Is it because Corfu – with or without the invaluable aid of Saint Spiridon – was never occupied by the Ottomans? Are we maybe looking at the imprint of four centuries Venetian rule and culture (1386-1797)? Or has the British protectorate (1814-1864) pushed the island to a forerunner’s role in the state of modern Greece? Fact is the island can boast being modern Greece’s number one in various fields. And surely the following list of ten is far from complete.
The first theatre (in modern Greece, and even in the eastern Mediterranean). The ‘Nobile Teatro di San Giacomo’, finished in 1720, is now the Town Hall.
The first opera in the Greek language, The ParliamentaryCandidate was performed in the San Giacomo in 1867. The libretto was written by Ioannis Rinopulos and the music by the Spyridon Xyndas, a Corfiot who was one of the co-founders of the Philharmonic Society of Corfu.
The first university, The Ionian Academy, in 1824. (One could argue this is not ‘a first’, as Lord Guilford originally started this university in 1811 on Ithaca and transferred it to Corfu after the Greek War of Independence broke out in 1821).
The first Governor of modern Greece. Corfu born Ioannis Kapodistrias in 1827 was elected as the first head of state by the National Greek Assembly of newly liberated Greece.
The first library. The Public Historical Corfu Library was founded in the mid 18th century in the Franciscan Monastery of Saint Justine in Garitsa. From the end of 1997 it was housed in the southern section of the English barracks in the Old Fortress.
The first bank. In 1839 the Ionian State Bank was established in Corfu, to finance trade between the seven Ionian Islands and Great Britain.
The first lighthouse (1822) and the first floating lighthouse (1825).
The first lady mayor, Maria Desilla-Kapodistrias, from April 15th 1956 till May 9th 1959. She was a grand niece of Ioannis Kapodistrias.
The first tennis club. The Corfu Lawn Tennis Club was established in 1896 and can be found in the residential area Kefalomandouko in Corfu Town, at Ioannou Romanou 4.
The first cricket club. The first teams in the island were set up after the departure of the British, shortly after 1864. The Corfiot Athletic Club started in 1893 and is still active. The best known cricket ground of course is on the Spianada Square.
The Giallinas Mansion near the Esplanade in Corfu Town is saved from further deterioration and will be renovated over the next two years. A budget of over € 5 million has been approved for the reconstruction and restoration of the Venetian building, where the painter Angelos Giallinas lived and worked. Mayor Ydraiou announced last week the mansion will be “one of the most modern art and cultural venues” in town. She proudly added: “Corfu is slowly healing its open wounds, renovating its historical buildings and will become a major attraction.”
When the work is complete the building will be put to new use. The ground floor of the gallery will host educational and commercial activities and a restaurant. On the first floor there will be an exhibition of works by Angelos Giallinas, no less than 586 watercolours and oil paintings divided into 16 thematic units. The two rooms at the front, thanks to the wealth of decorations (ceiling paintings, ornate plasterwork etc.), will be a reconstruction of the Giallinas living room and studio with authentic furniture.
The tragic life of Empress Elisabeth (Sisi) of Austria and Queen of Hungary (1837-1898) has been subjected to many books and films. Her heritage on Corfu consists of stone and bronze, gardens and terraces, sculptures, ornaments and paintings: Achilleion Palace. Designed in Dorian, Ionian and Pompeian styles by two Napolitan architects and built between 1889 and 1891 the ‘Achillio’ to some is a monstrosity spoiling the lovely landscape, to others a fine piece of living history. Either way the neo-classical building – now Museum Achillion – keeps drawing coach loads of tourists to the village of Gastouri. Some of whom may well be interested in the resident who acquired the palace some years after Sisi’s death and turned it into a centre of European diplomacy: the German Emperor Wilhelm II.
