by OSBERT LANCASTER
A PECULIAR fascination attaches to all towns wherein two or more distinct and alien cultures have flourished side by side but where no synthesis has ever been achieved. Too often, however, the full improbable flavor of the resulting contrasts is diluted by segregation; only in the few streets adjoining the “native quarter” where the minaret overshadows the Empire-builders’ pebbledash and half-timbering, or where the upcurving eaves of a pagoda project behind the correct façades of the Third Republic, can it be savored in all its intensity. But in Corfu an architectural mélange of the most surprising sort is evenly established in the very heart of the town.
The town of Corfu has little to show that can be regarded as specifically Greek. The domestic architecture is predominantly Italian in style, relieved here and there by a façade which is to the discerning Anglo-Saxon eye unmistakably Regency. Nor has the countryside much in common with the mainland. Enjoying a heavy winter rainfall, the valleys and fields are notably green and lush, while the mountains themselves have nothing of the Attic barrenness. The trees and shrubs are of familiar kind but of quite exceptional size: enormous stone pines which seem of a totally different species from the tough and ragged little dwarfs which sparsely dot the hillsides of Greece proper, and giant olives, here left unpruned, whose twisted trunks are pierced with innumerable holes the size of a man’s hand through which the daylight penetrates in a macabre, Daliesque fashion and which are not to be observed elsewhere.
The inhabitants of this exposed paradise differ both in costume and economic status from the ordinary Greek peasants. Mainland Greece is a country of smallholders where the very few large estates that formerly existed were all, with two exceptions, broken up by the land reforms of Venizelos, but here the feudal domains of the local nobility remain in many cases intact. These curious relics cling to the titles with which the Serene Republic was so generous to her colonials in the last days of her power when she had nothing else to offer, with an insistence which in ordinary times was vaguely comic but which during the Italian occupation became, in some cases, a trifle embarrassing. Staunchly royalist, those who have not departed to cut a dash in the society of the capital (an inconsiderable proportion) continue to inhabit their rambling villas, solid, unpretentious buildings in the North Italian style of the seventeenth century, surrounded by their vines and their olives and exercising their seigneurial rights with an accommodating inefficiency. Their tenants, usually darker and slighter in build than the mainland peasantry, live in picturesque but decaying villages which, thanks to an absence of dust and abundance of vegetation, accord far more closely with the popular conception of the Arcadian ideal than does the bleak Peloponnesian reality.
The women wear a costume of exceptional charm and richness, of which the Italian origin is not in doubt, for its most distinguishing feature, a wheelshaped turban of colored ribbons braided in with the hair, has been exactly set down by Titian in his portrait of a Venetian courtesan. Whatever was once the traditional garb of their menfolk, it has now been generally abandoned, and only the two town bands cut any sartorial dash; the Royal Ionian, glorious in a uniform of the blue and crimson of the ribbon of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George and a golden helmet heavily beplumed, and the National, staunchly patriotic in white and blue with helmets of silver.
By far the most influential and infinitely the most popular of all the inhabitants of Corfu is, though dead, still visible in the flesh. Unlike the generality of mankind, St. Spiridion, although during his lifetime a not inactive bishop who attended the Council of Nicaea, has undertaken his longest journeys and displayed the greater energy in the course of his post-mortal career.
At the time of the fall of Constantinople his embalmed corpse, which had long been venerated in that city, had recently been acquired by a certain Calochoretti who, with a repaying prescience, had invested his entire fortune in holy relics. Having successfully escaped from the doomed city, this pious speculator made his way across Thessaly and Albania bearing his holy capital, which included in addition to St. Spiridion the mortal remains of St. Theodora, the wife of Theophilus the Iconoclast, in a country cart concealed beneath a load of hay, arriving finally at Corfu. Once established in the town, his investment proved highly profitable, the resident saint, Arsenius, soon showing himself quite incapable of any prolonged or effective response to the competition of the newcomers, and on his death the old man bequeathed a saint apiece to his two sons. St. Spiridion, who almost from the first declared far the larger dividend, was the portion of the elder, on whose death he passed into the family of Bulgaris, who still retain his person and enjoy his revenues. Today he lies richly and liturgically clad in an ornate silver coffin in his own church, where the more important and influential visitors may inspect him on request; the common people must restrain themselves in patience until his name day, when robed and mitred he passes in procession through the town seated on the episcopal throne, followed by all the dignitaries of the island.
