If Corfu, and especially its old town, looks like a geographical and cultural mosaic, then its stones and colours have been a contribution of many European nations’ influence and cultures. But equally significant has been the impact of important personalities that were born on the island and of others who chose to live in Corfu. In this last category, outstanding has been the role of Greece’s national poet, Dionysios Solomos, who chose to spend the last 29 years of his life in Corfu, bequeathing a brilliant cultural heritage not only to Corfiots, but to all Greeks. Indeed, Corfu with its 19th century flourishing of arts and literature, became an important milestone in the poet’s personal and creative course. As a matter of fact, we can distinguish five phases in Solomos’ literary career, with three of them taking place in his residence in Corfu that has been turned into a museum, a fact that proves how determinant for him has his staying in Corfu been.
Being born on Zakynthos island in 1798, Solomos attended the elementary school on his island, a school that had been founded by Cortfiot Ionannis Capodistrias – the first Governor of the freed Greek state – as part of his reformation project for the educational system. However, he finished school and completed his university studies in Italy, in Cremona and Pavia respectively, which explains why the first poets he wrote upon his return to Zakynthos in 1818, were written in Italian. During the decade he spent on his island, he socialised estimable intellectuals and he also wrote the poem “Hymn to Liberty”, one of his masterpieces that was inspired by the 1821 Greek Revolution of Independence. In 1825, two years after its completion, the poem was printed in Messolonghi and Paris, affecting significantly the supportive towards Greece European movement and establishing Solomos as a grand scale intellectual.
A few years later, in 1828, the major poet of the newly established Greek state, arrived in Corfu where he stayed until his death in 1857. On the Ionian island that was under British rule at the time, he was seeking for the kind of tranquility and peace of mind that would help him focus on his work. During the first four years he stayed in various houses, none of which exists today. But since August of 1832 he moved into a spacious two storey house in the area of Mouraglia, which benefited from unobstructed views towards the Ionian sea and Vido island. This building that today houses the Solomos Museum, has bared witness to a great part of his poetic creativity and despite the fact that it had almost been demolished in 1941 by World War II Italian bombings, it has been restored thanks to the contribution of the Society for Corfiot Studies. The exterior characteristics of the old building have been preserved and so today, as we arrive at the salmon pink building with the light blue shutters, we travel back in time, visit the spaces where the great poet lived and gaze at the same view he did when he was creating his works.
As the visitor enters the museum, he’s being welcomed by the poet’s bronze bust, a work of art by sculptor Achilles Apergis, situated next to the spiral staircase that leads to the upper floors. It’s easy to understand that special care has been taken so that the spaces don’t necessarily reflect the original decoration of the house, but rather point out the mark Solomos’ work has left in the subsequent generations of major artists. Therefore, a series of engravings created by artist Aria Komianou, which were inspired by Solomos’ novel “The Woman of Zakynthos” and created exclusively for the museum, are combined with Alekos Fasianos’ engravings of the same theme and exhibited along some first editions of this particular prose. This thematic section on the museum’s ground floor is completed by some more engravings, representing Solomos and some other scholars of the Ionian islands, that decorate the part of the staircase that leads to the first floor.
Reaching the first floor, which is the museum’s main space, the visitor can easily imagine the great poet welcoming his scholar friends like Aristotelis Valaoritis or his disciples like Iakovos Polylas or Andreas Laskaratos. Here, among the personalities whose portraits decorate the walls, we can notice important men of those times, from Ioannis Capodistrias to important intellectuals, and also members of the Solomos family. On one wall we can see a painting of the poet’s family tree, as well as the family’s crest. The exhibits include a bookcase with 19th century books in leather covers, photographs of the young poet, his manuscripts and hand written notes and a detailed presentation of the major phases of his life and work. There’s a particularly interesting part of the exhibition focusing on the first editions of the “Hymn to Liberty”, and Solomos’ acquaintance with the great Corfiot composer Nikolaos Mantzaros, who set music to many Solomos’ poems, among which the “Hymn to Liberty”, that in 1865 became the National Anthem of Greece. Finally, one of the most important exhibits is the desk where the poet had been working for almost a decade on his second draft of “The Free Besieged”, a work that was inspired by the heroic struggle of the besieged Greeks of Messolonghi.
The visit to the museum is completed with a display of portraits entitled “From Solomos to Elytis”. It decorates the wall of the staircase that leads to the second floor and is comprised of portraits of some of the most important Greek poets, authors, novelists and artists.
As we exit the old house and find ourselves in the Mouraglia neighborhood, we can’t help but remembering a part of the letter Solomos wrote to his brother in 1832, inviting him for a visit in his new residence: “The windows of the largest room face the sea and when you exit the house you’ll have such an amazing view that you will only tear yourself away with difficulty…” As the area has remained practically unchanged in the course of time, it’s ideal for a seaside walk that will lead you back to the old town’s center and to present day.