General Impressions Of Athens And Attica

THERE is probably no more exciting voyage, to any educated man, than the approach to Athens from the sea. Every promontory, every island, every bay, has its history. If he knows the map of Greece, he needs no guide-book or guide to distract him; if he does not, he needs little Greek to ask of any one near him the name of this or that object; and the mere names are sufficient to stir up all his classical recollections, nay more, it will stir up any poetry that lurks in his soul. Every poet knows the magic that lies in great historic names, nay, every speaker who has addressed a large audience knows the thrill which the bare mention of great names sends through his hearers. But the traveller must make up his mind not to be shocked at Aegina or Phaléron, and even to be told that he is utterly wrong in his way of pronouncing them.

It was my first fortune to come into Greece by night, with a splendid moon shining upon the summer sea. The varied outlines of Sunium, on the one side, and Aegina on the other, were very clear, but in the deep shadows there was mystery enough to feed the burning impatience to see it all in the light of common day; and though we had passed Aegina, and had come over against the rocky Salamis, as yet there was no sign of the Peiraeus. Then came the light on Psyttalea, and they told us that the harbour was right opposite. Yet we came nearer and nearer, and no harbour could be seen. The barren rocks of the coast seemed to form one unbroken line, and nowhere was there a sign of indentation or of break in the land. But, suddenly, as we turned from gazing on Psyttalea, where the flower of the Persian nobles had once stood in despair, looking upon their fate gathering about them, the vessel had turned eastward, and discovered to us the crowded lights and thronging ships of the famous harbour. Small it looked, very small, but evidently deep to the water’s edge, for great ships seemed touching the shore; and so narrow is the mouth, that we almost wondered how they had made their entrance in safety. But I saw it some years later, with nine men-of-war towering above all its merchant shipping and its steamers, and among them crowds of ferry-boats skimming about in the breeze with their wing-like sails. Then it came home to me that, like the rest of Greece, the Peiraeus was far larger than it looked.

It differed little, alas ! from more . vulgar harbours in the noise and confusion of disembarking; in the delays of its custom-house ; in the extortion and insolence of its boatmen. It is still, as in Plato’s day, ‘the haunt of sailors, where good manners are unknown.’ But when we had escaped the turmoil, and were seated silently on the way to Athens, almost along the very road of classical days, all our classical notions, which had been scared away by vulgar bargaining and protesting, regained their sway. We had sailed in through the narrow passage where almost every great Greek that ever lived had some time passed ; now we went along the line, hardly less certain, which had seen all these great ones going to and fro between the city and the port. The present road is shaded with great silver poplars and plane-trees, and the moon had set, so that our approach to Athens was even more mysterious than our approach to the Peiraeus. We were, moreover, perplexed at our carriage stopping under some large plane-trees, though we had driven but two miles, and the night was far spent. Our coachman would listen to no advice or persuasion. We learned afterwards that every carriage going to and from the Peiraeus stops at this half-way house, that the horses may drink, and the coachman take ‘ Turkish delight’ and water. There is no exception made to this custom, and the traveller is bound to submit. At last we entered the unpretending ill-built streets at the west of Athens.

The stillness of the night is a phenomenon hardly known in that city. No sooner have men and horses gone to rest than all the dogs and cats of the town come out to bark and yell about the thoroughfares. Athens, like all parts of modern Greece, abounds in dogs. You cannot pass a sailing-boat in the Levant without seeing a dog looking over the taffrail, and barking at you as you pass. Every ship in the Peiraeus has at least one, often a great many, on board. I suppose every house in Athens is provided with one. These creatures seem to make it their business to prevent silence and rest all the night long. They were ably seconded by cats and crowing cocks, as well as by an occasional wakeful donkey ; and both cats and donkeys seemed to have voices of almost tropical violence.

So the night wore away under rapidly-growing adverse impressions. How is a man to admire art and revere antiquity if he is robbed of his repose? The Greeks sleep so much in the day that they seem indifferent to nightly disturbances; and, perhaps, after many years’ habit, even Athenian caterwauling may fail to rouse the sleeper. But what chance has the passing traveller ? Even the strongest ejaculations are but a narrow outlet for his feelings.

