Orientations in Sunlight: With Durrell in Rhodes

“In Rhodes the days drop as softly as fruit from trees. Some belong to the dazzling ages of Cleobolus and the tyrants, some to the gloomy Tiberius, some to the crusaders. They follow each other in scales and modes too quickly almost to be captured in the nets of form,” wrote Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) in the first pages of his acclaimed memoir Reflections on a Marine Venus: A Companion to the Landscape of Rhodes (1953). More than seventy years later, if Durrell were still alive, he would have added “… some to the crusaders, some to the Italians.”

Durrell was stationed in Rhodes for two years when the Dodecanese was under British Administration (1945-1947). As Information Officer, he supervised the publication of three daily papers, in Greek, Turkish, and Italian. (I found copies of the Greek one, ΧΡΟΝΟΣ, in the Nicholas Mavris Papers in the ASCSA Archives. Mavris, a prominent member of the Greek American community, in 1948 became the first governor commissioner of the freed Dodecanese.)

ΧΡΟΝΟΣ, Aug. 8, 1945. ASCSA Archives, Nicholas Mavris Papers.

WW II had just ended and the fate of the Dodecanese was still uncertain. Despite their Greek past, these islands in the southeastern part of the Aegean (also known as Southern Sporades) did not join Greece until 1947, having passed from the Ottomans directly to the Italians in 1913, from the Italians to the Germans in 1943, and from them to the British. In 1946, the Allied Forces in Paris finally agreed upon the integration of the Dodecanese with Greece. It was not until the 31st of March 1947, however, that the British officially delivered the administration of the Dodecanese to the Greek State.

Durrell did not write Marine Venus while on Rhodes but a few years later, relying on his memory and “sifting into the material, now some old notes from a forgotten scrapbook, now a letter” (Marine Venus, p. 3).[1]

“Of Paradise Terrestre”

I read Marine Venus for the first time about ten years ago, when I was doing research triggered by the reissue of Triumph Over Time.  Produced by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or School hereafter) in 1947, in addition to promoting the School’s excavations at Old Corinth and in the Athenian Agora, this film presents a serene and idyllic view of Greece, emphasizing the country’s rural aspects and her continuity with ancient Greece. Reissued in 2007, the film received mixed reviews during viewings: older Greek people embraced it with great fondness since for them it was a walk down memory lane, especially for the those who had grown up in villages; younger people, on the other hand, especially those born post-1970 found fault with it because it did not show the ruined state of Greece after WW II, lacked urban scenery, and avoided any references to the Civil War. Seventy years after its production, Triumph Over Time was criticized for not being a true historical documentary.

Out of curiosity, I started looking for literature that had been published immediately after WW II. I was nonplussed to find that one of my most favorite novels, The Three Summers (Τα Ψάθινα Καπέλα) by Margarita Lyberaki, ­was first published in Greece in 1946 (and in France in 1950). Like Triumph Over Time, “the world inside the book could [not have been] more unlike the world it came into when it was first published in 1946,” as Karen Van Dyck, Kimon A. Doukas Professor of Modern Greek Literature at Columbia University, who translated the novel in English (Paris Review, July 16, 2019), recently emphasized in an interview. Idyllic and timeless, this coming-of-age- novel “must have offered [its readers] an oasis from the unbearable realities of the day,” Van Dyck added. Another common thread between Triumph Over Time and Lyberaki’s Three Summers is that both works are steeped in the sun. “The sun has disappeared from books these days. That’s why they hinder our attempts to live, instead of helping us. But the secret is still kept in your country, passed on from one initiate to another. You are one of those who pass it on,” wrote Albert Camus to Margarita Lyberaki when he first read the book in 1950.

