Orientations in Sunlight: With Durrell in RhodesPosted: November 1, 2019
“In Rhodes the days drop as softly as fruit from trees. Some belong to the dazzling ages of Cleobolus and the tyrants, some to the gloomy Tiberius, some to the crusaders. They follow each other in scales and modes too quickly almost to be captured in the nets of form,” wrote Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) in the first pages of his acclaimed memoir Reflections on a Marine Venus: A Companion to the Landscape of Rhodes (1953). More than seventy years later, if Durrell were still alive, he would have added “… some to the crusaders, some to the Italians.”
Durrell was stationed in Rhodes for two years when the Dodecanese was under British Administration (1945-1947). As Information Officer, he supervised the publication of three daily papers, in Greek, Turkish, and Italian. (I found copies of the Greek one, ΧΡΟΝΟΣ, in the Nicholas Mavris Papers in the ASCSA Archives. Mavris, a prominent member of the Greek American community, in 1948 became the first governor commissioner of the freed Dodecanese.)
WW II had just ended and the fate of the Dodecanese was still uncertain. Despite their Greek past, these islands in the southeastern part of the Aegean (also known as Southern Sporades) did not join Greece until 1947, having passed from the Ottomans directly to the Italians in 1913, from the Italians to the Germans in 1943, and from them to the British. In 1946, the Allied Forces in Paris finally agreed upon the integration of the Dodecanese with Greece. It was not until the 31st of March 1947, however, that the British officially delivered the administration of the Dodecanese to the Greek State.
Durrell did not write Marine Venus while on Rhodes but a few years later, relying on his memory and “sifting into the material, now some old notes from a forgotten scrapbook, now a letter” (Marine Venus, p. 3).
“Of Paradise Terrestre”
I read Marine Venus for the first time about ten years ago, when I was doing research triggered by the reissue of Triumph Over Time. Produced by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or School hereafter) in 1947, in addition to promoting the School’s excavations at Old Corinth and in the Athenian Agora, this film presents a serene and idyllic view of Greece, emphasizing the country’s rural aspects and her continuity with ancient Greece. Reissued in 2007, the film received mixed reviews during viewings: older Greek people embraced it with great fondness since for them it was a walk down memory lane, especially for the those who had grown up in villages; younger people, on the other hand, especially those born post-1970 found fault with it because it did not show the ruined state of Greece after WW II, lacked urban scenery, and avoided any references to the Civil War. Seventy years after its production, Triumph Over Time was criticized for not being a true historical documentary.
Out of curiosity, I started looking for literature that had been published immediately after WW II. I was nonplussed to find that one of my most favorite novels, The Three Summers (Τα Ψάθινα Καπέλα) by Margarita Lyberaki, was first published in Greece in 1946 (and in France in 1950). Like Triumph Over Time, “the world inside the book could [not have been] more unlike the world it came into when it was first published in 1946,” as Karen Van Dyck, Kimon A. Doukas Professor of Modern Greek Literature at Columbia University, who translated the novel in English (Paris Review, July 16, 2019), recently emphasized in an interview. Idyllic and timeless, this coming-of-age- novel “must have offered [its readers] an oasis from the unbearable realities of the day,” Van Dyck added. Another common thread between Triumph Over Time and Lyberaki’s Three Summers is that both works are steeped in the sun. “The sun has disappeared from books these days. That’s why they hinder our attempts to live, instead of helping us. But the secret is still kept in your country, passed on from one initiate to another. You are one of those who pass it on,” wrote Albert Camus to Margarita Lyberaki when he first read the book in 1950.
My literary wanderings eventually led me to Durrell’s Marine Venus, which I had not read. I wasn’t even aware of it. Having not ever visited Rhodes or any of the islands of the Dodecanese, I read Marine Venus impatiently, unable to appreciate Durrell’s rich descriptions of the island. Yet its reading left me with a residue of happiness, as if in a “paradise terrestre.” Later I read that, before publication, Marine Venus was chopped almost in half by Faber & Faber’s editor Anne Ridler, who cut most of the passages dealing with the recent war, and “oriented the book to sunlight, blue skies, and clear sea.” (See David Roessel in his Introduction to the 2001 Faber & Faber edition.)
