Giorgios Vitalis ΓΙΩΡΓΙΟΣ ΒΙΤΑΛΗΣ
Born 1838 Died1901
Giorgios Vitalis was one of Greece’s great 19th century sculptors in an era when marble was king and neoclassicism flourished. His works became famous for their attention to even the smallest detail. In that respect, he was a perfectionist. He has only one work in the First Cemetery of Athens: the mausoleum of George Averoff. It is very grand and hard to miss as you enter the gates of the cemetery. Even so, it may not completely represent his aesthetic because it was completed after his death. His career is an interesting one and one that illustrates the frustrations that sculptors underwent in showing their works and, in a competitive market, being true to their own artistic impulses.
Giorgιos was born in Ysternia on the island of Tinos in 1838 just a few years after the birth of the Greek nation. He was the son of a building contractor and, after graduating from high school began to work alongside his father in Smyrna on the Asia Minor coast. The population there was predominantly Greek and still under Ottoman control.
At 19, he realized that he wanted something more. Without informing his father, he travelled to Athens and, at the age of 19, enrolled in its Polytechnical School. To make ends meet, he worked in the marble studio of his cousin and fellow Tinian, Giorgios Fytalis, who was a professor of Sculpture at the Athens School of Arts.
Giorgios graduated in 1862 and had worked for Fytalis for seven long years until a new opportunity arose. He was offered a scholarship sponsored by Queen Amalia. With the support of her father-in-law and famous Philhellene King Ludwig I of Bavaria, Vitalis was able to study at the Academy in Munich under the tutelage of Professor Max Von Windmann who was king Ludwig’s favourite sculptor.
A Von Windmann statue of Schiller
Giorgios married the daughter of a Bavarian doctor and the family tried to persuade him to stay in Munich. He was offered a position at the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, but he wanted to return to Greece.
He settled in Syros, where he established his marble workshop and would remain for the next 30 years. Ermoupoli, Syros’capital, was a wonderful choice for an ambitious sculptor. In those years it was a bustling maritime and commercial centre and its inhabitants had deep enough pockets to realize their marble fantasies! Syros is still a wonderful place to visit for a flavour of what 19th century Greek art was all about. From 1870-1882 and again in 1895-98, Syros had a dynamic mayor in the person of Dimitrios Vafiadakis who was instrumental in getting the fabulous city hall built by Ernst Ziller and in encouraging works of sculpture to decorate the town’s many squares and churches.
The main square of Ermoupolis, backed by Ziller’s masterpiece and tiled in marble, was called by one enthusiast an outdoor ballroom. On the left is a Vitalis dais or bandstand dedicated to the Muses.
Of course, Vitalis was not just a local island phenomenon. His works soon became popular and won many prizes at exhibitions. His sculptures of Greek heroes such as Opheus, Paris, Theseas, Oedipus, or Hector, decorated the royal palace in Athens, and the homes of wealthy and influential collectors such as Stefanos Skouloudis. Even Sofia, the sister and hostess of Prime Minister Harilaos Trikoupis owned a Vitalis. Depictions of ancient Greeks in the classical style were very much in vogue at the time and something of a Vitalis speciality although he could create works of modern heroes, if commissioned - as his statue of William Gladstone proves.
The Problem of Exhibiting Works in Greece
It was all very well to chisel away in one’s workshop, but marble statues were an expensive commodity in a small, competitive market and the problem of how to exhibit their works in a way that would attract Greek (and hopefully international) attention was a pressing problem. Greek sculptors did not want their marble careers to be only about monuments in cemeteries. (Ironically, the fact that they were a great part of their work in places like the First Cemetery in Athens has left us a legacy we appreciate very much!). There were competitive exhibitions in centres like Paris and Rome but in Greece – nothing!
Nothing, that is until one of Greece’s great benefactors, Evangelos Zappas, decided to relight the ancient Olympic torch and financed several of what we might now call previews of the international Olympics held in 1896 in Athens. Zappas sponsored these ‘pre-Olympic Games’ beginning in 1859 well before there was any suitable venue or international interest. There was no Olympic stadium back then, The first athletic events were held in Klafthmonas Square (then King Ludwig Square) in the centre of Athens. What was important about this Olympic effort to sculptors like Vitalis was that in these revived ‘games’, art became a competitive category. It was a very Greek thing to do.
