It must have been riveting to witness prominent French actress Fanny Ardant, in the crowded Grand Amphitheater (Richelieu) at the Sorbonne University, reading excerpts from the epic poem “The Free Besieged” by Dionysios Solomos and reciting “The Greek Boy” by Victor Hugo – a poem dedicated by the great French writer to the Chios massacre in 1822.
The readings were part of a recent event organized by the Hellenic Foundation for Culture titled “Greece and France in the 19th Century,” where the Sorbonne, the Greek community in Paris and French intellectuals honored the special relationship between the two nations. During recent celebrations marking the 200th anniversary since the start of the Greek War of Independence, officials from both countries underscored enduring affinities and the interaction between the spirit of Classical antiquity and the French Enlightenment.
One of the key figures of the Sorbonne event was Jean-Luc Martinez, the embodiment of modern philhellenism. As the former president and director of the Louvre Museum and France’s ambassador for international cooperation in the field of cultural heritage, he was the right man to sum up the reciprocal admiration and warmth between the Greeks and the French. Anyone who knows him well, knows how much he has done for the field of archaeology. I will never forget one of his lectures on the Nike (Winged Victory) of Samothrace, where he pointed to some feathers on the exquisitely detailed marble statue that stand poised in a ruffled state. They are, he said, “like the feathers of a bird that has just alit onto a branch and has not had time to tidy up its plumage.”
“This is why we regard ancient Greek sculpture as being so amazing and unrivaled,” he said.
The former head of the Louvre has a profound knowledge of Greek history, which he has also learned first-hand from excavations in the country. At the Paris event, the audience was treated to a conversation between Martinez and author, journalist and radio documentarist Yorgos Archimandritis, one of the most prominent voices of Greek culture in France.
Here is how Martinez described the time when the West discovered classical education: “The love and interest of 17th and 18th century artists and intellectuals for Greece was born from an absence. In classical Europe at that time, the material culture of the ancient Greeks was relatively unknown. The arts, for example, and the architecture of ancient Greece were known only from literature. And that helped us imagine them. From this absence, all European culture was born.”
The event also included a recorded message from Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, who hailed the Greek-French relationship. “France, patron of ‘peaceful liberty for the peoples,’ as [revolutionary war hero] Manto Mavrogenous is said to have written in her letters to French ladies seeking assistance for the Greek Revolution, was a bright beacon of freedom and democracy for the Greek fighters and remains a friend with which we share common values and visions for the future,” she said.
Recorded messages were also sent by Greek National Gallery Director Marina Lambraki-Plaka, who has supported the Greek-French cultural alliance as few others, and the president of the Hellenic Foundation for Culture, Nikos Koukis.