SEARCHING FOR GREECE IN EUROPE
When I stood before the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum a few weeks ago, I surreptitiously looked around for security cameras and a hollow feeling overwhelmed me. Why wasn’t I as bowled over as I should have been? Before me was the apogee of classical perfection and all I could do is secretly prefer the gaudy, overstated Hellenistic art of the room before. I found myself wishing that I could abscond with the frivolous statue of Mausolus instead and I felt keenly, the pangs of guilt for my innate bad taste.
Nonetheless, I launched into a lengthy lecture to my non-Greek companions as to the greatness of Greek civilization. Observe the austere and perfect expressions of the marble maidens of the erstwhile metopes compared to the monolithic crassness of the statues of Ramesses for example, or the violent portrayals of Mesopotamian kings hunting the lion to extinction. There is a reason, I opined, why the city of London is festooned with Grecian inspired architecture, and it has to do with inherent greatness.
Similarly, while visiting the city of Bath, which was a Roman spa town much favoured by the Hanoverian kings, who reconstructed the baths and most of the city in classically inspired Georgian architecture, I lapsed into swoons of ecstasy, noticing upon the façade of the baths, the Greek saying attributed to Thales the Milesian: ΑΡΙΣΤΟΝ ΜΕΝ ΥΔΩΡ, which translates as “Water is Best.”
Even in the holy city of Canterbury, as I watched my companions squirm, I managed to link its magnificent Cathedral back to its Greek archbishop Theodore. Further, I was fascinated to discover, in Westminster Abbey, Salisbury Cathedral, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Cathedral at Canterbury, a startling prevalence of rich and beautifully crafted Byzantine icons, before which candles were being lit. Though Cromwell and the Puritans would be turning in their graves, I was amazed to witness the revival of an ancient religious practice that had its roots in Orthodoxy, so many years later in the Anglican church.
Also, I managed to find a Greek restaurant, whose owner curtly informed me that he was not a Greek, having been born in England, though his parents were Cypriot. Apparently, this is a new ethnicity. His fish and chips were not up to standard and avoiding a decidedly seedy establishment opposite my hotel, bearing the appellation “Kleftiko,” (it had frosted windows and hardly any customers,) I sought refuge, upon return to London, in a most well appointed restaurant entitled: “The Real Greek,” in which all the waitresses were of Eastern European extraction and where the food was as really Greek as you could get.
My companions argue that the reason for my relative silence during our sojourn in Belgium, Holland, Germany and Switzerland was because I was suffering from the after-effects of patronizing “The Real Greek.” To my mind however, the reason was simply that apart from the odd Greek restaurant, snatches of conversation by Greek tourists (none of whom seemed particularly interested by our revelation as to our shared identity) and a mumbled comparison of the Dutch windmills to those of Mykonos, there was nothing noteworthy (read here Greek), to mention, though I did wonder how different the outcome of the Greek Civil War would have been, had the warring sides been able to construct mountain chairlifts like those of the Swiss.
It was when I stood in the square of San Marco in Venice that all my pent up Hellenism suddenly evacuated. After all, not only was Venice a loyal subject of the Byzantine Empire for many centuries but Saint Mark’s church, gleaming in the sun, was a copy of the now destroyed Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, the final resting place of the Emperors. Ignoring the Baroque façade, stepping into the church, a transportation back to days Byzantine ensued. The mosaics on the wall, and even the empty icon screen all attested to a shared heritage. To the left, in the treasury, I was able to review the collection of chalices, gospel covers and other priceless artifacts purloined from the Venetian sack of Constantinople and which were displayed, amidst protest by the Greek community, in Melbourne, a decade ago. Behind the altar, the Pala d’ Oro, the amazing gold and cloisonné altar-piece constructed from stolen pieces of Byzantine art and further within the church, the Quadriga, the amazing ancient Greek bronze horses that were constructed by Lysippos on the 4th century BC and were placed in the Hippodrome of Constantinople by the Emperor Theodosius. These too were purloined by the Venetians, who in turn had them purloined from them by Napoleon and then returned, and I hatched intricate plans to liberate these and return them… where exactly? To the empty space between the Hagia Sophia Museum and the Sultan Ahmet Mosque in Istanbul? Gritting my teeth, I was gratified into silence by the tour guide’s admission that the Doge’s Palace was inspired not so much by Moorish, but by Byzantine architecture.
A brief stay in the town of Assisi, the home of St Francis, had me enthralled by the frescoes of Giotto, who represents the middle point in the transition between Byzantine and Renaissance art and considering that the beautiful stone town reminded me of the neighbourhoods in the Castle of Giannena. Indeed, the Castle of Giannena cropped up several times during our travels. My attempt to compare Windsor Castle and Warwick Castle to the Castle of Giannena met with questioning looks and raised eyebrows. When I ventured to make a comparison of the Castle of Heidelburg, as featured in the movie classic “The Student and the Prince,” with its Giannenan counterpart, my life was placed in danger. By the time we got to Capri, in time to learn that the island once belonged to the Greeks and was sold to the Emperor Augustus, as it had no water, my companions had hardened their hearts and refused to share in my comparison of the playground of the rich and famous, to the island in the middle of the lake at Giannena.
Pompeii was not like Giannena. It was, as our guide told us, originally a Greek city that suffered the terrible tragedy of the volcanic eruption that preserved it for posterity. The sight of plaster casts of humans and animals curled up in their final agonies chilled us right up until the time we arrived in Naples, formerly Neapolis, an ancient Greek colony. We were told that southern Italy was a chaotic place where nothing worked and the writ of the Italian government did not run. To me, it appeared, both in the behavior of the people and the nature of the breathtaking landscape, almost indistinguishable from Greece, save for the fact that it was prettier and somewhat better ordered.
Despite laboring under a life-long enthrallment by Byzantium, I was not ever able to comprehend it until I visited Rome. Viewing the Arch of Constantine, the Colosseum, considered a place of Christian martyrdom, descending into the stiflingly close and dread catacombs in order to see the earliest known depictions of the apostles Peter and Paul and to read the Greek tomb inscriptions and entering the beautiful mosaic-adorned basilica of Santa Maria di Trastevere, one is amazed to locate the origins of the Byzantine aesthetic. After all, what was Byzantium but a Roman, Christian appreciation of the ancient Greek world?
It was hard to resist looking for signs and symbols of the Illuminati in the Vatican. However the breath-arresting collection of Greek and Roman copies of Greek sculpture in its museums attests to the Roman interpretation of Hellenism, a counterpart to the much later western interpretation of ancient Greece that gave rise to Neo-classicism. It was a thought that recurred within me as a walked down the atmospheric Borgo dei Greci, in Florence.
Whistling Charles Trenet’s classic “la Mer,” while strolling down the Boulevard d’ Anglais in Nice, I was pleased to find signs containing such words as “Nikaia” and “Amphipolis,” for Nice was an ancient Greek colony. On my way to Paris, I mused that a return of Nice to Greece along with its ensuing tourist dollars would extract that country from its economic quagmire if it wasn’t for the fact that we don’t have a museum big enough to put it in. In the Louvre, I adored the Venus of Milo and the sensuous curves of the Nike of Samothrace, all the while being surprised to learn that the endless museum also housed some friezes from the Parthenon, that do not seem to receive too much publicity.
Upon my return home, one of my uncles was puzzled as to why, having flown so far, I did not visit Greece. He was even more puzzled with my answer: “Why would I do that? Greece was everywhere I went.”