Most people have read at least one poem by Cavafy… ‘Ithaka’ possibly…
But how many of us have actually seen the images and figures that prevail his works and mind?
Statues and portraits of Alexander the Great, Dimitrios Poliorcetes, Iulius Caesar or Nero, are presented in align with Cavafy’s poems, bearing the aura of the Hellenistic period, which the Alexandrian poet admired and referred to the most. And of course, alongside the hint, the parable, the irony and the meaning.
The exhibition “Figures’ loved and idealised …Illustrating poems by C.P.Cavafy” focuses on figures that play a leading role in Cavafy's poetry. Inspired by the verse “Voices, loved and idealized” from Cavafy’s poem Voices, the exhibition uses archaeological artefacts to illustrate a selection of poems with mythological and, especially, historical subjects, which experts believe comprise approximately one third of Cavafy’s work.
These are drawn either from myth or from the pages of history and, especially, the broader horizon of the Hellenistic world as it formed under the successors of Alexander the Great. Other sections relate to historical figures and events of the Roman period and Late Antiquity, to the transitional period before Christianity’s predominance, and to the Byzantine and Post-Byzantine periods.
The exhibition is organised in collaboration with the Cavafy Archive/Onassis Foundation and the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports. It presents 67 ancient artefacts, that illustrate the 27 selected poems, and which come from 14 Greek museums. They include sculptures (primarily marble heads, busts, statuettes, and groups), bronze vessels, terracotta figurines and clay vases, faience objects, coins, funerary portraits, grave stelai, as well as icons and ecclesiastical vessels of the Post-Byzantine period.
This exhibition is an evocative exposition of the true meaning of some of Cavafy’s most important poems, bolstered by the museographical display and scenography. Thus, meaning and ancient artefacts merge so that a poem’s moment of conception and writing is moved to the time of Cavafy’s protagonists, offering the reader-visitor a novel ‘communion’.
To coincide with the exhibition, educational programs for schools, workshops for children and families, guided tours and lectures for the public will be organised.
The exhibition is curated by Prof. Nicholas Chr. Stampolidis, Maria D.Tolis, Mimika Giannopoulou
The exhibition is part of the celebrations for the Year of Constantine Cavafy in 2013, which marks 150 years from the birth and 80 years from the death of the great Alexandrian poet.
The exhibition is divided into 5 sections:
| Poems inspired by historical events of the variegated Hellenistic period, as it formed under the successors and descendants of Alexander the Great. This section -in the first gallery of the Stathatos Mansion- begins with the legendary, supreme commander Alexander the Great, king of Macedon. It then moves to King Demetrius Poliorketes of Macedon and his dealings with King Pyrrhus of Epirus, to Antioch and the Seleucids, before focusing on Egypt’s glorious past under the Ptolemies. It refers, in particular, to the increasing influence of Rome on cosmopolitan Alexandria at the time of Cleopatra and Mark Antony and the mood that prevailed after the crushing defeat of their joint forces at the Battle of Actium by Octavian in 31 BC.
The ‘historical’ poems in the second room focus on the Hellenized ‘barbarian’ rulers of the Pontus and Parthia, in regions of Persia and Mesopotamia, on great men of Rome's Republican and Imperial periods, such as Julius Caesar and Nero and on important orators like Herodes Atticus of the 2nd century AD.
| Poems with mythological subjects inspired by the Trojan Cycle, the life of Achilles, the conflicts between illustrious Trojan and Greek heroes, and the relation between gods and mortals. This and the following groups are shown on the first floor.
| Poems with pseudo-historical content, in which imaginary sculptors and metal-smiths create beautiful objects for well-known rulers of the Hellenistic world, with references to Hieron, tyrant of Syracuse in Sicily, Antiochus IV Epiphanes of Syria, and the early years of Roman rule.
