A “Romantic” Encounter in Hamburg

Since yesterday I’ve been in Hamburg. I was invited to give a talk last night about my research at the Archäologisches Institut. Even though I rather predictably stayed up quite a bit later than I’d planned, enjoying dinner and German beer with the staff and students of the institute, I got up early this morning and have been trying to cram as much into my short stay as possible. I’ve never been to Hamburg before and didn’t know what to expect but I’ve had a very interesting day and one surprisingly filled with Greeks and Romans.

This morning I had the pleasure of being shown around the antiquities section of the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe by the curator. I must confess I didn’t know much about the museum before but they have a very impressive array of Greek, Roman and Etruscan pieces, well lit and displayed in an inventive and thought-provoking way. I’d definitely recommend visiting if you happen to be in Hamburg. I’m only sorry that I couldn’t take any photos. I decided to travel light with only hand luggage which meant no room for the camera. It’s one of the few times that I’ve found myself wish I’d joined the 21st century and got myself a smartphone instead of my old trusty basic-as-they-come Samsung.

This afternoon, after rushing around the streets trying to see as much of the city as possible I decided to go to the Kunsthalle,  thinking it would be nice to get lost in the paintings without thinking about ancient history for a couple of hours. I didn’t expect to find myself walking around a fascinating exhibition of work by an early 19th century artist, full of paintings to do with Greek and Roman antiquity.

I’d never heard of Franz Ludwig Catel (1778-1856) before and was rather wondering if I should have. Now that I’m back at the hotel I’ve discovered there isn’t much about him on the internet either (not much more than  a  Wikipedia page and the pages about the exhibition) so I now feel a bit better about my ignorance and suspect that he probably really isn’t that well known, at least not outside of Germany. He is, however, an artist that anyone with an interest in Greek or Roman antiquity should know. A large proportion his work consists of scenes set in Italy and Greece with ancient monuments and buildings in the background.

Catel spent a lot of time in Italy and was an associate of people like Goethe and Schiller. Although he lived into the mid 19th century he seems to have been at his most prolific in the 1810s and 20s, the period of Byron and Shelley. His paintings are very much in tune with the Romantic spirit and are filled with themes such as the wildness of nature (there were some evocative depictions of Vitruvius smouldering above the bay of Naples and even a couple of views into the crater itself) and glorifications of the simplicity of the peasant way of life (There were plenty of  Italian peasants in traditional costume and riding donkeys – in one a woman was even managing to breastfeed a baby while riding a donkey!). There were also a couple of imaginings of episodes from ancient history including Pompey visiting Cicero at his villa, the two men sitting at a table on a terrace, attended by slaves, with a magnificent seaside vista in the background.

But the paintings that really intrigued me were the ones of Greek and Roman antiquities. Most of them were of monuments in Italy including  views of the archaic temples at Agrigento in Sicily and some showing tomb monuments along the Appian Way. The paintings are so interesting because this was the formative period in the history of the discipline of Classical archaeology, when antiquarian scholars were, for the first time, becoming interested in studying these monuments and thinking about what they might teach us about the ancient world. So, the paintings don’t just capture the monuments, they also capture the enchanting power that antiquity had in early 19th century culture.

There were also a couple of paintings that showed monuments in Athens. Their subject was the Greek War of Independence, which was raging as the artworks were being made. In keeping with the Byronic mood of the time, they depict the heroic battles of the Greeks against the oppressive Turks. Perhaps it’s not too surprising that these fights were set in and among the monuments of ancient Athens because it was, after all, the growing interest in ancient Greece that lay at the heart of the identification with the cause among the northwest Europeans. What I did find surprising, however, is that Catel had apparently never actually been to Greece even though the monuments were depicted extremely accurately. Of course he must have based the works on paintings or drawings he’d seen by somebody else but by who might that have been? The information boards frustratingly didn’t say.

The fighting in one scene was taking place in the Pnyx (the meeting place of the Classical Athenian assembly) and the point of view was nearly exactly the same as a rather fanciful reconstruction of Perikles’ famous funeral oration by fellow German Philipp Foltz that is very well known and which I suspect many lecturers dealing with Classical Athens have – as I have – shown to students when discussing the speech.

“Pericles’ Funeral Oration” by Philip Foltz (1852)

But Foltz painted his scene several decades after the one by Catel so that can’t have been what Catel worked from. In any case Catel’s painting includes the so-called Frankish Tower built at the entrance to the Acropolis sometime between the 13th and 14th centuries, which isn’t on Foltz’s for obvious reasons. (In case you’re wondering, the tower was controversially demolished in the late 19th century to restore the Acropolis to something closer to its Classical appearance). I wonder if there might have been a view of the Acropolis from the Pnyx in Stuart and Revett’s “The Antiquities of Athens”, published in 1762 but I won’t be able to check that until I’m back in Oxford.

Photograph of the Athenian Acropolis c.1860 with the “Frankish Tower” still there

Again I wish I had pictures to show of Catel’s own paintings but again I don’t – this time not only because I didn’t have my camera but, of course, because I wouldn’t have been allowed to take photos in the exhibition anyway. There is a book about Catel and the exhibition on sale in the museum shop but it’s a hefty tome and I was doubting whether I’d be able to get it back with me. Having, now discovered that there are very few of his paintings online and that the handful on the museum website don’t include any of those to do with the ancient world I think I’m going to have to go back tomorrow to get it – after making my Beatles pilgrimage to the Reeperbahn. The Catel exhibition almost makes up for finding out that the Beatlemania museum here sadly closed down due to lack of interest just three years after it opened

The Catel exhibition is going to be on until 31st January so if you do find yourself in Hamburg before then it is definitely worth taking a look. I’d also be glad to hear if anyone knows anything more about Catel or has suggestions as to where he might have found his inspiration for that picture of the Pnyx and Acropolis.


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