Of his countless miracles, unflagging watchfulness for the island’s interests, and prompt attention to the humblest of his supplicants, there are numerous and exhaustive accounts. I will only add the most recent proof he has afforded of his protective power. During the last war a large proportion of the townspeople showed themselves understandably reluctant, when the sirens sounded, to seek the safety of the air-raid shelters thoughtfully provided by the municipality, preferring to entrust themselves to the tried protection of St. Spiridion. One night, in the course of the worst raid which the town had suffered, when the church was as usual packed to its utmost capacity, fire-watchers were horrified to observe a bomb of enormous size whistling indeflectably down upon that elaborately decorated but far from solidly constructed building. At the very last second, when all hope appeared to have vanished, the missile, for no obvious reason, exploded with a terrifying, baffled roar but twenty feet above the roof itself, injuring none and causing but superficial damage. Whatever decline in the saint’s popularity may have taken place in the skeptical period between the wars, this awe-inspiring demonstration of his personal intervention has effectively arrested it for many years to come.
Hardly less exalted if more animated visitors have from time to time taken up their residence on the island, ranging from Richard Cœur de Lion, who passed some months here on his ill-starred journey back from the Holy Land, to the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, who, rating its charms even higher than those of Ventnor, where she had previously been accustomed to pass much of the summer, built herself a villa some distance from the town. Later her place and her villa were taken by the former Kaiser, who redecorated it in a style in which tradition and modernity are nicely blended, for in the principal rooms the ceilings are both adorned and illuminated by numerous stucco putti blowing what appear to be iridescent bubbles, but what are in fact electriclight bulbs. Another contemporary visitor from the Teutonic north was Herr Böcklin, the Führer’s favorite master, who here found the inspiration for his masterpiece, the celebrated “Toteninsel.”
Nevertheless, despite, or perhaps because of, the attraction which Corfu exerts for the Nordic temperament, its beauties may appear to those with some acquaintance with Greece proper to be of too rich and cloying a quality.
CRETE, to a greater extent, perhaps, than any other place in the world, certainly any place of similar size, possesses a power strangely to stir the imagination, even of those who have never been there, which the mere sound of the long flat monosyllable of its name is sufficient to quicken. In a large measure this is due undoubtedly to the knowledge of the vast tracts of time through which this island has played a role in history — to the realization that as many years before the birth of Christ as have passed since his death a complex civilization had here already passed the climax of its achievement and had entered on a long period of immensely sophisticated decline; but even if the Minoan culture were still as dimly apprehended as it was before the coming of Sir Arthur Evans, it. would yet be impossible to treat of Crete as just another Mediterranean island, remarkable only for its greater size.
The scenery and the inhabitants, although the mists from the legendary past may serve to magnify their scale, would always, even when seen with the naked, factual eye, appear unrelated and unique. The narrow coastal plain is backed by a low range of hills behind which rises a range of considerable mountains; if this were all, the scene though beautiful would not be unparalleled, but ‘way behind these summits a further range hangs snowcapped in the blue. This triple barrier of three superimposed silhouettes, of which the upper edges are clearly defined while the bases tend to lose their firmness of outline in a flat haze that forms the background for the sharp summits of the range immediately below, has much of the quality of a Chinese water color of the best period and produces a hardly to be defined impression of artifice and unreality.
The figures which pass before this heroic backdrop seem, fortunately enough, to be all just slightly larger than life and to display a theatrical air without which they would assuredly be overwhelmed by the immensity of their surroundings. Physically, the Cretans differ considerably from the Greeks of the mainland, being in general of taller stature (although it should be remembered that the average Greek is not nearly so diminutive as the Anglo-Saxon imagination too often pictures him) and swarthier in complexion, both of which traits may perhaps derive from a strong Berber strain in the Arab corsairs, who almost extinguished the original inhabitants of the island in the ninth and tenth centuries.
Their peculiarity, in which they take immense pride, is further marked by their carriage and their eyes. The former is characterized by a dignified swagger that comes in part, doubtless, from their habit of always wearing high-polished boots, regardless of whether or not they are likely even to see a horse; and the latter arc extravagantly black and piercing, jettier and more brilliant by far than the oily blackness of a Kalamata olive, which distinguishes the eyes of the Asia Minor Greek.
