European studies blog

15 posts categorized "Greece"

06 July 2015

Theophilos and Tériade

As well as being one of the greatest publishers of livres d’artiste in Paris for some five decades [see my earlier blog post on his relationship with Matisse], Tériade played an important role in promoting contemporary Greek art in France and he was a key figure in the discovery of the ‘naïve’ artist Theophilos. Like Tériade, Theophilos (Theophilos Chatzēmichaēl or Kephalas, 1868-1934) was born in Vareia, a suburb of Mytilene on the island of Lesvos. He spent several years in Smyrna and later in Thessaly (Volos and Pēlion) moving from village to village, painting shop signs and decorating the walls of churches, houses and inns. Most of his work from that period has consequently not survived. His eccentric behaviour and appearance – he dressed in fustanella (the traditional Greek costume) and as Alexander the Great – often made him the butt of cruel practical jokes.

CM Theophilos Fig.1. Theophilos & Eirene P1070167
Theophilos and his sister Eirene (1904). Mytilene, Hetairia Lesviakon Meleton.  Reproduced in  Theophilos [Ekdosis Emporikēs Trapezēs tēs Hellados.] (Athens, 1966). British Library J/X.423/1787.

In 1927 Theophilos returned to his birthplace and it was there where Tériade met him, bought some some of his paintings, and commissioned more works from him. This newfound financial security proved beneficial as Theophilos produced some 120 paintings in five years.

CM Theophilos Fig.2. FightThe Wrestlers of Smyrna (1930). Mytilene, Theophilos Museum, Tériade Collection.Reproduced in Theophilos: zōgraphikoi pinakes, Dēmos Mytilēnes-Mouseio Theophilou (Mytilene, 1986) LB.31.b.4493.

His sources ranged from Byzantine art to popular prints and postcards and the subjects of his paintings include Ancient Greek mythology, Byzantine history, portraits, genre scenes, and landscapes. Erotokritos, the great epic poem of the 17th-century Cretan Renaissance was a special favourite. 

CM Theophilos Fig.3. DemetraAbove: Demeter, the goddess of Agriculture (1933). Mytilene, Theophilos Museum , Tériade Collection. Below: Erotokritos and Aretousa. 1928. Mytilene, I. Deles collection. Both reproduced in Theophilos (Athens, 1966)

CM Theophilos Fig.4. Erotokritos
In 1936, two years after the death of Theophilos, Tériade exhibited his work in Paris where it was inevitably compared to the the work of the Douanier Rousseau. An exhibition of his work in Greece had, however, to wait until 1947, thirteen years after his death. It was held in the British Council in Athens, organised by Ronald Crichton. Rex Warner, the director of the institute, described the reactions to the exhibition in the tense political climate of the immediate post-Second World War years and in the midst of the Greek Civil War. The Communist press saw Theophilos as a popular artist and a man of the people and therefore gave the exhibition its approval with the warning, though, that it was being held “by the wrong people, in the wrong place, and in the wrong way”. Right wing groups were also negative as they detected elements of Stalinist art in the style of Theophilos!

Despite the controversy (or, perhaps, because of it) the exhibition was a great success consecrating Theophilos as the epitome of Greekness. George Seferis gave a deeply-felt inaugural speech, published in the May 1947 issue of the journal Angloellēnike epitheorēsē (PP. 7618.dq) which was dedicated to Theophilos. Most of the works were lent by private collectors, notably by Andreas Empeirikos, Nikolaos Hatzēkyriakos-Gkikas (Ghika), Angelos Katakouzēnos, Alexandros Xydēs, and Odysseas Elytēs, in other words the cultural elite of Athens. In his speech Seferis talked about his gratitude to those who had had the foresight to recognise the genius of the artist, did their best to protect his paintings from destruction, and lent to the exhibition some of the best works still remaining in Athens – the last remark surely a reference to Tériade’s removal of Theophilos’s work from Greece.

The final consecration of Theophilos came in 1961 with the exhibition in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris of 44 paintings from Tériade’s collection. In 1965 the Theophilos Museum, financed by Tériade and housing his entire collection of works by the artist, opened in Vareia followed, in 1979, by the Tériade Museum-Library  which holds Tériade’s publications and also works by other French and Greek artists.