My literary wanderings eventually led me to Durrell’s Marine Venus, which I had not read. I wasn’t even aware of it. Having not ever visited Rhodes or any of the islands of the Dodecanese, I read Marine Venus impatiently, unable to appreciate Durrell’s rich descriptions of the island. Yet its reading left me with a residue of happiness, as if in a “paradise terrestre.” Later I read that, before publication, Marine Venus was chopped almost in half by Faber & Faber’s editor Anne Ridler, who cut most of the passages dealing with the recent war, and “oriented the book to sunlight, blue skies, and clear sea.” (See David Roessel in his Introduction to the 2001 Faber & Faber edition.)


I finally made it to Rhodes last September. Not being able to find a hotel we liked within the boundaries of the castle of the Knights of St. John, we opted for one outside, in Mandraki. Within a few hours on Rhodes, I began to notice that Mandraki was full of public and private buildings dating to the interwar period, but constructed in diverse architectural styles. On the one hand, there were fascist buildings, such as the Theater and the City Hall; on the other, highly eclectic buildings, such as the Palazzo del Governo, or modernist ones, such as the Ronda.

Rhodes, Teatro G. Puccini (now National Theater). Architect: Armando Bernabiti, 1936-1937.

Rhodes, Il Palazzo del Governo (now The Perfecture of the Dodecanese). Architect: Florestano di Fausto, 1926-1927.

Rhodes, Ronda (now ΕΛΛΗ). Architect: Armando Bernabiti (?), 1936-1938.

Florestano Di Fausto, ca. 1930.

Soon after the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), which recognized officially the Italian possession of the Dodecanese, the first civilian governor of the “Italian Aegean Islands” Mario Lago (1878-1950) enlisted the services of architect Florestano di Fausto (1890-1965).  By 1926, Di Fausto had laid out Rhodes’ city plan. retaining the Medieval zone, while setting the new city outside the castle by Mandraki harbor. That’s where one can find today many works  by Di Fausto and other Italian architects, works such as the Palazzo del Governo, the Catholic cathedral of the Knights of Saint John (now the Evangelismos church), the Post Office (1927-1929), the New Market, and the famous Grande Albergo delle Rose. Di Fausto’s career in Rhodes did not last long since he and Lago came into a conflict that ended with a legal dispute in 1927, forcing Di Fausto to leave Rhodes. (Di Fausto continued his illustrious career in Albania, Ethiopia, and Libya, and became Italy’s most important colonial architect.)

Rhodes, Grande Albergo delle Rose (before 1936). Architect: Florestano di Fausto, 1925-1927.

According to architectural historian Vassilis Kolonas, the Italian architects of Rhodes, after an initial experimentation with academic examples, began “to incorporate elements from the island’s various historical periods in their designs… from the city’s Byzantine, Crusader, or Islamic past… the local anonymous architecture…, folk art and even echoes from the architectural tradition of Middle Eastern countries,” creating a new colonial Mediterranean style, unmistakably recognizable today.  Lombardi, who replaced Di Fausto in the Directorate of Public Works in 1928, managed to blend harmoniously Byzantine, Islamic, and Classical elements in the Kallithea Baths (1928-1930), “a fantasy set for tourist Rhodes that would remain the island’s symbol for many decades” (Kolonas and Gerolympos, 2002, 55). Moreover, the Italian architects in the Dodecanese under Lago, a visionary politician who promoted cultural assimilation, felt free to adopt their architecture to the local climate and history, strongly embracing the concept of mediterraneità:

“…not a single stone was placed by me without having filled myself in advance with the spirit of the place, so as to make it my own,”

wrote Di Fausto in 1937 in the only essay he ever wrote about his work. (His essay carried the title “Visione mediterranea della mia architettura,” and the quote comes from Santoianni 2008, p. 93).

