04 September 2013

A folk museum in Rethymnon
that tells ‘The Tale of a Town’

Looking out onto Vernadou Street from the arcade of the and Folk Art Museum of Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

There is an old proverb in Crete that says: “Chania for weapons, Rethymnon for letters, Iraklion for wine.”

Rethymnon’s best known literary figure is the writer Pandelis Prevelakis (1909-1986), although in western evaluations of Cretan literature he is often overshadowed by his friend and contemporary Nikos Kazantzakis.

Pandelis Prevelakis (Παντελής Πρεβελάκης) was one of the leading Greek prose writers of the “1930s generation.” Like Kazantzakis, he also wrote a biography of the great Cretan-born painter, El Greco. But he is best remembered in his home town for his account of daily life in Rethymnon, The Tale of a Town. His other works include Desolate Crete (1945), an account of the 1866 insurrection; The Death of the Medici (1939), an historical novel; The Sun of Death (1959); and a large trilogy, The Cretan (1948-1950, 1965), set in the half century before Crete’s independence from Ottoman rule, introducing characters such as the Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, who was born in Chania. He also wrote four historical plays.

The Tale of a Town (Το χρονικό μιας Pολιτείας, 1938), which is now impossible to find in an English-language translation in the bookshops of Rethymnon, chronicles unfamiliar and now often-lost aspects of daily life in Crete, with its nostalgic description of Rethymnon from 1898 to 1924.

When Prevelakis died in Athens in 1986, he was buried in a churchyard near the top of the hill on Kazantzakis Street in Rethymnon.

This morning I visited the Historical and Folk Art Museum in Vernadou Street in the centre of the old town. This is another way of telling “the tale of a town,” and the labeling on many of the exhibits is amplified with quotations from Prevelakis describing many of the skills and crafts of the town:

“… And so, when I speak only of the arts and tools of the men of other days, it seems to me that I am turning back in time, penetrating into their lives and entering into their souls by a way no warlike history could lead me … I would like Rethymnos to live on here, to live on through this part of me, who am a shoot of its stock.”

The museum is housed in an old, restored Venetian palazzo, on one side of the old courtyard, with its bitter orange trees.

The work of a traditional lyra-maker on display in the museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

On the ground floor, there exhibits of coins, flags, maps medals, photographs, old Ottoman prayer books and weapons from antiquity to World War II.

There are displays demonstrating traditional crafts and trades such as saddlers, coppersmiths, blacksmiths, cobblers and lyra-makers, and a reconstuction of an early 20th century taverna and coffee shop.. A noticeable absence is an account of the tradition of icon-writings.

A reconstructed traditional taverna in the museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Upstairs there are exhibits of woven textiles, embroideries, lace, costumes, ceramics, baskets, and reconstructions illustrating a 19th century middle class living room and traditional bread-making. Once again, the noticeable absence is an account of ordinary, every-day life of the Venetian or Ottoman residents from the past.

The museum is a private institution, founded in 1973 by Mrs Faly Voyatzakis and the late Christophoros Stavroulakis, and officially inaugurated in 1998.

The carved stone staircase in the courtyard of the museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

If there is room for improvement, then perhaps the museum could offer workshops for children on crafts that are in danger of being forgotten, the courtyard would make a wonderful traditional café and taverna, which might draw in more discerning tourists, and there is surely room for a stall selling postcards and books on the history of Rethymnon – perhaps even English-language versions of The Tale of a Town by Pandelis Pervelakis.

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