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Greek Wild Flowers: Dialogues and Diplomats on the Parthenon and the Athenian Acropolis in the nineteenth century

This post was written by Dr. Alexander Nagel, Research Associate with the National Museum of Natural History’s Department of Anthropology.

The Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis in 2012, Photo: Alexander Nagel.


In the fall semester of 2015, I was teaching a course on *Classical Heritage in Washington: Encounters in the Museum* for students from the University of Maryland. Every Friday afternoon around 2pm, students would meet with colleagues and curators, archivists and archaeologists, diplomats and thinkers who work on aspects of heritage preservation and connecting ancient Mediterranean, Near Eastern, and European traditions with those of Washington, DC. The students learned how to tailor and manage research projects, and they developed their own exhibition projects over the semester.

One of these Friday afternoons brought us to the Smithsonian’s Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History, where Rare Books Curator Leslie Overstreet generously took time and answered enthusiastic students’ questions about manuscripts, resources and best practices in rare book preservation. Not only were we shown books from James Smithson’s own libraries, but also many books with inspiring stories that were given as diplomatic gifts. It became a memorable moment for the students when we were introduced to a majestically carved wooden box with a gem of a book inside.


Klassiki Anthodesmi
Carved Wooden Box of Klassiki Anthodesmi commissioned by Elizabeth Contaxaki.


According to the Smithsonian’s Regents Reports for the year 1858, Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry personally laid before the Smithsonian Board the volume Klassiki Anthodesmi (“Classical Bouquet”), designed and executed by the Cretan born Elizabeth Contaxaki (c. 1818-1879). An accompanying letter from Ms. Contaxaki was addressed to the US State Department.

Kept in an elegant wooden case embossed with the names of famous ancient Greek historians, painters and sculptors, the well-crafted volume is bound in blue velvet with silver embroidering. It holds together a carefully planned series of individual hand-painted and drawn illustrations of more than fifty principal sites and monuments in Greece, including illustrations of the Acropolis in Athens with individual and detailed paintings of the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, the Temple of Nike, but also of sites like Marathon, Sunion, Nemea, the island of Aegina, landscapes with the ruins of shrines of hero cults, and many others. The illustrations are accompanied by hand-written quotations from ancient Greek, but also modern French and English authors, and by pressed flowers picked up at the location of the monuments. According to the Secretary’s Report, “this beautiful gift combines a great variety of objects, possessing from their associations with the loftiest achievements of Hellenic genius, a deep and singular interest, and forming a most appropriate memorial of the country from which European art, education, philosophy and letters took their rise.”

The volume was originally prepared for the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1855. Ms. Contaxaki, then a resident of Athens, had attended a high school founded by the American missionary Reverend John Henry Hill (1791-1882) and his wife Frances Hill (1799-1884). In 1831, the Hills founded a school that is still in operation in Athens under the name of the Hill Memorial School. In the preparation of the volume, Ms. Contaxaki was assisted by six Greek gentlemen who are named on a page preceding the illustrations. Because the gift is a very powerful statement of early diplomacy between Greece and Washington, DC, students and my colleagues from the University of Maryland began to research on the volume’s context and history. In honor of Women’s history month we celebrate the creator and spirit of this volume, Ms. Contaxaki, in this blog entry, and at a conference in early April.


Klassiki Anthodesmi-Parthenon
The Parthenon as it appears in 1855, in the Klassiki Anthodesmi.
Klassiki Anthodesmi-anemone
Pressed and mounted specimen of an anemone, collected by Elizabeth Contaxaki on the Athenian Acropolis in or shortly before 1855.


 As testament and time capsula, the Klassiki Anthodesmi allows us to understand aspects of world folklore, aesthetics, and ideas, and most importantly perhaps, a sense of belonging in the 19th century. Often, travelers enjoying the archaeological sites, museums and memory traditions today, are unaware of the history and networks of the people who protected this heritage in earlier generations. Adamantios Korais (1748-1833), for instance, revived the ancient Greek language, and stood in close contact with other European and American intellectuals.

Other Greeks promoted heritage in place. Kyriakos Pittakis (1798-1863) was guarding the Athenian acropolis. According to a reviewer of a recent exhibition in Athens he “… tried to stop the illicit trade in antiquities and to prove … that Greeks were worthy of looking after their ancient heritage.” Fani Mallouchou Toufano, a leading expert on the Parthenon’s complex modern history, knows of a French traveler who visited the Acropolis in 1840 and noted that Pittakis “truly appears to have been discovered beneath a forgotten cornice of the Acropolis, which protectively sheltered his cradle. There he grew up, there he lived, there he shall die. Because the Acropolis is his homeland, his family, his god. And after his death we surely find him transformed into an additional caryatid, intended to replace those which have been lost. So lively, constant and all -engrossing is his passion for the Acropolis.”

The time preceding the 1850s were an important moment for Greece, as it struggled for independence, and the book is a manifestation of this time. The American poet Bayard Taylor (1825-1878), who met Ms. Contaxaki in Athens in 1857 noted that “there is no doubt that both her achievements and her influence would be greater were the sphere of woman in those countries less circumscribed. … She would be an exceptional woman in any country.” But how did the volume travel from Greece via Paris to the Smithsonian Rare Book Libraries? What do we know about Ms. Contaxaki and her motivations? Did she meet Pittakis when she picked up her flowers for the Bouquet?

Curious about the context of the book’s production and legacies, students and faculty members from the University of Maryland have now prepared papers around the theme of Greek literature, life and archaeology, and the relationships between Greece and the US in the 19th century. This one-day event *The International Context of the Greek World in the 19th Century: Klassiki Anthodesmi, a “Classical Bouquet”* will take place on April 2 at the University of Maryland’s campus at College Park. The volume will be on display during the conference. The aim is to link the Classical Bouquet to its 19th century context and to give a glimpse of efforts to preserve the extraordinary richness of Greek heritage (and flora) in this important century. The conference is generously supported by a grant from the University of Maryland’s College of Arts and Humanities, and will allow participants to explore the Greek-speaking world in the 19th century.


Ornament on one of the pages of the Klassiki Anthodesmi (1855)
Ornament on one of the pages of the Klassiki Anthodesmi (1855)



  1. DayJa Owen

    Have a question about an statue I own that’s back 2000b.c

  2. Blanche Menadier

    Thank you for this information and the beautiful illustrations. I wish I could attend the one day conference, but it is too far for me to travel. Best wishes for a successful day for all involved, and congratulations to the students

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