It was a story worth telling. The day had been lovely; the azure sea of the caldera sparkled in the bright sun and dolphins frolicked in the open waters beyond the cape. The fleet was bedecked in all its ceremonial glory, and everyone was dressed to impress. The earth itself seemed intent to participate in the joyous occasion, as the hills rose behind the town exposing the colorful palette of volcanic rocks that are normally out of sight (and occasionally out of mind too). Here was a subject matter that would definitely elicit countless likes. Sure, it would only be a fleeting story, destined to adorn that narrow space above the south windows until a new owner decided it was time for a new wall painting. But in that relatively brief instant, this magnificent panorama would reach the eyes of his followers and earn him their admiration.
Little did our unknown artist suspect that his story would be immortalized as a result of a cataclysmic catastrophe unlike any other the world had seen. As pumice and ash rained from the sky, and the ground beneath their feet shook uncontrollably (a geological print screen if you will), the story was buried for 3500 years. The artist’s name was lost, the meaning of the wall painting was forgotten, the civilization that nourished both was obliterated. But the story has come back to light and continues to collect likes from an audience that flocks to Santorini from the four corners of the world. The Flotilla Fresco has become a mysterious sensation that celebrates the greatest Minoan Bronze Age civilization in the Cyclades.
A life of affluence
Akrotiri was a lovely seaside town on the south coast of prehistoric Santorini. It was a large urban settlement with its own harbor and a varied townscape since no two houses were alike. There were impressive mansions with spacious rooms designed to receive many people; large independent buildings with service quarters on the ground floor and ceremonial or residential rooms on the upper storeys; and building blocks that may have been used for some type of communal living, since there is only one kitchen per block. All these buildings were arranged along a sophisticated street network, while an extensive drainage system removed rainwater and household waste. The community members could gather in the public squares and participate in economic, social, religious, and ceremonial events. Magazines with large storage jars that contained oil, wine, barley floor, and other edible substances may have supplied people with cooked food, while workshops produced high-quality pottery.
On the north side of Triangle Square (so named after its shape) stands the West House, a prominent long and narrow two-storey edifice made of stone and brick. The building was equipped with a kitchen, a bathroom, a workshop and storage rooms on the ground floor, while the first floor and the second storey had elaborate residential (or ceremonial) rooms. There was a large window facing the square and a shrine on the upper floor. But the most impressive feature of the West House was the wall paintings that adorned the northwestern room of the upper floor. It is not particularly large (measuring just 4 x 4 m. and slightly under 3 m. high) but the space above the doors and windows was covered with maritime frescoes, including a shipwreck and a scene inspired by the landscape of the River Nile. It is the frieze on the south wall though, popularly known as the “Flotilla Fresco”, that really stands out.
Row, row, row the boat
The south wall frieze depicts a procession of ships that move between two towns. There are seven highly decorated large ships with sails and cabins, six smaller craft scattered about in ports and elsewhere, and an intermediate vessel with a canopy and rowers. The ships are adorned with lilies, butterflies, swallows, and other nature symbols. The passengers are wearing tunics or long robes as a symbol of higher social status. The captain is seated in the cabin in the stern and he is accompanied by up to four persons, some seated, some standing. There are also approximately fifteen dolphins swimming between the boats or past the last towards the open sea in the background.
The left town, from where the fleet departs, is bifurcated by a stream and has simpler buildings than the right one. Peasants dressed in animal hides appear to be conversing across a river in the outskirts of the settlement, while lions and other animals run about. In the town itself, people are watching the fleet from the roofs of the houses or the shoreline. They wear tunics, perhaps an indication of their provincial character. The right town is very sophisticated, with elaborate buildings and horns of consecration to the right of the gate. There are men and women of all social strata that seem to anticipate the arrival of the fleet. They appear above the buildings, on balconies, or through windows. Groups of young men (naked or wearing only loincloths) appear to be running from the town to the top of a cliff, while a fisherman carrying baskets is moving towards the town from the shore. A formal procession of youths is leading a sacrificial animal towards the harbor.
Seven Seas of Rhye
There have been many different readings offered for this fresco. Spyridon Marinatos, the first excavator of Akrotiri, believed that the painting represented a voyage to Libya, but the presence of paddlers probably precludes such as explanation, since it would be an exhausting and impracticable means of propulsion on such a lengthy distance. Other researchers see a trip within the Aegean Sea and more often than not identify the Arrival Town as Akrotiri itself. More elaborate interpretations see a series of generic scenes inspired by oral poetry and the events of the Homeric epic cycle, the story of Theseus and Ariadne, the two towns on Achilles’ shield, or a sea-raid. It could also be an annual spring ritual at the opening of the new sailing season, a nautical festival, or an elaborate religious ceremony with elements reminiscent of the bellicose nature of Minoan thalassocracy.
And then there is a theory that the fresco depicts a specific setting inside the caldera that existed at Thera before the massive eruption that destroyed Akrotiri. The two towns may be actual settlements on the island, visible to the artist as he stood on the interior eastern rim, looking west towards the cliffs of the caldera. The two headlands mark the end of the crescent-shaped island and allow the observer to enjoy an unimpeded view of the open sea and the playful dolphins, very much like any modern-day visitor to the island who is captivated by the spectacular views of the water-filled crater of Thera as seen from the top of the volcanic cliffs that surround it.
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The Cyclades fulfil their collective name (kyklos in Greek means circle) by encircling the sacred island of Delos, the mythical birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, the twin offspring of Zeus by Leto.