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Leander’s Tower on the Bosporus

Updated: Aug 7, 2020

Oil on canvas, 1876, by Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823 – 1880)

There is a sense of undeserved nostalgia which resonates from this dreamy haze-filtered canvas. I have never lived anywhere close to the old world epoch captured in the expanses of this panorama and yet it strikes in me an immediate note of longing for a bygone time when the opportunism and exploitative tentacles of modern capitalism had not yet grabbed hold of everything and sucked out the life blood of antique romance and sentiment. Evidence the fact that a quick search on Google tells one that Leander’s Tower now serves as a “restaurant, café and gift shop, particularly popular with tourists.” One is aghast to think of the fat selfie-loving iPhone clutching hordes clawing and pawing about the site of one of mythology’s great love stories with their eyes bulging and their mouths salivating at the sight of baklava and kebabs. The thought is even more sullied when one looks at images of the modern day Bosporus and sees how urbanised and industrialised its banks have become, and how cluttered its waterways with the hulked iron-weight of all manner of large, grotesque shipping. I guess this is the inevitability of modernity, where aesthetic identity is easily sacrificed to commerce.

There are two principle legends attached to the small man-made island which juts out on the strait. The first involves an emperor who had a much favoured daughter but who was prophesised by an oracle to be killed by a poisonous snake before her 18th birthday. So terrified of the oracle’s pronouncement, the emperor had the princess spirited away to a small island enclosure of his making where no snakes could ever reach her. He visited her frequently in her tower and on her 18th birthday, thinking he had prevented the prophecy, he took her a basket of exotic fruits. Except, somehow, an asp had crawled into the basket and lay in wait: the princess died in her father’s arms. The second legend, which is the one Gifford has ascribed his painting, comes from the Greek myth of Hero and Leander. Hero lived in the tower and Leander resided on the far side of the strait, on the edge of the Hellespont (or Dardanelles). Every night Hero would light a lamp in the upper part of the tower which would guide Leander as he swam out to be with his lover. Their trysts continued all summer, but one night a storm brewed up across the sea and blew Hero’s lamp out; Leander was tossed amongst the waves and lost his bearings in the dark, soon drowning in the raging billows of the tempest. Hero was so beset with grief that she flung herself from the top of the tower into the waters below. Due to the vicinity of the Dardanelles to the Bosporus, the legend became attached to the tower. In truth, its pragmatic function was always to serve as a lighthouse.

In those days, artifice arose from a marriage of convenience between functionalism and aestheticism. It was inconceivable to the creative imagination that a lighthouse could be allowed to function merely as a guide for ships. It made more sense for it to be one thing while serving as something else as well; hence any number of ancient municipal buildings and structures were “rewritten” or refashioned to stand as rich cultural touchstones. Hence “Leander’s Tower” and the wealth of legend and romance which grew up around it. Today we seem to eschew such dualism in the way we specify the pragmatism of what we create. We tend to favour denoting a structure explicitly for what its purpose dictates. The question of how regressive this tendency is to our creative and imaginative powers is one worth considering: our cultural narratives seem to have been arrested to the point where it seems impossible to conceive that our current generations will bequeath any new myths or legends to our successors in the centuries to come. In short, the death of romance has already been witnessed.

Clearly such a relic as Leander’s Tower was a prize subject for an artist firmly committed to the luminist tradition as Gifford was. The canvas is intensely atmospheric, the result of a scene conjuring up, as Gifford wrote, “a vision of a fairy land … the towers and domes and minarets, glittering and golden in the early sun.” The broad scope of the landscape stresses a horizontal plane which is flooded with a specific kind of soft, diffuse light. The hazy evocations create a feeling of reflective sentiment where the full impact of reality is filtered through a kind of soporific quality of tone; the viewer reflects on the meditative nature of the calm body of refractive water rather than the dim cluttered commotion of the bustling harbour-front town, replete with its unique array of customs, huddled in the far background. There is tranquillity and a kind of primitivism which is emphasised by the tight control of the tonal balance of light; the brushwork is concealed to strip away Gifford’s own personality and rather imbue the scene with a more generalised, timeless intimacy. Gifford was also, however, influenced by the Hudson River School and would have been preoccupied with the themes of discovery, exploration and settlement. There is something Turner-like in the skewered objectivity of the scene: it is a blend of the romanticised and the realistic: it stays true to the epic grandeur of myth, while still remaining grounded in the dusty realism of time and place. It is a coexistence of ideals.

The composition of the scene displays a tightly controlled attention to symbolism. Sky and water meet in a seamless line with hardly any colour delineation between the two elements. Water causes the death of the doomed lovers, but sky carries their spirits aloft. Hero and Leander are reunited beyond the parameters of their former restrictive and risky arrangement. The tower looms out of the water on the left, while the expanse of sea to the centre and right of the scene emphasises the distance Leander would have to swim to be with his sweetheart; the physicality of his devotion is evoked. Love knows no bounds. This is further suggested by the presence of the boat in the foreground which an oarsman seems to struggle physically to row while a white bird of solace, symbolic perhaps of Leander’s soul, soars across the low surface of the water, emancipated from the strait's function as a barrier. The tower, meanwhile, is mirrored in the refractive surface of the sea representing the two lovers, one an exact reflection of the other, their unity perfectly represented and memorialised. In the background, other sail boats are hinted at, echoing the scale of the scene and suggesting movement which nonetheless does not disturb or impose on the serenity of the central subject’s poise and splendour. We are left to contemplate a quiet idealised world devoid of the immediate regressions which modern trappings impose.

Image courtesy of the Fogg Museum, Harvard University.


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