Political Uses of Neoclassicism in Greece (19th Century)

by Evdoxia Papadopoulou (Panteion University, Athens)

This essay deals with the political uses of Neoclassicism during the emergence of national identity in Modern Greece and more specifically during the reign of Otto. It is a commonplace that the classical past of ancient Greece did not just symbolise a local past, but functioned beyond local terms as a symbol of humanism in general. This past was ultimately incorporated into the European cultural heritage and identity. In that way, it came to signify both modernity in general and its dominant ideological movement, i.e. nationalism. These elements were reflected particularly in the art movements of that era, namely Classicism and Romanticism. Art and social ideology, thus, co-evolved interactively.

In particular, the European post-revolutionary culture was founded on the scientific knowledge of the classical past provided by the new science of archaeology – born out of the disposition of travellers to roam.1 During the same period, Neoclassicism (1790–1830) flourished along with the emergence of nationalisms. It was then that the neoclassical ideology would turn its attention to Greece almost exclusively – after the publication of Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums written by Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1764)2 and the outburst of the Greek Revolution. It was then that the idea of Greece as a monument and of the Greeks as “living monuments” was turned into a symbol, inspiring the emerging Philhellenic Movement in Europe, reinforced by the prime of 19th-century German philosophy (Goethe, Hegel etc.). Under the weight of the symbolic semiotics of the terms Greece and Greek, the neo-Hellenic consciousness was formulated, in accordance with a broader supra-local framework of conscious efforts to link modern Hellenism with ancestors in Antiquity and their social values.3 Henceforth, Neoclassicism and ancient Greek civilisation as representations of archetypes became the symbols of a new secularised form of authority: the modern State. Furthermore, the establishment of the Greek State emerged as a European vision of a revived ancient Greece providing a globally recognisable national legacy to the new-born country of Greece. At this point, the issue of Europe’s cultural debt to Greece was raised: a debt that ought to be reciprocated.4

At the time of the French Revolution, Neoclassicism (mainly in painting) with its didactic content would assume the role of patriotic propaganda, voicing the request for democracy and the promotion of patriotism and heroism. Nevertheless, after a while, during the period of the First French Empire, Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned Emperor (1804) and started consciously promoting his identification with the Roman imperial past through neoclassical patterns with medieval elements (especially through his formal portraits, which simulated the Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, as well as through large-scale neoclassical public architecture: squares, arcs, etc.).5 Actually, these artistic features were never renounced by Neoclassicism. Τhis was the characteristic that gave European culture an exceptional flexibility regarding political symbolism, even in the way that it symbolised the introduction to modernity.

Hence, in the case of Neoclassicism we observe how the classic model of democratic ideals that the neoclassical movement had represented gradually lost its initial democratic content and evolved into a symbol at the disposal of authoritarianism. This becomes especially apparent after the reign of the Jacobins, which ended in a state of terrorism and dictatorship, when serious doubts regarding the viability of the Enlightenment ideals and the democratic idea in general were expressed.6 This disappointment was later reflected in most of the ideology of late Neoclassicism when a shift to ancient Greek forms occurred, notably in the field of architecture. This “Ancient Greek Neoclassicism” coincided with the emergence of centralised nation states, as well as the need for new administrative buildings and monuments to highlight the power of the new leadership, mainly in the areas threatened by Napoleonic imperialism. At the same time, the gradual emergence of historicism found the most characteristic paradigm in the case of Athens as capital of the Modern Greek State, long before it channelled its interest in the medieval past (mainly during the period of late Romanticism).

Thus, the first urban plan of Athens by Kleanthis and Schaubert, approved by the Regency after some changes in July 1833, aimed to integrate the urban site to the historical continuum intending to promote the virtual-semiotic recovery of ancient city (asty).7 It is ‒ as recorded in the memorandum8 of the project ‒ a design highlighting the classical monuments of the city as a memory sites. The project relied on the historical continuity of the city through the aesthetic homogeneity of old and new monuments, aiming at social integration with the use of the dominant landmarks. This continuity was expressed by a fortification (although inactive) following the ancient urban plan and references to Antiquity in the names of streets and squares (Muses and Kekropos etc.), thus highlighting the presence of mnemonic sites in the built environment.

