Greece Goes West

A look at a new exhibition in Venice, which shows the flow of culture between East and West in early Greece.

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts? Considering that they virtually gave civilisation to the West this is a difficult warning to heed. But a new exhibition just opened in Venice aims to show that the flow of culture between East and West was not all one-way.

The Western Greeks, at Venice's Palazzo Grassi, tells how the Greeks came to the 'barbarian' west and how what they found there, particularly in Italy, influenced their own artistic traditions and fused into Classicism, that high point of ancient culture. Jointly sponsored by Fiat and the Italian Ministry of Culture, it brings together over 900 exhibits from twenty-four institutions and twelve countries – itself an exercise in ongoing cultural co- operation.

The aim is not to downgrade the role of the Greeks as a civilising force in Europe, but, as Giovanni Pugliese Carratelli of the Palazzo Grassi somewhat grandly puts it, 'to outline the process which had led to the concept itself of Europe as the fatherland of a culture where dialectic thought and artistic intuition have been reciprocally enlightened'.
One of the early surprises is the section looking at the pre-Classical age. Here, early Greece's little- explored 'eastern' nature is detailed. A tablet from Syracuse depicting the gorgon from c.575 BC resembles Hindu temple sculptures, and several pottery decorations include swastika motifs, originally an Indian sun symbol Other works display Persian, Egyptian and further near-eastern influences.

But despite their long links with Asia Minor and beyond, the Greeks at the end of the Bronze Age turned to the unexplored west. The exhibition cites the development of the polis as one reason why: as Greece rejected the established dynasties and dictatorships of the Orient, the nearby but undeveloped lands of southern Italy seemed the perfect place to try out new forms of social organisation and culture.

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