The Shifting Perceptions of Ancient Culture ; as Classical Education Fades Away, Collectors Shift Their Focus

Article excerpt

Edward Dodwell's approach to Ancient Greece offers a startling contrast to the way in which enlightened collectors of recent decades have been responding to artifacts from the Greek and Roman world.

The Western world is about to turn its back on a 600-year-old tradition that molded the mind-set of its cultivated elites until the last century.

How profound the attraction of ancient Greek culture was on the European establishment is revealed in a brilliant book published in conjunction with a British Museum show, "In Search of Classical Greece," that ended last week. John Camp, the renowned American archaeologist, describes in the book the passionate recording campaign in which an Englishman, Edward Dodwell, accompanied by the Italian artist Simone Pomardi, drew all the ancient monuments they came across from 1805 to 1806.

Dodwell's approach to ancient Greece offers a startling contrast to the way in which enlightened collectors of recent decades have been responding to excavated artifacts from the Greek and Roman world, as was made clear at the Bonhams auction of "Antiquities" held Wednesday.

The story of Dodwell reads like an English novel of the Romantic age. Having obtained a bachelor of arts degree from Cambridge University in 1800 at age 22 or 23, he took a long trip to Greece a year later. Soon after his return to England, he left the country again, this time heading for Rome, which would be his home until his death in 1832. The Englishman, who clearly belonged to the upper class, took up his quarters at the Palazzo Doria. His marriage in 1816 to the daughter of Count Giovanni Giraud, a famous beauty in Roman society, leaves no doubt about his social status.

But Dodwell was no gadfly in the style of P.G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster. In his day, a top university education up to the bachelor's of arts level usually implied immersion in ancient Greek and Latin literature. In his account of Greek sites, "A Classical and Topographical Tour Through Greece," published in 1819, the traveler used 50 different ancient sources. Mr. Camp notes that in the diary of his 1801 trip, young Dodwell quoted Tacitus in a manner that reveals intimate familiarity with the Roman historian's text.

Yet the Briton was anything but a bookworm. His education had included mastering the rudiments of drawing. Helped by Pomardi, who was admired for his views of Rome, and progressing as he went on, the Englishman brought back impeccably documentary images. He evidently had hit it off with the Italian painter, who was his elder by 20 years.

Kim Sloan, the British Museum curator of British drawings preceding 1880, analyzes the watercolors reproduced in Mr. Camp's book. She quotes the relevant passages in Dodwell's 1819 publication and describes in detail the condition of the sites and monuments then and now.

Dodwell's passion for ancient Greece comes across forcefully in his notations. He vents his fury at witnessing the damage caused to the Parthenon by Lord Elgin, who had just received an edict from the Ottoman sultan. It left his lordship at liberty to rip off the marble slabs carved in high relief, or "metopes," that crowned the top of the structure.

These "were fixed in between the triglyphs [rectangular stone blocks] as in a groove, and in order to lift them up it was necessary to throw to the ground the magnificent cornice by which they were covered," the traveler observed.

His denunciation is the more telling because Dodwell was an eager collector. He came to own some 150 pieces of stone from monuments in Greece picked up on the ground or dug up, plus 259 Egyptian pieces and 602 Greek, Etruscan and Roman objects essentially bought in Italy. The bulk of his collection, acquired after his death by King Ludwig I of Bavaria, can be seen in the Staatliche Antikensammlung in Munich -- barring objects destroyed by Allied bombing in World War II. These tragically included the imposing archaic urn painted with a frieze of lions bought by Dodwell at Mertese, near Corinth. …

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