Ancient lands and their artifacts live as much in our imagination as they do in marble and stone. Straddling centuries, they call to us with both questions and answers about history and our place in it. Patricia Vigderman’s The Real Life of the Parthenon reflects on our hunger for knowledge of the past; it’s a travel companion, not only to ancient lands and their artifacts, but to our own imaginings of antiquity and how our perception of the broken temples, artworks, and monuments give us a glimpse of past glories and tragedies. It’s also the record of a curious, sensitive, and imaginative writer’s reflections on the long history of the Parthenon and the land and culture in which it is embedded; about the way museums amass their collections of ancient artifacts; and what it means to inherit, or appropriate, a tradition.
Vigderman is a Vassar graduate who holds a PhD from Tufts University, has taught at Tufts and Harvard, and currently teaches at Kenyon College. She is the author of two other books, Possibility: Essays Against Despair and The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner.
Lastly, as a primer to this conversation, be sure to read Kristine Morris’s original review of The Real Life of the Parthenon from our January/February issue of Foreword Reviews. You can find the week’s Special Features and Featured Reviews after the interview.
Travel is a Way of Being in Two Places at Once
Your book, The Real Life of the Parthenon, could serve as a travel companion to some of the delights and paradoxes of being a twenty-first century visitor to the ancient world—to the places that have inspired the myths and legends that have fired our imaginative life through the ages. Was that your intention in writing it?
Much of the book is, in fact, guided by the paradoxical power of time; writing it was my way of coming to terms with the way your dreams about a place get modified when you’re there on the ground. That is, if you look at the book as a travel companion, its point is that the meaning of being there is always connected to the place it has had in imaginative life. As at Pompeii, for example, where I foolishly longed to see, on the floor of the House of Meleager, a carpet of poppies I’d read about in a novel. Of course, they were not there, but even so, that novel, as much as the classicist Mary Beard’s more descriptive book about Pompeii, helped me infuse the city with my own meaning. I think it’s important to bring your own experience along when you visit distant sites—as the philosopher George Santayana says, “Travel is a way of thinking, of using our intelligence, of being in two places at once.” This is what I hope to do for my readers.
Your book also touches on some of the contradictions of travel, and how some of these may startle us with the way the reality of a place conflicts with what we’ve held in our imagination. Tell us something about this.
The book speaks of some of these contradictions—days when fatigue or inattentiveness can cause you to miss something marvelous that you only understand in retrospect, as was my experience with the remarkable fifth century BC Charioteer on the tiny island of Mozia. Or the way the glorious landscape of Sicily is approached only by the seemingly suicidal madness of driving on its roads. In the chapter that talks about my time at Sounion, down the coast from Athens, I set the architectural historian Vincent Scully’s dramatic description of the remains of the temple to Poseidon alongside my own amusement at a party of baffled French tourists. And then I recall a contemporary, and similarly dramatic, intervention of art into landscape that I’d seen in Texas—that memory becoming part of the power and pleasure of this very particular, distant, and special place. I love the way the classical world can unfold within both the later history and the daily life of its modern places, as it does in my description of sitting on the steps of the cathedral in Siracusa: Baroque façade, Doric columns lining the nave, peanut sellers in the piazza, and brides in their wedding gowns posing for photographs as children run by calling out good wishes.
How did spending some of your growing up years in the shadow of the Parthenon affect you?
In the years when my family lived in Athens, the Parthenon was part of the landscape, along with other legendary sites that were more or less open to random exploration on a hot afternoon, like the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion, for example, or the Herod Atticus Theater, or the ancient theater at Epidaurus. I understood that you can be at home in a variety of places, that you get attached to different customs and languages and bus routes. You become connected to cities and landscapes to which you aren’t native, and there’s always a bit of doubleness to your affection and sense of rootedness. The book comes out of that sense of doubleness: the classical past is both imaginary and historical. You can walk around in its physical ruins, but they require imagination in order to come alive.
In what sense do you see our imagination affecting our perception and understanding of the classical past?
I’ll give you some examples. In imagination, Vincent Scully saw the temples of the Acropolis as sited to encompass the surrounding landscape and to honor the gods who ruled it. In imagination, the photographer William James Stillman connected the ruined majesty there to the cause of liberating Greece from Turkish domination. In imagination, archaeologists patiently reconstruct past civilizations from fragments of marble and masonry. And, in imagination, conservators follow the lead of distant artists whose work they bring back to life.
So, what I see is that the history of a particular artifact or monument is a shifting tale, in which its geographical location is crucial, yet is not the whole story. Human connection to place, to the past, and to each other is as complex as it is precisely because of our imaginative powers.
In your book, you write: “The scattered relics of the past dare the living moment to enlarge itself so as to encompass transience and loss.” How do you see this happening? And how might this affect our relationship to ancient artifacts?
