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Lost Worlds of Ancient and Modern Greece – Review of Biography of Gilbert Bagnani

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The titles of some books act like magnets. They pull you towards them and command attention. The title of the book under review Lost Worlds of Ancient and Modern Greece did just that. It is not about the lost worlds of Ancient Greece alone but also about the lost worlds of Modern Greece. Then you read the secondary title: Gilbert Bagnani: The Adventures of a Young Italo-Canadian Archaeologist in Greece, 1921-1924. Who is Gilbert Bagnani and what adventures is he having in Greece before and after the Asia Minor Catastrophe?
Any hesitation you may have had vanishes into thin air when you start reading this absorbing, literate, informative and simply wonderful book.
Judging by myself, chances are you have never heard of Gilbert Bagnani. He was born in 1900 in Rome to an upper crust couple. His Italian father Ugo was a general who could trace his roots to the Middles Ages. His mother, Mary Augusta Stewart Houston, was a Canadian of aristocratic Ontario lineage including an editor of the Financial Post, a Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario and a Chief Justice. Bagnani was raised in Italy and England where he attended a private school and then attended university in Rome. He became and archologist and classicist and a master of numerous languages. That’s just to give you a few facts before we start with D. J. Ian Begg’s absorbing book about Bagnani’s life in Greece and environs from 1921 to 1924.
Bagnani went to Greece in 1921 to study at the Italian School of Archaeology in Athens. After giving us some useful background information, Begg begins his story at that juncture.
What does he cover and what makes the book so fascinating? He gives us vignettes of the life of the political and social life of the Athenian elite. We get a precis of Greek history of the period including the dramatic events in Asia Minor which culminated in the destruction of Smyrna and the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees in Greece.
We learn about Bagnani’s travels in Greece, Turkey and the Aegean islands in pursuit of archaeological digs. And of course, we follow Bagnani’s personal life among fellow students, prominent archaeologists and politicians. He became an eminent journalist for the London newspaper Morning Post and for a while acted as a spy for the Italian government.
Bagnani was an inveterate writer and much of the book is filled with the letters he wrote to his mother almost daily at times, describing his experiences in Greece. He was marvellously candid with her and they seem to have had an exceptionally close relationship. In the end we have some witty, entertaining and sometimes hilarious comments.
For example, he writes to his mother with humour and fascination about a party at the palatial house of one of the richest families in Greece where the guests are the crème de la crème of Athens’ society including King Constantine. He is attracted to a gorgeous and beautifully dressed woman and is tempted to approach her. Turns out that she is the wife of the Crown Prince and as he puts it his “little affair is put out of joint.”
He finds that Nikolaos Theotokis, a scion of a distinguished family, “looks like a gentlemanly sort of ass.” He describes Lady Law, the widow of Sir Edward Law, a grande dame, to be one of the two most imposing ruins of Athens – the other one being the Acropolis. He tells her that one his fellow students (and a future very prominent archaeologist) Doro Levi contracted syphilis from a woman that he was sure was not a prostitute. The director of the Numismatic Museum is “very nice but quite, quite cracked.”
Eleftherios Venizelos lost the elections in 1920 and the royalists and anti-Venizelists gained the ascendancy. In the political cauldron of Greek politics your badge of loyalty was of critical importance. If you were a Venizelist you were not welcome anywhere. Your professional and social position became very precarious, at best.
Bagnani became a close observer of Greek politics and submitted articles to the Morning Post in addition to writing to his mother. He was well connected with major figures, royalist and Venizelist as well as diplomats from Italy and England. We learn a great deal about the political situation in Greece, the military events in Anatolia and relations with Greece’s “allies” Great Britain, France and Italy. The latter refused to help Greece and in fact secretly supported Kemal Ataturk because they hated King Constantine. The Greek army in Anatolia was heading for disaster and the political situation in Greece was out of control.
Bagnani was not in Smyrna when the city was torched by the Turks but Begg gives a horrid description of the destruction of the city and the genocidal murder of the Greeks, Armenians and other non-Turkish inhabitants.
Bagnani’s prime interest was archaeology and he visited most of the lost worlds of Ancient Greece and did excavation work at many of them. The lost worlds of the Minoan civilizations of Crete, of the Mycenaeans of the Peloponnese, numerous islands in the Aegean, especially Rhodes and its medieval remains, all attracted this attention.
Bagnani also witnessed the lost world of Modern Greece, the world that was destroyed by the disastrous attempt to conquer parts of western Turkey while its allies were indifferent or helping its enemy. The humiliation of the military defeat resulted in a refugee crisis of immeasurable proportions. Hundreds of thousand of people who had lived in Asia Minor for thousands of years had to be accommodated by a country that had just lived through a war and a political schism. The wound remains.
Begg describes Bagnani as urbane, sophisticated, detached and analytical. He could also be arrogant and merciless in his description of people.
Begg gives us a short period of Bagnani’s life in this delightful book. Bagnani went on to lead a distinguished career as an archeologist and taught at the University of Toronto from 1945 to 1965. He also purchased a 200-acre farm near Port Hope, Ontario (where his wife came from) and ran a cattle farm there. Begg intends to write two more volumes covering the rest of Bagnani’s life.
LOST WORLDS OF ANCIENT
AND MODERN GREECE
by D. J. Ian Begg
309 pp. Archaeopress Archaeological Lives
Archaeopress Publishing, 2020
ISBN 978-1-78969-452-9

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