An Italian Tourist in Rhodes, 1933

Aspiring to make Rhodes a cosmopolitan destination, the Italian Administration of the Aegean Islands (Governo delle isole italiane dell’ Egeo), on the tenth anniversary of Lago’s governorship in 1933, published a celebratory, forty-page guide, Rodi: L’ isola delle rose, a copy of which I found in the Gennadius Library.  The guide begins with a brief historical introduction underlining the island’s illustrious Greco-Roman past, and continues with the glories of the Knights of St. John until it was finally reduced to a sleepy oriental village (“un sonnolento borgo orientale”) in the hands of the Ottomans after 1522. By taking it from the Turks in 1912, it fell upon Italy to restore Rhodes’ previous glory, as an intermediary between east and west.

RODI: L’ISOLA DELLE ROSE (1933). ASCSA, Gennadius Library, E. Dalleggio Collection. Note the all inclusive imagery on the cover (deer, rose, Maltese cross, hydroplane, cruise ship, crusader’s boat, and castles).

By promoting Rhodes’ mild climate throughout the year, which allowed the growth of exquisite oranges and grapes, dates and bananas, and flowers such as roses, hibiscus, and bougainvillea, the guide invited the tourist to explore the walled city (“la città murata”) and its monuments; by then, the Grande Ospedale dei Cavalieri had been transformed into a museum to hold the treasures that Italian excavations had brought to light since 1912.

Once outside the medieval castle, Italian visitors could continue their wanderings in the new city which combined “Venetian, Sicilian architecture with oriental elements” (“architettura veneziana e siciliana tutta impregnate d’ Oriente”). To top off their Rhodian experience, the tourists were encouraged to explore the countryside of the island on a newly constructed 400 km ring road. For mountain lovers, there was L’ Albergo del Cervo on Mount Prophetes Elias and for those seeking a recreational cure, the “Terme di Calitea” combined the Greek Hippocratic tradition with the Roman passion for elaborate bathing complexes.  And where could one stay? From the Grande Albergo delle Rose, as luxurious and comfortable as any European hotel of that class, to a host of inexpensive but good family pensions, the Italian Administration of the Aegean Islands met the needs of all tastes and wallets.

The alpine-in-style Albergo del Cervo (now ΕΛΑΦΟΣ Hotel). Architect: Rodolfo Petracco, 1928-1930. Photo: Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan.

Rhodes, Le Regie Terme di Calitea (The Kallithea Baths) after their recent restoration. Architect: Pietro Lombardi, 1928-1930.

From Splendid and Thoughtful to Florid and Tasteless

Durrell used these two pairs of adjectives to describe the diametrically opposed personalities of Governors Mario Lago and Cesare de Vecchi.  1936 marked a significant change in the administration of the Dodecanese that presaged the disastrous years that were to come. It was that year that Mussolini formalized his alliance with Hitler and set in motion a series of changes across the newly established “Italian Empire,” including the replacement of Governor Lago with Cesare Maria de Vecchi (1884-1959). The latter, a card carrying member of the Fascist Party, persecuted the local population by terminating the autonomy of the various ethnic groups, banned all newspapers except for Italian ones, activated racial laws, created Italian settlements on the islands, and instituted Italian as the only official language of the Dodecanese. He also introduced a period of architectural purification in Rhodes, by stripping all the ornamental elements from Di Fausto’s buildings, including the arabesques from the Grand Hotel of the Roses (Grande Albergo delle Rose). De Vecchi promoted a rationalism in architecture that sought to provide a unified and nationalist architecture across the Italian Empire, banning any kind of borrowings from other civilizations except for Imperial Rome.

The Grande Albergo delle Rose after De Vecchi stripped all of Di Fausto’s ornaments.

In the collective memory of the Rhodians, the two administrations also remained separate. Until recently people distinguished between the “good Italians” and the brutal fascists; they also remembered that, from the 1920s until the mid-1930s, their lives had been transformed largely for the better, containing one of the biggest problems of the Dodecanese — emigration (Doumanis 2005).

After stopping for a coffee at Hotel ΕΛΑΦΟΣ (Albergo del Cervo), we hiked up to see the (abandoned now) villa that De Vecchi had built for himself. Photo: Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan.

