Aegeus Society For Aegean Prehistory


13 December 2019

Nicoletta Momigliano & Alexandre Farnoux (eds), 2017. Cretomania. Modern Desires for the Minoan Past [BSA – Modern Greek and Byzantine Studies vol. 3], London & New York: Routledge & École française d’Athènes.

Hardback, 215 p., 102 fig., ISBN: 9781472474995.

Reviewed by Agata Ulanowska, Institute of Archaeology, University of Warsaw (a.ulanowska [at]

This fascinating and richly illustrated book discusses the phenomenon of the modern reception of what we call the Minoan culture in various artistic media, from the moment of the great discovery of Minoan Crete in 1900 (and even before it, see Chapter 9), to the first decade of the 21st century. The volume explores a range of socio-cultural effects that Minoan Crete has had on contemporary arts and culture, such as architecture, design, fashion, dance, new religious movements, literature, etc., as well as the dynamics of modern responses to big archaeological discoveries and reconstructions. The book has no ambition to constitute an exhaustive and systematic study – indeed an impossible task considering the scope of required research. Instead, it represents an important and pioneering contribution to the history of Aegean scholarship and, more generally, cultural studies, that exclusively focuses on how Minoan culture and myths associated with Crete are embedded and experienced by different historical and intellectual backgrounds of the ‘present’. The term ‘Cretomania’ (first coined by Paul Morand in 1960, pp. 1–2) is used to describe a wide variety of modern conscious and unconscious, often emotional, ‘desires’ for Minoan culture and its most recognisable monuments, such as the ‘Palace-Temple’ of Knossos, ‘Snake-Goddess’ statuette, ‘Toreador’ or ‘Prince of the Lily Crown’ frescoes, etc.

The book is organised into three main parts, preceded by the preface by A. Farnoux and N. Momigliano, and Introduction: Cretomania – desiring the Minoan past in the present, by Momigliano. Part I of the book, Cretomania and the built environment – conscious, unconscious and coincidental allusions in modern architecture and reconstructions, comprises three chapters discussing the nature of the reception of Minoan architecture and architectonic reconstruction(s) in modern architecture and planning. Part II, Cretomania in the visual and performing arts, and in other cultural practices, comprises five chapters presenting examples of how Minoan culture was explored in fashion, scenography, dance, interior and costume design, and neo-paganism movements. It also discusses how Minoan Crete has been exploited as a historical or pseudo-historical background within the development of the modern concepts of Orientalism, religion and gender. The three chapters of Part III, Cretomania in literature – dialogues with Rhea Galanaki, discuss how the Minoan past is embedded and exploited in current historicising narratives, and how it has been incorporated in the creation of modern Cretan identity. The book finishes with the Afterword chapter by Michael Fotiadis.

The Introduction by Momigliano (pp. 1–13) acquaints the reader with the scope of the volume, its main aims and methodologies, and the history of ideas about Minoan Crete. Momigliano briefly describes how the Minoan material culture corresponded with the Belle Époque and Art Nouveau movement (before World War I), and then the modernist movements of the 1920s and 1930s. Similar visual and architectonic expressions in the modern arts and Minoan material culture, that cannot easily be associated to any conscious impact of the Bronze Age past, are observed as the specific entanglement of the ‘antiquity’ and ‘modernity’ of Minoans. Momigliano also refers to several examples of how the conceptual ethnicity of the Minoans has been exploited in relation to the ‘European’ origin or ‘Greekness’ of Minoan culture, highlighting the modern significance of the Minoan past for Cretans, Greeks, and Europeans. She observes two modes of artistic encounters with Minoan art: a direct encounter with Minoan material culture through visits of artists to archaeological sites and museums, as well as an indirect encounter mediated through archaeological publications and fiction.

In Donald Preziosi’s Chapter 1 of Part I, Orthochronicity and its (dis)contents: Cretomania and Frank Lloyd Wright (pp. 17–23), Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture is the reference point for broader considerations on the nature of different ‘manias’, their fittingness or ‘decorum’, and ‘ortho-chronicity’, i.e. the correct sequencing of turn, time and season, understood as a progression from the putative origin of the phenomenon to the present observer or narrator. Although Wright never cited Minoan architecture in his works explicitly, several details of his house designs and landscape organisation alluded to or echoed properties of Minoan buildings and architectural planning.

