Thursday, 27 November 2008

Mastic & Medieval

If the common impression of a Greek village is a whitewashed tumble of squarish houses clustered beneath the protective shadow of a hilltop castle, then the medieval villages in the mastic region of the island of Chios present a different picture altogether.
Turn inland, away from the craggy coastal cliffs. Up on the rolling plateaux, with sweeping vistas over the brown landscape, a glint of light catches the eye. As you drive nearer, it turns into a church tower, and out of the shimmering heat haze that covers the shallow basin of an upland valley, a village appears, the church standing head and shoulders above the uniformly flat roofs of the houses.
This is the view of the three settlements of Pyrgi, Mesta and Olympi, in the southwestern corner of Chios island in the northeast Aegean. They are collectively known as mastichochoria (mastic villages) after the mastic resin that has been produced in the area for centuries.
Lentisk (Pistacia lentiscus) trees are grown in other parts of the region but only in southern Chios do they produce the resin. It has been cultivated since classical times – Hippocrates was said to be addicted to mastic chewing gum, while in the Roman era women used mastic toothpicks to clean their teeth. Mastic has long been claimed to have therapeutic, particularly antibacterial, properties, but today it is usually consumed either as a chewing gum or liqueur drink, though it is also turned into cosmetics, soaps, toothpaste and candies.
At various times in history it has been evident that whoever controlled the mastic trade called the shots on the island. This was particularly true of the Genoese in the 14th century. Since the 11th century they and the Venetians had been playing cat and mouse games in the Mediterranean, with each other and other powers. But in 1346 the Genoese came to stay and stamp their control on Chios. It was they who built the fortified villages in the south to protect the valuable mastic trade, and they brought architects and workers over from northern Italy to assist in the construction.
The villages were located well away from the coast to prevent sudden smash-and-grab raids. Any pirate who did make it that far inland would come up against a fortified village with an outer rim of houses presenting a unified wall, pierced only with one or two gateways. And if they did succeed in getting in, they would have been confronted by a maze of narrow alleyways, a confusion of twists and turns and dead-ends intended to confound a raider (and still a puzzle to today’s tourists).
Pyrgi, Mesta and Olympi remain essentially the same today. The shapes of the villages still follow the outline of the original walls, though the settlements have expanded since then. The streets are just as narrow – usually only wide enough to accommodate a laden donkey. The forts that stood at the centre of the villages, on the other hand, have all but disappeared in the case of Pyrgi and Mesta, the remaining walls incorporated into houses: the dominant building now being a church. In all three villages, doors, windows and balconies have been added to the outer walls of the houses on the edge.
The most notable feature of these villages architecturally, then and now, are the arches that span the narrow lanes. They range in depth from a few metres to a structure big enough to hold terraces, even rooms, and in one case an oven.
These arches had two main functions. First, they provided escape routes for villagers to move about stealthily when threatened by attackers; and second, as props for the walls in protection against earthquake damage – as they still do today. The major earthquake of 1881 did little damage to these villages though it caused extensive chaos in other parts of the island, particularly the main town.
Maria Xyda, a respected Chian architect who has worked on restorations of mastic village houses including that reputed to have been lived in by Christopher Columbus in Pyrgi in the mid 1470s, has documented similarities between these settlements and medieval villages in northwest Italy.
The typical house in a mastic village is tall with a narrow façade, though many dwellings have been subdivided over the years between sons and it can be almost impossible to tell where one individual house ends and another starts. The sun does not often reach street level, so the ground floors are cool and cavernous. They were originally used as stabling for animals, and even today you may still come across a donkey being led through an old wooden door. Underground cisterns for the storage of rainwater were usually located down here, too. A trough for crushing grapes was also a common feature.
The first floor consisted of a low-ceilinged storage area, while the top floor was taken up by a large living space containing an oven and a smaller room where the whole family slept together. Steps or a ladder led to an opening onto the flat-topped roof. There was occasionally an open terrace between the first and second levels.
