Achilleion

Achilleion (Greek: Αχίλλειο or Αχίλλειον) is a palace built in Corfu by Empress (German: Kaiserin) of Austria Elisabeth of Bavaria, also known as Sisi, after a suggestion by Austrian Consul Alexander von Watzberg. Elisabeth was a woman obsessed with beauty, and very powerful, but tragically vulnerable since the loss of her only son, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria in the Mayerling Incident in 1889. A year later in 1890, she built a summer palace in the region of Gastouri (Γαστούρι), now the municipality of Achilleion, about ten kilometres to the south of the city of Corfu. The palace was designed with the mythical hero Achilles as its central theme. Elisabeth spoke Greek better than any of the Greek queens that were her contemporaries and she expressed a desire to further immerse herself in the Greek culture. Like every other European royal, she had some Byzantine emperors among her distant ancestors.


History

Elisabeth was given the property by Corfiot Petros Vrailas Armenis. To show her gratitude, Elisabeth rewarded Vrailas Armenis with a large diamond-encrusted brooch to be passed down to the wife of the eldest son. The palace was designed by Italian architect Raffaele Caritto.Ernst Herter, a famous German sculptor, was commissioned to create works inspired from Greek mythology. His famous sculpture Dying Achilles (Ancient Greek: Αχιλλεύς θνήσκων), created in Berlin in 1884 as inscribed in the statue, forms the centrepiece of the Achilleion Gardens.


The palace, with the classic Greek statues that surround it, is a monument to platonic romanticism as well as escapism and was, naturally, named after Achilles: Achilleion. The place abounds with paintings and statues of Achilles, both in the main hall and in the lavish gardens depicting the heroic and tragic scenes of the Trojan war. The architectural style is Pompeian and has many parallels to that of the Russian imperial residence in Crimea.


The Imperial gardens on top of the hill provide a majestic view of the surrounding green hill crests and valleys as the Ionian sea gleams in the background.


Elisabeth used to visit the place often until 1898 when she was assassinated in Geneva by Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni.


Kaiser

After Elisabeth's death, the German Kaiser Wilhelm II purchased Achilleion in 1907 from her heirs and used it as a summer residence. During Kaiser Wilhelm's visits a lot of diplomatic activity used to take place in Achilleion and it became a hub of European diplomacy.


Wilhelm, expanding on the main theme of the grounds, commissioned his own Achilles statue from the sculptor Johannes Götz who created an imposing bronze sculpture that stands tall as a guardian of the Gardens facing north toward the city.


Kaiser's statue represents Achilles in full hoplite uniform with intricate detailing such as a relief of a gorgon's head at the shield, apparently to petrify any enemies, as well as lion heads as knee protectors. This tall statue is surrounded by palm trees that complement its graceful outline. Kaiser Wilhelm visited the place until 1914 when World War I was declared. The Kaiser also attended performances at the Municipal Theatre of Corfu while vacationing at the Achilleion.


The Wars

During World War I, the Achilleion was used as a military hospital by French and Serbian troops. After World War I, it became the property of the Greek state according to the treaty of Versailles and the war reparations that followed in 1919.


In the years between World War I and World War II the Achilleion property was used to house various government services and at the same time a number of artifacts were auctioned off.


During World War II, the axis powers used the Achilleion as military headquarters. After World War II, the Achilleion came under the management umbrella of the Hellenic Tourist Organisation (HTO).


In 1962 the Achilleion was leased to a private company that converted the upper level to a casino and the lower grounds to a museum. In 1983 the lease was terminated and the palace management was returned to the HTO.


European role

Briefly reclaiming the status of centre for European diplomacy that it possessed during the Kaiser years, the Achilleion has been used in recent times for the European summit meeting in 1994 and in 2003 it hosted the meeting of the European ministers for Agriculture. Lately it has been used as a museum while the casino function has been relocated to the Corfu Hilton.


Achilleion in film

The casino scene of the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only (1981) was filmed at the Achilleion.


Sources

  • Greek National Tourist Organisation information window at the Achilleion Grounds

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