Gerasimos Pitzamanos was born in the Spring of 1787, in Argostoli, Kefalonia. His father, Vincentios Pitzamanos, himself a priest and hagiographer, managed to pass on his love of painting to Gerasimos and his younger brothers, Panagis and Nikolaos. Gerasimos began learning from his father from an early age, a fact which reinforced his religious faith.
The arrival of the Republican French in the Ionian Islands (1797) had an impact on both the education and psyche of the young Pitzamanos. At the age of 17 (1804), he decided to join the engineering corps of the army in Zakynthos. At the same time, he was apprenticed to Nikolaos Kantounis (1767-1834), a skilled hagiographer and portrait painter of the Ionian School. With the rank of captain, he worked as a draftsman for defensive works and in cartography. In 1807, he was transferred to Corfu and worked in the topographic office established by the French commander César Berthier until March 1809, when, ‘On the orders of His Imperial Majesty Napoleon and at the expense of the Ionian Government’, he left for the French Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. There, he met great artists such as the renown neo-classical sculptor Antonio Canova.
Recognition of his talent propelled him to France. There he met important personalities of neo-Hellenic enlightenment, such as Korais, who would recommend him to Neofytos Vamvas as a teacher for the Higher School of Chios. However, Pitzamanos returned to Rome to continue his studies, having ensured a scholarship from Louis XVIII. This time, in addition to architecture and painting he was also occupied with engraving.
Having made just one short visit to Constantinople, accompanying the British Commissioner of the Ionian, he returned to the capital of the Ottoman Empire in 1820, with the aim of going on to Russia. Apart from the support of the Russian Ambassador to Constantinople Count Stroganov, Pitzamanos also managed—due to the intervention of Ioannis Capodistrias, with whom he was in regular correspondence—to send some of his designs to Tsar Alexander I: samples of his architectural work. In the meanwhile, during his stay in Constantinople, he was initiated into the Society of Friends. Following the outbreak of the Greek Revolution, he managed to reach Odessa in 1821.
The period that had begun in Russia was ideal for his professional work. He was continually employed and enjoyed the admiration and respect of eminent individuals. In 1822, he was appointed ‘Architect to the Imperial Court of Tsar Alexander I’ in St Petersburg. However, in 1825, health issues forced him to leave hurriedly for Rome and from there to the Ionian Islands. He died in Corfu in December 1825.
‘Under the conditions of change at the time, I had the misfortune to lose my scholarship and, furthermore, have no contact with home…’
In the memoires of the priest Robert Walsh (1772-1852), an attaché at the British Embassy in Constantinople, there survives a description of an exceptional theatrical performance that was staged in the spring of 1821. The account provides a rare glimpse of the culture, ambitions, and also dangers faced by the Christian population of Constantinople on the eve of the revolution.
‘Amongst those that had taken shelter in the embassy gardens was an unfortunate Greek artist by the name of Pitzamanos, from Corfu. He lived [at that time] in Constantinople, practising his art, and, as he had had some classical education, he utilised it in a variety of ways in his work. Amongst other things, he had proposed to his neighbours that they stage an ancient Greek tragedy, promising that he himself would see to the scenery and costumes. His idea was accepted, but, instead of a work by Euripides or Sophocles, they chose one more modern, written by some Greek in Venice, which dramatised events during the fall of Constantinople to the Turks and the slaughter of Greeks who had sought sanctuary in Agia Sofia. However, at that time the Turks were suspicious of everything. The guard raided the theatre. The audience had time to escape, but the owner of the house that had been loaned for the performance was immediately arrested. He was a pharmacist in Pera. He vainly tried to explain that he had loaned the house to others without knowledge of the use to which it would be put: they beheaded him in front of his own pharmacy. The artist who had managed the costumes and scenery was considered a serious agitator for revolutionary ideas and was targeted by the Turks. He headed straight for the British Embassy building, where he remained hidden for several days. When we discovered him, bearing in mind the prevalent conditions, we tried to provide him with work. Unsure of how much longer our own heads would remain on our shoulders, we decided to record them in some fashion, to send them as souvenirs to our friends back home. And so, we commissioned him to paint our portraits. He succeeded exceptionally well, although there were moments he was overtaken by shock and was forced to stop until his hands no longer trembled. The money he made from this enterprise was used to secure a birth on one of the ships that, ignoring the danger, continued to transport escapees. One evening, he boarded a Russian trading vessel, where he hid in a chest, to reach Odessa safely. From there, he continued to St Petersburg, where he successfully practised his art.