The ovens were mainly used for baking bread. Oval-shaped with a flat floor, they were constructed of heatproof bricks. Twigs gathered from bushes and olive trees from nearby hills were lit, spread out with an iron rod and then pushed to one side when hot to leave space for bread. Sweets were also cooked in the ovens, and foodstuffs such as peas and figs were dried in them for consumption during the winter. Other fruit and vegetables were dried outside in the sunshine – even today old ladies still sit on their doorsteps threading tomatoes onto string to hang from balconies.
The undressed, rough masonry of the houses gives them a rustic look, but this is counteracted by sophisticated details, particularly the semi-circular fanlights that appear over many of the doors and some of the windows. The lintels and other blocks surrounding doors and windows are often magnificent in terms of size and appearance. A symbol representing a rodi, or pomegranate, may be carved into the lintel. It is traditional in this part of Greece to break open pomegranate fruit on New Year’s Day and spread the seeds in front of the house in order to bring happiness to the occupants for the coming year. One very unusual lintel carving in Pyrgi consists of a pomegranate flanked by a twig with leaves on the left side and a Star of David on the right. It is probably wrong, however, to assume that this house belonged to a Jewish family. According to Maria Xyda, the star was used as ornamentation rather than as a religious symbol: it was easy to draw and appeared frequently in popular art, such as pebble pavements, embroidery and bas-reliefs. There is little mention of Jews in the south of Chios, though they definitely had a presence in the main town. There is some mention of them acting as “go betweens” for the Ottomans and mastic producers.
Rooms in mastic village houses are small, so space is saved by caving cupboards out of the thick walls. Authorities have now forbidden owners to carry out any more of this type of work without permission as it can weaken the structure of the house. The same goes for renovations where two small rooms are knocked into one large one.
Renovations have become common in the villages in the past 10 years, especially Pyrgi and Mesta, mainly carried out by Greeks from Athens with local family connections. Others are content to build new, more spacious houses on the outskirts of the fortified towns.
Mesta and Olympi best preserve the medieval mood of the mastichochoria, Olympi is the smallest, and of particular interest because of its unusual centre. Anyone used to the open squares of Mediterranean villages will get a shock in Mesta, because slap bang in the middle of what should be the central plaza is the old fortress, where villagers would have gathered in times of siege. Today, it houses a couple of cafes, with tables, chairs and umbrellas set up in the space around it.
Like Olympi, Mesta’s cobbled lanes can be confusing to negotiate. In old days there was only one gate, and even now there are only three entrances. Today, the village has a population of about 300, with another 50 four kilometres down the road in the fishing port of Mesta Limenas (“harbour” in Greek) .
Pyrgi’s arches are less monumental than Mesta’s, so are not often built over, and they can be very irregularly shaped. Pyrgi is larger – its population is double that of its eastern neighbour, but what really makes it stand out are the unmistakable patterns that adorn the external walls of the houses.
Especially in the centre of town, there’s hardly a house left untouched by the xysta, or sgraffito. The surface of the wall is covered with a grey-coloured mixture of cement and lime called aspendos. While this coat is still fresh and wet, fork-like tools are used to scrape parts of it off, revealing the white surface beneath. Because the process must be done quickly before the aspendos dries, the patterns tend to be relatively simple.
Geometrics are the most popular: especially linear arrangements of repetitive lozenges, hourglass shapes, rhombi, zigzags, triangles, circles, scallops, running waves and stylised six-leafed flowers (think Louis Vuitton’s monogram design). There are some representational designs, too, including flowers, vases of flowers and birds – storks seem to be a favourite.
Maria Xyda’s research has led her to believe that the xysta are a combination of Italian and Oriental influences. There is also a tradition in Pyrgi of painting a border of two single blue and red lines on house walls: this is very similar to a tradition originating in medieval Genoa in Italy in medieval times.
Xyda also sees parallels between the Pyrgi patterns and those found in Cappadocia in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). There was an influx of Greeks from Anatolia to Chios in the mid-18th century, who must have bought this habit with them. She thinks they imitate the designs of Turkish kilims and points particularly to the bottom row of shapes that look like tassels on the rugs – and it is worth noting here that kilims are often hung on walls. The Anatolian influences do not stop there: she also sees it in the traditional clothes, dances and ceremonies of Chians. What is less certain is why xysta is only found in Pyrgi, and to a lesser extent in the district of Kampos near Chios Town.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Neo-classical Symphony

