15 January 2009

Byron under Glass

Ioannis Gennadios, who referred to Cyriaco of Ancona as a looter, may have known what he was talking about.

In the reading room of his library in Athens -- splendid columns, dark red portico -- where the books are under glass, a large exhibition cabinet holds Byron memorabilia under glass.

More Byron memorabilia is under glass in the National Historical Museum, in an exhibition space that looks remarkably like a chapel, centered as it is on a table surrounded by icons of Byron. That space holds, among other things, Byron's travelling trunk that unfolded to make a bed, his helmet, and three portraits: beautiful in adolescence, romantic as a poet, bloated in his maturity.

Byron is a national hero of Greece and every town has a street and a hotel named for him, something like you will find for Lord Alexander Fleming in Spain (think: bullfighting, gored bullfighters, infection, penicillin). Had Byron lived, they would have tried to make him king, but he died miserably of malaria and iatrogenic infection, soaked in sweat, his mouth saturated iwth bile.

So it is not completely unreasonable that Ioannis Gennadios -- or some other wealthy Greek interested in literature and history -- would have shown up on Wednesday, 18 August, 1880, at the Sotheby's auction of Byron memorabilia. This is what Gennadios bought for the coffin-case, according to the labels in it:
  • A matching set of a very small inlaid mahogany tea caddy and watch stand that belonged to Byron's half-sister Augusta Leigh.

  • A piece of deep blue silk exquisitely embroidered with flowers by Augusta Leigh.

  • A small black leather pocket folder and a small red leather-bound notebook, with her name and initials.

  • An Italian silk scarf of pale green and ivory with narrow deep red lines, given to Augusta by Byron.

  • A thick scrapbook of "portraits, pedigrees, biographical notes and autographs of Byron, and a small collection of mememtos inluding a lock of his hair."

  • A miniature portrait of Theresa Makri copied in 1834 by Bate from the 1812 Allason portrait.

  • A piece of a dreadful plaid of green, black, and whitem from one of Byron's jackets.

  • His rosewood holder for playing cards.

  • A cameo portrait of Byron.

  • His marvellous small gold and blue enamel pocket watch.

  • Four seals -- two shaped like hands; one ivory, one amethyst, one mother-of-pearl -- with various romantic mottos of the period.

  • Two examples of the Byron arms marked out on canvas for embroidering.

  • A homemade drawing case -- cardboard laced together with green ribbon, with a cover picture of plums and leaves and a worm pasted on -- with watercolors by Byron's daughter Ada and her friends, from 1826-27.

  • And finally, a heart-breakingly fragile, dried wreath of bay leaves and flowers sent by the people of Mesolonghi that was laid on Byron's coffin.

So it is difficult to know what to think about defining looting, but I know that if given the choice between free and full possession of either the Elgin Marbles or Byron's memorabilia, I would take Byron.

Here in this detail from a famous bad historical painting, a much too-young Byron is shown arriving at Mesolonghi, being welcomed by the beleagured defenders Notice how his travelling cloak has been disposed to give the impression of classical Greek dress.

1 comment:

  1. As a student of Byron I find this article fascinating. thanks


I will not publish Anonymous comments.