Ottoman rule lasted only until 22 April 1484; however, the Ottoman Turks did not completely occupy Zakynthos during that time – they only stationed a small garrison in the Castle. Then it was swapped with the Ottomans Turks by Venetian secretary Giovanni Dario, negotiator of the Treaty of Constantinople (1479), against neighboring Cephalonia and the provision of an annual tribute of 500 Venetian ducats. From then on Zakynthos remained an overseas colony of the Venetian Republic until its very end in 1797.
Administration of the island
Venetian rule largely protected the island from Ottoman domination but in its place an oligarchy was gradually established and maintained. As in Venice itself, the Venetian Republic divided Zakynthian society across three broad societal classes, the burghers or Cittadini (some later became Nobili or nobles) and Popolari based in Zakynthos town and the rural Villani.
Initially, the Community Council was a relatively open institution including autochthonous inhabitants, large landowners, traders, shippers, notaries and secretaries, professionals, craftsmen, refugees and Stradioti. Gradually, from the middle of the 16th century, efforts were made to “cleanse” the Community Council with the establishment of a Small Council of 150 (Consiglio Minore) and the implementation of civic criteria such as the exclusion of foreigners, illegitimate offspring, manual workers and non-residents of Zakynthos town. This led to the establishment of the Libro d’Oro, first compiled on Zakynthos in 1542. It was a formal directory of Cittadini and represented the “nobility” among the members of the Community Council.
Initially, the main opposition to these measures were wealthy foreign merchants from mainland Greece and Italy and manual workers but gradually wealthy local merchants from often humble origins, who had become rich on mostly currant production and trade, resisted the efforts of the Cittadini. The constant influx of refugees from mainland Greece complicated the complex struggle for power and influence in Zakynthos town.
On 15 June 1578, the Small Council of 150 deprived, without the permission of Venice, the Communal Council of its right to annually elect the 150 and control the membership of the Communal Council; thereby depriving its right to choose the candidates for the Small Council. Consequently, the Communal Council was stripped of effective power. By the 17th century, the criteria for entry into the Community Council had become fixed and only those families who fulfilled the criteria of birthright were accepted. The year 1683 marked the strict closure of the Community Council to 93 families. Hence, a nobility of sorts was established, although these so-called nobles were never officially recognised by Venice.
The members of the Community Council were given a number of rights. The most important right was the ability to send ambassadors and petition to Venice on behalf of the Zakynthian population – in practice they mostly petitioned for benefits accruing to themselves at the expense of the rest of the local population. And the right of local administration which as stated above was shared to some extent with Venetian officials appointed by Venice. Some of these local administrative offices included: judici (judges), health and market inspectors, security including signori di notte (nighttime safety), charitable institutions, sopracomiti (galley captains) and capitani contra fures (captains fighting against bandits in rural areas).
The cultural influence of Venice (and of Venetian on the local Greek dialect) was considerable. The wealthy made a habit of sending their sons to Italy to be educated. Good examples are Dionysios Solomos, a native of Zakynthos and Greece’s national poet, and Ugo Foscolo, also native of Zakynthos and a national Italian poet. However, apart from the wealthy, an overwhelming proportion of the population; particularly, from the Cittadini, Popolari and Villani would have spoken Greek and adhered to the Orthodox faith.
When Zakynthos became a Venetian holding in 1484, the Venetian Republic sought to repopulate the island as the native population had dwindled. The Turkish raids in 1479 are believed to have resulted in many inhabitants hiding in the mountains or escaping the island altogether. Consequently, the Venice attempted to entice settlers and Greek refugees from mostly mainland Greece with parcels of land and fiscal privileges – initially these attempts we not successful but they improved later as Venice experienced reversals in mainland Greece. Many of these settlers and refugees were Stradioti, who were expected provide and upkeep their horses and be ready to serve in war.
Some family names of the Stradioti include the Soumakis, Roussianos, Chalkomatas from Napflion, Kapnisis, Commoutos, Minotos, Nomikos from Methoni, Melissinos, Kontostavlis and Skiadopoulos from Mani and Tzibletis, Kumvis, Karreris and Derossis from Cyprus. Other populations also settled on Zakynthos which were not held by Venice but were battlegrounds between Ottoman and Venetian forces such as Mani in the Peloponnese. Even some families from mainland Italy were settled in Zakynthos who were fleeing civil wars going on at that time. They included the less Hellenised at that time of Salviati, Mediki, Valterra, Serra, Bentivolia and Merkati. These waves of Stradioti and refugees resulted in an island population of mixed classes of soldiers and refugees. By 1621, the settlement of people from certain areas was so dense in certain areas of Zakynthos town that the neighbourhood was named after them like Maniatika given the high proportion of people from Mani.
Stradioti continued to be employed by Venice as capelatti (rural gendarmes) in the Terra Firma well into the 17th century. Stradioti companies also continued to be garrisoned in some of the towns of Cephalonia, Corfu and Zakynthos. In Zakynthos, a slightly different company of Stradioti from those guarding Zakynthos town were given the responsibility to guard the coast from the frequent pirate raids. They were considered the better fighters with the best horses on the island. They generally kept watch from watchtowers (which are still found on the island) during summer when pirate raids were more numerous and organised themselves using fire or smoke signals to gather fellow Stradioti and defend the island against a raiding party.
Stradioti continued their service into the 18th century but over time they virtually became a hereditary caste. Some of the Stradioti or their descendants became members of the Ionian nobility while others took to farming.