In this state of mind, then, I rose at break of dawn to see whether the window would afford any prospect to serve as a balm for angry sleeplessness. And there, right opposite, stood the rock which of all rocks in the world’s history has done most for literature and art—the rock which poets, and orators, and architects, and historians have ever glorified, and cannot stay their praise—which is ever new and ever old, ever fresh in its decay, ever perfect in its ruin, ever living in its death—the Acropolis of Athens.

When I saw my dream and longing of many years fulfilled, the first rays of the rising sun had just touched the heights, while the town below was still hid in gloom. Rock, and rampart, and ruined fanes—all were coloured in harmonious tints ; the lights were of a deep rich orange, and the shadows of dark crimson, with the deeper lines of purple. There was no variety in colour between what nature and what man had set there. No whiteness shone from the marble, no smoothness showed upon the hewn and polished blocks ; but the whole mass of orange and crimson stood out together into the pale, pure Attic air. There it stood, surrounded by lanes and hovels, still perpetuating the great old contrast in Greek history, of magnificence and meanness—of loftiness and lowness—as well in outer life as in inward motive. And, as if in illustration of that art of which it was the most perfect bloom, and which lasted in perfection but a day of history, I saw it again and again, in sun-light and in shade, in daylight and at night, but never again in this perfect and singular beauty.

If we except the Acropolis, there are only two striking buildings of classical antiquity within the modern town of Athens—the so-called Temple of Theseus and the few standing columns of Hadrian’s great temple to Zeus. The latter is, indeed, very remarkable. The pillars stand on a vacant platform, once the site of the gigantic temple ; the Acropolis forms a noble background ; away towards Phalerum stretch undulating hills which hide the sea ; to the left (if we look from the town), Mount Hymettus raises its barren slopes ; and in the valley, immediately below the pillars, flows the famous little Ilissus, glorified for ever by the poetry of Plato, and in its summer-dry bed the fountain from which the Athenian maidens still draw water—water the purest and best in the city. It wells out from under a great limestone rock, all plumed with the rich Capillus Veneris, which seems to find out and frame with its delicate green every natural spring in Greece.

But the pillars of the Temple of Zeus, though very stately and massive, and with their summits spanned by huge blocks of architrave, are still not Athenian, not Attic, not (if I may say so) genuine Greek work ; for the Corinthian capitals, which are here seen perhaps in their greatest perfection, cannot be called pure Greek taste. As is well known, they were hardly ever used, and never used prominently, till the Graeco-Roman stage of art. The older Greeks seem to have had a fixed objection to intricate ornamentation in their larger temples. All the greater temples of Greece and Greek Italy are of the Doric Order, with its perfectly plain capital. Groups of figures were admitted upon the pediments and metopes, because these groups formed clear and massive designs visible from a distance. But such intricacies as those of the Corinthian capital were not approved, except in small monuments, which were merely intended for close inspection, and where delicate ornament gave grace to a building which could not lay claim to grandeur. Such is clearly the case with the only purely Greek (as opposed to Graeco-Roman) monument of the Corinthian Order, which is still standing — the Choragic monument of Lysicrates at Athens. It was also the case with that beautiful little temple, or group of temples, known as the Erechtheum, which, standing beside the great massive Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens, presents the very contrast upon which I am insisting. It is small and essentially graceful, being built in the Ionic style, with rich ornamentation ; while the Parthenon is massive, and, in spite of much ornamentation, very severe in its plainer Doric style.

But to return to the pillars of Hadrian’s Temple. They are about fifty-five feet high, by six and a half feet in diameter, and no Corinthian pillar of this colossal size would ever have been set up by the Greeks in their better days. So, then, in spite of the grandeur of these isolated remains—a grandeur not destroyed, perhaps even not diminished, by coffee tables, and inquiring waiters, and military bands, and a vulgar crowd about their base—to the student of really Greek art they are not of the highest interest ; nay, they even suggest to him what the Periclean Greeks would have done had they, with such resources, completed the great temple ultimately due to the munificence of the Roman Emperor.

