Issue 05, March 2007
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The two most significant city-states in Ancient Greece presented through an exhibition at the Onassis Cultural Center in New York

Different in terms of mentality, organisation, and artistic expression, Ionic Athens and Dorian Sparta played a significant role in establishing a philosophical and socio-cultural level and their reverberations remain palpable even today. With the parallel history of these two cities, as well as their similarities and differences at its epicentre, a segment of Greek history spanning four centuries (from the 8th to the 5th century B.C.) is coming to life for the first time at a major exhibition being organised by the Public Benefit Foundation Alexander S. Onassis in collaboration with the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

by Kalliopi Christofi
 
 

Entitled “Athens – Sparta: from the 8th century B.C. to the 5th century B.C.”, the exhibition, which is the eighth in a row since the Onassis Affiliated Public Benefit Foundation in New York commenced operations, is being sponsored by the President of the Greek Democracy, Carolos Papoulias, with the support of the Ministry of Culture. The supervision of the exhibition bears the mark of the director of the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, Dr. Nikos Kaltsas, who selected rare sculptures, as well as works of miniature art and pottery, in order to present the coexistence of the two cities. The exhibition is accompanied by an extensive catalogue, which serves as a true monograph of the event and will be presented exhaustively in the next AO.

Silver tetradrachm of Athens, ca. 510-500 B.C., provenance unknown, Numismatic Museum, Athens
Silver tetradrachm of Athens, ca. 510-500 B.C., provenance unknown, Numismatic Museum, Athens

The opening was carried out by the Onassis Foundation president, Antonis Papadimitriou, and the Minister of Culture, Giorgos Voulgarakis, on 5 December 2006 in the packed central reception hall at the entrance of Manhattan’s Olympic Tower. Among those in attendance were the Archbishop of America, Dimitrios, the president of the Foundation for Hellenic Culture, Giorgos Babiniotis, the president of the Organisation for the Construction of the New Acropolis Museum, Dimitris Pantermalis, the president of the Constantine K. Mitsotakis Foundation, Katerina Mitsotaki, the honorary president of the New York University, John Bradimas, the director of the National Gallery, Marina Lambraki-Plaka, the director of the Cycladic Museum, Nikos Stambolidis, member of parliament for the state, Anna Diamantopoulou, directors and representatives of American museums, a number of ambassadors and general consuls, representatives from the municipality of New York’s business, academic, and art worlds, as well as journalists from the United States and Greece.

The American and Greek-American turnout was remarkable, resulting for quite some time in a large line-up of people wishing to visit the exhibition. The turnout bore witness to the opinion expressed by the Foundation president at a press conference held before the opening, namely that “the average American citizen, who is the target group we are trying to reach culturally, will be interested in this extremely important exhibition and make a point of visiting it.”

Kore statuette, 525-500 B.C., Attic workshop, Island marble, found at Eleusis in 1883
Kore statuette, 525-500 B.C., Attic workshop, Island marble, found at Eleusis in 1883

Officials were guided through the exhibition by the National Archaeological Museum of Athens director, Dr. Nikos Kaltsas. “It is the first time that such a large number of Laconic works has been presented next to similar works from Attica,” pointed out the exhibition curator, who noted that “the purpose of the exhibition is not to mark contrasts, but to demonstrate the difference between the cities in terms of mentality, organisation, and artistic expression.”

“The ancient Greek world,” continued Dr. Kaltsas, “may not have had the same radiance if one of these two cities had not existed. Sometimes working together and other times at odds, these cities determined the fate and historical path of Greece.”

The exhibition includes 289 items of unique significance – Greek works of art in the form of plastic, metal, miniature art, and pottery – which are being exhibited for the first time in the United States thanks to the Public Benefit Foundation Alexander S. Onassis. In order to outline the advancement of both cities through representative works of art, the era between the Archaic period and the 5th century B.C. was chosen as it was the period during which Athens and Sparta figured prominently in Greek affairs. The exhibition consists of three theme sections representing the cultural, political, and economical history of the two city-states. It was also considered meaningful to include an introductory section presenting findings from both cities related to the Late Geometric period (8th century B.C.) given the importance of this period, which marked the creation of the city-state (the main political structure of ancient Greece), the use of the Greek alphabet, and the establishment of the Olympic Games in 776 B.C. carried out in Olympia as Pan-Hellenic games in honour of Zeus.

