Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Papadiamantis Fireplace

The fireplace is a central component in Greek vernacular architecture. The Deserted Greek Village project surveyed many fireplaces constructed in stone (left, from Aigition, Phokis) or plaster (Penteskouphi). Hearths are typically found on the second floor of a house, dedicated to human residence as distinguished from mixed usage (storage, livestock) on the first floor. This internal distinction of upper and lower floors corresponds to the increasing specialization of domestic space throughout Europe and the U.S. in the 18th century. In contrast, the medieval Greek house would have had unitary spaces of mixed usage without fireplaces. 

The centrality of the fireplace in the social imagination of rural Greece is evident in how it is discussed in literature, particularly in the short stories of the late-19th-century school of Folk Realism. At another level, the village fireplace takes on a higher topical significance representing literature. This is a common topos in European literature, since most people actually read books in front of their fireplace (up until the advent of forced air heating in 1885). The Greek fireplace began to represent the location of oral culture. Kostas Ouranis, for example, describes his childhood memories of sitting by the fireplace and listening to his grandmother's tales.

I have begun a more systematic survey of 19th-century literature for its architectural references. The survey begins with the stories of Alexandros Papadiamantis. The edition of Papadiamantis that I have access to is the 1970 edition of Seferli (thank you University of Pennsylvania libraries for not [yet] taking Papadiamantis to off-site storage). Right at the opening of the first volume, we have a woodcut of Papadiamantis's own fireplace drawn by Nikolas Paulopoulos (1909-1990).

Alexandros Papadiamantis (1851-1911) spent most of his life in his native island of Skiathos. He lived in a house built in 1860 that has been transformed into a popular house museum. For the many literati (like Stratis Myrivilis) who would have visited Papadiamantis, the fireplace would have remained as an iconic image. I don't know when Nikolas would have made his woodcut, but I would guess in the 1950s or 1960s. The print of the woodcut illustrating the Papadiamantis edition belonged to Myrivilis. Nikolas' woodcut follows the Expressionist tradition charging the space with high contrast psychological tension. The provenance of the image connects the contemporary reader to Papadiamantis via Myrivilis and a chain of tradition. The Seferli edition becomes itself a visual document, as each of the stories is illustrated by a woodcut commissioned by the press. Nikolas's woodcut makes a nice introduction to the literary spaces of Greece's deserted villages.

It will be difficult to escape the sentimentalism surrounding the Greek fireplace. I hope it is still possible to excavate beyond the nostalgia and assess its materiality. Can we do a history of the Greek countryside in the footsteps of Raymond Williams?  Peter Mackridge has paved the way for such a study in "The Textualization of Place in Greek Fiction, 1883-1903," Journal of Mediterranean Studies 2 (1992), pp. 146-168. And I suspect that Ecocriticism will eventually have an impact on modern Greek literary studies.

Monday, July 27, 2015


Last summer, I made a pilgrimage to a house that served as an epicenter of the Anglo-American avant-garde, the house of Eva Palmer and Angelos Sikelianos in Sikya, 25 km west of Ancient Corinth (see here). Last week, I've been having terrific web-conversations with Artemis Leontis and Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan about this house. What I didn't know in last year's visit is that Kostas Karyotakis also had a summer house in the area. I have a little theory I'm developing in an upcoming essay that, in the 1920s, Corinth became a topos for the Greek avant-garde, in par with better known sites like Delphi, Mistras, or the Aegean. I argue this through poetry, Angelos Sikelianos's "Acrocorinth," Odysseus Elytis's "Drinking Corinthian Sun," and through paintings, Georg von Peschke's "Acrocorinth."

This summer, I spent two weeks with my students surveying ruined villages in Corinthia, Argolid, and Phocis. After an intensive week of surveying at Lidoriki, we spent a night at Delphi with the students, where I showed them the location where Greek folk arts (like the ones we studied) would have first been displayed to an international audience (at the 1927 Delphic Festival, curated by Angeliki Hadjimihali. The next day, we continued our research collecting comperanda for our museum study at the Hadjimihali House in Plaka. Looking at a map of the Gulf of Corinth, it became clear to me how close Sikya and Delphi are. They are not visible to each other because Mount Helicon blocks the view. By boat, however, Xylokastro to Itea are only 45 km apart, a distance that could be travelled by sailboat in one or two hours. The vista below, taken from the terrace of the Sikelianos house shows the proximity of the two coasts and Mount Helicon. Hotels from the 1970s that crowd the beach have unfortunately blocked the vistas of the Sikelianos house.

After last year's visit, I put my photos and notes of the Sikelianos house aside, but Artemis is helping me make sense of them now. After posting Karyotakis's poem "Sleep" on Facebook, Artemis had me completely hooked. The poem inspired the title Green Shore, one of the best recent novels about Greece by Natalie Bakopoulos. The poetic conversation (thank you Facebook!!!) sent me to the library to revisit Sikelianos's poem "Thalero," named after an agricultural village just 5 km upland from the coastal Sikya. It would have taken Sikelianos less than 45 mins to walk there. He took that walk in the middle of summer, accompanied by a shepherd dog. He was offered lunch by a hospitable family and took a siesta.

In "Thalero," Sikelianos explores the erotics of a Greek village, expressed in the crops, the house, the clothes, and most importantly the body of a young girl that served him food and wine. It is a loaded and powerfully erotic poem, you can listen to it here, read it here, and find its translation here. Rereading this poem after a year, it dawned on me that Sikelianos was responding to a place very similar to the nearby village of Penteskouphi that we surveyed this summer. The survey of Penteskouphi will be featured in the paper "An Abandoned Mud Brick Hamlet at Penteskouphi near Corinth: Its Condition, Educational Potential and Natural Environment," by Guy Sanders, Isabella Sanders, and Miyan Yoo at the 2016 annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America

The village house in Greece has been described and poeticized by writers as early as the mid-19th century. I have this crazy idea of surveying Greek literature and sampling those architectural descriptions. The natural place to start is in the folk realist prose of Alexandros Papadiamantis. I say this is a crazy idea because Papadiamantis's short stories alone number to the 300s. Stay tuned. 

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States