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Two or three photographs of Sophia Schliemann

Ryan Ruby (2020)

The search for a second wife began before he was officially divorced from the first, while he was still in Indiana, where a strategic combination of bribery, perjured testimony, and investments in real estate and the stock market helped to fool a local official into believing that he had satisfied the residency requirements for American citizenship granted by a state whose legislature, thanks, in part, to his lobbying, had recently enacted the laxest divorce laws in the world. Because she was in a position to prove that he had spent more time in St. Petersburg than in Indianapolis during the previous year, he did not inform his wife of the proceedings; she would only learn of them, years later, when she herself went to file for divorce in Russia, where they were still regarded as legally married and where he could no longer travel without facing an indictment for bigamy.

Matchmaking duties were entrusted to the Archbishop of Mantinea, Theocletos Vimpos, his ancient Greek tutor and one of the few friends he had made in St. Petersburg, where he was generally regarded by his wife’s friends as an uncultured parvenu, because of his esteem for Vimpos’ mother and sister, whose fierce love of their menfolk, his stated primary criterion for a wife (criterion two: enthusiasm for Homer; criterion three: dark hair) was a quality he took to be characteristic not only of these particular Greek women but of Greek women as such. For the archbishop’s time, trouble, and creditors he also turned over 1000 francs, a sum that bought him a warning, Whoever seeks to choose a wife has before him a sack full of snakes, among which there is a single tortoise, and if he grasps and pulls out the tortoise, he is very lucky and an envelope, containing photographs of one potential tortoise-woman and two potential snake-women, including, in a clear case of insider trading, the matchmaker’s seventeen year old niece, Sophia Engastromenou, who was initially rejected on the grounds that she was thirty years his junior, and would therefore be as pleasure-seeking and sensual as he had been at that age, whereas now he lived entirely in a metaphysical world and cared only for scholarship. Find me a young widow, he wrote the archbishop with affected world-weariness, with a Greek name and a soul inspired with a passion for learning.

It was indeed her name that would prove decisive in overcoming these doubts, which were revealed, in the ecstatic, almost manic letter he sent to Vimpos the very next day to have had more to do with his anxieties about impotence than with his residence in metaphysics. The sort of man who will go on to baptize his children Andromache and Agamemnon, his Abyssinian servant Telamon, the nag of his Mecklenburg childhood Bellerophontes, and his three-story mansion Ilou Melathron, the Palace of Troy, is the sort of man who will be in want of a wife whose name is easily allegorized, as so often occurs in the history of literature, as the supreme classical virtue, a virtue that, needless to say, he hardly exemplified, unless under the deflationary pressures of nineteenth century commercial and imperial attitudes WISDOM can be defined as shrewdness and shrewdness in turn as the point at which greed infallibly triumphs over scruple. But perhaps there is another explanation. Sophia Engastromenou was the latest in a series of similarly-named women who had figured in his life, the earliest and most important of whom, from a perspective that had not yet been theorized, but would soon be drawn from a different classical source by another famous German-speaking digger and discoverer, who would one day claim that Schliemann’s was the life he most envied and that it was his dream to become a Schliemann of the Mind, was Sophie Schwarz, his mother’s housemaid, who was also the mistress of the alcoholic pastor who was also his father. As a result of the affair, his father was suspended from his position without pay, forcing him to pull his son out of the local Gymnasium and place him instead in a vocational Realschule, thus ensuring that he would never receive an undergraduate degree and would always crave the approval of trained academics. These facts were of course omitted from the autobiographical introduction to Ilios, Stadt und Land der Tojaners, where they were replaced by an anecdote according to which the precocious young Heinrich, having received a copy of Dr. Georg Ludwig Jerrer’s Die Weltgeschichte für Kinder as a Christmas present, vows to devote his life to proving that the engraving printed in it depicting Anchises’ flight from Troy on the back of Aeneas was not Merely, as his father had put it, pitying his son’s credulity, a fanciful picture. This was the very anecdote, invented out of whole cloth to give the appearance of teleological necessity, that great temptation of both Greek and German thought, to the tangled threads of the future archaeologist’s early career as a greengrocer’s boy / bookkeeper / import-export merchant / banker / war profiteer, that would be responsible for pricking the precocious young Sigmund’s envy, although, as it turns out, the future psychoanalyst would have found what he had actively repressed to have been of far greater scientific, that is, philo-sophi-cal interest.

The photograph Vimpos sent him has not been preserved and, anyway, because of the rigid facial expressions enforced by the long exposure times of wet plate Daguerreotype cameras, it is difficult for a contemporary viewer to form a clear impression of the personality of their subjects. In this respect, early photography has more in common with hieratic statuary than with realist painting; in their wedding portrait, for example, the earliest photo we have of them, Sophia’s face appears to be cut from the same white stone as her dress, both somehow heavier-looking than the marble relief of her on the eastern frieze of their mausoleum in the First Cemetery of Athens where she listens thoughtfully as her husband reads aloud from Homer while he oversees one last sacking of Troy. Equally enigmatic, though for somewhat different reasons, is the famous photograph of her, taken four years later, modeling some of what he called, with his businessman’s instinct for sensationalism, the Jewels of Helen—a golden diadem, long-hanging earrings, strands of necklace—which was proudly displayed, according to society columnist for the New York Times, above the mantle at Ilou Melathon, as well as in the pages of Ilios, Stadt und Land der Tojaners, whose publication first alerted the Turkish authorities that he had taken more from Hisarlik than he was legally entitled to, and where it was claimed that Sophia herself had unearthed them, a story that was every bit as fictitious as the one he had told, only a few chapters before, about Dr. Jerrer and his childhood, as is proved by the letter he sent to her in Athens, where she was at home convalescing with her children and mourning the death of her father, who had suffered heart attack shortly after learning from her husband that she had been the victim of an attempted rape by one of the workmen on the dig, on May 27, 1873, the date of the purported discovery.

In the photograph her lower lip is tense, as she tries to hold the pose, but her eyes, which seem to be looking off in two directions at once, give no indication as to what she may be thinking; the woman in the photograph could be either teenaged or middle aged, dreamy or stolid, holding in her joy that her famous husband has made her childhood dreams come true, turning her, for the length of an exposure time, into history’s most beautiful Queen; or, because she knew better than anyone about her famous husband’s pathologically distant relationship with the truth, that she was wearing jewelry that was almost certainly not Helen’s, and may not even have been discovered at Hisarlik, but could have been some of the many pieces he had bought in antiquities bazaars around the Mediterranean to salt his sites with, perhaps what she is holding in is her impatience to get this dead woman’s gold, whoever she may have been, the hell off of her. Yes, her husband was a complete scoundrel, and she had known it, if not from the moment they met, then within days of their wedding, but in one respect, at least, his attitude was the opposite of the one most men who are convinced of their own world-historical importance take towards their wives; unlike those men, who erased their wives’ contributions to their work in order to portray themselves as entirely self-made, he often inserted her, as story about the discovery of the jewels illustrates, into parts of a narrative in which she did not really figure. Not that the latter is necessarily preferable to the former: photographing her in these jewels had turned her, not into nineteenth century Helen, but into a nineteenth century Galatea, a project of her husband’s, whether he was conscious of it or not, that had begun with her selection from Vimpos’ envelope of turtle-women and snake-women and would culminate in the eastern frieze of the mausoleum in which they were to spend their common eternity. But then, while he was best known for proving that what people had once thought was mythological was actually history, Sophia knew her husband’s real talent lay in turning what people thought was historical into actual mythology. 

 

Biographical information, including quotations from Heinrich Schliemann’s correspondence, can be found in David A. Traill’s excellent book Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997

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