Neo-classical Symphony

Monumental façades, marble pediments, balustraded balconies, mythical scenes painted on ceilings… the houses of Ermoupoli on the island of Syros, are about as far from the tiny sugar-cube houses as you can get.

With its neo-classical mansions and marble-paved streets, its imposing town hall and Italianate theatre, Ermoupoli exudes an air very different from anywhere else in the Cyclades, even 150 years after its heyday. In the mid-19th century it was a thriving cosmopolitan centre of industry, commerce and culture, being Greece’s leading port and second largest city, and a trading hub for the eastern Mediterranean.

Those days are long gone, but Ermoupoli is still the only place in this part of the Aegean that actually feels like a city. It – along with rest of Syros – may not be on the well-beaten tourist track, particularly for overseas visitors, yet architecturally it is one of the most fascinating in the Greek islands.

The story of how the neo-classical houses came to be built on Syros is as intriguing as the structures themselves. In the early years of the 19th century, when most of Greece was under Ottoman rule, Syros enjoyed a special position. Its population was mainly Catholic, rather than Orthodox, and hence came under the protection of France and the Pope. This made it a refuge for people fleeing from massacres in various parts of the Turkish-ruled empire.

The most notable influxes came after atrocities in the islands of Chios and Psara in 1822 and 1824 respectively, but they also came from Crete, the Peloponnese and areas of Asia Minor. In 1820, there were around 4,000 people on Syros, eight years later the population of Ermoupoli alone had grown to 13,800, and that figure burgeoned to almost 20,000 by 1853 and was just over 22,000 in 1889. (Today, incidentally, the population of Syros is about 24,000, of which a sizeable minority of 4,000 are Catholic.)

The Chiots, in particular, had a huge influence on Syros. Many were ship builders, ship owners and traders, who found the island’s natural harbour, as well as its central position on sea routes in the eastern Mediterranean very much to their liking. But they encountered one major, and very basic, problem – the indigenous Catholic inhabitants, who lived in Ano Syros on the hill above the harbour, were unhappy to have these Orthodox refugees amongst them and refused to let them build houses there.

The first solution was to build on wooden pontoons out in the harbour, but as the newcomers wanted to put down stronger foundations, literally, they began to build on the area around the harbour. In 1826 the new town was christened Ermoupoli after the god Hermès, the protector of trade. The well-to-do ship builders and traders made the most of the influx of Bavarian engineers and architects who accompanied King Otto following the establishment of a monarchy in 1833 in the wake of the Greek War of Independence. It was not just houses they built, but a complete town with harbour facilities, schools, a lighthouse, and water and sewage systems.

The earliest houses were very similar in appearance to those in Asia Minor, with Ottoman-style overhangs and enclosed wooden balconies. Few of these remain, but one excellent example can still be found in Apollonos street. The ground floor is of stone, but the first floor is constructed of lath and plaster.

The European architects, however, brought with them the neo-classical style that their Greek clients took to with aplomb. The architecture was fairly restrained at first, but later it became more elaborate and similar to that being executed in other parts of Greece including Athens.

There are two types of typical neo-classical structure on Syros: one with a shop or warehouse on the ground floor and living quarters above, and the other purely residential. You’ll find many examples of the first style in the streets behind the waterfront that still form the commercial quarter of Ermoupoli – for instance, the Stathopoulos bookshop on Proiou street has been in existence since 1918. The area to the east and north of the main square is mainly residential, though a few of the mansions have been converted into hotels, so you can experience their grandeur for yourself.

Houses were built of either local stone or marble, or, more usually a combination of the two. Predominantly stone-built houses employed marble in places, particularly as supports for balconies, around doors and windows, as doorsteps and as parapets, cornices and pediments. Look closely at some buildings and you may see a band of marble a couple of inches thick running around the structure: marble was used as a course between floors. So easily available was marble in Syros, in fact, that it was even used to pave streets, and these can still be seen today, especially around the main square. The marble is from the nearby islands of Tinos and Paros, where it is still quarried today.

One of the most striking differences between the houses of Ano Syros and their counterparts down the hill in Ermoupoli is the work that has gone into the masonry in the latter. The pattern is regular, with blocks of the same size laid in an “isodomic” pattern, or in different heights and widths in “pseudoisodomic" style, though you can spot more irregular arrangements, especially on older houses. Corners are usually reinforced with larger stones, a technique called “quoining”. Those façades that were plastered were painted in a limited range of colours, notably white, pale yellow or ochre, which, along with the shades of natural stone and marble lends considerable harmony to long-range views of the town.

Flat roofs were the order of the day in Ermoupoli and usually they incorporated a layer of seaweed for insulation and a waterproofing course of volcanic pumice stone.

Practically all structures were two or three floors high, though those built on slopes – such as the houses around the bay to the east of the town – took account of the topography by having three or four storeys at the back on the lower part of the cliff, and fewer at the front. Most houses would have had cisterns in the basements, which were usually barrel vaulted.

The date of construction and, more rarely, name or initials of architect can be found carved on some façades, usually above the door, but you might also see dates in ironwork on balcony balustrades.