In Chapter 2, Identity and freedom: some observations on Minoan and contemporary Greek architecture (pp. 25–38), Dimitri Philippides and Odysseas Sgouros explore structural Minoan influences on contemporary architecture in Greece, including lavish decorative uses of Minoan motifs, such as horns of consecration or red columns tapering downwards in local architecture, specifically tourist shops and hotels. The authors identify two models: iconographic and abstract, by which influences of Minoan architecture have been adopted and consumed. Both models are illustrated by examples of architectonic projects, and a discussion on a relationship between the Minoan paradigm and modernism, the search for the ‘Greekness’, and genius loci. The iconographic model, characterised by borrowings of Minoan motifs and patterns, is exemplified by projects of N. Zoumboulides, D. Kyriakos (the 1930s) and contemporary works by P. Koulermos, and Sgouros himself, as well as the vernacular architecture for tourists. The abstract model, characterised by conceptual and structural Minoan influences, is illustrated by works of D. Fatouros, T. Zenetos, D. and S. Antonakakis (A66 team), N. Mitsakis, P. Koulermos, and A. and G. Varoudakis.

In Chapter 3, The artistic reception of Minoan Crete in the period of Art Deco: the reconstruction of the palace at Knossos… and why Arthur Evans was right (pp. 39–68), Fritz Blakolmer brings under discussion intriguing relations between archaeological discoveries from Bronze Age Crete and artistic trends of the period between the two World Wars, such as Art Deco, Cubism, Dadaism and Constructivism. These relations, certainly less obvious than the striking fitness between Minoan art and the artistic tendencies of the ‘Fin de Siècle’, seemed to partially utilise earlier archaeological discoveries and already adopted conventions for reception of Minoan culture. Certain examples of artistic reception of the Aegean Bronze Age in the 1920s and 1930s, such as references to Cycladic figurines in sculpture, Blakolmer explains through the ‘déjà-vu effect’, i.e. the similarity of Bronze Age art to modern artistic styles. This effect is discussed in relation to the avant-garde architectonic style of the 1920s, ‘Neo-Minoan’ architecture of the 1930s and in archaeological ‘reconstitution’ of the ‘Palace of Minos’ at Knossos. Blakolmer puts a special focus on Evans’s reconstruction programme, its contemporary and a present-day critique, Evans’s aims, intentions and choices (not yet explored in length) and alternative reconstructions. He highlights the apparent visual correctness of Evans’s ‘reconstitution’, proved by later archaeological discoveries of Minoan and Cycladic towns, such as Akrotiri on Thera.

Chapter 4, The Minoan woman as the Oriental woman: Mariano Fortuny’s Knossos scarves and Ruth St. Denis (pp. 71–83), by Ilaria Caloi opens Part II of the book. Caloi discusses a textile creation by Mariano Fortuny known as a ‘Knossos scarf’ (1906–1928), as an example of the reception of Minoan culture in fashion (reflected by floral and marine motifs printed on the silk scarves), as well as in constructing a new female identity. The way of presenting the ‘Knossos scarves’ in Berlin, 1907, with participation of the pioneer of modern American dance Ruth St. Denis as a model, is analysed as a specific perception of Minoan women as Oriental women – an expression of a new femininity which combines eroticism and seduction with purity and spirituality. The scarves were presented in dance, alluding to famous dances of St. Denis: Salome and Radha, and to the symbolism of woman being veiled and unveiled.

In an exceptionally well-illustrated Chapter 5, From Russia with love: Minoan Crete and the Russian Silver Age (pp. 84–110), N. Momigliano examines the reception of Minoan Crete during the so-called Russian ‘Silver Age’ – a period spanning between 1889–1917, in works of the artist Léon Bakst and the writer Dmitry Merezhkovsky. Bakst’s paintings and theatrical productions (costumes and scenography, e.g. for the Ballets Russes and Ida Rubinstein) demonstrate his interests and direct encounters with archaic and Bronze Age Greece, through studies of museum collections and a visit to Greece. Merezhkovsky’s idealistic and symbolical view of Minoans as primordial Christians, found expression in his two ‘Cretan’ books: “Рождение богов. Тутанкамон на Крите” (1924) and “Тайна Запада: АтлантидаЕвропа” (1930). Both books reveal a considerable knowledge of Minoan material culture, based on Merezhkovsky’s readings of archaeological publications. Momigliano compares these two contemporary responses to Minoan culture and the manner by which they made the Aegean Bronze Age and Crete a focal point for a new interest in the individual and self, and, again, spirituality mixed with sensuality and eroticism.

