From the Encyclopedia Britannica, originally published 1911
CORFU (anc. and mod. Gr. Κέρκυρα or Κόρκυρα, Lat. Corcyra), an island of Greece, in the Ionian Sea, off the coast of Albania or Epirus, from which it is separated by a strait varying in breadth from less than 2 to about 15 m. The name Corfu is an Italian corruption of the Byzantine Κορυφώ, which is derived from the Greek Κορυφαί (crests). In shape it is not unlike the sickle (drepanē), to which it was compared by the ancients,—the hollow side, with the town and harbour of Corfu in the centre, being turned towards the Albanian coast. Its extreme length is about 40 m. and its greatest breadth about 20. The area is estimated at 227 sq. m., and the population in 1907 was 99,571, of whom 28,254 were in the town and suburbs of Corfu. Two high and well-defined ranges divide the island into three districts, of which the northern is mountainous, the central undulating and the southern low-lying. The most important of the two ranges is that of San Salvador, probably the ancient Istone, which stretches east and west from Cape St Angelo to Cape St Stefano, and attains its greatest elevation of 3300 ft. in the summit from which it takes its name. The second culminates in the mountain of Santi Deca, or Santa Decca, as it is called by misinterpretation of the Greek designation οἱ Ἄγιοι Δέκα, or the Ten Saints. The whole island, composed as it is of various limestone formations, presents great diversity of surface, and the prospects from the more elevated spots are magnificent.
Corfu is generally considered the most beautiful of all the Greek isles, but the prevalence of the olive gives some monotony to its colouring. It is worthy of remark that Homer names, as adorning the garden of Alcinous, seven plants only—wild olive, oil olive, pear, pomegranate, apple, fig and vine. Of these the apple and the pear are now very inferior in Corfu; the others thrive well and are accompanied by all the fruit trees known in southern Europe, with addition of the Japanese medlar (or loquat), and, in some spots, of the banana. When undisturbed by cultivation, the myrtle, arbutus, bay and ilex form a rich brushwood and the minor flora of the island is extensive.
The common form of laud tenure is the colonia perpetua, by which the landlord grants a lease to the tenant and his heirs for ever, in return for a rent, payable in kind, and fixed at a certain proportion of the produce. Of old, a tenant thus obtaining half the produce to himself was held to be co-owner of the soil to the extent of one-fourth; and if he had three-fourths of the crop, his ownership came to one-half. Such a tenant could not be expelled except for non-payment, bad culture or the transfer of his lease without the landlord’s consent. Attempts have been made to prohibit so embarrassing a system; but as it is preferred by the agriculturists, the existing laws permit it. The portion of the olive crop due to the landlord, whether by colonia or ordinary lease, is paid, not according to the actual harvest, but in keeping with the estimates of valuators mutually appointed, who, just before the fruit is ripe, calculate how much each tree will probably yield. The large old fiefs (baronie) in Corfu, as in the other islands, have left their traces in the form of quit-rents (known in Scotland by the name of feu-duties), generally equal to one-tenth of the produce. But they have been much subdivided, and the vassals may by law redeem them. Single olive trees of first quality yield sometimes as much as 2 gallons of oil, and this with little trouble or expense beyond the collecting and pressing of the fallen fruit. The trees grow unrestrained, and some are not less than three hundred years old. The vineyards are laboured by the broad heart-shaped hoe. The vintage begins on the festival of Santa Croce, or the 26th of September (O.S.). None of the Corfu wines is much exported. The capital is the only city or town of much extent in the island; but there are a number of villages, such as Benizze, Gasturi, Ipso, Glypho, with populations varying from 300 to 1000. Near Gasturi stands the Achilleion, the palace built for the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, and purchased in 1907 by the German emperor, William II.
The town of Corfu stands on the broad part of a peninsula, whose termination in the citadel is cut from it by an artificial fosse formed in a natural gully, with a salt-water ditch at the bottom. Having grown up within fortifications, where every foot of ground was precious, it is mostly, in spite of recent improvements, a labyrinth of narrow, tortuous, up-and-down streets, accommodating themselves to the irregularities of the ground, few of them fit for wheel carriages. There is, however, a handsome esplanade between the town and the citadel, and a promenade by the seashore towards Castrades. The palace, built by Sir Thomas Maitland (?1759–1824; lord high commissioner of the Ionian Islands, 1815), is a large structure of white Maltese stone. In several parts of the town may be found houses of the Venetian time, with some traces of past splendour, but they are few, and are giving place to structures in the modern and more convenient French style. Of the thirty-seven Greek churches the most important are the cathedral, dedicated to Our Lady of the Cave (ἡ Παναγία Σπηλιώτισσα); St Spiridion’s, with the tomb of the patron saint of the island; and the suburban church of St Jason and St Sosipater, reputed the oldest in the island. The city is the seat of a Greek and a Roman Catholic archbishop; and it possesses a gymnasium, a theatre, an agricultural and industrial society, and a library and museum preserved in the buildings formerly devoted to the university, which was founded by Frederick North, 5th earl of Guilford (1766–1827, himself the first chancellor in 1824,) in 1823, but disestablished on the cessation of the English protectorate. There are three suburbs of some importance—Castrades, Manduchio and San Rocco. The old fortifications of the town, being so extensive as to require a force of from 10,000 to 20,000 troops to man them, were in great part thrown down by the English, and a simpler plan adopted, limiting the defences to the island of Vido and the old citadel; these are now dismantled.
