Tuesday, December 11, 2018


Italian Corfiots are the population of Corfu with ethnic and linguistic roots in the Venetian domination of the island. They were called so by Mussolini, when his Fascism promoted the ideals of Italia irredenta even for Corfu in the first half of the XX century.

Girls of the Italian Corfiots community in Corfu city welcoming the arrival of Italian troops in April 1941 
Corfiot Italians were mainly concentrated in the city of Corfu, which was called "Città di Corfù" by the Venetians. Pugliese and Neapolitan fishermen (the latter engaged in the activity of coral extraction since the eighteenth century) were the backbone of the Italian community of Corfu island, estimated at 1,300 by a census promoted in 1928 by the Greek authorities: they reached the quota of 1,500 people during the first years of the second world war, when they welcomed the arrival of the Italian troops in April 1941 (video showing groups of Italian Corfiots throwing flowers to Italian soldiers:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HCktc3anQo4 )

In fact, the Italians of Corfu, even if reduced to a thousand in the late thirties of the XX century by the Greek authorities, were strongly supported by fascist propaganda and in the summer of 1941 (after the Italian occupation of all the Ionian islands) Italian schools were reopened in the city of Corfu.
In 1942 the Italians of Corfu became almost 2000, concentrated mainly in Corfu city.

1923 Italian landing in Corfu

Corfiot Italians: History & data

 Corfu was under the rule of the "Repubblica di Venezia" for nearly five centuries until 1797 ( History of Corfu (in Italian): http://wwwbisanzioit.blogspot.com/search/label/Corfu ).

The ethnic and linguistic influence of the Republic of Venice, which saw numerous Venetians move to the Greek city, was such as to form a community of Italians on the island. During the Risorgimento Niccolò Tommaseo coined the name of "Italian Corfiots", also in reference to the numerous Italian  patriots who had taken refuge on the island in those years. At the beginning of the nineteenth century most citizens in Corfu spoke Italian as a second language, and there were many poets and writers of the island who wrote in Italian, like Stefano Martzokis (Marzocchi was the surname of the father, an Italian from Emilia-Romagna).

But during the second half of the 19th century, the presence of an Italian community on the island was not well seen by the Greek government. As a consequence for fear of Italian irredentism the Greeks forbade the use of the Italian language, even if it did not have the desired effect in the local community which continued to maintain the use of this idiom.

However it is noteworhy to pinpoint that more than half of the population of Corfu city in the late 18th century was Venetian-speaking.
The re-emergence of Greek nationalism, after the Napoleonic era, contributed to the disappearance of the Corfiot Italians. Corfu was ultimately incorporated into Greece in 1864. The Greek government abolished all Italian schools in the Ionian islands in 1870, and as a consequence, by the 1940s there were only seven hundred Corfiote Italians left.
Actually there are no more Corfiot Italians in the island: the last peasant speaking the "Veneto da mar" (the dialect spoken in the Venetian distant dominions) died in the 1970s. There are only a few Jews in Corfu city who speak the "Italkian", a Jewish language mixed with many venetian (and southern Italian) words.
The long Venetian domination had a very strong influence on the local Greek language which absorbed a wide range of Italian words. more than one half of the words in the local greek dialect of Corfú city are loanworded from the Italian language (and the old "Veneto da mar", a venetian dialect).

This small Italian Community was officially recognized by the Greek government only after the Second World War, but it was soon "forcefully integrated and made disappear".

Italianate architecture in Corfu city

Old Corfu town as seen from the sea
Old venetian Corfu town as seen from the sea

Corfu city is famous for its Italianate architecture, most notably the "Liston", an arched colonnade lined with cafes on the edge of the Spianada (Esplanade), the vast main plaza and park which incorporates a cricket field and several pavilions.

Also notable are the Venetian-Roman style City Hall, the Old and New castles, the recently restored Palace of Sts. Michael and George, formerly the residence of the British governor and the seat of the Ionian Senate, and the summer Palace of Mon Repos, formerly the property of the Greek royal family. Indeed the buildings in the narrow streets of downtown Corfu city are identical to those that can be seen in Venice.

All this Italianate architecture is directly linked to the community of the Italian Corfiots. The "Hotel Bella Venezia" was one of their main reunion places, but was destroyed during WW2.

