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The Palimpsest of Butrint

The Palimpsest of Butrint was Fleur’s March 2018 London show at pop-up gallery Gary’s Place. The inspiration for the show came following a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage site at Butrint, Albania, a promontory of land overlooking the island of Corfu. Butrint was continually occupied by man and woman kind from the Mesolithic period until the 16th century.

Codex by Fleur Cowgill – an entry point to the Palimpsest of Butrint – 100 cms x 100 cms mixed media on canvas

Civilisation after civilisation, including the Golden Age of Greece, the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the Venetians came and conquered overwriting their history in the fabric of the site. For some Butrint was an important religious site, for others a valuable port and trading crossroads.

At the same time this significant cultural centre suffered earthquake, fire and the innumerable vicissitudes of ancient and medieval life. However towards the end of the middle ages the seaward approaches started to silt up and become marshy. The city dwindled, died and became deserted.

But with each civilisation, with each disaster, Butrint re-invented itself layer-by-layer. Like sheets of parchment or vellum that were cleaned off and re-used, the site is the classic example of a ‘palimpsest’ – a documentation in stone and artefacts, layered one upon the other to give a deep perspective of culture and personality.

Fire by Fleur Cowgill 100 cms x 100 cms mixed media on canvas

The masonry of Butrint is quite the conundrum. Roman baths and an amphitheatre. A Byzant church, pillars soaring into a hot azure sky. A wall with the clear signs of an earthquake, patched up to once more stand strong. A Lion Gate on the shoreline, with stone steps climbing high above into the centre of the city. And everywhere, as civilisations have waxed and waned, the stones from previous ruins have been redeployed from one piece of the site to another. This is a place where the eye is deceived as verticals and horizontals go slightly off the straight and narrow. With the odd classical arch thrown in for good measure.

Butrint Jar by Fleur Cowgill 100 cms x 100 cms mixed media on canvas

As you would expect artefacts abound. Some amazing Roman mosaic floors covered in sand to protect them from the elements – and the increasing number of visitors who come now that the communists are gone and no longer ply a singularly austere type of hospitality. Amazingly, for all its awesome beauty and history, the site still attracts less than 100,000 visitors each year. They end their guided tours at the very top of the old Citadel where, downstairs in a modern building, there is a museum and the obligatory shop, though to find a drink you have to go back down the track.

Atmos by Fleur Cowgill 100 cms x 100 cms mixed media on canvas

Fleur believes that Butrint is a place where it pays to look between the lines and half-close your eyes to experience the mists of time. She very much felt that the spirituality of previous inhabitants, men and women, soldiers and shopkeepers, artisans and artists lingered strong in the interstitial gaps between the stones, their ghosts looking out from the Eucalyptus groves that today adorn the heights. For all its latter-day dereliction Butrint is being extremely well cared for. It has atmosphere. It is coming back to life.