Perhaps Theophilos himself should have the last word, in the wonderful story recounted with gusto by Seferis in his above-mentioned speech:

Once upon a time, as they say, a baker commissioned a poor painter to paint a picture of him taking loaves of bread out of the oven. The painter started on his work, and when he came to putting in the baker’s rake, instead of following the laws of perspective and making it horizontal, he drew it perpendicular, showing the whole breadth of its surface; then, in the same way, he drew a loaf of bread on the rake. A clever man came past and said to the painter, “That loaf of bread is going to fall down, the way you’ve painted it.” Without bothering to turn his head, the painter replied, “Don’t worry. Only real loaves fall down; the painted ones stay put, and in a picture one ought to show everything.

CM Theophilos  Fig.5. PHOURNOSA Bakery in Larisa. (1933). Mytilene, Theophilos Museum , Tériade Collection. Reproduced in Theophilos: zōgraphikoi pinakes, Dēmos Mytilēnes-Mouseio Theophilou (Mytilene, 1986)

Chris Michaelides, Curator Romance collections


Kitsos Makrēs, Ho zōgraphos Theophilos sto Pēlio (Volos, 1939). YA.1994.a.14281.

Théophilos [catalogue of the exhibition in the Musée des arts décoratifs, June-September 1961]. (Paris, 1961).

Rex Warner, Views of Attica. (London, 1950). 010127.b.20

George Seferis, On the Greek style: selected essays in Poetry and Hellenism. Translated by Rex Warner and Th. D. Frangopoulos. (London, 1967). X.908/9883

Hoi Hellēnes zōgraphoi. Tomos 1. Apo ton 19o aiōna ston 20o. (Athens, 1974). L.R.430.C.10.

Four painters of 20th century Greece: Theophilos, Kontoglou, Ghika, Tsarouchis. (London, 1975). X.410/10030

Tōnēs Spēterēs, Treis aines neoellēnikēs technēs, 1660-1967. (Athens, 1979). X.421/25448.

George Seferis, Dokimes.  (Athens, 1981). X.950/24516.

24 November 2014

When Cavafy met Marinetti

Constantine Cavafy (1866-1933) is the best-loved modern Greek poet whose life and work has inspired a legion of artists, men of letters, and film-makers. Already a legend during his lifetime, friends and admirers held regular literary gatherings in his apartment in Alexandria, where foreign visitors also paid their respects. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944) was one of those visitors and his meeting with Cavafy must count as one of the most surprising encounters in literary history, comparable to the friendship between T.S. Eliot and Groucho Marx  or the encounter between Guy de Maupassant and Algernon Charles Swinburne.

Photograph of Marinetti       Photograph of CavafyMarinetti (top) and Cavafy (bottom) ca. 1930

The two men were temperamentally very different. Cavafy was retiring, patient and gentle, Marinetti brash, ebullient, theatrical. They were both united, however, in their love for Alexandria, their shared birthplace. Marinetti was introduced to Cavafy by Atanasio Catraro, the scion of a distinguished Triestine family (he was a great-grandson of Ciriaco Catraro, the founder of the Stock exchange in Trieste). A friend of Cavafy and an habitué of his salon, Catraro translated some of Cavafy’s poems into Italian and in the 1960s wrote a memoir about Cavafy, published only in a Greek translation in 1970.

The meeting with Cavafy came about in 1930 during Marinetti’s visit Alexandria to give a series of lectures on Futurism to the city’s Italian community. Marinetti’s account of the meeting was first published in the Gazzetta del popolo in Turin on 2 May 1930 and was included in the volume Il fascino dell’Egitto, a collection of articles about his visit to Egypt, first published in 1933. Another account is given  in Catraro’s book and it was probably Catraro who provided Marinetti with information about the Greek writers discussed.

In his article Marinetti evokes, with a few deft strokes, the atmosphere of Cavafy’s salon. The head of the poet is maliciously described as that of “the small, grey head of a sweet and intelligent tortoise whose slim arms are rowing out of its immense Greco-Roman shell of learned shadow”;  the room has dark red velvet walls and is hung with paintings encrusted with “the dust of centuries”. After whisky and soda and the traditional cheese meze are served, conversation begins with Cavafy praising Futurism and the merits of free verse. Marinetti points out  that Futurist poetry goes much further than free verse, into the simultaneism of words-in-freedom which are the expression of “our great mechanical civilization of speed.”

