Travelers’ memories of Greece

In the early 19th century, the topographer and member of the Dilettanti William Leake was sent by the British Royal Military Academy to the provinces of the Ottoman Empire on a mission that was aimed at advancing his country’s political and economic relations with the empire. He toured Asia Minor, traveled through Greece and attempted to document as objectively as possible what he saw. During roughly the same period, Francois Pouqueville, a French doctor, spent time in Tripolis as a prisoner of war. Upon his return to France, he wrote a three-volume book on his travels in the Ottoman Empire. The book, which was said to have drawn a subjective, more emotional than objective picture of the regions described, helped toward the appointment of the author as general consular of France in Ioannina in the early 19th century. Leake and Pouqueville each arrived in Greece for different reasons and with distinct motives. They each projected their thoughts and feelings on what they saw and the stories each told revealed different aspects of Greece. They were two different kinds of travelers who drew two distinctive images of Greece in their writings. The history of Western traveling and the «picture» of Greece that Western travelers have «painted» are both revealed in an exhibition that contains rare books from the 15th to the early 20th centuries. Currently being held at the Benaki Museum, «The Greek World through the Eyes of Travelers,» the title of the exhibition, includes a selection of books from the rare-book collection of Dimitris Kontominas. The collection was gradually built up from the early 1990s with the help of Constantinos Staikos, who is in charge of the collection, and has grown to include 1,500 volumes since then. Historian Ioli Viggopoulou has written the prologue to the catalog of the current exhibition. Arranged in a display that follows a chronological order, the books in the exhibition also include images (the prints of engravings) or maps of Greece and, therefore, add a visual element to the chiefly literary aspect of the exhibition. Ciriaco Anconitano’s writings are among the earliest itineraries of those who visited Greece. A traveling humanist, Anconitano visited Italy, Asia Minor, Greece and the region of the Aegean repeatedly during the first part of the 15th century and had contact with various eminent personalities in Greece, among them, Constantinos Palaiologos and the despot of Mystras. His six-volume travelogue was written in Latin but was burnt in 1514. The writings that survive are excerpts of his work copied before the fire and published at different periods in time. The exhibition includes a Florentine publication from 1742. For most travelers of the Renaissance and its later period in the 16th century, Greece was one of the stops in the course of the holy pilgrimage. For others, it was a stop on an extended trip aimed at the development of commercial transactions between the East and West. With the emergence of archaeology in the 17th century, travelers’ descriptions of Greece become more varied and more oriented toward objective documentation. George Wheler’s «A Journey into Greece» from 1682 is an unusual travelogue of the period that includes a map of Attica and the documentation of over a thousand local plants. Among the most important books on Greece produced at the time are «Account of the Present Greek Church» and a travel diary written by the British clergyman John Covel. The interest that the Age of the Enlightenment took in the virtues of classical Greece is captured in the writings of travelers who visited Greece at the time. An example is Jean Jacques Barthelemy’s novel which tells the story of a young Skythian’s travels in the Hellenistic world. Nineteenth-century Orientalism was a major force that brought travelers to Greece as was the philhellenic spirit that Greek struggles for independence had generated among European intellectuals. This is also when mass transportation made travel accessible to more and more people, therefore gradually removing the concept of discovery and personal adventure from the field. During the first quarter of the 19th century, a great number of people from different fields of interest came to Greece and wrote about their journeys in the form of poems, scientific documentation, travelogues, novels or, in the case of artists, in the form of paintings, watercolors or engravings. Never before this point in time had travel been so varied. Examples of the most significant travel memoirs of the time include Edward Dodwell’s drawings of the Greek landscape and antiquities, the favorable chronicle of Greece by the Prussian intellectual J.L.S. Bartholdy – a work that had an effect on the cultural approach of Europeans to Greece – and the writings of the great philhellene Ambroise Firmin Didot. Appraised as two of the most important works of the genre, Pouqueville’s and Leake’s writings both had a great effect on future travelers. The books from the Dimitris Kontominas collection displayed at the Benaki Museum include examples from some of the greatest moments of travel by Europeans in Greece and the Levant. They evoke the wonderful spirit of discovery that has always been linked to travel but also show that each traveler reads what he sees in relation to his own cultural identity. At the Benaki Museum (1 Koumbari, 210.367.1000) through March 3.

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