IN the National Archaeological Museum of Cyprus, in Nicosia, there is a handsome marble statue of Apollo from the ancient city of Salamis with what the casual visitor assumes to be signs of damage sustained, perhaps, in the course of an earthquake or the collapse of a temple roof. On closer inspection, however, one realises that in this, as in many other cases, the truth is much more sinister: the face and the genitals have been deliberately mutilated, hacked away by early Christian vandals, enraged by the calm beauty of the pagan god. They smashed his arms and legs too.
This was perhaps around the same time that a Christian mob in Alexandria — whipped up by Bishop Cyril, who was later canonised — murdered Neoplatonist philosopher and teacher Hypatia and, according to Gibbon’s account based on contemporary sources, stripped the flesh from her bones with oyster shells. If this sounds like the savagery we now associate with vicious islamist fanatics such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, it is no coincidence.
The early Christians were in many respects the Taliban of their day, and if they later became more civilised it was only because they were forced to assimilate much of the humanist heritage of the ancients. How Christ’s teaching could be so deeply perverted into a doctrine of hatred and resentment, of course, must seem to a modern Christian as incomprehensible as a Sufi mystic would find the idea of a suicide bomber. But the truth, as I have suggested before, is that monotheism is a philosophical and theological concept suitable for the learned but dangerous for an ignorant populace, in whom it inevitably fuels intolerance and violence.
As for the Taliban of our own day, we all remember the horror of their destruction of the Buddha statues at Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001, perhaps the single greatest act of vandalism against an artistic monument of modern times. And since then, we have had all too many opportunities to contemplate the darkness of inhuman nihilism in a country where girls are shot for attending school and people going about their business are murdered at random on a daily basis in the name of religion.
Life was once very different in this land. Alexander the Great established here, about halfway along what became known as the Silk Road, the farthest outposts of the Hellenistic world. Together with the later Indo-Greek kingdom in the Indus Valley, this became a crucial point of contact and exchange between the greatest centres of human culture in the east and west of the Eurasian continent; it was in Gandhara, for example, that Buddha was first represented anthropomorphically, adapting the image of Apollo and beginning an iconographic evolution that extends all the way to Japan.
Alexander was fond of naming cities after himself, and the greatest of these still survives under this name in Egypt. But there were sev- AS a convict artist, CHT Costantini was something of an oddity. Not only was he transported to Australia twice, he also worked as a surgeon and a portrait painter. Furthermore, just as he was developing a reputation for his portraits, he disappeared from the historical record.
Born in Paris in about 1803, Costantini was
April 12-13, 2014 eral others in the east, the most remote, in what is now Tajikistan, known as Alexandria Eschate, literally, “furthest Alexandria”. To the south, in what was then Bactria, another was founded at the end of the 4th century BC by his successors, Alexandria on the Oxus, perhaps the site now known as Ai Khanoum. This was evidently a substantial and very important city until its destruction by barbarian invaders in 145BC. By then, fortunately, Greco-Bactrian king Demetrius had conquered the lands to the south and established the Indo-Greek kingdom that endured in northwestern India until the beginning of the new millennium.
What was spared by the nomadic hordes was forgotten until the site was rediscovered and excavated by French archeologists from in the 1960s and 70s. In the successive wars that have racked the country since that time, transported for the first time in 1822 after being found guilty in London of “larceny in a dwelling house” and accused of “forcing his attentions on a lady with too impetuous a passion”.
After less than two years in NSW, he was granted a pardon thanks to the intervention of a visiting French explorer, Hyacinthe de Bougainville. The artist left the colony with the French expedition and, rather astonishingly, was appointed the ship’s surgeon.
Back in London, in 1827, he was again transported, this time for stealing two 5 notes. He landed in Hobart Town but, labelled “troublesome”, was sent to the notorious penal settlement at Macquarie Harbour. While there, he impressed the commandant, Captain James Butler, with his talent for drawing, according to Heather Curnow in Island Exile: CHT Costantini.
Details of Costantini’s life remain elusive but in 1831 he was transferred to Port Arthur, where he worked as an assistant surgeon and hospital superintendent. He also completed a number of much has been destroyed or looted. The final threat was the iconoclastic fury of zealots driven by a primitive dread of the power of idols.