I finally made it to Rhodes last September. Not being able to find a hotel we liked within the boundaries of the castle of the Knights of St. John, we opted for one outside, in Mandraki. Within a few hours on Rhodes, I began to notice that Mandraki was full of public and private buildings dating to the interwar period, but constructed in diverse architectural styles. On the one hand, there were fascist buildings, such as the Theater and the City Hall; on the other, highly eclectic buildings, such as the Palazzo del Governo, or modernist ones, such as the Ronda.
Soon after the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), which recognized officially the Italian possession of the Dodecanese, the first civilian governor of the “Italian Aegean Islands” Mario Lago (1878-1950) enlisted the services of architect Florestano di Fausto (1890-1965). By 1926, Di Fausto had laid out Rhodes’ city plan. retaining the Medieval zone, while setting the new city outside the castle by Mandraki harbor. That’s where one can find today many works by Di Fausto and other Italian architects, works such as the Palazzo del Governo, the Catholic cathedral of the Knights of Saint John (now the Evangelismos church), the Post Office (1927-1929), the New Market, and the famous Grande Albergo delle Rose. Di Fausto’s career in Rhodes did not last long since he and Lago came into a conflict that ended with a legal dispute in 1927, forcing Di Fausto to leave Rhodes. (Di Fausto continued his illustrious career in Albania, Ethiopia, and Libya, and became Italy’s most important colonial architect.)
According to architectural historian Vassilis Kolonas, the Italian architects of Rhodes, after an initial experimentation with academic examples, began “to incorporate elements from the island’s various historical periods in their designs… from the city’s Byzantine, Crusader, or Islamic past… the local anonymous architecture…, folk art and even echoes from the architectural tradition of Middle Eastern countries,” creating a new colonial Mediterranean style, unmistakably recognizable today. Lombardi, who replaced Di Fausto in the Directorate of Public Works in 1928, managed to blend harmoniously Byzantine, Islamic, and Classical elements in the Kallithea Baths (1928-1930), “a fantasy set for tourist Rhodes that would remain the island’s symbol for many decades” (Kolonas and Gerolympos, 2002, 55). Moreover, the Italian architects in the Dodecanese under Lago, a visionary politician who promoted cultural assimilation, felt free to adopt their architecture to the local climate and history, strongly embracing the concept of mediterraneità:
“…not a single stone was placed by me without having filled myself in advance with the spirit of the place, so as to make it my own,”
wrote Di Fausto in 1937 in the only essay he ever wrote about his work. (His essay carried the title “Visione mediterranea della mia architettura,” and the quote comes from Santoianni 2008, p. 93).
An Italian Tourist in Rhodes, 1933
Aspiring to make Rhodes a cosmopolitan destination, the Italian Administration of the Aegean Islands (Governo delle isole italiane dell’ Egeo), on the tenth anniversary of Lago’s governorship in 1933, published a celebratory, forty-page guide, Rodi: L’ isola delle rose, a copy of which I found in the Gennadius Library. The guide begins with a brief historical introduction underlining the island’s illustrious Greco-Roman past, and continues with the glories of the Knights of St. John until it was finally reduced to a sleepy oriental village (“un sonnolento borgo orientale”) in the hands of the Ottomans after 1522. By taking it from the Turks in 1912, it fell upon Italy to restore Rhodes’ previous glory, as an intermediary between east and west.
By promoting Rhodes’ mild climate throughout the year, which allowed the growth of exquisite oranges and grapes, dates and bananas, and flowers such as roses, hibiscus, and bougainvillea, the guide invited the tourist to explore the walled city (“la città murata”) and its monuments; by then, the Grande Ospedale dei Cavalieri had been transformed into a museum to hold the treasures that Italian excavations had brought to light since 1912.
