Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Is too late now to save
the Villa Rosa in Corfu?

The Villa Rosa on the outskirts of Corfu Old Town has been described as ‘a monument and a symbol of 19th century Corfu’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

One of the sad sights on the outskirts of the old town of Corfu is the Villa Rosa, a once-beautiful mansion built in 1864 by the painter Nicholas Aspioti.

This villa is an architectural gem in Corfu, and it has been described as ‘a monument and a symbol of 19th century Corfu.’ But I noticed its sad state over the past few weeks as I passed by on way in and out of Corfu town, and it is difficult not to notice with its bright red colours and its sad-looking state of neglect.

The Villa Rosa was designed in an architectural style that is a mixture of Italian romanticism and the English country house, and was once one of the most imposing buildings in Corfu. It is possible to imagine what life must have been like at the Villa Rosa, which once a large garden with many roses and ample stables.

This was probably the first house in Corfu to have electricity, generated for the Aspioti factory. It became one of the most prestigious centres of social life in Corfu at one time, with grand receptions, sometimes attended by members of the Greek royal family and visited by the King of Greece.

The Aspiotis family had a tremendous impact on social and economic life in Corfu, introducing many technological innovations to the island’s industrial life, including the foundation of the first printing factory in the whole of Greece.

The Villa Rossa was built in 1864 by Nicholas Aspiotis who had bought the site. This was the same year Corfu and the Ionian Islands were united with the modern Greek state.

After his death, the villa was inherited by his members of his family. It eventually passed to his grandson, Konstantinos Aspiotis, who became wealthy by mass-producing, in his printing shop, a kind of exclusive playing cards illustrated by his grandfather Nikolaos Aspiotis the painter.

Eventually, the company moved to Athens and became Aspioti-ELKA, a well-known printing and publishing company and one of the largest of its kind in Greece.

Villa Rosa passed to his daughter, Maria Aspioti (1909-2000), who entertained many British visitors, friends and colleagues here, including Lawrence Durrell and leading figures in the British arts world.

Maria-Aspasia (Marie) Aspioti (1909-2000) was born on 29 September 1909 at the Villa Rosa and became a distinguished writer, playwright, poet, publisher and cultural figure, and she influenced the literary and cultural life of post-war Corfu.

She published her book Corfu in French in 1930 in co-operation with the French writer René Puaux. During World War II she became a volunteer nurse at the Corfu General Hospital.

After the war, she was the director of the Corfu Branch of the British Council from 1946 to 1955, and from 1949 to 1954, she published the magazine Prosperos, inspired by Lawrence Durrell’s Prospero’s Cell.

She was also a family friend of Prince Philip. However, she resigned as the director of the British Council in Corfu in 1955 and handed back her MBE in protest against the British policies in Cyprus against enosis and suppressing Cypriot self-determination. At the same time, she also accused Durrell of betraying his philhellenism for a few coins.

Her first play, O Κουρσεμένος Γάμος (The Pirated Wedding), was staged in Corfu in 1956. Her other literary works were published in Prosperos and other publications in Corfu.

In his introduction to Lear’s Corfu, which she published in 1965, Lawrence Durrell wrote: ‘She is, I think, the first Greek friend I made and as a girl in her 20s she wrote a book about Corfu in French which was the first study of the island to fall into my hands. Indeed, her knowledge is as comprehensive as her scholarship is scrupulous and unobtrusive.’

Marie Aspiotis could no longer afford to maintain the Villa Rosa later in life, but while the villa became dilapidated, she continued to live there with her mother. Finally, the villa was bought in 1997 by the Greek government through the State Property Agency, and two years later it was handed over to the Prefecture of Corfu on condition that it was restored. Maria died on 25 May 2000.

Many uses have been proposed for the villa if or when it is restored. However, the local government was unsuccessful in persuading the banks to lend the money needed for its restoration.

Many fear that it is probably far too late to return to the restoration of the Villa Rossa, despite extensive studies and surveys by the School of Architecture at the National Technical University of Athens and other organisations since the villa was bought by the Greek state in 1997.

Many of the tiles and windows have disappeared, the site is water-logged, mosaics and decorations have collapsed, there are deep, serious cracks throughout the building, the elaborate wooden staircase is rotting and the garden is in a state of neglect.

The Villa Rosa appears to be rotting and about to collapse, propped up and surrounded by supporting iron girders. Is it too late to save this unique work of architecture in Corfu?

Is it too late to save the Villa Rosa? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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