History.—According to the local tradition Corcyra was the Homeric island of Scheria, and its earliest inhabitants the Phaeacians. At a date no doubt previous to the foundation of Syracuse it was peopled by settlers from Corinth, but it appears to have previously received a stream of emigrants from Eretria. The splendid commercial position of Corcyra on the highway between Greece and the West favoured its rapid growth, and, influenced perhaps by the presence of non-Corinthian settlers, its people, quite contrary to the usual practice of Corinthian colonies, maintained an independent and even hostile attitude towards the mother city. This opposition came to a head in the early part of the 7th century, when their fleets fought the first naval battle recorded in Greek history (about 664 b.c.). These hostilities ended in the conquest of Corcyra by the Corinthian tyrant Periander (c. 600), who induced his new subjects to join in the colonization of Apollonia and Anactorium. The island soon regained its independence and henceforth devoted itself to a purely mercantile policy. During the Persian invasion of 480 it manned the second largest Greek fleet (60 ships), but took no active part in the war. In 435 it was again involved in a quarrel with Corinth and sought assistance from Athens. This new alliance was one of the chief immediate causes of the Peloponnesian War (q.v.), in which Corcyra was of considerable use to the Athenians as a naval station, but did not render much assistance with its fleet. The island was nearly lost to Athens by two attempts of the oligarchic faction to effect a revolution; on each occasion the popular party ultimately won the day and took a most bloody revenge on its opponents (427 and 425). During the Sicilian campaigns of Athens Corcyra served as a base for supplies; after a third abortive rising of the oligarchs in 410 it practically withdrew from the war. In 375 it again joined the Athenian alliance; two years later it was besieged by a Lacedaemonian armament, but in spite of the devastation of its flourishing countryside held out successfully until relief was at hand. In the Hellenistic period Corcyra was exposed to attack from several sides; after a vain siege by Cassander it was occupied in turn by Agathocles and Pyrrhus. It subsequently fell into the hands of Illyrian corsairs, until in 229 it was delivered by the Romans, who retained it as a naval station and gave it the rank of a free state. In 31 b.c. it served Octavian (Augustus) as a base against Antony.
Eclipsed by the foundation of Nicopolis, Corcyra for a long time passed out of notice. With the rise of the Norman kingdom in Sicily and the Italian naval powers, it again became a frequent object of attack. In 1081–1085 it was held by Robert Guiscard, in 1147–1154 by Roger II. of Sicily. During the break-up of the Later Roman Empire it was occupied by Genoese privateers (1197–1207) who in turn were expelled by the Venetians. In 1214–1259 it passed to the Greek despots of Epirus, and in 1267 became a possession of the Neapolitan house of Anjou. Under the latter’s weak rule the island suffered considerably from the inroads of various adventurers; hence in 1386 it placed itself under the protection of Venice, which in 1401 acquired formal sovereignty over it. Corcyra remained in Venetian hands till 1797, though several times assailed by Turkish armaments and subjected to two notable sieges in 1536 and 1716–1718, in which the great natural strength of the city again asserted itself. The Venetian feudal families pursued a mild but somewhat enervating policy towards the natives, who began to merge their nationality in that of the Latins and adopted for the island the new name of Corfu. The Corfiotes were encouraged to enrich themselves by the cultivation of the olive, but were debarred from entering into commercial competition with Venice. The island served as a refuge for Greek scholars, and in 1732 became the home of the first academy of modern Greece, but no serious impulse to Greek thought came from this quarter.
By the treaty of Campo Formio Corfu was ceded to the French, who occupied it for two years, until they were expelled by a Russo-Turkish armament (1799). For a short time it became the capital of a self-governing federation of the Hephtanesos (“Seven Islands”); in 1807 its faction-ridden government was again replaced by a French administration, and in 1809 it was vainly besieged by a British fleet. When, by the treaty of Paris of November 5, 1815, the Ionian Islands were placed under the protectorate of Great Britain, Corfu became the seat of the British high commissioner. The British commissioners, who were practically autocrats in spite of the retention of the native senate and assembly, introduced a strict method of government which brought about a decided improvement in the material prosperity of the island, but by its very strictness displeased the natives. In 1864 it was, with the other Ionian Islands, ceded to the kingdom of Greece, in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants. The island has again become an important point of call and has a considerable trade in olive oil; under a more careful system of tillage the value of its agricultural products might be largely increased.
Corfu contains very few and unimportant remains of antiquity. The site of the ancient city of Corcyra (Κέρκυρα) is well ascertained, about 1½ m. to the south-east of Corfu, upon the narrow piece of ground between the sea-lake of Calichiopulo and the Bay of Castrades, in each of which it had a port. The circular tomb of Menecrates, with its well-known inscription, is on the Bay of Castrades. Under the hill of Ascension are the remains of a temple, popularly called of Neptune, a very simple Doric structure, which still in its mutilated state presents some peculiarities of architecture. Of Cassiope, the only other city of ancient importance, the name is still preserved by the village of Cassopo, and there are some rude remains of building on the site; but the temple of Zeus Cassius for which it was celebrated has totally disappeared. Throughout the island there are numerous monasteries and other buildings of Venetian erection, of which the best known are Paleocastrizza, San Salvador and Pelleka.