Hellenistic Athens comes to 18th Century Oxford

Last time I was inspired by the Radcliff Observatory, which stands near my place of work in Oxford, to talk about the Hellenistic building that served as its inspiration, the Tower of the Winds in Athens. Now I’d like to pay some closer attention to the observatory itself and to the question of what it might have meant when it was built in the 18th Century that it copied, in some of its details, this ancient monument. Reception studies, or looking at the way that later times and cultures have responded to Greek and Roman antiquity, has become a booming area of scholarship for classicists and ancient historians in recent years. I’d like to think of this blog piece as my first, cautious, engagement with this issue.

The architectural resemblance between the Tower of the Winds and the Radcliffe Observatory is actually rather slight. The Tower of the Winds is a 12m tall, octagonal tower with a single entrance and no windows. The Radcliffe Observatory is a much larger, three tiered, wedding-cake-like building. The ground floor is rectangular, the second storey loosely semi-circular, the third storey the tower itself. The tower has eight sides but it is not perfectly octagonal, having four long and four short sides. All eight faces are fitted with windows – large windows framed by neo-Classical porches on the large sides, two small windows, one above the other on the short sides.

Left: The Tower of the Winds. Right: The Radcliffe Observatory
Left: The Tower of the Winds. Right: The Radcliffe Observatory

The architectural order used for the observatory tower, Corinthian, (easy to recognise with its flowery column capitals) is the same as the Tower of the Winds but the ancient building only has two modest columns framing each of its two entrances, whereas the observatory has articulated columns and pilasters on each of the long sides of the tower. Pilasters with Ionic capitals are used to decorate the lower parts of the building. The Tower of the Winds is built of white Pentelic marble, the same stone as the Parthenon, while the observatory is built from a yellowish limestone. Both buildings are decorated around the edges of their roofs with spouts to carry off rainwater in the form of lions’ heads, which were fairly common in the ancient world. Where the observatory does copy the Tower of the Winds closely, however, as we saw last time, is in the series of relief representations of the eight directional winds that decorated each of its faces.

The decision to model the observatory on the Tower of the Winds was presumably made by the second architect to work on the building, James Wyatt (1746-1813), who took over the commission from the first architect Henry Keene when construction had already begun. (My knowledge of the construction history of the observatory is completely based on an article published by Geoffrey Tyack in an edited volume on the history of the building. It is worth noting that Tyack shows that the Wyatt did not take over the building after Keene died as Wikipedia claims but that those in charge of the building chose to change architects for some unknown reason). The artist who sculpted the winds was John Bacon (1740-1799).The observatory took nearly twenty years to complete though it went into use as soon as the ground floor was completed. It was finished in 1794 and the tower and its relief sculptures were naturally the last part to be built.

Reconstructed front elevation of the Tower of the Winds by Stuart and Revett
Reconstructed front elevation of the Tower of the Winds by Stuart and Revett

The Tower of the Winds with its reliefs had first become known in Britain just thirty years before that when James Stuart and Nicholas Revett published their truly seminal and exquisitely illustrated The Antiquities of Athens. The book has rightly earned a place as one of the founding publications of Greek archaeology and reproductions of its plates are still regularly used to illustrate textbooks and to provide insight into what the ancient remains of Athens looked like two and a half centuries ago. Often the drawings preserve details of buildings that have since disappeared, which makes them an invaluable resource for research into these monuments. Wyatt and Bacon may also have known the slightly earlier publication on the monuments of Greece by the Frenchman, Julien David le Roy although his illustrations of the Tower were rather more impressionistic than those of Stuart and Revett so that it is clear that the sculptures on the observatory were based on the latter.