While looking for more information about the Italian Occupation of the Dodecanese, I also came across an old promotional film that must have been produced on the occasion of Lago’s tenth anniversary in office. (In fact, I noticed that the RODI guide of 1933 used stills from the film.) The online version of the film is about 13 minutes long and one does not need to know Italian in order to enjoy it, and also appreciate the multicultural approach of the Lago administration.

Two American Women in Rhodes, 1933

In late January 1933, two young American women, members of the ASCSA, Dorothy Burr (Thompson) and Lucy Shoe (Meritt) took the boat to Rhodes. What they recorded both in writing and film, matches very much in spirit the descriptions of the Italian guide: a multi-ethnic crowd in a multi-period city.

“We walked down to the quay, by Turkish tombs and a minaret with lattice balustrade, past a handsome series of modern buildings in an Oriental Italian style, sarcophagi mounted on canon balls with the shields of the Grand Master –to the modern market [i.e., the Mercato Nuovo built by Di Fausto] in a sort of store around a central pergola of fish-market, full of Turks in pale pink and violet turbans, Greeks, women in leather boots… an almost Roman sight of underlying order with the color of squalor and independence of the East fretting on top” (entry for Jan. 26, 1933).[2]

Rhodes, Il Mercato Nuovo (New Market), 1933. Architect: Florestano di Fausto. Photo: ASCSA Archives, Dorothy Burr Thompson Photographic Collection.

Rhodes, Il Mercato Nuovo (New Market), 1933. Photo: ASCSA Archives, Dorothy Burr Thompson Photographic Collection.

At Embona, a mountainous village, Dorothy and Lucy chatted with the local women in “queer Greek with soft lambdas and perhaps mixed with Turkish” and photographed their dresses, “blue skirt over a white jerkin with red embroidery, very high-waisted, leather boots, and the head tied up in white” (entry for Jan. 29, 1933).

Rhodes, Embonas, 1933. Photo: ASCSA Archives, Dorothy Burr Thompson Photographic Collection.

Of the many photos that Dorothy took, my eyes rested longer on one depicting the Murad Reis Mosque. Thirteen years later, Durrell would write: “…we stumbled upon the little garden which encircles the Mosque of Murad Reis—a garden at whose heart I was later to find Villa Cleobolus; and here we sat for a while perched upon Turkish tombstones, smoking and enjoying the darkness which had now an almost touchable smoothness, the silkiness of old velours.” Durrell dedicated an entire chapter of his book to the garden of the Villa, where he, together with his beloved E[ve] Cohen, entertained their close friends: the idiosyncratic A. Gideon, the newly appointed Director of Agriculture, doctor Raymond Mills and his Greek wife Chloe, Hoyle (whose first name is not given), and Egon Huber, the gifted Austrian potter of ICARO (Industrie Ceramiche Artistiche Rodio-Orientali). “Here in the evenings we gather for drinks and gossip, sitting in cane chairs around the little painted table, hearing through the dusk the shallow strains of some forgotten fugue wafted to us from the old gramophone which is the Mufti’s special pride. Here Gideon and Hoyle play out those interminable games of chess… . Here, sitting on the ground, the grave, detached Huber is whittling at the hull of a ship or the bowl of a pipe” (Marine Venus, pp. 127-128).

Rhodes, Murad Reis Mosque, 1933. Photo: ASCSA Archives, Dorothy Burr Thompson Photographic Collection.

Marine Venus vs. Rhodian Venus

I left until last the inspiration for the title of Durrell’s book: the Marine Venus. It took many readings of the relevant passage for me to understand that Durrell’s Venus was the armless, standing Aphrodite, also known as Venus Pudica. Why did he choose the Marine Venus over the dazzling Rhodian Venus? When we were at the Museum, everybody stood in awe in front of the small, kneeling, long-haired Rhodian Venus, hardly paying any attention to the solemn, mutilated Marine Venus.

