Eleni Bukura Altamura, dressing as a man to paint
Eleni Bukura Altamura is the best known woman painter of Greece and the first woman who succeeded in getting into Italian painting academies.
Eleni was born on the Greek island of Spetses to an Albanian (Arvanite) family. Her father, Jani, who fought in the anti-Ottoman uprisings of 1821, was her best friend. According to the encyclopedias, Jani had the knowdledge of a cosmopolitan and the spirit of an artist. He built the first theatre in Athens, known as the Bukura Theatre.
Her gender was an obstacle, but Eleni had the courage to dress as a man in order to begin studying painting, first in the School of Nazarene Painters at St. Isidoro monastery near Rome and later at the art academies of Rome and Naples. She shone out in her generation and left a deep impression on her teachers. Her identity was discovered accidentally during an exhibition of The New Greek Woman, which was held in Italy. In 1852 Eleni married the well-known Italian painter Saverio Altamura, who was Arbëresh (Albanian) by origin. She had three children by him, one of whom, Jani or Jean Altamura, was a very remarkable painter of seascapes. He died young, at the age of only 26.
After Altamura left her, Eleni returned to Athens to teach painting, and twenty years later she went back to Spetses, to live out her last 25 years of her life in her father’s house. There, after the death of her older son and daughter from tuberculosis, she destroyed much of her work and lived in mourning for the rest of her life. Most of her pictures were burned, but one Self Portrait remained.
A writer from Greece, Rhea Galanaki, has written a novel Eleni, i o kanenas (Eleni, or Nobody) (Agra, Athens, 1998). The book became famous and has been translated into many languages, reviving the memory of Eleni and her values.
Extracted from the book “Distinguished Albanian Women” – Edi Shukriu