BMCR 2021.09.02

Lost worlds of ancient and modern Greece: Gilbert Bagnani

, Lost worlds of ancient and modern Greece. Gilbert Bagnani: the adventures of a young Italian archaeologist in Greece, 1921-1924. Archaeological lives. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2020. Pp. 380. ISBN 9781789694529. £25.00.
The three years from 1921 to 1924 arguably constitute the most significant period in the history of Greece in the twentieth century. Runners-up would be the German occupation and World War II, and the civil war that followed, or perhaps the Balkan Wars of the 1910s, but the fundamental upheaval that roiled and transformed Greek society in the early 1920s created permanent change that continues to this day. The sack of Smyrna and massacre of its citizens in September 1922  sparked a wave of refugees who fled to Greece, threatening, in their numbers and helplessness, to engulf and overwhelm the Greek state; but, instead, an agony of misfortune eventually turned Greece into a modern nation.

It was at this moment that a  21 year-old Italo-Canadian student of archaeology came to Greece to study at the Italian School of Archaeology. Gilbert Bagnani arrived in December 1921. King Constantine had recently regained the throne, and his royalist government was attempting to bring back its armies from central Turkey, as pressure from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk grew and catastrophe loomed. Bagnani is an unfamiliar figure to most people today (exceptions being his former colleagues and students at the University of Toronto and Trent University), which is a pity, since his astute political insights and devilish wit—he is rather like a combination of Walter Lippmann and Noel Coward—make him a memorable figure of his era. Although this young prodigy knew much about archaeology and history, he also took enormous pleasure in gossip about the rich, the glamorous, and the social, who eagerly took him into their intimate circles. His brilliant analyses of the political scene led to anonymous articles he published, with the aid and encouragement of the foreign correspondent William Miller, in the London Morning Post. It is hard to imagine such reports coming from the pen of a twenty-one year old today.

Gilbert Bagnani, born in 1900, was the only child of a Canadian heiress whose ancestors were lawyers and doctors in Scotland and of Ugo Bagnani, scion of a distinguished family that traced its roots to thirteenth-century Tuscany. Ugo Bagnani in 1908 became Italy’s first Military Attaché in London as well as an Aide-de-Camp to King Victor Emmanuel III. Although Gilbert’s parents were married in Canada, the family soon moved to Europe, and Gilbert was born in Rome. The young boy spoke Italian with his father and English with his mother. After the family relocated to London in 1908, Gilbert was enrolled in the tony (and academically demanding) pre-preparatory school of Charles Herbert Gibbs in Sloane Street, a school later attended by members of the British royal family and by John Fitzgerald Kennedy in the late-1930s when his father was U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. A return to Italy led eventually to enrollment at the University of Rome, where young Gilbert excelled in his studies and from which he received his “Laurea” in 1921 after lecturing in London and traveling to Libya. From Libya he wrote several letters to his mother, describing the foibles of the archaeologists he encountered and the antiquities he observed, thus setting in motion the pattern of communication with her that would continue in the years ahead. Gilbert’s father had died in 1917, and he and his mother now lived in a grand house (today the German embassy) near the Terme Museum. Among his close acquaintances at this time were Eugenie Sellers Strong, the assistant director of the British School at Rome, and the influential archaeologist Roberto Paribeni. Such friendships made acquisition of a scholarship to study at the Italian School in Athens easy.

In 24 deeply researched and skillfully argued chapters—plus a prologue, timeline, five maps, 14 interesting photographs taken and developed by Bagnani himself, an epilogue and a bibliography—Ian Begg weaves the tapestry of Gilbert Bagnani’s travels within Greece, and to Turkey, between 1921 and 1924. In so doing, he achieves two things: on the one hand, a fascinating and entertaining, sometimes hilarious, account—contained in numerous letters to his mother—of Bagnani’s archaeological activities and interactions with his friends; on the other, a succinct, yet detailed and clear, chronological summary of the history of this crucial period. If one seeks to untangle the complicated machinations of royalists vs Venizelists/republicans of this time (not to mention the disruptive role of Kemal Atatürk in Anatolia), Begg’s account fills the bill. His book tells the story of a gifted young archaeologist/journalist, but, as well, it offers the reader a carefully constructed description of the political scene as it unfurled in those fateful years when the attempt of Greece to dominate western Turkey ended in disaster.

