Waugh at Knossos

A quote from Waugh features in a portion of Prof. Mary Beard’s recent book Confronting the Classics that has been posted on the history website Erenow. In a chapter entitled “Builder of Ruins” describing the excavation and restoration of the ruins at Knossos in Crete by Sir Arthur Evans in the early 20th Century, she opens with a cite to Waugh’s Labels. In this passage, Waugh describes his reaction to Evans’ somewhat controversial methods:

Evelyn Waugh was characteristically unimpressed by the remains of the prehistoric Minoan palace at Knossos and its famous decoration. His 1930 travelogue, Labels, contains a memorable account of his disappointment, not so much at the excavation site itself (‘where,’ he writes archly, ‘Sir Arthur Evans … is rebuilding the palace’) but at its collection of prize paintings and sculpture, which had been removed to the museum in Heraklion. In the sculpture, he ‘saw nothing to suggest any genuine aesthetic feeling at all’. The frescoes were much more difficult to judge, ‘since only a few square inches of the vast area exposed to our consideration are earlier than the last twenty years, and it is impossible to disregard the suspicion that their painters have tempered their zeal for accurate reconstructions with a somewhat inappropriate predilection for covers of Vogue.’

It seems to have been relatively easy for Waugh, visiting soon after the paintings’ restoration, to spot quite how little of these masterpieces of Minoan art was actually Minoan. Almost a century on, and after a good deal of fading, most visitors to the Heraklion museum today are happily unaware that the icons of prehistoric Cretan culture that feature on thousands of postcards, posters and museum souvenirs…[are] largely recreations of the early twentieth century AD. Nor do most of them realise that those distinctively primitive, stumpy red columns, which are the trademark of the site of Knossos, are built wholly of modern concrete and are part of the ‘rebuilding’ by Evans.

Waugh goes on to visit the site where Evans is in the process of rebuilding the palace and concludes that

if he ever finishes even a part of this vast undertaking, it will be a place of oppressive wickedness. Labels (London, 1930, pp. 136-37).  

This same website recently posted the text from another of Prof. Beard’s books in which she quoted Waugh’s description of the Parthenon, also from Labels. See earlier post.

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