Cavafy Archive changes hands and enters new era
By Yiouli Eptakiki
The Cavafy Archive has entered a new chapter in its history. In a highly symbolic move, the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation recently purchased the archive, thus ensuring that its rich content remains in Greece. A number of noteworthy contenders had shown interest in the archive, including renowned academic institutions, some of which are located on the other side of the Atlantic.
The Cavafy Archive is a unique case in the world of Greek literature, as unique as the man himself, the Alexandrine poet Costantine Cavafy, who organized his literary and personal legacy in such a way that it could serve as a guide for future research into his oeuvre and keep his memory alive as he wished.
The archive material includes poems (originals and translations), commentaries on poems, literary and other writings, correspondence, diaries, the Alexandrine Art archive (a journal published by Cavafy) as well as a number of the poet’s personal belongings.
In chronological terms, the oldest item in the archive dates back to 1850. It is a letter penned by the poet’s uncle, Georgios Cavafy, announcing that Constantine’s father was being dispatched to Alexandria in order to take charge of the Alexandria branch of the family business. At the other end of the chronological scale, the most recent material stems from 1933: the poet’s correspondence with members of his family prior to his death at Alexandria’s Greek hospital, as well the manuscript of his final poem, “On the Outskirts of Antioch.”
Manolis Savvidis was the last custodian of the Cavafy Archive before the latter was handed over to the Onassis Cultural Center for a sum which both sides have declined to disclose. In the meantime, 2013 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of Cavafy.
“As far as we’re concerned, this is an acquisition of national importance,” noted Antonis Papadimitriou, president of the Onassis Foundation. “The most important aspect of the transaction, however, is not the fact that we acquired it, but rather what we intend to do with it: something very contemporary, destined primarily for the young who did not have the chance to come into contact with Cavafy’s works and who find the language he used and his subject matter a little bid odd. Given the state of the education system in this country in the last 20 or 30 years, these people have not been accustomed to having access to the key concepts of Cavafy’s poetry.
“So what we are not going to do is organize a conference and invite very well-known Cavafy scholars to discuss his work. Instead, we’re coming up with something which will help the public get to know the poet. The archive will be accessible to everyone. At the same time, we are planning to create a special exhibition space, which besides showcasing various display cases featuring his manuscripts, will be organized in a way aimed at bringing Cavafy’s poems to life,” said Papadimitriou.
The president of the Onassis Foundation also points out the Alexandrine poet’s international appeal.
“He is a particularly popular poet, especially in Latin countries. In Italy, for instance, the Corriere della Sera daily newspaper presented his translated poems in the form of a supplement,” said Papadimitriou. “It is this international aspect which we would like to reinforce.”
The need for a broad cultural approach with regard to the Cavafy Archive is echoed by Savvidis.
“I had been thinking of ways to put the archive to better use for a while, because I could see that I wasn’t enough. I am a literature professor, but I could see that we had to try a nonliterary approach, for the existing one had reached its limits. I worked on the idea of developing a Cavafy museum. Back when [Prime Minister] Antonis Samaras was culture minister and Angelos Filippidis was at the helm of Hellenic Postbank, we made a three-party deal. This involved the ministry allowing us to use a building in Plaka, Hellenic Postbank to finance its renovation and for the refurbished construction to operate as the Cavafy Museum.
“Following the general election, however, Hellenic Postbank’s management changed and the new managerial team terminated the contract signed by the former administration and so the project never materialized. My disappointment made me think about the need to find someone else capable of putting the archive’s multiple dimensions to good use.”
“The archive came into my possession in 1995, following the death of my father, G.P. Savvidis. Throughout the years it was enriched by both my father and myself. We added manuscripts, authentic Cavafy belongings, including his work desk, a death mask and an armchair. I also endowed the archive with two state-of-the-art – in my opinion – websites, where we published a number of previously unpublished Cavafy works, material for which a number of publishers had found no financial incentive in the past.
“The archive, however, is not mine; it’s Cavafy’s. I did my best. Now it’s time for someone else to be put to the test and I believe that I have chosen the best party in order to secure the archive’s future,” said Savvidis.
An archive's history
In 1963, 20 years after Constantine Cavafy’s death, the poet’s heir, Alekos Segopoulos, entrusted the Cavafy Archive to G.P. Savvidis.
Savvidis did an exemplary job with regard to the publication of the “Unpublished” poems stemming from the Cavafy Archive in 1968 and subsequently offered the opportunity to a number of academics to publish previously unpublished material, culminating in the publication of the “Unfinished” Cavafy poems by Renata Lavagnini in 1994.
His heir, Manolis Savvidis, continued what his father had started with the publication of the first volume of “Cavafy’s Prose” by Michalis Pieris and “The C.P. Cavafy Library” by Michaila Karabini-Iatrou in 2003.
While the Onassis Foundation is not divulging details of how it plans to proceed with the project just yet, its intention of casting a fresh, unexpected look at the poet’s unique legacy is clear.