In a prologue that sets the stage, “Odysseus vs. Achilles,” Begg describes the historical background, from the early 20thcentury onward, outlining the relationships of the royal family with politicians, in particular Eleftherios Venizelos, during the buildup to confrontations that led first to the Balkan Wars and then, adherent to the agreements of the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, to the Greek occupation of eastern Thrace, the Aegean islands, and western Anatolia, which the Greek forces were ultimately unable to control. The actors in this lengthy drama included the British Foreign Secretaries Sir Edward Grey and Lord Curzon, as well as Prime Minister David Lloyd George, General Ioannis Metaxas and, most prominently, Prime MinisterVenizelos. Begg compares the hesitancy of Constantine to fight alongside the Germans as World War I began—Kaiser Wilhelm was his brother-in-law—with Achilles’ sulking refusal to engage at Troy; under this scenario, his Prime Minister Venizelos assumes the role of the wily Odysseus and, at least for a time, expands Greek territory and solidifies the notion of a Greek takeover in Asia Minor. In this chapter Begg draws on the insightful meditations of Mark Mazower, to whose work the reader is directed for further edification (“The Messiah and the Bourgeoisie: Venizelos and Politics in Greece, 1909-1912,” The Historical Journal 35.4 (1992): 885-904).

Sterling features of the letters quoted by Begg in the chapters that follow are Gilbert Bagnani’s dissection of the characters around him and his (entertaining) lack of discretion in describing their faults and misfortunes. For instance, one of his fellow students at the Italian School was Doro Levi, born in 1899, later to become perhaps the most distinguished of Italian archaeologists; he dug at Minoan Phaistos in Crete and other sites in Greece and Turkey. His achievements elevated him to the top of his field, and from 1938 to 1945 he was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. This reviewer met Levi in the early 1970s, when, an elder statesman (along with Carl Blegen and a few others), he reigned over the archaeological community in Athens; he died in 1991. But in 1921-1922 he was a dashing young blade who figures in this letter of Bagnani to his mother of 3 January 1922:

It is perfectly killing what I am going to tell you now so don’t be shocked. Levi has been complaining that he needed to exercise his ‘little brother’ and there are no ‘grues’ [hookers] here. And now he finds out that he has clap!!! His morale is in his boots as he got it in Trieste from a woman who is not a cocotte and whom he would have sworn was immune. I intend being very careful here…[Chapter 4, p. 32]

This letter, notable for its frankness, typifies the candor that Bagnani employed when writing to his mother; theirs was a remarkably intimate relationship.

Bagnani pursued an active social life in Athens, but he also found time to work on excavations of the Italian School, whose director, Alessandro della Seta, admired the young man’s sharp abilities in the trench, even when the finds did not particularly interest him:

Quite a good day on Tuesday. I was on the dig the whole time [south slope of the Acropolis]…We have now found what [della Seta] says is a Neolithic habitation because he has found a square with traces of a layer of charcoal all over it and in this layer obsidian knives and hideous little bits of pots and bits of an axe and bones, the remains of their picnics. I feel sorry for him as he is so keen and excited about it but I cannot get up any enthusiasm and in consequence he is slightly annoyed with me. [26 March 1922; Chapter 7, p. 78]

Because Bagnani had several rich acquaintances in Athens, some of them royal, some simply rich, he was able to visit archaeological sites in the comfort of private cars, unlike his fellow students at the Italian School, who had to resort to rougher means of conveyance. An example of this was the visit of Andrew Murray Young and his wife in the spring of 1922. Young, a prosperous New York banker, first met Bagnani at Oxford. The Youngs invited their friend to accompany them by chauffeur-driven motorcar to Delphi, a first visit for all of them.

Next morning Thursday we visited the ruins. They are of course perfectly wonderful and in the grandest situation imaginable. It is hard work sightseeing there, however, as one has to do a terrible lot of climbing. But Mrs. Y was very game and would not miss anything on any account and climbed right up to the stadium… In the afternoon we went to the Museum, which has been built so badly that it will collapse shortly. The sculptures here again are marvelous, especially the archaic ones…But it really was amusing to see behind the Charioteer, on either side of his head, two large colored oleographs of [the King and Queen] Tino and Sophia of unspeakable hideousness, and with the names inscribed in Greek and French. [19 March 1922; Chapter 7, p. 75]

Bagnani, for all his charms, at times displayed flashes of arrogance and took a severe attitude toward certain people who, then and later, were fairly consistently cherished, even revered, by their friends, colleagues and students. He writes to his mother in January 1922 after a visit to the American School of Classical Studies:

The Americans are a weedy uninteresting lot I would not be found dead with….Carl Blegen, the American Casson [i.e., Assistant Director] asked me if I could come up to tea with him on Tuesday as he wanted to talk to me about some Italian publications they need….Blegen is a very nice fellow for an American…how he can stand being with [American School director] Bert Hodge Hill I cannot understand….Blegen is, as I have said, a very decent sort of chap. He gave me quite a good tea and we need things for our library from the Yanks. Their school is a smaller reproduction of the Roman one, marble staircase and piano no one can play. They are white sepulchres. [13 January 1922; Chapter 4, p. 37]

Not yet twenty-two when he wrote this letter, Bagnani would soften his disdain for Americans and American institutions as he grew older and matured, especially after he moved to Canada much later and made it his life’s home. It is noteworthy, however, that a haughty anti-Americanism that exists to this day in certain European quarters has had a long history.

The letters I have quoted above give a fairly representative sampling of the young Bagnani’s attitudes and approach to life. Space does not permit a lengthy examination of the letters, but they also document his seriousness as an archaeologist and astuteness as an interpreter of history. Certainly his dispatches on the political scene, initially published anonymously in the London Morning Post (his identity was eventually made known), attest to his intellectual depth and verve.

As fate would have it, Bagnani visited Smyrna during his travels in the eastern Mediterranean in the summer of 1922. The prosperous city was in decline by July 12th, the day he arrived there, owing to the loss of imports from the east caused by the occupation of Greek forces. An air of foreboding hung over Smyrna as municipal services like street cleaning and sewage maintenace were reduced. Bagnani bought a souvenir shawl for his mother during his two-day stay, which culminated in a climb to the top of Mt. Pagos, documented by a panoramic photo of the city and its harbor (p. 147). He sailed away to Athens on July 14th, just two months before disaster befell the city and its inhabitants, and continued his summer travels, embarking for Crete on August 8th, where he toured the island in the company of Doro Levi. On September 8th, Bagnani left Athens to join his mother for a visit in Rome and London.

Ian Begg provides a gripping and harrowing account of the Smyrna disaster (Chapter 15, “Inferno,” pp. 167-180), a catastrophe that changed the course of history, certainly for Europe and Asia Minor. It is noteworthy that, despite the arrival of desperate refugees in northern Greece and also in Athens, and despite political executions and the exile of King Constantine (who had come back in 1920), life continued with a semblance of normalcy, although the wretched newcomers, hungry and homeless, were now part of the landscape. Bagnani returned in the late fall for his second year, joining his fellow students on trips through the Cycladic islands, the Corinthia, and to Mt Athos and Salonika. In the summer of 1923 he returned to the eastern Aegean and arrived at Smyrna in July. His letters describe the devastation he witnessed with a grim reporter’s eye that captures the devastation, both human and material. In fact, as his stay in Greece moves from 1923 to 1924, one is struck, in reading his letters, that an evolution in attitude and perspective is underway, a maturation, one might say. The youthful show-off is becoming a more sober observer. In December 1924, Bagnani met the woman who would become his wife, Mary Augusta Stewart Huston, known as Stewart, from an old Toronto family. After further years of academic and social prominence in Italy and Greece, including excavations in Egypt, Bagnani and his wife departed Fascist Italy and settled in Ontario, where they remained for the rest of their lives, with Bagnani teaching at the University of Toronto and, later, at Trent University. He never returned to Greece.

This book stands as a major contribution—and an accessible one—to our understanding of the history of Greece in the years 1921-1924. In bringing Gilbert Bagnani back to life through his subject’s letters and through his own careful delving into primary sources, Ian Begg joins a group of scholars (among them Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan, Jack L. Davis, Susan Heuck Allen, Kostis Kourelis, Artemis Leontis, Despina Lalaki) who have examined the personal lives, attitudes and idiosyncrasies of archaeologists, artists and performers, anthropologists, and historians as entryways into the discoveries they made, using their personalities as lenses for their scholarly or artistic methods. Such approaches by later generations of scholars shed fresh light on the work of their predecessors and enlarge our understanding of the histories they wrote or performances they created.

A final word about the editing of this volume. Although it is generally carefully edited, there are slips that mar the final result—“straights” for “straits” (p. xxx); “canon balls” (p. 62, n. 4); “harbour” and “harbor” in the same paragraph (p. 142); “Italian Prime Minster Orlando” (p. 276, n. 11). These typos are not the fault of the author, and they do not detract from the overall merit of his book, but they perplex the reader, since they could so easily have been avoided.