BMCR 2004.09.28

The Ruins of the Most Beautiful Monuments of Greece. Introduction by Robin Middleton, Translation by David Britt

, , , The ruins of the most beautiful monuments of Greece. Texts & documents. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2004. xi, 550 pages : illustrations ; 26 cm.. ISBN 0892366699 $60.00.

Le Roy is not a household name, even in those few houses that have an interest in early travelers to pre-independent, Ottoman Greece, including Athens.1 Le Roy (1724-1803) participated in the eighteenth-century debate over the relative merits of the Greeks and Romans (also, of the Egyptians, Etruscans, etc.) in the history of architecture. His first edition of Les ruines des plus beaux monuments de la Grèce, in 1758, was partly a travel report and partly archaeology (descriptive rather than destructive, as were the monumental and epigraphic activities of Michel Fourmont, 1729-30). But there was more, since the volume was also polemical architectural theory with its own aesthetic. This element produced enthusiasm for the still barely known style and details of classical Greek architecture, especially Athenian. The sloppiness, however, of his identifications, measurements, and arguments led James Stuart to critical riposte. This serious “dilettante,” one of the famous British antiquarian duo, Stuart and Nicholas Revett, produced after long delay volumes that appeared in 1762, 1790, 1794, and 1816 (reprinted e.g., New York: Benjamin Blom, 1968-). Le Roy’s second edition was fuller in many ways (footnotes, quotations, and extensive references), and included lavish folio (55 cm.) illustrations, and over sixty engraved views and plans. These embellished two essays on the history and aesthetics of ancient (and modern) architecture. The combative ally of the Popes, G.B. Piranesi, another critic of the Frenchman, but for his Hellenic bias and not for his errors in measurement, came out fighting from the Roman camp (1761; his relevant essay is also available in English in the same Getty “texts and documents” series). Le Roy was one of the Graecomanes, endorsing gusto Greco. In this zero-sum game, “an essential element in the elevation of the Greeks was the disparagement of the Romans’ achievement” (77). The accumulation of antiquities, the aesthetics of post and lintel, and the poetics of ruins are all fascinating problems.

Robin Middleton, professor emeritus of art history at Columbia University, has written a long, helpful introduction and critique of the work (144 pages, 36 illustrations, and 385 notes). In addition to the introduction, translation, and beautiful, if small, plates, one finds a bibliography of Le Roy’s publications, a bibliography of the works that he cited, a facsimile of the book’s prospectus, a comparison of the texts and plates of the two editions, and a modern index to the introduction, text, and notes. We learn about the milieu of the author and the virulence of some of the controversies that divided learned Europe. This will be an indispensable edition for anyone who cares about the early, learned depictions of Greek architecture and eighteenth-century quarrels between the “ancients” and the “moderns.” The volume is part of the “texts and documents” series published by the Getty Research Institute.

Le Roy was part of a small wave of travelers reaching the Ottoman preserve beginning in the 1740s. He reached the Turkish backwater of Athens in February 1755, and later visited Sparta, Corinth, and Navplion. His stay lasted three months. The better-known Comte de Caylus, a dandy, a frivolous poet, an eccentrically obsessive collector of antiquities as well as an amateur scholar, was one of his patrons. Diderot and Lessing mocked the Count (62, 64), but he must have been a somebody to give three collections of antiquities to the King of France, even if he knew little Latin and no Greek. A forerunner of archaeologists, he recognized the value of rubbish for knowledge of cultures long forgotten (quoted, p. 75).

No one had yet seriously excavated or identified many of the monuments, including the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Some Peisistratid began it; Antiochus Epiphanes continued the work; and the Spanish Philhellene Emperor Hadrian finished it—seven hundred years after the tyrant laid the cornerstone. Its identification would not be definitively “nailed” until Francis Cranmer Penrose’s (1817-1903) publication (1851, rev. 1888) in which he also explained the optical refinements of the Parthenon: An investigation of the principles of Athenian architecture; or, The results of a survey conducted chiefly with reference to the optical refinements exhibited in the construction of the ancient buildings at Athens (London 1888).2 Pausanias (1.18.6-9), as often, unintentionally confused the issue for those who tried to follow his path many centuries later. They faced only fragments of ancient Athens and uncertainty about where he entered the city to begin his tour. Le Roy thought the huge octastyle temple (oddly 8 by 20 columns, with two porches having three rows of columns) was Hadrian’s Pantheon (still not identified), while others thought it was part of a hundred-columned library or gymnasium (cf. Paus. 1.18.9). See briefly, John Travlos, “Olympieion,” in his Pictorial Dictionary of Ancient Athens (New York 1971) 402-11. Other monuments that Le Roy wrongly identified, often in respectable company, included Herodes’ Odeion (Le Roy’s Theater of Dionysus), Hadrian’s huge library (“ruins in the bazaar” in the region now known as Monastiraki), the Hephaestion (Theseion), the Pnyx (Odeion of Pericles), and the Athena gate of the Roman Agora (temple of Augustus). One smiles condescendingly, but one requires imagination to reconstruct the many difficulties facing the eighteenth-century travelers to Ottoman Athens.

