The Miniature Domed Temples Inside the Churches of Corfu

by Richard Economakis, appearing in Volume 12

Like other ancient peoples—the Celts, Latins, and Franks, for instance— the Greeks experienced a dilution of their sense of ethnic identity after the collapse of the Roman Empire, which was replaced by a general attachment to Christianity. After the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, this identity was gradually replaced with a strong attachment to their faith. With the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, however, and their incorporation as a minority into a Muslim empire, they came increasingly to think of themselves as a nation again, principally on the basis of their ancient tongue with its direct links to the language of Homer and Plato—a language that the Orthodox Church had an important role in preserving.

Though central to their self-awareness, the Christian identity of the Greeks is a paradoxical one, for while the Church retained its seat in the old Greek Byzantine capital of Constantinople and used New Testament Greek as its language, it had originally made a point of distinguishing itself from ancient Greek or Hellenic civilization, which it denigrated as pagan. The ancient cultural legacy, however, was hoisted as a national standard alongside the Cross when, after some three-and-ahalf centuries of Turkish occupation, the Greek people rose in 1821 to proclaim their independence. This shift in attitude toward its pre-Christian cultural heritage, which by now was increasingly supported by members of the Greek clergy, was prompted by a number of factors, the varying effects of which we shall examine brie?y in connection with the evolution of an unusual basilical church type on the Ionian island of Corfu.

While there were periods of respite and even favor in the years of Ottoman occupation, in general Greeks and other Christians suffered much discrimination by the Muslim authorities. By the mid-eighteenth century, conditions for the Orthodox Church within the Ottoman Empire had deteriorated to such a degree as to prompt Empress Catherine the Great of Russia in 1770 to challenge the Turkish ?eet in the Aegean in order to secure better treatment for Christians. While Catherine succeeded in part and there was a subsequent softening of Ottoman attitudes toward the Church, by now many clergymen and Orthodox faithful had been stirred to seek independence from Turkish authority. They found that their rallying cries reached much farther when they appealed to their flock—and an increasingly concerned international community—on the basis of its ethnic "Greekness." The Greek national identity had meanwhile been fired by a European Romantic revival of interest in Hellenic antiquity.

The Romantic Movement's interest in the sublime found fertile ground in the ruins of ancient Greece, which were rediscovered in the eighteenth century, and above all in the Acropolis in Athens, which was carefully documented for the ?rst time by the British architects James Stuart and Nicholas Revett. With the revival of European interest in ancient Greek literature and science, the largely af?uent and educated members of the Greek Diaspora thriving outside the Ottoman Empire began to see their kin as the direct cultural heirs of classical Greece. In the Turkish-occupied homeland, meanwhile, the Orthodox Church was not long in realizing that the promise of independence from Ottoman control was greatest when faith and ethnicity were fused into what in previous centuries had been considered an unholy alliance. By the early nineteenth century the Greek countryside was crawling with "Philhellenes," European "lovers of Greece" like the poet Lord Byron, the architect Charles Robert Cockerell, the painter Edward Lear, the French connoisseur Louis Francois Fauvel, and the German Haller von Hallerstein, stoking their Romantic vision of antiquity and stirring the Greek peasant population into revolt against their Turkish overlords. The dream of independence became a reality in February of 1833, when the young Otto of Bavaria was installed on the throne of the newly created Kingdom of Greece at its first capital, the town of Nauplion in the Peloponnese. Only a year later the capital would move to Athens, where Otto was able to indulge his passion for dignifying the urban environment with neoclassical buildings, avenues, boulevards, and parks. Artists, architects, and poets poured into the country from around Europe, eager to exercise their Romantic ideals in the making of the new nation.