Once outside the medieval castle, Italian visitors could continue their wanderings in the new city which combined “Venetian, Sicilian architecture with oriental elements” (“architettura veneziana e siciliana tutta impregnate d’ Oriente”). To top off their Rhodian experience, the tourists were encouraged to explore the countryside of the island on a newly constructed 400 km ring road. For mountain lovers, there was L’ Albergo del Cervo on Mount Prophetes Elias and for those seeking a recreational cure, the “Terme di Calitea” combined the Greek Hippocratic tradition with the Roman passion for elaborate bathing complexes. And where could one stay? From the Grande Albergo delle Rose, as luxurious and comfortable as any European hotel of that class, to a host of inexpensive but good family pensions, the Italian Administration of the Aegean Islands met the needs of all tastes and wallets.
From Splendid and Thoughtful to Florid and Tasteless
Durrell used these two pairs of adjectives to describe the diametrically opposed personalities of Governors Mario Lago and Cesare de Vecchi. 1936 marked a significant change in the administration of the Dodecanese that presaged the disastrous years that were to come. It was that year that Mussolini formalized his alliance with Hitler and set in motion a series of changes across the newly established “Italian Empire,” including the replacement of Governor Lago with Cesare Maria de Vecchi (1884-1959). The latter, a card carrying member of the Fascist Party, persecuted the local population by terminating the autonomy of the various ethnic groups, banned all newspapers except for Italian ones, activated racial laws, created Italian settlements on the islands, and instituted Italian as the only official language of the Dodecanese. He also introduced a period of architectural purification in Rhodes, by stripping all the ornamental elements from Di Fausto’s buildings, including the arabesques from the Grand Hotel of the Roses (Grande Albergo delle Rose). De Vecchi promoted a rationalism in architecture that sought to provide a unified and nationalist architecture across the Italian Empire, banning any kind of borrowings from other civilizations except for Imperial Rome.
In the collective memory of the Rhodians, the two administrations also remained separate. Until recently people distinguished between the “good Italians” and the brutal fascists; they also remembered that, from the 1920s until the mid-1930s, their lives had been transformed largely for the better, containing one of the biggest problems of the Dodecanese — emigration (Doumanis 2005).
While looking for more information about the Italian Occupation of the Dodecanese, I also came across an old promotional film that must have been produced on the occasion of Lago’s tenth anniversary in office. (In fact, I noticed that the RODI guide of 1933 used stills from the film.) The online version of the film is about 13 minutes long and one does not need to know Italian in order to enjoy it, and also appreciate the multicultural approach of the Lago administration.
Two American Women in Rhodes, 1933
In late January 1933, two young American women, members of the ASCSA, Dorothy Burr (Thompson) and Lucy Shoe (Meritt) took the boat to Rhodes. What they recorded both in writing and film, matches very much in spirit the descriptions of the Italian guide: a multi-ethnic crowd in a multi-period city.
“We walked down to the quay, by Turkish tombs and a minaret with lattice balustrade, past a handsome series of modern buildings in an Oriental Italian style, sarcophagi mounted on canon balls with the shields of the Grand Master –to the modern market [i.e., the Mercato Nuovo built by Di Fausto] in a sort of store around a central pergola of fish-market, full of Turks in pale pink and violet turbans, Greeks, women in leather boots… an almost Roman sight of underlying order with the color of squalor and independence of the East fretting on top” (entry for Jan. 26, 1933).
At Embona, a mountainous village, Dorothy and Lucy chatted with the local women in “queer Greek with soft lambdas and perhaps mixed with Turkish” and photographed their dresses, “blue skirt over a white jerkin with red embroidery, very high-waisted, leather boots, and the head tied up in white” (entry for Jan. 29, 1933).
