When I was in Greece, this foolish historically illiterate young American (me) asked the tour guide talking to all of us tourists (Italians, French, Germans, Poles, Dutch, British) ... "Can you tell us where all the great Greek sculptures are?" (yep, I thought they were just around there, somewhere. I mean you see them on every post card and Greek mag, right???? ).
There was a slight diffused chuckle through the crowd, but still not sensing my own ignorance I persisted, "I mean the really great ones that we see in these brochures, Aphrodite and Hercules? Where can we see these sculptures?"
Then the crowd of Europeans, embarrassed for me let out slightest gasp...
Then the tour guide said, "Oh, so you are from America? What part?"
...I replied, "a Phoenix Arizona".
"Oh well, that explains it then. (they all laughed but desperately held it back trying not to be rude to me I think).
"Let me ask you, have you heard of the Roman Empire? It came much later, after our majestic Greek civilization here?"
.... and I said, "Yes, of course, oh so the sculptures are in Italy, then?"
...and he said, "Well not quite." (and everyone gave a very quite under-the-breath laugh and took a deep breath knowing somehow this is going to be a long explanation to this dunce American
..." Did those schools of yours, did they teach you about WWII and who won the war?" .... and I said, "Well America did"
...And then the crowd could bare no more and loudly broke out in laughter, holding nothing back.
..the guide said calming down the crowd, "Now come on, we love your American movies for their charm and heroics, but for real history we should ignore them completely. Perhaps this young man watched to many John Wayne movies, after all, he is from Arizona"
...and everyone laughed at my expense some more.
...But being young and brash and having nothing to loose at this point I said..."Ok, so the Roman's took the great sculptures to back to Italy and then the Germans took them, am I right?"
... "No, our dear Mussolini GAVE them to Berlin, and Germany and Italy where suddenly big friends."
..."So I must go to ...Berlin to see them?"
The Tour guide...."No! no, no" and then audience member who could no longer contain themselves whispered two or three times as I strained to get the answer. 'St. Petersburg'.
The Tour guide said, "To the victor goes the spoils, and off went 2,000 of the best sculptures of the human form that has ever been made to St Petersburg. Russia as we all know took Berlin as the Americans looked on."
.."So I must go to Russia?" I said incredulously.
The tour guide said, "To the Hermitage Museum. Greece has been asking for them back but Russian phones don't work between Moscow and Athens." and everyone laughed again.
Years and years later, I finally had the chance to go. In 1998, I went to St Petersburg to see "the greatest sculptures ever done by the hand of man". While in St Petersburg and while staying at a Best Western (yes I was surprised they had one, that is how unworldly I am) I watched Larry King on CNN on my Hotel TV. The "Russia in Crisis!" segment was on. The CNN broadcast was full of old Russian women imagery, with scarfs and weathered faces that looked worried and sad, clothes all black. Yet I was in shock, I had just spent 7 days walking the streets in the city of St Pete and I never saw such a familiar image - familiar because I have shown it before, while living in the good ol USA. Everywhere I walked, young pretty Russian woman in colorful clothes where about, and the city was alive. But there was Larry King, fretting about "What will President Bill Clinton do next? The Russian Rubel money is in free fall, from 8 to $1 American dollar now to 33 to $1. Pres Clinton arrives in Moscow soon to discuss a bailout with the Russian President".
It was surreal. The next morning on CNN TV there was Bill Clinton shaking hands with the Russian President, everyone all smiles, a major "loan" was in place.... then somewhere later while back in New York Bill Clinton was asked why he did not get any backing for the loan from the "soviets', and Bills reply, I think was something to the effect that they had nothing to pledge for the loan!
I recall being SHOCKED and thinking, what had I just seen? 2000 of the most amazing sculptures EVER! All in the Hermitage. I was SHOCKED from one sculpture to the next. It was a fascinating and amazing tour that took 3 whole days. The Hermitage is THAT big. Think of 5 super malls put together, inlaid with gold and the best works of art from antiquity, and then you may get a sense of it. Nothing to pledge against the loan? Mmmmmmm
Here, let me convey just ONE small shocker...
The one young pretty female guide had told all of us tourists the story (I have to believe its true cause I am an historical illiterate) that long long ago, when the Roman Empire Ruled the earth, that the great Italian sculpture Michelangelo who had been working marble for years and years had heard of the "myth" of the Laocoon sculpture, the famed priest of Apollo. In this sculpture, Laocoon and his two sons are totally entwined by a large snake that is about to bite him on the hip. One of his sons, standing on one leg with the other raised and arms fighting the serpent tries to get free. It was told that just the space between the serpents bite and the son's ankle was more space than any Italian sculpture ever created out of marble.
So Michelangelo decided that before he did his next sculpture that he had to travel to Greece and to the Parthenon to see if it was indeed true that such a sculpture existed. Well it took months for Michelangelo to get to Athens, but when he got there ...this is what he found. http://ancientrome.ru/art/artworken/img.htm?id=2337
And when Michelangelo laid eyes upon this sculpture, he began crying and crying and did not stop crying for ten days. He laid before the feet of the sculpture, refused to eat, and was barely consolable. The myth was true. The greatest sculpture was before him, and that meant a far greater man than he, did it. Michelangelo was struck by how the serpent could wildly swing its body in mid action, great gaps and a fluidity, as if nothing held it up. Not one, but THREE men encircled by the TWO great serpents, all men & serpents caught, frozen in time, in fast action. Roman sculpture found it was hard enough to cut out a simple triangle of marble between two legs and between an arm and body. But here right before Michelangelo was huge immense gaps in marble that floated out effortlessly, men wildly swinging about, the serpents in full attack and the 3 men, fighting for their very lives.... Michelangelo wept, and would not take his eyes off of this: http://ancientrome.ru/art/artworken/img.htm?id=1372
I wept because Bill Clinton, Yale grad?... did not demand this sculpture as collateral for that loan.
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"The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism" ...by author George Smith --
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