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Art in Corfu – Introduction

Written by Dr. Athanasios Christou
A privileged place with an unlimited artistic potential, a nucleus of creation and intellectual stimulation, particularly since the 19th century, Corfu produced important figures especially in the field of fine arts. With pursuits extending beyond its boundaries, it gave birth to the first sculptors of modern Greek art, supported painting by expanding the achievements of Zakynthians thanks to the local artists and nurtured the first engravers. Here, on this small Greek island, one can trace the progress and the important historic and cultural milestones, trace on the fusion of currents and trends, pinpoint ideas and discover important artists. This is the place that succeded in learning from European achievements in art and culture, by assimilating and using them fruitfully. Here, where as Costis Palamas wrote “the east meets the west”, art found the most fertile soil, architecture acquired a distinct character, music conquered people’s souls, poetry expressed anxieties and aspirations and lyrical theatre became a way of life for both natives and refugees from other regions. It was not, therefore, by accident that intellectual and artistic activity moved in a really accelerated pace on the island of Corfu. The establishment in 1811 of the first School of Fine Arts by Pavlos Prosalentis Sr. and the fact that it was granted public status by the English rulers resulted in the emergence of the first modern Greek sculptors and the constant involvement of artists with secular painting and engraving. Meanwhile, a succession of events, including the establishment of the Academy of Sciences by the French in 1808-1809 and of the first university, the Ionian Academy, a few years later, in 1824, the operation of San Giacomo theatre, the first in modern Greece, as early as 1720, the establishment, in 1797, of the Public Library, the operation of two printing-houses in 1798, the foundation of the first Reading Society in 1836 and of the first Philarmonic Society in 1840, opened up further the intellectual horizons in the Ionian Islands and is proof of the creative frenzy characterising this period. The easy communication of the Corfiot artists with the artistic centres of Western Europe defined a course that would express their anxieties and attest to their achievements. Their contact with the European centres, the fact that they studied there and were introduced to the contemporary currents created the context in which visual and plastic arts would evolve. The Venetians with their rich visual and plastic art tradition since the Renaissance, the French with their own tradition in these fields during the 17th and 18th centuries together with the messages of the French Revolution (1789), and the British that succeeded them, shaped the conditions and opened up new directions, essentially introducing Corfiots to the pleasures of fine arts. The construction during this period of some of the most important buildings and the possibility for young Heptanesian artists to contribute to their decoration, was a further boost to the local artistic creation. On the north side of the Esplanade, the central square of Corfu town, the French, under the supervision of Mathieu Lesseps, constructed the architectural complex named “Liston”, a reproduction of the Parisian Rue de Rivoli Arcades by Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine. A few years later, in 1821, the British constructed, in the “upper square” the Maitland Monument, a circular structure with Ionic columns, designed by engineer and architect Sir George Whitmore and in 1819-1823 the Palace of St. Michael and St. George on the northwest side of the Esplanade. The latter was also designed by Whitmore and Pavlos Prosalentis was commissioned to do all the sculptural work. During the same period the Corfiot architect Ioannis Chronis (1799-1879)1 was making a name for himself; he designed major private and public buildings, including the Capodistrias Mansion (1832), which at one period housed the Prefecture of Corfu and currently part of the Ionian University, the Ionian Bank (1845-46) and the Ionian Parliament (1853-1854) with Doric columns on the facade.

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