Palimpsests of Sappho in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Greece: An Overview
The reception of Sappho in modern Europe has been the focus of numerous studies over the last twenty years. It seems that an autonomous field, the history of Sappho’s Nachleben in Europe and the United States, has emerged in recent scholarship on Sappho.1 A large number of uses of Sappho in French fictions has been investigated, while other literary and scholarly traditions, such as the English and German, have also been considerably studied along these lines.2 Some what less has been written on the equally diverse reception of Sappho in Spain and Italy. However, even less attention has been paid to the history of Sappho’s Nachleben in Greece in the recent investigation of modern voices of Sappho. In this essay, I propose to focus on the Greek reception of Sappho in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. No synthesis on the subject has appeared so far, despite the fact that the reception of Sappho’s image and poetry in Greece over the last two centuries has been rich and intense, and presents subtle and intriguing cases.3 The aim of this article is exploratory: given the abounding nature of the material, it sets out to examine diverse aspects of the modern presence of Sappho in her native Lesbos, and in the broader context of the nineteenth-and twentieth-century reception of Sappho in Greece (1800-1960). The focus on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries does not reflect any adherence to current hypotheses about the origins of modern Greek literature: this issue is a complex, if not entirely elusive, one, and any theory about the post-Byzantine literary production in Greece is destined to be circumscribed by circular arguments. I exclude earlier centuries because of limitations of space: this overview aims to provide some clues to the unending dialogues between Sappho and Greece, for several centuries after the fall of the Byzantine culture,4 and attempts to suggest that recent scholarly views such as that by Joan DeJean that “no other national literature has anything like th[e French] uninterrupted dialogue with Sappho,” may be misleading.5 Sappho’s reputation and influence in modern times can be traced back through the Renaissance to ancient Roman and Greek times. As early as the late sixth and
fifth centuries B.C.E.Sappho’s popularity, both in art and literature, presents intriguing aspects.6 In the long history of the reception of Sappho’s image and poetry from the sixth century B.C.E. to the twentieth century C.E., Sappho has been granted an exceptional poetic status.7 One need mention only two examples: first, the ancient verdict that Homer and Sappho were commonly thought of as “the poet” and “the poetess;” 8 and, second, the nineteenth-century painting Apotheosis of Homer by J.A.D.Ingres (1827), where, in the context of an imaginative ceremony in honour of Homer, Sappho is the only woman present among such poets and artists as Anacreon, Apelles, Raphael, Shakespeare, and Racine. Sappho has been frequently seen as a model for poetic inspiration, an unrivaled composer of love poetry. But apart from her poetic reputation, the aspect that has fascinated and intrigued most audiences and readers, ancient and modern, is her sexuality.