« Au Royaume d’Alexandre le Grand. La Macédoine Antique. » Quite a mouthful for an exhibition, but definitely one that was worth to be seen. Such a pity it ran for so short a period of time (from 13 October 2011 till 16 January 2012) and I wasn’t able to visit the Louvre till near the very end. Consequently, there was no point in sharing my impressions any time sooner.
I found the title of this exhibition rather confusing: was it about Alexander the Great or was it about Macedonia? Well, in the end it was about both, of course, but the accent was set around old Macedonia, and it was a well-deserved recommendation. Today like in antiquity it seems that Macedonia is some kind of stepchild, not entirely part of Greece or worthy to be part of it. The excavations of the past thirty years or so prove much to the contrary.
The very first excavations date back to 1861, when two French archeologists (of course, we are referring to France and the French here!), Léon Heuzey and Henri Daumet made their first discoveries under close watch of the Ottoman rulers. They uncovered the remains of the Royal Palace of Aegae, not knowing that this was Aegae, the old Macedonian capital, in what is called today Vergina. After that, we have to wait till after the First World War when Konstantinos Rhomaios starts new diggings in the area in 1920. He is the one who put Pella on the map, the second capital of Macedonia, about 25 kilometers further inland than expected because of the silting up of the Axios River. He also discovered several tombs in the Vergina area. By far the largest and most sensational discovery happened in 1977 when Manolis Andronicos localized the unspoiled Tomb of King Philip II, Alexander’s father. Huge quantities of precious gifts were found in his burial chamber as well as in the nearby tombs underneath this same tumulus. In the wake of this discovery, other promising diggings were generally started elsewhere.
Strangely enough, new finds show that the art in archaic Macedonia was closely akin to what we have seen in Mycene, here only one hundred years later. Clear traces of this influence can be found mainly in the area of Pieria, in the westerly region. But meanwhile it is obvious that the so-called Hellenistic art first and for all originated here in Aegae and in Pella at the court of the Kings and in the houses of the Macedonian elite. As early as the 5th century, the Macedonian Kings attracted notable artists like Zeuxis of Heraclea who decorated the Palace of King Archelaus, or Euripides who wrote his Iphigenia in Aulis, Archelaus and The Bacchantes here. Later on, we find more famous artists at the Court of Pella, like Lysippos, de official sculptor of Alexander, and Apelles, his official court painter; but also top painters like Aristides of Thebe or Philoxenus of Eretria. Even if the names had come to us, we still had no idea about the quality of their work till the now famous fresco’s in the Tomb of Persephone were discovered in Vergina; they give a totally unexpected image of their craft, in this case the skills of Nicomachus of Thebe – a most lively and unique testimony. Wall-paintings from the houses in Pella on the other hand turn out to be of such high quality and colour that they are considered as the precursors of the Pompeian style, which we meet in Pompeii – yet five centuries later!
The Louvre has done a thorough job with this exhibition and they have not limited themselves to collecting a random amount of objects from the Greek Museums. It all starts right at the entrance with a splendid copy of the pebble mosaic showing a lion hunt with Alexander on the left and Craterus to the right. A great welcome from homeland Macedonia!
I recently travelled through Macedonia myself visiting many of the museums and seeing all these objects over here was like meeting old friends again. Pure out of memory, the following is what I remember having seen again in Paris (the Louvre didn’t allow any pictures!)
- From the Museum in Aiani (Pieria), clay figures and vases;
- From Vergina, silver jars, a bronze lamp, gold crowns with delicate leaves and flowers or tied with Heracles’ knot;
- From Amphipolis, a multicoloured vase, a dashing terracotta dancer and a true to life painted head of a terracotta woman;
- From Polygoros, one of the arrows engraved with “Philippou”, i.e. with the compliments of Philip (used during the siege of Olynthus);
- From Veroia, the intriguing bust of Olganos of Kopanos which reminded me of Alexander;
- From Pella, moulds for terracotta statues and finished clay statuettes, pots and jars found around the Agora, earthenware roof decorations and pieces of burial furniture in wood, bone and ivory;
- From Dion, a striking relief of Demeter;
Also, a showcase filled with Greek vases, bowls, drinking vessels, pots and jars, all beautifully decorated, of course. And all around this on the walls, I recognize pictures of the fresco’s from different tombs in and around Vergina, Pella and Lefkadia.