Not for all were the real ruins magical or evocative; Le Roy’s are sometimes fanciful or at least picturesque. For Montaigne, even Rome’s ruins were disgusting, although Diderot was thrown into melancholy. They did not have “Blue Guides” or any equivalent. The ruined edifices were hard to see, literally, and, when visible, as the Parthenon was gloriously so for Cyriacus of Ancona, ca. 1435, they were not easy to see straight. His drawing (fig. 6) shows fluted Doric columns with blunt fillets, not sharp arrises, and others (e.g., the Lyonnaise Jacob Spon, a visitor in 1675/6) repeated or reinvented his error. This oddity seems the odder because the Temple/ Church/ Mosque was still in its unexploded state (that is, prior to 26 September 1687). Then, the infamous Venetian adventurer, Francesco Morosini, cannonaded the Acropolis. He achieved what he was hired for. Richard Pococke’s “Temple of Minerva at Athens” (here fig. 10) has a very Roman tympanum as well as the same fluted Doric columns. They saw what they expected to find.

Stuart devoted his first elaborate and large volume to two structures minor in comparison to the great temples, namely, the monument of Lysicrates and the Tower of the Winds. For Le Roy this was pedantry misplaced. His interest was more philosophical than antiquarian. In return, his rival’s subsequent volumes expressed justified contempt for Le Roy’s approximations and weak perspectives. Unfortunately, no dervishes aided the Frenchman’s requests for access.

Middleton’s discussion (39-59) of the place of Homer and of the sublime in literary aesthetics, with the contributions of Fénelon, Racine, and Madame Dacier the translator, will be welcome to philologists and cultural historians although largely irrelevant to the subject at hand. Le Roy quotes widely both earlier travelers such as Pococke, Spon, Wheler, and Wood, as well as theorists such as Palladio and Montesquieu.

Middleton finds his subject’s oeuvre uncongenial: his work was “erratic and partial” (113), unscholarly; his revision was a scissors-and-paste operation (109); the product was large and unwieldy (142). His culminating statements on ancient history and archaeology had little new, but the totality is “more vital, more dynamic than anything previously attempted” (111-12). Even some of his successors’ books, such as Jacques-Françoise Blondel’s Cours d’architecture (1771) still had “no sense of the forces” (114) that determine style and structure. The eighteenth century admired the Greeks, their aesthetic and their arts, but knew little of their history and had little autoptic experience of their architecture (185). Mediocre authors repeated each other’s platitudes — a fault not yet banished or extinct from publishing.

Le Roy lived thirty-three years beyond his revision. He entertained Dr. Samuel Johnson and Hester Thrale, the beer baroness, later Mrs. Piozzi, in Paris in 1775 (127-8). We know of the rendezvous through the diaries of the English (see her Thraliana). The architect did not receive commissions or build structures. He belonged to the Royal Academy of Architects from 1758 to 1793 (its dissolution in the French revolution). It met through the storming of the Bastille (they read Vitruvius on 13 July). The business of the academy kept him busy, as did his teaching. He became interested in the sailing ships of the ancients and in designing sailing ships of the future for France’s channel ports and navigable waterways. On this topic he exchanged views in print from 1777 to 1802 (more than twenty items), sometimes with Benjamin Franklin (131, bibl. pp. 503-5). He built a freight-boat for use on the Seine that drew only three feet of water when fully loaded (132). He studied hot-air balloons. He also published on the length of the Greek foot (1769), a topic of interest before and during the French revolution, and appended material on metrology in both volumes (here 284-91, 447-55). His restorations, especially of the Propylaea (cf. pls. 6, 24-26), inspired working architects in Paris, London, and elsewhere. His work was well received on the Continent. He inspected the originals for himself and, no slavish imitator (89), tried to extract principles to improve the appearance and experience of large buildings (144).

