Sunday, April 14, 2013

A lion near Hymettos

One misty September morning in 1999 on the island of Naxos, my girlfriend and I set off in a taxi to find the kouros of Melanes.  As we drove along empty roads shaded with olive trees and past hillside farms and whitewashed churches our driver told us the story of how he had abandoned a career in the law, unable to bring himself to "tell lies".  He dropped us off near the site of the kouros - a recumbent statue 6 metres long, resting where it had been abandoned in the 6th century BC, probably because its leg had been broken.  Moved by the sight of this ancient, weathered youth, we wanted to see a second, less well-preserved kouros that apparently lay somewhere nearby.  An old lady in the neighbouring orchard spoke no English, but fortunately a passing German hiker spoke some Greek and he asked her how to find it.  We would have to climb over the rocks of the ancient quarry: "you have to be like a sheep".  And so started up a rough track before heading off across the hillside, picking our way between thistles and thorns and crumbling dry-stone walls.  There was still a low mist obscuring the distant peaks and everything was quiet.  At last we saw it, lying prone and heavily eroded among the marble boulders.  The photograph I took (below) hardly conveys the experience of that moment, when the deep past seemed seemed both present and impossibly remote.

In October 1805, Edward Dodwell came across another giant statue in the Greek landscape.  This colossal marble lion, its legs broken, lay undisturbed in the mountains of Hymettos.  But it must have been too desirable to be left there for travellers to come upon, and was eventually removed to a museum in Athens before ending up by the chapel of Agios Nikolaus at Kantza.  I have looked this place up online and all I can find is one tiny photograph of the lion, caged behind white railings.  I wonder how many people ever go to see it there?  The painting Doswell made can be seen in the British Museum's 'In Search of Classical Greece: Travel Drawings of Edward Dodwell and Simone Pomardi 1805–1806'.  The centrepiece of this exhibition is a panorama of Athens, seen from the Hill of the Muses, near the Monument to Philopappos (where, incidentally, Giovanni Battista Lusieri was also sketching that year, as I mentioned in a previous post).  Athens then was little more than a village at the base of the Acropolis; in 1999 we found a polluted urban sprawl and taxi drivers unwilling to stop for us.  It is easy to imagine urbanisation overtaking the 'lone and level sands' round the broken statue of Shelley's Ozymandius, his great shattered head with its 'wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command' long since gone, removed and lost to view in some unvisited suburb.

Edward Dodwell, Lion near Hymettos, looking north towards Mount Pentele, 1805


Lilliana Ramos-Collado said...

I have been browsing your blog and enjoying the articles and images. Congratulations. It is just splendid.

Ray Girvan said...

The lion reminds me of the scene in Lord Dunsany's The Avenger of Perdondaris, where the narrator finds himself in a far-future London:

"And when as I wandered over the grassy hills I came on a wattled shrine that was thatched with straw and saw a lion in it more worn with time than even the Sphinx at Gizeh and when I knew it for one of the four in Trafalgar Square then I saw that I was stranded far away in the future with many centuries of treacherous years between me and anything that I had known."