Down from Olympus: Archaeology and Philhellenism in Germany, 1750-1970

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Down from Olympus: Archaeology and Philhellenism in Germany, 1750-1970 Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. 400 pp.; 35 b/w illus. $39.50

For most of the past two centuries, much of Germany's culture-its literature, sculpture, decorative arts, and architecture-has been profoundly influenced by a continued confrontation with the classical past. To be sure, the arts of all European nations have been inflected by neo-classicism to varying degrees, at one time or another. Germany, however, has always believed that it has had a special relationship to the ancient world, a relationship that was memorably (if somewhat drastically) summarized in the title of E. M. Butler's famous work, The Tyranny of Greece over Germany (1935). Whereas Butler focused on the works of great writers, Suzanne Marchand examines the professional purveyors of classical studies, the philologists and archaeologists who turned enthusiasm for the ancient world into an academic science. According to Marchand, their efforts were, in the long run, self-defeating, inasmuch as the humanist enthusiasm that gave rise to classical studies was destroyed by the professionalization of the field: "the triumph of historicist classical scholarship over poetry and antiquarian reverie gradually eroded the very norms and ideals that underwrote philhellenism's cultural significance" (p. xviii).

Marchand begins her tale with the dual legacies of Johann Joachim Winckelmann and Wilhelm von Humboldt. In the mideighteenth century, Winckelmann put forth a novel image of Greek art as being marked by "noble simplicity and quiet grandeur," an aesthetics of restraint that stood in marked contrast to the Baroque and Rococo styles of the day. Half a century later, Humboldt persuaded the Prussian state to adopt Greek and Latin as the curricular fundamentals of the Gymnasium, the secondary school that was a prerequisite for entrance to the university and, consequently, the professional civil service. Humboldt saw classical languages and literature as a key element of personal Bildung, a concept of self-formation marked by rationality, self-control, and civic engagement. Politically, it was supposed to avoid the excesses of both absolutism and populist democracy: classically educated citizens would neither kowtow to tyrants nor be fooled by demagogues. The traditions of Winckelmann and Humboldt, which dominated German thought in the early l9th century, thus had pronounced aesthetic, ethical, and political implications.

Alas, says Marchand, these traditions soon were sapped of their vital energies as professional and institutional "self-interest"-by her own account, the primary motive force of her narrative (p. xix)-took over. Study of classical texts became not a means to a civic end, but an increasingly erudite and self-centered academic end in itself, resulting in the "dominance of elite, expert, and philosophically unadventurous university philologists over the study of the ancient past" (p. 24). In particular, philologists looked down upon archaeologists and all manifestations of material culture. Archaeology was also spurned by many German museums for much of the 19th century: rather than seeking to procure original works, they collected plaster casts of the "best" sculptures of the classical tradition, to impart a proper sense of beauty to art students and the public at large.

Ultimately, however, "grand-scale" archaeology was able to challenge the philologists and aesthetes, because it received support at the highest levels of Germany's Imperialand imperialist-regime. In the third and sixth chapters of her book ("The Vicissitudes of Grand-Scale Archaeology" and "The Peculiarities of German Orientalism"), Marchand contends that the unification of Germany in 1871, and its subsequent Great Power aspirations, set the stage for major challenges to the "philhellenic" tradition. One of those challenges came from a new generation of museum directors like Richard von Schone, an official in the ministry of education who became head of Berlin's royal museums in 1880. …