The Rhodian Venus at Rhodes Archaeological Museum. Photo: Natalia Vogeikoff_Brogan

Durrell credits his friend Mills for inspiring him to write a book about their time on Rhodes. Mills wanted Durrell to capture “not history of myth—but landscape and atmosphere…” (Marine Venus, p. 35). I suspect that the defining moment that encapsulated “all the charm and grace of our stay in Rhodes,” must have been the “rediscovery” of the Marine Venus some time in 1945 or 1946. Although the statue had been fished out of the sea in 1929, Durrell and his friends must have witnessed her retrieval from the crypt where she had been hidden for protection during the war. “I can still the faces of my friends as they surrounded the dark trap door out of which she rose so gravely into the sunlight. Hoyle and Gideon sitting astride a plank; Ego Huber, who had helped to bury her, smiling with pleasure to see her undamaged; while Mills and Sergeant Croker and a collection of barefoot urchins grunted and groaned on the ropes which were raising her” (Marine Venus, p. 36).

The Marine Venus or Venus Pudica, as she was found at the bottom of the sea in 1929, and as Durrell would have seen her at the Rhodes Museum ca. 1945. Photo: G. Jacopi, “Monumenta di scultura del museo archeologico di Rodi,” Clara Rhodos V.1.

Durrell would not return to Rhodes after 1947, though he would sail by her in 1953, together with his two-year daughter Sappho, on his way to Cyprus; but not with his beautiful E[ve] who had suffered a mental breakdown in 1952. “It is good to see places where one has been happy in the past—to see them after many years and in different circumstances… each minaret like the loved worn face of an earthly friend. I am looking, as if into a well, to recapture the faces of Hoyle, Gideon, Mills—and the dark vehement grace of E.” wrote Durrell in the Epilogue to Marine Venus in 1952.

[1]. For the quotes from Marine Venus, I used the 2009 edition by Axios Press.
[2]. Dorothy Burr Thompson’s diaries are housed at Bryn Mawr College, in the Department of Special Collections of its library.

References and Suggested Reading

Anderson, S. “The Light and the Line: Florestano Di Fausto and the Politics of ‘Mediterraneità,’” Californian Italian Studies 1:1, 2010 (https://escholarship.org/uc/item/9hm1p6m5 ).

Doumanis, N. “Italians as ‘Good Colonizers’: Speaking Subalterns and the Politics of Memory in the Dodecanese,”in Italian Colonialism, ed. Ben-Ghiat R. and M. Fuller, New York 2005, pp. 220-231.

Fuller, M. “Building Power: Italy’s Colonial Architecture and Urbanism, 1923-1940,” Cultural Anthropology, vol. 3, no. 4 (Nov. 1988), pp. 455-487.

Kolonas, V. and Y. Gerolympos, Italian Architecture in the Dodecanese Islands, 1912-1943, Athens 2002.

Santoianni, V. “Il Razionalismo nelle colonie italiane 1928-1943: La «nuova architettura» delle Terre d’Oltremare” (unpublished dissertation: University of Napoli, 2008). http://www.fedoa.unina.it/1881/1/Santoianni_Progettazione_Architettonica.pdf

On Communism and Hellenism: An Archaeologist’s Perspective

Posted by Despina Lalaki

Despina Lalaki holds a PhD in Historical Sociology from the New School university while she currently teaches at the The New York City College of Technology-CUNY. The essay she contributed to ‘From the Archivist’s Notebook’ is largely an excerpt from her article “On the Social Construction of Hellenism: Cold War Narratives of Modernity, Development, and Democracy for Greece,” in The Journal of Historical Sociology, 25:4, 2012, pp. 552-577. Her essay draws inspiration from an unpublished manuscript by archaeologist Carl W. Blegen, titled “The United States and Greece” and written in 1946-1948.

