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"The greatest satisfaction for me here in Venice is when I see the joy on young scholars' faces, every time they discover files related to the historical course of Hellenism in the Institute's libraries".
Cradle of byzantine memory
Chrissa Maltezos, a professor in Athens University and headmistress of the Greek Institute of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Studies in Venice, is surrounded by a group of Greek post-graduate students, who are working on their PhD theses under her supervision.
They sit on the same couch where centuries ago, professors and students of the Flanginian School of the Greek brotherhood of Venice used to sit. Only their clothes set them apart from their medieval ancestors, everything else is the same. Their mission is the same; to discover Hellenic traces and discover the paths taken by the Greeks of the past. With the help of these exquisite scientists, we were given the opportunity to 'listen' to the Greek heart of Venice.
The Greek Institute of Byzantine Studies is located in the Greek islet Campo dei Greci in Venice, next to the Greek church of Saint George.
After the end of World War II, Italy consented to the founding of the Greek Institute, which was housed in the Flanginian building, donated by the Greek community of Venice. In exchange, the Greek state allowed the reopening of the Italian Archaeological School and the Italian Institute of Athens, while at the same time it took over the subsidy of the preservation of the Greek community of Venice.
The Greek Institute, which opened its doors in 1955, is the only Greek research centre abroad. It mainly concentrates on studies of the byzantine and post-byzantine history, emphasizing on the history of the Greek-Latin regions. The Institute's Greek researchers can get a scholarship after passing exams at the Academy of Athens and are obliged to write relevant PhD theses.
In the building where the Greek brotherhood's hospital once stood, which is at the same residential complex with the Greek Institute and the church of Saint George, there is a unique Museum of Byzantine and post-Byzantine icons. Its exhibits come mostly from donations of the Greeks who live in Venice, Constantinople (Istanbul) and other cities, but some were also created by Greek hagiographers who used to live in Venice. Among these icons, are there are works of Michael Damascenos, George Klontzas, Emmanuel Manpardos, Theodore Poulakis, Emmanuel Tzane-Mpounialιs.
The Institute created an impressive library on the premises, which was filled with the thousands of books printed by Greek press shops from the 16th to the 19th century and salvaged by the Flanginian School. Most of the old books are religious and educational. The rest were bought, donated and exchanged after that. Up until today, the library is constantly enriched with new books and scientific magazines, mostly Greek ones. Scientists from many countries visit the library to do archival research.
The Greek Institute also holds a precious registry, through which one can discover the history of the Greek community in Venice . The Registry has two divisions, the old one (1498-1830) and the new one (1830 till today). The old Registry includes account books belonging to the presidents of the Greek brotherhood, and thousands of other documents as well. The new ones include financial and administrative books, protocols, mail, documents of the college and the Flangini hospital, convention proceedings, asset inventories and more.
The wills and testaments of the Greeks of Venice, also kept in the Instiutute, are of extreme interest. In these testaments, one can see the obsession the Greeks had with Orthodoxy and their Greek identity. It is moving to read the instructions they left their kin, explaining in detail the kinds of schools and churches they wanted built in their villages in Greece.
A scholar recently unearthed an old testament of a Greek man, kept in the State Institute of Venice, in which he stated his final wishes. His impressive library was to be transferred to Tyrnavos of Thessaly. He had also left a respectable amount of money to build the library and all the furniture needed. It was also his wish that the library be open to everyone, because, as he wrote, education is something that everyone should be entitled to.
The most impressive thing in the testaments is that in almost all of them icons are also passed on. The references to the icons of Virgin Mary, each one of them having a different name, are countless. Virgin Mary had always been the patroness of the Greek family and was never absent from Greek houses.
TEXT-PHOTOS: GEORGE ZAFEIROPOULOS