SHE FOLLOWED IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF TRAVELLERS VISITING CYPRUS BETWEEN THE 18th AND 20th CENTURIES AND PROVED THAT HISTORY AND CULTURE ARE ALIVE IF YOU WANT THEM TO BE.
Text: Ioanna Christodoulou
Photos: Photo Net
At number 285 Ermou Street, in the heart of Old Nicosia, the magnificent Centre of Visual Arts and Research (CVAR) housing the private collection of Costas and Rita Severis dominates. There we met Dr Rita Severis, a collector and art historian, who shared her passion for the history of Cyprus and the exhibits currently housed in the space.
The motto of CVAR is, “By looking at our past, we build bridges for the future.”
Indeed, we sincerely believe that, in the past, the country’s communities lived in peace. Greek and Turkish Cypriots, Armenians, Maronites and Latins had common denominators and shared their culture, from language and cuisine to clothing, to how they welcomed visitors. By examining our past and highlighting the multifaceted culture of the island, we can build bridges to the future. The museum illuminates the period from the 18th to the 20th centuries through its permanent collection. Of course, there is a brief reference to the Middle Ages, in particular to the story of Caterina Cornaro, the last tragic queen of Cyprus, beloved by the locals.
What is the reason for your interest in history and art history?
I fell in love with the history of Cyprus when I came into contact with manuscripts and books of travellers. I had an obsession with digging out manuscripts, and somewhere around 1995, I travelled to America and located Lorenzo Warriner Pease’s four thousand-page treatise. Pease was the first American missionary to visit Cyprus. He lived in Larnaka, and every night he kept a diary in which he noted his impressions of the people, the place, the customs and traditions. Reading this manuscript, I got to know my country better. Then, every weekend, my family and I started on excursions and routes that Lorenzo described in his diary. I felt like I was walking with him; not much had changed since 1834 from his descriptions of natural landscapes. His manuscripts opened my eyes to my place. From then on, I began to read everything that came into my hands from travellers of the period. Don’t forget that, in Cyprus, painters and writers were uncommon before the last century, and no photographers either. There were no tangible depictions except what foreign travellers left us.
Is that how you started your collection?
Yes. The writings were the trigger. Since then, I have bought paintings. I tracked down their descendants, travelled to their countries and museums and started looking for anything related to Cyprus. I remember in France when I was looking for a traveller who came to Cyprus in 1865 and wrote in his diary that he had 1,500 drawings from his visit to the island. I started looking for them. From his manuscripts, I knew he was from Amiens in France and, using his name, I traced 29 of his descendants. Everyone told me that the drawings, deposited sometime at the beginning of the twentieth century, were in the Picardy Museum. I went there, and they told me they had nothing related to Cyprus. I insisted until they let me into their storerooms! I couldn’t locate anything until I discovered a grey shoe box labelled Turkey-Syria-Egypt. Inside, I found a roll of artwork depicting Famagusta. Then I asked to exhibit them in Cyprus and, at a later date, at the Greek Centre in London. I managed to buy five of them, which can be seen today at CVAR. The traveller in question was the one who had taken the Amathus vase to France. He even notes in his diary that the ship carrying it stopped at the Seine outside the Louvre. Because there was no door big enough, they had to knock down the wall to move it inside. It can be seen today in the Assyrian Hall because they can’t move it to the Cypriot Antiquities Hall.
Did you continue to look for manuscripts and paintings?
Of course! I had also gone to England to trace the descendants of painters, travellers, soldiers and others who had come to Cyprus. I was constantly looking, and those who accepted sold to me.
Were you buying them for your collection or intending to exhibit them to the public at some point?
At that time, I was obsessed with learning more about my place and seeing the works in person. My husband and I had set up a very good network in Europe; anyone who had something related to Cyprus would send us to see it. It came to the point where we were filling the walls of our house and our closets with paintings, costumes and memorabilia. When there was no more room for our personal belongings, and researchers and groups had begun to ask to see them in person, we decided the time had come. Since these objects told the story of Cyprus, we no longer had the right to keep them. So we decided to establish the Centre.
About a decade ago?
We bought the building on Ermou Street in 2008 and began renovations in 2013 with help from USAID, the Norway Fund and the Severis Foundation.
Did you consciously choose the museum’s location?
Yes. We were looking for a building close to the green line in the hope that one day it wouldn’t exist. After all, our goal was and is to promote Cypriot culture both inside and outside of Cyprus, as well as the peaceful coexistence of the island’s communities.
Are there any firsts or awards worth mentioning?
We are the only museum in Cyprus with Turkish Cypriots and Maronites on its board and the only one in the world with a football team. The CVAR Football Club competes with Turkish Cypriot teams in the amateur league. In this way, we promote friendship between the two communities. In 2017, the museum won the EU’s Europa Nostra Prize for Cultural Heritage, an award in the category of Education, Training and Awareness. In addition, in 2019, the Nicosia Municipality honoured the museum with an award and a diploma for its contribution to the historical and cultural development of the city.
We should mention that you organise tours of the city.
I try to share my love for Nicosia, the City of Jasmine, with the world as much as possible. As the old travellers wrote, Nicosia is still a city of beautiful houses and alleys that smell of jasmine. I introduce it to the world and tell its history like a fairy tale. I love the city, every corner and every stone.
Do cities speak?
Cities do speak and tell us their stories, if we only look around us. And when visitors come to the museum, they want to hear stories about the people, the objects and their symbolism, and it’s a pleasure to offer that experience. I feel like I’m contributing to the place and the world. I believe that a museum exists to give, not to take. And that is my joy.