The Tower of the Winds by Julien David le Roy
The Tower of the Winds by Julien David le Roy


Three of Stewart and Revett's drawings of the eight winds
Three of Stewart and Revett’s drawings of the eight winds

The Athens of Stuart and Revett’s day was worlds away from the sprawling concrete metropolis the city has become, or even the elegant neoclassical city that it briefly was in the late 19th and early 20th century. Their drawings show Athens as a modest and rather ramshackle provincial town with houses nestled in and among the surviving ruins of antiquity. Even the Acropolis was covered with buildings, which were all cleared away after Greece became independent and Athens was made the new capital, with the aim of restoring the sacred rock to something approaching its ancient splendour. The Tower of the Winds, as the Antiquities of Athens shows, had half disappeared beneath centuries of rising street levels and building work.

View of the Tower of the Winds in the 18th century by Stuart and Revett
View of the Tower of the Winds in the 18th century by Stuart and Revett

Greece at this time was still a part of the Ottoman Empire, which had for centuries been largely inaccessible to foreigners and was only now relaxing its borders as its former power began to crumble. Italy, and especially Rome, by contrast had, for two centuries been the ultimate destination of the so-called “Grand Tour”, a jaunt around the continent by which the upper class young men (and ever so occasionally women) of northwest Europe completed their education. In the 18th century the buildings and artworks from the heart of ancient Roman civilisation had become familiar in countries like Britain, at least among the well to do, whereas the antiquities of Greece were largely unknown. Stuart and Revett’s book signalled the beginning of a growing interest in Greece in Britain and elsewhere. This new philhellenism would inspire a so-called Greek revival in British architecture and in the early nineteenth century would exert a profound influence over the works of the second generation of Romantic Poets – think of Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn, Shelley’s Hellas and, above all, the many poems by Byron on Greek themes.

Increasing fascination with Greece also led to British interventions in Greek affairs, some welcome others less so. Between 1801 to 1812 Thomas Bruce, the 7th of Earl of Elgin’s interest in ancient Greek art led him to remove substantial amounts of sculpture from the buildings on the Athenian Acropolis for shipment back to Britain. In 1832 Greece won a decade long war of independence against the Ottomans with significant help from British, French and Russian forces, all spurred on by philhellenic sentiment on the home front. Byron, of course, died in Greece having gone to fight for the cause. The creation of the Radcliffe Observatory, roughly halfway between Stuart and Revett’s publication and the birth of the modern Greek nation state must be set against this background. But the choice of the Tower of the Winds as a model for the building should probably be seen as more than merely an expression of philhellenism.

In the first place modelling the observatory on the Tower of the Winds must have had something to do with the ancient building’s function. The Tower of the Winds may not have been an observatory but it was a building that could plausibly be linked to scientific observation – not of the stars but of the elements; it was, as we saw last time, a monumental weather vane, sundial and water-clock. Geoffrey Tyack suggests that the water-clock could have played some role in the measurement of the stars. Although there is no ancient evidence for this, the device would certainly have allowed the measurement of time at night, when the sundials would not have worked. Whether or not the Tower of the Winds actually had anything to do with astronomy it is an intriguing suggestion that people in the 18th century might at least have thought it did. The Tower of the Winds, more than any other building known from antiquity (then and arguably still now) could be thought to represent the pinnacle of ancient achievement in the sciences just as the new observatory was at the forefront of the 18th century quest for knowledge.

The fact that the building was so clearly mentioned by Vitruvius, whose writings, ever since the Renaissance, had been seen as the cornerstone of western architecture, must also surely have added to its appeal. We need to remember that in the 18th century a large part of a decent education still meant an education in the Classics. Even if they weren’t able to cite the relevant passage of Vitruvius verbatim, members of the aristocracy and gentry – and certainly the academic community of Oxford, which was for the most part made up of aristocracy and gentry – would have known enough of the Classics to feel some thrill of excitement that Stuart and Revett had brought back illustrated proof of the survival of a monument from ancient times that was referred to by one of those sources. We can be sure that the drawings must have been received with some excitement in Britain because several other buildings were built in the 18th and 19th century that were modelled on the Tower.* Stuart and Revett themselves both designed buildings in the UK that were loosely based on the building.