These physical distinctions are further emphasized by the traditional costume, which is here far more generally worn by the men than it is on the mainland. The baggy Turkish breeches with the extraordinary pouch in the seat, traditionally designed to catch the infant Mahomet, who on his second coming will be born of man, but which is utilized in the meantime, anyhow by Christian wearers, to carry anything from a primus stove to half a dozen hand grenades; the immense cummerbund whose countless folds serve more than a purely decorative purpose as they afford an admirable and much needed protection to the liver and kidneys in a climate where the temperature is subject to violent changes in the course of a few hours; and the small black turban with a pendant, satanic fringe level with the eyebrows —all combine to produce an effect of elegant ferocity which is still further enhanced by the immense mustaches lovingly cultivated by all those of an age to do so.
ALTHOUGH in classical and modern times Crete never again attained the unrivaled position it had enjoyed in the Minoan period, its history was sufficiently remarkable and unlike that of the rest of the Greek world to ensure its continued peculiarity. Colonized by the Dorians, it played an inconspicuous role during the most glorious periods of Hellenic history, and in the earliest years of the Christian epoch was only distinguished by the widespread reputation for untrustworthiness achieved by the inhabitants; a reputation so firmly established that St. Paul himself did not hesitate to accept it, and by so doing gave it a world-wide currency. As part of the Byzantine Empire it acquired, owing to its geographical position, a new importance that rendered it the pivot on which the whole naval strategy of the Empire turned, and its capture by the Arabs in the eighth century ushered in one of the most miserable periods in the history of the eastern Mediterranean.
When Byzantine rule was re-established, the character of the island had suffered considerable change, and differences had been established which are still apparent. Owing to the Arabs’ practice of liquidating the male population, either by the sword or in the galleys, and stocking their harems with the female, the inhabitants had acquired a distinctly duskier tinge, and it is not perhaps too fanciful to see a further result of this prolonged occupation in the architecture of many of the villages, which, with their square, flat-topped houses and drumless, whitewashed domes, exhibit to this day a strangely African look. With the decline of the Byzantine power the island passed to the Venetians, whose mild rule not only served to preserve the native culture from the Turkish blight for more than a century longer than any part of the Greek mainland but to establish a connect ion with Western Europe during a vital period in the Continent’s history which bore unexpected fruit in the art of Crete itself and, in one notable instance, of Europe.
During the last period of the Empire the influence of the Cretan school of ikon painters had spread all over the Greek world, gradually replacing that of the earlier Macedonian school. With the coming of the Venetians the island artists were brought into direct contact with the Italian Renaissance, with the result that not only is the characteristic formalism of Orthodox art much relaxed, and a new, scientific vision of reality superimposed — by no means invariably successfully — on the old hieratic Byzantine conception, but whole compositions and motifs are freely borrowed from the West. The traffic, of course, was not entirely one way, and in the person of El Greco, Crete nobly repaid with compound interest what she had, perhaps rather unwisely, borrowed. So much, however, has recently been written about the importance of the Byzantine element in that painter’s work that it may not perhaps be out of place here to point out that the art with which Theotocopuli was acquainted in his native land was already markedly hybrid, and that the late Robert Byron’s portrait of the young traveler in Venice, on whose rigidly non-realistic, Orthodox vision Renaissance naturalism had an undoubtedly stimulating but in the long run superficial effect, needs some modification.
The Western European inoculation which the inhabitants of Crete received during the Venetian period served to maintain their native vigor and spirit at a higher pitch than that of the other Greeks during the long years when they were all subject to the Porte. The result was that there was no time in those centuries when the Cretans could have been said to have been acquiescent subjects of the Porte, and the years after the liberation of the mainland when Crete still remained within the Ottoman Empire were marked by an almost continuous series of revolts and uprisings which, although they invariably failed of their main objective, did secure for the island a certain cautious respect from their overlords, and incidentally provided the earliest lessons in leadership and statecraft for the great Venizelos. When at last, in the early years of the present century, victory was achieved and Crete was reunited to the rest of Greece, the islanders almost at once began to have second thoughts. The warm embraces with which they were received by their countrymen were soon discovered to have masked the most shameless pocket-picking, and the wealth of an island which was self-supporting to a degree unattained by any other portion of Greece was rapidly reduced by the depredations of successive governments that made little or no return in the way of social services.