Carl W. Blegen (1887-1971) is one of the most eminent archaeologists of the Greek Bronze Age. Nevertheless, he intimately knew Modern Greece, too. In 1910, at the age of twenty-three, he first visited the country as a student of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (hereafter ASCSA), and by the time of his death in 1971 he had made Greece his home and his final resting place, having experienced first hand the land and its people in the most troublesome moments of their modern history. In 1918, for instance, he participated in the Greek Commission of the American Red Cross, assisting with the repatriation and rehabilitation of thousands of refugees who during the war had been held as prisoners in Bulgaria. During WWII, he was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to head the Greek desk of the Foreign Nationalities Branch (FNB) in Washington D.C., which was following European and Mediterranean ethnic groups living in the United States and recording their knowledge of political trends and conditions affecting their native lands.

April 1946: US Cultural Relations Attache Carl W. Blegan (R) and J. W. Foster standing in headquarters of the Allied Mission For Observing Greek Elections (AMFOGE). (Photo by Nat Farbman/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

J. W. Foster (left) and Carl W. Blegen (right) standing at the headquarters of the Allied Mission for Observing the Greek Elections (AMFOGE), 1946. Photo by Nat Farbman. The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images/Ideal Image.

Read the rest of this entry »

“This Horrible Crime Will Have to be Paid For”: The Sinking of the LUSITANIA

Jack L. Davis, Carl W. Blegen Professor of Greek Archaeology at the University of Cincinnati and a former director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (2007-2012), here reviews Erik Larson’s most recent book Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the LUSITANIA, and briefly reflects on the history of the ASCSA during the Great War.



“Today we learned of the sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine.  This horrible crime will have to be paid for by Germany some day.”
Carl W. Blegen, May 9, 1915

I confess that I have long been a fan of any Erik Larson novel, from the time my mother-in-law gave me The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (2003). But did I say novel? His non-fiction tales read like novels, and The Devil is currently being made into a major motion picture (starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Martin Scorsese). For my birthday this year, my mother-in-law Nan hit another homerun: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania — a terrific (and fast) read. (I finished it in just over two days, one of them on a trans-Atlantic flight, a suitable environment for reading about an oceanic disaster!) Read the rest of this entry »

Schliemann of Troy: The Story of a Linguistic Genius

Heinrich Schliemann in the 1850s

Heinrich Schliemann in the 1850s (ASCSA, Gennadius Library Archives, Heinrich Schliemann Papers)

Schliemann the legendary excavator of Troy and Mycenae hardly needs an introduction. A host of publications deal with the last twenty years of his life and the results of his excavations. It is only recently, however, that any interest has been taken in Schliemann’s “non-Greek” past, his early years, when he was a successful merchant, an obsessive traveler, and a compulsive linguist. What else can we call a man who taught himself to read, write, and speak more than fifteen languages? Read the rest of this entry »

A Preamble to the Nazi Holocaust in Greece: Two Micro-Histories from the American School of Classical Studies at Athens

Jack L. Davis, Carl W. Blegen Professor of Greek Archaeology at the University of Cincinnati and a former director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (2007-2012), here contributes to The Archivist’s Notebook an essay about Jewish academics in Athens in the 1930s and anti-semitism at the ASCSA.

A recent comment by Barbara McManus on a older post to this blog makes it clear that leaders of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) factored religion into decision-making about student applications for fellowships  (https://nataliavogeikoff.com/2013/10/01/the-modern-greek-exam-professor-blanks-method-and-other-stories-from-the-1930s/). Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan had observed that fellowship procedures in the 1930s were weighted against women, the handicapped, and even Canadians! McManus remarked:

“Besides being female, handicapped, or Canadian, if you were a Jew it was also difficult to win an ASCSA fellowship in the 1930s. Letters in the Samuel E. Bassett papers in Yale’s manuscript and archives library show that the Fellowship Committee gave Israel Walker the 1930-31 Fellowship in Greek Language, Literature and History only with great reluctance. In an undated letter to Edward Capps about the results of the 1930 fellowship examinations, Bassett lamented that John F. Latimer, “a very attractive young man and an excellent teacher,” fell down badly on the history and literature exams, while Walker placed 6 or 7 points ahead of his nearest competitor. The committee agreed to award the fellowship to Walker since he was ‘vouched for as personally acceptable’ by LaRue Van Hook, Walker’s Columbia professor, who wrote that ‘his semitic blood does not make him objectionable.’ Van Hook’s letter (5 March 1930) actually said, ‘He is of Semitic extraction, but a quiet, modest, and unassuming fellow, very presentable.’ When Bassett had asked David Robinson’s opinion about giving the fellowship to Walker (Robinson was a member of the Fellowship Committee), Robinson had replied (29 March 1930), ‘I am a firm believer in examinations and if Walker comes out far ahead in general average I should hesitate not to give him the fellowship, especially as he can work under his own instructor, Van Hook [Annual Professor for 1930-31]… Personality is an important thing and I hate the Jews with a few exceptions, but these fellowships are given for scholarship and ability to do research work and not merely on the grounds of personality.’” Read the rest of this entry »

The Pride of Amphipolis

Posted by Betsey Robinson

Betsey A. Robinson, Professor of History of Art at Vanderbilt University, here contributes to The Archivist’s Notebook an essay about the history of the reconstruction of the Lion of Amphipolis in the 1930s and the people who spearheaded it; she also reminds us of recent work by the American School in the area in 1970. Her current essay is based on extensive archival research she conducted in the Archives of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens a few years ago, which resulted in an article entitled “Hydraulic Euergetism: American Archaeology and Waterworks in Early-20th-Century Greece,” in Philhellenism, Philanthropy or Political Convenience? American Archaeology in Greece, ed. Jack L. Davis and Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan (Hesperia 82: 1, special issue), Princeton 2013, pp. 101-130.

The Lion of Amphipolis. Photo ASCSA Archaeological Photographic Collection

The Lion of Amphipolis, 1962. Photo ASCSA Archaeological Photographic Collection. Click to enlarge.

Εἰπέ, λέον, φθιμένοιο τίνος τάφον ἀμφιβέβηκας, βουφάγε; τίς τᾶς σᾶς ἄξιος ἦν ἀρετᾶς;
Tell, lion, whose tomb do you guard, you slayer of cattle? And who was worthy of your valour?

Anthologia Palatina 7.426.1-2 (Trans. M. Fantuzzi & R. Hunter)

The lines above, by Hellenistic poet Antipater of Sidon, are as much of a tease today as they were when Oscar Broneer quoted them in The Lion Monument at Amphipolis in 1941. As I write, each day brings tantalizing new discoveries at Amphipolis where the Kasta Hill is being excavated by the 28th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities. Less than 5 km to the south, the colossal marble lion that was reconstructed in 1937 has attracted renewed attention since archaeologist Katerina Peristeri and architect Michalis Lefantzis reported evidence connecting it to the mysterious tumulus (http://www.archaiologia.gr/en/blog/2013/04/01/the-lion-of-amphipolis/). Nearly a century after the lion’s discovery, as we await the excavators’ next revelations, it seems a good time to reflect on the lion and its modern history. Read the rest of this entry »

That Unspeakable Stoa


Posted by Lizabeth Ward Papageorgiou

Lizabeth Ward Papageorgiou here contributes to the Archivist’s Notebook an essay about Nancy Mitford’s visit to the Athenian Agora during the re-construction of the Stoa of Attalos in 1955. Unhappy with the building, Mitford, one of the famous Mitford sisters, wrote acidic comments about it in the press as well as to the Director of the Agora Excavations, Homer A. Thompson. Lizabeth (Liz), who studied Art History at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York University, found Mitford’s letters when she catalogued Thompson’s vast correspondence for the Archives of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens a few years ago. Her extensive catalogue of Homer Thompson’s papers is available at: http://www.ascsa.edu.gr/index.php/archives/thompson-finding-aid/


Over a decade ago, I archived the papers of Homer A. Thompson. Two of his letters are the subject of this article.