The ensuing discussion about modern Greek literature shows how French literature, especially poetry, was, at the time, the yardstick used in assessing the merits or otherwise of all literary works. Kostēs Palamas, the great rival of Cavafy, is deemed to be verbose like Victor Hugo and sentimental like Lamartine, Miltiadēs Malakasēs a cross between Alfred de Musset and Sully-Prudhomme, Lampros Porfiras  a cross between Baudelaire and Verlaine, the sonnets of Giannēs Gryparēs like those of José Maria de Heredia. Contemporary Greek playwrights like Grēgorēs Xenopoulos and Paulos Nirvanas are deemed to be under the spell of Ibsen. By contrast,  Spyros Melas  and his “Scena libera” (Eleutherē Skēnē), headed by Marika Kotopoulē (“the Greek Eleonora Duse”), are praised for their performances of French avant-garde plays.

The conversation also touches on the merits of Demotic language in poetry, the language of Giannēs Psycharēs, its dynamism and its use of foreign words, especially Italian ones. Cavafy recites, for the benefit of Marinetti, some verses where Italian words like ‘porta’, ‘cappello’, ‘calze’, ‘guanti’, ‘carriera’ are harmoniously incorporated into the Greek text as necessary neologisms whereas English, French or Spanish words would  have a jarring effect.

The assembly then  asks Cavafy to recite one of his new poems. He finally obliges with “God abandons Antony”, his slow recitation accompanied by gestures tracing minute arabesques in the air.

In Catraro’s account Marinetti, pacing up and down and gesticulating, filled the room with his presence, like an actor on stage. He suddenly declared Cavafy a Futurist, an honour the poet gently declined, remarking that the little he knew about Futurism made him think that he would be considered a passéist. Marinetti conceded that Cavafy was, to a certain extent, a passéist in that he was not impressed by the beauty of machines and he still used verbs and punctuation: a passéist in form but intellectually a Futurist, like Michelangelo, Leonardo, Wagner and all other artists who revolted against tradition.

Marinetti’s article omits his unsuccessful attempt to proselytise Cavafy and it ends on an unexpectedly lyrical and wistful note. After leaving Cavafy he drives to the beautiful gardens of the Villa Antoniadis. In the full moon, he hears the song of nightingales which are, however, interrupted by the noise of machines demolishing the old villa to erect in its place a modern one destined for visiting foreign sovereigns. In a typical Marinetti simile, the funereal crash of demolitions is likened to the sound of exploding grenades. When the noise finally dies out, Marinetti movingly concludes his article by assimilating the landscape of Alexandria to the poetry of its great poet: “the Mahmoudieh Canal is  full of liquid nostalgia-inducing moons, like the free verses – modern and at the same time ancient – of Cavafy, the Greek poet of Alexandria.”

  Black-and-white photgraph of the gardens of the Villa AntoniadisThe Gardens of the Villa Antoniadis in the 1920s, from Alec R. Cury, Alexandria: how to see it  (4th edition; Alexandria, 1925) British Library 10094.b.7.

The Villa Antoniadis, where Marinetti had his nocturnal reverie, was built in 1860, as a miniature Palace of Versailles, by Sir John Antoniadis (1818-1895), a wealthy Alexandrian of Greek origins, and in 1918 was bequeathed to the city of Alexandria by his son together with the family’s collection of Egyptian and Graeco-Roman antiquities. At the time of Marinetti’s visit its gardens formed part of  a green area which also included zoological and botanical gardens. In antiquity this area was a suburb of the city, the residents of which included Callimachus, the librarian of of the ancient Library of Alexandria. Appropriately, the villa and its gardens now form part of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.  Cavafy's apartment is now a Cavafy museum

Chris Michaelides, Curator Italian and Modern Greek Studies


Atanazio Katraro, Ho philos mou ho Kavaphēs  (Athens, 1970). Awaiting shelfmark

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti,  Il fascino dell’Egitto. (Milano, 1981) X. 809/66786


29 August 2014

Greek Orthodox Paper Icons in the British Library – their purpose, style and iconography

Greek paper icons are devotional prints that flourished from the 17th to the end of the 19th century. They depict saints or religious scenes, and often include panoramic views of monasteries, with accurate depictions of their buildings and the surrounding area together with scenes of monastic life, and representations of the monastery’s patron saints, thaumaturgical icons and miracles connected with them. Inscriptions provide a key to the various scenes and give additional information about engravers, or the donors who commissioned the works.

