History is not about the past; it’s about the present.
We only remember yesterday because we’re alive today. We can only understand today if we dissect what occurred yesterday. It’s with that rubric a visitor to Corfu, if interested, can glean this Ionian island’s reality.
If the first time visitor is already familiar with the classical heartland of ancient Greece encircling the Aegean Sea than the beautiful streetscapes of Corfu Town are in an Italian city. The island’s premiere museum perhaps belongs in London. The charming Casa Parlante offers insights into the daily life of the Venetian nobility.
Yet this is Corfu, and it’s just a short distance from the mainland of western Greece. The reason has everything to do with geography, which means it has to do with politics and trade. The regions that comprise Hellenic civilization for the past several thousands of years were the bridges and battlefields between Asia and Europe, and Corfu represents that reality.
Even olive oil, the gift of Athena to the Hellenic world, has a story. During its 400 year reign over Corfu (1383-1797) the Venetian Empire mass produced olive oil for international export. As a result the island has over four and a half million trees, more than any other region in Greece.
If you watched the BBC series The Durrels in Corfu you may recognize the top photo as the house of the fictional character Sven. The 18th century stone building used to be an olive press and is surrounded by 400 year old trees in an idyllic setting. It’s currently for sale – history alive – and Sakis Gianniotis of X Adventure Club will take you there to revel in its tranquility.
Case Parlante, the multi story townhouse dating from 1620, details the life of a 19th century Venetian noble family. This was the social class that ruled Corfu for 400 years until Napoleon conquered and ended the fabled Venetian Republic in the 1790s. Since 2013 the museum’s docents provide room by room tours bringing the family to life.
“To life” is almost real. From the patriarch to the cook, life-size animatronic figures bow, sip tea, read the news paper and chop vegetables. These entertaining figures were created by the Alaxouzi Brothers, Greeks whose business is based in London. As a guest in this noble house, visitors are greeted with kumquat and rose mint liquors – an homage to Corfiot’s Venetian inspired love of excessive sweets.
Several insights into life at that time are notable. An only daughter of a noble family could inherit wealth in her own right as well as arrange their own marriage, as long it was to another aristocrat. This was a particular freedom granted only to Corfu women.
Mirrors and hallways were ingeniously positioned to keep eyes on the movements of the servants.
Cooks in aristocratic houses were often at the top of servant status and trusted as “spies” for the owner.
The Palace of St. Michael and St. George
The Corfu Museum of Asian Art and the Municipal Gallery of Corfu are housed within the impressive neoclassical Palace of St. Michael and St. George. The history of the palace is as interesting as the art on display. The fall of Venice led to a brief period in Corfu of French control. Upon Napoleon’s defeat, Corfu was ceded to the United Kingdom and was administered by the British Empire for 50 years (the Greek nation did not exist at this point.)
Constructed in 1819, the palace served as the official residence of the British Lord High Commissioner. After present day southern Greece gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in the 1830’s it was still not until the 1860’s that the United Kingdom ceded the Ionian Islands. Over the next century the palace served various functions including a royal residence for the Greek monarchy.
The transition of the palace into a world class museum started in 1928 with a vast donation by an avid Greek collector of Oriental art expanding over the years to include southeast and central Asia. Today its collection numbers in the tens of thousands of objects, which, fortunately, are not all on display creating a tranquil setting to wander the quiet rooms without feeling overwhelmed.
The Municipal Gallery of Corfu’s art collection ranges from priceless medieval Cretan works influenced while Crete was also under Venetian rule (15th – 17th centuries). The fall of Crete to the Ottomans in 1699 resulted in a flood of artist and intellectuals settling in Corfu.
A sizable portion of the collection is of 18th through early 20th century artists inspired by the the Romantic and Impressionist movements expressing individual life and events developing into Corfu’s distinctive Ionian School of Art.
Twenty-first century artists are well represented especially through special exhibits.
Encouraging artistic expression in the newest generations of Corfiots, the gallery sponsors “One Saturday, One fairytale” events for children to display their art and study the artist whose paintings are exhibited. In honor of Greek Orthodox Easter the gallery recently displayed a special exhibit of photos taken by Corfu boy scouts. The quality was stunning!
History is more than facts, and a nation is more than geography. In his epic poem The People, Yes, the great American poet Carl Sandburg expressed it succinctly. I am the history; I am the present; I am the culture. Go to Corfu and discover so much more than an island.
When you go: Corfu International Airport (CFU) serves direct flights from many European cities including London, Frankfurt and Rome. Frequent flights connect the island to Athens and Thessaloniki. Ferry and coach bus connections to major Greek cities are frequent as well.
Special thanks: to The Golden Butler, Safari Xperience and Ducas Tours & Travel for facilitating my tour of Corfu.
Where to sleep and dine in Corfu:
Eat with your eyes: four stellar Corfu restaurants
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