Let us turn, in preference, to the Temple of Theseus, at the opposite extremity of the town, it too standing upon a clear platform, and striking the traveller with its symmetry and its completeness, as he approaches from the Peiraeus. It is in every way a contrast to the temple of which we have just spoken. It is very small—in fact, so small in comparison with the Parthenon, or the great temple at Paestum, that we are disappointed with it ; and yet it is built, not in the richly-decorated Ionic style of the Erechtheum, but in severe Doric ; and though small and plain, it is very perfect–as perfect as any such relic that we have. It is many centuries older than Hadrian’s great temple. It could have been destroyed with one-tenth of the trouble, and yet it still stands almost in its perfection. The reason is simply this. Few of the great classical temples suffered much from wanton destruction till the Middle Ages. Now, in the Middle Ages this temple, as well as the Parthenon, was usurped by the Greek Church, and turned into a place of Christian worship. So, then, the little Temple of Theseus has escaped the ravages which the last few centuries worse than all that went before—have made in the remains of a noble antiquity. To those who desire to study the effect of the Doric Order this temple appears to me an admirable specimen. From its small size and clear position, all its points are very easily taken in. ‘ Such,’ says Bishop Wordsworth, ‘ is the integrity of its structure, and the distinctness of its details, that it requires no description beyond that which a few glances might supply. Its beauty defies all : its solid yet graceful form is, indeed, admirable ; and the loveliness of its colouring is such that, from the rich mellow hue which the marble has now assumed, it looks as if it had been quarried, not from the bed of a rocky mountain, but from the golden light of an Athenian sunset.’ And in like terms many others have spoken.

I have only one reservation to make. The Doric Order being essentially massive, it seems to me that this beautiful temple lacks one essential feature of that Order, and therefore, after the first survey, after a single walk about it, it loses to the traveller who has seen Paestum, and who presently cannot fail to see the Parthenon, that peculiar effect of massiveness—of almost Egyptian solidity—which is ever present, and ever imposing, in these huger Doric temples. It seems as if the Athenians themselves felt this—that the plain simplicity of its style was not effective without size—and accordingly decorated this structure with colours more richly than their other temples. All the reliefs and raised ornaments seem to have been painted ; other decorations were added in colour on the flat surfaces, so that the whole temple must have been a mass of rich variegated hues, of which blue, green, and red are still distinguishable,—or were in Stuart’s time,—and in which bronze and gilding certainly played an important part.

We are thus brought naturally face to face with one of the peculiarities of old Greek art most difficult to realise, and still more to appreciate. We can recognise in Egyptian and in Assyrian art the richness and appropriateness of much colouring. Modern painters are becoming so alive to this, that among the most striking pictures in our Royal Academy in London have been seen, for some years back, scenes from old Egyptian and Assyrian life, in which the rich colouring of the architecture has been quite a prominent feature.

But in Greek art—in the perfect symmetry of the Greek temple, in the perfect grace of the Greek statue—we come to think form of such paramount importance, that we look on the beautiful Parian and Pentelic marbles as specially suited for the expression of form apart from colour. There is even something in unity of tone that delights the modern eye. Thus, though we feel that the old Greek temples have lost all their original brightness, yet, as I have quoted from Bishop Wordsworth, the rich mellow hue which tones all these ruins has to us its peculiar charm. The same rich yellow brown, almost the colour of the Roman travertine, is one of the most striking features in the splendid remains which have made Paestum unique in all Italy. This colour contrasts beautifully with the blue sky of southern Europe ; it lights up with extraordinary richness in the rising or setting sun. We can easily conceive that were it proposed to restore the Attic temples to their pristine whiteness, we should feel a severe shock, and beg to have these venerable buildings left in the soberness of their acquired colour. Still more does it shock us to be told that great sculptors, with Pariah marble at hand, preferred ,to set up images of the gods in gold and ivory, or, still worse, with parts of gold and ivory ; and that they thought it right to fill out the eyes with precious stones, and set gilded wreaths upon coloured hair.