The prints were addressed to a wider, less educated public than guides in book form and were given by travelling monks to the faithful, encouraging them to support their monastery or make a pilgrimage to it; alternatively, they were kept as mementoes of a visit to a particular monastery.

Venice and Vienna were originally the biggest production centres of Orthodox religious prints but printing workshops later appeared in the Balkans, Moscow and, by the end of the eighteenth century, in Constantinople and on Mount Athos. Though important in the history of graphic arts in the Balkans, relatively few of these prints have survived (the authoritative catalogue by D̲orē Papastratou, first published in 1986, lists 618 items). It was only in the late 19th century, with the revival of interest in folk art, that they became collectable (like Russian religious lubok prints).

The British Library has a small but choice collection of 11 Greek paper icons kept at shelfmark HS.74/2135. All are views of Mount Athos monasteries, printed in Vienna (nos 1,8), Venice (nos 2,5) Moscow (no 6) or Mount Athos (nos 3,4,7,9,10) between 1764 and 1879. They are all mounted on board, 92 x 57 cm in size. Two prints (nos 5 and 9) are duplicates. The list below gives brief notes about the prints and includes their catalogue numbers in Papastratou’s  indispensable work, which provides fuller iconographic descriptions, transcriptions of texts, and information about variant versions.

1.Hē Monē tou Hagiou Paulou [The Monastery of Hagios Paulos] (Vienna,1 May 1798). Engraving. [Papastratou 501]

Engraving of the Monastery of St Paul
There are three registers. In the top register, the three images show, left to right,  the Icon of the Virgin which was miraculously saved after it was thrown into the fire by the iconoclast Emperor Theophilos (813-842), the Holy Trinity with St George and St Paul (the monastery’s patron saints), and the adoration of the Magi (whose gifts, as the inscription reminds us, are kept in the Detail of the harbour with ship and fisherman from the icon of St Paul's monasterymonastery). The magnificent view of the monastery in the central and largest register, includes an abundance of details: a boat pulling into dock, the monastery’s shipyard (Ταρσανάς), a monk drawing water from a well with a pulley and a chain, another fishing in a sea teeming with creatures including a sea-monster (κῆτος); various buildings and other locations are named in the image. Finally, the text (in Greek and Church Slavonic) at the bottom register gives details of the donors. The influence of earlier Western art on this and other landscapes in paper icons can be seen comparing it to Fra Angelico’s Thebaid in the Uffizi.



2 (and 5). Hoi Hagioi Tessarakonta Martyres [The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste] (Venice, 1764).  Engraving. [Papastratou 482]

Engraving of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste in a lake
The Monastery of Xeropotamou is dedicated to the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, a group of Roman soldiers who, in 320, converted to Christianity and were condemned to be exposed naked upon a frozen lake near the city of Sebaste (present-day Sivas in Turkey). One of the soldiers lost heart, left Detail showing one of the Forty Martyrs seeking refugehis companions and sought shelter in a warm bathhouse (left). His place was taken, however, by one of their guards who, seeing the crowns of glory shining in the sky, proclaimed himself a Christian and joined the other thirty-nine. The frozen bodies of the martyrs were carried away in carts and burned, and their ashes dispersed though some were preserved as precious relics. The subject was popular in Byzantine art, thanks to its dramatic potential; the various stages of the story are here clearly depicted and explained in the accompanying key to the characters and action. The names of the donors are also given. 



3. Hē Panagia hē Oikonomissa, Hē Monē Megistēs Lavras kai Skēnes apo ton Vio tou Hagiou Athanasiou [The “Panagia Oikonomissa”, The Monastery of Great Lavra and Scenes from the life of St Athanasius] (Hagion Oros, 1868). Engraving. [Papastratou 433]

Engraving with images of the Virgin and Child with saints (centre), the Great Lavra monastery (bottom), and scenes from the life of St Athanasius (border)
The monastery of Great Lavra was the first monastery built on Mount Athos. The icon shows the Virgin and Child with Saint Athanasius and Saint Michael Synadon. At left and right, ten scenes from the life of Saint Athanasius, the founder of Great Lavra in 963. This is a variant of an 1810 engraving. The most notable difference is the reversal of the view of the monastery.