It is not therefore altogether surprising that old men are still to be encountered who look back, as to a golden age, to the last days of Ottoman rule, when the professional storytellers were to be heard every evening in the cafés of Candia and Canea recounting their traditional sagas to an audience of grave Turks with lacquered mustaches and little sachets of musk tucked beneath their armpits, and the rhythm of an ancient way of life had not yet been disturbed by the shoddy modernity of Athens and the Piraeus. Nor is it surprising that among the younger men there are many, particularly those who as guerrillas coöperated with British liaison officers during the occupation, who advocate autonomy for an island the inhabitants of which have for years maintained an undeviating liberalism equally antagonistic both to the extreme monarchists and the Marxian democrats who alternately flourish so vigorously on the mainland.
Fascinating and occasionally impressive as are the incidents and monuments of recent Cretan history, they must inevitably tend to appear parochial and insubstantial when compared with the achievements of the race that flourished here at the very dawn of European history. Dorians, Arab corsairs, Venetian adventurers, German parachutists, have all come and gone, leaving nothing to mark their passage but an occasional entrenchment and a faint smell of blood, but in half a dozen places there are visible extensive remains of a people which, while remaining in many ways mysterious, are clearly seen to have attained a degree of material civilization unsurpassed until the present century, although they vanished from the historic scene more than a millennium before the birth of Christ.
The so-called palace of Minos dates from a period when the decline had already set in but was happily not far advanced, and must have stood in much the same relation stylistically to the earlier building which it replaced, as did Nash’s Buckingham Palace to Inigo Jones’s Queen’s House at Greenwich. Allowing for the fact that the frescoes as they appear today are largely the work of a talented French water-colorist, the general effect created by the surviving decorations is one of immense sophistication and a carefully cultivated taste. The human figures which appear from time to time, doing the most extraordinary things with bulls or watching ballet dancing in an olive grove, are unlike any others that appear in ancient art. Devoid of that power to trouble the emotions with a suggestion of a mysterious inner life with which in varying degrees the statues on the west portal at Chartres, the earliest Chinese figure paintings, or the mosaics at Hosios Loukas are endowed, they are at the same time entirely untouched by that ferocious animality that characterizes the stone carvings of the Incas or so many Negro masks. These people, one feels, were a race of happy little extroverts unshadowed by that inhibiting preoccupation with the future life which so troubled the contemporary Egyptians, and quite unconcerned with the intellectual problems which engaged the fascinated attention of the classical Greeks.
Quite suddenly, almost overnight, this whole complex world vanishes, the bulls and the ballet dancers, the water closets and the double-headed axes. In some apocalyptic convulsion of which vague rumors survive in the legends of the Minotaur and the correspondence of the Egyptian Foreign Office, the thalassocracy of Minos is overwhelmed, its unwalled cities cast down and its palaces consumed with fire. The very suddenness of the disaster which brought to an end this first European civilization, together with that earlier, perhaps volcanic, catastrophe which occurred at the end of the Middle Minoan period, seems to be in keeping with the extraordinary character and landscape of this island and to have established a tradition. The tempo of history, one feels, can never be the same in Crete as elsewhere, and the triumphs and disasters that, occur on its shores will always have a cataclysmic quality whether they be occasioned by vast tidal waves thrown up by some submarine convulsion, the unheralded descent of sea-borne barbarians, or a German army corps dropping from a cloudless sky.
THE Cyclades, seen from the sea or the air, have none of that dreamlike quality with which one is accustomed, doubtless unjustifiably, to invest the Isles of Greece and which does in strong measure attach to Corfu. Barren, concrete, and unyielding, their uncompromising silhouettes, unsoftened by mists or even, so clear is the air, by distance, they provide visible proof that grimness is not necessarily always gray, nor solely an attribute of northern climes. The hard blue sea, the brilliant white of the few scattered buildings, the reddish earth, make up a scene that is none the less austere for being highly colored. Samos, however, is nicely traditional; avoiding on the one hand the lushness of Corfu and on the other the Cycladic harshness, it approximates far more closely the popular conception than any of the other islands I have seen. Sufficiently restricted in size to render it impossible ever to forget that one is on an island, close enough to its neighbors and the mainland to preclude any uncomfortable feeling of remoteness, amply provided with wooded creeks and long beaches, it would seem to fulfill the most exigent island-fancier’s every demand.
