Issue 16, November 2010
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The Onassis Foundation Library
By Leda Bouzali

The neoclassical building on Amalias Avenue houses now the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation Library which consists of the Konstantinos Sp. Staikos’s book collection. It is a priceless collection which is a testament to the entire spectrum of the publishing activities and intellectual pursuits of the Greeks of the Diaspora extending over the period from the Early Renaissance until the late years of Neo-Hellenic Enlightenment. It is hosted in a specially designed hall which, thanks to its towering elegant bookcases, its glass show-cases and its meticulously designed lighting, highlights these precious books in the best possible way.

“They are books whose silence is eloquent,” commented the President of the Onassis Foundation, Mr. Anthony Papadimitriou. “They are a historical testament to an entire era; the dark period of the Ottoman rule. They also contain a national message proving that Greece, despite the hardships at the time, wasn’t fading but continued producing culture.” Both the Onassis Foundation and the collector agree on maintaining the books so that they survice and become approachable to researchers and the wider public, and on enriching the collection. “We, as the Onassis Foundation but also as Greeks, owe gratitude to Konstantinos Staikos for having spent so much time and money on compiling this priceless collection,” stated Mr Anthony Papadimitriou.

It is worth noting that many of the books are rare and unique editions, which no Greek public library has. Nevertheless, despite their content, they have great artistic value. Many of them are first editions printed in printing-houses in Venice, Vienna and other important European intellectual hubs at a time when the first printing types were designed. In addition, even the hallmarks printed on their pages are real works of art.

Konstantinos Staikos started collecting Greek incunabula of the 15th to the 19th century, from second-hand bookshops and auctions conducted abroad in the early 1970s, “as a collector’s attempt which has turned out to become an attitude of life,” as noted by Mr Staikos himself. The collection includes today more than 1,400 titles, copies of which extend to about 2,000 volumes and can be classified in five basic entities:

  • Renaissance-Humanism: ancient Greek authors, humanistic works, grammars, encyclopaedias, dictionaries, philosophical treatises and literary essays.
  • Neo-Hellenic Literature: literary works, poetry and folklore, historical treatises, grammars for educational purposes, literary essays, grammar-dictionaries and every sort of school textbook.
  • Liturgical books: gospels, Books of Months (Menaia), Books of Hours, Pentekostaria, Prayer books et al.
  • Treatises of Theology: patristic works by Greek Church Fathers, treatises concerning the Schism between the two Churches, texts on the history of the orthodox Church, lengthy studies regarding the Orthodox dogma and the pope’s Infallibility et al.
  • Neo-Hellenic Enlightenment: οriginal works written for the intellectual elevation of the Greek people, Greek translation of works of prose of the world and poetry, and examples of the literary and linguistic dispute in the framework of the European Enlightenment and the ideas arising from the French Revolution.

Since the mid 14th century when the already self-governing cities, financial hubs, in Europe wanted to increase their political power against the Catholic Church, the inspired leaders conceived the idea of shaping an archive image through which their name could remain alive throughout history. A representative example of such a case is Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406), a man of letters and Chancellor of Florence, who in 1937 invited Emmanuel Chrysoloras to teach Greek in the first Chair in Hellenic Studies created after the fall of the Roman Empire. At the time, the number of people who knew Greek was minimal and many works of ancient Greek writers were not translated in Latin. Bringing Chrysoloras in Florence, Salutati gave the opportunity to a select group of scholars to read the texts of Aristotle and Plato from the original ancient Greek manuscript. The most ancient book in the collection comes from Florence; it is the editio princeps of Homer by Dimitrios Chalcocondyles, which was a true achievement during its time and is the first book to be printed in Damilas’s printing house, the first Greek printer, in 1488-1489. The collection also contains a Florentine edition of Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology by Maximus Planudes printed in 1494 by Lorenzo di Alopa, and edited by Janus Lascaris.

One influential hub that could also create archive material at the time was Venice. That is the origin of many precious books in the collection, as the Etymologicum Magnum, the first edition of the lexical encyclopedia printed by Nikolaos Vlastos in 1499. Through its drop caps, illuminated letters and the extended use of rubrication, it ranks amongst the masterpieces of Renaissance printing art. The following works in the collection were also printed in Venice: Book Called Paradise by Agapius Landos (1641), The Definitive Harmony of Things According to Greek Thinkersby Gerasimos Vlachos (1661), Apokopos of Bergadis and Story of Susanna by Marcos Defaranas – both by Orsino Albrizzi in 1667– the Sacred Scriptureby Nikolaos Glykys (1687), Book of November, edited by Nikodemos Vavatenis and printed by Nikolaos Saros (1689), Geography old and new by Meletios Mitrou (1728) and Corpus Byzantine Historiae by Demetrios Theodosiou (1767). An impressive sample of the category of liturgical books is the Gospel of 1852, coated in metallic bronze ornament, most likely published by the School of Ioannina and printed in the Phoenix printing house in Venice.

Pindar’s Olympia, Nemea, Pythia, Isthmia (1515) was printed in Zacharias Calliergi printing press in Rome; Robert I Estienne, known as Robertus Stephanus in Latin, printed in Paris the four editions of the Greek New Testament (1546); and Patriarch of Jerusalem Dositheos wrote a book against the Calvinist doctrines in 1690. Indicative of the rich production of Greek books in Trieste is the Commerce Directive printed in Giovanni Batta Speraindio’s printing press (1793) and in Iassy, Codex civilis Moldaviae by the Greek Printing Press (1817).

From left: George Babiniotis, Anthony Papadimitriou and Konstantinos Staikos at the Press Conference
From left: George Babiniotis, Anthony Papadimitriou and Konstantinos Staikos at the Press Conference

The collection features also unique copies such as two editions (1620 and 1630) of the work Alexander of Macedon, a novel based on the similar work by Pseudocallisthenis, printed in the printing house of Venetian Antonio Pinelli, and Life of the great and holy Nicholas (1636) in verse.

The afore-mentioned books and the rest of the books in the collection include the conflicts, the spiritual wars, the literary expression, the lexicography of the Greek history in the era spanning from the Renaissance to Neo-Hellenic Enlightenment. Konstantinos Staikos emphasized that “they constitute a national treasure to be safeguarded” adding that he is “grateful to the Onassis Foundation and its President, but also even more so to Pavlos Ioannidis, for embracing this work of life.”

Professor George Babiniotis described the collection as “a point of reference for everyone interested in the letters and the Greek culture” because “it includes rare books, landmarks in the history of book.” Rather notable –and increasing the value of the collection- is the fact that it includes all the publications on which, as Mr. Babiniotis explained, the teaching of the Greek language was based.

Anyone interested can find the catalogue of the Library at the Onassis Foundation offices. There have also been ideas for the future digitalization of the library’s books and their posting on the Onassis Foundation website.

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