byron portrait

The mountains look on Marathon --

And Marathon looks on the sea;

And musing there an hour alone,

I dream'd that Greece might still be free;

For standing on the Persians' grave,

I could not deem myself a slave.

[Byron, Don Juan, ‘Song of Greece’] 

Thoughts of the Grand Tour evoke the romance of Venice, the beauty of Florence and the majesty of Rome. What, though, of Greece? Unlike Rome, Greece was much more difficult to access in the 17th – 18th centuries: there is a reason the late great Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who was perhaps one of the greatest advocates of the Greek ideal, never made it to the country of his life’s work. Serious accidents and declining health were as rife as the very real threats of piracy and banditry. Further, unlike the familiar Christianity of the contemporary Italian world, early modern Greece was under Tourkokratia, under Ottoman rule.

Nevertheless, some intrepid individuals, mostly sponsored by British and French governments, did make their way to this foreign land. Antiquity collectors, architects and botanists used Hellas as their hunting ground for the new – and the old – and the interesting (see two previous Roderick Bowen exhibitions: Tony Brothers’ Travellers and Texts  and Peter Hopkins’ Travellers to Greece: Discovering Ancient Greece. On their return, they published extensive accounts of these travels not just calling for a supremacy of ancient Greece over Rome but also advocating the notion of a Greek ideal that rapidly spread throughout Europe increasing interest in, visits to and explorations of the Greek land. Democracy, Reason, Freedom: Greece became to be seen as the ‘birth of Western Civilisation’.


Which Greece, though, were these travellers seeing? What space is there in this ‘ideal’ for the reality of contemporary political situations? It is this paradox – the ideal vs. the reality – that is visually articulated by the frontispieces (the opening illustrations prefacing textual content) to certain travellers’ accounts. Take for example the extremely blunt frontispiece to E. Dodwell, Views in Greece (London 1830) which depicts a young woman – Greece – in what is supposed to be ancient garb. She sits on the floor collapsed, bound and subjugated by the two figures – representative of the Turks and Ottoman rule – lounging behind her on the settee. The Turk on the left holds the keys to Greece’s bonds, a visual underline to the current political and cultural control and subjugation of the ancient Greek ideal as seen by European travellers. On the floor surrounding Greece lie an Athenian shield, helmet and spear: the glory that was Greece is bound and lying dormant beneath Ottoman rule. 

 Choiseul-Gouffier Frontispiece

This theme is more elaborately depicted in the frontispiece of le compte Marie-Gabriel-Florent-Auguste Choiseul-Gouffier’s Voyage pittoresque de la Grèce of 1782. Here we see contemporary Greece (notice the contemporary rather than ancient dress) in female guise. She sits enchained in front of a ruined Doric temple and is surrounded by funeral monuments dedicated to great ancient Greek figures who have sacrificed their lives for Greek freedom (such as Sparta’s Lycurgus, Athens’ Miltiades or Thebes’ Epaminondas). Behind her, to the right, is a column on which Simonides’ epitaph for the 300 Spartan warriors at Thermopylae is inscribed (traveller, tell them in Lacedaemon that we lie here in obedience to her laws). Behind her on a high rock is inscribed exoriare aliquis: let someone (anyone) arise.

This frontispiece, the first thing any reader to de Choiseul-Gouffier’s travels would see, again articulates clearly the reaction to contemporary Greece: ancient Greek men fought for freedom. They fought for a Greek ideal embodied in the glistening white temples that punctuated the countryside. But this Greece is in ruins: the columns of glories past now form the funeral stones of the present. Greece is fettered but she still exists amongst this glorious past from which ‘someone’ might just arise. Is she fettered by her past – remember this is contemporary Greece – or does this frontispiece articulate hope amongst, indeed in, the ruins? Is Choiseul-Gouffier expressing a call to arms (let someone rise) or a hopeless expression of despair (can anyone rise?)?

Barbault Frontispiece

Whichever, it is clear that pre-1821 (pre-war of independence) travellers to Greece were caught up not only in ideas of the ancient world or the beauty of classical architecture. Rather they were politically and culturally motivated in their descriptions of their travels. Readers were not simply to consume but to cogitate and act. Compare these portrayals with that of Jean Barbault’s fanciful depiction of Rome for hisLes Plus Beaux Monuments de Rome Ancienne (1766) which has cherubic cupids cavorting around the ancient ruins: Rome stands alone but Greece, as the birth of Western Civilisation, is the responsibility of all. 

 [Pauline Hanesworth]