For your eyes only Some other time I might take you through the 72 lavishly furnished rooms, halls and chapel of the museum, for now I content myself taking you through the gardens and up a flight of stairs. Come see the grand terrace on the back that levels with the palace’s second floor. See the dazzling grey and white pattern of the floor tiles, remember the scene in the casino in the James Bond movie “For Your Eyes Only”, admire the row of busts of the blind poet Homer and the Greek philosophers, Shakespeare and the Nine Muses, and then…
Then gaze through the windows to catch a view of the upper part of the main hall, a view that is hidden to you from the inside of the palace, as the stairway to the second floor is closed for the public. But there it is: ‘Triumph des Achill’, as Sisi and the painter called it in German, ‘Achilles’ Triumph’. Homer again!
Ten metres by three… Even from where you are on the terrace, quite a bit away, you most likely cannot help being overwhelmed. The Austrian painter Franz senior Matsch worked on this panoramic, ten metres by three fresco at intervals during the years 1892 to 1894. He had worked for Sisi before, decorating the Hermes Villa near Vienna and this time he choose to depict one of the cruelest scenes from Homer’s Iliad. But he was instructed carefully how to picture it.
We stare at the Greek hero and warrior Achilles racing on his horse drawn chariot around the walls of Troy. The warrior is showing off the helmet that Hector, Troy’s king Priamos’ son, was wearing when he killed him in a duel. Hector’s lifeless body is being dragged behind the chariot through the dust, for all to see from high upon the walls of Troy, his parents, his wife and new-born son…
Rage and horror The rage of Achilles is there, who has seen his best friend Patroklos slain the other day by the same Hector. It flashes like the helmet he holds out to the sun and shines in the sweaty skin of the dark horse. The vengeful jubilation of the Greek warriors is there, swaying their weapons and running after the chariot. And the horror and dismay of the Trojan spectators is there, even though Matsch protected Hektor from the bloody fate that Homer created for him: his head is out of sight and none of his multiple wounds is visible (see: Homer, Iliad, 22, verses 375-404).
The empress wanted her Achilles should not be a muscular warrior. And he is not. Perhaps with his angelic face he had to counterbalance the sculpture by Ernst Herter (1884) further down in the garden, a dying Achilles that pulls the fateful arrow out of his heel. In fact Achilles is omnipresent, inside the palace and outside.
Hidden failure? Many years ago, as I was going to the “Achillio” for the first time, I was prepared by a born islander. He wanted me to detect the painting’s hidden failure. A fatal failure, that caused the painter to kill himself soon after he had finished his long labour. On my return I admitted to my friend I hadn’t got a clue. Ah, but it was in the wheel of the chariot, he said. It showed no movement, it looked like a photograph taken at a shutter speed of 1/1000 sec.
Then I dug into Franz Matsch. Born in Vienna in 1861 he enjoyed a fruitful career as a painter, sculptor and instructor. He studied and worked with the painters Gustav Klimt and Ernst Klimt, decorating theaters throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Around 1891 the artistic trio fell apart. Franz Matsch devoted himself to portrait painting, which he did with some success. Gustav Klimt became very popular with his own personal style of painting.
The “Anker-Uhr“ From 1893 to 1901 Matsch was a teacher at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts. In the years 1911-1917 he designed the landmark “Anker-Uhr” clock in Vienna’s first district on the “Hoher Markt”, where it can still be seen today. Franz Matsch lived to be 81 and died of old age in 1942, half a century after the unveiling of his monumental fresco in the “Achillio”. And yes, the style of his triumphing Achilles resembles the art practice of an “action shot”, popular throughout different periods in the history of art. Although it’s true the left part of the painting shows considerably more “movement”.
Rudolf‘s suicide There was someone else who took his life. Empress Elisabeth’s son, the crown prince Rudolf von Habsburg, did in January 1889. Thirty years of age he had just caused the death of his mistress, 17 years young. Shortly after these horrendous events Elisabeth decided to make Corfu her home. She had her Achilleion Palace built and in the memory of her beloved son she idealized Achilles, the strong and divinely beautiful hero. The demigod that would have been immortal if it wasn’t for that vulnerable spot at the back of his heel.
P.S. A remarkable feature is to be seen in the upper right hand corner of Matsch’ fresco. Above the gate in the wall there is a swastika. Of course in 1894 there was not such a thing as a nazi symbol. This abstract figure – that probably originates from an ancient culture in India – was one of the symbols of the city of Troy.
