Solomos, poet of the national anthem “Hymn to Liberty”

His residence in Arseniou Street, the high boulevard along the seaside, offered poet Dionysios Solomos one of the most spectacular views in Corfu Town. Now a museum, inside you can picture him looking down at the horsedrawn carts rattling by, the sailing ships passing to the nearby Old Port against the background of the lush green of Vido Island. No wonder Solomos called this house his home longer than any other, until his dying day in February 1857.

The poet of Greece’s national anthem was born in 1798 on Zakynthos, an Ionian island, one or two days sailing southward from Corfu. He was the son of a sixty years old count and his sixteen years young housekeeper. Father recognized the son by marrying his mother on the night before he died, in 1807. The next year young Dionysios was sent to Italy, where over the next ten years he attended the Lyceum in Cremona and the University of Pavia. While studying literature he started writing sonnets in Italian and after his return to Zakynthos he continued his poetic work.

War of Independence
After several attempts to write poetry in Greek in 1823 he finished the 158 four-line verses of his Hymn to Liberty, saluting the Greek War of Independence (after centuries of Ottoman rule), that started two years earlier. In this work he addresses a personified image of Liberty, reborn and renewed out of “the sacred bones of the Greeks”. It was published in Messolonghi in 1824 and a year later in Paris and soon his fame as a poet spread. He went on writing lots of material, although – driven by his quest for perfection – a good deal of his poetry and prose remained fragmentary and incomplete.

Settling in Corfu
In 1828 Solomos settled in Corfu, the capital of the Ionian Islands, and soon became the center of a circle of intellectual admirers and friends like composer Nikolaos Mantzaros, the poet Iakovos Polylas and others. He reworked older poems and experimented with metrical form, rhyming and non-rhyming verses, lyrical, epic and satirical poetry. He read it to his friends, but would publish very little of it.

In 1851 he suffered the first of a few strokes, after which he rarely left his house at Arseniou street. At his death by apoplexy at the age of 59 the Ionian Parliament interrupted its work and a state of public mourning was declared. In 1864 the Ionian Islands were reunited with the new Greek state and a year later Solomos’ old friend Mantzaros set the first three stanzas of his Hymn to Liberty to music and made a different choral version for the entire poem.

The three stanzas (later reduced to two) were soon promoted to become Greece’s national anthem. That same year Solomos’ remains were transferred to Zakynthos. The irony of history: how Solomos would have loved to see the reunion of his islands with Greece and the promotion of his hymn to the highest national level! In 1966 the hymn also became the national anthem of Cyprus.

Hymn in translation
In translation the Greek national anthem would be something like this:

I recognize you by the fearsome
sharpness of your sword,
I recognize you by the look in your eyes
forcefully defining the land.

From the sacred bones
of the Hellenes arisen,
and brave again as before,
Welcome, o welcome, Liberty!

Now this may sound a little patriotic and moralising but we have to keep in mind that Solomos – who when he wrote this was save in Zakynthos under British protection, while the struggle for independence was raging on the mainland and the Peloponnese – desperately wanted to do his bit. By raising his pen instead of the sword. While one of his aims surely was to incite a national conscience. He would have been so proud to know these lines above are still taught at school to every boy and girl in Greece and Cyprus.

Today Solomos is considered as the national poet because of his important legacy to Greek literature and national identity, connecting the early traditions to modern literature and promoting the Greek language spoken by the common people (the “dhimotiki”) as a literary vehicle.

Two museums
It may be that Solomos’ most famous work was not written in Corfu; without the music of Corfiot Nikolaos Mantzaros it would not have been promoted to the national anthem. So to get the full story it is a good idea to visit the former Solomos residence – now a museum – and then stroll from Arseniou 1 to Nikiforou Theotoki 10, where Nikolaos Mantzaros, the first director of the Corfu Philharmonic Society, is honoured in the society’s museum. For the opening hours of the Solomos Museum: check the website.

Mon Repos Palace, cradle of Prince Philip

Next summer 99 years ago the German Princess Alice van Battenberg in the Mon Repos Palace in Corfu gave birth to her fifth child. After four girls she and her husband, Prince Andreas of Greece on June 10th 1921 welcomed a son, Philippos. By birth he was Prince of Greece and Denmark. From the balcony on the second floor of the small, but elegant palace, in his mother’s arms young Philippos will have seen the eternal blue of the Ionian Sea and the mountains of Epiros beyond. For two summers only. The Greek monarchy was young and there was revolution in the air.

On September 22, 1922, Philippos’ uncle, King Constantine I of Greece, was forced to abdicate the throne. The military government arrested Prince Andreas. In December Andreas was banned from Greece for life and settled with his family in Paris. In 1930 Philips’ mother was committed to a psychiatric institution, while his father relocated to Monaco, maintaining limited contact with his family. He died in Monaco in 1944, while Princess Alice spent most of the rest of her life in Athens.

From palace to palace
Being educated in France, Germany and Scotland Philippos – now Philip – excelled in the Royal Naval College and served in the British Navy during World War II. Preparing for his marriage in 1947 with Princess Elizabeth he abandoned his Greek and Danish royal titles. On the morning of his wedding he was made Duke of Edinburgh. Five years later when Elizabeth succeeded her father King George VI, as Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, Philip was a Prince once more. Quite a way to go from a revolution in Greece to the British throne, and from Mon Repos Palace in Corfu to Buckingham Palace in London. In 1967 Philip’s mother Alice came to stay in Buckingham Palace, where she would die two years later at the age of 84.

Mon Repos Palace
Unlike Buckingham Palace Mon Repos Palace and its lovely park are easily accessible for the public. The palace, now housing a museum and rooms in use by the Corfu Municipality, was built in 1824-1826 to serve the British Lord High Commissioner Frederic Adams and his Corfiot wife Nina Palatianou. When the famous German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann visited Mon Repos in July 1868, it took him no time at all to identify the park and surroundings with the ancient city of Palaiopolis and the very spot of Mon Repos as the place where the mythical palace of Homer’s Phaeacians would have been.

There is no proof of Schliemann’s claim to this day, though in the park several ancient buildings have been uncovered, like the Temple of Hera, one of the earliest archaic temples in Greece (610 BC). Built on top of Analipsis Hill it must have created an impressive view for ships entering the harbour of ancient Corcyra. Last Summer and in the Summer of 2018 archaeological excavations have been conducted in the park. They yielded some interesting finds, but nothing spectacular. New excavations have been announced for 2020.

Giallinas Mansion renovated over the next two years

The Giallinas Mansion in its actual state of deterioration

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.

Source of this news: http://www.enimerosi.com. Read more about the painter Giallinas in my previous post (published on November 19th.)

Achilles’ Triumph, a painting by Franz Matsch

‘Triumph des Achill’ (1894), a 10 x 3 metres (!) fresco by Franz Matsch in Empress Sisi’s Achillion Palace in Corfu.

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”.

Rudolfs 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.

Corfu in the Stone Age


“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.). (Also read my special post about caves!)

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?


Angelos Giallinas: Corfu’s spirit in watercolours

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.

Angelos Giallinas in 1893, print in the magazine Estía.

Archaeological Museum of Corfu up and running

The west pediment of the archaic Temple of Artemis, depicting Gorgo, ca. 590-570 BC, has a central place in the museum

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.



 

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