My Messinia

When Black Death pandemic whitewashed the Mediterranean households

Our private yard whitewashed with doodling patterns

Our private yard whitewashed with doodling patterns

The whitewashing or liming ( ασβέστωμα/γαλάκτισμα) of houses and courtyards is a long-standing habit for the residents of the Greek provinces and especially those of the islands. The white colour is chosen as it has become synonymous with cleanliness and diligence.The households are whitewashed with lime based paint as often as three times a year (at Christmas, Easter, August 15) …and almost no corner is spared and the “white trail” finds its way inside and out, in the yards, on the terraces and on the tree trunks.95881412_10158172060352403_640975838308728832_nDSCF5997bwasprisma-12Especially at Easter, the custom is revived in order for the courtyard to be tidy and clean as the Epitaph procession passes on Good Friday. The tradition of limestone has been deeply rooted in Greece since the time of the ancient cities. Limestone traditional plaster (lime, sand with plant and animal fibres) was used in the Mycenaean period and it stayed with the Byzantines who used  lime as a material for fixing houses (according to what the emperor Leo VI the Wise wrote, the Byzantines mixed the lime with the porcelain and threw pieces of tiles and straw to bind the mixture).

The use of whitewashing for hygiene reasons

In 1350 AD the wider area of ​​the Mediterranean was triggered by plague known as Black Death or Pestilence which was the most fatal pandemic recorded in human history, resulting in the deaths of up to 75–200 million people. Similar to Coronavirus, the Black Death most likely originated in Central Asia,from where it travelled along the Silk Road, reaching Crimea by 1347. From there, it was most likely carried by fleas living on the rats that travelled on Genoese merchant ships, spreading throughout the Mediterranean Basin and then reaching Africa, Western Asia, and the rest of Europe via Constantinople and Sicily, and the Italian Peninsula. Thus the Republic of Genoa imposed on Provence, Corsica and Northern Italy the whitewashing of houses and their surrounding areas. Nearly a century later, the measure of home sanitation was transferred to Spain and soon followed by the Arab cities of the Mediterranean.The British joint in from 650 and applied the systematic method of whitewashing houses, for precautionary reasons.  From the 16th century onwards in the Mediterranean and mainly on the islands, white became the dominant colour of the churches as white colour is also synonymous parallel with purity and cleanliness.DSCF8226bwResidents of southern Italy, Spain, Corsica, Sardinia, Mallorca, and North Africa paid a fine if they did not whitewash their home. The inspections of the health authorities were frequent, in order to avoid pandemics, which often occurred and exterminated the populations. In fact, the most vulnerable areas were the coastal areas, where ships were moored, which may have carried diseases and epidemics and this is why limbing has been established permanently on the islands islands.DSCF5936bw

Limbing becomes a custom

At the beginning of the 20th century, in Naples in 1913 and in Sicily in 1925, when cholera outbreaks became acute (The first cholera pandemic occurred in the Bengal region of India, near Calcutta starting in 1817 through 1824), it was mandatory to whitewash the areas around the houses, the agricultural and livestock warehouses. In Greece, the measure was introduced to a limited extent in 1928, when the outbreak of dengue fever broke out in Athens and other areas. Ten years later, Metaxas imposed a decree imposing compulsory whitewashing on all the houses on the islands. The aim of the measure was to prevent the spread of diseases such as cholera that swept the country and had spread even to domestic birds. At the same time, other infectious diseases, such as eye trauma, have been reported, which have been attributed to non-compliance with hygiene rules. Lime was considered the main disinfectant, since then the use of bleach was not yet widespread. The houses on the islands became white under the strict supervision of the gendarme. At the same time, Metaxas presented the measure of whiteshing as a more general tactic of homogenizing things. In the following years the measure of forced painting was forgotten. However, many residents had kept the lime in their warehouses. As the fear ofIMG_8138mmbwDSCF6256bwIMG_8131bw tuberculosis subsided, they repeated the calcification three times a year to clean their homes of any threatened disease.

 

The imposed limbing during the dictatorship

In 1955, Queen Frederick, at the urging of “secular circles”, presented to Prime Minister K. Karamanlis a proposal for the advertising of the islands. It was a photo with well-preserved houses in Mykonos. The white houses with the blue details became the trademark of the Aegean.

photo by Robert McCabe Mykonos-1950s

photo by Robert McCabe Mykonos-1950s

DSCF5916bw-2-3

photo by Robert McCabe Mykonos island-1950s

photo by Robert McCabe Mykonos island-1950s

DSCF5921bwOrder of national whitewashing, from a document found years ago in a seven-year document exhibition at the City Hall of Serifos. Mandatory whitewashing of houses was also imposed by the military dictatorship of 1967. Specifically, the document forwarded by the “Department of Administrative Decentralisation of the Prefecture of Cyclades” to the “Police Departments, Mayors & Presidents of Other Communities of the Prefectures”: 15.6.1 They were set up for reconstruction and polychromy was also banned on the outside of the houses. It was decided that the predominant colour on the outside of the houses would be white. Compulsory whitening continued after the dictatorship. Along the way, the islanders kept the white color because the sun’s rays are reflected and they are cooler.

Our private yard whitewashed with doodling patterns

Our private yard whitewashed with doodling patterns

Liming has become a tradition and even today is a sign of exemplary housekeeping.

…and quoting a Greek popular tongue twister that is all about white….”Άσπρη πέτρα ξέξασπρη κι απ’ τον ήλιο ξεξασπρότερη…( white stone so white, whiter then the sun)”

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