However, the character of the project was formalistic. Formalism, combined with the long delay in the transfer of the capital city from Nafplio (first capital city of Greek State) to Athens, provoked intervention by King Ludwig I of Bavaria, who sent the royal architect Leo von Klenze to Greece in order to review the project (June 21, 1834). The revision led to plans for a new town „near the standards of Antiquity“, as recorded in the relevant Royal Decree (September 30, 1834). Klenze had already recorded the same romantic view in his Pro Memoria (memorandum of mission in Greece) and in his presentation “On the amendment of the town plan of Athens” to the Regency (September 3, 1834). In this new planning proposal, Klenze shrank the original plan by reducing the number and width of the streets, hoping to create a city of the South.9 At the same time, through an official ceremony at the Parthenon, he highlighted the protection of antiquities as a paramount political priority.

These policies were sealed by the immediate reconstruction of the Palace, which was also delayed. The location of the ancient Lyceum for King Otto’s Palace was chosen with the view of the antiquities as a determining factor, thus constructing an ideology on paper. The ground-breaking ceremony and the laying of the foundation stone “exported from the Parthenon” took place in the presence of both kings (Otto and Ludwig I) on January 25 [February 6], 1836 (the anniversary of Otto’s arrival in Greece). Aesthetically, the Palace is a neoclassical building with obvious references to baroque elements (the latter symbolise the basic principles of authoritarian political power). Although the building does not follow strict academic forms, it is an integrated version of the Athenian Classicism focusing on archetypal forms as shaped through the perception of Athenian sites dating from Antiquity, in this way constituting a revived classicistic memorial. Inside, the palace’s decoration follows the European neoclassical principles. Yet there is a striking difference: the iconography comes not only from Greek Antiquity, but also from the recent heroic past of the Greek revolution. Thus, in the private chambers of King Otto (Otto’s office), historical scenes were depicted, “beautifully selected by Otto”, as Queen Amalia says in a letter to her father (March 9, 1842).10 In contrast, pictures related to the recent Greek past, located in areas open to public use for political activities, such as the Trophy Room and the Hall of Adjutants, essentially reflected the contemporary course of the Modern Greek nation.11 This modern nation, associated with ancient aesthetics and symbols of Classicism, is glorified through its recent achievements and exalted to the heroic idealism of “Hellenism” as formulated in the European consciousness. The walls of this building function in the most didactic way as an aesthetic tool of public narration, collective historical memory and official history. A parallel aesthetic narrative of the Greek Revolution is found in Munich: the names of heroes of the Greek Revolution are engraved on the internal walls of the Propylaea in Munich (another similar narrative was found on the north portico of the Hofgarten until World War II).12

In the final analysis, the use of Neoclassicism in the state formation process in the West (and particularly in Bavaria, which was essentially created through the Constitution of 1818) aimed at the introduction of new institutions from above, without unsettling the existing balance between the social forces and the relations of power.13 So, Neoclassicism as a Modern form of social discipline was associated with Europeanization and the Bourgeoisie, and it was used by the dominant political power in order to acquire legitimacy. In particular, Ludwig I of Bavaria, in the light of a romantic-paternalistic policy, used the depiction in public spaces of the Greek War of Independence and the coronation of Prince Otto as the first King of the Modern Greek State in order to create collective memories which expressed the humanistic values of justice and morality. In this way, he offered his people a political, though not national, argument based on consensus:14 that they, the Bavarians, were the ones reviving the spirit of Classical Antiquity and expressing the contemporary European spirit. Through this policy Ludwig gained cultural and political prestige among the others European monarchs. Therefore, in Bavaria and the West in general, Neoclassicism was not only an aesthetic form but served as expression of class and elitism, thus playing a horizontally integrative function. In the Greek case, on the other hand, embodying an essentially romantic spirit, Neoclassicism managed to function vertically, nationally and to overcome class barriers.


