The exhibition “This Is What We Fought For: Antiquities and the Greek Revolution,” currently on display at the National Archaeological Museum (NAM) in Athens, was inspired by an anecdote about Greek General Yiannis Makriyiannis paying a group of soldiers not to sell two splendid ancient statues to European buyers.
In three halls painted an austere gray, two huge screens illustrate the reawakening of the nation’s appreciation for its ancient past during the 1821 Greek War of Independence and up until the founding of the modern Greek state in the mid-19th century, along with 26 antiquities from the museum’s collections and an equal number of artworks from the 18th and 19th century.
The show, explains NAM director Maria Lagogianni-Georgakarakos, sheds light on the “‘discovery’ of Greece’s splendid monuments and their systematic theft and trade by foreign travelers, the multifaceted connection between the classical tradition with the philhellenic movement, the strengthening of the Greeks’ identity and their frantic efforts to claim their ancient legacy and protect it.”
Key notions addressed by the exhibition include the initial stirrings and ideological roots of the revolution, the liberal ideals that inspired the populace to take up arms, and the enlightened philosophies of great political thinkers such as Adamantios Korais and Rigas Feraios.
In some of the pre-revolutionary art, Greece is depicted as subjugated; in one watercolor, we see its personification in chains and rags, surrounded by ancient ruins. Beside a 5th century BC relief sculpture of a small temple, we see an illustrated publication referring to Dimo Stephanopoli and his nephew Nicolo. Maniotes who were living in Corsica, they came to Greece in 1797 on the orders of Napoleon to gauge the country’s revolutionary fervor. In Gytheio, they were attracted by a relief slab at the Temple of Nike showing the female form of freedom and the words: “Victory or death.” Needless to say, they took the relic back as a gift to the French emperor.
The Europeans’ admiration for Greece and its temples often resulted in such looting, even by members of scientific and diplomatic missions. The British Museum and the Louvre were supplied with ancient treasures not just by Lord Elgin and his agent, Giovanni Battista Lusieri, but also by the French ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Comte de Choiseul-Gouffier, and his agent, Louis-Francois-Sebastien Fauvel.
Lord Elgin’s pillaging of Athens’ monuments is well known, but the British diplomat acted similarly on the islands of the Cyclades and in the Peloponnese. In Mycenae, for example, he paid local archon Theodoros Vlassopoulos to excavate the Treasury of Atreus on his behalf. Most of what Vlassopoulos found during his hasty excavation of the site was handed over to a private collector and then sold to the British Museum in 1816.
Apart from the British and the French, the Russians, Dutch, Genoans and Venetians also took what “souvenirs” they could.
“Veli Pasha, the governor of Morias and son of Ali Pasha of Ioannina, followed Lord Elgin’s example with the Treasury of Atreus and conducted his own excavations in 1810, during which he discovered new sections of the half-columns that adorned the entrance. Three of those sections were transported to Ireland and then placed in storage after a fire, only to appear again at the British Museum in 1905,” write Lagogianni and Theodoros Koutsogiannis, the chief curator of the Hellenic Parliament Art Collection, in the excellent catalogue that accompanies the exhibition.
Others grabbed what they could from the site, like Friedrich Thiersch, who removed a part of a capital which ended up in the German city of Karlsruhe.
“It is a monument that is scattered between three countries and six museums: the Greek National Archaeological Museum, the Museum of Ancient Mycenae and museums in Munich, Karlsruhe and Berlin, but also in Britain,” says the NAM director.
The atmosphere of the exhibition changes in the second hall, as Greece breaks free of its chains. The iconography here is about heroism and victory. In one painting, we see Asimo Lidoriki, the wife of the Greek commander during the Siege of the Acropolis, Ioannis Gouras, standing at the Propylaia sword in hand, with a slain Turk at her feet. In a lithograph right next to it, a kilt-clad Lord Byron is cast as a hero of the War of Independence in an ancient-style helmet. There’s a black-figure amphora depicting a helmet that is juxtaposed against a modern clock to show how the motifs of ancient times influenced later trends, as well as a lithograph from 1826 of a charity event in Paris that attests to the campaigns of European philhellenes to raise funds for the Greek struggle. A splendid faience plate shows Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand heading the Paris Greek Committee, while a piece of French porcelain depicts the 1827 Battle of Navarino with handles in the form of a Winged Nike.
We are also offered a glimpse into the events that came after the famous naval battle, when 15,000 French soldiers were dispatched to the Peloponnese to protect the Greeks from Turkish reprisals. The military operation was accompanied by the Expedition scientifique de Moree, an mission to create a record of the country’s antiquities, including the marble sphinx from Delos and the funerary steles from Salamis and Tinos.
“Naturally we fought for these things, but how we safeguarded them is the question,” says Lagogianni, noting that the 1827 National Assembly of Troezen banned the export of antiquities from Greece by decree. The NAM’s founding in 1829 was part of that drive to protect the country’s ancient heritage but also to highlight the incredible contribution of its Archaeological Society.
Theodoros Vryzakis’ painting “Farewell at Sounion,” a sculpture of a man’s head found in one of the earliest excavations of the 19th century, and a verse by George Seferis on the wall – “I woke with this marble head in my hands” – is an arrangement that epitomizes the beauty of this exhibition.
The third and final hall is simply breathtaking: An installation of two Winged Victories from the Temple of Artemis at Epidaurus rotating slowly in the air while six red-figure vases depicting Nikes stand in plexiglass cases in the middle, with music by Nikos Xanthoulis underscoring the show’s rich narrative on the theme of freedom, so full of the messages and symbols that inspire and motivate us.
“This Is What We Fought For: Antiquities and the Greek Revolution” runs through July 5 at the National Archaeological Museum (44 Patission, tel 213.214.4800, www.namuseum.gr).