In the face of danger, courageous staff of the National Museum of Aghanistan in Kabul hid the most precious objects in bank vaults, and it is these works that have come to the Art Gallery of NSW as part of a national and international tour through some of the world’s greatest museums. It was moving to hear National Museum director Omara Khan Masoudi speak at the opening of this beautiful and important exhibition, and to realise how many people like him are committed, against all the odds, to a better future for their country.
We enter the exhibition to encounter at once a pure embodiment of the Hellenic spirit: a small torso of a naked youth, which speaks of the in- drawings, such as a detailed panorama of the settlement. However, he was still getting into trouble. As punishment for being insubordinate and refusing to work, he received 50 lashes.
In 1834, Costantini nonetheless gained his freedom and moved to Launceston, where he set up as a portrait painter. He advertised, in the local paper, “portraits in the most correct style, also, views, and sketches of gentlemen’s farms”. He had several patrons for whom he produced family portraits and paintings of their homes.
While Costantini is best known for these richly detailed, naive-style portraits, it is his trompe l’oeil, on display at Hobart’s Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, which is really his piece de resistance.
The Allport museum has the largest selection of Costantini’s work in the country, 60 paintings, and when I visit Hobart I’m shown Trompe l’oeil by Allport librarian Caitlin Sutton.
The trompe l’oeil, or trick of the eye, style of painting was a popular genre in the early 19th stinctive Greek love of life, their sense of the beauty of the body, and their belief in the union of mind and body. Nearby is another small statue believed to represent the master of the gymnasium, which by then was an important educational institution, not merely a centre for athletic practice. These two figures, thus juxtaposed, represent the image of the humane and harmonious citizen and the education — paideia — by which these good citizens are formed.
An explicit articulation of the underlying values of such an education is preserved — almost miraculously when so few fragments remain from an entire city — on the stone pedestal of a lost funerary statue. The inscription is carved with care but is not the work of a highly skilled epigraphist. It describes the appropriate behaviour for the ages of man: as a boy, one should be orderly or well-behaved ( kosmios); coming to manhood, one should be self-controlled ( enkrates); in middle age, just ( dikaios); in old age, of good counsel ( euboulos); and finally, in reaching the end of our lives, we should be without grief or perhaps regret ( alupos).
A further inscription, scratched less carefully to the left and harder to read, informs us that these precepts were copied from Delphi, the seat of the oracle of Apollo, and brought by a man called Clearchos to this remote outpost of civilisation, where he engraved them in the sanctuary ( temenos) of Kineas. If the latter was, as has been suggested, the founder or oikistes of the city, this would be especially appropriate, since Apollo was associated with the founding of new colonies.
These first things tell us so much about the spirit of the city, and the massive marble capitals that follow — all that remains of once-impressive colonnades — give us a sense of its scale, confirmed by archeological evidence of a vast palace, theatre and other structures.
Other fascinating objects, again chance survivals that must represent a minute fraction of the material wealth of Ai Khanoum in its heyday, include a small bronze Heracles, a beautiful and solemn clay head, perhaps of Hermes, and an intriguing gilded silver relief of Cybele, the mother goddess of eastern origin, in a chariot drawn by lions.
As so often in the history of the Eurasian century in Europe and America. It combined disposable artefacts of popular culture with personal mementos to produce a narrative of social life. According to Max Howell in Art of the Convicts, it was rare in convict art.
Costantini’s Trompe l’oeil consists of a number of overlapping images, such as a deck of cards, a banknote, a street scene of children, an 1857 issue of the Tasmanian Daily News, an image of a ship under full sail, views and portraits. It gives autobiographical clues. The playing cards, for example, refer to the hand of fate; the ship to his sea voyages; and a meticulously drawn bank note is inscribed with “We promise not to pay”, a reference no doubt to the crime of forgery, for which he was transported.
Costantini’s eventual fate was as enigmatic as his art for, after 1857, the year of Trompe l’oeil, he disappeared from recorded history. It is not known when or where he died. He left no diaries and only a few official letters. It’s only his rather quirky, but appealing, works that remain.
Masque of Silenus, Begram (1st century AD);
Bactrian Aphrodite, Tillya Tepe (1st century