The principal town, Vathi, is situated on the opposite side of the island from the ancient Samos, at the head of a bay that narrows almost to the dimensions of a creek. Much of the charm of the place lies in the miniature scale on which it is conceived; leaning from a first-floor window on the minute quay, it would appear possible without undue exertion to shake hands with a friend aboard one of the small caïques tied up below. The churches in the town itself are not remarkable, but on the surrounding heights, and indeed throughout the island, are a number of monasteries neither very old nor in the accepted sense important, but which, with their abundance of painted domes, colorwashed walls, and invariably inaccessible situation, lend a pleasingly theatrical, almost Russian ballet, air to a landscape in which the various elements — the mountains, valleys, cliffs, and sea — are already so compressed and, as it were, out of perspective as to achieve a sophisticated yet primitive quality more often to be found in the stage sets of Goncharova or the backgrounds of an ikon than in nature.
The island of Chios, away to the northwest, differs from Samos in almost every respect. Large in size, with a long history of commercial importance, celebrated in ancient times as the birthplace of Homer and in modern times as the scene of an appalling massacre that inspired Delacroix and delivered an effective jab to the well-cushioned conscience of Christendom, it quite lacks the remote and unexpected quality of its smaller neighbor. The port itself makes no very favorable impression; along the quayside stretches a line of drab, 1900 buildings, cafés, offices, and stores, many of them in an unattractive yellow brick meticulously pointed; and only the skeletons of the big seagoing caïques in the shipyards and the row of windmills along the water’s edge give character to the prospect. Immediately behind this depressing facade the scene, though more animated and less Western, is scarcely more rewarding: a not very impressive mosque, a bazaar that is confused without being picturesque, and a plane-shaded market place chiefly filled with the wares of the local potters, flat dishes usually marred by meaningless decorations in chalky white and high-necked amphorae that have a mean look after the splendid big-bellied pots of Crete — and that is all.
At the south end of the town, however, the scene is completely different. Here the dingy shopping streets gradually lose themselves between the high walls and shady lanes of the campus, the most remarkable residential suburb of which perhaps any town can boast. If one steps aside through any of the ornamental but crumbling gateways which impose an ineffective barrier of rusty wrought iron between the urban squalor of the street and the discernible greenery beyond, one enters an Edenlike region of terraced but neglected gardens, long perspectives of olives and thick groves of lemon stretching away up the gentle slope until they merge imperceptibly into the open mountainside. Technically one is trespassing, for these gardens — or rather this park, for no visible boundaries divide one property from another — are the private paradise of the long-established and immensely wealthy Chiot shipowning community, but none will question one’s presence, for these shuttered stone-built mansions that loom up here and there through the green shade are almost all empty and deserted, as silent and abandoned as the shipyards in the harbor, their owners a thousand miles away in the airconditioned comfort of the Dorchester or the rhododendron-shrouded coziness of some half-timbered Surrey mansion, far beyond the reach of the compelling fragrance of the lemon blossom, which is here so strong as to be discernible, so it is said, when the wind is offshore, five or six miles out to sea.
IN SAILING from Chios to Mytilene one passes the mouth of a gulf at the head of which lies the city of Smyrna, a town that was once the most important Greek center in the whole Levant, Giaour Izmir, but which today is but the decaying provincial capital of a formerly fertile region reduced in twenty years to a barren jackal-infested wilderness. Nevertheless, as the spiritual home of the Anglo-Levantines, the most influential and for the English traveler perhaps the most dangerous of all the various Greek minorities, it still exercises a certain influence on the life and fortunes of modern Greece.