Italian Corfiot Felice Beato in 1863 Japan. He was a famous photographer, born in 1832 Corfu city. 

The Greek island of Corfu is the second largest of the Ionian Islands. In some ways, Corfu feels more Italian (thanks to the Venetians and the Italians who occupied the island) than it does Greek. Certainly the many pine trees that can be seen in the island reminded  the visitor of the Tuscan landscape as does some of the dialects found around the island.

The island, also known by its Greek name Kerkyra, remained in Venetian hands from 1401 until 1797. The Venetians erected fortifications to repel Turkish invaders, and  the historian Will Durant claimed that Corfu was one of the only part of Greece never conquered by the Ottomans thanks to the Republic of Venice.

Indeed the Venetians made major changes to the town of Corfu during the Renaissance and rebuilt it in the form it is today.
They removed the old Byzantine fortifications and dug a deep trench across the neck of the headland, making it into an island. They fortified the island with massive walls, making it cannon-proof. They moved all the inhabitants out, leaving the newly formed island completely military in purpose. This massive fortress (now known as the "Old Fortress") protected the town from sea attack. They built a new town in front of the fortress. This forms the centre of the modern town of Corfu. They then built another massive line of defenses to protect this town from land attack, and built another fortress (now known as the "New Fortress") on a hill just outside the town to protect the town from land attack and to protect the harbour.
The Venetian defenses were so comprehensive that they successfully withstood four separate attempts to conquer the island by the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire!
Even the local cuisine was influenced by the Venetians. Pastitsada, a traditional dish for Sundays, derives from the the Italian Spezzatino and is the most popular dish on the island of Corfu.
Until about half a century ago, a Venetian dialect was still spoken in Corfu. Today, many Venetian words are still common. The Venetians also brought the Catholic Church during their four centuries of rule, and though the majority of the population is Greek Orthodox, a small percentage remain Catholic.
Indeed Corfu used to be a highly contested island in the last centuries. In the 19th century, Italy in particular sparked a cultural battle through its settlements and various educational, cultural and charitable activities. By the time of the Risorgimento there was a clearly felt drive towards the east.
Half a century later, Italian prime minister Benito Mussolini sought to realise this militarily since the first years of his rule: for several weeks in August-September 1923, Italian fascist troops occupied the island.
Archbishop of Corfu Leonardo Brindisi had then welcomed the Italian military forces, so the Catholics were generally considered as agents of Italy by the Greeks. Not all Catholics were Italians though. Until World War II, the Maltese formed the majority of the Catholics in Corfu.

Moreover in 1937 in Corfu city there were 356 members of the Fascist Party and 306 young people enrolled in the "Italian Youth of the Foreign Littorio" (GILE). A rather high figure, including "a good half of the local Italian community" according to historian G. Esposito. The WW2 Disaster
In October 1940, Italy tried to invade Greece from the recently annexed Albania, and at the end of 1940, the Italians started to bomb Corfu again. In April 1941, they finally occupied the island (https://corfuwall.gr/en/istoria-fotografies/corfascio-1941-1943.html ).

Rome dealt with the Ionian Islands and the Greek mainland separately: they created a particular poli­tical entity for the Ionian Islands, introducing a new currency and separate press agencies – the aim of which was to annex the islands to the Italian mother country. Mussolini wanted to create the Italian "Provincia delle Ionie" (with Corfu & other islands) after the end of WW2, that he hoped to win.
From the moment the Italians occupied Corfu they tried to gain full control of the education. One of the first actions of the Italian military command was to shut down all secondary education schools, under the pretense of “safety reasons”. On 19th June 1941 they acted again. General Parini, commander of Corfu, changed the situation in education after the arrival of the Italian educator and Helenist, Carlo Brighenti at Corfu.
Brighenti, who undertook the task of gradually assimilating the Greek education of the island to the Italian “culture”, was not just any scholar. Son of Eliseo Brighenti, a philologist, neo-Hellenist and passionate Philhellenes, that has published many works on Greek literature and language, Carlo was also said to admire Greece as the birthplace of civilization. Furthermore, Birghenti based his whole effort on his fame for his love of Greece.
Therefore, when he arrived at Corfu by the end of July 1941, he convened a meeting of the directors of secondary schools in the offices of the Prefecture, in which he spoke with solidarity and understanding to the directors, highlighting his family’s and his own offer to the Greek language and literature. In a further attempt to approach them, he offered a dinner to them at the famous Hotel “Bella Venezia”.

