Skyromania? American Archaeologists in 1930s SkyrosPosted: June 1, 2016
“The island of Skyros is fairly remote and inaccessible, on account of the winds. One consequence of its geographical location is that there is very little information about the island in the ancient authors, and the picture also given by the travelers is also fragmentary,” archaeologist Efi Sapouna-Sakellaraki could write in her archaeological guide to Skyros, as recently as 1998. Before her, American archaeologist Hazel Hansen, in writing about prehistoric Skyros in 1951, similarly described the island as “one of the most solitary islands in the Aegean for nearly all the other islands are nearer to one another or to the mainland.” Its isolation and the capricious sea between it and the mainland and Euboea are the reasons why Skyros is far less frequently visited…”.
This image of a remote and isolated island is not consistent, however, with the popularity the island enjoyed among students of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School, hereafter) for nearly the entire decade of the 1930s — though after WW II the island appears to have been dropped from the School’s list of popular islands to visit.
Despite its remoteness and inaccessibility, the story of Achilles hiding, disguised as a girl, in the court of the Skyrian king Lycomedes, inspired a handful of paintings of the 17th century and a large number of 18th century operas, most of them based on Pietro Metastasio’s libretto. Yet one doubts that any of these earlier works of art and music would have influenced or even been known to young American classicists studying in Greece in the first decades of the 20th century.
As part of their philhellenic upbringing, in addition to Byron’s adventures at Messolonghi, they may have heard of Rupert Brooke’s untimely death in 1915 in the sea near Skyros. Brooke (1887-1915), a young English poet on his way with other troops to Gallipoli, died of a fever on a hospital boat. His death was highly publicized in England, and Brooke achieved a postmortem Byronic reputation (see Roessel 2002, pp. 187-189, where there is an excellent analysis of Brooke’s unorthodox case of philhellenism). Without having fought for Greece, but on his way to participate in the liberation of Constantinople, Greeks had no difficulty in including Brooke in their pantheon of philhellenes.
Christmas on Skyros and the Peschke Connection
The first American archaeologists to have visited Skyros for recreational purposes were a group of close friends from the School: Dorothy Burr, Agnes Newhall, Richard (Dick) Stillwell, and the Austrian painter Georg von Peschke with his Greek wife Faltaina (née Kalimeri), of Skyrian origin. Peschke, who had come to Greece in the late 1920s, had met his future wife at the house of Paul Kahn, Faltaina’s uncle. Kahn, brother of the famous New York banker Otto Kahn, had married Euphrosyne Margeti and lived in a grand house in Paleo Phaleron. Although the exact date of Peschke’s arrival in Greece is not known, we find him drawing for the Corinth and Olynthus excavations in 1931 (for more on Peschke as a painter, see Kourelis 2007, pp. 423-426).
The Americans who landed on Skyros on December 20, 1931 were guests of Faltaina’s family, and, as such, were treated with special care by the locals. Burr (later Thompson) in her diary described in detail their activities during their sojourn on the island. When I first read Burr’s descriptions of the houses they stayed in and visited, I shared her surprise at the diverse origins of the pottery that so amply adorned the walls of Skyrian houses. “We were put to bed in a near-by house with many bronzes on the wall and china, bottles, plates of Delft, Staffordshire, Willow-pattern, Majolica, Skyros, Venetian glass, and many unrecognizable sorts on the walls and brackets.” In another case, when they were visiting the house of one of Peschke’s uncles, she describes its small room as “like a Dutch interior” and the old man as a “true collector” (entry for December 22, 1931).
Burr’s descriptions and photos were at odds with what I had grown up to think about the island’s modern material culture. For me, Skyros meant small wooden chairs and large decorated chests («κασέλες»), once very fashionable furniture in Greek households. But why were there so many imported goods on this remote Aegean island, rarely a stopover on maritime routes? Why was there a need for every Skyrian house to display its pottery and bronzes on house walls, row after row?