4 (and 9). Hē Monē Koutloumousiou – Hē Metamorphōsē tou Sōtēros [The Monastery of Koutloumousiou – The Transfiguration] (Hagion Oros, 1839). Engraving. [Papastratou 473]

Engraving showing the transfiguration of Christ above the Monastery of Koutloumousiou
The monastery of Monastery of Koutloumousiou is dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ which here occupies a larger than usual part of the print and is better integrated into the landscape. As in the much copied and imitated Raphael prototype of which this is a distant echo, the radiant Christ is at upper centre between Moses and Elijah, and Peter, James, and John are crouched in disarray below. The lower part shows the Monastery of Koutloumousiou with, at left, a monk ploughing a field and, at right, a Phiale for the blessing of the waters, and a chapel.

6. Hē Panagia Portaïtissa tōn Ivērōn – Hē Monē tōn Ivērōn [The “Panagia Portaitissa” and the Monastery of Ivērōn] (Moscow, November 1838). Engraving. [Papastratou 455].

Image of the Virgin and Child (centre) with the Monastery of Ivērōn (below) and scenes from the legend of a miraculous icon (borders)
The Monastery of Ivērōn is dedicated to the Dormition (Assumption) of the Virgin. Its name denotes that it was founded by ‘Ivērites’ (i.e. natives of Georgia). The icon is that of the Virgin Portaïtissa. According to legend, a widow from Nicaea (Νίκαια), in north-western Anatolia (part of modern İznik) threw the icon into the sea to save it from destruction by the soldiers of the Detail of the Monastery of Ivērōn engraving showing a monk holding the miraculous iconiconoclast Emperor Theophilos. The waves brought it to the coast of Ivēra where it was found by Gabriel, a monk in the monastery, who placed it in its Katholikon (the major church building in the monastery). The icon was later lost three times but each time it miraculously re-appeared at the gate of the monastery (hence its name). At left and right there are 12 scenes, 10 of which illustrate the history of the icon. Under the icon there is a view of the Monastery of Ivērōn and its seashore and, below, a parallel text in two columns, in Greek and Church Slavonic, gives the names of the donors. The engraving was first published in Halle in 1794. This 1838 printing includes some new details, for example the figure of the monk in the foreground (presumably Gabriel) holding the icon.


7. Hē Monē Pantokratoros [The Monastery of Pantokrator] (Hagion Oros, February 1844). Engraving.[Papastratou 479].

icon of the Transfiguration with Christ, Moses and Elijah above and nine apostles below, and three scenes from the life of Elijah
The Monastery of Pantokrator is, like the Monastery of Koutloumousiou, dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ. The icon of the Transfiguration is framed at upper centre with Christ, Moses and Elijah above and nine apostles shown kneeling or prostrate below. Three scenes from the life of Elijah are shown: at left, his ascension in a chariot of fire and, below, the angel appearing to him; at right, the prophet fed by ravens. This is a variant of a 1779 engraving with notable differences  in the landscape.

8. Hē Monē Vatopediou [The Monastery of Vatopedi] (Vienna, 1879). Lithograph. [Papastratou 446].

Lithographed view of the Monastery of Vatopedi
This panoramic view is the only lithograph in this collection, and derives from a photograph. Stylistically it is very different from all the other prints in the collection and the only one without an icon or patron saint component. The inscription provides a key to 20 buildings of the monastery and the identity of the donor.

10. Hē Monē Koutloumousiou – Hē Metamorphōsē tou Sotēros [The Monastery of Koutloumousiou – The Transfiguration] (Hagion Oros, ca 1850). Engraving [Papastratou 474].

Engraving of the transfiguration (above) with a monastery and St Anne and the Virgin Mary (below)
The Transfiguration here occupies the upper half of the engraving. The monastery is shown at lower left, with St Anne carrying the Virgin and, in a reliquary on the ground, one of the most treasured relics in the monastery, the right leg of St Anne.

11. Hē Monē Karakal(l)ou [The Monastery of Karakal(l)ou] (Hagion Oros, February 1843) Engraving. [Papastratou 494].

Engraving of the twelve Apostles (above) and a monastery (below)
The top register depicts the Twelve Apostles, with Saints Peter and Paul (the monastery’s patron saints) in the centre. The inscription at the bottom register indicates that the engraving was commissioned by the grocers of the town of Redestos, and executed by Kyrillos, an Athonite monk. Kyrillos was active between 1834 and 1862.