Chapter 6, Lord of the dance: Ted Shawn’s Gnossienne and its Minoan context (pp. 111–123), by Christine Morris, is devoted to another response to Minoan Crete in dance. Morris aims at contextualising an eclectic mix of oriental influences exploited by Ted Shawn and his wife, Ruth St. Denis, and then by the Denishawn School of Dance created by them. The chapter explores the Minoan inspiration behind the development of a male solo dance Gnossienne, choreographed and performed by Shawn for 30 years from its premiere in 1919. In the dance, Shawn represented the priest of Knossos, performing a ritual dance before the altar of the Snake Goddess. As Morris explains, an inspiration came from the music, ‘Gnossienne No. 1’ composed by Eric Satie in 1890. Whether the title and the theme of this composition related to ‘gnosis’ or Knossos/Gnossus is debatable. The dance was created as a practice piece of two-dimensional movement that placed a male dancer centre stage. A direct Minoan influence is also observed in Shawn’s costume, inspired by the Cupbearer and the Priest King frescoes.

In richly illustrated Chapter 7, The ocean liner Aramis: a voyage to the land of Minos and Art Deco (pp. 124–156), Anaïs Boucher explores the meaning of the Minoan style of decoration on the luxurious ocean liner Aramis, launched in 1932 and sunk, torpedoed, in 1944. The ‘Aegean’ style of the ship had nothing to do with her name – Aramis – nor her route, since Aramis served cruises to China and Japan. The idea behind choosing Minoan Crete as an artistic inspiration (announced clumsily as ‘an age of Greek art preceding the Alexandrian and Mycenaean periods’, p. 127) lay in a desire to impress and educate passengers, by introducing them to the art which, according to the president of the Companie des Messageries Maritimes, M. Georges Philippar, was still almost completely unknown. Philippar, as well as the designers of the ship, Georges Raymond, Mathurin Méheut, and Yvonne Jean-Haffen, demonstrated personal interests in Greece and in the Aegean cultures resulting from extensive reading and, in the case of the designers, a study trip to Greece. The choice of Minoan Crete as the artistic inspiration, was also intended to provide a modern and luxurious look for the ship, not easily subjected to the fast changes of fashion. The educational mission was fulfilled through guided tours of the ship organised in harbours, explanatory notes and photographs available for the passengers and crew, as well as abundant press announcements explaining the principles and meaning of the ‘Neo-Aegean’ design.

Chapter 8, Cretomania and neo-paganism: the Great Mother Goddess and gay male identity in the Minoan Brotherhood (pp. 157–170) by Bryan E. Burns, is the last chapter of Part II. Burns examines a new religious phenomenon inspired by Minoan Crete: the Minoan Brotherhood, a neo-pagan organisation for gay and bisexual males established by Eddie Buczynski. The Brotherhood, as well as the earlier female worshippers of the Great Mother Goddess, share a mythos about a divine pair comprising a supreme female divinity and her young son or favourite, developed from academic interpretations of Minoan religion, e.g. those by Evans and Jane Harrison, as well as works of artists and popular writers, such as Mary Renault. Burns discusses the content of the Minoan Brotherhood faith comprising the worship of the Great Mother Goddess Rhea present in her five emanations, and a lesser deity, the Horned God envisioned as Minotaur or Asterion. The use of symbols of the Minoan past in this cult is considered ‘as a cultural marker to distinguish themselves against the heteronormativity of the larger neo-pagan society’ (pp. 164–165).

Part III opens with Chapter 9, Minoans and the postmodern critique of national history: two novels by Rhea Galanaki (pp. 173–179), by Roderick Beaton. Galanaki, one of the foremost contemporary Greek novelists, is a Cretan author who explores the identity of Crete. Beaton examines her two novels “The Life of Ismail Ferik Pasha” (1989) and The Century of Labyrinths” (2002). In the first novel, allusions to Minoan Crete are subtle, yet the novel opens in the Dictaean Cave, the legendary birthplace of Zeus. The hero, while hiding there as a child, finds a knife, apparently made of bronze and of Minoan origin, that he takes with him and finally kills himself with it, according to the last version describing his death. The knife symbolises the link between Emmanuel/Ismail and his deep Cretan roots, while the allusions to Minoan Crete, still undiscovered at the time of the story, complement Galanaki’s postmodern critique of Cretan history. The second book tells the hundred-year-long story of two Cretan families, in which the discovery and excavations of Minoan Crete are central events to the narration, interwoven with the lives of the main characters and the history of the island.

