The Ministry of Culture and Sports announced this week that it aims to upgrade the cultural environment and the quality of life of the residents of the Old Town of Corfu through a new strategic plan.
This goal will be realized through the overall strategic plan of the Ministry of Culture and Sports within the framework of a two-year research program funded by the ministry itself and prepared in collaboration with the National Technical University of Athens.
The plan for the restoration of the Old Town of Corfu
According to the Ministry of Culture and Sports, the restoration program for Corfu’s Old Town aims not only to protect and highlight both the Old Fortress of Corfu and the New Venetian Fortress but also to improve accessibility. The program’s priority will be the maintenance, restoration, and promotion of the two fortresses of the Old Town of Corfu.
According to the Minister of Culture and Sports, Lina Mendoni, “The Old Town of Corfu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has one of the most perfect defense systems in the Eastern Mediterranean. The needs, but also the performance possibilities for the citizens and visitors of the two monumental complexes, the Old and the New Fortress, are recorded. Projects and actions are systematized and prioritized for their comprehensive protection, maintenance, restoration, and promotion.”
Work will start with the restoration of the New Fortress’ Bastion of the Seven Winds with funding from the EU’s Recovery Fund.
In addition, the Minister of Culture pointed out that “the Fortresses of Corfu, apart from their monumental appearance, are important free spaces of the Old Town with which they compose a single, protected whole. The fortress complex must have high-quality uses—permanent or periodic—compatible with its historicity. The first project, which has already been launched by the Ministry of Culture, is the restoration of the Bastion of the Seven Winds.”
Interventions are planned to also highlight and protect monuments, mark routes and individual facilities, and improve security of visitors. A characteristic element of the topography of the Old Fortress is that it was completed at the end of the 16th century by the Venetians.
The threats to Corfu’s Old Town
Through the research program, the methodology of the management of the monuments, which are included in a wider residential environment, was highlighted. Given the interconnectedness of the two fortresses and the city, the research program concluded that the problems that threaten both the fortresses and the city are largely connected and must be tackled together.
Problems arising from climatic change, such as floods, fires, and rising sea levels, as well as problems arising from human activities—over-tourism, traffic and parking, and infrastructure networks—are threatening the health and safety of one of the most historic old towns of Greece. According to the research program, these problems should be addressed within a joint management plan which introduces rules of construction and operation in the environment of fortresses.
Moreover, lack of funding and a continuous ignorance of some of the most historical buildings of the area threaten the cultural heritage of Corfu’s Old Town.
Corfu’s Old Town: evidence of the island’s diverse history
Corfu always played a significant role in Mediterranean history due to its strategic position in the Adriatic Sea. Whoever controlled Corfu had a good chance of controlling the most important trade and military routes between East and West and North and South. As a result, the island was conquered multiple times, including by the Greeks, Romans, Goths, Byzantines, Normans, Neapolitan Angevins, Venetians, French, and British. Obviously, it’s had quite a history! All these conquerors left behind a multi-layered historical and cultural heritage that is vividly evident in Corfu’s historic Old Town.
The small medieval town was established during Angevin rule (1267-1368). During that period, the town was enclosed by thick defensive walls and guarded by two imposing castles that looked out to the Ionian Sea and the Greek mainland.
Under the Venetians, who remained on Corfu for nearly four hundred years from 1386 to 1797, Corfu Town prospered. The Venetians brought their great commercial skills but also their architectural prowess and soon turned Corfu Town into a thriving economic center within the northern Adriatic area. They also improved the Old Town’s defense system by upgrading the Old Fortress and building the New Fortress.
The Ottoman Turks laid siege to the town on numerous occasions over the centuries but always in vain. Hence, Corfu did not pass through Ottoman rule. Its space inside the city walls was limited, the streets were narrow and labyrinthine and this made it difficult to be conquered.
Nowadays, not many Venetian buildings survive. Many were destroyed during World War II. Still bearing witness to the extended presence of Venetian power on Corfu, however, are the Theatre of Corfu; the two fortresses; Liston, a promenade-piazza; Spianada Square; the Nobile Teatro di San Giacomo—once a theater but now Corfu City Hall; several palazzi; the canal separating the Old Fortress from the town; and the occasional depiction of the winged lion, a symbol of St. Mark and Venice.
When the Republic of Venice fell in 1797, France took control of Corfu. However, French rule did not last long, as, during the complex events of the Napoleonic Wars, Corfu became capital of the newly instituted State of the Ionian Islands (1799-1807). The island then faced yet another French conquest (1807-1814) and, with Napoleon vanquished, the British subsequently took control of the island.
The British remained in Corfu for fifty years, during which time, a succession of High Commissioners worked on the remodeling and modernization of the Old Town. Consequently, many historical Venetian sections of town were demolished to accommodate impressive neoclassical housing and a series of civic buildings, including the Palace of St. Michael and St. George, which is the residence of the High Commissioner and home of the Ionian Senate.
Furthermore, the British also founded a university, set up a reading society and royal cricket club, and promoted a host of other cultural activities. These quickly turned Corfu into the most important cultural center of the Ionian Sea.
The British ruled Corfu up until 1864 when the island was ceded to the Kingdom of Greece. The capital city, however, continued to attract holidaying aristocracy from around Europe, many of whom built new superb buildings and colonized the elegant Liston area built in 1807 by the French imperial commissioner Mathieu de Lesseps. Palaces were also built out of town. Achilleion, for example, was built at the behest of the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, also known as Princess Sissi.
During World War II, the Old Town of Corfu was severely bombed by German forces with almost a quarter of the town destroyed. The Ionian Academy, the Municipal Theatre, the Municipal Library, and the Ionian Parliament were among the historic buildings completely ruined during the raid along with fourteen churches and several buildings of the Old Citadel.
Fortunately, much of the medieval quarter, known as the Campiello, which is the Venetian term for a small square in an urban area containing many narrow streets, survived, and, in 2007, UNESCO awarded Corfu Town the status of World Heritage Site.
According to UNESCO, “The urban and port ensemble of Corfu, dominated by its fortresses of Venetian origin, constitutes an architectural example of outstanding universal value in both its authenticity and its integrity.”