  1.  Hans-Joachim Gehrke, “Αναζητώντας τη χώρα των Ελλήνων. Επιστημονικά ταξίδια και η σημασία τους για την έρευνα και την αντιμετώπιση της αρχαιοελληνικής ιστορίας στο 19o αι.” (“Seeking the country of the Greeks: Scientific journeys and their importance for research and treatment of ancient history in the 19th century”) in Evangelos Chrisos (ed.), Ένας κόσμος γεννιέται. Η εικόνα του ελληνικού πολιτισμού στη γερμανική επιστήμη κατά το 19ο αι. (A world is born; the image of Greek culture in German science during the 19th century), Athens 1996, p. 59.
  2. David Watkin, Ιστορία της Δυτικής Αρχιτεκτονικής (A history of Western Architecture), Kostas Kouremenos (transl.), Athens 2009, p. 368.
  3.  Melita Emmanouel, Vasiliki Petridou, Panagiotis Tournikiotis, Η ιστορία των Τεχνών στην Ευρώπη. Εικαστικές Τέχνες στην Ευρώπη από τον 19ο ως τον 20ό αι. (The History of the Arts in Europe: Visual Arts in Europe from the 18th to the 20th century) vol. 2, Patra 2002, p. 180.
  4.  Nassia Yakovaki, Ευρώπη μέσω Ελλάδας. Μια καμπή στην ευρωπαϊκή αυτοσυνείδηση, 17ος-18ος αιώνας (Europe via Greece. A Turning-point in European Self-consciousness, 17th-18th centuries), Athens 2006, p. 379.
  5.  David Irwin, Νεοκλασικισμός (Neoclassicism), Hilda Papadimitriou (transl.),  Athens 1999, pp. 251-279.
  6.  Paschalis Kitromilides, “Δύο ’νεοκλασικά‘ βασίλεια την εποχή του εθνικισμού” (“Two ‘neoclassical’ kingdoms during the era of nationalism”) in M. Kassimati (ed.), Έκθεση Αθήνα-Μόναχο, τέχνη και πολιτισμός στην Ελλάδα (Exhibition Athens-Munich Art and Culture in Greece), Athens 2000, pp. 33-35.
  7. Dimitris Martos, Αθήνα πρωτεύουσα του νεοελληνικού κράτους. Πολιτική, ιδεολογία και χώρος (Athens, capital-city of the Modern Greek state. Politics, ideology and space), Athens 2005, 278. For more see General State Archives of Greece, Ottonian Archive.
  8.  “Erläuterung des Planes der Stadt Neu-Athens” (Klenzeana III, 22) in Hans Hermann Russack, Deutsche bauen in Athen, Berlin 1942, pp. 177-182.
  9.  Alexandros Papageorgiou-Venetas, Αθήνα ένα όραμα του Κλασικισμού (Athens, A Vision of Classicism), Athens 2001, pp. 147-175.
  10.  Vana & Michael Bouse, Ανέκδοτες Επιστολές της Βασίλισσας Αμαλίας στον πατέρα της, 1836-1853 (Queen Amalia’s Unpublished Letters to her Father, 1836-1853), vol. I, Athens 2011, p. 311.
  11.  Annie Malama, Μνημειακή Ζωγραφική στην Αθήνα του 19ου αι. (Monumental Frescoes in 19th c. Athens), doctoral dissertation, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki 2005, pp. 58-60.
  12.  Miltiades Papanikolaou, Οι τοιχογραφίες του Μεγάρου της Βουλής (The frescoes at the Parliament), Athens 2007, pp. 18-19.
  13.  Paschalis Kitromilides, “Δύο ‘νεοκλασικά‘ βασίλεια …” (“Two ‘neoclassical’ kingdoms…) in Kassimati (ed.), p. 34.
  14.  Kassimati (ed.), p. 431.

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