These poems examine the connection between art and life, artistic freedom and the ideal in art in relation to the imperatives dictated by authority or by desire for personal gain, both economic and social.
| ‘Funerary’ poems, as scholars call them, in which Alexandrian youths, both pagan and Christian, play the leading role; all of them died prematurely but had, during their lifetime, experienced intellectual and artistic encounters, along with the propensity to sensual and luxurious life.
| Poems referring to worship in Late Antiquity, to pagan and Christian religious practices, and to the often violent transitional period from the old to the new religion, before Christianity’s predominance. This section closes with the poems ‘The priest of the Serapion’ and ‘In Church’, in which Cavafy muses over the ‘glorious’ historical past of the Greek Christian religion in a Post-Byzantine environment.
Constantine Cavafy was born in Alexandria in 1863 and was the ninth child of Petros Cavafy and Charicleia Photiades, both descendants of Constantinopolitan Phanariote bourgeois families. His merchant father, having acquired both Greek and British citizenship, maintained a trading firm in England, but within a few years of his wedding moved it and his family to Alexandria in Egypt in 1855.
After his father's death in 1870 and with the decline of the family business run by his brothers, Cavafy lived for the most part abroad (in England and Constantinople) with his mother and siblings until they finally returned to Alexandria in 1885 when he was 22 years old. The poet’s adolescence years were times of poverty and relocation, largely in England (Liverpool and London), where he likely attended secondary school; there are records of him attending the Hermes Lyceum in Alexandria for a year in 1881-2.
From the incomplete evidence we have for the poet’s subsequent activities in Alexandria, it appears that he was a reporter for newspapers and periodicals, a real estate agent, and a stock broker until 1892, when he joined the Irrigation Service of the Ministry of Public Works, where he remained a salaried employee until 1922.
He wrote his first poetry and prose during his stay in Constantinople in 1884. Bacchial, his first poem, was published in the Leipzig periodical Hesperus in March, 1886. From 1891/2 he began to publish regularly prose articles and individual poems in a variety of media in Alexandria, Constantinople, and Athens.
In 1896, his grandfather George Photiades died in Constantinople, then, in 1899, his mother Charicleia, with whom he had lived his 36 years. During the next decade he travelled to Paris and London (1897), and then to Athens (1901, 1903, 1905). From 1907, he remained at 10, Rue Lepsius in Alexandria, steeped in monotonous solitude with visions of historical and fantastic personalities who emerged from the books that he read or consulted, primarily literary and historical, indications of his meticulous obsession with precision and detail.
Cavafy’s introduction to the Greek literary world in 1903 is due to Gregorios Xenopoulos, who, in the periodical Panathenaia, published an important article entitled A Poet, in which he commented on eight poems, among which the first were Prayer and Interruption. Cavafy’s introduction to an international readership is due to British novelist E. M. Forster, whom he met in Alexandria in 1916 during the First World War. Forster published The Poetry of C. P. Cavafy with English translations of works like Alexandrian Kings and In the Month of Athyr in London's Athenaeum in 1919. He also urged George Valassopoulos to begin translating Cavafy’s poetry for a planned English edition by the Hogarth Press. The English translation of his 'Ithaca' appeared in The Criterion, edited by T. S. Eliot, in 1924. Cavafy’s intellectual relationship with Forster is documented in the letters they exchanged between 1917 and 1932.
Cavafy’s recognition in the Greek-speaking world of the time came slowly amidst both literary disputes, and favourable appraisals of his work, which came to a head in 1924. In 1926, the government of the Pangalos dictatorship honoured Cavafy with the Order of the Phoenix. In 1930, he was sworn in as a member of the commission for Rupert Brooke’s memorial in Skyros.
Constantine Petrou Photiades Cavafy died in Alexandria on April 29, 1933, his birthday, at 70 years of age. He had had a tracheotomy for throat cancer at the Red Cross Hospital in Athens, after which the poet was voiceless, but ‘conversed’ with friends and visitors with written notes. He died without ever seeing a complete collection of his poems.
All images C.P.Cavafy. "Figures loved and idealised …" installation views, © Museum of Cycladic Art. Marilena Stafylidou