An elegant mansion saved from oblivion

Hydra in the late 18th century was enjoying a sudden prosperity brought about by the development of trade and shipping. Compared with other regions of Greece it was also given the most privileges and greatest independence by the Turkish occupants. This relative autonomy led to a period of civil anarchy which was promptly quelled, whereupon the requests of the island’s merchant class, and specifically the vizier-admiral Pasha Husein, led to Giorgos Voulgaris, his trusted friend and aide-de-camp, being decreed governor of the island. Voulgaris governed for no more than a decade and his rule, although dictatorial, has been associated with social order and economic prosperity. Until the early 20th century, his splendid mansion which the pasha built especially for him in Constantinople and transported to Hydra, stood as a reminder of Voulgaris’s rule and the island’s prosperity at the time. The mansion was unfortunately pulled down during the Balkan wars and the few foundations that remained are now covered by piles of garbage. What the mansion looked like originally and the story that surrounds it would probably have been entirely lost as well had it not been for a venture undertaken by architect and professor at the National Technical University of Athens, Giorgos Prokopiou, and the Benaki Museum, at first independently but in due course jointly. Intrigued by the ruins found in an empty terrain off the island’s port, Prokopiou began, 15 years ago, tracing down any clues that would help him reconstitute the original house, and through extensive research finally came up with a comprehensive study. Through a colleague at the university he then found out that the Benaki Museum was at the time working on the renovation of an ensemble of woodwork decoration, which as he soon discovered originated from the Hydra mansion. Prokopiou contributed his knowledge of the house’s interior architecture and helped the Benaki present the woodwork in a reconstitution of the original setting. The two then compiled the information they had gathered and published «The Mansion of Giorgos Voulgaris in Hydra,» a Benaki Museum publication that charts the history of the mansion, its architecture and interior decoration. Beautifully illustrated to reveal the splendid character of the mansion, the book examines it against the background of its time, thus providing a broader understanding of current architecture and of history. It actually helps unravel an architectural typology that spread across the Balkans, reaching Asia Minor, and is to be found in many variations across the regions of Greece and other Balkan areas. The so-called konaki, which is the original name of the architectural type, describes a type of building (usually two-storied) whose most typical attributes are the protruding wooden top stories with their series of large windows. The top story of the konaki housed the principal living areas, the bedrooms and sitting areas, which were usually structured symmetrically in the shape of a square. The rooms (ontas) were structured around the center, cyclical space that served as a sitting area (sofas), with the bedrooms usually taking up the four corners of the square. In some cases the sofas extended in a rectilinear area that, in some of the konaki’s variations, gave out to the windows and was known as the hagiati. Unlike the top floor, the konaki’s lower levels did not observe a standard layout, probably because they were the house’s less formal part. This is where the helping areas, such as the cellar, the workshops, rooms for the staff and occasionally the kitchen were housed. This part’s rather plain stone facade, whose small windows allowed little light to come in, echoed the secondary standing of the house’s ground level. Another constant attribute of the konaki is that it is invariably built amid a courtyard, which usually contains separate structures for the kitchen, bathroom and laundry space. But apart from a more or less uniform architectural structure, what singles out the konaki from other types of buildings is the intricate woodwork, mostly ceilings, and detailed wall paintings of which the Voulgaris mansion provides some of the most outstanding examples. This type of heavy ornamentation became especially prevalent in 18th and 19th century Ottoman architecture, when the taste for the baroque and rococo resulted in a decorative blend of Eastern and Western influences. Exemplary of this type of decoration is the palace of Selim III in Constantinople and the mansions of the Top Kapi area. The Voulgaris mansion is not as splendid as the mansions of the Top Kapi, but its decoration was heavily influenced by the same blend of Eastern and Western motifs that was popularly used in the Ottoman architecture of the time. That the decoration of the Voulgaris mansion was so close to the imperial taste of Constantinople is of course an indication of the building’s importance. At its time this was indeed Hydra’s most unique and architecturally distinct building, whose memory has fortunately been preserved thanks to the research of Prokopiou and in part, the Benaki Museum.

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