My favourite photograph is actually a drawing, made in 1805 by Simone Pomardi and Edward Dodwell. At the time the Napoleonic wars were raging across Europe, which made it difficult, even dangerous to undertake the Grand Tour of archaeological sites, a rite of passage for well-heeled young men of the time. Pomardi and Dodwell recognised a niche in the market created by these circumstances and decided to make and publish a series of drawings of the great classical ruins of Greece, which could be sold back in England to those unable to travel to see these sites in person. Three main things intrigue me about this project, all of which I think are nicely embodied in this particular drawing.
“Pomardi and Dodwell instead found a country which was a shadow of its former self, the great monuments shattered, often built in and over by the occupying Ottoman empire”
Firstly, as already noted, it’s not actually a photograph, it’s a drawing but one made using a camera obscura. Normally a room sized phenomenon, the camera obscura had been successfully miniaturised in the seventeenth century and subsequently became a useful portable drawing aid employed by artists including Canaletto and Joshua Reynolds. By tracing the image seen in the camera, artists could create works of far greater detail and accuracy. For me this reflects the interesting blurring that existed between fine art and photography in the centuries preceding the formal ‘invention’ of photography itself. I find it fascinating that artists were employing technologies that allowed them to see the world portioned and partitioned in the particular way made possible by cameras, and which led them to create works with characteristically photographic detail and perspective.
The second thing I find arresting is the documentary quality of the drawing. The convention at the time was to depict a magnificent, romantic image of classical Greece, a tendency evident in the work of Julien-David Le Roy. Pomardi and Dodwell instead found a country which was a shadow of its former self, the great monuments shattered, often built in and over by the occupying Ottoman empire. In this drawing for example, the Athenian Acropolis is shown covered with garrison buildings; the Parthenon which is supposedly the drawing’s main subject almost hidden behind them. By abandoning their expectations and instead drawing what they found, Pomardi and Dodwell helped to generate awareness in western Europe about the extent of Greek woes, fostering support which would lead to vital aid in the 1821 War of Independence.
The third and final thing that I find interesting about this drawing is that in the context of the current European debt crisis Greece is once again often described or depicted in terms that present it as a ruined vassal state, occupied by the powers of international finance. Equally, it’s often noted that countries with difficult or dark histories are forever doomed to be overshadowed by them. What is equally true but less often said, is that countries with a glorious past like Greece are in a sense doomed to live in the shadow of this history, always hopelessly seeking to repeat the successes of the past.