Chris Michaelides, Curator Italian and Modern Greek 


Waldemar Deluga, and Iwona Zych, “Greek Church Prints,” in Print Quarterly 19, no. 2 (June 2002): 123-35. P.423/617.

Ḏorē Papastratou, Chartines eikones: orthodoxa thrēskeutika charaktika, 1665-1899 (Athens, 1986).  LB.31.b.347 [English edition: Paper icons: Greek orthodox religious engravings, 1665-1899.(Athens, 1990) f91/0114-5]

Theocharēs Mich.Provatakēs, Charaktika Hellēnōn laïkōn dēmiourgōn, 17os-19os aiōnas.(Athens, 1993). YF.2013.a.3460.

Graviura Grecheskogo mira v moskovskikh sobraniiakh / Prints of the Greek world in Moscow collections. (Moscow, 1997). YA.1999.b.1598.

La Stampa e l’illustrazione del libro greco a Venezia tra il settecento e l’Ottocento: atti della giornata di studio , Venezia 28 ottobre 2000.  (Venice, 2001). YF.2012.a.30117; especially Anastasia Tourta, “Greek religious engravings printed in Venice”, pp. 67-78, and George Golobias/Ioustinos Simonopetritis, “Paper icons, from Venice to Mount Athos”, pp. 53-63.

Paulos M. Mylōnas, Ho Athos kai ta monastēriaka tou hidrymata mes’ apo palēes chalkographies kai erga technēs (Athens, 1963). Cup.21.w.14.

Peter Noever (ed.) Ikonen auf Papier [exhibition at the Österreichisches Museum für angewandte Kunst, 18. Dec.1998-28. Feb.1999]. (Vienna, 1998) [Awaiting shelfmark]

Evtim Tomov, Estampes de la Renaissance Bulgare. (Sofia, 1978) [Awaiting shelfmark]

21 March 2014

Aesop’s fables are not kids’ stuff

Woodcut illustration of Aesop surrounded by images and symbols from his fablesAesop, Fables ([Augsburg, ca. 1480])  G.7805.

The sight of this 1480 edition of Aesop’s fables in the ‘Printing’ section of the newly revamped Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library here at St Pancras leads me to ponder some long-standing conceptions or misconceptions regarding Aesop as a book for children.

Nowadays we tend to assume that Aesop is for children on the basis of two received ideas: that animals appeal to the infant mind and that illustrated books are for a juvenile audience. Both these ideas do indeed have historical precedent (what I once heard a museum curator refer to as ‘time-depth’): in the prologue to John of Capua’s Directorium humanae vitae (ultimately derived from the Panchatantra) we are told that ‘the sages met together and decided to make a book and adapt it to the language of birds and beasts, for three reasons. First, to discover the sources of wisdom. Second, this book is for knowledge and play: the wise man will learn because of its wisdom and the fool will derive entertainment. Third, because children, and those who delight  in hearing parables and childish words, will take pleasure in learning and their learning will be made easier by the sweetness of the words and the sight of figures and images.’ (The original Latin text is here.)

Animal fable was also associated with humour, and on occasion this is linked with the stigma of being lightweight: Seneca recommended that his friend Polybius should gather ‘the tales and fables of Aesop’ [fabellas quoque et Aesopeos logos] as an exercise in ‘the lighter kind of literature’ [haec hilariora studia] to distract him from his grief [Ad Polybium 8.3]. When the French Jesuit François Vavasseur dignified fable with critical attention in the 17th century it was in the significantly named De ludicra dictione (Paris, 1658; British Library 88.k.11.(1.)).

If we look inside the edition of Aesop displayed in the gallery, with the aid of the online facsimile made from a copy in the Bavarian State Library we will find tales which are of the earth earthy: did you hear the one about the new wife who complained about her husband because he didn’t measure up to the donkeys she was used to seeing on her parents’ farm? Or see the pictures of bodily functions such as this one:

Woodcut of a man vomiting and defecating

The message of other fables is one of Realpolitik: the animals take revenge on the lion once he is old and weak:

Woodcut of a lion being attacked by other animals

Young readers might also be disappointed to find the fables couched in Latin elegiac verse.

Fables in one sense are the most naked of fictions, telling of the plain absurdity of talking animals.  But this impossibility alerts us to the fact that pleasant (and sometimes unpleasant) fictions can enclose a hard truth for the alert and adult reader.