When we first come to realise these things, we are likely to exclaim against such a jumble, as we should call it, of painting and architecture— still worse, of painting and sculpture. Nor is it possible or reason-able that we should at once submit to such a revolution in our artistic ideas, and bow without criticism to these startling features in Greek art. But if blind obedience to these our great masters in the laws of beauty is not to be commended, neither is an absolute resistance to all argument to be respected ; nor do I acknowledge the good sense or the good taste of that critic who insists that nothing can possibly equal the colour and texture of white marble, and that all colouring of such a substance is the mere remains of barbarism. For, say what we will, the Greeks were certainly, as a nation, the best judges of beauty the world has yet seen. And this is not all. The beauty of which they were evidently most fond was beauty of form—harmony of proportions, symmetry of design. They always hated the tawdry and the extravagant. As to their literature, there is no poetry, no oratory, no history, which is less decorated with the flowers of rhetoric : it is all pure in design, chaste in detail. So with their dress; so with their dwellings. We cannot but feel that, had the effect of painted temples and statues been tawdry, there is no people on earth who would have felt it so keenly, and disliked it so much. There must, then, have been strong reasons why this bright colouring did not strike their eye as we imagine it would the eye of sober moderns.

To any one who has seen the country, and thought about the question there, many such reasons present themselves. In the first place, all through southern Europe, and more especially in Greece, there is an amount of bright colour in nature, which prevents almost any artificial colouring from producing a start-ling effect. Where all the landscape, the sea, and the air are exceedingly bright, we find the inhabitants increasing the brightness of their dress and houses, as it were to correspond with nature. Thus, in Italy, they paint their houses green, and pink, and yellow, and so give to their towns and villas that rich and warm effect which we miss so keenly among the grey and sooty streets of northern Europe. So also in their dress, these people wear scarlet, and white, and rich blue, not so much in patterns as in large patches, and a festival in Calabria or Greece fills the streets with intense colour. We know that the colouring of the old Greek dress was quite of the same character as that of the modern, though in design it has completely changed. We must, therefore, imagine the old Greek crowd before their temples, or in their market-places, a very white crowd, with patches of scarlet and various blue; perhaps altogether white in processions, if we except scarlet shoe-straps and other such slight relief. One cannot but feel that a richly coloured temple—that pillars of blue and red—that friezes of gilding, and other ornament, upon a white marble ground, or in white marble framing, must have been a splendid and appropriate background, a genial feature, in such a sky and with such costume. We must get accustomed to such combinations—we must dwell upon them in imagination, or ask our good painters to restore them for us, and let us look upon them constantly and calmly.

The public buildings of Athens—the Academy, the University—where much colour is added to white marble, are to my mind among the most effective public buildings in Europe.

But I must say a word, before passing on, concerning the statues. No doubt, the painting of statues, and the use of gold and ivory upon them, were de-rived from a rude age, when no images existed but rude wooden work—at first a mere block, then roughly altered and reduced to shape, probably requiring some colouring to produce any effect what-ever. To a public accustomed from childhood to such painted, and often richly – dressed images, a pure white marble statue must appear utterly cold and lifeless. So it does to us, when we have become accustomed to the mellow tints of old and even weather-stained Greek statues ; and it should here be noticed that this mellow skin-surface on antique statues is not the mere result of age, but of an artificial process, whereby they burnt into the surface a composition of wax and oil, which gave a yellowish tone to the marble, as well as also that peculiar surface which so accurately represents the texture of the human skin. But if we imagine all the marble surfaces and reliefs in the temple coloured for architectural richness’ sake, we can feel even more strongly how cold and out-of-place would be a perfectly colour-less statue in the centre of all this pattern.

I will go further, and say we can point out cases where colouring greatly heightens the effect and beauty of sculpture. The first is from the bronzes found at Herculaneum, now in the museum at Naples. Though they are not marble, they are suitable for our purpose, being naturally of a single dark-brown hue, which is indeed even more unfavourable (we should think) for such treatment. In some of the finest of these bronzes—especially in the two young men starting for a race—the eyeballs are inserted in white, with iris and pupil coloured. Nothing can be more striking and lifelike than the effect produced. There is in the Varvakion at Athens a marble mask, found in the Temple of Aesculapius, under the south side of the Acropolis, probably an ex voto offered for a recovery from some disease of the eyes. This marble face also has its eyes coloured in the most striking and lifelike way, and is one of the most curious objects found in the late excavations.

