Approach to Corfu harbor
“Somewhere between Calabria and Corfu the blue really begins. All the way across Italy you find yourself moving through a landscape severely domesticated – each valley laid out after the architect’s pattern, brilliantly lighted, human. But once you strike out from the flat and desolate Calabrian mainland towards the sea, you are aware of a change in the heart of things: aware of the horizon beginning to strain at the rim of the world: aware of islands coming out of the darkness to meet you.”Lawrence Durrell, Prospero's Cell: A guide to the landscape and manners of the island of Corcyra [Corfu] (1945; republished 2000)
The island of Corfu viewed after seeing the Gorgoneion of Ancient Korkyra
Various thoughts about the island of Corfu and its history occurred to me after a visit there in the Fall of the year 2000. I was startled by the flinty horror of some Archaic style sculpture which is on display at the Archaeological Museum of the City of Corfu, and its contrast with the lovely landscapes and benign urbanity of the island which are its home. Despite the charm and romance associated with the island, the startling nature of the pedimental sculptures in the Museum put me in mind of the Corcyraean Revolution of 427 BCE and the massacre of the Aristocrats that followed, as narrated by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War.
It is customary to think of the island of Corfu as the lovely island, the more Italianate of the Greek islands. Lawrence Durrell is partly to blame for this [Prospero's Cell: A guide to the landscape and manners of the island of Corcyra], although he had a clearer conception of what Corfu meant, to himself and to the Greeks themselves, as the island “where the blue begins.”
The thick layers of the island’s history are also to blame, layers of Byzantine history, Venetian history, Italian history, Habsburg history, and British history, which lie over the ancient Corcyra.
View of the coast of Corfu at Kanoni
It was in ancient times an important stop on the trade route between the mainland and the Greek settlements in Italy, which made for the island’s prosperity. In the sixth century BCE, it became Corinth’s staging point for the city’s trading voyages to Italy. I do not mean to say that Corfu is not a lovely island, a beautiful Italianate island, but that its Hellenic past has been hidden by these considerations and effusions, and the green has dulled the blue. I suggest that, to see the Hellenic Corfu underneath the Italianate island we must start by seeing the Gorgoneion of the Temple of Artemisa, and proceed from there.
The spiral staircase (1862) in Corfu
THE GORGONEION AT THE ARCHAELOGICAL MUSEUM OF THE CITY OF CORFU
“Ceto bore to Phoreys the . . . Gorgons who dwell beyond glorious Ocean in the frontier land towards Night . . . and Medusa who suffered a woeful fate: she was mortal, but . . . undying and grew not old. With her lay the Dark-haired One [Poseidon] in a soft meadow amid spring flowers. And when Perseus cut off her head, there sprang forth great Chrysaor and the horse Pegasus who is so called because he was born near the springs (pegae) of Ocean; and that other, because he held a golden blade (aor) in his hands. Now Pegasus flew away and left the earth, the mother of flocks, and came to the deathless gods: and he dwells in the house of Zeus and brings to wise Zeus the thunder and lightning. But Chrysaor was joined in love to Callirrhoe, the daughter of glorious Ocean, and begot three-headed Geryones.”Hesiod, Theogony, ll 270-294.
This drawing of the restoration of the façade of the Temple of Artemis at Corfu (ca. 600 BCE) is from J. Charbonneaux. [click on the figure to expand its size].
The Gorgoneion is the remaining portion of the ancient western pediment of the ancient Temple of Artemisa, a Dorian temple now utterly destroyed. The reconstruction of the surviving limestone slabs can be viewed at the Archeological Museum of Corfu. The pedimental sculptures are all that remains of the decorations of the Temple. The Temple itself was located outside the city of Corfu, and only a few stones remain of that structure. The stones have been placed in such manner as to give an idea of the outlines of the ancient temple, on a grassy lot where the temple once stood.
[click on the figures to expand their size].
Site of the Temple of Artemis
The Temple of Artemisa, thought to have been built around 580 BCE, was the product of prosperous times and is one of the earliest stone peripteral temples in Greece, lavishly embellished with sculpture. Reliefs, very fragmentary today, decorated the metopes and huge high relief sculptures, more than nine feet high at the center, filled both pediments.
The Temple was excavated in 1911 by the German School and Wilhelm Dörpfeld. The site is near the monastery of Agioi Theodoroi, which was most probably built with the limestone fragments of the destroyed temple.