Brighenti was well impressed by the students of the local Italian community -the 2000 Italian Corfiots- who welcome him with flowers.

Children of the Italian Corfiots welcoming with flowers the arrival of Italian troops in April 1941

But when he began visiting the fully Greek schools, addressing speeches to the students and cooperating with the teachers, he was surprised to see that he was received with coldness, although he initially thought he would find fertile ground for his corrosive propaganda. So he proposed the replacement of all school directors to Parini, which indeed took place at the start of the school year 1941-1942. Brighenti took over as director at the Boys’ High School and the Business School, Vissani took over at the Practical High School and Italian professor Zabaldi at the Girls’ High School. Furthermore Birghenti took over at the education department of the Civil Affairs Bureau of the Ionian Islands.
Meanwhile, Italian physical education teachers were hired, while the Italian language was given an equal status to Greek and Italian professors were hired for its teaching. The chapters about Modern Greek History were no longer taught in the history classes, and the pictures of the heroes of Greek Revolution were removed from all schools.
Naturally, these actions were faced with some resistance from Greek students and teachers alike. The protests organized by the students were met with arrests and beatings, while the resistance of the teachers led to their removal from Corfu. The individual removals during the period from October 1941 to September 1942 turned into a collective persecution in October 1942, when the Italians tried to impose the fascist salute, "Saluto Romano", in Corfiot schools. Italians were then faced with the unanimous opposition of the teachers and were forced to take drastic measures. All teachers and their families were ordered to leave the island in 24 hours. This radical measure caused tremendous rage to the whole secondary education.
The lack in teaching staff in the secondary education, which was caused by the persecution of the Corfiot teachers, was dealt with the hiring of pensioner teachers and with the “promotion” of 9 primary school teachers to secondary education teachers. Nevertheless it was the students who were at the forefront of this small Corfiot resistance. As a consequence the “Carbinaria” and the “Finetsia” fascist groups of the Italian Corfiots attacked and arrested many Greek students, beating them and exiling some of them to the island of Othonous. 

After that episode there was a relative calm in all the Corfu island until the surrender of Italy in September 9, 1943. 

During the Second World War, Corfu was occupied by the Italian Army in April 1941 (Original video of the initial occupation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JWUmL3ZnxzQ). Piero Parini was the "Governor for the Ionian Islands" and remained so until September 1943: during this period, always together with the other Ionian Islands, the island was administered as a separate entity with respect to Greece with the intention of preparing for its annexation to the Kingdom of Italy, making use of the strong support of the Italian Corfiots.

After September 8, while the Governor hastily abandoned the island, the military commander of the Corfu area, Colonel Luigi Lusignani, and the civil commissioner, Count Ludovico Barattieri, organized resistance against the Germans with most of their soldiers and also distributed arms to some Greek patriots.

After twelve days of fierce fighting, on 26 September there was the surrender. Colonel Lusignani and many of his officers were put to death.

When the Greek government took control of the island, quickly ordered the "disappearance" of the Italian Corfiots. On November 7th 1944, 661 Italian Corfiots were embarked on a Red Cross ship flying the Norwegian flag (mostly elderly people, women and children) and sent to Italy.

According to some estimates by the government of Rome, there were about 1000 citizens of the Italian colony evacuated from Corfu in 1944-1945, where only "some elders and individuals distinguished for merit in favor of Greece" remained. 

Actually (2019) there it is not one single Italian Corfiot living in Corfu island...……...but some researchers (like B. D'Ambrosio of the "Universita' di Genova") calculated that in the 1980s:
1) more than  half of the actual inhabitants of Corfu city had some ancestor who was an Italian Corfiot. 

2) nearly 60% of the words in the actual Greek dialect of Corfu city were loanworded from the "Veneto da mar", formerly spoken by the Italian Corfiots.

ELENA ANGRI, worldwide famous opera singer

Renowned Corfiot Italians

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