The Italian Architecture in the Dodecanese

Rhodes Kalithea

Visitors to the Dodecanese, that group of Greek Islands off the coast of Turkey are often surprised at the extent the modernist and art deco buildings which remain as a result of the occupation of these islands by Italy from 1912 to 1943. Extensive work was undertaken on all these Islands which have left an important architectural legacy.

The Italian occupation of the Dodecanese was accompanied by a strong presence in all levels of the islands’ structure which can be seen today: developing historical centres, organisation of the road system, expansion and preplanning of the town network. There were initiatives aimed at underlining Italian power and promoting specific functions for each island (i.e. tourism on Rhodes, military bases on Leros). The Italians built a large number of new buildings on all the Dodecanese islands, thus creating totally new forms of a symbolic colonial architecture which emphasised the role of the metropolitan state as a factor of modernisation. The new public buildings still stand out for their differentiation from the previous styles of local vernacular architecture in their size, scale and adaptation to the island landscape.

In September 1911 the Kingdom of Italy declared war on the Ottoman Empire with the objective of conquering the three remaining provinces that empire had in Africa and which today are known as the Republic of Libya. Italy hoped to find an alternative destination for its excess population (in the period 1906-10 3,256,000 Italians had left their country).

The conquest of Libya turned out to be more difficult than expected: the Turks had just small garrisons and the towns along the coast were easily occupied, but the local Arab leaders maintained control of the interior. In May 1912 in order to stop supplies of weapons to Libya and to force the Ottoman Empire to ask for peace, the Italians, who had total naval supremacy, landed on Rhodes and in a matter of days occupied the island: they then landed on Kos and ten other nearby islands: these islands which were called southern Sporades were renamed Dodecanese (twelve islands), their current name. In 1912 Italian troops took over Rhodes and the rest of the Dodecanese Islands, and established an Italian colony known as Isole Italiane dell’Egeo in 1923.

The Italo-Turkish War ended in October 1912 mainly because Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro, having seen the weakness of the Ottoman Empire, attacked it (First Balkan War): the state of war in the area continued with a second Balkan War in 1913, World War I (1914-18) and eventually the war between the Republic of Turkey and Greece. A final settlement was not reached until July 1923 with the Treaty of Lausanne: Rhodes and the Dodecanese became an Italian possession, which included also a thirteenth island: Castelrosso (Kastelorizo), a tiny island very near the mainland. So the Dodecanese was no longer an accurate name to indicate the islands, but because number 13 according to most Italians brings bad luck, the 13 islands continued to be called the Dodecanese.