The Skyrian Obsession with Art Collecting
It is impossible to understand modern Skyros without reading the work of writer and folklorist Manos Faltaits, a native of the island (1938-2012). According to Faltaits, the majority of the imported items displayed in Skyrian houses before WW II was amassed between 1500 and 1830 by means of an idiosyncratic style of piracy. Each time a ship harbored in Skyros, members of the island’s upper class would inform pirates, and claim part of the loot. After the Greek war of independence, as piracy declined in the Aegean, exotic items increasingly reached the island through the hands of local merchants. It would not be an exaggeration to describe as a fetish the passion with which the Skyrian upper class (the so-called “μεγάλη στράτα”) collected, exhibited, and attached themselves to their imported goods. The “old stuff” (“τα παλαιά”) was treated as capital, rarely sold but occasionally exchanged between families, in the same way collectors trade with other collectors. Deeply linked to social status, these objects were craved by the lower classes (the so-called «μεσαριά»), which managed to acquire them in the early decades of the 20th century. By taking advantage of the various food blockages during both World Wars, the herdsmen and farmers of Skyros traded produce for the heirlooms of the starving upper class (Faltaits 1974).
Faltaits’s analysis chimes well with one of Dorothy Burr’s descriptions. When she and Agnes Newhall were pressed by the owner of a grocery store to enter his shop, they expected to see “some modern oddity for sale.” Instead, they came across “a tiny room at a hearth, bronzes and two old Skyros chairs, an enormous walnut (?) chest filling one whole side, carved in long relief in front, invisible in the dark and inlay inside the lid in the most baroque style… Adam and Eve being driven in a car by Eros… very Venonese in style… a magnificent piece of carving, undoubtedly 17c.” (entry for December 24, 1931).
The Greek Bourgeoisie’s Obsession with Skyros
Members and students of the School would visit Skyros several times in the 1930s. In the ASCSA Archives, in the photographic collections of Richard Howland, Gladys Davidson (Weinberg), and Doreen Canaday (Spitzer), there is evidence for at least two more journeys. Unlike the photos of Dorothy Burr, whose lens captured scenes from the private lives of the island’s people, most images in the other collections are less informative, since their creators were more interested in photographing the landscape or themselves.
In 1935 Dick Howland, Carol Bullard, and the Peschkes must have visited Skyros around carnival time because in Howland’s collection there are snapshots of the famous goat dance, as well as photos of him and his friends clad in local costumes. Three years later (in 1938), members of the School would charter a boat for a grand island cruise that would take them to various Aegean islands including Skyros. Doreen Canaday’s images give the impression that the visit was short: a walk to the top of the island for some panoramic photos, then a visit to Rupert Brooke’s grave; the trip ended with some swimming on the beach.
Would the students and members of the School have travelled to remote Skyros if it weren’t for Georg von Peschke’s family connection with the island? It is difficult to answer this question definitively since Skyros had already become a fashionable destination by the late 1920s, especially among the Athenian interwar bourgeoisie whose “search for ‘Greekness’ would be linked with the burgeoning academic study of folklore” (Florou 2015, p. 129).
In 1925, folklorist Angeliki Hatzimichali (1895-1965) would publish her seminal work Skyros (Σκύρος), spearheading a mania for anything Skyrian. In the same year an international committee of distinguished Greeks, British, Egyptians, and Belgians began to take shape, with Prime Minister Eleutherios Venizelos as one of its honorary presidents. The mission of the committee was to raise funds to erect a bronze statue of Rupert Brooke on Skyros. Six years later, the Community of Skyros did its own fund-raising in order to upgrade its infrastructure (e.g., to build docks, roads, and public restrooms, and to repair buildings) in preparation for hosting the 300 people invited by the Committee to attend the unveiling of the monument (Anna Faltaits 2015). The statue by famed sculptor Michael Tombros was consecrated on April 5, 1931, in the presence of the Vice-President of Greece, Andreas Michalakopoulos. (The proceedings of the event were published in a small volume titled Hommage à Rupert Brooke et la poesie immortelle, Athens 1931). Not unexpectedly, one of the poets who spoke at the dedication was Angelos Sikelianos, the founder, together with his wife Eva Palmer, of the Delphic Festivals of 1927 and 1930. Dorothy Burr, who travelled to Skyros a few months after the unveiling, wrote in her diary: “a walk by Brooke’s memorial – hideous statue in a plateia” (December 21, 1931).
