Friday, September 4, 2009

2009.09.16

Version at BMCR home site
Luciana Gallo, Lord Elgin and Ancient Greek Architecture: The Elgin Drawings at the British Museum. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xvii, 344. ISBN 9780521881630. $150.00.
Reviewed by David Cast, Bryn Mawr College

There is surprisingly little written of the Parthenon and its sculptures in antiquity; a few lines in Plutarch, a few more in Pausanias. But ever since the inaugural sermon of about 1185 by Michael Choniates, Archbishop of Athens, praising the building that was then his cathedral, there has been a rich record of descriptions of the building and its decoration and many drawings and paintings of the complex of the Acropolis, which can provide us with information about the form and details of the structures there over the years. Of these perhaps the most beautiful are the early photographs of the Parthenon and its complex from the 1840s, the daguerreotypes and albumen prints by Philibert Perrault and James Robertson and Dimitrios Konstantinou. Of these perhaps the most valuable are the drawings by the artist known as Jacques Carrey, done in 1674, which preserve several parts of the sculptures, like that of the north frieze VIII, destroyed later in the explosion of 1687.

Most of this material is readily available within the scholarly literature, as --especially after the exhibition in 2006-7 at the Bard Center and the Victoria and Albert Museum--are the images from the volumes of The Antiquities of Athens, published from 1762 onwards by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett under the sponsorship of the Society of Dilettanti. Known, but far less accessible, is the group of drawings now in the British Museum, produced by a team of archaeologists and artists working for Lord Elgin during his stint, from 1798 to 1803, as Her Majesty's Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Sublime Porte of Selim III, Sultan of Turkey. This appointment was acknowledged at the time to be about politics and the situation of Napoleon in Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean. Yet it was always recognized that culture was also at stake, that there was much benefit and progress that could be offered to the arts in Britain--these are the words of Lord Elgin himself--"by procuring accurate drawings and casts of the valuable remains of Sculpture and Architecture, scattered throughout Greece, and particularly concentrated at Athens". Hence these studies. And if in the end they never made their way into print, they were made occasional use of by scholars and artists of the time in Britain and Germany and France. One such instance would be the display of the drawings of the Propylaia, the Erechtheion and the Parthenon, brought together by the German architect Jakob Ignaz Hittorf for an exhibition in 1831 at the Société libre des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Others in the 1840s were included as illustrations in publications by writers like Thomas Donaldson and Abel Blouet, thus fulfilling, if a generation late, a wider circulation for what was called the accurate and precise documentation of the classical monuments, "which alone" (again in Lord Elgin's words) "would make them useful to the arts".

It is the material of this collection of drawings and studies that is presented here in this volume, the result, as the author Luciana Gallo says perhaps too modestly, of several years of research. Gallo is an architect, an architectural historian and an archaeologist. And if these experiences prepared her well for the task at hand, so too did her deeper interest in what is described on the book jacket as the reception of Graeco-Roman antiquity in modern Europe. To which it can be added that she is also a deeply scrupulous student of archives, be they in Catania or Rome or Palermo or the Elgin papers, held still at Broomhall, Fife, the seat of Lord Elgin. What we have here is an impressive and useful presentation of these materials which, in all its aspects, supplants the list found within the general catalog of drawings and manuscripts at the British Museum, edited by Sir Frederick Madden and published in 1844.

The Elgin drawings, as they are called, are bound in five volumes, four of which contain the records of architecture and one, number four, those of sculpture. All of them, after much discussion, were acquired by the British Museum in 1816 and, once deposited in the Print Room, were then put in the order as we now have them by John Thomas Smith, the Keeper of that department from 1816 to 1832. The first two volumes are arranged by topography, the first containing materials on Attica and Aegina, views of Crete and twenty-four landscapes in the Troad, the second drawings of the Peloponnese from Arcadia to Sicyon and Argolis to Laconia. The two other volumes are arranged differently, the third containing drawings of the Parthenon, the temple of Poseidon at Sounion and the temple of Concord from Agrigento, the fifth some ninety three sketches of various sites in Sicily, Attica and the Peloponnese. The fourth volume, devoted to sculpture, has a large number of images of the figures of the Parthenon, plus reliefs from Agrigento, the choragic monument of Lysicrates--a favorite of architects at the time--the west frieze of the Hephaisteion in Athens and the reliefs of the Temple of Athena Nike.