The example I give for daring to encompass transience and loss is a literary one: Odysseus visiting the land of the dead, where he longs to—but cannot—embrace his mother, now only a shadow. My point is that we cannot resurrect the past or embrace what is lost, and yet we cannot cut ourselves off from it. We can’t restore the Parthenon to its condition before the Venetians bombed it or the Ottomans ground up its marble to make mortar, but we can remove from the British Museum the marbles Lord Elgin took and put them in the Acropolis Museum in Athens. It would be an enormous gesture that might echo along the current trajectories of looting and fraud that continue to remove objects from where they are found. Yet the long reluctance of the British to let go of the Parthenon marbles perhaps testifies to their own longing to embrace, like Odysseus, the shadow of a lost past.
Speaking of Lord Elgin and his removal of artifacts from the Parthenon brings up the question of who really has the right to historical artifacts. Can claims of “protecting” them be justified? And if so, who should do this protecting, and for how long?
I wrote my book partly because I find it difficult to answer questions about “rights.” Certainly a wealthy nation with a thriving museum culture and well-trained conservators is a safe and possibly nourishing foster home for antiquities. However, as I say in the book, quoting the archaeologist and curator Claire Lyons, our expertise and money should not allow us to dismiss countries whose resources are inadequate—we should be helping, not arguing over restitution.
Artifacts that find their way to museums and private collections far from where they were found are often the spoils of illicit commerce and looting, and the loss can perhaps be better seen as an affront to anyone who cares about our common aesthetic heritage.
The question “Who owns antiquity?” seems to point to the function of ancient artifacts and monuments as that of holding people together, serving as reminders of a past that time might otherwise veil in forgetfulness. Lord Elgin’s acquisitions, and those of others, have become “part of Anglo-European tradition,” but should they continue to be considered as such in the light of the higher standards of honesty and respect for other nations that we would like to see manifested in our day?
I think you are asking about the idea of antiquity as a common human past—but I’m not sure how the Parthenon marbles can be extricated from Anglo-European tradition. No matter where they are, they have meaning within the Western canon. They are not only historical artifacts, but also aesthetic and cultural touchstones. Elgin took the sculptures in the first place because he had a (self-assigned) mission to raise aesthetic standards in Britain: he was persuaded that Greek art was something Britons should get to see up close and appreciate, that British artists and architects should be able to study and emulate. In his own time he paid a high price for his looting—he was held up to public scorn and lost his position in public life. But classical aesthetics are still part of our cultural life, which surely would be the poorer were they to be proscribed.
The most compelling arguments made by historians and archaeologists for returning looted objects to their places of origin have to do with stopping the financial incentive for looting, with its inevitable destruction of contextual understanding. As long as dealers or museums are waiting to receive and purchase stolen goods, a supply chain will emerge. If there’s no viable market, then there’s no call for supplies. This holds out the prospect of stopping the looting that destroys the careful excavation and study of sites where ancient artifacts can be studied in context.
What might be lost to museums and their visitors were artifacts from other nations and cultures returned to them?
Perhaps I can begin to answer this question by referring back to the idea of doubleness. Who indeed is the true inheritor of a Greek coin or helmet or statue found in Turkey, a modern nation that didn’t exist until 1923? Found by an American expedition motivated by love for classical antiquity, then studied and displayed in an American museum, its best role may well be the continuing inspiration of cross-cultural curiosity, respect, and love. On a more personal level, I am simply very sad not to have a pair of wonderful polychromed marble griffins attacking a doe that used to be on display at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles. They were returned to Italy in 2007 along with forty-odd other objects. They’re now on display in a regional museum in southeastern Italy; I hope to visit them again someday. Perhaps in that context their splendid cruelty will speak to me differently from the way it did at the Getty.
What depth and grace has been added to your personal life as a result of your exposure to, and study of, ancient art and artifacts?
Depth and grace are a nice description of the promise art holds. With ancient art in particular there is also the evidence of endurance, of being broken by time, and yet simultaneously unbroken by it. In the course of writing the book, I was led to intimacy with various objects, a sort of alchemical reaction between their presence and mine—their stone patience, my mortal restlessness. There is also the pleasure that comes from discovering among the throng of beauties set out in a landscape or gallery the one special thing that focuses your attention—such as the lion attacking a bull that I sought out at the Metropolitan Museum. It’s actually a fragment of a larger sculpture, and I began with curiosity about how the museum had acquired it, and how it had become detached from the other piece (which I’d seen in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens). As I visited it again and again though, it became an image of the skill I hoped I could bring to my own work. There was one day when I lingered at a short distance from it and watched other visitors discovering it, photographing it, and even touching it, because the life and intimacy between the lion and its prey invited that illicit contact.
Thanks so much for sharing with us about your beautiful and sensitive book. Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about The Real Life of the Parthenon?
My relationship to ancient art and antiquity is not professional; I have been drawn to it for its own sake, out of curiosity, and for the pleasure of its company and that of those whose help and expertise I’ve sought. The project of finding language that would be worthy of the artworks and monuments has been absorbing, at times humbling, and at others liberating. The real life of the Parthenon, as that of all art, lies in our ability and desire to speak back to it.