An Archival Paradox, the Expédition de Morée, and a Mysterious Love AffairPosted: December 1, 2013
Jack L. Davis, Carl W. Blegen Professor of Greek Archaeology at the University of Cincinnati and former director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (2007-2012), here contributes to the Archivist’s Notebook an essay about literary activities of members of the Expédition de Morée and his recent discovery of an unknown epistolary novel by Jacques-Louis Lacour.
In 1984, in the years of the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project, a friend gave me Kyriakos Simopoulos’s monumental Ξένοι ταξιδιώτες στην Ελλάδα as a birthday present. It is a work extensively based on research conducted in the Gennadius Library. Later I discovered Simopoulos’s equally impressive Πώς είδαν οι ξένοι το ’21. The final chapter of Πώς είδαν was for me an invaluable introduction to the greatest military and scientific mission ever dispatched to Greece by a western European power: the Expédition de Morée.
A French fleet left Toulon in the summer of 1828, and on August 30, Lieutenant General Nicolas Joseph Maison landed with 14,000 troops at Petalidi near Kalamata, preferring not to expose his force to Ibrahim Pasha’s cannon fire at Navarino. Thus began a four-year military intervention that laid infrastructure for an independent Greek state.
The French maintained a military presence in the Peloponnese until August of 1833. The fighting soon complete, they turned their energies to reconstruction: roads, hospitals, a postal service, and repairs to fortresses. And in late 1828, scholars and scientists arrived — an Expédition Scientifique de Morée organized in three sections: “Archéologie”; “Histoire Naturelle” (later called “Sciences Physiques”); and “Architecture et Sculpture.”
The scientific aspects of the mission have garnered much attention in recent decades, first in the lavish Peytier Album (1972), a project of the National Bank of Greece that presented for the first time the watercolors and sketches of Pierre Peytier, a surveyor charged with mapping the Peloponnese. Two conferences, one in France, another in Athens, have studied the expedition in the context of similar French missions to Egypt and Algeria. Most recently, Editions Melissa (Εκδοτικός Οίκος Μέλισσα) published in 2011 the first of three volumes that concern the Expédition Scientifique: Tο έργο της Γαλλικής επιστημονικής αποστολής του Μοριά 1829-1838, Part I: Τμήμα Φυσικών Επιστημών Αφήγηση του ταξιδιού – Γεωγραφία – Γεωλογία – Χαρτογραφία – Απόψεις τοπίων. In it one of the many treasures of the Gennadius Library, an album of landscape drawings by Prosper Baccuet, is published for the first time.
As we approach the bicentennial of Maison’s landing at Petalidi, there still, however, has not appeared a comprehensive study of the overall French presence in the Peloponnese. Such relative neglect by modern scholars stands in sharp contrast to the enthusiasm that the Expédition de Morée generated in its own day. There was a sense at the time that Maison’s campaign was a momentous undertaking that deserved to be memorialized.
A poem in three cantos titled the Helléniade, ou Les Français en Morée was published already in 1828 to celebrate the arrival of the mission:
The French are in port. What riotous cries of joy,
When before the Greeks, their flag they did deploy,
O, what passion filled each heart!
“Glory, honor, to the French, our saviors, we impart.
The Cross at last has triumphed, and the Hellenes will be free!”
So shouted all of Greece at once, each yeoman drunk with glee.
Its author, René Taillandier (1786-1867), attorney, author and poet, in his Avant-Propos wrote: “The bloody struggle sustained against the Ottoman Empire for many years by the Greeks alone is undeniably one of the most remarkable events of our day. It offers political writers and poets a mine of information that cries out to be exploited … What poet, in fact, could not embrace a cause advanced by the descendants of demi-gods, creators of deities whose sonorous appellatives have so often been repeated in the works of composers of verse?”
Taillandier was, as he himself predicted, not the only major literary figure to celebrate the French in the Morea. The historian and intellectual Edgar Quinet (1803-1825), attached to the expedition in 1829, produced La Grèce moderne et ses rapports avec l’antiquité, an early work, the Bildungsroman of a young romantic scholar.
Then many other participants in the Expedition rushed to publish memoires, their personal expressions of Enlightenment philhellenism. These included that of Jacques Mangeart, a Classical scholar (1805-1874) who helped establish a print shop in Patras where the Le Courrier d’Orient was edited with support from Ioannis Kapodistrias, the first governor of Greece.