The western pediment of the Temple of Artemisa
[click on the photos for a larger view]
The sculptures of the west pediment of the Temple of Artemisa are one of the most valued examples remaining from what archaeologists have named the Lyric Age of Greek Art. This was the age of the Archaic, spanning a period of over two-hundred years, between 700 and 480 BCE. The greatest poet of that age is Pindar, and like his Odes, the style is deeply religious, naturalistic, and very precise in its observance of conventional form. The grinning horror of the Corfu Gorgon is the dialectical opposite of the heroic smile which is always present in the face of the heroes and delicate maidens that stand as the ideal of the early Hellenic city, and together they represent the dualism of the instinctual and the divine in this conception of mankind. [For a discussion of another triumph of Archaic sculpture from the Lyric Age, see my blog entry of October 31, 2010].
In his book The Greek Stones Speak: The Story of Archaeology in Greek Lands (New York, Norton, 1962), Paul MacKendrick relates as follows: “In the fields south of the modern town farmers kept turning up ancient architectural blocks, and in December, 1910, they found, upside down where it had fallen, an extraordinary series of pieces of early archaic limestone sculpture of which the most striking was a fearsome Gorgon, obviously, from the shape of the block, belonging to a pediment. During further excavations the following spring, Kaiser Wilhelm II happened to be vacationing on the island. He took a personal interest, summoned Dörpfeld to the spot from Olympia, and won from the Greeks a concession for the Germans to dig. It was Dörpfeld’s pupils who published the Gorgon pediment from a building which inscriptions proved to the Temple of Artemis. . . . [The pediment] was carved probably by a Corinthian sculptor, during the last years of Periander’s tyranny in the mother city.” (203-04) (Wilhelm Dörpfeld, 1853 – 1940, was a German architect and archaeologist who became famous for pioneering the method of stratigraphic excavation and precise graphical documentation of archaeological projects, as well as for his work on the Bronze Age sites of Tyrins and Troy, where he continued Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations).
The Gorgoneion (Gorgon face), adapted from eastern Mediterranean models, appears in Greek art in the mid-seventh century BCE and long retained a generalized protective role above the entrance to the Archaic temples. As one approached the temple, the horrid smiling face of the Gorgon, Medusa, looked down upon the wary worshippers. It was meant to be scary, to turn people into stone, or at least freeze them in fear. It was like the ferocious guard dog that protects a home. Caveat canis. For within the precinct of the temple lay the accumulated wealth of the city, and that had to be protected by fear.
At the center of the Corfu west pediment is the gorgon Medusa, a demon with a woman’s body and a bird’s wings, with a hideous face and snake hair. Again I cite MacKendrick: “The central Gorgon figure is stupendous – over nine feet high – and terrible, with her frightful grin, bared teeth, protruding tongue, and scaly snakes for hair and belt. Her face is frontal, but her bent knees are in profile: the archaic convention for rapid running. Her chiton (shirt reaching to the knees) was originally painted red, her snakes blue, the feathers on her boots alternately red and blue.” (204) The conventional Archaic bent-leg and bent-arm, pinwheel posture that signifies running or flying has been named the Knielauf (literally ‘knee running’) position by the German archeologists. There are traces of yellow and red still visible on Medusa’s dress. To her left and right are two great felines, half panther, half lion, the temple’s guardians. This feline motive was also conventional in Archaic art, as in the famous gate of the city of Mycenae in the Argolid.
The Gorgon was flanked by the winged horse Pegasus (the symbol of the city of Corinth) on her right, but the relief has been lost or destroyed, and only the forefoot resting on Medusa’s arm and its rear legs and wings, feathered like those of Medusa, are visible between Medusa’s right foot and the panther. To her left is the boy Chrysaor (“golden sword”), with a strange grin and blue hair bound with a red headband. These are the children of Medusa, born from her head at the moment when the hero Perseus severed it from her neck. The narrative discourse of the pediment has them contemporaneously alive with her.
According to MacKendrick, “. . . Gorgon, brood, and beasts, are apotropaic; i.e., they are where they are to ward off wicked powers from Artemis’s temple and its contents. With the myths of Artemis they have, of course, nothing to do: archaic architectural sculpture never bears any relations to the divinity of the temple to which it is attached. In the corners of the pediment were unrelated mythological figures. Myth is just beginning to conquer the apotropaic. When it conquers, something solemn, awesome, and hieratic is lost from Greek religious art.” (204)
Death of King Priam
At both corners of the pediment, the small figures represent the enemies of the Greeks, the Trojans and the Giants (barbarity). The pedimental entablature is awkward, as the figures are designed to fit the pediment in such a way that there is little balance, given the diversity of scale among the figures. The big creatures on the pediment stand very high from their background, but this depth of cutting is only to make the contours clear, and the surface behind them is a flat plane, details lightly modeled or engraved on it. The Medusa is herself so large that she does not fit the within the triangular structure. The two huge panthers are much larger than the boy Chrysaor and the winged Pegasus. The depiction on the pediment is primitive.