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic studies


Fabula docet: illustrierte Fabelbücher aus sechs Jahrhunderten (Wolfenbüttel, 1983)  2708.h.57

Barry Taylor, ‘Aesop’, in Encyclopedia of literary translation, ed. Olive Classe (London, 2001)  HLR 418.02 or YC.2001.b.170

26 August 2013

Banter reborn

As I recently read in the ‘Trending’ section of the Independent, young people looking for new flatmates have on their list of requirements such qualifications as doing the washing-up and skill in banter.  Wanted: someone who can fire off a zinger.

Banter has a long and illustrious history.

In philosophy, the pre-Socratics, notably Diogenes the Cynic, roamed Greece pronouncing wise words on the spot; they were gathered in gnomonologies such as Diogenes Laertius’s Lives and sayings of the philosophers.  The noble acts of the Greeks and Romans were preserved by Valerius Maximus, Facta et dicta memorabilia.  Two works of erudition to be found on the shelves of any Renaissance man of learning.

Diogenes’s most famous put-down was to Alexander the Great.  Diogenes was at home in his barrel. Alexander asked him, ‘What can I do for you?’  Diogenes riposted, ‘Get out of the way: you’re keeping the sun off me’ (Diogenes Laertius, VI.38). This is the anecdote of his which is most commonly illustrated.

Cornelis de Vos, Alexander and Diogenes
A witty put-down: Alexander and Diogenes by Cornelis de Vos (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Rhetoric, the art of language, has always valued the quick response, especially for its percussive quality.  As Cicero says:  ‘There are two types of salt: the eloquent and the witty.  Use the first for elegance and the second when shooting the arrows of ridicule.’ (Orator, xxvi, 87).

Antonio Beccadelli, scholar at the court of Alfonso the Magnanimous of Aragon (1396-1458) compiled a whole book of his deeds and sayings:

The king was being pestered over his dinner by an importunate old man.  Said Alfonso: ‘Donkeys leave better lives than kings.  When their masters feed them, they leave them to eat in peace and quiet, something kings can never enjoy.’

The genre in question is the Apophthegm, which sketches the circumstances giving rise to a sharp comment: probably the best-known collection was Erasmus’s.

In 1642 Gracián, a Jesuit theoretician of wit, drew on Erasmus (unacknowledged of course) for his chapters on ‘Heroic sayings’ (XXIII, ‘De los dichos heroicos’) and ‘Quick ingenious answers’  (XXXV, ‘De las respuestas prontas ingeniosas’).

Two formative influences from my boyhood reading were ‘Useless Eustace’ in the Daily Mirror by Jack Greenall (1905–1983) and Mad Magazine’s ‘Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions’, by Al Jaffee, published from 1964 on. In ‘Useless Eustace’ the joke was in two parts: the situation (rendered visually) and Eustace’s obiter dicta, in the caption.

Looking at a fishmonger’s stall showing a sign reading ‘Smelt’, Eustace says to the fishmonger: ‘Phew! Why the past tense?  They still do.’  The fishmonger’s reaction is represented by an exclamation mark hanging over his head.

Mad’s  ‘Snappy Answers‘ were in the more pugnacious tradition:

Customer in clock shop: Do you carry clocks?
Assistant: No. All we have are these silly round things with numbers and hands.

To end, a sample garnered from the Euston Road.

Drunk bloke on 73 bus:  XXXX you.
Driver: Get off my bus!
Drunk: I’m not getting off.  I’ve paid.
Driver: Get off.
Drunk: Don’t say anything to me.
Driver: Get off.
Drunk: Don’t say anything to me.
[Repeat ad infinitum]

What Diogenes, King Alfonso and the drunk on the 73 have in common is the desire for the last word.  That’s the mark of a good aphorism: it’s quick, it’s clever, and there’s no answer to it.

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies


Antonio Beccadelli, Libro de los dichos y echos elegantes y graciosos del sabio rey don Alonso de Aragon (Zaragoza, 1552), fol. Xrv;  a modern edition (Zaragoza, 1997)  is at YA.2001.a.26273

Baltasar Gracián, Arte de ingenio, ed. Emilio Blanco (Madrid, 1998), YA.2000.a.26595,  pp. 260-65, 325-32.

Louis Lobbes, Des Apophtegmes à la Polyanthée: Érasme et le genre des dits mémorables (Paris, 2013)

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