But other valuable resources for the study of the French mission remain unpublished. Stelios Papadopoulos in his historical introduction to the Peytier Album could write in 1972: “By no means all the material collected was made available for publication or even properly kept. The fruits of the French Mission’s artistic activities were likewise much more than the quantity that was eventually published. Nearly all the scientists drew. Diaries and drawings were an indispensable by-product of one’s travels … Family annals, private collections and museums hold a considerable body of pictorial documentation in store, all there for the finding.”
The archival paradox of my title is that the recent world economic crisis has brought some of this material into the rare book and manuscript market at a time when public institutions in Greece lack resources to acquire it.
One gem is the diary of Col. Antoine-Charles-Félix Hecquet. Hecquet, who headed a battalion of the 54th infantry regiment, not only recounts activities at Navarino in the summer and fall of 1828, but also the siége and capture of the Castle of the Morea at Patras. His account brings French military affairs to life with a rigorous attention to detail:
“The commanding general [Maison] left General Sébastiani at Koroni with two regiments and went to Navarino with the rest of the army … Many ships suffered damage during the night of the 20/21st … Navarino is a miserable hovel. It is occupied by the Egyptians. The French are camping outside it … I went ashore to see the camp of the Rigonnet brigade … There was a bit of canon fire — at midday, Duhamel, the captain of artillery, was wounded by a bullet that pierced his cheek. A fire broke out in the fort.”
There is more, likely much more, to be discovered, while the literary content even of published accounts has yet to be studied. Both points are illustrated by the oeuvre of Jacques-Louis Lacour. Lacour, a poet and historian, later officer of the Legion of Honor and Knight of the Royal Military Order of Saint Louis, was in 1832 attached to the army at Navarino as an assistant quartermaster. His most familiar work, Excursions en Grèce pendant l’occupation de la Morée par l’armée française dans les années 1832 et 1833 (1834), is a highly erudite work, as one might expect from a man with artistic aspirations.
Excursions en Grèce is, in fact, replete with original poetry and ethnographic cameos. Lacour dedicates his book to Dr. Dussi, head surgeon at the military hospital of Navarino, and honors him with a poem about their friendship.
Elsewhere, he documents lyrics of a rural Greek song, “The Palicar and the Partridge”:
Lord partridge, with plumage so bright,
Who hides in the forest out of fright,
On guard … for stretched along your road,
My nets I spread and limes I sowed.
Only recently in 2012 has a fuller appreciation of Lacour’s talents become evident through the publication of Pyracmond ou Les Créoles (1826), a lyric opera for which he was the librettist. The opera was produced five times, then lost; two manuscripts survive. Lacour, in the words of Michelle Cheyne, editor of Les Créoles, had “a tumultuous life, tirelessly chasing women, fortune, and glory in Santa Domingo, Paris, Europe, and Africa.” Les Créoles is, on the other hand, a fascinating work that constructs racial hierarchy during the Bourbon Restoration: French, Creoles, Arabs, and Africans figure on stage. Pyracmond is leader of the Arabs of Madagascar (disguising Santa Domingo).
Now another of Lacour’s works has returned from the dead, his Lettres de Laetitia et de Ludovic – missives exchanged over a period of eighteen months between Lacour (Ludovic) and a married woman in Paris who was trapped in a loveless marriage. Seventeen letters document the progression of an intensely romantic but platonic affair that remains unfulfilled. In this epistolary, at least semi-autobiographic, novel Lacour draws details from his Excursions, filling Ludovic’s letters with episodes from his personal life, including references to the renowned actress and poetess Marceline Desbordes-Valmore of the Parisian Opéra Comique. Lacour and Valmore had had an affair that in 1804 produced a little girl lovechild who died in infancy. They long remained friends.
But who was Laetitia? Will we ever learn the truth? Is the real story hidden somewhere, one day to be discovered? Affairs can be revealed in archives. Indeed, research within the Dragoumis papers in the Gennadius Library and other archives has recently revealed that Pavlos Melas, who struggled for the unification of Macedonia with Greece, had an affair with his wife’s sister.
Lacour was the sort of man who chose to leave a testimony to love. But to whom was his manuscript entrusted? How and where did it survive? It bears no inscription, no annotations — no information whatsoever that might document its transmission from the 19th to the 21st century. In the preface to Lettres Lacour wrote: “répondez-vous Chev. D*** à qui seul on oserait confier, au lit de mort un semblable recueil ?” Who was Chev. D.***?
Most stories have sequels and backstories, as doubtless this one also will and does. Watch this space for future posts.