The Grand Master’s Palace
Like an orchestra of talented players brought together and forced unwillingly to perform a famous symphony, the Grand Master’s Palace is an assemblage of many in dividual treasures and qualities, but a strangely indifferent whole. The crisp lines of its crenellations and round towers erected by the Italians between 1937 and 1940 are faithful to the general proportions and exterior appearance of what we know of the castle built by the Knights; but the interior has been substantially modified, the materials of the surfaces altered, and the spaces which saw so much important Mediaeval history are gone. Nonetheless the Palace contains many important treasures—Ancient and Palaeochristian mosaics set in the floors, antique furniture, two interesting permanent exhibitions on aspects of the history of Rhodes , as well as the ghost of a period of political aberration in recent Western history. All of this makes it a visit that should not be missed (open June–Sept Tues–Sun 8–8, Mon 12.30–8; daily in winter, ex ept Mon, 8.30–3. Entrance fee includes access to the exhibitions. Note: the two permanent exhibitions alternate days of opening – see below). Entrance, court & ground floor The imposing South Gate—befitting a building that was primarily a fortress, and only secondarily a residence— flanked by two horse-shoe towers, communicates between the military parade court in front on the south side and the interior court of the castle. The chilling bareness of the central courtyard has little architectural relief: the insensitively ‘finished’ statues of Roman dignitaries on the opposite side, which were brought in 1937 from the ancient Odeion in Kos, are the sole figurative elements. In the original floor of the court were sunk a dozen large, circular grain stores; the mar ble ‘well-heads’ on the east side, marking three of them, were added by the Italians. The lower floor of the north wing houses the well-dis played and clearly explained, permanent exhibition, ‘Ancient Rhodes : 2400 Years’ (open Wed, Fri and Sun), covering the history of the city along thematic lines: Prehistoric be ginnings and development (Rooms 1 & 2); public buildings and sanctuaries (3); the Rhodian house (4); domestic artefacts (5); cosmetics and daily life (6); artistic and spiritual life (7); ceramic workshops (8); work in bronze, glass, and terracotta (9); commerce and coinage (10); the cemetery (11); and burial customs (12). In the southwest corner is the second exhibition, ‘Rhodes from the 4th century until the Turkish Conquest (1522)’ (open Tues, Thur & Sat) displays manuscripts and illustrated books, icons, finely decorated ceramics and objects of trade and ritual—together contributing a vivid sense of the colour of the city in the period. A pair of beautifully carved 16th century -wooden doors from the church of Aghia Triada, re-used (and perhaps partially restored) in Ottoman times, gives a valuable sense of the former appearance of the city’s other many doorways, which today tend towards a drab uniformity. On the wall to the left of the main interior stairs opposite the ticket office is a small carved aedicule with a 14th century sculptural group, in predominantly North Italian style, of the seated Madonna and Child (the latter, energetically holding up an Orb). Although it retains vestiges of original paint, the degree of erosion suggests that it was perhaps located on the exterior of a building. It somehow escaped destruction, and was immured here by the Italians in their restoration of the building. To the right of the staircase is the chapel of St Catherine (which once housed important relics of the saint), with a copy of Donatello’s St Nicholas of Bari. Upper floor State Rooms In the Hall of the monumental staircase, the self-conscious patterning of the different colour-tones of the ‘poros’ stone used in the facing of the walls by the Italian restorers is particularly noticeable. In the lowest area of the hall the original more serendipitous variegation of the Knights’ masonry is visible, contrasting with the ‘chess-board’ artificiality of the 1930s work above. The State Rooms of the piano nobile are spacious, high and luminous—not unpleasant, but indefinably lifeless be cause of their subjugation to an imposed idea of solemnity. Even the naturally joyous mosaics in the floors seem sub dued. There are nearly two dozen -panels of inlaid ancient mosaic, taken from Late Hellenistic and Roman houses and from Early Christian basilicas on Kos, as well as from some buildings on Rhodes . Most came to light in Italian excavations in the wake of the 1933 earthquake on Kos. The ‘Trophy’ room (1: southwest corner) exhibits one Hellenistic and one Early Christian mosaic, which never belonged together but show nonetheless the continuity of motif and method between the two epochs, separated by over 700 years. Their colours have been muted by the application of fixative and varnish. In the corner of the room is a 1st century bc funerary trophy from the southern necropolis of Rhodes on top of a finely decorated Hellenistic altar with scenes of Dionysos and dancing Maenads; the two pieces similarly never belonged together and relate awkwardly in both subject matter and technical quality. In the adjacent room (2) is a cast of the famous Laocoon (now in the Vatican Collection in Rome), the most famous and representative work of Rhodian Hellenistic sculpture—solitary here, but once part of an ensemble of grand and dynamic pieces on Homeric themes, destined to be dramatically displayed in a grotto by the sea south of Rome. The cross-vaulted room which projects under the tower in the middle of the west wing was the Governor’s Office; in the adjacent Audience Hall (6) the Italian restorers’ shaky grasp of architectural solutions is illustrated by the increasingly unhappy transition from column to capital. The splendid 5th century ad mosaic on the floor comes from the Ear ly Christian Basilica of Aghios Ioannis on Kos. The rooms also contain furniture of interest, including good 16th and 17th century wood-work from Italian churches—candela bra, painted and gilded vestment-chests and, most notable of all, the two beautifully posed, polychrome figures of the Annunciation of the Virgin (late 15th century), in the Room of the Nine Muses (south wing, at end of itinerary). The room takes its name from a floor-mosaic figuring the Muses in a complex decorative design of linked roundels. A wide variety of styles and subjects is represented in the mosaics encountered in the circuit of the rooms: decora tive ‘tapestries’ of birds, fishes and plants; finely detailed emblemata (centrepiece medallions) such as that of Medusa (4) and a Nymph riding a sea-horse (8); and mythological narratives such as the scene of Poseidon defeating Polybotes (corridor of east wing)—of particular local interest because of its connection with the story of the origin of the island of Nisyros. A different external view of the Palace as a whole, and its well-articulated mass as seen from the north, can be ob tained from the walk through the moat of the walls (entered from Plateia Alexandrias by the taxi stand). In the north facing stretch of wall before the Tower of Plaignes is the only remaining carved emblem with the three fasces of the Fascist period. Nearby is also an Ottoman commemorative plaque in Osmanli script.
Rhodes Island is part of the Dodecanese Island Group, Greece.