How I Fell in Love With Greek Art

The Francois Krater: Archaeological Museum of Florence. This valuable and beautiful vase was painted by Kleitias and made by potter Ergotimos, about 570 BCE. Kleitias painted miniatures of great mythical-historical events in the life of the Greeks. Photo: Wikipedia.

I rarely paid attention to images or pictures. My focus was always the written word. My mind built the gods, heroes, and material artifacts, including temples and the Parthenon. I had to do that because the country of my birth, Greece, in the twentieth century, was largely without the statues of ancient Greek gods and heroes or the temples built to honor the gods.

Greek art in Greece and America

Certainly, Greek museums are full of ancient Greek treasures, including statues of gods and heroes. But step outside the museums and you are in a desert decorated by Christian churches built for the most part on the ruins of temples.

The first time I visited the Acropolis was when I left Greece for the United States.

My historical studies enriched my knowledge and understanding of Homer and the Greeks. I have been proud Greece is the birthplace of Western civilization.

However, my working experience at the US Environmental Protection Agency shocked me so much I began having doubts Greek influence was more than a lipstick in America.

Yes, several museums in America, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Getty Villa in California, have exquisite collections of Greek art. But what did these largely stolen goods do in shaping public opinion and forming a character befitting a civilized country?

Nevertheless, Greek art in America has had some influence in architecture and in the appreciation of the good and the beautiful. When, in 1974, I first saw the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Senate and House office buildings in Washington, DC, I had the sensation I was vising Athens in the fifth century BCE.

It took years of dealing with reality – the world as is — before that sensation, like a cloud in the bright Sun, dissipated into the chaos of America the New Rome. It also took more years for me to turn to the archaeological images of ancient Greece I came to love.

Self-discovery

This was a process of self-education and reflection, my frequent visits of museums and archaeological sites. I kept taking  pictures. I kept admiring the pictures in art history books. I even had the audacity of reviewing the great art history books of Oxford University professor John Boardman, the foremost Greek art historian of the planet.

The Greeks, Boardman says, influenced civilizations from China to Peru. Art was the weapon of choice. Greek art “had something of the character of a virus in antiquity.”

But to appreciate why Greek art was so powerful, Boardman says, one has to understand it in Greek terms, namely understanding the society that created it.

The Greeks created art for the satisfaction of their esthetic, metaphysical, and practical needs, quite independently from Assyrian or Egyptian influences. They were obsessed with the idea of the good and the beautiful. Could something be good but not beautiful? What was the connection between the good and the beautiful? The Greeks incorporated that passion in their crafts and art.

Ceramic iconography

The potter, the humble craftsman of soil and dreams, created a tremendous variety of vases, cups, mixing bowls and storage jars for everyday use. He painted the surface of his ceramic pots, telling stories of wine and roses, ivy and grape leaves, and the god of wine, Dionysos; giving impressions about the fashionable and desirable in his society.

He drew his images from the past and his personal experience: the poetry of Homer and mythology, the athletic and religious celebrations of the Greeks, the numerous festivals, and the beauties of the natural world.

For example: In 1844, an enterprising man named Alessandro Francois discovered fragments of a large krater (vase) near Florence. This was a black-figure vase constructed in Athens at approximately 570 BCE by the potter Ergotimos and the painter Kleitias.

The beauty of the Francois Vase is that it’s like a brief illustrated history of Greece: its paintings send us to Homer, the Olympics, and myths.

One looks at the Trojan War hero Ajax carrying the body of the dead Achilles. Homer becomes alive. The greatest Greek hero, Achilles, fulfilled his wish to die young but live in the memory of men and women forever.  Or the chariot race from the Olympics flashes into the mind the intensity of the competition and the triumph of victory hovering over the lucky charioteer: the excitement of the greatest Greek spectacle and struggle of all times becomes as real as possible.

A computer of heavens and Earth

Writing my book on the Greek computer also opened the doors slightly more to the fascinating and gorgeous world of Greek art.

The computer is dated from the second century BCE. It’s a mind-boggling example of scientific technology. I had to have the images of its fragments so I would be better able to understand what that device did and why.

I started my investigation in 2007 and I am still looking for reasons of how and why the Greeks embarked on so difficult but satisfying project – the equivalent of going to the moon.

I started from the gods of science and technology: Metis, Athena and Hephaistos. They were the models of intelligence and craftsmanship.

I continued with philosophers like Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle; scientists and mathematicians like Euclid and Archimedes; and astronomers like Aristarchos of Samos, Hipparchos and Ptolemaios. They codified cosmological, mathematical and engineering knowledge.

At each step of this intellectual adventure I found images that glued the text in more solid foundations. Each image brought me back to the origins of Greek thought and technology.

Craftsmanship was more than technical stuff. It was a process of the good and the beautiful, all mixed up with scientific technology. It was art.

That’s how I fell in love with Greek art.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of 6 books, including Poison Spring with Mckay Jenkings.