It [Athens] is probably the ugliest capital in Europe . . . [with] formless conglomerations of modern buildings overlooked by an immortal monument . . . . The traffic is noisier, wilder, and more evidently intent on homicide than that of Paris, and consists entirely of enormous pastel-colored American motor-cars.

Nancy Mitford, “Wicked Thoughts in Greece”, The Sunday Times, 24 July 1955.

The Mitford sisters

The Mitford sisters

Nancy Mitford (1904–1973), acclaimed author of comedies of English upper class manners (The Pursuit of Love), biographies (Madame de Pompadour), essays and reviews, was the eldest of six intelligent, beautiful and sometimes scandalous daughters of Lord and Lady Redesdale (Ben Macintyre described the sisters as Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover; Nancy the Novelist; Deborah the Duchess and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur).1  In the summer of 1955, she traveled in Greece. She spent time with Patrick Leigh Fermor, who was living in Nikos Ghikas’s house on Hydra; went to Tatoi, the summer residence of King Paul; and visited friends in Spetses, Crete and the Peloponnese.2

Nancy Mitford, 1932

Nancy Mitford, 1932

When she was in Athens, she stayed at the Grand Bretagne and visited the ancient sites. One day she went to the Ancient Agora, but since the reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalos was not finished—it was covered with scaffolding and only the lower storey and colonnades had been reconstructed—Mitford must have needed permission to visit the site and one of the Agora staff to guide her. Homer A. Thompson, director of the Agora excavations from 1945 to 1967 and deeply involved with all aspects of the reconstruction of the Stoa, often mentioned visitors to the Agora in his letters to his wife, Dorothy Burr Thompson; but he made no mention of a visit by Nancy Mitford. Possibly Judith Perlzweig or C. W. J. Eliot, who bore the brunt of conducting visitors through the excavations and museum, served as her guide.3

Shortly after Mitford returned to her home in Paris, she wrote an article about her trip to Greece for The Sunday Times. Published on 24 July 1955, the title, “Wicked Thoughts in Greece”, gave readers a heads up that this was going to be another of her scathing attacks. Opening with the declaration that Athens is probably the ugliest capital in Europe, full of homicidal drivers and enormous pastel-colored American motor-cars, she continued to deplore the hideous newness of Athens, which from the air is a desert of khaki-coloured cement. But she did find an oasis in Plaka, where she delighted in the classical monuments, churches and old houses, until . . .

 Alas! After ten minutes of happy wandering the dream is shattered and the dreadful wasteland of the Agora appears. Here the American School of Classical Studies seems to have torn down whole streets in order to search for a few pots. Here the Americans are building, in a ghastly graveyard marble, the Stoa, said to be ‘of Attalos’, but really of Mr. Homer A. Thompson. And here a gracious garden will be planted, complete, no doubt, with floral clock.

The Stoa of Attalos under construction, 1955. Photo: ASCSA, Agora Excavations

The Stoa of Attalos under construction, 1955. Photo: ASCSA, Agora Excavations

A few pages later, describing her visit to Knossos, she again attacked the reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalos:

. . . Knossos, a fraudulent reconstruction like the Stoa, English this time, alas, and built in an art nouveau style reminiscent of Paris metro stations. It is evident that Anglo-Saxons should be kept away from Mediterranean sites . . . . Knossos, however, matters less than the Stoa, because it is out in the country and does not spoil anything else. The Stoa in all its vileness hits the eye from the Acropolis and the Temple of Hephaestus. It is as though the French had allowed Frank Lloyd Wright to build his idea of a Petit Trianon at the bottom of the tapis vert at Versailles. Read the rest of this entry »