The floor plan was rectangular, with the sides perpendicular to the street being the longest, though often a wedge-shape was created to fit in with outline of the plot – houses nearly always filled an entire available plot, with courtyards being rare in Ermoupoli. You can spot a courtyard at the back of the Prasakakis mansion on Vafiadaki street. Unfortunately you can’t see right into it from the street, but its trees are visible behind the one-storey wall, which incidentally has a double wooden door with a fine triangular pediment.

Windows and doors are an eye-catching feature of neo-classical houses. The streets may have been relatively narrow, but even so, plenty of light flooded into the houses, especially on the upper floors thanks to the plentiful supply of large windows. The doors were often grand, almost always panelled and often with carved decorations, sometimes a marble porch with pilasters and fanlights covered with decorative metalwork. Windows, too, were frequently adorned with pilasters. Wooden shutters were common, usually louvre-style, opening outwards.

Look out for brass doorknockers in the shape of a hand – they are common throughout Syros and other Cycladean islands, and are said to protect the inhabitants from evil spirits. They are available for sale locally if you fancy one on your door at home.

Almost every house had at least one balcony, usually with marble base and corbels, or supports, and metal railings. Look up when you pass under marble balconies and you may well see carved decorations such as rosettes on the underneath of both the base and the corbels. A few older ones with wooden bases can still be seen. A building on Thimaton Sperhiou street owned by the Kois family has both examples: the main balcony on the top floor is of marble while the smaller one to the right has a wooden floor, and is also notable for its curved shape that accommodates outward-opening shutters.

This house is interesting for a number of other reasons. The ground floor is given over to an optical shop owned by the family: peek inside and you will see a high wooden ceiling supported by slender iron corbels on marble pillars – a very unusual feature. The private residence is not open to the public, but it does boast a magnificent marble stairway, with a very fine post decorated with carved acanthus and rosettes, while the ceilings are exquisitely painted with descriptive scenes.

The streets of Ermoupoli hold other, more quirky, features. The Kechayas house, between Diogenous and Athinas streets in Vaporia, just east of the magnificent church of St Nicholas, has a stately pediment on the roof of the two-storey building. Yet look again and you will see four marble corbels obviously intended to hold a balcony on a never-built third floor.

Nearby are two adjacent houses that were originally owned by the same man – Mikes [sic] S. Galatis. One is a two-storey plastered house, the one next door a larger, masonry house on three floors. A narrow alley divides them, but at the top you’ll see an arch spanning the gap. It serves no function, it is simply as if the houses are holding hands so you know there is a relationship between them, in this case the joint ownership.

The cream of Syros’s neo-classical houses were built between 1840 and 1890. The opening of the Corinth Canal in 1893 meant that the island ceased to be the hub of shipping trade in the eastern Mediterranean, while the development of steam took business away from Ermoupoli’s sail shipyards. There have been waves of revival and decline since, the lowest point probably being the hungry years of the German Occupation, when hundreds starved to death. In the 1971 census, the population was as low as 13,500. In more recent years, the growth of the Greek tourist industry has brought economic prosperity back to the islands, even those like Syros that do not depend solely on it for survival.

Walking the streets of the city, you’ll come across houses in a broad spectrum of repair. Some are on the verge of collapse, others have already succumbed, yet more could do with serious refurbishment but could be saved. Others need little more than a coat of fresh paint or new shutters, while others are in pristine condition. But while some have been lovingly restored, even made into hotels or restaurants so we can all enjoy them, there are a few where the restoration has been less than sympathetic.

Ano Syros
Visitors to Syros should take the chance to compare Ermoupoli with the old town of Ano Syros, not just for the architecture but for the magnificent views from the top. The town was probably first settled in the 13th century, and was built on a hill away from shore as protection from pirates. The hill is crowned with the Catholic church of St George.

Its streets are typically labyrinthine, and it was originally entered by one of several gateways. As with most of the other traditional settlements of the Cyclades, this made it easier to defend.

The houses are smaller, with thicker, rougher walls and smaller and fewer doors and windows. They are built of local stone, nowadays whitewashed because this reflects the heat, but originally they would have been in a natural colour to blend in with the surrounding hills and make them less obvious to invaders.

They are usually of two floors, with internal stairs and a trapdoor, and no more than two or three rooms on each level. The kitchen generally had a separate entrance. Extra rooms may have been added as the needs of the family for more space demanded. Disputes often arise today over ownership of houses, because one man’s roof is another man’s terrace – and the latter may even have built on it – and both will claim rights over it.

Many thanks to Sally Trainor and Hugh Farmer for their help in researching this article, as well as their wonderful hospitality!