Unexpected treasures in an unusual place

Sometimes unexpected treasures can be found in unusual places. This seems to be the case with the Museum of Asian Art on Corfu, one of those odd and unique establishments in the country that remains relatively unknown. The only museum in Greece dedicated to non-Western art and antiquity, the Museum of Asian Art comprises objects, sculptures, paintings and rare manuscripts that date from antiquity to the 19th century and belong to the civilizations of central, south and southeast Asia. Once the property of two former Greek diplomats, these treasures have been donated to the museum. One of the two, Grigoris Manos, was the man who envisioned and founded the museum. An ambassador to Austria who lived in France for years, Manos formed a collection of mainly Chinese and Japanese art from his purchases at French auctions. The collection of around 10,000 items was offered to the Greek State in 1919. In return, he asked for a small monthly pension (he had spent most of his fortune on the collection) and that a museum of Sino-Japanese art be established. He also asked to become the curator of the museum which was finally established in 1927. Manos died a year later. The museum was housed in the Palace of St Michael and St George, a stately mansion built in the neoclassical style and located on the northern end of Spianada Square. Still home to the museum, this large three-story mansion also houses in its wings the Municipal Gallery of Corfu and a department of Ionian University. An art cafe is open in the building’s gardens. The so-called Palace of St Michael and St George has an interesting story of its own. It was conceived by Sir Thomas Maitland, the first lord high commissioner of the Ionian Islands, when Corfu was a British protectorate. Maitland intended the building as the personal residence of each appointed lord high commissioner and as home to the Ionian Parliament and senate. At the time, Maitland was also grand master of the Order of St Michael and St George, an order which was founded in 1818 by the British regent of the time in order to join under its ranks the British subjects and the people of the Ionian Islands and Malta singled out for the service to the British empire. The palace was also to serve as the headquarters of the order in Corfu. The building’s construction began in 1819 and was completed five years later. When British domination was lifted, the mansion passed on to the Greek State and shortly thereafter became the summer house of the Greek royal family. The throne room, the reception halls and the rotunda that connects them as well as the conference halls of the Ionian senate, all with their original furnishings, floors and decoration, are accessible to the public (their doors are open but entrance is forbidden) as a reminder of the building’s majestic past. The Museum of Asian Art occupies the part of the building that was formerly used as the home of the lord commissioner. Initially named the Sino-Japanese Museum of Corfu, the museum changed its name to the Museum of Asian Art in 1974 upon the donation of roughly 450 objects by Nikolaos Hadzivassileiou, the second of the museum’s two main donors. Hadzivassileiou was Greek ambassador to India in the late 1950s and early ’60s and later to Japan. His collection includes silkscreens from Korea and Japan, paintings and sculpture from Tibet and Nepal and sculptured objects from India, Pakistan and Thailand. Added to the museum’s core collection donated by Manos, Hadzivassileiou’s collection extended the museum’s scope. Some additions to the collection were also made via donations by two other diplomats: the furnishings and Chinese ceramic art that Iordanes Siniosoglou donated in 1952 and the collection of Chinese porcelain, paintings and Persian rugs that the museum acquired from Petros Almanachos in 1969. Thanks to these private collections, Corfu owns an unusual, quaint museum housed in one of its most imposing buildings. Museum of Asian Art in Corfu, Palace of Saints Michael and George, tel 26610.30443.