Galanaki’s book The Century of Labyrinths” is also a focal point for Chapter 10, Rhea Galanaki’s The Century of Labyrinths: a dialogue between literature and archaeology that starts with Minos Kalokairinos (pp. 180–188), by Katerina Kopaka. Kopaka discusses a combination of the literary narrative with the archaeological reality of Kalokairinos’s excavations, and how the concepts of ‘century’ and ‘labyrinths’ are explored in Galanaki’s book. As observed by Kopaka, Galanaki offers ‘a dynamic typology of labyrinths’ (p. 182) that spanned a period of a century from 1878, when Kalokairinos started his excavations, to 1978 and a visit to excavations at Symi, near Viannos. She also discusses women’s responses to the first Knossian finds and Minoan culture in relation to hidden leadership roles for females in Cretan families. The universe of reciprocity in which historical and fictional elements are entangled over a century, is described by Kopaka as an attempt at an artistic construction of the Mediterranean longue durée.

Chapter 11, Growing up next door to Knossos and ‘the other Ariadne’ (pp. 189–194) is authored by Rhea Galanaki herself. In this personal essay, she tracks her own responses to Knossos and Minoan Crete, by describing her experience of growing up ‘next door to Knossos’ (p. 189). She discusses the impact of archaeologists and intellectuals such as S. Alexiou and his wife M. Aposkitou-Aleksiou, T. Fanourakis, A. Kalokairinos, M. Parlamas, N. Platon and Y. Sakellarakis. She considers how Minoan civilisation influenced the modern identity of Crete, its impact on tourism, and the reception of Knossos and Minoan culture on the island in the 1950s and 1960s. She refers to yet another kind of ‘déjà vu effect’ between the popular view of the peace-loving Minoans with equal position of men and women, and social dynamics of the 1950s and 1960s. She also mentions negative aspects of ‘Cretomania’, due to which other historical periods were (are?) hardly noticed on Crete. The chapter ends with an extract from Galanaki’s short story “The Other Ariadne”.

The book ends with the Afterword (pp. 195–201) by M. Fotiadis. In his concluding remarks, new questions about the legacy of Cretomania are posited. He discusses modern responses of archaeologist-practitioners to Cretomania, as well as the reasons why archaeologists became involved in studies of modern cultural history. Fotiadis identifies several new issues that should be explored in the future. These are, e.g. the relations of Cretomania to other ‘manias’ and phobias of the 20th century, e.g. Egyptomania, the issue of European identity, and the cognitive effects of Cretomania, termed as its ‘epistemic capital’ (p. 198).

The “Cretomania” volume reveals several thrilling, well-illustrated case studies of modern cultural responses to Minoan Crete, divided into three parts, according to the recipient media: architecture, visual arts and literature. The book is indeed nice to read, inspiring and provokes further searches for similar phenomena, e.g. in local cultural environments that may be far from Paris, the capitol of Cretomania, Vienna or Crete itself. Indeed, Cretomania also reached Poland under the communist regime. It may be traced, e.g. in the books of Maciej Słomczyński who, under the name of Joe Alex, popularized the Aegean Bronze Age in a series of adventure books “Czarne Okręty” (“Black Sails”, Warsaw 1972–1975) and, especially, in his crime story “Zmącony spokój Pani Labiryntu” (“Disturbed Peace of the Lady of Labyrinth” Warsaw 1965) where the action is placed, prophetically, during the excavations on the islet of Keros.

The “Cretomania” book may be exploited as a useful companion for archaeologists, helping us to understand the potential scope of cultural responses to archaeological discoveries and our reconstructions of the past. As such, it also reminds us of the necessity of wider and well-focused communication of current research to a general public. Finally, “Cretomania” with its series of different case studies and different methodologies, provides a valuable inspiration for academic teaching about the phenomena of modern reception of archaeology: its discoveries, agents, methods and interpretations.

Perhaps, the choice of the case studies may be considered somehow random, presenting a relatively narrow range of examples, occasionally related to each other by the presence of the same artists, e.g. Ruth St. Denis in the chapters by Caloi and Morris, or the chapters of Part III which were inspired by Galanaki’s writing. Yet, as Momigliano clearly states in her Introduction (p. 8), the book did not aspire to form an exhaustive compendium of the complex and diverse phenomenon of Cretomania. What it offers instead, is a choice of fascinating and inspiring essays on how Minoan Crete has been responded to in modern arts and culture, that suggest several ‘model’ methodologies useful for further exploring manifestations of Cretomania around us.


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