The Rise and Fall of Corfu's Mansions
We climbed one hairpin bend after another on our way up the mountain. Through the olive groves, the sea appeared in a more vertiginous perspective at every turn. Then, at a little hamlet, we set off on foot along a stone-cobbled path winding through olive trees. Nets were laid out on the ground to catch the fallen fruit - but it was June now, long after the harvest was over, and their presence was evidence that the proprietors no longer took care of their groves.
Through the encroaching brambles, we glimpsed a strawberry-tinted wall while, high above, a green shutter rattled in the breeze. Here, on the hillside above Nissaki, we had come across one of Corfu's abandoned mansions. In a region where property on the coast is snapped up, hidden houses in the hills are left to moulder towards decay, for the landed families can no longer maintain the lifestyle of past generations.
Mansions like this one were a product of the Venetian era, remnant of a medieval feudal system that had its origins with the Angevin lords, who ruled the island in the 13th century. When Corfu was added to the great dominions of Charles of Anjou in 1267, the island was divided into four bailiwicks (which are still evident in the traditional regional divisions of Oros, Girou, Messis and Lefkimmi) and twenty four fiefs, held either as royal demesne or by barons on behalf of the crown. This was the pattern upon which the Venetian nobility's estates developed. With the Ottoman Empire slashing its way across the Balkans, people sought safer havens. Corfu, never taken by the Turks, offered security. So families came from many locations, and those with wealth and initiative became the nobles of Corfu. Of the great clans, 'the Marmoras, Theotokis and Prosalendis were of Byzantine extraction, the Capodistrias and Giallinas from Dalmatia, the Voulgaris from Epirus,the Sordinas from the Veneto, while the Pieri were French... the Kourkoumelis and the Flamburiaris (moved) from Cephalonia to Corfu.' (Britain's Greek Empire - Michael Pratt).
It was this period which saw the construction of the great country houses, 'residences intended originally and principally as a base from which to oversee the gathering of agricultural produce and to supervise the labourers which toiled in the service of the great landowners. These buildings, manor houses in essence, were used as temporary residences at harvest time and are characterized by their extensive storage capacity and generous provision of various outhouses.' (Noble houses of Corfu - Despina Paisidou)
At the same time, the great families mainly resided in a grand house in Corfu Town. Some, like the Voulgaris house next to Saint Spiridon Church, still are in the hands of the original families, though the features that set them apart from the average urban Venetian apartment building are often only evident when you cross the threshold. In later years, many families were unable to maintain this town base, and many migrated to the countryside on a permanent basis. After union with Greece in 1864, the landed gentry gradually lost their riches and status. In 1912, the Corfu Land Act forced them to surrender much of their estates to the peasants who worked it, though some retained enough land to make agricultural life viable. Until the 1960s when developing tourismÊ swept away the labour base, the Manessis family's San Stefano estate still ran to 240 acres, as did the Kourkoumelis estate at Afra; but here the land once stretched to five thousand acres.
Land rich and cash poor. In her delightful book about Corfu (in Greek), Ninetta Laskari of Agios Markos remembers the 'poverty food' the landed families would eat in times of need: 'When we had nothing to eat, we would take a couple of handfuls of olives in brine, five or six onions, thyme, oil and garlic. We soaked the olives all night, then cooked them to form a bitter paste. We drained this and put it in a frying pan with oil, seasonings, onions, garlic and water to cover. We stirred it while it cooked so it didn't burn, until all the water evaporated.'
The last century saw many of the landed families living in genteel poverty. Many estates were broken up, mansions decayed and were abandoned. Some, like the Manessis clan, saw where the future lay and moved into tourism, and a huge luxury hotel stands close to their famous mansion. The remainder of the original estate is now in a new generation of the family; they have applied for EU funding to restore the main house and the outbuildings to create 'agrotourism' accommodation. They will be following in the footsteps of Spiros Spathas, descendent of the Giallinas family and owner of their Fundana Mansion. Several years ago he converted storage areas into lovely studios for visitors, a move that enabled him to maintain his mansion as a family home. In contrast to the sequestered setting of most noble houses, this lovely building lies on a ridge commanding the Ropa Valley on one side and the Felekas marshlands on the other. The house 'stood in' for the Durrell's Strawberry Pink Villa in the 1980s BBC production of My Family and Other Animals, and Spiros surrealistically talks of taking tea with the Durrells - meaning actress Hannah Gordon, who played Mrs Durrell in the serial.
For other mansions, standing derelict in the countryside, exploitation for tourist accommodation could be the only solution. The Giallinas Mansion in north Corfu is ripe for conversion to a boutique hotel or high-class guest house. The main house, storerooms, stables and olive press stretch to 720 square metres, and are set in a private estate of over 70 stremata of woodland and pasture, and olive and citrus groves. The neighbouring village, Kavallouri, resembles a watercolour painting. Sprawling the length of a ridge, its pastel-painted houses look out over the plains and hills to the north and the south. Somewhere along the main street, a long bordering wall hints at hidden mysteries. An arched gateway frames the mansion - a view which indeed could be a serene watercolour landscape by the great Greek artist Angelos Giallinas.
'The Artist of Corfu' as he is known, Angelos Giallinas (1857-1939) is the most celebrated painter of Corfu's countryside, a painter whose work succeeded in capturing the soft light of the island. Much imitated (many present-day artists follow the style of the so-called 'Giallinas School') and very productive, his paintings hang in public and private collections all over the world, bringing the gentle warmth of the Corfu sun to other climes. He was brought up in Spiros Spathas' Fundana Mansion, and as a boy secretly painted in the attic, because working as an artist was not deemed a suitable occupation for a son of the landed gentry. A canny businessman, Giallinas bought the mansion when it had to be put up for sale by its original owner, the Chalikiopoulos family. The gateway bears their coat of arms, but the house bears evidence of the artist's presence.
Built in the mid sixteenth century, it consists of a long terrace which parallels the road on the other side of the wall, a combination of four different structures. First is a little tower. Here the 'Sagrado' was in force, a custom under which wanted men could gain sanctuary from the law, and in turn would work for the Lord of the Manor. As you walk on, storerooms for olive oil and wine stretch along to the house itself, washed in fading ochre and coral shades, where an external stairway ascends to the 'bodzo', the covered veranda leading to the upstairs living quarters. The main door gives access to a large living room, decorated with Giallinas's own murals depicting chivalric symbols. The master bedroom is reminiscent of Versailles, with a moulded plasterwork archway defining the sleeping area, with its canopied brass bedstead. Three other bedrooms also contain some of their original furnishings. Down a flight of steps under the elegant dining room, the kitchen features a huge fireplace big enough to roast a whole lamb. A second arched gateway leads through to the stables and olive press, roofless now, but still with its characteristic single-wheel press intact. The most primitive of stone press systems, this must date from the original foundation of the estate.
The main house and storerooms require substantial renovation, and the olive press and stables are in need of complete reconstruction. The whole structure is unique and can be found nowhere else in Corfu. Perhaps, if tourism capitalizes on hidden resources like this one, Corfu's mansions may rise again.