There is much here to ponder, both particularly and generally. Whether what is now in the British Museum coincides with the original collection of Lord Elgin purchased in 1816 is at first sight difficult to determine. The drawings were brought together over a number of years by a number of artists, such a history suggesting that not all that was produced eventually survived. And indeed Gallo is able to pull up a reference to a drawing now missing and show also, in one instance, that only thirteen of the fourteen metopes of the south elevation of the Parthenon are drawn in large scale, but a small drawing suggests that it had already been produced in a larger scale. The artists Lord Elgin brought together, as befits the international nature of that artistic moment, came from far and wide. When still in England Lord Elgin had been interested in engaging Thomas Girtin and William Daniell, even J. M. W. Turner, but in each case the terms of the contract were not satisfactory either for artists or patron. Hired in the end was the Italian artist Giovann Battista Lusieri, who had long connections with other English travelers on the Grand Tour. Also brought on board was Feodor Ivanovitch, the Calmuk, born in Astrakhan but trained first at the court of Baden and then in Italy where he knew the architect Friedrich Weinbrenner and was also part of the circle around the Danish painter Jakob Asmus Carstens. Two architects were also engaged; Sebastiano Ittar, born in Catania where his father Stefano had settled at the invitation of Ignazio Paternò Castello, Prince of Biscari and then Vincenzo Balestra, one of the most fashionable architects in Rome at that time.

The instructions to them were precise, as we know from various documents still preserved; the Istruzioni per i Signori Artisti andando in Atene and a Memorandum for Balestra, both of about 1800, plus also another Memorandum written in 1815 by Lord Elgin himself. That they should select the pieces of sculpture and the architectural ornaments to be reproduced; and that then, when these buildings had been chosen, each part shown be drawn by a different professional a decision--now that the general layout of ancient buildings in Athens was known from earlier publications--that allowed the documentation of style in a way, as Gallo notes, that encouraged a deeper understanding of ancient buildings, or what the Istruzioni refer to as "the different characteristics of the Monuments". It was also suggested that there should be drawings of mediocre sculpture, this to give an idea, as again the Istruzioni note, of "the progress and decline of the arts". This is striking. Such a cyclical vision of artistic decline comes perhaps from Winckelmann and such an idea led to instructions in the notes of the Memorandum for Balestra "to shew (sic) how the Temple of Theseus surpasses in elegance and symmetry those of a more remote age in Sicily, Aegina or Corinth--how the Parthenon excels the Temple of Theseus--how the Doric Portico of Augustus degenerates from the Age of Pericles--the same process in the Ionic and Corinthian Monuments". This suggests an interest in what Gallo calls comparative study, to single out the specific features of the production of any one detail during the whole of the development and decline of Greek art. Yet, as Gallo suggests, there seem in this project to be traces of some of the more rationalist theories of architecture in France and Italy, of Carlo Lodoli in particular, which suggest why Balestra was also required--no text exactly saying this has survived--to draw up a detailed account of the construction of each temple, something perhaps to be used later as a text to accompany the publication of the drawings. So too the instructions for the documentation of the excavations for, as the Istruzioni continue, "it would be advisable for them to examine the levels partly concealed underneath the ground, which may prove to be the ruins of some public building from the good periods".

All this, carried out in these ways, was recognized at least by some as immensely valuable. The comments of Hittorff on the drawings by Ittar that he included in the exhibition of 1831 tell as much; that there was here what he calls "scrupulous observation and reproduction of forms, careful examination and intelligent attention to the method of construction, meticulous investigation and a scholarly approach, especially towards archaeological research." And if this led to a correction of the plates and drawings of Stuart and Revett, so much the better. Gallo has a fascinating and highly detailed account of Hittorff's recognition that Ittar had included a reconstruction of the Temple of Nike Apteros, long dismantled, on the correct site of the Propylaia, correcting Stuart and also the location proposed by Richard Chandler in his publications of the 1770s. There is much of this detailed analysis here; and what makes Gallo's descriptions of such small but vital matters of archaeology and architecture so valuable is the full reproduction of the plates discussed, whether those of the Parthenon and its details, or the Erechtheion, or the Choragic Monument of Thrasyllus and on. In the present parlous financial state of publishing--and the Paul Mellon Center for Studies in British Art is thanked here for a grant--we may fear that the opportunities to document such material in such ways will, beyond the internet, become fewer and fewer.

Gallo ends with three appendices, covering more than a hundred pages, reproducing the results of her many careful archival forays. The first, entitled Transcriptions of Manuscripts, contains a report, now in the Biblioteca Comunale in Palermo, by Hittorff on the drawings exhibited in Paris in 1831, letters in Italian and French between a variety of correspondents, Lusieri, Hittorff, Ittar, Agostino Gallo, a historian of Sicily, Thomas Donaldson and others; and then a selection of letters and memoranda, in Italian, French and English, from Elgin papers at Broomhall. This covers many pages. Briefer is the following appendix, a catalog of the Elgin drawings in the British Museum, starting with transcripts from a catalog by Thomas Donaldson; and then finally, and briefly--but very usefully--what is called a critical and topographical index of the Elgin drawings, running from Aegina and Attica to Sicily and the Troad.

And what can one say in final praise of this publication? Perhaps that if the Elgin drawings were given a first life by being included in some of the publications of the first half of the nineteenth century, so now, more than a hundred years later, they have been endowed with a second life for historians and archaeologists and architects alike, presented here as they are so generously and so carefully.

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