Two of the representations of the signs of the zodiac on the observatory
Two of the representations of the signs of the zodiac on the observatory

The decoration of the observatory included other references to antiquity beyond the relief decorations of the winds. The semi-circular second storey was decorated with relief representations of the signs of the zodiac, which were based on the designs shown on another surviving artefact from antiquity, the globe carried by the so-called Farnese Atlas – a presumably Roman period statue (possibly a copy of a Hellenistic original) of the mythical Titan holding up the celestial sphere. Vitruvius tells us that the Tower of the Winds had been topped by a weathervane in the form of the merman Triton, fancifully restored on Stuart and Revett’s drawing (see the first reconstructed elevation drawing above) even though it had long since disappeared by their day. The observatory was topped not by a Triton but, rather appropriately, by statues of Atlas and Herakles supporting an undecorated globe, a reference to one of Herakles’ labours in which he relieved Atlas temporarily of his task so that Atlas could retrieve the Apples of the Hysperides for him. An educated viewer of the observatory would no doubt have made the link between the reliefs of the zodiac, the Farnese Atlas and the sculpture on the roof. The north side of the observatory was also decorated with relief depictions of morning, noon and evening, personified as human figures in highly Classical style. The building as a whole was therefore designed to appeal to the sensibilities of an educated audience steeped in knowledge of ancient culture and art.

The Farnese Atlas
The Farnese Atlas
Atlas and Herakles on the roof of the observatory
Atlas and Herakles on the roof of the observatory

In understanding the particular appeal of the Tower of the Winds as a model for an astronomical observatory we also need to think of the academic climate at the time it was built. In the 18th century the first rifts between the humanities and the exact sciences – rifts that have widened by our own day, largely through the increasingly specialised knowledge required in the exact sciences, into a seemingly unbridgeable gulf – had yet to appear. This was the golden age of the amateur gentleman polymath who was able to stay abreast of, and actually understand, the latest advances in thinking across the full breadth of academic endeavour from philology to chemistry, from economics to biology. Travels to exotic foreign lands – as Greece at that time surely was – to seek out long lost antiquities and scanning the heavens to better understand the orbits of the planets and movements of the stars were both carried out in the same Enlightenment spirit of pushing back the boundaries of human understanding.

Stuart and Revett’s mission to Athens had been financed by the Society of the Dilettanti, a sort of gentlemen’s club founded early in the 18th century to further the study of antiquity. The society still exists today. Strikingly many of the club’s early members were also actively engaged in research in the exact scientists and were also fellows of the Royal Society. In copying the Tower of the Winds the Radcliffe Observatory was arguably making a reference not just to the ancient building, but also to Stuart and Revett’s cutting edge research and groundbreaking publication. In other words, while we can now only see the Tower of the Winds as something very old, in the 18th century it was possible to see it as something both ancient and invigoratingly new all at once. And the observatory as the first (nearly) octagonal building in Oxford would certainly have looked strikingly new at the time it was built.

Thinking about the creation of the Radcliffe Observatory shows that if we know something about the historical context in which a building was erected it is at least possible to make some educated guesses as to what it might have meant to the people at the time it was built. This discussion has strayed somewhat beyond the period I am concerned with in my research – Roman Greece – but the central issue that I’ve looked at here is close to the one I am exploring for the ancient world – the meaning of public monuments.

If you happen to have read my last piece you might have noticed that I didn’t actually do what I said I would do this time, which was to consider the observatory in connection to another monument that stands nearby – a fountain with a statue of Triton as its centrepiece. I had far too much fun talking about the observatory and realised that what I want to say about its relationship (or lack of one) to the fountain is really a completely different issue. I really will discuss this in my next piece where I want to use these two modern structures to think about the way we interpret ancient evidence for the meaning of monuments.


* Quite a few people contacted me after my last piece to tell me about buildings that copy the Tower of the Winds, including a few I’d not heard about before. If you know any more please do let me know. I will make a list.


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