Zeus slaying Giant
Thus, to the right of the viewer is Zeus brandishing his thunderbolt and slaying a kneeling giant, and in the extreme left corner (for the viewer) is one of the Trojan War’s climactic events, the slaying of the enthroned King Priam of Troy by Achilles’ son Neoptolemos, whose lance is visible. (See photo above). The fallen figure to the left of this group could be a dead Trojan or a dead giant (See photo below). The Gigantomachia (battle of gods and giants) is a favored Archaic theme, also present on the Old Temple of Athena in Athens, the Hekatompedon (hundred footed one), and on the Treasury of the Siphnians at Delphi [See my blog entry of October 31, 2010].
The pediment from the Kerameikos at Figareto
The only other Archaic sculpture at the Museum is the pedimental structure showing two figures, a young boy and an adult male, reclining together at a symposium. It was unearthed at the Kerameikos (cemetery) in the Kanoni area of the city of Corfu. It has been dated circa 500 BCE, which makes it some eighty years newer than the pediment of Artemis.
THE CORCYRAEAN REVOLUTION
The limestone cruelty of the vision on the pediment brings to mind the echo of war and revolution that the azure and leafy charm of today’s Corfu hides: the story of the civil war in Corcyra, as told by the historian Thucydides. In the account of Thucydides, the long wars between Athens and Sparta can be said to have begun in Corcyra, an island disputed by the powers because of its enormous importance on the trade route to Italy. But it was later in the course of the war that horrible events occurred in the city of Corcyra as a result of the conflict between the rich and the poor of the city, the aristocracy and the demos, allied respectively with Sparta and Athens. The harrowing account of Thucydides, in Book 3 of his history of the Peloponnesian War, describes the slaughter of the Oligarchs by the people and includes his famous asides on the nature of revolution and the consequences of social disintegration in the Greek world:
“The Peloponnesians accordingly at once set off in haste by night for home, coasting along shore; and hauling their ships across the Isthmus of Leucas, in order not to be seen doubling it, so departed. The Corcyraeans, made aware of the approach of the Athenian fleet and of the departure of the enemy, brought the Messenians from outside the walls into the town, and ordered the fleet which they had manned to sail round into the Hyllaic harbour; and while it was so doing, slew such of their enemies as they laid hands on, dispatching afterwards, as they landed them, those whom they had persuaded to go on board the ships. Next they went to the sanctuary of Hera and persuaded about fifty men to take their trial, and condemned them all to death. The mass of the suppliants who had refused to do so, on seeing what was taking place, slew each other there in the consecrated ground; while some hanged themselves upon the trees, and others destroyed themselves as they were severally able. During seven days that Eurymedon stayed with his sixty ships, the Corcyraeans were engaged in butchering those of their fellow citizens whom they regarded as their enemies: and although the crime imputed was that of attempting to put down the democracy, some were slain also for private hatred, others by their debtors because of the moneys owed to them. Death thus raged in every shape; and, as usually happens at such times, there was no length to which violence did not go; sons were killed by their fathers, and suppliants dragged from the altar or slain upon it; while some were even walled up in the temple of Dionysus and died there.
So bloody was the march of the revolution, and the impression which it made was the greater as it was one of the first to occur. Later on, one may say, the whole Hellenic world was convulsed; struggles being everywhere made by the popular chiefs to bring in the Athenians, and by the oligarchs to introduce the Lacedaemonians. In peace there would have been neither the pretext nor the wish to make such an invitation; but in war, with an alliance always at the command of either faction for the hurt of their adversaries and their own corresponding advantage, opportunities for bringing in the foreigner were never wanting to the revolutionary parties.
The sufferings which revolution entailed upon the cities were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur, as long as the nature of mankind remains the same; though in a severer or milder form, and varying in their symptoms, according to the variety of the particular cases. In peace and prosperity, states and individuals have better sentiments, because they do not find themselves suddenly confronted with imperious necessities; but war takes away the easy supply of daily wants, and so proves a rough master, that brings most men's characters to a level with their fortunes.