Relief with an Athenian triereme, late 5th century B.C., Attic workshop, from the Acropolis of Athens
Relief with an Athenian triereme, late 5th century B.C., Attic workshop, from the Acropolis of Athens

The next section presents the physiognomy, development, and peak of the two cities during the Archaic period (from the last quarter of the 7th century to the beginning of the 5th century B.C.). It exhibits findings, like sculptures, pottery, and currency, dating back mainly to the 6th century B.C. and reflecting the greatness of Athens, as well as the accomplishments of Sparta’s artists.

In Athens, the reforms implemented by Solonas (594/593 B.C.) marked the beginning of a new period for the city of Pallada Athena. All artistic fields flourished, resulting in the construction of monumental structures several years later under the tyranny of Peisistratos and his successors (546/510 B.C.). In sculpting, the “kouros” (“boy”) and “kore” (“girl") forms are established, many examples of which have been recovered in Attica from either cemeteries, where they adorned the graves of aristocratic families, or sanctuaries, such as the Acropolis, where mainly female statues were dedicated. The great competition between the aristocratic families of Athens and the display of power through the erection of imposing burial monuments or dedicated columns led Kleisthenis to forbid them. Attica pottery monopolised the markets of all Greek cities for approximately 150 years. From the middle of the 6th century to the beginning of the 5th century B.C., potters discover the black and red figure techniques while noteworthy potters decorate the pottery that is in great demand on the markets of greater Greece. Apart from monumental sculptures and pottery, workshops in Attica produce metal works and miniature art, like statuettes of gods, athletes, and animals, dedicated to the sanctuary of Athena Parthenos. Athens is one of the first cities to create its own currency in order to conduct economic transactions. The "glaukai” (“owls”), the silver tetradrachms bearing the head of Athena on the front and the owl, her holy symbol, on the back, were used until the 1st century B.C. and were destined to become the “international currency” of ancient times along with the “turtles” of Aegina and the “horse” of Corinth.

Bronze statuette of a male flute player or cupbearer, 8th century B.C. , from the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia, Sparta
Bronze statuette of a male flute player or cupbearer, 8th century B.C. , from the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia, Sparta

According to current information, Sparta did not follow Athens’ lead in terms of monumental architecture and sculpting during this period. This is not because Spartans were inferior technicians or ignored other artistic movements; we would simply say that grandeur and opulence were not part of the mentality they formed through basic education and their city’s politicians and legislation. Spartans limited themselves to what was absolutely necessary and their creations were linked only to the worshipping of gods and their ancestors. Besides, in contrast to the Athenians, the Spartans did not construct luxurious burial monuments, nor did they write the names of the dead on columns, with the exception of two cases: when someone was lost in battle [“thanonton en polemo” (“died at war”)] or when a woman passed away during labour.

Few public buildings and sanctuaries, referred to in written sources, and mainly in Pausanias’ descriptions from the 2nd century B.C, have been discovered in Sparta. Some of them are the temples of Athena Chalkioikos at the Acropolis, Artemis Orthia on the eastern side of the city, close to the southern bank of the Eurotas River, and the throne of Apollo in Amyclae. This is linked to the fact that, until later Hellenistic times, Sparta was inhabited “kata komas” (inhabitants moving from village to village) according to the old housing system and not organised into a city with a unified topographic plan or town. Furthermore, apart from Hellenistic times, it was never fortified.

Side-palmette lekythos depicting a Persian archer, 480-475 B.C., Attic workshop, perhaps from a grave at Tanagra
Side-palmette lekythos depicting a Persian archer, 480-475 B.C., Attic workshop, perhaps from a grave at Tanagra

The city, however, experienced particular boom in other fields, like metalwork, ceramics, and miniature art. The Archaic period represents the “golden age” of Sparta’s artistic creation. The artistic value of bronze Laconic works is well-known; samples have been found in a number of sanctuaries, both locally and across Greece, such as a statuette found in the temple of Zeus at Dodoni representing a female young runner with an expressive face, long wavy hair, and an attractive athletic body. Also known is Herodotus’ reference to the renowned bronze krater that the Spartans presented as a gift to King Croesus of Lydia in order to maintain friendly relations. Throughout the entire Archaic period, Laconic chalices bearing mythological or other iconographic themes, hold a particular position in markets, such as a rare clay Laconic chalice, on loan from the National Library of France, which portrays King Arkesilas of Cyrene overseeing the weighing and parcelling of an ancient and precious medicinal herb, or a chalice, on loan from the Vatican Library, depicting the myth of Atlantas and Promytheas’ brother. The development rate of ivory craftsmanship influenced by the East is evident in the exhibited statuettes from the Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia.

