Corfu First, ten times or more

The former San Giacomo Theatre, now the Town Hall.

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 Parliamentary Candidate 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.


Casanova: a young adventurer in Corfu

The cover of one of many biographies on Casanova (1725-1798)

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.

Anthony Quinn, how Greek can you get?

Mexican actor Anthony Quinn (left) playing ‘tavli’ with a villager in Corfu’s Pelekas, during a break while shooting The Greek Tycoon in 1977

In 1964 the movie Zorba the Greek (and the soundtrack!) stormed and conquered the hearts of film fans around the world. ‘Zorba’ – based on a novel by Greece’s Nobel Prize winner for Literature Nikos Kazantzakis – won three Oscars. While much appraised leading actor Anthony Quinn had to satisfy himself with a nomination. Although surely his role as Alexis Zorba added enormously to his popularity.

Mexican born Antonio Rudolfo Quinn Oaxaca had played Greek characters before, like in Ulisse (1954) and in the hit The guns of Navarone (1961). Now by his acting and dancing (sirtaki!) in ‘Zorba’ he convinced many cinema visitors that he was at least partly Greek. More Greek in looks and behaviour than some Greeks anyway.

The Greek Tycoon
Still we would have to wait until 1978 to see multitalented Quinn (also film director, painter and sculptor) in his next Greek role. In The Greek Tycoon he is Theo Tomasis, a character based on Aristoteles Onassis. British actress Jacqueline Bisset plays Liz Cassidy, the beautiful widow of the assassinated president of the United States. So we are looking at a romanced account of the courtship and marriage of Onassis and Jacqueline (Bouvier) Kennedy. A relation that begun even before John F. Kennedy became president and lasted for almost two decades.

Negative reviews
The Greek Tycoon (budget 6,5 million dollars, running time: 107 minutes) was met with a lot of critical reception: “As witless as it is gutless” (The New York Times); “You have watched the headlines, now you can read the movie” (Variety). TV Guide rated the movie one star and had only one favourable comment: “If scenery, greenery and lavish living are what you like to see, you may enjoy The Greek Tycoon.” An positive exception is made for the final scene, in which Anthony Quinn’s once more shows his great sense for dance.

The scenery of Corfu
“The scenery” and “the greenery” was shot on location in Corfu and Mykonos. The Corfu landscape gets a fair and lavish share. And is anyone familiar with the the background of the photo above? It shows Anthony Quinn in a corner of the village square of Pelekas, entertaining himself during a break in the filming. In The Greek Tycoon you might recognize this setting when Tomasis gets out of a car and slowly walks towards the door of a café on the other side of the square. This café was no more than fifteen meters from Anthony’s playing table. In 1980, some three years after this scene was shot, the café was turned into a bar, known as the ‘Zanzibar’.

Today the Zanzibar is a bar with a both local and international clientele. It’s cocktail menu today proudly shows the photograph above. If even a footnote in the life and times of Anthony Quinn (1915-2001), an icon in the film industry, who twice won the Oscar for supporting actor but never for best actor. And who for a wide audience was more Greek than some Greeks. See for yourself in the final scene from The Greek Tycoon.

Today: 15 November – 1937 –

A copy of Prospero’s Cell, acquired in 1983 in Pelekas, wearing the marks of travelling time and again to the places of the book’s origin.

On this day in 1937 Lawrence Durrel wrote:

‘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

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