Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Masons of the Morea

Dimitri Nakassis asked me about secondary literature on architectural labor in vernacular Greece, so I’m taking the opportunity to gather up a few thoughts. Although the study of vernacular architecture in Greece begins ca. 1925, early folklorists and architectural historians were more interested in the formal principles of houses and their decoration rather than the labor that produced it and its organization. For the early studies, see Demetris Pikionis, Angeliki Hadjimichali, Anastasios Orlandos and George Megas. The 1920s generation set up the educational infrastructure of research at the Polytechneion, where every graduating architect and engineer went out into the rural provinces and produced painstaking documentation of the surviving stock. It was not until the 1960s, that attention turned onto the sociology of architectural labor.

In summary, architectural labor from the 18th to the early 20th century was organized in itinerant groups of masons. They would specialize on the finer aspects of construction, such as the corners, quoins, the windows, openings and roofing and would hire local work for the unspecialized work, such as building infill walls. Itinerant masons typically came from mountainous villages that had little access to agricultural land. The best known masons of the 19th century were Albanians. With no work at home, they would be gone for most of the year, leaving behind the womenfolk to raise the family. They would return to their villages for one or two months every year and, if lucky, succeed in impregnating their wives. Itinerant masons occasionally migrated to new territories where there was demand, thus, creating a new local tradition. For instance, Albanian masons settled in Peloponnesian mountain villages, like Langadia in Arcadia, turning those new villages into “mason villages” (μαστοροχώρια). It’s a bit ironic that during the 1980s and 1990s, a new wave of Albanian masons found themselves as the new builders of the countryside given the shortage of male hands. What is different with this immigration wave, however, is that Albanian workmen were exploited by Greek contractors. Although the new Albanians retained a lot more knowledge of stone-masonry than the 1980s Greeks, they had undergone a transformation. Isolated geographically by the Iron Curtain, they lost the labor market that had allowed them to perfect their art. New material, like concrete, had already transformed the Albanian building trades. Sadly, the typical Albanian stonework of the 1980s-2000s is characterized by goops of concrete rolling between stones. Much of this Albanian stonework is decorative stone applied over a concrete structure.

By the early 19th century, the Peloponnesian masons were in such great demand that the new nation-state would explicitly recruit them to build the new capital of Athens. The pride of Peloponnesian stonemasons working in Athens can be seen, for instance, in a mason’s graffiti on the Temple of Sounion from ca. 1920s. The life of the itinerant stone mason was tough. The group was hierarchical according to seniority and expertise. The masons also developed their own language and technical vocabulary. Since these groups of men spent so much time together, they filled their workday with talk. And in order that the local populations not understand exactly what they were saying, some anthropologists argue, they developed their own code. This code language has been well documented. As one might expect, a lot of it is gender specific and sexist. One of the mason’s vocabulary that made it into modern Greek usage is “boulouki” which describes the social group. With the advent of reinforced concrete (beton arme), traditional building crafts and their organization disappeared. Since this happened so much later in Greece than in the industrial European north, Greece offers a good case study. Certain specialized crafts, like plasterers were still needed to decorate the concrete frames. They survived well into the 1960s and 1970s (and Miltiadis Katsaros is documenting them). Marble working specialists were artificially resuscitated with the opening of the Penteli quarries for the building of Neoclassical Athens in the 19th century. Interestingly enough, the staggering resources devoted to the restoration of the Acropolis (one of the longest uncompleted projects) has also sustained a group of stonemasons from the islands of Paros, Naxos and the islands with marble quarries.

And now a few words about the secondary literature. While documenting vernacular architecture in Eleia and Achaia, the Morea Project conducted a few interviews on the mason traditions. Mary Coulton (folklorist at Oxford) supervised that part of the project. Unfortunately, we have not published this adequately, but see Frederick A. Cooper, Kostis Kourelis et al. Houses of the Morea: Vernacular Architecture of the Northwestern Peloponnese (1250-1950) (Athens, 2004). On the Greek side, the absolutely best starting point on the architecture of vernacular architecture is Giannis Kizis publication on the construction of houses in Mount Peleion. Kizis teaches at the Polytechneion in Athens. Unlike his predecessors (Pikionis, Orlandos, etc.) who were interested in formal features and the expression of Hellenism, Kizis has brought Greek vernacular architectural studies to the standards of international scholarship. The study on Mount Peleion is an exemplary synthetic work, see Giannis Kizis, Η Πηλιορείτικη οικοδομία. Η αρχιτεκτονική της κατοικίας στο Πήλιο από τον 17ο στον 19ο αιώνα (Athens, 1994). Since the 1990s, Kizis has turned into a restorations dynamo, and some have complained that his professional practice has overtaken his scholarly focus.

On the anthropological study of the traditional masons, my favor author is Chrestos G. Konstantinopoulos, who has done a lot some serious data gathering, see Οι παραδοσιακοί χτίστες της Πελοποννήσου. Ιστορική και λαογραφική μελέτη (The Traditional Masons of the Peloponnese: Historical and Ethnographic Study) (Athens, 1983), and Η μαθητεία στις κομπανίες των χτιστών της Πελοποννήσου (Education in the Mason Companies of the Peloponnese) (Athens, 1987). The latter includes a very amusing glossary of the masonic code language. Although problematic with its methodology, Melissa’s Παραδοσιακή Αρχιτεκτονική στην Ελλάδα (Vernacular Architecture in Greece) is still pretty informative. One of my favorite recent studies about the transformation of building labor under colonialism is Michael Given’s study of Cyprus under the British, see The Archaeology of the Colonized (London and New York, 2004), photo above from National Geographic (1928).

I'm sure there is so much more to say about the scholarship of Greek vernacular masons, but these are the first thoughts that come to mind.


Dimitri Nakassis said...

Thanks, Kostis! This is fabulous.

Anonymous said...

Am just back from Messenia with students. Showed clamps to them in the remote village of Ayioi Konstantinoi, as I do every year. It is good now to be able to point them also to your blog. Bill Alexander, ethnocafenologist extraordinaire introduced me to such matters at Nemea in the 80s. See his and Wayne Lee's study of Margeli in our journal Hesperia. Jack Davis

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Kostis Kourelis

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