A relic of old Zakynthos gets a new role

Not far from the popular beach of Lagana is a marvelous relic of old Zakynthos, the Italianate Sarakina Villa. Set on the crown of a hill amid lush vegetation, the country house of the Lountzis family brings to mind the island’s aristocratic past, where life centered on crops and farmland and which also offered means of recreation to the residents. The villa now has hopes of a better future linked with plans to promote Zakynthos’s culture and build a research network that will strengthen intellectual ties between Greece and Italy through the culture of the Ionian Islands. A newly established body, the Friends of Sarakina of Zakynthos, is investing in the hope that the villa will be saved, restored and given a new start. The group was formed by a joint decision of the Lountzis family and the Benaki Museum. The members, who include former Greek prime minister Georgios Rallis and many other notable figures from various spheres, hope to arouse interest in an enterprise aimed at revitalizing and rallying people and ideas around Ionian Island culture. The restoration and operation of the villa will be undertaken by the Sarakina Zakynthos Foundation. Pre-1953 quake architecture The Sarakina Villa is the most notable surviving example of country-house architecture on Zakynthos from before the 1953 earthquake and one of the largest of its kind in the region. The date of construction is unknown but is estimated to have been built in the early 19th century. «One of the basic aims is to restore the building,» said Benaki Museum historian and general secretary of the Friends body, Dimitris Arvanitakis. «According to custom, aristocrats kept one home in the city and one in the country. It was not just a villa but had farming and recreational facilities along Italian lines that conjure up the films of Visconti. Alongside the Sarakina Villa are the chapel, the caretaker’s cottage and other auxiliary buildings.» Early this year a team of architects and engineers will be formed under Professor Dionysis Zivas (president of the Friends, with Benaki Museum Director Angelos Delivorrias as vice president) to document the grounds of the villa and make an initial study. The intention is to come up with a cogent proposal so that the villa’s restoration and new use can be eligible for funding under the Fourth Community Support Framework. Further funding will also be needed, and sources are being sought from both the public and private sectors. So far the local authorities on Zakynthos have shown marked indifference. The initiative to save the building came from its owners, Nikos and Maria Lountzis, who approached the Benaki Museum knowing it could provide the endeavor with prestige and expertise. Among the best-known members of the Lountzis family were the historian Ermanos Lountzis (1806-1868) who, Arvanitakis told Kathimerini, «tried to answer Athenian historians who questioned whether the Ionian Islands were Greek.» His archive has been donated by his descendants to the Benaki Museum, which plans to translate his work from the Italian. The most important aspect of the project relates to the future use and operation of the villa. «All the archives of Zakynthos were destroyed in the catastrophic earthquake and fire of 1953,» explained Arvanitakis. «Anything that survived is kept under lock and key in private archives or is in the possession of the Church. Until 1953 there were archives that dated back without interruption from 1485. So the Sarakina could become a repository for private archives, works of Ionian Island art and icons. The creation of a library of Ionian Island civilization could attract material for study, while the existence of a congress center will make it possible to hold concerts, conferences, and performances, transforming the villa into a complex cultural center.» Another idea is to create hostels for foreign students and scholars who would come to Zakynthos to study and do research through collaboration with universities abroad. Every year, meetings could be organized for Greek and foreign scholars to discuss Greek-Italian subjects taken from history, art and literature, while exhibitions of general interest could be organized in conjunction with Greek foundations, the Solomos Museum and the Museum of Post-Byzantine Art on Zakynthos. The dilapidated Sarakina Villa is awaiting a new role that will counterbalance the present intellectual climate in Zakynthos which is dedicated almost entirely to the kind of tourism that makes quick profits. Following the recent unexplained destruction of the Aghia Mavra Church with all the treasures it contained, the historic profile of Zakynthos needs a boost from forward-looking ideas. The shadow of the disastrous quake of 1953 may become a starting point to re-energize the island’s self-awareness and Ionian culture in general.

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