Through romantic eyes

"Greece, for cultured consciences, is something more than a simple geographical location". For many centuries the idea of ancient Greece conjured up a series of intellectual and emotional associations, while at various times the glory of the ancient Greek world has led to brief "revivals" or "rediscoveries" of Antiquity, manifestations of civilised peoples" fervent desire to return to archetypal precepts and values. The pulse of the ancient Greek heritage throbbed long and strong in the West. The European' s vision of Hellas, intertwined with current historical, social and religious factors, manifested itself ways at different times.

Acropolis... Karyatides... Athens...
Acropolis' view from Pnyka The gate of Karyatides Temple of Zeus

Forgotten during the Middle Ages and untraversed by the main trade routes between East and West, Greece remained isolated and unknown, except for the shores and the islands of the Archipelago that lay on the Mediterranean sea lanes or were ports of call for pilgrims en route to the Holy Land. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the spirit of renewal that swept through Europe, combined with the revival of Classical studies which was fostered by Byzantine scholars, created a fertile climate for reassessing and studying Greek antiquity. Europe' s dialogue with Greece had begun. The earliest testimonies of the European view of Greece are to be found in the illustrated travel publications of the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in which Greek harbours and their inhabitants are immortalised, depict concise, conventional and frequently inaccurate panoramic views, as well as stereotype representations of costumes. The dialogue of Europe with Greek antiquity was reinstated in the age of Enlightenment, while by the early eighteenth century the intelligentsia of Europe had begun to regard with suspicion the excesses and extremes of Rococo, counter-proposing "respect for the sources, sobriety and simplicity". The excavations at Paestrum (1730), Herculaneum (1738) and Pompeii (1748) were to reveal the monumental austerity of the masculine Doric vocabulary and call up echoes of the perished masterpieces of Zeuxis and Apelles.

Leaders in the process of promoting "Grecian taste" were the Society of the Dilettanti --a dining club of British aristocratic connoisseurs, founded in 1734-- and the German Classicist Winckelmann. From 1751 to 1756 the English painter James Stuart and his fellow - countryman the architect Nicholas Revett were resident in Athens, in order to further the Society' s scientific aims. Fruit of their labours was the four-volume publication Antiquities of Athens (1762 - 1814 and 1830) which revealed to the public for the first time systematic records of authentic Greek monuments. But if this magnificent publication --a landmark in the history of Grecian taste-- preserved what had survived of ancient Greek architecture in depiction that were both accurate and beautiful, the spirit of ancient Greece was most vividly evoked by Johann-Joachim Winckelman (1717 - 1768). "The ideal of taste was born beneath the sky of Greece" he writes in his Gedanken όber die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in Malerei und Bildhauerrkunst, (1755). In his Geschichte der Kunst des Altcrthums (1764) which laid the scholarly foundations of the disciplines of Art History and Archaeology, Winckelmann extols the "supreme humanity of the Greeks", revealing to the European public a eulogistic picture of the conditions that favoured creative activity in ancient Greece. The process of idealisation of Antiquity had begun. Soon the whole of Europe was to espouse Winckelmann' s view that "the supreme ideals of human life and culture had been embodied in classical Greece".

Thission... Fanari... Easter feast...
Thission The Fanari suburb Easter feast

While artists concentrated on a creative historical remodelling of the ancient Greek world, in which moral and social values were expressly put first. the reading public' s knowledge of antiquity was fired by publications such as C. A Demoustier' s Lettres α Emilie sur la mythologie (1786), a collection of sentimental essays and poems on the deeds of the heroes of Greek mythology, or J. W. Heinse' s novel Ardinghello oder glόckseligen Inseln (1787), which provides a picture of a society founded on the Platonic. The best - seller of the age was Abbι Barthelemy's Voyage du Jeune Anacharsis en Grθce (1788), whose hero wanders through Greece seeking happiness from an enlightened nation. The descriptions of Anacharsis' s journey present the most idyllic panorama of the ancient world. The book ran through forty editions and was translated into the main European languages.

The incredible Graecomania that seized Europe in the early nineteenth century not only fed art and literature, it also affected the decorative arts, hairstyles, fashion; it became a way of life. At the same time public and private buildings inspired by Greek orders legitimised the domination of the "Greek Revival" in most of the European cities. it was in this climate that by the dawn of the nineteenth century the cultured European's "Grand Tour" to Greece had been established.