Descended from the English merchants of the Levant Company, and all bearing aggressively Saxon names, these people present a most fascinating study in the conflicting effects of heredity and environment. At first sight their essential Englishness is overwhelmingly apparent; their pipes seldom if ever leave their mouths, their Harris tweed jackets are split up to the shoulderblades, all their ties are club, while the likeness of their homes, sticky with shiny chintz and plastered with Cecil Aid ins, is not today to be found elsewhere outside the pages of Punch. Yet should the conversation take a business turn, it is not long before the lupine Levantine skeleton is discernible beneath the old Marlburian sheepskin; a sudden elevation of the eyebrows involuntarily expressing not surprise but negation, a vaguely circular gesture lightly sketched by a firmly gripped pipestem, and a telltale crack appears in the beautifully modeled Metroland mask. Completely bilingual and clinging firmly to their British nationality, the Anglo-Levantines are undoubtedly useful not only to various commercial firms but also to H.M.G. in the roles of consuls and vice-consuls and, in time of war, of liaison officers. Unfortunately they labor under the considerable disadvantage of being detested by the Greeks, in whose eyes their assumption of the old school tie in season and out is but a threadbare disguise which, when adopted by those in whose veins there flows no English blood of later vintage than the eighteenth century, is by implication an insult to the Greek nation.
Mytilene is second in size to Crete among the Greek islands but much further removed in the scale of natural beauty. Not that it lacks attraction, but rather that its quality has a slightly tarnished, Riviera flavor, and where nature has rested content with her easier, slicker triumphs, man has achieved prodigies of laborious ugliness. The capital is one of the most self-consciously hideous small towns it has ever been my lot to visit, and whereas the deliberate intention may possibly have been outdistanced in England or northern France, the effect, in the absence of the merciful blurring of less favored climes, is unsurpassed.
Save for the ruins of the castle, now sheltering, as is usual in these latitudes, the local brothel population, no traces of antiquity remain; nevertheless the principal monument of the town, the cathedral, though modern, is certainly not deficient in architectural interest. A large foursquare building in a dingy reddish stone, one might assume, on first-catching sight of its writhing silhouette, that it was the work of a provincial Austrian architect of the eighties who had at some time acquired a nodding acquaintance with the works of Norman Shaw, but closer inspection will prove such a judgment superficial. The extraordinary quality of the detail, which seems rather to have been squeezed out of a toothpaste tube than hewn in stone, the elephantine proportions, the arbitrary but undeniably original employment of classical motifs, all lead me to classify it as what I can only suppose, being quite unacquainted with the Turkish mainland, to be a variety of very late Asia Minor Baroque.
The journey from the coast to the extraordinary village of Agiasso produces much of absorbing and legitimate architectural interest. The houses along the coastal belt are, at first sight, admittedly extravagant in design, but their oddity is not in the least wayward but the result of an intelligent response to an overwhelming functional need. Immediately on entering the pilgrimage village of Agiasso, crowning the summit of a rounded hill, one is aware of an extraordinary, enclosed atmosphere as of a stronghold of some remote and peculiar people.
The men are all clad in the traditional island costume, baggy dark blue Turkish breeches encircled at the waist by a wide black cummerbund, a sleeveless braided waistcoat, and a round fur cap, but despite this conformity of dress they have a strangely alien look. As elsewhere, they tend to cluster all day long in groups in the platia, which here, however, quite lack the normal animation of a Greek village crowd, and the usual high-pitched buzz of chatter audible several streets away is replaced by a low and slightly sinister swell of humming and muttering. It is said that this apparent surliness is quite in keeping with the local character, for the village has a bad reputation all over the island, which, combined with the local dialect, spoken nowhere else and quite incomprehensible a few miles away, has encouraged the belief that the Agiassotes are a race apart, descended perhaps from some aboriginal people who, before the coming of the Ionians, lorded it over the whole island but were driven in the course of the centuries back into the central mountains where this village represents their last stronghold.
Today Mytilene is in a far better position economically than the other islands. The olive harvests have been good and the inhabitants displayed during the occupation an exceptional facility for concealing their stocks from the Germans in secret reservoirs and underground storerooms. Unfortunately an ingenuity that was originally developed to outwit the common foe is now employed to defeat the economic plans of the central government, and much of the oil which should appear on the home market at a controlled price is smuggled away in caïques by night to the Turkish coast and there more profitably disposed of on the Smyrna black market. It is, therefore, curious that where the general practice is so far removed from those leftist ideals of planned economy and state control, current politics should be dominated by the most severe Marxism; for of all the Greek Islanders the Lesbians are the most obstinately and vociferously Red.