Empress Elisabeth of Austria was stabbed and killed on the quay of Lake Geneva on the 10th of September 1898 by the Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni.
“Drepani” – sickle – is one of the oldest recorded names for Corfu. “Korkyra” is how the Corinthian settlers in 734 B.C. baptised the island, probably after a mythological nymph (although the word also meant something lik “tail”). “Korkyra” of course seems to echo in modern Greek: “Kerkyra”. “A peninsula nipped off while red hot and allowed to cool into an antarctica of lava”, was the rather romantic observation by Lawrence Durrell in the first lines of his Prosperos’s Cell (1945). A fact is, if you would look downwards from high altitude the island – sickle – tail – looks like a mere splinter torn off of the massive mountains of Albania and Epirus.
And it’s true the mainland is never far away: no more than two kilometres of sea divide Cape Agios Stefanos in the northeast from the Albanian coastline and a mere eight kilometres Kavos (Cape Koundouris) at the southeastern tip and Sivota in Epirus. With this broader picture in mind it is a small step to see that the 593 km² of Corfu island and the vast mainland were once connected. A dramatic change set in some 10.000 B.C. when ice started to melt and sea levels rose in the Mediterranean.
The western coast of the island more or less follows a fault, and the sea-floor drops rapidly to over 1000 m. The oldest rocks are hard, gray limestones (250–145 million years old), which crop out in the north (Mount Pantokrator, 906 meters). Further south, the rocks are younger and softer and have developed thick, red soils. Paleolithic tools have been found in this soil, dating back to the period that the fertile island was in fact an outer region of the mainland.
Cave Grava Gardiki Tools made of flint, bones of boar and deer and other objects were unearthed in Cave Grava Gardiki (Halikounas). The cave is to be found in an olive grove at an altitude of 60 metres, near the 13th century Byzantine Fortress in Gardiki. The cave has two entrances, is about 20 meters long and wide and 13 meters high. It is accessible, even for children with adults, but some climbing is involved. For those who know where to look the geological history of the region can be traced in the cave’s inside. Many of the cave finds are on display in the Archaeological Museum of Corfu. They have been dated to the Late Paleolithic Age (between 30.000 and 9.000 B.C.).
From the Neolithic Age (circa 6.000-3.000 B.C.) – after the rising sea levels had turned Corfu into an island – are the finds from the earliest human settlements: near Sidari, and on the small islet Diaplo, just off the northwest coast. While on the coast itself the traces of prehistoric villages were discovered in Aphionas, Kephali and Ermones. Objects of stone, clay and – in the latter stages – copper tell a tale of agricultural communities. Closed societies, trading mainly with tribes on the Epirote coast, to whom they seem to have been related. A relation that dates back to the days before the flood?
In March 1741, not even sixteen years of age, Giacomo Girolamo Casanova sailed from Venice, destination Constantinople. In the harbour of Corfu – Venetian territory of course – he left the ship to explore the town. We know what happens next thanks to his own unfinished Memoires, written in French from 1790 onwards (Histoire de ma vie) and only published long after his death in 1798.
Before we follow his footsteps I have to disappoint the reader who expects a series of erotic Corfiot conquests. It may be true that in the 12 volumes of his autobiography Casanova describes in detail the 122 ladies that he courted in his life and times but a good deal of his writing is also devoted to his adventurous life as priest-student, doctor in law, spy, rambling violinist, chemist, prisoner, gambler, organizer of a French lottery, diplomat, spy for Louis XV and librarian. Driven by an ever eager curiosity he pursued these activities all over Europe.
No-one else but the leading European Prince De Ligne – who was seeing Casanova as often as he could – remarked: “Every word he utters is a revelation and every thought a book.” Modern historians have claimed that if humanity would have lost all the writings from the 18th century except the unfinished memoires of Casanova, his extensive and yet intimate account could well fill us in on the morality and social behaviour in the Europe he explored inside-out.
