If you have ever taken the spiffy new Metro in Athens, you should have come across a station named “Doukissis Plakentias” Δουκίσσης Πλακεντίας). It is the transport hub that signals the end of the urban sprawling Athens and the start of suburbia proper that affords rolling hills and greener pastures with the possibility of seeing the sea outside your window. The Metro station is named after her because it is built on her lands. It is rare to find streets named after women in Greece. So who was this Duchess of Plakentias exactly? Lets just say, she was a woman of strength who was centuries ahead of her time. Completely self-directed, bold, and free thinking.
She was actually born, Sophie Lebrun, Duchess of Plaisance, 1785-1854 in Philadelphia to the French ambassador in America but wound up living most of her life in Greece. A divorcee during a period when there was no such thing as divorce. A revolutionary sympathizer, she aided the Greek cause for Independence with her own funds (you could say “sugar mama”). A generous giver to public education. An intellectual who organized various symposia on a wide range of topics during her time at her mansion in Pendeli. An independent traveler who journeyed with her daughter to the Middle East and who lived in Italy and in Greece most of her life. A convert to Judaism at a time when everyone around her was Christian. (She actually paid for a synagogue to be erected in Chalkidis, Eubeia). If she liked you, she might give you thousands of drachmas or even don you with a title of nobility. She was that forward and had the chutzpah to do as her heart told her.
When the Greek War of Independence broke out, the Duchess had moved to Nafplion where she had connections with the Greek independence hero Capodistrias who she had met in Paris, but then switched sides and backed the Mavromichalis clan.
Traces of her can be found all over Athens. She purchased large plots of farmland around Mt. Penteli. She engaged the Greek architect, Stamatios Kleanthis to design a palace for her on its slopes. Meanwhile, in 1836, the Duchess and her daughter traveled to Beirut, where Eliza died of pneumonia. Such was the sorrow of the Duchess that she had her daughter’s body embalmed and returned to Athens where it was placed in a crypt under her temporary home on Peiraios Street. Kleanthis completed the Tower of the Duchess of Plaisance in 1841 and then set to work on Villa Illisia, which was completed in 1848. Today the Villa Illisia is the site of the Byzantine Museum. You can see a portrait of her at the museum.
Later in life, she commissioned Kleanthis to begin the construction of a final home and resting place for her beloved daughter’s remains, the Castle of Rododafni. She would never live to see the house completed. In 1847, it caught fire and was burned to the ground. After that, the Duchess withdrew from public life only agreeing to see her old friend, Fotini Mavromichali, Lady-in-waiting for Queen consort Amalia of Oldenburg . She died in 1854 and her nephew sold her lands to the Greek state. She is buried with her daughter in her Tower near Penteli.
I’m glad I made a stop at the Metro station to discover such a spitfire of a woman who had the Greek spirit in her soul.