Classics

2021 Leventis Exhibition

A major exhibition accompanies the tenure of the 12th Leventis Professor: 'Edina/Athena: The Greek Revolution and the Athens of the North, 1821–2021' and will be on display from 29 October 2021 until 29 January 2022.

HCA Edina Athena exhitibiton banner showing landscape paintings of old Edinburgh and Athens

This year, 2021, marks the bicentenary of the outbreak of the Greek Revolution against rule by the Ottoman Empire, ultimately leading to the creation of an independent Greek nation state. While conflict raged in Greece, Edinburgh was becoming popularly known by the nicknames ‘The Athens of the North’ or ‘The Modern Athens’. This exhibition, generously funded by the A.G. Leventis Foundation and as part of Protovoulia 1821–2021 (‘Initiative 1821–2021’), offers the first detailed exposition of the parallels and connections between these two apparently very separate phenomena. It explores neoclassicism in Edinburgh, the key events of the Greek Revolution and the Scots who supported it, and the wider contexts of the classical tradition. The exhibition comprises a large core of historic books, drawings and photographs from the University’s Centre for Research Collections, complemented by an ambitious series of loans from institutions in Greece, Scotland and England.

A striking coincidence

The exhibition begins by introducing a striking coincidence. In June 1822, the Ottoman garrison of the Athenian Acropolis surrendered to Greek revolutionaries. A mere two months later, the foundation stone of the Scottish National Monument, modelled on the Athenian Parthenon, was laid on Edinburgh's Calton Hill. This coincidence sets the scene for a series of exhibits illustrating Edinburgh’s claims to the inheritance of ancient Athens on the basis of geographical, intellectual and architectural parallels. These include works by the artists Thomas Hosmer Shepherd, Hugh ‘Grecian’ Williams and James Skene, and by the celebrated architect William Henry Playfair.

HCA Calton Hill National Monument
The National Monument, Calton Hill

The Greek Revolution

The exhibition’s second theme outlines several central figures and events of the Greek Revolution. Protagonists include the heroines Laskarina Bouboulina and Manto Mavrogenous and the poet Dionysios Solomos. The Mavromichalis clan is represented by a pair of pistols formerly belonging to Petrobey, loaned from the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture. Other highlights include Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of Greece’s first head of state, Ioannis Kapodistrias, and striking illustrations of important revolutionary events by Dimitrios Zographos, all lent by Her Majesty The Queen. Notably, the first historians to write comprehensively about the conflict in English were both Scots: Thomas Gordon of Cairness and Buthlaw and George Finlay, whose works feature here.

Gordon and Finlay were both exponents of ‘philhellenism’, or ‘love of Greece’; they and the other Scottish philhellenes are the focal point of the exhibition’s third theme. A selection of Finlay’s personal papers have been loaned from the British School at Athens, and some of Gordon’s from the University of Aberdeen. The most famous of the philhellenes was arguably the Northeast-raised Lord Byron, whose sojourns in Greece both before and during the Revolution are illustrated by letters, notebooks and documents loaned from the National Library of Scotland. Lesser-known figures include the Laurencekirk-born educationalist and attorney Edward Masson, the Edinburgh graduate and biographer of John Knox, Rev. Dr Thomas M'Crie, and the radical Edinburgh philanthropist Agnes Renton who fostered women’s education in the Ionian Islands.

The classical tradition underpinned philhellenism and the language of ‘restoration’ associated with the Greek Revolution. The first volume of James Stuart and Nicholas Revett’s lavish and ambitious Antiquities of Athens (1762) and a manuscript notebook of Stuart’s introduce the expansion of antiquarian publications in western Europe. These trends of connoisseurship took their most controversial turn with the removal of many Parthenon sculptures by Lord Elgin, officially justified but also widely condemned even in his own day. At the University of Edinburgh, the teaching of Greek was revolutionized by John Stuart Blackie’s spoken method and integration of contemporary literature. The section closes with Dr Sandy Stoddart’s relief of ‘Edina’ reflecting the glory of Athena from his 2016 statue of William Henry Playfair, thus bringing the exhibition full circle to the question of Edinburgh’s ‘Athenian’ identity.

New work

Finally, the exhibition’s anteroom plays host to an innovative new commissioned artwork, Karen Cunningham’s "Parataxis". Her two-part work comprises a printed textile, ‘Revolution is a Living Language’, and a moving image work entitled ‘Looking and Being Overlooked’. Parataxis brings to the fore the frequently unseen roles of female figures in the contexts of revolutionary Greece and Edinburgh in the age of Enlightenment.