For the travellers of the day the visit to Greece was not just a fascinating journey, it was an exploratory pilgrimage to a land sanctified by time. For the European traveller, charged with the unmitigated magnetism emanating from the rediscovery of the ancient world in the previous century, the pleasure of a visit to Athens, Sparta, Delphi or Marathon was a unique experience for the visitor. "No, I did not want to make this journey in order to learn but in order to feel", declared the artist - travellers of the period, who sought the splendour of Antiquity in Turkish - held Greece.

Greek... Couple... The port of Corfu...
Greek Couple of Greeks The port of Corfu

Certainly the careful and sensitive artist who was prepared to enter into dialogue with the natural landscape of the neglected archaeological sites, was astonished to discover another dimension: the web of myth, history and geography that enmeshed these places. But few foreign artists managed to come to terms with the Greek landscape and so interpret its deeper content. Thus many of the early nineteenth century "Greek Views" provide no more than a simple satisfactory representation of some "named" edifice or sanctuary, framed by an appropriate landscape setting and enveloped in a pervading air of antiquity. Most of the artists of the age thankfully resorted to conventional visual clichιs that "safely" secured the pictorial illusion of a "living" antiquity. The pre-eminent representatives of ideal classical landscape, that is Claude Lorrain (1600 - 1682) and Nicolas Poussin (1594 - 1665), offered the most convenient formula for "compositions" with Greek "ruins". The views of the most popular painter of Greek landscapes. Hugh Williams, justify this practice absolutely: "The artist should be very careful in his approach to Greek nature", he wrote. "She will not present those electrifying truths, unless we study her not as she is, but as seen through the medium of works of genius. (e.g. Poussin and Claude). His (e.g. Claude' s) unbroken lines, that continuity and taking up of parts, sweetly transferring them to each other, and conveying to the mind the sentiment of beauty, well expresses what Greece is..." So seeing the Greek landscape "through Claude' s eye" the landscape - artists created staged pictures with noble ruins suffused in a golden haze --a visual clichι that became a vehicle of recourse to the Golden Age. in the end it was the image of the Greek War of Independence that abolished the leading role held for centuries by ancient Greece, perpetuating a fixed frame for viewing current Greek reality.

Romanticism and revolution were the two main movements in the first half of the nineteenth century at a time of intense historical and social upheavals. The Greek War of Independence, greeted with enthusiasm by liberal consciences, set in motion the forces of Romanticism and enriched European artistic inspirations with a new phantasmagoric repertoire. Presenting the works with Greek themes exhibited in the 1827 Salon, a French critic commented: "Fortunate are the peoples who hold a small place in history; fortunate are those who have never attracted the eyes of poets or artists. The monotonous existence of a peaceful nation provides none of the vivid and ardent sensations sought by genius. Those nations often celebrated by the lyre and the pen must pay for glory with their happiness. And nowadays, with what price of blood and tears Greece acquired the right to inspire all the arts of the Muses! The Greeks, their heroism, their defeats provide a host of subjects for our painters".

Ithaki's Vathy... Hermoupolis... The Death of Marcos Botsaris...
Ithaki's Vathy Hermoupolis The Death of Marcos Botsaris

Philhellenic themes were most popular with French painters, for reasons both artistic and political. But the iconography of 1821 also inspired important Italian, Belgian, German and British artists. "Rapelle - toi, pour t' enflammer certains passages de Byron" Delacroix noted in his diary on 11 May 1824. It was through Byron' s verse that Greece was revealed to Delacroix, as it was to many of his contemporaries who painted Greek subjects. Byron' s dramatic and fatal heroes and heroines, presented in The Giaour, (1813) The Bride of Abydos, (1813), and Don Juan, (1819), revealed a colourful, phantasmagoric world. While in his poetry Byron managed to weave together the strands of ancient glory and the mysterious East in the Greek physiognomy with the reality of the day, the poetical act of his arrival at Missolonghi came to be regarded as a symbolic event. His death, though not altering the course of Greek affairs, defined a new period for philhellenism and added to the intensity of international interest in the fate of the Revolution. Byron' s Greek Maids ousted the Nymphs and Satyrs from the Salons, while his Palikars were regarded as the incarnation of the new type of Greek, the fearless freedom-fighter, a romantic hero.

