Between the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and their capture by the Turks in the 1560s, the Cyclades were under the control of Venice. Noble families controlled various islands organised under the Duchy of Naxos after it was captured by Marco Sanudo in 1207. The ‘Chora’ of each island with its narrow winding streets, organised around a ‘Kastro’ (castle) for defensive purposes and the Catholic communities on Tinos, Syros, Mykonos and Naxos are the most visible remnants of what in Greece is called the “Frankocracy”, as all Westerners were labelled ‘Franks’. My own surname might well be of Italian origin..
So what about those noble Frankish families that ruled the Aegean?
Well, like the Knights on Malta, they never went away. On Naxos, I met several members of the old noble della Rocca (de la Roche) family, called in Greek Δελαροκα. Their origin is in fact in Burgundy, and one side of the family tree became the pharmaceutical giant Hoffman-la Roche, but in the Cyclades they Venetianised their name.
Nikos Karavias (full name: Nikolaos Michel Laurent Karavias Della Rocca-Barozzi) is the best known member of the group: a musician who studied to be a dentist to please his parents, he returned to his main love in the twilight of his life – with a vengeance. Curator of the Venetian Museum in the Naxos Kastro, he is the organiser of the summer series of Domus music concerts. With a capacity of 100-120 persons and with tickets around the €20 mark, these highly successful events are attracting musicians of exceptional calibre to the island: classical, folk, ethno, jazz, rock. The secret is on the setting: in the open air, by the main castle gate, western-facing and starting around the sunset. As Nikos himself told me, some people are so moved by the experience that they return to Naxos again and again just for these concerts – of which there are about 100 per year.
Eleni was married to a Della Rocca an avid hoarder of Veneziana and she sells
them, or better say display them, in a 800-year old Venetian mansion inside the Kastro. Her shop the Antico Veneziano is a treasure trove for collectors; and its most striking feature are two Ionic columns that support the roof, pilfered from some temple or other. The conquerors re-used pillars, stones and masonry from existing buildings to assemble their own.
Poppi, daughter of Eleni, belongs to the fifth generation of pharmacists who have occupied the first chemists’ shop on Naxos, right by the ships’ disembarkation point. The pharmacy itself is of historic value and is worth visiting to buy suntan lotion just to admire the old labelling and the wooden shelves that line up its walls. [Given that another branch of the family ended up as Hoffman/La Roche, one wonders whether pharmacy is in the Della Rocca genes.] A consummate professional, who is embarrassed to admit she stems from a noble family in today’s modern Greece, Poppi would only allow me to photograph her in the act of serving a client.