A precious remnant of Magna Graecia

The story began in 1498, a few decades after the fall of Constantinople, when the Greeks in Venice – la nazione greca (or the Greek nation) – gained permission from the Serene Republic to create a fraternity. Merchants and simple migrants from Western Greece, refugees from Constantinople, artists and others from Venetian-ruled Crete – all were Orthodox Christians who spoke Greek. The Most Serene Republic of Venice – the Serenissima – which ruled the Eastern Mediterranean, willingly offered them asylum; first, because many of them were her subjects from parts of Greece ruled by Venice and, second, because it was the strategic rival of Turkish aggressors and, third, because it had differences with the papal state of Rome. Thus the Greek Fraternity of Venice was created and recognized. It has survived for centuries, mainly through the Institute of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Studies which celebrated the 50th anniversary of its foundation on June 20 with a concert at the Athens Concert Hall. The institute is the modern continuation of the Greek brotherhood of Venice. For three centuries, the fraternity, centered on the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint George in the square of the same name, was the vibrant western home to the exiles of enslaved Greece. It was a Greek national and religious enclave in the heart of Catholicism. A stable bridge between East and West, it grew into an important commercial and intellectual center in direct contact with the enslaved motherland, a gateway to Western thought. It always had educational aims. In 1593, about 100 years after its foundation, the Fraternity opened its first school, where Greek and Orthodoxy were taught. In 1610, the school obtained financial support from Venice, which maybe explained the republic’s bad relations with the Vatican as well as the fact that it deemed the Orthodox Greeks from areas under Venetian rule to be its subjects. In 1625 a rich Corfiote, Thomas Flanginis, a lawyer and merchant in Venice, left his fortune to the fraternity. The legacy was used to found an advanced school, the Flanginiano Frontistirio, housed in its own building, and the fraternity’s hospital, also in its own building. Only Greek Orthodox students taught and studied at the school, which had some 500 pupils during its 132 years of operation. In time, the Fraternity of Greeks in Venice went into decline, but the tradition lived on and the legacy found its continuation in the Institute of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Studies. The institute sprang from a joint decision made by Greece and Italy in 1968. In exchange, the Italian Archaeological School and the Italian Cultural Institute went back into operation in Athens. The now small fraternity, headed by Gerasimos Messinis from Lefkada, decided to hand over the management of its legacy and property to the institute. It endowed the institute with the elegant mansion of the Flanginiano School and the fraternity’s building of Aghios Nikolas, where the museum is housed. It also handed over the Church of Saint George of the Greeks, its archives, libraries, art treasures and precious relics. The institute began operating in 1955 under the direction of Sophia Antoniadi, who was then a professor at the university of Leyden in Holland. She was succeeded by Professor Manoussos Manoussakas and Professor Nikolaos Panayiotakis. The current director is Professor Chryssa Maltezou of Athens University. The purpose of the institute is the study of Byzantine and post-Byzantine history, with an emphasis on the period of Venetian rule. Widely respected, it is Greece’s only research institute abroad. Its most significant educational contribution is the provision of scholarships for doctoral dissertations which allow researchers to work in the libraries and archives of Venice. When Constantinople fell, the spirit of Greece lived on in two cultural loci, one of them under Ottoman rule, the other being the free colonies abroad – in Venice, Trieste, Vienna, Romania, Odessa, Moscow and elsewhere. Communication between the colonies and Greece was not only commercial and economic but intellectual too. The Institute of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Studies is a precious remnant, in some way a living continuation of modern Magna Graecia.

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