Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Sea, sun and fascism

Having just tried it, I’m not sure I’d wholeheartedly recommend a cruise holiday. (Unless, of course, you like the idea of being imprisoned in a floating holiday camp with a couple of thousand Daily Mail readers.) But at least it took us to Athens, Crete and Rhodes, including the remarkable Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes aka of St John, aka Hospitallers. In the thirties under the Italian occupation, the palace was heavily repaired; the resulting mediaeval-deco “restoration” came across to me as highly staged – vast, uninterrupted, checked stone walls, baroque angels looted out of their context and isolated in bare niches, huge Japanese vases (gifts from an Axis ally), all punctuated by wrought iron chandeliers that only emphasised the empty hardness of the surfaces. With its gratuitously surplus uninhabited spaces, its alien aesthetic of impersonal, almost anti-human, tastefulness and order – anti-human both in scale and in texture – the whole interior felt still drenched in fascism, as if we were wandering through a set for some lost scene from Bertolucci’s Il Conformista.

 

Had the Greeks not seen fit to deconstruct and reclaim all this? How was the fascist period of the Italian occupation regarded now? We’d just been to the monastery at Filerimos, built likewise in the thirties with its Italian Way of the Cross, but also home to an ancient, inexpressibly dolorous and affecting icon of Mary; so how far had the occupation tolerated the Greek Orthodox church? I asked our tour guide.

 

I couldn’t actually make out her eyes behind her sunglasses, but I could tell that they hardened instantly. Her previously modulated voice became intense and emotional. It had been horrible for the people of Rhodes. Horrible. In 1922 they had replaced the old governor with a fascist. Most of the churches had been closed. Children had been forced to learn Italian in school. All opposition had been eliminated. Her mother, as a child, had seen people executed in the street. It had been a dreadful time for Rhodes. She gestured behind her to a large plaque in Italian, still prominent on an outside wall, crediting the palace restoration to Il Duce. My fellow Brits appeared bemused or indifferent.

 

High on one vast checked wall inside we saw carved between roses “Fert”, the motto of the House of Savoy. No one translated; looking it up now, I see that various unlikely acronyms have been suggested, but in simple Latin it can be read as “S/he suffers”. That seems appropriate enough. The next day we found ourselves at Arkadi monastery in Crete, besieged by the Ottoman army in the Cretan revolt of 1866, where a few hundred women and children, barricaded into the powder room, had blown themselves to pulp rather than be taken alive. The attached museum displayed a long hank of human hair, retrieved later from a roof top.

Back on the boat, having finished W G Sebald’s excellent but distressing Rings of Saturn (more journeys, more atrocities), I found myself in need of fresh reading material; the only half decent book on offer in the little shop turned out to be Robert Harris’s Selling Hitler, a fascinatingly repellent account of the forged Hitler diaries scandal of 1983. Following the revelation that Goering’s yacht was appropriated by the British royal family and rechristened the Prince Charles, I read that Hitler’s paintings are technically so poor as to be a doddle for the amateur forger, and so boring that in the final analysis no collector of them really cares whether what they have is faked or real. That evening the ship’s tannoy announced a poolside Last Night of the Proms-themed singalong, to “celebrate all that makes Britain great”. The holiday was not turning out quite as I’d expected.

There are plenty of images of the Grand Master’s Palace online but those above are mine. Click for enlarged slides. I haven’t linked to any image of the icon at Filerimos, as no reproduction or copy really looks like what we saw, nor gives any sense of the experience of being in its physical presence. For the first time, I’m prepared to credit an icon as being an effective and transmitting thing-in-itself. As being in some sense “alive”.

Set that against the deadening art of fascism!

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