Escaping arrest Meanwhile back in Corfu 1741. After getting into a fight with an impostor claiming to be a French prince he avoided arrest by ‘borrowing’ a vessel in Corfu Town’s harbour. Taking it out to open sea he was taken aboard a sailing ship bound for Kassiopi harbour in the northeast of the island. He soon set up an enjoyable life in ‘Kasopo’, as the Venetians called the town. Where he got the money from he doesn’t mention, but he specifically describes the seamstresses he assembles around him to replace the wardrobe he so hastily left in town.
Then an officer arrives on this idyllic scene, meaning to take the young rogue back to the authorities in town. Much to Casanova’s relief the impostor La Valeur appears to have been found out and it is not prison awaiting him, but recognition for exposing the swindler. It doesn’t keep him in town for very long; soon he boards another ship and resumes his trip to Constantinople.
Thrown overboard The next time Corfu appears in his memoires is in 1745. The now nineteen year old hero of his own tale nearly gets drowned during the sea voyage from Venice to Corfu. He got himself thrown overboard by the crew as a result of upsetting a priest. Arriving safe and sound in Corfu Harbour by the end of March he is well in time for the Easter festivities, which he enjoys from Good Friday 16th of April through to Easter Monday April 19th. On the 1st of July he sails with the ‘Europa’, once more to Constantinople.
Corfu Carnival Due back home again later in the year he sailed from the Ottoman capital on October 12th and once more stops over in Corfu, well in time for the annual Carnival. “It is a long period, this time,” he writes. And so it was, kicking off at December 26th 1745 and stretching till February 23rd 1746, eight and a half weeks in all. He is very specific about this, since he is acting as impresario for a group of actors. Having negotiated a fee equalling two days of receipts per week he ends up cashing the troupe’s income of seventeen days.
Thinking of the famed masked pleasures of promiscuous Venetian Carnival, who would expect a young and strong, 1 meter 80 tall Casanova to dwell on his earnings? But perhaps this only adds to the credibility of his romantic adventures at other times and in other places.
While Corfu born Angelos Giallinas died before World War II his fame as a painter seems to be spreading still. Having been a very productive artist his watercolours and lithographs can be purchased at Greek and international auctions for prices ranging from € 1.000 to € 6.000. His main subject were the land- and seascapes and architecture of his beloved island, and very few painters – perhaps apart from Edward Lear and Joseph Cartwright – seem to have captured the spirit of the place like he did.
But Giallinas liked his travelling too. After taking painting lessons during 1872-1875 at the Corfu Art School and privately from Charalambos Pachis he studied painting in Venice, Naples and Rome. In Italy he discovered his skills and passion for watercolouring. Returning to Corfu in 1878 he devoted himself almost entirely to this art – next to some lithography – and soon became immensely popular.
National Gallery Giallinas painted scenes in cities like Athens and Istanbul and soon his work was part of exhibitions, both in Greece and abroad. After his long life his reputation kept growing and in 1974 the National Art Gallery in Athens posthumously honoured him with a grand Retrospective.
Corfu Postcards The fact he managed to reach a truly international public much wider than that of connoisseurs of art is also linked to a brilliant move: from 1910 on he had his gorgeous watercolours of village scenes reproduced on postcards. They served a few goals indeed. The enchanting reputation of Corfu went all over Europe, long before the days of mass tourism. Giallinas received a good income from it and his reputation? Well, that’s not hard to guess.
Original Giallinas postcards, printed in Corfu by the Aspiotis-ELKA printworks, today are collector’s items. That’s why it is good news for all admirers of Giallinas and Corfu’s unspoilt scenery that thirteen reprints of his postcards can now be obtained for only € 8,- (including postage and packaging).
The Giallinas Mansion Born to a noble family Angelos Giallinas lived and worked in a Venetian mansion, that is to be found near the Esplanade in Corfu Town, indicated by a commemorative plaque in blue and red on the façade. This plaque and various others in and around town was put up by the Corfu Heritage Foundation.
In March 2018 a project was approved to renovate and reuse the protected Giallinas Mansion with a budget of over € 5 million. The ground floor of the gallery will be used for educational and commercial activities, the first floor will house an exhibition of works by Angelos Giallinas and the second floor will be a multipurpose area. The Corfu Municipality is responsible for the work and the Giallinas Foundation will be responsible for its operation when completed. More news.