Missolonghi passed into philhellenic literature as a "Modern Thermopylae" while the Greek warriors of 1821 were entered in the philhellenic annals alongside the heroes of the Classical pantheon, Botsaris, Kanaris, Miaoulis were regarded as romantic incarnations of Leonidas, Achilles, Hector. "These are the heroes of the modern romantic public, expressed through romantic painting", commented the French critic Augustin Jal, presenting the 1824 Salon. By succinct allusion to the Classical vocabulary the Romantic painters endeavoured to elevate specific persons and events to icons of world-wide importance. In Filippo Marsigli' s painting Markos Botsaris, dubbed "New Leonidas" by the philhellenic pen, dies in the arms of his companions, on his face an expression of perfect tranquillity. Henri Decaisne' s Warriors await with Spartan stoicism the devastating outcome of their unsuccessful operation. Ary Scheffer' s Wounded Father passes away with the air and ethos of the Dying Gaul. The presence of ancient Greece in the romantic revolutionary repertoire was just as strong as that of the Church, while the Struggle Between the Cross and the Crescent fired the religious sentiment of Romantic idiosyncrasies. Thus, religious propaganda passed into the artistic vocabulary in a series of motifs in which the Greeks are projected as Modern Martyrs to the Faith.

Above all, what gave wings to the imagination of the Romantics was the dramatic series of contradictions embodied in the Greek Revolution. The Greek' s struggle against the Turks symbolised the conflict between Civilisation and Barbarity, between the Cross and the Crescent, between Freedom and Oppression. Most of the philhellenic scenes disclose the artist' s attempt to move, to underline the conflicts of the soul, the heroes passion and feelings, to instruct and to set an example to the viewer. It so happens, fortuitously that in the repertoire of philhellenic themes the unlucky moments of the War of Independence, such as Chios, Missolonghi, Parga, predominate, while the historical events are frequently rendered in an intimate genre style that conveys the protagonist' s drama more directly to the viewer.

Unsuccessful venture... Greek defending his wounded father... Greeks persecuted...
Unsuccessful venture Greek defending
his wounded father
Greeks persecuted

The naval battle of Navarino occasioned the rejoicing of the European public, and a deluge of lithographs. Seventeen works with Greek subjects hung in the 1827 Salon, while Sir Charles Lock Eastlake' s Greek Girl, exhibited in the Royal Academy, was remarked on by the Duke of Wellington as the "happiest" work in the Exhibition. In the following year the well-known British marine painter George Philip Reinagle, an eye-witness at Navarino, published a monumental album depicting all phases of the engagement. Between 1828 and 1831 thousands of people poured into the "Panoramas" of the battle set up by Charles Langlois in Paris and Robert Burford in London.

The creation of the Modern Greek State and the arrival of Otto as king added a new source of wealth to the "Greek" artistic repertoire. In the 1830s and 1840s, while Bavarian zeal to bring the Muses back to their homeland led to a building boom that transformed Athens into an international hive of architectural activity. European painters --mainly Germans-- were recruited to immortalise the young monarch' s presence, stressing his role as leader of a land with an illustrious past. Historical scenes and the landscape of Greece continued to motivate artists after Liberation, but with a new approach expressed through rather calligraphic schemes. The Greeks and their history were now a pretext for spectacular representations stamped with the seal of the exotic and the picturesque. Since Philhellenic interest had vanished into thin air, historic moments were trivialised, a phenomenon that brought the degeneration of once heroic iconographic themes. Even so, many European landscape painters still harboured a romantic inclination and, indifferent to the picturesque, sought in Greece not the haze of antiquity but the clarity of atmosphere. In the works of Rorbye, Werner, Cromek, light and colour play the leading role, while compositions with ancient monuments hint at a personal, poetic dialogue between the painter and the past. The unsurpassable attraction of the ancient Greek world, the dramatic history of Greece and the optimistic vision of a reborn nation plucked dynamically at the strings of European intellect and sensitivity, creating a romantic vision of Greece as a bequest for all mankind, in which the most essential cultural experiences of humanity have been recorded. This is the testimony that the works in the exhibition submit. They also constitute an eloquent record of the aesthetics of the day, while at the same time illuminating some aspects of nineteenth-century ideologies.

Fani-Maria Tsigakou

Curator, Benaki Museum

© ART TOPOS, 1998
Last updated: 10/12/1998
WIth the kind support of
The J.F. Costopoulos Foundation