History and Mission
The Corfu Reading Society is the oldest cultural institution in Greece, established in 1836.
Rooted in the liberal Western-European ideas of the early 19th century and the common European identity being formed at the time, it developed a social, educational, political, and patriotic character, holding a significant place in the cultural and social life of the Ionian islands.
Prominent personalities that lived in Corfu in the last two centuries have been its members, among which Dionysios Solomos, Andreas Kalvos, Iakovos Polylas, Lorentzos Mavilis, Konstantinos Theotokis, etc.
Since the early 20th century, it is housed in its own two-storey 18th-century emblematic building, located on the eastern seafront of Corfu town. The building is open to the public and some of its rooms serve as a museum.
The Society boasts a rich, specialised and constantly growing library (more than 35,000 volumes, including rare editions of the 16th-19th centuries), as well as unique collections of varied archival material such as manuscripts, maps, newspapers, works of art, photographs.
Since 1969, it publishes the scientific journal Δελτίο Αναγνωστικής Εταιρίας Κερκύρας (Corfu Reading Society Bulletin) and other books pertaining to the Ionian Islands. It maintains contacts with other cultural institutions and universities in Greece and abroad and it participates in major cultural issues, expressing its well-grounded opinion in matters of its interest.
Today, it numbers approximately 450 members and is managed by a Board of Directors elected among its founding members every two years.
Its objectives are:
- To research, promote and disseminate all aspects of the Heptanesian culture
- To further organise and enrich its specialised library and its collections
- To host scientific conferences, lectures, concerts, exhibitions and educational programmes
- To preserve and digitise rare editions and its unique archival material
- To disseminate knowledge to the global research community and to approach young people through modern multimedia
- To promote relationships with academia and other similar institutions in Greece and abroad.
Main Areas of Activity
The Corfu Reading Society is a unique institution in Greece. This is due to the historic circumstances that shaped its first years, linking it to similar reading societies in Italy and western Europe. Its distinctive character is also the result of the fact that it never suspended its operation, according it a key position in the island’s cultural scene.
Today the Society remains faithful to its initial liberal principles that have underlined its outlook since its inception. It relies on its hundreds of members and plans its actions according to their social relevance aiming to cover a wide range of interests.
Many of its initiatives are targeted at a younger audience: educational programmes and activities take place either on the grounds or on the web. These aim to support teachers and educators throughout the educational system in ways that are both interesting and enjoyable.
The Society aims to attract new research fellows. Its rare archival material and its unique Ionian book collection are open to academic staff of the University departments in Corfu, as well as researchers from all over the world. Moreover, the Society participates in collaborative research projects which further the documentation and assist the interconnectivity of its collections.
Finally, the Society is open to those who wish to explore its historic premises. The beautiful 18th century building which houses its headquarters has retained the atmosphere of a literary club where one is encouraged to admire paintings, rare documents and books from the Society’s collections.
The Corfu Reading Society was established by fourteen young Corfiots, intellectuals of the urban class that had recently returned from their studies in French and, mostly, Italian Universities. Influenced by similar Western-European societies (e.g. the Societé de Lecture de Genève), they aimed at imparting the new intellectual and political trends to their homeland, which at the time were mainly disseminated via the printed word.
Τhe initial objective of the Reading Society’s establishment was to collect as many and as varied published works as possible: newspapers, scientific journals and books from various European centres, and provide access to them on its premises.
The Corfu Reading Society was from the beginning a club with a social, educational, political and patriotic character. In fact, its patriotic role stands out as it supported the union of the Ionian islands with Greece.
It must be reminded that Corfu was, at the time, the capital of the United States of the Ionian Islands (the Ionian State), which was under British “Protection” (1814-1864).
Only 15 years earlier, the Greek War for Independence against the Ottoman rule had erupted, which after ten years of fierce struggle, led to the creation of the independent Greek state (1831).
It is also noteworthy that in 1824 in Corfu, due to the efforts and the perseverance of Lord Frederic North, Earl of Guilford, a great philhellene, the Ionian Academy was established, i.e the first Greek university, which contributed substantially to the cultivation of the Greek identity. The first Chairman of the Reading Society was Petros Vrailas-Armenis, who later became Professor of Philosophy in the Ionian Academy, denoting the close relationship between the two institutions.
The Reading Society contributed substantially to the establishment of the Greek language as the official language of the Ionian State, as well as the establishment of the freedom of Press in the Ionian Islands (1848), and the reform of the illiberal Constitution in 1817, while its members did not cease to defend the national restoration of the Heptanesian people.