A field near Strongyli in Central Corfu is home to one of the oldest and largest living trees in Europe. The age of the olive tree, to the locals known as ‘Evdokía’ (Grace), has been estimated by German scientists from the Dresden University of Technology to 1200 years, with a margin of error of ten percent. Researchers professors Andreas Roloff and Stern Gillner believe the tree was planted around 928 A.D., even before the island’s successive occupations by Saracens, Normans and Venetians.
Dendrochronologists from the TU Dresden’s Institute of Forest Botany and Forest Zoology began their examination process in Corfu in 2014, with the aid of biologist Eleni Louka, a resident of Strongyli. The result of the German study was presented only last June on Corfu at an event organised by Louka and Eleni Konofaou, founder of the Hellenic Union of Heptanesians (HUH).
Evdokía is one of three especially enormous olive trees on Corfu. The HUH aims at promoting all three areas where these trees are located as alternative tourist destinations.
It was a running gag for me and my wife on every visit to the island. We would walk the long way to the Archaeological Museum of Corfu again and again to find the entrance gate shut. We would stare at the board advertising the opening date, after years of renovation. A date that slipped further and further into the past… Last spring we were unexpectedly rewarded for our stubbornness: the museum had reopened on March 23rd 2019. And what a great job has been done! Now the recently launched museum’s website is bound to add to its reputation.
Τhe antiquities on display originate from the ancient city Corcyra as well as various other sites on the island, such as Kassiopi, Acharavi, Almiros, Afionas, Roda and the palaeolithic caves of Grava Gardiki.
The layout of the exhibition – aided by modern audiovisual device – follows a narrative that invites visitors to experience aspects of the of the daily life of the inhabitants of ancient Corcyra. One is introduced to their relation to death, their cult beliefs and their artisanal and economic activities. Much attention goes to the city-state, the institution that structured and deeply influenced public and private life.
Ground floor On the ground floor the wonderful prehistoric collection of the museum is displayed, and in an adjacent room are finds from the era of the foundation and colonization of ancient Corcyra and the city’s relations with other powerful Greek city-states.
Upper floor The four rooms of the upper floor take the visitor on a tour through Corcyra from the Archaic to the late Roman period, by presenting six thematic units. These are: Topography and Civic Organisation, Private Life, Burial Customs, Cults, Worship of Artemis, Public life, Economy.
Temple of Artemis The magnificent centrepiece on the upper floor is the complete west pediment of the Temple of Artemis, 17 meters long and over 3 meters high. With the winged Medusa Gorgo in the heart of the presentation, flanked by her two children and two mythological lion-panthers the sculptured porous limestone is probably the oldest surviving artwork of its kind in Greece.
Very much worth the visit, not to mention the other highlights on the upper floor such as the Pediments of Dionysos, the Lion of Menecrates, the Stele (gravestone) of Arniadas and the Capital of Xembares.
Running gag On leaving after our enjoyable visit I enquire with one of the staff members why the renovation was so long overdue. Ah well, I had got it all wrong. The renovation had maybe taken a little longer, which was to be considered normal in unique and complex projects like this one. But the real problem was the hiring of the staff. I was very surprised: who would not want a job like this? Ah well, but that was exactly the problem. ‘Everybody wanted an easy government job at the museum’. So it took ages to sort out which candidate was more entitled to it than so many others.
The museum is closed on Wednesday. General admission fee: € 6,-; reduced fee: € 3,-. Free for minors up to 18. For opening hours etc. check the website.
‘You wake one morning in the late autumn and notice that the tone of everything has changed; the sky shines more deeply pearl, and the sun rises like a ball of blood – for the peaks of the Albanian hills are touched with snow. The sea has become leaden or sluggish and the olives a deep platinum grey. Fires smoke in the villages, and the breath of Maria as she passes with her sheep to the headland, is faintly white upon the air.’
Lawrence Durrell, Prospero’s Cell. A guide to the landscape and manners of the island of Corcyra, Faber And Faber, London 1978