modern times. Finally, since the earliest
decades of the 16th century, and after four Veneto-Turkish wars,
the number one enemy for any Venetian territory in the East was
The second parameter that, in conjunction with the historical, shaped
the evolution of the fortifications of Chania, was technology: that
is, the development of military architecture and the achievements
of defensive technology, together with the extremely rapid evolution
of the art of war that marked the 15th century as a consequence
of the supremacy of artillery.
In the first phase, the Venetians of Chania raised against the domestic
enemy the repaired early Byzantine castle (Castelli), a classic
medieval fort consisting of a crenulated wall flanked with towers.
Later, the need to protect the city against pirates forced the authorities
to add an outer defensive ring that would embrace the borghi, the
poor quarters that had gradually grown up outside the walls. Finally,
defence against a powerful enemy like the Turks required the construction
of the strong modern fortified wall laid out by Michele Sanmicheli
in 1538, on the defensive principles of bastioned fortification.
Within the fortified core, sections of whose walls still stand on
Castelli Hill, the defences were based on factors that had been
familiar since antiquity: the naturally strong and elevated position
of the castle, the height of its walls and, principally, the alternation
of wall and tower that assured defence with the conventional weapons
of the age (longbows, cross-bows). Towers, also, guarded the gates,
and the harbour entrance was protected by a single massive round
tower (torrione), which is partially preserved and which, despite
bearing the date 1477, was probably built in the second half of
the 13th century.
With regard to the second phase fortifications built to enclose
the borghi, the existing data is insufficient, since they were probably
incorporated into the later enclosure wall designed by Sanmicheli.
The enclosure wall of the final phase (after 1538) presents all
the characteristics of a typical bastioned fortress. Rectangular
in shape, it lies along the coast, with its longer sides on the
north and south and the shorter on the east and west. Its landward
sides, which face onto flat and regular ground, are surrounded by
a broad protective dry ditch and display the symmetry that was sought
in fortifications of this type for the assurance of equal qualities
of defence. All curtain walls are reinforced by a terreplein.
At the southern corners of the enclosure wall, two strong orillion
bastions (bastioni a orecchioni) enfilade their fire with the fire
from the flanks of a platform bastion (piattaforma) placed in the
centre of the long southern wall and defending the intervening curtain
walls (cortine). The insertion of a piattaforma on this side was
essential on account of its length, since it was only by dividing
it into two sections that the basic operational principle of the
so-called “fronte bastionato” could be preserved: in
order for there to be an effective defence of the bastions and full
control of the curtain walls and the ditch, the distance from the
flanks of the bastions to the salient points of their adjacent ones
had to be less than the maximum range of the principal firearm of
the period, the musket (about 260 m), just as the distance between
the towers on ancient and medieval forts was determined by the range
of the bow.
Above and behind the two southern bastions (baluardi) stood two
cavalier towers (cavalieri), round embanked towers for artillery,
which could train their powerful fire on distant targets, including
the enemy trenches in case of siege.
At the northern corners of the rectangular enclosure wall stood
two demi-bastions (mezzi baluardi), that is, bastions with a single
flank, which assured the enfilade fire necessary to defend the eastern
and western curtain walls; the walls facing the sea are straight,
since the danger of assault from this side was considered minor.
The main gates into the city, one near the northeast demi-bastion
and one near the Piatta Forma, were positioned so that they were
defended by the nearest flank, and of course their positions greatly
affected the structure of the urban fabric within the walls.
The form and function of maritime fortifications are quite different
from those of land defences, and this is as true of the port city
of Chania as of anywhere else. The fortification of the harbour
entrance was assured by a polygonal ravelin (rivellino), today called
Firka fortress, with a series of low vaulted embrasures to allow
the artillery to rake the surface of the sea, which is the best
way to defend against naval attack. This ravelin incorporated the
old round tower that once defended the harbour. In addition, a chain
extending from the round tower to the base of the lighthouse could
close off the narrow passage when required. A corresponding but
less strong ravelin (in reality simply a broken wall) was built
in front of the northern face of the northeast demi-bastion. Finally,
a small gunplace reinforced the wall of the breakwater, about midway
along its length.
Sanmicheli’s fortifications remained virtually unchanged in
form and function throughout the period of Turkish rule and right
up to the dawn of the 20th century.