After all, many personalities that lived in Corfu were members of the Society, including Dionysios Solomos – our national poet, Andreas Kalvos – a significant poet and professor at the Ionian Academy, Viaros Kapodistrias and his brother Augustinos Kapodistrias, Niccolò Tommaseo, Metropolitan Athanasios Politis, poet Gerasimos Markoras, Iakovos Polylas – writer and the first translator of the works of Homer and Shakespeare into modern Greek, Lorentzos Mavilis – a war hero and a poet, Georgios Theotokis – who later became Prime Minister of Greece, Angelos Giallinas – the famous Greek water colourist, Dinos Theotokis – the significant writer, the Metropolitan and later Ecumenical Patriarch Athinagoras, and many others.
Upon the union of the Ionian Islands with Greece, the political and intellectual activity of these men was transferred to Athens, the capital of the Greek state. Thus, worthy and active members fought for the liberation of other areas still under foreign rule, while since 1891, women were elected as members of the Society as well.
Throughout the 19th century, the Reading Society did not have a permanent residence. In 1921 it was lodged in the former residence of the German merchant Martin Felsch, a building typical of the Venetian period, with 19th century additions, which became the property of the Society in 1928.
During the first decades of the 20th century, the Reading Society undoubtedly continued to play a significant role in the social and intellectual life of Corfu, constantly enriching its library and its collection of works of art, intervening in the political and social matters, establishing circles of intellectual activities, and in general, bringing the Corfiots closer to the local, Greek and European developments.
World War II inhibited the course of the Society. The building was requisitioned by the Italian occupation army and was bombarded, although not greatly damaged. Upon liberation, it was soon restored, owing to the hard work of the very active members and administrations, and the Corfu Reading Society gradually restored its dynamic role in the Corfiot affairs.
Kostas Nikolakis-Mouchas played a decisive role in the revitalisation of the Reading Society. He was the chairman with the longest term of service (1969-1987) and he published, inter alia, the Corfu Reading Society Bulletin.
During his chairmanship, the collections of the Reading Society were enriched with printed and archival material, as well as art collections. Some examples are the acquisition of the significant library of Stefanos (Nakis) Pieris, a collection of 8,500 volumes, among which many unique documents, the purchase of a substantial part of the Guilford Archive (including mainly records regarding the establishment of the Ionian Academy), which was acquired by the Reading Society at an auction in London in the early 1980s, owing to the contribution of Greek shipowners in London (the Vlassopoulos family, Tryfon Kedros, Georgios Chatzantonakis, Georgios Lemos, Ioannis Chatzipateras).
In 1978, the Corfu Reading Society received an Academy of Athens award, a token of its shine and wide recognition in Greece “for its constant efforts, for over one hundred and forty years, to promote the Heptanesian studies and the education of the young people”.
In the last two decades, the Corfu Reading Society received important donations, which allowed the modernisation of its structures. The most recent great benefactors include: the Niarchos Foundation, the Leventis Foundation, Mr. George David, Mrs. Alexandra Vovolinis-Laskaridis, Mr. Kostis Drakopoulos and Mr. Vasilis Drakopoulos, the Bodossaki Foundation, the Latsis Foundation, the Gnosis Foundation, the National Bank of Greece, the late Rene Anagnostou, Bruno Pacor, Nikolaos Papakostopoulos, and Alice Padova.
Our work has been systematically and generously supported by our great benefactor Mr. Spiro Flamburiari.
Today, the Corfu Reading Society numbers approximately 450 members. It has a rich and constantly growing library (more than 35,000 volumes), which includes unique book collections and other archival material, dated from the 16th century to the present. The crown jewel of the library is the Heptanesian book collection, which comprises 8,000 volumes pertaining to the Ionian islands in all respects. It also includes:
– A substantial number of rare newspapers (220 titles) of the 19th and 20th century of more than 20,000 issues in total.
– A remarkable number of rare manuscript maps, of the beginning of the 19th century.
– A collection of approximately 1,000 single-sheet prints dated from the end of the 18th century until the beginning of the 20th century.
– A significant number of paintings, engravings, photographs, as well as a notable collection of archival material.
All this material is accessible for research in the library’s reading room, which is open to the public, while researchers from all over the world can have online access to the library through the web.
Moreover, since 1969 the Society publishes a journal, titled Corfu Reading Society Bulletin, which presents historical research, folklore research, archaeological research, etc., revolving around Corfu and the Ionian Islands in general. It has also made other publications of Heptanesian interest.
Finally, it hosts scientific conferences, lectures, concerts, exhibitions, and educational programmes addressed to Corfiot students of all ages, and to the local academia as well. It also maintains regular contacts with other Greek and European cultural institutions.
The Corfu Reading Society is in possession of a rare collection of printed and archival material, the products of the Heptanesian culture and intellectuality of the last five centuries. The combination of the collections with the unique atmosphere of its rooms make the Society an attractive research centre for a wide range of Greek and foreign researchers and visitors.
Thus, it continues to shine, as an intellectual beacon and a stable reference point in local cultural affairs, promoting the Heptanesian culture in all respects, as well as the Greek and European culture in general.