Of the many photos that Dorothy took, my eyes rested longer on one depicting the Murad Reis Mosque. Thirteen years later, Durrell would write: “…we stumbled upon the little garden which encircles the Mosque of Murad Reis—a garden at whose heart I was later to find Villa Cleobolus; and here we sat for a while perched upon Turkish tombstones, smoking and enjoying the darkness which had now an almost touchable smoothness, the silkiness of old velours.” Durrell dedicated an entire chapter of his book to the garden of the Villa, where he, together with his beloved E[ve] Cohen, entertained their close friends: the idiosyncratic A. Gideon, the newly appointed Director of Agriculture, doctor Raymond Mills and his Greek wife Chloe, Hoyle (whose first name is not given), and Egon Huber, the gifted Austrian potter of ICARO (Industrie Ceramiche Artistiche Rodio-Orientali). “Here in the evenings we gather for drinks and gossip, sitting in cane chairs around the little painted table, hearing through the dusk the shallow strains of some forgotten fugue wafted to us from the old gramophone which is the Mufti’s special pride. Here Gideon and Hoyle play out those interminable games of chess… . Here, sitting on the ground, the grave, detached Huber is whittling at the hull of a ship or the bowl of a pipe” (Marine Venus, pp. 127-128).
Marine Venus vs. Rhodian Venus
I left until last the inspiration for the title of Durrell’s book: the Marine Venus. It took many readings of the relevant passage for me to understand that Durrell’s Venus was the armless, standing Aphrodite, also known as Venus Pudica. Why did he choose the Marine Venus over the dazzling Rhodian Venus? When we were at the Museum, everybody stood in awe in front of the small, kneeling, long-haired Rhodian Venus, hardly paying any attention to the solemn, mutilated Marine Venus.
Durrell credits his friend Mills for inspiring him to write a book about their time on Rhodes. Mills wanted Durrell to capture “not history of myth—but landscape and atmosphere…” (Marine Venus, p. 35). I suspect that the defining moment that encapsulated “all the charm and grace of our stay in Rhodes,” must have been the “rediscovery” of the Marine Venus some time in 1945 or 1946. Although the statue had been fished out of the sea in 1929, Durrell and his friends must have witnessed her retrieval from the crypt where she had been hidden for protection during the war. “I can still the faces of my friends as they surrounded the dark trap door out of which she rose so gravely into the sunlight. Hoyle and Gideon sitting astride a plank; Ego Huber, who had helped to bury her, smiling with pleasure to see her undamaged; while Mills and Sergeant Croker and a collection of barefoot urchins grunted and groaned on the ropes which were raising her” (Marine Venus, p. 36).
Durrell would not return to Rhodes after 1947, though he would sail by her in 1953, together with his two-year daughter Sappho, on his way to Cyprus; but not with his beautiful E[ve] who had suffered a mental breakdown in 1952. “It is good to see places where one has been happy in the past—to see them after many years and in different circumstances… each minaret like the loved worn face of an earthly friend. I am looking, as if into a well, to recapture the faces of Hoyle, Gideon, Mills—and the dark vehement grace of E.” wrote Durrell in the Epilogue to Marine Venus in 1952.
. For the quotes from Marine Venus, I used the 2009 edition by Axios Press.
. Dorothy Burr Thompson’s diaries are housed at Bryn Mawr College, in the Department of Special Collections of its library.
References and Suggested Reading
Anderson, S. “The Light and the Line: Florestano Di Fausto and the Politics of ‘Mediterraneità,’” Californian Italian Studies 1:1, 2010 (https://escholarship.org/uc/item/9hm1p6m5 ).
Doumanis, N. “Italians as ‘Good Colonizers’: Speaking Subalterns and the Politics of Memory in the Dodecanese,”in Italian Colonialism, ed. Ben-Ghiat R. and M. Fuller, New York 2005, pp. 220-231.
Fuller, M. “Building Power: Italy’s Colonial Architecture and Urbanism, 1923-1940,” Cultural Anthropology, vol. 3, no. 4 (Nov. 1988), pp. 455-487.
Kolonas, V. and Y. Gerolympos, Italian Architecture in the Dodecanese Islands, 1912-1943, Athens 2002.
Santoianni, V. “Il Razionalismo nelle colonie italiane 1928-1943: La «nuova architettura» delle Terre d’Oltremare” (unpublished dissertation: University of Napoli, 2008). http://www.fedoa.unina.it/1881/1/Santoianni_Progettazione_Architettonica.pdf