Some people live more than one life, certainly more than the one ontologically attributed to them. Their path in life is often intertwined with history and their footsteps are guided by a glorious past, which defines their present. Vectors of tradition and yet able to decipher the signs of the times, they are steered by their values and principles while exhibiting a subversive, progressive and ecumenical spirit. Dimitris Pierides clearly falls into this category, a notion that comes into fruition while attempting to put together his life’s puzzle.
Scion of one of the most emblematic families of Cyprus, born in 1937, luckily in a house that mostly resembled a museum and belonged to his grandfather Dimitirs Pierides, who also bore the name of his own grandfather, a renowned scholar of the 19th century, who was one of Kapodistria’s partners and an antiquities collector. Their colonial home in Larnaca was filled with antiquities that on one hand made it hard for little Dimitris to play in the house, but on the other, prepared him to welcome his illustrious destiny. “Those were the years of innocence” he remembers. “Growing up in a big home, filled to the brim with ancient Cypriot artifacts collected by five generations of Pierides’, it was obviously not the ideal playground for my friends and I. Luckily there was a garden and my grandmother’s constant voice ordering us to 'go outside and play in the garden'. Back then, friendship was pure and unadulterated”.
Observing his parents absolute worship of Cyprus, its history and folk art –especially by his mother and her mentor, the eminent ethnographer Athena Tarsouli– was contagious, and soon Dimitris assumed the responsibility of carrying on the family tradition. And he actively and literally did exactly that. He enriched the collections and contributed in the establishment of nine museums, galleries as well as an Art History library in Cyprus and Greece. “As a child, I used to decorate my room with colored photos of paintings. I was desperately searching for a happy note since I was living amongst austere and colorless antiquities. Could this have been the very beginning of my art gallery in Glyfada?” he wonders. Yes, this was definitely the onset, not only of one gallery, but of an exciting journey that continues until today.
At the age of 18, Dimitris Pierides enrolled at the University of Lausanne where he studied Economics and Law. He soon became very popular and during the period between 1957 and 1960 he served as chairman of the Greek Students’ Union. According to him, those were wonderful years that formed the basis of his subsequent cosmopolitan spirit. “I studied in the heart of Europe, in an exquisitely civilized place. I frequently travelled by car to many of the neighboring countries, very often to Paris and London. I also travelled to Germany, as well as Belgium, the Netherlands and Austria. As for Italy, the European jewel, I have visited her dozens of times over the years” he adds with emphasis.
The architecture of many public buildings in Europe, inspired by Ictinus and Callicrates, thoroughly impressed him and always made him feel proud, as he saw classical Greece alive before his eyes. In 1960, when Cyprus gained its independence from the English yoke, he returned to the island and assumed executive positions in the shipping, banking, insurance, tourism and hotel business group of his family. This was a good time for entrepreneurship and allowed him to tirelessly pursue his art collection activities.
In 1968 he was appointed General Consul of Sweden in Cyprus following in the footsteps of the previous four family generations, since 1892. He excels at business administration and takes the initiative to map all of the island’s artifacts. By early 1974, the multitalented Dimitris Pierides was only 37, and the talk of the island. All of Cyprus spoke of his skills, cultivation and unsurpassed elegance.
Before the catastrophe
In the summer of 1974, the Turkish invasion changed everything. Dimitris Pierides emerged from the ashes, not unscathed though: “A huge part of my fortune (approximately 85%) was simply gone in just a single morning of August 1974. I was bluntly told then, that whatever I had created during my most productive years, no longer belonged to me” he remembers. But the great damage to Cyprus’ historical heritage had already started in the mid-60’s. According to him it was some years before the invasion, in 1964 to be precise, when Turkish-Cypriots isolated themselves in their villages and systematic large-scale illegal excavations took place, making antiquity smuggling a thriving activity. “I managed then and for a period of 10 years, to prevent the smuggling of over 600 unique ancient Cypriot artifacts, by buying them”. From then on, “things went from bad to worse”.
In the years that followed, the cultural heritage of occupied Cyprus was constantly pillaged. Under these circumstances, in 1974 he founded the Pierides Foundation to fund the establishment of nine museums, galleries, and an Art History library in Greece and Cyprus. The Foundation acted as and equipoise that would prevent the loss of the island’s history, it was a eupatrid’s obligation to honor his family’s historical journey.
The Pierides Foundation, a national capital
In Cyprus, the Pierides Foundation operates –amongst others– the Pierides Museum in Larnaca, an archaeological museum that houses the collections of five family generations. The museum exhibits a range from the Cypriot Neolithic Era, the Hellenistic (Ptolemaic in Cyprus) Era, Rome, Byzantium, three centuries of Frankish Lusignan rule up until the Venetian rule, in total 3,200 exhibits.
Also, in Avgorou in Famagusta District, the Foundation built an Ethnographic Museum. It houses folk art collections (19th–beginning 20th century) donated by his mother Theodora, his sister Loukia and her niece Evgenia Mandovani-Ashdjian. They consist of more than 400 embroided and woven textiles, woodcarving, wickerwork and silversmith artifacts, agricultural tools, old trousseaux chests, works of naif painters and etc. Both the archaeological and the folk art collections are part of a Trust fund with the Bank of Cyprus Cultural Foundation, under the management of his nephew and worthy successor, Peter Ashdjian, secretary general of the Pierides Foundation. Finally, he also started his own collection, consisting exclusively of modern Greek (from Greece and Cyprus) painting, sculpture, ceramic art and engraving. At its peak this collection included 1,089 works of art from representatives of artists from the ’30s until the ’80s. As a passionate collector, Dimitris Pierides describes the psychological profile of this unique hobby and way of life: “Collectors live in a constant manic and passionate state. They are impetuous and I am one of them. The acquisition of any new item for my collection is followed by moments of unbridled joy and satisfaction”.
A low profile celebrity
Presently he is still very much involved with the activities and cultural events of the Pierides Foundation and acts as host and introduces celebrities to the island’s precious antiquities and collections. Despite being a celebrity himself, he’s not keen on talking about that. He may be rubbing shoulders with royalty, stars, artists, intellectuals and the international jet-set, but he avoids any kind of name dropping. Instead he expresses his gratitude for having had the opportunity to meet so many special people and insists that he was the one who benefited from these acquaintances. “This is the vast intellectual wealth I have accumulated in my journey through life” he says modestly and goes on to share a recent story, indicative of his great sense of humor and simple ways. “One day, two ladies stopped me in Athens and asked: 'Aren’t you Mr Pierides… the museum?'. I answered: 'Well, I hope you mean the contemporary art museum at least'” he says and laughs.