Another example of the Greek bourgeoisie’s Skyromania is found in Yorgos Theotokas’s novel Argo, published in 1936. Theotokas, a pivotal figure of the 1930s literary generation, has his hero Nikephoros Notaras furnishing his Kolonaki apartment with Skyrian furniture and traditional embroideries (“το επίπλωσε με σκυριανά έπιπλα και χωριάτικα κεντήματα…”).
And at the end of the decade, in 1939, Niki Perdika, in writing about the folktales and customs of Skyros, would lament the “looting” of the island’s material culture by “writers, painters, artists of every kind, aesthetes and naturalists, ours and foreigners…,”who paid hurried visits to the island, seeking instant inspiration through a superficial gaze.
“Σκύρος! Πόσοι τα τελευταία χρόνια δεν ασχολήθηκαν μ’ αυτή!” wrote Perdika in the preface to her book (1940, p. 9).
Skyros by Osmosis
There is evidence, however, that, even before Peschke, some School members were already aware of Greece’s upper class infatuation with folk art and Skyros. Although the American School would continue to furnish its buildings with European-style furniture, the Blegens and the Hills would not hesitate to accoutre one of the rooms of their house at 9 Ploutarchou with furniture from Skyros. Purchased in 1929, the house would be remodeled extensively before its owners were prepared to receive their first guests. “Tea with Mrs. Hill and Mrs. Blegen in a quaint Greek room with low table, frescoed wall, and embroideries and a hooded fire-place with tiles let in,” wrote Dorothy Burr on December 13, 1931, a week before she departed for Skyros. Just a month before, Dorothy Burr had taken her tea at the “Scyros House by the Russian Church-arranged as an original house with wooden upper story, big corner fireplace – many modern embroideries, cushions, etc. quaint low chairs, crockery decorated in white…” (November 14, 1931). Another member of the American School, archaeologist and photographer Alison Frantz, would buy a Skyrian chair for her 26th birthday as early as in 1929 (Kourelis 2007, p. 425, n. 162).
Vivian Florou, writing about the Blegen house on Ploutarchou street, has argued that the decision to create a Greek room does not simply reflect a folkloric tendency of its owners but was a manifestation of their “direct contact with the Greek bourgeoisie,” which had “clothed itself deliberately in the value of Hellenism’s historical continuity” (Florou 2015, pp. 129-130). In addition, the Blegens and Hills were aware of Angeliki Hatzimichali’s (1895-1965)work, having purchased objects from the displays of folk art that she had organized at Delphi on the occasion of the second Delphic Festival in 1930.
The ASCSA’s Skyrian Legacy
Rarely today does any member of the American School travel to Skyros. Even for Greeks, including myself, Skyros is considered an off-the-path destination. Occasionally we hear in the news about the need to preserve the Skyrian pony, and one may find imitations of Skyrian furniture in the market, but they are no longer considered fashionable or comfortable. Skyrian furniture has trickled into the School through Elizabeth Blegen’s bequest, which left the house on Ploutarchou Street and all its contents to the ASCSA. Today, one can find it dispersed in various buildings, including the houses of ASCSA’s Corinth Excavations.
A few years ago I tried to identify some of the Blegen house furnishings. I was able to match a verbal description with a curious jug (κανάτα) with a painted inscription in Greek. With a bit of research I discovered that this kind of jug was produced in the 18th and 19th centuries at Pesaro, on the east coast of Italy. In decorating these vessels with Greek verses, the Pesaro potters were targeting the trans-Adriatic Greek market. What I had not realized at the time was that the Pesaro jugs were items highly sought by the Skyrians. In fact, Dorothy Burr’s interior photos of Skyrian houses show rows of them hanging on the walls. It is clear to me now that the Pesaro jug was once part of the Greek Room in the Blegen House. (Today it sits on the mantel of the Director’s “saloni.”)