Revolution thus ran its course from city to city, and the places which it arrived at last, from having heard what had been done before, carried to a still greater excess the refinement of their inventions, as manifested in the cunning of their enterprises and the atrocity of their reprisals. Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defense. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, to divine a plot a still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries. In fine, to forestall an intending criminal, or to suggest the idea of a crime where it was wanting, was equally commended until even blood became a weaker tie than party, from the superior readiness of those united by the latter to dare everything without reserve; for such associations had not in view the blessings derivable from established institutions but were formed by ambition for their overthrow; and the confidence of their members in each other rested less on any religious sanction than upon complicity in crime. The fair proposals of an adversary were met with jealous precautions by the stronger of the two, and not with a generous confidence. Revenge also was held of more account than self-preservation. Oaths of reconciliation, being only proffered on either side to meet an immediate difficulty, only held good so long as no other weapon was at hand; but when opportunity offered, he who first ventured to seize it and to take his enemy off his guard, thought this perfidious vengeance sweeter than an open one, since, considerations of safety apart, success by treachery won him the palm of superior intelligence. Indeed it is generally the case that men are readier to call rogues clever than simpletons honest, and are as ashamed of being the second as they are proud of being the first. The cause of all these evils was the lust for power arising from greed and ambition; and from these passions proceeded the violence of parties once engaged in contention.
The leaders in the cities, each provided with the fairest professions, on the one side with the cry of political equality of the people, on the other of a moderate aristocracy, sought prizes for themselves in those public interests which they pretended to cherish, and, recoiling from no means in their struggles for ascendancy engaged in the direst excesses; in their acts of vengeance they went to even greater lengths, not stopping at what justice or the good of the state demanded, but making the party caprice of the moment their only standard, and invoking with equal readiness the condemnation of an unjust verdict or the authority of the strong arm to glut the animosities of the hour. Thus religion was in honor with neither party; but the use of fair phrases to arrive at guilty ends was in high reputation. Meanwhile the moderate part of the citizens perished between the two, either for not joining in the quarrel, or because envy would not suffer them to escape.
Thus every form of iniquity took root in the Hellenic countries by reason of the troubles. The ancient simplicity into which honor so largely entered was laughed down and disappeared; and society became divided into camps in which no man trusted his fellow. To put an end to this, there was neither promise to be depended upon, nor oath that could command respect; but all parties dwelling rather in their calculation upon the hopelessness of a permanent state of things, were more intent upon self-defense than capable of confidence. In this contest the blunter wits were most successful. Apprehensive of their own deficiencies and of the cleverness of their antagonists, they feared to be worsted in debate and to be surprised by the combinations of their more versatile opponents, and so at once boldly had recourse to action: while their adversaries, arrogantly thinking that they should know in time, and that it was unnecessary to secure by action what policy afforded, often fell victims to their want of precaution.
Meanwhile Corcyra gave the first example of most of the crimes alluded to; of the reprisals exacted by the governed who had never experienced equitable treatment or indeed aught but insolence from their rulers—when their hour came; of the iniquitous resolves of those who desired to get rid of their accustomed poverty, and ardently coveted their neighbors' goods; and lastly, of the savage and pitiless excesses into which men who had begun the struggle, not in a class but in a party spirit, were hurried by their ungovernable passions.
In the confusion into which life was now thrown in the cities, human nature, always rebelling against the law and now its master, gladly showed itself ungoverned in passion, above respect for justice, and the enemy of all superiority; since revenge would not have been set above religion, and gain above justice, had it not been for the fatal power of envy. Indeed men too often take upon themselves in the prosecution of their revenge to set the example of doing away with those general laws to which all alike can look for salvation in adversity, instead of allowing them to subsist against the day of danger when their aid may be required.”
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Book 3
THE DREAM OF THE EMPRESS ELISABETH
I cannot say for certain what the dream of the Empress Elizabeth precisely was, for I did not know the lady, but I suspect that the dream palace that she ordered built for herself in the vicinity of the city of Corfu, the Achilleion, which was completed in 1890, and the monument to Achilles she commissioned to be erected in its garden (see photo below), may provide us with a clue.
Elisabeth von Bayern
Elisabeth von Bayern (1837 – 1898) was Empress of Austria, wife of Emperor Franz Joseph I. She was referred to as 'Sisi' by her friends and family, and she lived a sorrowful life. She was not allowed much influence in the raising of her own children and led a restless life of travel and frivolity. Her son, the Crown Prince Rudolph, famously committed suicide with his mistress at the imperial hunting lodge of Mayerling in 1889, and ten years later she was herself struck down by an assassin’s bullet as she walked along the promenade on Lake Geneva.
After her son’s macabre death, she began to spend a lot of her time on the island of Corfu, and there she conceived the idea of commissioning a palace in the classical style dedicated to the Homeric hero Achilles. The palace was purchased by Wilhelm II, the German Emperor, after her death and was eventually acquired by the Greek state and converted into a Museum.