Le Roy describes his journey from Rome to Athens to Constantinople and back through Delos to Athens (236-44, 273-83), and then his sojourn with four companions from Athens to Sparta (427-35). The author’s notes follow each chapter (often testimonia, here quoted in English as well as in Greek or Latin) and then the editor’s notes. Le Roy’s identification of a temple at Thorikos with unfluted columns perhaps refers to a strange, robbed out Doric structure with fourteen columns down the side (telesterion?), partly transported from its site and thrice excavated (cf. Hans Rupprecht Goette, Athens, Attica, and the Megarid: an archaeological guide, London & New York, 2001, rev. and updated English ed., p. 218). He fails to draw the telesterion at Eleusis because of its ruined state (428). He oddly attributes drums to the monolithic columns of Apollo’s temple at Corinth (431). Passing through Thyrea in the Argolid with all his books (434-5), Le Roy quotes Pausanias 2.38.5 on the so-called “battle of the champions.” Britt translates “Athenians” for Argives, but, without a copy of the original, I am not sure whose error we face. The handsome paperback edition under review has signature-bound fascicles. The editor displays formidable erudition concerning the architecture and culture of the eighteenth century. The translation, judging by excerpts of the French quoted in the notes, is excellent. There are thirty-six additional figures in the introduction.

Le Roy’s contents are printed in the French manner, at the end of each original volume (361, 499). A bibliography of his many works (1756-1802) follows, and a list of the works (Classical and modern) that he probably used, in their probable editions — difficult as it is to determine whether Amyot’s 1565, Dacier’s 1735, Cruserius’s Greek and Latin of 1624 were the texts in Le Roy’s hands. No descriptive list of the sixty-one plates appears, an unfortunate circumstance that leads the reader through much futile hunting and flipping. The full index helps with this. Twenty-four are views; thirty-two are measured drawings, and the remaining four are maps. Le Roy drew all sixty of the first edition’s and two of the three added to the second. The captions of four had to change after Stuart’s able (Le Roy: “pedantic”) criticisms. The latter plates measure 23 x 16 inches. Oberlin College owns the only somewhat accessible copy in the state of Ohio. The plates are hard to read in their reduced form (8 1/8 x 5 3/8 inches), especially names and numbers on the maps (e.g., of Sparta, p. 436). Le Roy’s drawings are pleasantly quaint, intentionally showing modern Greek peasants gesticulating, and city-dwellers strolling “with supine indifference” (Gibbon’s phrase), chatting, doing their wash, and dancing amongst the re-cycled and crumbling antiquities.

Le Roy tried to reconcile the various ancient reports with what he could see: the shaped rocks on or under the ground and even under buildings of a later age. Having confused the Odeion of Herodes with the (still buried) theater of Dionysus (258, so in Stuart and “Athenian” Revett too), and the Pnyx with Pericles’ Odeion (265), he more alarmingly drew fourteen columns on the side of the then, and sometimes still, so-called Theseion (pl. 7, p. 260). After the error became known to him, he openly declined to rectify the drawing in the second edition (see 298 n.49). He attempted to solve the already old problem of the Hekatompedon. He argued that the name reflects the external width of (what we call) the Parthenon stylobate (105 Attic feet, or 94 Doric feet ; 30.88 meters plus or minus — even today it is hard to find two sources offering one measurement unless one writer takes it from the other).

This edition of Le Roy is a welcome addition to the eighteenth century literature on the recovery and reception of ancient Athens and its buildings. It remains a delight to read, although Le Roy became defensive in the revised edition. We owe thanks to the editor, translator, and publisher3 for making the nearly forgotten French traveler more accessible than he ever before has been.


1. Richard Stoneman’s Land of Lost Gods (Norman Oklahoma 1987) is a good point of entry. Middleton (154 n. 76) directs the interested to K. Simopoulos, Xenoi taxidiotes sten Hellada, 3 vols. in 4 (Athens 1970-75; non vidi) for a comprehensive survey and guide to other studies. Lya and Raymond Matton’s Athènes et ses monuments du xvii e siècle à nos jours (Athens 1963) quotes the traveller Edward Dodwell’s typical judgment of Le Roy’s drawings: “a collection of errors and inaccuracies.” Jean Baelen, La chronique du Parthénon (Paris 1956), “non destiné aux érudits,” has smaller ambitions but a charming chapter on “admirateurs abusifs.”

2. Vincent Bruno, The Parthenon (New York 1974) provides many useful essays and illustrations of the history, archaeology, and appreciation of the puzzling structure — perhaps never a temple. W.B. Dinsmoor’s essay,”Design and Building Techniques,” 171-99, from his long-admired textbook, Architecture of Ancient Greece provides much essential detail.

3. The proofreader fell asleep at the helm on 102-3 where he allows the simple (?) word “its” to stand misspelled four times. I laughed at 161 n. 130 where Millenium [sic] in a title sails by. After misspelling this word myself in a review, I later repaired my ego damage by winning a 3,000 wager on its spelling from a colleague teaching in Romance languages. Otherwise, the level of accuracy in the Getty Trust volume is generally high.