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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

AD), be­low

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