Reusing Relics-3

Choiseul-Gouffier Cos

View of a public square in Cos', shown here, is also taken from Voyage pittoresque de la Grèce and it is evidence of Choiseul-Gouffier’s interest in the ancient world, but also of the political goal of his journey; to explain the situation in the Aegean between the Ottoman Empire and Imperial Russia.

Kos had been ruled by the Ottomans since 1523 and the influence on the island is evident in the sketch, from the minaret depicted on the right to the dress of the figures. Choiseul-Gouffier was later appointed as ambassador to Constantinople in 1874.

In the accompanying text, the author remarks that ‘the entire coast is covered with orange and lemon trees, which form the most attractive features, but nothing is as pleasant as the public square of which I give the drawing’. Very little is written about the image itself, in fact only one of the six paragraphs of the accompanying text, which is three times longer than that for the sarcophagus.

The others can be divided into two categories; those concerned with describing the journey, scenery and local trivia, which are in line with the letters and diaries of seventeenth century travellers such as James Howell, John Evelyn and Henry Wotton, and those which display Choiseul-Gouffier’s classical knowledge. He states that Kos is ‘less known in the political history of Greece, only celebrated for the famous men she has seen born’. These men are then named as Hippocrates and Apelles, though it is assumed that the reader will be aware of their professions as physician and painter respectively, their fame and their legacy, as these are not elaborated upon.

This is true also of the iconography of the ancient coins found on the island, as the presence of Asclepius, Heracles, a serpent and a crab are noted, but no explanation of the link between the healing god and the snake, or the god, hero or the crab and the island itself are given. This suggests a prevailing opinion that travel should only be undertaken by those who had had a certain schooling, and indeed education and travel were inextricably linked, as Evelyn commented ‘I had to see the best Education, which every body so decrying at Home, made me conceive was a commodity onely to be brought from a far Countrie’.

Choiseul-Gouffier applies none of his knowledge to his account of the image, merely stating that ‘these regions, like all, have to offer traces of their former greatness, they are beautiful columns of marble and granite, which are employed to support the old age of this respected tree’. He does not, for instance, suggest that given the proximity of the island to Asia Minor it is probable that the columns are of the Ionic order; a more slender, decorative architectural type, or speculate upon their original location. For the author, the main interest in the scene lies in the fact that the square, with its ‘extraordinary’ plane tree, is still frequented by those ‘who come to transact business, and seek an asylum against the hot climate’.

It is somewhat ironic that shade of this tree was purportedly used by Hippocrates, described by Choiseul-Gouffier as ‘one of the greatest geniuses that ever existed’, and yet he never mentions this. Interestingly, there is none of the disapproval or criticism towards the reuse of the columns that there was for the sarcophagus, though this could be a result of the repurposing being less controversial than that of a tomb.

[Rachael Pearce]