“Michael Haag is not keen on dishing dirt. He likes the Durrells; one senses that their descendants trust him.” — The Spectator, April 2017
The Corfu the Durrells knew still exists today, in parts. Not in the over-developed north, north of Corfu Town, where resorts pepper the landscape. The island is of sufficient size further south that it completely tosses aside the urban fabric. Woody mountains climb into sun-drenched skies, and spear-shaped Cypress-trees are an urgent reminder that history here goes way back, beyond the Durrells, beyond two World Wars, so far in fact that Corfu makes an appearance in the ancient scripts of Homer.
In other words, this is hallowed ground; this is the fabric of legend.
But rather than cycle through Homer’s Odyssey, or the historic highlights since the 8th century, or go directly to the Corfu the Durrells knew, let’s step out of our time machine and into the year 1889.
- It was the year Empress Elizabeth of Austria built her summer palace on the island.
Empress Elisabeth’s retreat – named Achilleion – seemed a romantic luxury, but as with so many things, even as they portend to the wealthy, and to royals, things are not always what they seem.
1889 was the same year Elisabeth’s son Rudolf was found dead with his lover, Baroness Mary Vetsera. It was thought to be a murder-suicide, though exactly how or why didn’t become clear until 2016, when Baroness Mary’s letters were discovered. They stated unambiguously that she wished to commit suicide, out of love for Rudolf, and he returned the – well, not exactly “favour” or “compliment” but you know what I mean…
It was this tragedy that enveloped the Empress when she came to Corfu, and understandably, she never got over it. Elisabeth herself was a fascinating, and apparently beautiful woman. She was obsessed with beauty, but also vulnerable because of the tragedy she’d suffered.
The Empress had visualised a Phaecian palace for herself, in the place of a Corfiote philosopher’s mansion. The entire grounds burst with depictions of the Trojan War made by German sculptors in Germany, especially of Achilles. Everywhere, seemingly, Achilles wrestles to free himself from Paris’ arrow, which has lodged into Achilles’ heel [with critical consequences]. Achilles face is a mask of pain as he gazes into the sky, hoping for a reprieve from the Gods. A reprieve that never comes.
The neoclassical Greek statues and retrofitted architectural design contribute, ultimately, to a psychological monument; there is an acknowledgement of platonic romanticism but something simpler and subtler as well: escapism.
Elisabeth wrote at that time that she wanted “a palace with pillared colonnades and hanging gardens, protected from prying glances – a palace worthy of Achilles, who despised all mortals and did not fear even the gods.”
To her credit, despite these excesses, the god – forming the centrepiece of her garden – is depicted without rank or hubris. It is simply man as a tragic hero, dressed in a loin cloth and an ancient Greek helmet.
Though she visited Corfu often, the Empress also visited other countries not commonly visited by European royals during that period: Malta, Morocco, Turkey, Algeria, and Egypt. There was a method behind Elisabeth’s endless travelling, of course. They were another means to escape the miserable aspects of her life. But unluckily for her, when she was closer to home she was assassinated at the age of 60 while walking along the shore of Lake Geneva, in Switzerland.
At 13:25 on Saturday 10 September 1898, Elisabeth and a Hungarian Countess [her lady-in-waiting] walked along a promenade when a 25-year-old Italian anarchist approached them. Luigi Lucheni seemed to be trying to look under the Empress’s parasol. As a ship’s bell sounded, Luigi seemed to stumble. He threw out his hand, feigning an attempt to regain his balance, but in fact, was covering up a quick insertion of a sharpened 4 inch long steel spoke into an area on her chest above her left breast.
Six sailors rushed to her aid, and she was swiftly carried on and off a boat and back to her hotel room. By then a tiny wound was discovered, and a few drops of blood. By the time she was hoisted out of a stretcher she, like Achilles, had failed to survive a critical and strategic strike.
German Kaiser Wilhelm II took over the Achilleion, and changed the tone of some of the works to something …less subtle. At the great staircase in the main hall a giant painting heralds a triumphant Achilles.
This Achilles is clearly identifiable by a military dress code. Besides the regalia, Achilles rides aloft on his chariot, pulling the corpse of Hector of Troy behind him while a stunned crowd looks on from inside the Trojan citadel.
One of the Trojan’s watching this spectacle, of course, was Paris, Hector’s brother.
After buying the property the Kaiser invited a sculptor to advise him on situating the new works. On one of the sculptures the hubris was evident*:
To the Greatest Greek from the Greatest German
That inscription was removed after World War II [and presumably so was Kaiser Wilhelm II] but it was there when the Durrells arrived.
*Kaiser Wilhelm purchased the Achilleion about ten years after the Empress’ death. The Kaiser appointed a botanical architect of the Palace, and ordered a bridge to be constructed [the “Kaiser’s bridge”] to afford him easy access to the beach without using the road. The bridge, arching over the road, connected the lower gardens of Achilleion to the beach. The central section was obliterated by the Wehrmacht in 1944 to make way for a giant cannon. This happened three years after the Kaiser’s death [he died in the Netherlands]. The monument has echoes of Ozymandias in it, in terms of its impressions of imperial vanity.
THE OTHER DURRELLS is available on Amazon