Thursday, April 09, 2009

Iraq, Sikyon, Orlandos

Hate crimes targeting Iraq's gay population have been rampant during the last couple of months with some 25 dead bodies discovered in Sadr City. Newly acquired social freedoms have allowed a gay subculture to emerge from secrecy. This very freedom, unfortunately, has made homosexuality a public target. Both Shiites and Sunnis condemn gays and some clerics have authorized cold-blooded executions, see Timothy Williams and Tareq Maher, "Iraq's Newly Open Gays Face Scorn and Murder," New York Times (Apr. 7, 2009), pp. A1, A10.

I read about these anti-gay hate crimes while working through Anastasios Orlandos' scholarship on the Frankish/Byzantine site of Mystras. Orlandos populates his reconstruction drawings of this medieval city with images of courtly love. A knight rides up the cobbled street while a lady looks down from her tower balcony. Here, Orlandos provides a visual correlate to the romantic imagination that Modern Greek literature invested on the texts and monuments of the Frankish Peloponnese. Such blatant heterosexual images of love, coupled by the stories of Iraqi intolerance, make me think of Orlandos' own personal life, particularly the murder of his lover at Sikyon. In the 1930s, Orlandos was the principal excavator of ancient Sikyon, where he also designed a fascinating museum, rising on the foundations of a Roman bath. But suddenly, Orlandos' archaeological activities stopped in 1953. The excavation terminated and, according to oral history, Orlandos never stepped foot on the site again. When working in the Sikyon Survey Project, I heard an interesting story about Orlandos' life in Sikyon. Apparently, Orlandos had a boyfriend in Sikyon, who was murdered by the locals for his homosexual leanings. After that incident, Orlandos vowed never to return to the site.

Stories such as these and any reference to Orlandos' homosexuality can only be heard in conversation. To this day, I have never encountered any published acknowledgment of Orlandos' sexual politics. In the celebratory volume Αναστάσιος Ορλάνδος, ο άνθρωπος και το έργον του (Athens, 1978), we find evocations for every aspect of Orlandos' extracurricular life, from his art collection to his literary style, but we encounter a deafening silence on issues of his homosexuality. So much so, that sometimes I wonder whether it was true at all. But when I doubt the veracity of oral histories, I encounter yet another archaeologist who reaffirms, "of course Orlandos was gay, everybody knows that." In Greek scholarship, Orlandos is the closest to a national hero. He was the head of the national monuments service, a teacher, architect and restorer. So, it's no surprise that a certain amount of censorship may have been imposed by him and his students.

In contrast to Greek academia, America has opened up the discussion on homosexuality, and its unique contribution to archaeological scholarship, even though Orlandos' American peers were no less persecuted. The closet was a choice of survival. A. Kingsley Porter's story is telling, as told by Douglas Shand-Tucci in Crimson Letters: Harvard Homosexuality and the Shaping of American Culture (New York, 2003), pp. 125-129. Porter was a leading expert on Romanesque art, influential professor of art history at Harvard and founder of the Medieval Academy of America. Although an influential member of the Harvard gay scene, Porter's homosexuality was not public. Speculation has it that Porter's homosexuality leaked and Harvard president Abbot Lawrence Lowell fired him. This ultimately led to his suicide in 1933, which was kept secret for many years. Ironically, Lowell's own sister, the poet Amy Lowell cohabited with her partner, actress Ada Dwyer Russell, in a "Boston marriage."

During the early 20th century, art history and archaeology were havens for a gay academic subculture. Greece was a desirable destination because homosexuality was not criminalized. When things got particularly repressive at home, British and American gay intellectuals found safe haven in Greece, where lovers were also readily available. Unable to be an expat in his own country, Orlandos and Greek intellectuals could not so readily enjoy the liberties shared by the internationals. In the absence of any formal acknowledgment, archival sources or private testimonies, it becomes difficult to explore Orlandos' sense of homosexuality or his relationship with openly gay expats. Future biographers and social historians will hopefully address the complexities of Orlandos' personal life and elevate his lover's murder in Sikyon above gossip. But even without such solid historical groundwork, I cannot help but read into Orlandos' medieval domestic fantasies an element of desire. The murder in Sikyon flavors my readings of Mystras.

Douglas Shand-Tucci has been most vocal in exploring America's "gay gothic," a closeted form of rebellion. An equivalent Greek version has not been formally written. We are left with many questions. For instance, how did Fotis Kontoglou's Byzantine aesthetics influence Yannis Tsarouchis open homosexuality? Did Tsarouchis break away from his master because Kontoglou disapproved of his sexual preference? Even though the personal has become political in Greece, too, there is a reticence in committing it to print. Everybody is in-the-know, but few risk the public uttering. Perhaps this is the very recipe that has kept homosexuality safer in Greece.

For an introduction to the Greek problems of queer theory, see James Faubion's, "Men Are Not Always What They Seem: From Sexual Modernization toward Sexual Modernity," in Modern Greek Lessons: A Primer in Historical Constuctivism (Princeton, 1993) pp. 213-241. For more information on Sikyon, see Yannis Lolos' much anticipated book, Land of Sikyon: The Archaeology and History of a Greek City State (Princeton, 2009)--kudos to Yannis and to the American School Publications office.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States