I will add one remarkable modern example—the monument at Florence to a young Indian prince, who visited England and this country some years ago, and died of fever during his homeward voyage. They have set up to him a richly coloured and gilded baldachin, in the open air, and in a quiet, wooded park. Under this covering is a life-sized bust of the prince, in his richest state dress. The whole bust—the turban, the face, the drapery—all is coloured to the life, and the dress, of course, of the most gorgeous variety. The turban is chiefly white, striped with gold, in strong contrast to the mahogany complexion and raven hair of the actual head ; the robe is gold and green, and covered with ornament. The general effect is, from the very first moment, striking and beautiful. The longer it is studied, the better it appears ; and there is hardly a reasonable spectator who will not confess that, were we to replace the present bust with a copy of it in white marble, the beauty and harmony of the monument would be utterly marred. To those who have the opportunity of visiting Greece or Italy, I strongly commend these specimens of coloured buildings and sculpture. When they have seen them, they will hesitate to condemn what we still hear called the curiously bad taste of the old Greeks in their use of colour in the plastic arts.

But these archaeological discussions are digressions, only tolerable if they are not too long. I revert to the general state of the antiquities at Athens, always reserving the Acropolis for a special chapter. As I said, the isolated pillars of Hadrian’s Temple of Zeus, and the so-called Temple of Theseus, are the only very striking objects. There are, of course, many other buildings, or remains of buildings. There is the monument of Lysicrates—a small and very graceful round chamber, adorned with Corinthian engaged pillars, and with friezes of the school of Scopas, in-tended to carry on its summit the tripod Lysicrates had gained in a musical and dramatic contest (334 B.C.) at Athens. There is the later Temple of the Winds, as it is called—a sort of public clock, with sundials and fine reliefs of the Wind-gods on its outward surfaces, and arrangements for a water-clock within. There are two portals, or gateways —one leading into the old agora, or market-place, the other leading from old Athens into the Athens of Hadrian.

But all these buildings are either miserably defaced, or of such late date and decayed taste as to make them unworthy specimens of pure Greek art. A single century ago there was much to be seen and admired which has since disappeared; and even to-day the majority of the population are careless as to the treatment of ancient monuments, and sometimes even mischievous in wantonly defacing them. Thus, I saw the marble tombs of Ottfried Müller and Charles Lenormant—tombs which, though modern, were yet erected at the cost of the nation to men who were eminent lovers and students of Greek art—I saw these tombs (in 1875) used as common targets by the neighbourhood, and all peppered with marks of shot and of bullets. I saw them, too, all but blown up by workmen blasting for building-stones close beside them. I saw, also, from the Acropolis, a young gentle-man practising with a pistol at a piece of old carved marble work in the Theatre of Dionysus. His object seemed to be to chip off a piece from the edge at every shot. Happily, on this occasion, our vantage ground enabled us to take the law into our own hands ; and after in vain appealing to a custodian to interfere, we adopted the tactics of Apollo at Delphi, and by detaching stones from the top of our precipice, we put to flight the wretched barbarian who had come to ravage the treasures of that most sacred place. I am bound to add that such Vandalism would not now be tolerated, so that here at least there is progress.

These unhappy examples of the defacing of architectural monuments, which can hardly be removed, naturally suggest to the traveller in Greece the kindred question how all the smaller and movable antiquities that are found should be distributed so as best to promote the love and knowledge of art.

On this point it seems to me that we have gone to one extreme, and the Greeks to the other, and that neither of us have done our best to make known what ought to be known as widely as possible. The tendency in England, at least of later years, has been to swallow up all lesser and all private collections in the great national Museum in London, which has accordingly become so enormous and so bewildering that no one can profit by it except the trained specialist, who goes in with his eyes shut, and will not open them till he has arrived at the particular objects he intends to examine. But to the ordinary public, and even the generally enlightened public (if such an expression be not a contradiction in terms), there is nothing so utterly bewildering, and therefore so un-profitable, as a visit to the myriad treasures of that great world of curiosities.

