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E + 21 : Where are the Corfiot Italians?

The Old Town of Corfu on Kerkyra as seen from the old Venetian Fortress

In Calabria and Apulia, people proudly mention that there are still villages speaking ancient Greek or Griko and follow the Greek Orthodox church rites. We noticed this first hand in Bova, the Norman village high up in the Calabrian Mountains, where the Pharmacy is called φαρμακείο and all street signs are written in both the Latin and Greek alphabet. Surely, there must be countless signs of 500 years of Venetian presence in Corfu. Without the support of the local Greek people, Venice could not have successfully defended the island four times against Turkish invasions. But with the exception of architecture & fortifications, there aren’t any signs of Venetian presence left.

The formerly Venetian Ionian Islands (1401 - 1798)

Venice ruled Corfu from 1401 to 1798. It was ceded to France who ruled it until 1815. The Congress of Vienna, the peace conference of Europe’s big powers, then merged the former Venetian island of Kerkira, Ithaca, Lefkada, Kefalonia, Zakynthos, Paxos and Kythera into the United States of the Ionian islands and put them under the protectorate of the English Crown where they remained until 1864.

The Ionian Islands had their own Flag

In the early 19th century, there were many Italian speakers on these islands, almost 5’000 in absolute numbers or 2% of the total population. Actually, they spoke the Venetian dialect not modern Italian. Italian speakers were mostly living in Corfu, the former capital, where they made up the majority. A strong minority was also living in Kefalonia. The Venetian community had their own churches and schools. They came from various backgrounds. Some were descendants of noble families in Venice, others from immigrants from Malta. In the 17th and 18th century, Malta was a big construction site and its skilled craftsmen were very much in demand. Venice lured some of them to Kefalonia where it planned to build a new capital called Asos. We visited the place in 2017 (A +3). The project was abandoned before completion though since the Turkish threat receded.

Assos, the never completed new capital of Kefalonia

The people on the Ionian Islands lived happily under English Rule – the British Empire gave them more freedom than the Ottoman Turks. They had their parliament and a fair degree of autonomy. The official languages were now Venetian and English. Greek was mostly used for private conversations and in the church.

Former Catholic Church in Corfu which lost its Parish in the 19th century

The Greek war of independence which started in 1821 and lead the creation of a souverain Greek State in 1830 made people more aware of their Greek national identity – as early as 1840 there were demands for merging the Ionian Islands with the Kingdom of Greece. These calls found open ears in London. The Ionian Island had considerable strategic value in the age of sail, but in the age of steam when ships did not depend on the vagaries of wind any longer, Malta gained in importance. Not only was it the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean HQ, the big coal bunkers needed for refueling were also located there.

Despite increasing Greek Nationalism, the Venetian and Greek community lived in harmony. If there was a common foe, it was British. By 1864, the British Government ceded the islands to Greece. Having been able to install an anglophile new Greek King, he got these islands as a “present”. With Athens now being the Capital, Greek influence naturally increased. Greek became the official language. Slowly but steadily, the Venetian population assimilated and droped from about 5’000 to 700.

Italian Troops landing in Corfu in 1941

The relations between the two communities turned sour only in 1923, when Mussolini demanded the annexation of the Ionian Islands. The Great Powers had already given him the Dodecanes Islands with Rhodes. But in a fit, he occupied Corfu with military force for a few months. Shelling the island’s people did not win Italy new friends – a deep rift opened between the two communities when the Venetians sided with Italy.

The Street Names in Corfu are now all Greek and written in the Greek Alphabet

The rift did not heal in the interwar years and when Italy occupied Corfu again in 1941, after the Wehrmacht had beaten the Greek Army, relations were on the edge. When the Italians left in 1943, no love was left. As in Yugoslavia, the remaining Italian speaking families were sent packing. Their flirtation with Italian Fascism cost them dearly and eclipsed 500 years of common history. People in Corfu are now proud Greeks. They love the Venetian history of Corfu but they are mainly proud of the fact that they are the only part of Greece that was never occupied by Turkey. Their heart and soul beats with Greek culture. Nobody would ever think of having street names written in both the Latin and Greek alphabet. You need to google an old map of Corfu if you want to know the old Venetian street names.

The peaceful sailboat harbour of Corfu

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