Monument to Achilles
Her dream was of a golden age of Hellenic courage, individual heroism and physical beauty, a dream colored by an antipathy towards the mass politics of her age, and by a certain racist disdain implicit in the belief that the heroic Greek warrior was in some manner an Aryan precursor to the aristocratic and militaristic culture of Western Europe. She was shot at the age of sixty by the anarchist Luigi Lucheni, who stated after the event, “I wanted to kill a royal. It did not matter which one.”
Franz Xavier Winterhalter, Elisabeth with diamond stars in her hair, 1865
The Achilleion of the Empress Elisabeth in Corfu
THE SMILE OF CIVILIZATION: BRITISH RULE IN CORFU
The most visible reminder of the British presence is the neo-classical building which was the Residence of the Lords High Commissioners during the period of British rule over the Ionian Islands, now referred to as the Royal Palace. It was built in 1819, shortly after Great Britain took over the Ionian Islands. In 1864, the building was handed over to the King of the Hellenes.
The statue in front of the Residence, or Royal Palace, is of Sir Frederic Adam (1781–1853), Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands between 1824 and 1832. He was a Scottish major-general at the Battle of Waterloo, in command of the 3rd (Light) Brigade, fourth son of William Adam of Blair Adam and his wife Eleanora, the daughter of Charles Elphinstone, 10th. Lord Elphinstone. Between 1824 and 1832 he was a most popular High Commissioner for the Empire. His commissioning of the construction of public buildings and the water supply system of Corfu were much appreciated by the local population. Despite his pragmatic and efficient ideas of governance, or perhaps because of them, he is portrayed in the monument as wearing a Roman toga.
In 1809, the British defeated the French fleet at Zakynthos and captured the southern Ionian Islands, but the French held on to Corfu until 1814. In the subsequent Treaty of Paris, which put a final end to the Napoleonic Wars in Europe in 1815, the islands were joined into a “United States of the Ionian Islands” and placed under the jurisdiction of the British government. Possession of these islands was a richly desired strategic gain for the British fleet, which could thereby better exert its control over the coasts of the Italian and Balkan peninsulas, the Adriatic, as well as the Eastern Mediterranean.
The Corfiote bourgeoisie: Portrait of a Lady
The islanders were invited to provide forty members to an Assembly which would advise the British High Commissioner. In keeping with this happy compromise, the British introduced progressive changes to the infrastructure of the islands and advanced a modern system of education. In exchange, the islanders adopted the custom of afternoon tea and the game of cricket, which is still played on the Spianada in front of the Palace. A bourgeois class of rich islanders developed with friendly ties to its English masters, but when Greek independence was established after 1830, the Greeks began to press for union with the mainland. When a friendly pro-British King was installed in Athens in 1862, George I, from the Danish family of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, the way for union with Greece was clear and the islands were formally transferred to the Kingdom of Greece in 1864.
Garden of the Residence in Corfu
Palace of Mon Repos
Prince Philippos of Greece and Denmark was born in Corfu in 1921, at the palace of Mon Repos (‘My resting place’), situated not too far from the Empress Elisabeth’s Achilleion. Philippos was the son of Princess Alice of Battenberg, a German Princess, and Prince Andrew of Greece, the fourth son of King George I of the Hellenes. At the age of eighteen, he joined the British Navy and served in it during World War II. In March of 1947, he renounced all his Danish and Greek titles, adopted the surname Mountbatten (English for “Battenberg”) and married Princess Elizabeth, the eldest daughter of King George VI of England and heir to the throne. Philippos was then granted the title of Duke of Edinburgh by the King. When Elizabeth became Queen of England in 1952, he resigned his commission with the Royal Navy to become Consort to her, and in 1957 she made him a Prince of the United Kingdom. He had traveled a long way from Mon Repos.
Prince Philippos and the Princess of Wales in 1947
Palace of Mon Repos
The palace of Mon Repos was built in 1826 by the British Commissioner Sir Frederic Adam as a gift to his Corfiot wife, Nina Palatianou. It is a small but very beautiful palace with colonial architectural elements. Despite a somewhat dilapidated exterior, it still exhibits some of that quiet grandeur which attends the section of the island’s coast south of the city of Corfu. Large gardens, leafy trees, an azure ocean beyond, seem very distant from the limestone verities of ancient Corcyrean history. Nearby in the City, the running Medusa smiles her hideous grimace above the temple pediment, as the tourists approach her from the Museum floor, contemplating thousands of years of human folly.