Thursday, 18 April 2013

Greek ruins and the Turkish reign

Apart from the sublime Life and death in Herculaneum and Pompeii and Ice Age Art exhibitions the British Museum had a special exhibition on watercolour paintings painted in 1805 – 1806 during the travels of Edward Dodwell and Simone Pomardi. Many of these were interesting, but even an archaeologist has to admit that one art work depicting the Sounion temple looks unmistakably like another painting of the Sounion Temple. The most interesting pieces depict landscapes with a visible change.

Edward Dodwell, Simone Pomardi, Panorama from the top of the Mousaion Hill, Athens. Watercolour, 1805

The painting from Acrocorinth definitely presented a landscape more rural than today, whereas the standing remains of the temple of Aegina were covered by bushes. The temple at least used to be a clean cut heritage site for the visitors to admire. The exhibition also presented panoramic watercolours of Athens and what the difference. Athens today – even if with the continuous recession due to the economic collapse – is a buzzing city that climbs up the hills around the low land along the coast. The Athens of Dodwell and Pomardi was a small village with some Balkan type houses around the area were the Agora once was. It was small and pitiful and nothing like the mighty city-state of the yesteryear. Pericles would only have recognized the ruins on the Acropolis.

So why did the artists and aristocrats suddenly turn their sights to Greece in the early 19th century? The obvious answer is the Napoleonic wars. The normal routes of the Grand Tour in France and Italy were blocked and the British turned to the area of the Ottoman Empire in order to visit the places mentioned by the ancient authors. The history of the Ottoman Empire is not very well known or recognized in the west, but it might be a good idea for many people to revisit the recent history of the eastern Mediterranean. The struggles between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans explain quite a lot of the recent bloody history of the Balkans. The history of archaeology also looks richer, when the activities of Osman Hamdi Bey, the founder of the Academy of Fine Arts and the first director of the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. His excavations in Sidon, modern Lebanon, were probably as imperialist and colonial than any of the period, but they still count among the important late 19th century excavations in the eastern Mediterranean.

Selfpotrait by Osman Hamdi Bey

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