Today, the Palace of Saint Michael and Saint George houses the Corfu Museum of Asian Art, the only one of its kind in Greece, solely dedicated to the art and antiquities of the Far East and India.
It was founded in 1928 as the Museum of Sino-Japanese Art, following the donation of Gregorios Manos’ Sino-Japanese collection to the Greek state.
Since that time, the Museum has been a pole of attraction for many other donations, resulting in its collection currently comprising approximately 15.000 works of Asian art form private collections and individual item donations. The 1973 Hadjivassiliou donation, in particular, with the addition of 400 works from India, Pakistan, Tibet, Siam and southeast Asia, changed the Museum’s strictly Sino-Japanese profile and led to it being renamed to the Museum of Asian Art.
Today it enjoys worldwide recognition, with rare items from its collections being presented in international exhibitions. The most recent one was held in Tokyo, at the “Tokyo Metropolitan Edo – Tokyo Museum” in the summer of 2009.
- Chinese Art Collection
- Japanese Art Collection
- South East Asian Art Collection
- Central Asian Art Collection
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The museum is housed in the Saints Michael and George Palace (the Royal Palace), an imposing three-storied building and a fine example of neoclassical architecture, located at the northern end of the Spianada in the town of Corfu. The display rooms occupy the ground and first floors, and are largely under refurbishment. The Palace State rooms, namely the Senate Room on the ground floor, and the Rotunda, Throne Room and Dining Room on the first floor, all of which contain historical heirlooms and furniture from the period of the Ionian Senate, are open to the public. The west wing’s first floor, which houses the Japanese collection, is also accessible, as are the temporary exhibition rooms on the ground floor. Soon seven rooms containing Chinese artefacts on the east wing’s first floor will also be accessible. The museum’s exhibits are displayed not only as mere works of art, but in such a way as to illustrate both the similarities and differences of each country and period’s art. The museum also houses specialized conservation laboratories for paper, wood, pottery and metal, offices, storerooms, a photographic archive, a profuse library and a modern lecture hall.
The Museum of Asiatic Art functions as a Special Regional Service of the Ministry of Culture. Its aim is to protect and promote the cultural heritage of Asian countries as a national centre for the presentation and study of Asian art in Greece. The museum organizes temporary exhibitions and collaborates with other museums and scholars with similar interests; its priority for the immediate future is to organize educational programs and a series of lectures for the promotion of the Asian civilizations.
The Palace during the English rule period 1814 -1864
The Palace of Saint Michael and Saint George are located on the northern part of the Spianada, the Corfu town historical centre square. It is the largest and the most significant building of the English rule period, which started in 1814 and ended in 1864 when the Ionian Islands were reunified with the rest of Greece.
They were built at the request of the then British Lord High Commissioner, Sir Thomas Maitland, to become his own luxurious residence and to house the High Commissioner’s administrative headquarters, which was until then located in the Old Fortress. The same building complex would also house the Ionian Senate and the Ionian Parliament, the two institutional bodied which symbolized the Ionian Islands’ autonomy, in order for the High Commissioner to keep them under his direct control. At the same time, the Palace would serve as the seat of the newly founded Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George, which was established in 1818 at Maitland’s initiative, after which is was officially named “Palace of Saint Michael and Saint George”.
The construction of this building, which served the British Empire’s concentrative administration in the area and symbolized he Lord High Commissioner’s omnipotence, was commissioned to Sir George Whitmore. Whitmore, British army engineer and architech, designed a neoclassical, Regency style building. Following the principles of neopalladianism and the revival of ancient Greek art which were prevalent in England , he created and amalgam of Roman and Ancient Greek architecture.
Maltese stone was used for the entire building the material was transported, along with specialized craftsmen, from Malta.
The architect’s collaboration with the notable Corfiot sculptor Pavlos Prosalentis on the Palace decoration was quite valuable.
Externally, the upper part of the façade was adorned with relief metopes that depicted Britain within the “rubberless ship” (the symbol of Corfu) and the emblems of the other Ionian Islands on either side. Over the metopes, the building was framed with a monumental sculpted ensemble depicting Britain as a female form, accompanied by a lion, seated on the ancient Corfiot ship.
The Reunification of the Ionian Islands with Greece, on 21 May 1864, signaled the end of the English Rule period. The withdrawal of the British forces was accompanied by the detachment of the sculpted ensembles depicting Britain and the lion, as well as by the seat of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George being relocated.
The Palace from the Reunification (1864) until today
In 1864, with the Reunification of the Ionian Islands with Greece, the Hellenic state appropriated a building, the size of which was only surpassed by King Otto’s Palace (currently housing the Hellenic Parliament). Until 1913, it was used as residence of the then royal family whenever they visited the island.
On the first floor, to the east and the west of the monumental halls, were the King’s and Queen’s chambers respectively. Impressive English and French pieces of furniture, artful lamps, tapestries, china, works of art and oriental carpets all put together the Palace’s luxurious decoration. The twelve rooms of the second floor were intended for the royal guard, while the basement for the domestic workers.
The tumultuous historical conjecture of the Balkan Wars (1912-14) and World War I (1914-18) brought upon a new change in the building’s use. The Palace was chosen to meet the urgent needs of the period between the Wars.
However, from as early as 1919, negotiations were underway for the creation of the first (and still by today unique) Museum of Asian Art in Greece. The new museum would be housed in the Corfu Palace, built around the collection-donation of Gregorios Manos.
The building was extensively damaged during World War II (1939-45), with the bombing of its roof and the looting of pieces of furniture and works of art, as well as during the Greece Civil War (1946-49), when the Banquet Hall was burnt to a cinder.
It was partially repaired in the ‘50s, focusing mainly on the monumental halls . From 1992 until 1994, the exterior masonry was repaired as well as the interior and its infrastructures were, as the Palace would host the 1994 European Union Summit Meeting in Corfu. Since then, the Museum of Asian Art has been including in the re-exhibition of its collections and the conservation, restoration and promotion of the Palace history.
The Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George
The Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George, one of the most significant British orders, was established on 28 April 1818 by the Prince Regent George III (later known as George IV). Its seat, until 1864, was the Palace named after it in Corfu, while from 1906 until today, it is Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. Its motto is “AUSPICUM MELIORIS AEVI” (“Token of a Better Age”). The supreme grade is that of Grand Master.
It includes three classes, in descending order of senority:
- Knight Grand Cross of Dame Grand Cross (GCMG),
- Knight Commander (KCMG) or Dame Commander (DCMG) and
- Companion (CGM).
It was initially intended to reward Englishmen, natives of the Ionian Islands and of the island of Malta for services rendered to the Crown, while after 1868 membership was granted to those who held high and confidential offices within Her Majesty’s colonial possessions and ambassadors abroad.
Μουσείο Ασιατικής Τέχνης Κέρκυρας, http://www.matk.gr/gr/ta-anaktora/istoria/
ΖΕΡΝΙΩΤΗ, Δέσποινα, “Μουσείο Ασιατικής Τέχνης“, http://odysseus.culture.gr/h/1/gh151.jsp?obj_id=3347