One of the 1875 medals mentioning Zappas on one side and showing King George I on the other
Ancient Greeks may have chosen their jurors by lot, but almost everything else was settled by a contest – and not just athletics. Drama, singing, and poetry had all been included. There was even a kissing contest in some games - among men only, of course. (1) So Zappas’ revival of art categories with prizes of gold, silver and bronze medals had a real pedigree.
Greek sculptors rushed to enter the contests held in the ‘Olympics’ in 1856, 1860, 1870, 1875, and 1888 and in other contests tendered by cultural organizations of one sort or another. They presented either completed works or models of projected work to be examined and judged by the perceived experts of the time. In 1870, Vitalis won the Silver Medal and in 1875, the Bronze in the Olympic contests of those years.
This Statue of Theseus, created in 1868, was shown at the ‘Olympics’ of 1870 and now graces the area outside of the metro (electrico) in Plateia Thissio.
Of course, it is easier to determine who is best in a foot race or a boxing match than with art where judges cannot help bringing in their own points of view and in this period, austere classicism was the prevailing taste, so it is not surprising that sculptors who dared to be modern, or even embellish the classical ideal, believed that their work was not being judged on its merits or – worse - that the ‘fix’ was in because the pool of experts judging these things was small and usually traditionalist. If an artist felt slighted, he could appeal to the court of public opinion – newspapers during this period were more than happy to enter the cultural arena, especially if a potential scandal was in the making.
This was the climate for all sculptors of the era.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ermoupolis
In 1880, Vitalis created an impressive monument for Ermoupolis. By that time, he was already a master craftsman. Vitalis had first presented the city with a small model of the work after having consulted his friend Ernst Ziller (2), the architect of Syros’ city hall and no mean monument designer himself. The town fathers liked what they saw and Vitalis did not disappoint. Its correct title is: the Unburied Unknown and it commemorated the heroes who had fought and died during the fight for independence from the Ottomans.
The monument is topped by a lion (3) stretched out on a garlanded sarcophagus of Tinian marble. The lion symbolizes the bravery of the warriors who, like the lion, are now at rest. A classical female figure, barefooted and scantily clad, represents Ermoupolis as she kneels with her back to the viewer. There is a laurel branch in her left hand, meant to crown the victors. With her raised right hand she completes the epitaph of the heroes who had come to Ermoupolis and died anonymously in battle. The text ends by saying that the monument had been placed at public expense by ‘we, the inhabitants, of Ermoupolis’.
According to those who know (4) the monument is a blend of pure classicism (the female figure) with 19th century neoclassical highlights (the lion atop the sarcophagus and other decorative features) that were popular at the time. The female figure is beautifully done.
As an interesting aside, the monument was first placed high on Dilis Ηill (one of the two in Ermoupolis) in front of the Agios Anastasis Church, but it became a target for stone throwing local children. So in 1888, it was moved to its present location in front of the Agios Nikolaos Church closer to the town centre and where it was easier to keep an eye on errant youngsters! While you are there, go inside the church because Vitalis created the impressive iconostasis of this church dedicated to Ermoupolis’ patron saint, and designed that elaborate Bishop’s chair as well:
The Statue of William Gladstone
In 1883 the senate of the Greek Academy decided to sponsor a statue of English Prime Minister William Gladstone. Gladstone was chosen because he had proved himself invaluable obtaining Thessaly for Greece in 1881. The tender for submissions was specific as relates to size and material (marble of course), but expression, the stance, and the mode of dress were left up to the sculptor. Vitalis wasn’t taking any chances. He created three models for the committee to judge. Dimitris Filippotis, another well known sculptor who had often been sidelined by the traditional art world because he refused to follow the strict rules of neoclassicism, also entered a model of Gladstone for consideration. After the usual deliberations, Vitalis was named the winner. However, many claimed that the Filippotis’ model was by far the best. When the British ambassador had seen it, he had exclaimed, That’s Gladstone! The press was there to add fuel to the fire and reported that when the ambassador discovered that Filippotis’ model had been rejected, he broke his cane in anger. Filippotis demanded that his model be exhibited so it could be compared easily to Vitalis’. The debate became so heated that Prime Minister Tricoupis himself felt compelled to go and view the two models.