The island of Corfu—or Kerkyra as it was known in antiquity and is today again of?cially called—is unique in the Greek world in having withstood the Ottoman invasion and forged deep cultural ties with Venice, under the in?uence of which it fell in the early thirteenth century. Absorbed into a Venetian island province in 1386 (the Greek remnants of which today constitute the province of the Ionian Islands), Corfu was especially valued by "La Serenissima," or Republic of Venice, as an important forward bastion against Turkish advances into the Adriatic Sea. Though it was besieged a number of times by Turkish forces—most notably in 1538 and 1716—it survived to retain its reputation as a political haven for Greeks from around the world. In its earlier phase of development, the historic town, which spread into the open terrain between two forti?ed hillocks, or korfés (whence it modern name is derived), acquired an essentially Venetian urban and architectural character, which was re?exively adapted for its needs by the Greek population. This is evident in the numerous commercial arcades and winding streets, or kantoùnia, civic buildings overlooking campi, or squares, as they are known in the local Venetian-in?uenced Greek dialect, elaborately carved wellheads, tall stuccoed townhouses with prominent balconies, and a plethora of Renaissance architectural details and trim, particularly door surrounds and cornices. The Italian High Renaissance is best represented on Corfu by the surviving structures of the old Fortezza Vecchia on the eastern side of the town by the Veronese military engineer Michele Sanmicheli and the Venetian Ferrante Vitelli, who designed the later fortress on the west, the Fortezza Nuova.

In this first Venetian period the town began to grow on a low hillock situated between the two forts. In many respects Corfu typifies the small Venetian town, or borgo, of which there are numerous other surviving examples in the former Venetian territories of the Adriatic Sea, such as Ragusa, or Dubrovnik as it is known today, and Spalato, or Split, on the Croatian coast. As in Venice itself, the campi developed haphazardly in the urban fabric where it was natural for residents to congregate, especially around churches, civic buildings, fountains, and cisterns. The best example of such a space is Plateia Dimarcheiou, or Town Hall Square, overlooked on its north side by the seventeenth-century Loggia dei Nobili (which today serves as the seat of local government) and on the east side by the late sixteenthcentury Catholic Church of St. Iakovos, or St. James.

Venetian influence in Corfu was strengthened by the bestowal of titles to local families, which were subsequently inscribed in the notorious Venetian Libro d'Oro. Though this document was burned in public by Napoleonic forces when Corfu and the Ionian islands were seized by the French in the nineteenth century, Venetian culture and fashions had been thoroughly absorbed by the Corfiot population by this time, and in many ways survive to this day. Some customs were accepted after initially being urged upon them by the Venetian authorities: for instance, new churches that were built for the predominantly Greek Orthodox population no longer re?ected the Byzantine centralized plan, as typi?ed in the Church of Sts. Jason and Sosipater of the twelfth century to the south of the town of Corfu, but were modeled on an a western basilical type. Thus, Corfiot churches are linear, singlenave buildings adapted from an Italian plan type to accommodate the Orthodox rites.

Though tall, assertive domes are absent on Corfu, elegant bell towers from before the eighteenth century abound, as in the towers of the late sixteenth-century Orthodox Church of St. Spyridon and the Greek Cathedral of St. Theodora. In occupied mainland Greece bell towers had been forbidden by the Turks, and to this day they strike Greek visitors to Corfu as strange. The same can be said of the basilical church type, which despite the freedom from Ottoman oppression that the Venetians were able to guarantee, Corfiot Greeks began to associate with their subjugation to another foreign power (after all, their island had been annexed from the Greek Byzantine Empire in the thirteenth century after the per?dious conquest of Constantinople by its own western allies during the Fourth Crusade). In the late seventeenth century, the characteristically Greek centralized church type was cleverly worked into the basilical churches by incorporating a small marble cupola above the altar, so that the iconostasis appears as the façade of a miniaturized, domed Byzantine church—what Greeks would call a naïskos, or small temple. Meanwhile, the iconostasis itself projected an Italianate aspect through the use of the classical Orders. Rather than representing a concession to Venetian culture, this treatment re?ects instead the Greek Diaspora's own interest in the revival of the architecture and art of antiquity, and the belief that their church needed to embrace the cultural objectives of the Renaissance, as had their Catholic cousins. The best examples of the domed iconostasis, which we might more properly term a naïskos kerkyraïkos, or "Cor?ot tempietto," are to be found in the late sixteenth-century churches of St. Spyridon and St. Antonios, at the eastern and western extremities of the old town. The overall effect of these naïskoi is, of course, that of a Greek church engulfed (and one might subtly add, protected) by a Venetian basilica.