For years another item of Skyrian origin hung on the walls of the Director’s house. (It is now in the School’s Archives). Only recently did I realize that this framed embroidery with floral decoration, stylized suns and peacocks, and vivid blue, red, and green colors was a προσκεφαλάδα (a pillow case for a long pillow set at the head of a bed). An almost exact parallel was included in Hatzimichali’s Skyros book of 1925 (p. 137, fig. 152) and credited to Helen Eukleides’s private collection. Eukleides is frequently mentioned in Ida Thallon Hill’s diaries and correspondence. In fact, in referring to a party given in 1950 by Lucretia del Valle, wife of U.S. Ambassador Henry F. Grady, at the American Embassy, Ida mentions a costume show, with some outfits from the Lyceum Club (Λύκειο Ελληνίδων), while “the other splendid costumes came from Benaki Mus and H. Eukleides” (Ida to Bert H. Hill, March 19, 1950). All of this resonates well with what Vivian Florou has written recently about the Blegens and the Hills: “…the residents of 9 Ploutarchou lived and breathed the grand bourgeois environment to a degree unexpected at the time in people of non-Greek descent… The households of Helen Stathatou and Helen Eukleidi, as well as members of the Petrokokkinou and Melas families, among others, were included in these social interactions” (2015, pp. 128, 141, n. 70).
Finally, a small oil painting of the island and a few engravings (based on his oil paintings from the 1930s) are all that remains of the School’s “Peschke connection” with Skyros; the engravings were probably used for a local book about the art of Skyros, published by the Syllogos Skyrion in 1955 (Kourelis 2007, p. 425, fig. 18). (Peschke’s oil paintings were recently displayed at Franklin and Marshall College and Bryn Mawr College in a show titled “Colors of Greece: The Art and Archaeology of Georg von Peschke” that was curated by Kostis Kourelis.)
Faltaits, M. 1974, “Τα διακοσμητικά αντικέιμενα του Σκυριανού σπιτιού από ιστορική και κοινωνιολογική άποψη,” Αρχείο Ευβοικών Μελετών 19, pp. 57-96.
Faltaits, A. . “Rupert Brooke: A Landmark in Skyros’ History” (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/424024/Brooke_english.pdf)
Florou, V. 2015. “The House at 9 Ploutarchou Street: A Grape Arbor and a Dense Shadow of Beautiful Meanings,” in Carl W. Blegen: Personal and Archaeological Narratives, ed. N. Vogeikoff-Brogan, J.L.Davis, and V. Florou, Atlanta, pp. 121-146.
Hansen, H. 1951-53. “Prehistoric Skyros,” in Studies Presented to David Moore Robinson on his Seventieth Birthday, ed. George E. Mylonas, Saint Louis, pp. 54-63.
Hatzimichali, A. 1925. Ελληνική λαϊκή τέχνη: Σκύρος, Athens
Kourelis, K. 2007. “Byzantium and the Avant-Garde: Excavations at Corinth, 1920s-1930s,” Hesperia 76, pp. 391-442.
Perdika, N. L. 1940. Σκύρος. Εντυπώσεις και περιγραφαί. Ιστορικά και λαογραφικά σημειώματα. Ήθη και έθιμα. Μνημεία του λόγου του λαού. Athens.
Roessel, D. 2002. In Byron’s Shadow. Modern Greece in the English and American Imagination, Oxford.
Excerpts from Dorothy Burr Thompson’s diary, 1931 (Bryn Mawr College Special Collections). Her photographic collection at the ASCSA is available online at: http://www.ascsa.edu.gr/index.php/digital-library/resources-listing-all-departments
I also make note of a booklet that was just published by Anna Faltaits, titled The Chronicle of the Spanish Flu on Skyros (Skyros 2021), and it is the English translation of a long essay that her grandfather Kostas Faltaits published in Greek in1919.