One of the conditions was that the winner had to travel to London to study the subject in person, so Vitalis set off to London for a three month period before showing the committee his final work. For many years after Gladstone was turned into marble, his statue was not officially unveiled or placed - for reasons I cannot discover. It may have been financial because no one had considered the cost of the pedestal. Poor Gladstone! Many years passed before the statue was actually placed in the garden of the University of Athens where it stands today. Still, Gladstone does have the singular honour of being the only foreigner to grace the forecourt of the University buildings.
William at last!
He is posed as a rhetorician in contemporary dress, turning slightly as he speaks with one hand raised. At his feet are two tomes of Homer – he was quite a Homeric scholar. I love that left foot just ready to stride into thin air. It is a touch I have noticed on many statues of the period and it never fails to please. The work is an interesting blend of a classical pose mixed with realism.
It’s a pretty good likeness too:
Problems with contests for works continued all through the era. In 1888, when the Byron Club announced they were in the market for a bust of Byron, the official deadline was apparently stretched to allow Vitalis more time to send his model over from Syros. The press and other contestants immediately cried foul and the committee was compelled to hold another contest.
Vitalis still won.
Byron’s bust with a nicely windswept scarf but immaculate coiffure
The Statues of George Averoff
Vitalis spent the last 2 years of his life in the city of Alexandria in Egypt. There was still a large Greek population in that city and his mission was to complete two statues of Greece’s great benefactor Giorgios Averoff, a man who had done so much for both cities. He did complete the statue intended for Alexandria’s Tositsas School. (Tositsas, another of Greece’s benefactors, is buried in the First). It is imposing in a style we have come to expect from Vitalis and very reminiscent of the Gladstone statue he had completed years before for the Athens Academy.
Seated at the base of the statue are two female figures, The one on the right represented the Spirit Education and the one of the Left, Benevolence or Kindness.
He died before he could realize the statue of Averoff made for the Athens First Cemetery the base of which was intended to house the bones of the great man when they were brought back from Alexandria. His sculpture was realized by his son Ioannis and by sculptor Dimitrios Filippotis, his old rival for the statue of Gladstone.
The Dais in the Main Square of Ermoupolis
This dais or bandstand was inaugurated in 1907, well after the sculptor’s death. This highlights another aspect of sculpture as an art form. Sculptors made models of their work in plaster or wax to show collectors or institutions. Sometimes they made several, and it was rare for an artist to chisel him or herself the work, especially if large. Marble sculpture was a collaborative art. Every marble workshop had technicians for this although the master might take a hand in fine details.
Therefore, it was perfectly possible that any sculptor’s work could be created and exhibited after his or her death. The models for famous works have often been almost prized as much as the final product and many are shown in museums in Greece.
The Dias: apparently because of wells underneath the structure, it is a perfect echo chamber...
As seen in an old postcard
The bandstand, with its ten lampposts, is decorated by bas reliefs of Apollo and the nine muses, a lovely blend of form and function. The city’s orchestra uses it regularly.
One of the muses: Melpomene, the muse of Tragedy
Other Works of Vitalis
In the Ermoupolis Cemetery:
Because he was a resident of Ermoupolis, its cemetery benefitted from his work more than Athens. This is an excellent example of his aesthetic. All the motifs shown were popular for funeral monuments at the time. This cemetery should be on your itinerary if you visit Syros.
The statue of Byron which has been placed over his buried heart. The face is vitually identical to the bust of Byron shown earlier. Quite often a sculptor might make a bust of his larger work and sell it or display it separately
(1) A kissing contest was held annually in Megara to honour their hero Diocles.
(2) Ziller had designed the tomb of Heinrich Schliemann in the First Cemetery of Athens, among others.
(3) It would be fun to do a study of lions and funerary monuments, partly because of their association with Bavaria and more because of their archetypal associations, they were a favoured species for cemeteries. I always like to stop and take a look. There is an especially nice one beside the Tomb of Syngros in the First cemetery – not to mention Vitalis’ lions on the mausoleum of Averoff.
(4) My source is Dr. Katerina Tzavelopoulos (Κατερίνας Τζαβελοπούλος)