In the last century many private persons—many noblemen of wealth and culture—possessed remarkable collections of antiquities. These have mostly been swallowed up by what is called ‘the nation,’ and new private collections are very rare.

In Greece the very opposite course is being now pursued. By a special law it is forbidden to sell out of the country, or even to remove from a district, any antiquities whatever ; and in consequence little museums have been established in every village in Greece-nay, sometimes even in places where there is no village, in order that every district may possess its own riches, and become worth a visit from the traveller and the antiquary. I have seen such museums at Eleusis, some fifteen miles from Athens, at Thebes, now an unimportant town, at Livadia, at Chaeronea, at Argos, at Olympia, and even in the wild plains of Orchomenus, in a little chapel, with no town within miles. If I add to this that most of these museums were mere dark outhouses, only lighted through the door, the reader will have some notion what a task it would be to visit and criticise, with any attempt at completeness, the ever-increasing remnants of classical Greece.

The traveller is at first disposed to complain that even the portable antiquities found in various parts of Greece are not brought to Athens, and gathered into one vast national museum. Further reflection shows such a proceeding to be not only impossible, but highly inexpedient. I will not speak of the great waste of objects of interest when they are brought together in such vast masses that the visitor is rather oppressed than enlightened. Nor will I give the smallest weight to the selfish local argument, that compelling visitors to wander from place to place brings traffic and money into the country. Until proper roads and clean inns are established, such an argument is both unfair and unlikely to produce results worth considering. But fortunately most of the famous things in Greece are sites, ruined buildings, forts which cannot be removed from their place, if at all, without destruction, and of which the very details cannot be understood without seeing the place for which they were intended. Even the Parthenon sculptures in London would have lost most of their interest, if the building itself at Athens did not show us their application, and glorify them with its splendour. He who sees the gold of Mycenae at Athens, knows little of its meaning, if he has not visited the giant forts where its owners once dwelt and exercised their sway ; and if, as has been done at Olympia, some patriotic Greek had built a safe museum at Mycenae to contain them, they would be more deeply interesting and instructive than they now are.

In such a town as Athens, on the contrary, it seems to me that the true solution of the problem had been attained, though it has been abandoned for a central museum. There are (or were) at Athens at least six separate museums of antiquities—one at the University, one called the Varvakion, one in the Theseum, one, or rather two, on the Acropolis, one in the Ministry of Public Instruction, and lastly, the new National Museum, as it is called, in Patissia Street—devoted to its special treasures. If these several storehouses had been thoroughly kept,—if the objects were carefully numbered and catalogued,—I can conceive no better arrangement for studying separately and in detail the various monuments, which must always bewilder and fatigue when crowded together in one vast exhibition. If the British Museum were in this way severed into many branches, and the different classes of objects it contains were placed in separate buildings, and in different parts of London, I believe most of us would acquire a far greater knowledge of what it contains, and hence it would attain a greater usefulness in educating the nation. To visit any one of the Athenian museums was a comparatively short and easy task, where a man can see the end of his labour before him, and hence will not hesitate to delay long over such things as are worth a careful study.

It may be said that all this digression about the mere placing of monuments is delaying the reader too long from what he desires to know—something about the monuments themselves. But this little book, to copy an expression of Herodotus, particularly affects digressions. I desire to take my readers through the subject exactly in the way in which I wandered through it myself. As a critic said of it long ago, the rambles in it are studies and the studies rambles. Those who want an accurate catalogue of the facts will find it in the guide-books, which are excellent.

Before passing into Attica and leaving Athens, something more must, of course, be said of the museums, of the newer diggings, and of the tombs found in the Kerameikus. We will then mount the Acropolis, and wander leisurely about its marvelous ruins. From it we can look out upon the general shape and disposition of Attica, and plan our shorter excursions.