Athens through travelers’ eyes

For centuries, Athens has been a city defined by its classical past. The splendor of Athenian democracy and the civilization that made way for it gave the city its identity and shaped the way it was perceived through the ages. How this classical past was viewed, interpreted and depicted in art is an interesting exploration of cultural values and their history. This is the prevailing impression that «Great Travelers in Athens: 15th-19th Centuries,» an exhibition at the Museum of the City of Athens – Vouros Eutaxias Foundation, leaves with the viewer. A pleasurable and sophisticated exhibition, small enough not to tire the visitor but dense enough to show different aspects of the theme it tackles, this exhibition traces the history of Athens through the eyes of the travelers who passed through the city over the period of four centuries. Consisting of engravings, watercolors, drawings and paintings these travelers made, the exhibition is as much a depiction of what Athens looked like through time as an exploration of the cultural «ideology» of the travelers who created the images. Most of those images are views of the city that focus on the Acropolis. In general, they offer an idealized and, at times, romanticized image of the city with the Acropolis and the ruins shown in the distance or soaring on the horizon. Figures in contemporary costume are often depicted in the foreground and complement a picture that is aimed at showing the idealized coexistence of past and present. In the wake of 19th century Orientalism, such figures must have seemed appealing to Western travelers. In some images, they become the prevailing subject. The colored lithographs of Otto Magnus von Stackelberg, each a study of traditional costume, is one of the most obvious examples. Another example is Edward Dodwell’s lively colored lithograph showing «The Upper Bazaar» from 1821: The Acropolis is faintly outlined in the distance, while the daily hubbub of the market, with its merchants and buyers dressed in oriental-looking clothing, becomes the prevalent theme. Adding to this oriental feel is the minaret that juts out in the distance, hiding part of the Acropolis that is seen in the distance. Panoramic view The exhibition’s highlight is a late 17th century, 5-meter-long painting that shows a panoramic view of Athens and Louis XIV’s ambassador to Constantinople, Francois Olier Marquis de Nointel, with his entourage in the foreground. The painting, which is on permanent loan from the Chartres Museum of Fine Arts to the Museum of the City of Athens, was apparently painted in 1674 by Jacques Carrey, a pupil of the then-famous artist Charles Le Brun. With the exception of an anonymous drawing from 1670, the painting is considered to be the first, non-imaginary depiction of the city of Athens in Western art. It is also significant for documenting the Parthenon it its intact state before the Morosini explosion 13 years later, in 1687. The late 18th century taste for the classical past sent travelers to Greece with the objective of documenting and studying its antiquities. James Stuart and Nicholas Revett were entrusted by the English Society of Dilletanti to portray the antiquities of Athens as scientifically as possible. The artists arrived in Athens in 1751 and stayed for two years producing drawings of the city, several of which are shown in the exhibition. The Frenchman Julien David Le Roy also visited Athens with the same purpose. His volume on the antiquities in Athens, which was published in Paris in 1770, consists of images that, when compared to those of Stuart and Revett, are far more pictorial and romanticized. Nature and unkempt vegetation growing among the ruins are typical of this perspective. Despite his «scientific,» empirical objectives, Le Roy experienced Athens through the cultural perspective of his time. It could not have been otherwise. This mediated perspective is after all what is fascinating about art. To the contemporary viewer, the images in «Great Travelers in Athens» may appear as pretty views of the city. In fact, they are much more than that and this exhibition serves to remind us of that. «Great Travelers in Athens» is presented at the Museum of the City of Athens in conjunction with «Views of Athens by Contemporary Greek Painters,» an exhibition curated by Professor Stelios Lydakis, director of the museum. Both exhibitions will run to September 29. Museum of the City of Athens, 5-7 Paparigopoulou, tel 210.323.1397. The Museum of the City of Athens The Museum of the City of Athens was founded in the early 1970s by the late politician Lambros Eutaxias and opened to the public roughly a decade later. It is housed in two beautiful buildings of neoclassical architectural style, located in the center of Athens in Klafthmonos Square, just a five-minute walk from Syntagma Square. One of the buildings was designed by German architects G. Luders and J. Hoffer and served as the palace for King Otto and Queen Amalia of Greece between 1836 and 1843. It became the mansion of Stamatios Dekozis Vouros, the great-grandfather of Eutaxias, a rich merchant from the island of Chios. The other building was built by Gerasimos Metaxas in 1859. Both buildings are open to the public and include the original furniture and interiors. The museum owns a valuable collection of paintings, drawings and documents of relevance to the history of the city. The museum received the Athens Academy Award in 1990. Its director is Stelios Lydakis.

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