|Potter's shop, Rethymnon|
Edward Lear visited Crete in 1864. His journal notes were unpublished in his lifetime. He did not manage to complete their revision before he died - the writing up, editing and expanding process that would turn them into the flowing, witty and often amusing prose that characterized his other ‘Journals of a Landscape Painter’ in various parts of the world. But a surprise delight was in store for me when I came across Edward Lear The Cretan Journal – in a bookshop in Rethymnon.
|Cafe by the mosque, Rethymnon|
|Street in Rethymnon's old town|
The book contains Lear's unedited notes and many of the drawings he made while in Crete. Just because these journals are raw and unedited, they give us a glimpse of Lear’s state of mind, his very immediate feelings and reactions, as well as his formidable dedication to his work. He would regularly rise about 4 or 5 in the morning and set off early, hoping to find good views for his drawings.
He was beset by many difficulties, only one of them being the lack of those good views - partly because of the bad weather, rain or cloud obscuring what he wanted to draw.
I initially became interested in Lear’s writings because he was one of the few western Europeans in the 19th century who had spent time in Albania and had written about it. His quirky often amusing writing was and is a delight, and his drawings and paintings of the landscape, superb. So I read more of his journals, and Vivien Noakes’ biography of him. I’ve also written about his connection with Corfu.
When he visited Crete, the great 20th century excavations of Minoan sites, such as Knossos and Phaistos, had not yet taken place and so were still unknown. He did visit Gortyn however, where there are Roman remains. Nowadays, it is a fenced off heritage site where you pay an entry fee, but in his time, the ruins were just lying around.
(quotes from Lear in italics)
‘..all the plain is covered with great or small masses of ruins: masses of Roman rubble, and brickwork and columns, etc.
|Roman remains, Gortyn|
At the theatre, several portions of which are standing, I drew till six: the view of the plain is beautiful thence, and greatly pleased me. But it began to rain(!) for the morning is very cloudy: and earwigs and fleas provoked me.
So I went on to the ruined Cathedral of St Titus ....
....I drew.... till 7.15. Stopped by heavier rain showers. Desolate yet beautiful spot!’
But Gortyn’s fame reaches back into mythic times. According to the guidebook, "Zeus, in the form of a bull, brought the princess Europa to Gortyn, in southern Crete, and beneath this plane tree, their sacred marriage was contracted."
Surely a very significant spot for Europe, not just in ancient times, but for the present day too. And – this has to be a good sign - the plane tree is still here!
|The plane tree, Gortyn|