Italian Architecture in the Dodecanese

1. Introduction

The Italian occupation of the Dodecanese was accompanied by a strong presence in all levels of the islands’ structure: reformations in historical centres, organization of the road system, expansion and replanning of the town network. Interventions aimed to underline the Italian power and promote specific functions for each island (i.e. tourism on Rhodes, military bases on Leros).

The Italians built a large number of new buildings on all the Dodecanese islands, thus creating totally new settlement forms of a symbolic colonial architecture which emphasised the role of the metropolitan state as a factor of modernization. The new public buildings still stand out for their differentiation from the previous styles of local –learned or popular– architecture, size, scale and adaptation to the island landscape.

2. The periods of Italian architecture in the Dodecanese

2. 1. First period

The Dodecanese architecture during the Italian possession may be divided into two periods, reflecting the different views of the two different governors-general, Mario Lago (1924-1936) and Cesare Maria De Vecchi (1936-1941).

In the first period the Italians adopted an architectural style with historical references aiming to provide an ideal continuity with the architecture of the period of the Knights’ domination in the islands. The first buildings, such as the barracks (1924-1926), the residency (1926-1927) and the post office (1927-1928) of Rhodes by the architect Florestano de Fausto, intended to revive former styles like Renaissance and Mannerism. Aiming at creating a symbolic architecture, the architect did not use the identical forms, but used them by means of an abstraction and recomposition process. In the following buildings there was a conscious effort to use some recognizable features of ‘local’ tradition, which would eventually be better incorporated in the conquered areas. Morphological references were not accidentally selected, for they were filtrated by the conqueror. Neoclassicism developed after the 19th century in the Greek communities of the Dodecanese was excluded because it was a direct reference to Athens, the national centre of Greece. However, the Aegean tradition was downgraded as well. The Italians rather turned to the anonymous Mediterranean and Balkan tradition. The new architecture created combined Venetian and Gothic features with decorative motifs from the Dodecanese folk art as well as loans from the tradition of neighbouring Arabian Mediterranean countries. A new eclectic architectural vocabulary resulted from the mixture of all these styles. In the case of Rhodes, which was promoted and organised by the Italians as a tourist destination, eclecticism became highly exotic, thus giving the island the international air of a Mediterranean resort. The most typical example of this architecture is the Rodon Hotel, designed by Florestano de Fausto (1925-1927). At Kalithea Baths (1928-1930), designed by Pietro Lombardi, there is a more abstract style, nearer the principles of rationalism and Art Deco, developing in Italy at the time. The Kalithea complex is an interesting intervention in the natural setting of the springs thanks to the use of designed and natural open-air areas and the gradation of volumes in the different buildings. In the following decades the place became the point of reference for tourists and the ideal setting for lots of Greek films of the 1960s.

Town planning interventions in Rhodes and Kos are indicative of the way the Italians viewed towns. According to the regulating plan for the town of Rhodes, prepared by Florestano de Fauto, the public services were along the coast and outside the historical centre of the town. In a central position was Foro Italico, the necessary free space for the large public gatherings promoted by fascism, with the House of Fascism (Casa del Fascio), the tower and the speaker’s balcony.

2. 2. Second period

The next governor of the Dodecanese, Cesare Maria De Vecchi, initiates a new period in Italian architecture, aiming at giving the conquered areas the air of a Roman province. This period is characterised by abstraction and the prevalence of rationalism and modern classicism. In this period De Vecchi launches a campaign to ‘purify’ his predecessor’s architecture by restoring the facades of several public buildings.

Lakki of Leros is a typical example of the new Italian architectural policy. Leros was selected to be a military base due to its geographical position. A naval yard was built at Lakki bay, the largest natural Mediterranean port. A new town called Porto Lago, inhabited exclusively by Italian colonists, was built to serve the needs of the yard. The first expropriations and infrastructures started in 1928 and works lasted until 1936. The plan proposed that the central operations –administration, market, services and culture– be in the centre of the settlement, thus forming peripheral dwelling zones for army officers. When planning the new town, the architects R. Petracco and A. Bernabiti managed to create an exceptional ensemble of Mediterranean rationalism. The buildings constructed, such as the church to San Francisco (A. Bernabiti, 1935-1939), the theatre (A. Bernabiti, 1936-1938), the elementary school (R. Petracco, 1934-1937) and the circular market (R. Petracco, 1934-1936), are unadorned and less ‘pompous’ than those of Rhodes and Kos, though equally impressive in this place. Without complicated morphological features, the interesting features of this architectural style are the form, the use of colours and materials as well as the plasticity of volumes, which is often quite daring.

These days the buildings of the Italian occupation, together with the rest of the traces and monuments of other civilizations (Ottoman and Frankish), are parts of the architectural inheritance of the Dodecanese.