The next two parts of the exhibition focus on the 5th century B.C. and present works representative of the artistic progress made by Athens and Sparta in the context of two historical events in which they played a leading role; the Persian Wars (500-479 B.C.) and the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.). Those events greatly affected the cultural essence and artistic development of both cities.

Marble head of helmeted Athena, second half of the 5th century B.C., Attic workshop, from the Acropolis of Athens
Marble head of helmeted Athena, second half of the 5th century B.C., Attic workshop, from the Acropolis of Athens

With the dominance of Cleisthenes’ democratic regime (508/507 B.C.), Athens thrives economically and culturally and develops into an ecumenical power after the end of the Persian Wars. During the 5th century B.C., Athens has supreme sculptures and pottery to display.

On the contrary, Laconic work from the same period is visibly less, including a number of metal works and few samples of ceramic work. Sparta’s sculptures during the Classical period are also fewer than those of the Archaic period. The standout piece in this section is the statue of a soldier called “Leonidas” (480-470 B.C.) from the Acropolis of Sparta. This rare sculpture from the period in question represents a soldier running with all of his gear. He is believed to be Spartan king Leonidas, a symbol of the Spartan self-sacrifice at the battle of Thermopylae. Other students believe that it represents Pausanias, victor of the battle of Plataea, while according to others it is a hoplite that originally formed part of a cluster of statues.

This difference is a result of the political and social circumstances taking shape in Sparta. The decrease in population and the imminent rebellion of the slaves on one hand, and the compulsory economic parity of the citizens on the other, gradually led to a decline in the economy and trade and a decrease in interest in the arts.

Bone fibula catch-plate, 660 B.C., Laconian workshop. The goddess Artemis is represented as Mistress of Animals. From the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia, Sparta.
Bone fibula catch-plate, 660 B.C., Laconian workshop. The goddess Artemis is represented as Mistress of Animals. From the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia, Sparta.

Apart from works dating back to the period of the Persian wars, the exhibition also includes findings bearing live witness to those events. Such findings come in the form of pottery found in the tomb of the Athenians lost in the battle of Marathon, as well as a number of arrows found on the battlefield of Thermopylae.

The victorious outcome of the wars against the Persians confirmed the naval superiority of Athens and the military superiority of Sparta. Subsequently, the effort of the two cities to dominate amongst the other Greek cities becomes more and more apparent. Athens’ emergence as a sovereign power through the foundation of the pan-Hellenic Delian League inevitably resulted in a clash with powerful Sparta of the Peloponnesian League.

The exhibition ends with this important event from which both cities emerged exhausted. Few displays directly related to the Peloponnesian War are presented at the exhibition. There are two important epigraphs, one of which refers to the treaty between the Athenians and the Corfiots, while the other one to the contribution of funds to the Peloponnesian League. Pottery from the joint grave discovered recently in Athens bears witness to the plague that hurt the city during the war.

“Although the exhibition does not exhaust all facets of the artistic activity of the two cities, it becomes clear from the work exhibited, that the moments that advance the human spirit are moments of convergence, cooperation, peace, and creative rivalry,” states exhibition curator Nikos Kaltsas, who concludes, “Athens and Sparta, particularly in times of peace, moulded what is globally known and universally accepted today as classical Greek culture.”

Bone comb, 650-625 B.C., Laconian workshop, from the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia, Sparta
Bone comb, 650-625 B.C., Laconian workshop, from the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia, Sparta

Following the opening, the Onassis Foundation held a reception for hundreds of guests at a Manhattan hotel. Among the speakers, minister Giorgos Voulgarakis made reference to the role of the Onassis Foundation and the importance of the exhibitions that it organises in New York. Foundation president Antonis Papadimitriou set a pleasant note to the evening with his successful quiz based, of course, on Athens and Sparta.

Opening night was exceptional and many congratulations are in order for everyone who lent a hand in the flawless organisation.

The exhibition will continue until May 12, 2007. In parallel, the Onassis Affiliated Public Benefit Foundation will organise an international scientific conference with a series of lectures in New York and dramatic readings of the History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides and The Persians by Aeschylus.

More information related to the exhibition and the Onassis Cultural Center may be found at: www.onassisusa.org.

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