A study unravels the rich history of architecture in northwest Peloponnese

The area of Mani is today one of the most unspoiled and attractive areas to visit with its imposing, solitary towers amid spare surroundings offering some of the most stirring views of the Greek landscape. But one has to move further north in the Peloponnese to come across Greece’s most ancient medieval towers. The area of Chlemoutsi in the prefecture of Achaia in the northwestern Peloponnese is home to one of Greece’s oldest and best preserved medieval castles and one of the most monumental remnants of the Frankish period. It is this architectural wealth of the area and the will to document it in history that motivated the American archaeologist and architectural historian Frederick Cooper in the early 1990s to launch a survey to record the vernacular architecture of the northwestern Peloponnese through the centuries, beginning with Frankish rule all the way through the Ottoman, Venetian and post-independence periods, and ending in the 1950s. Cooper, who is a professor at the University of Minnesota, did some extensive field work over a period of five years and with his main collaborators (folklore specialist and professor at the College of Visual Arts in St Paul, Minnesota, Helen Bradley Foster; architectural historian Kostas Kourelis; professor of Greek at Oxford University, Mary B. Coulton and art historian and art history professor at Connecticut College Joseph D. Alchermes) produced «Houses of the Morea,» a detailed documentation of the medieval citadels and villages concentrated mainly in the northwestern Peloponnese, and supplemented with maps charting the main sites to visit as well as informative articles on the history of the area. The book, which is comprised of both English and Greek texts, was just recently published by Melissa Publications and is accompanied by an exhibition at the Gennadius Library in Athens showing the multiple drawings produced during the duration of the project. Dubbed by its initiators as the «Morea project» after the toponym that refers to the principality of Morea (those parts of Greece which were conquered by the armies of the fourth crusade in 1204, the Franks, in other words), it involves the study of medieval citadels and almost two hundred villages dispersed in the prefectures of Achaia and Elis, but also a few in northern Messinia (Siderokastron and Vanada with the city of Kyparissia as the most southern border) and western Arcadia (Langadia, Dimitsana and Zatouna). For their study, particularly of the Frankish Peloponnese, the researchers found much data in two seminal works on the history and architecture of the Peloponnese: Antoine le Bon’s «La Moree Franque,» a study by the French historian from the late 1960s which is based on archival original documents, and Vassilis Panayiotopoulos’s study, «Population and Settlements in the Peloponnese, 13th-18th centuries,» published in the mid-1980s. But even with this rich topographic and archival information available, certain problems remained unsolved. Locations discussed by Le Bon, for instance, could not be located, either because no physical evidence of them remained or because the sites have been obscured by later construction. Also, archival information had to be assessed rather than directly applied; the mention of a historical place, for example, does not always correspond to the present-day village of the same name. The reason behind this incompatibility is Metoikesis, a practice that was mostly observed during the first centuries of the Ottoman occupation, whereby the inhabitants left one settlement but used the same name to establish another village in a different locality. To resolve many of these problems, Cooper and his crew relied heavily on meticulous field work, on the buildings’ foundation stones and oral information provided by the locals. Applying the latest high-technology equipment available was also an invaluable aid. Clearly, the outcome of this study is of importance for scholars in the subject. An interesting aspect of it is that, because it focuses on that part of the Peloponnese held the longest under Frankish rule, it provides a clear and uninterrupted survey of Frankish architecture in Greece. The unusual type of roof tile found on the medieval citadels examined is one of the attributes of this distinctive architecture. It is unlike any type of roof tile manufactured in Greece in Roman through Ottoman times and can be found only at other Frankish period excavations such as in Corinth, the ancient Agora in Athens and in Nichoria. What the layman may also find of interest is the typology of the medieval tower house, a square stone structure that rose to three to four storys, the entrance of which was reached across a breach made by a separate landing. The upper stories were accessible by an interior ladder and the lowest floor, which could be entered through a side door, usually served as a barn. These, along with a wide range of houses whose architecture developed during successive periods, are illustrated one by one in the Morea project book with detailed descriptions. The charting of possible itineraries at the beginning of each chapter also takes the reader through an actual journey from one location to the next, rendering this book not just a scholarly tool but a cultural map of the northwestern Peloponnese. Dark Blue World