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Teresa Makri and Lord Byron

 

Teresa Makri is something of a lost figure in the Greek War of Independence. While this young Greek maiden was to lead a very ordinary life, her image became immortalized as an international symbol of Grecian beauty.

No one denies that the simple love poem, written with her in mind, is now a recognized classic. Rediscovering this person, and the poem about her, can help us better understand how the romantic notions held by Europeans helped in the establishment of the Modern Greek state.

Teresa (Θηρεσία, in Greek) was born on November 4, 1797; her father was Procopius and her mother Tarsia of the Batista-Bretos family. Procopius Makri’s father was Dr. Menas Makri, an Athenian who originally hailed from Corfu. Once settled in Athens, Dr. Makri married Marianna Mourke, a native-born Athenian. The couple aside from their only son Procopius had five daughters.

Procopius Makri became vice-consul for the Levant Company, and as such, de facto British vice-consul. In September, 1799, Procopius accompanied an Englishman into the Peloponnesus, but some 15 days later, on October 2, he was brought to Piraeus where he died. Procopius Makri was just 35 years old when he left behind a mother, wife, and three young daughters Mariana, Kattinka (Katherine), and Teresa. All three generations of Makri women lived in the same Athenian house. The only means of support for the five women was a grove of 60 olive trees and the fact that part of their house was occasionally rented out to English travelers. Later accounts mention that the Makri sisters made a modest income by the sale of embroideries.

In the two decades before the War of Independence, English visitors to Athens stayed at the Makri home. “A Journey through Albania, and other Provinces of Turkey in Europe and Asia, to Constantinople, during the years 1809-1810,” by John Cam Hobhouse (London: J. Cawthorn, 1813), offers this description of Byron and Hobhouse’s arrival at the Makri residence as well as something of the general floor plan: “a few minutes brought us into Athens, at half after eight in the evening of Christmas Day, 1809, and we proceeded immediately to the house where our countrymen are usually lodged, and where we found an English traveler to congratulate us on our arrival…

“During our stay at Athens , we occupied two houses separated from each other only by a single wall through which opened a doorway. One of them belongs to a Greek lady, whose name is Theodora (sic) Macri…and who has to show many letters of recommendation, left in her hands by several English travelers. Her lodgings consisted of a sitting-room and two bedrooms, opening into a court-yard where there were five or six lemon trees, from which, during our residence in the place, was plucked the fruit that seasoned the pilaf, and other national dishes served up at our frugal table.”

The poem, “Maid of Athens,” was written when Byron was leaving Athens in 1810, and it was dedicated to Teresa Makri. In a letter to H. Drury, May 3, 1810, Byron wrote: “I almost forgot to tell you that I am dying for the love of three Greek Girls at Athens, sisters, two of whom have promised to accompany me to England, I lived in the same house, Teresa, Mariana, and Kattinka, are the names of these divinities all of them under 15…”

What Byron leaves out of his letter to Drury, is an event that may or may not have taken place. After Byron’s return to England , a story soon circulated. First credited to Byron confidant Thomas Moore, this story contends that Byron had so loved Teresa Makri that he “was on his knees before her with a dagger pointed at his bare chest entreating her to take him or kill him!”

“Maid of Athens,” was seen as Byron’s farewell ode to Teresa Makri:

Maid of Athens, ere we part,

Give, oh give me back my heart!

Or, since that has left my breast,

Keep it now, and take the rest!

Hear my vow before I go,

“Ζώη μου σάς άγαπώ”

By those tresses unconfined,

Woo’d by each Aegean wind;

By those lids whose jetty fringe

Kiss thy soft cheeks blooming tinge;

By those wild eyes like the roe,

“Ζώη μου σάς άγαπώ”

By that lip I long to taste;

By that zone-encircled waist;

By all the token-flowers that tell

What words can never speak so well;

By love’s alternate joy and woe,

“Ζώη μου σάς άγαπώ”

Maid of Athens! I am gone:

Think of me, sweet! when alone.

Though I fly to Istambol,

Athens holds my heart and soul:

Can I cease to love thee? No!

“Ζώη μου σάς άγαπώ”

Did Lord Byron really fall madly in love with Teresa Makri? As Professor Christopher Brouzas noted in his essay, “Teresa Makri, the ‘Maid of Athens’ 1791-1875”:

“Writers disagree on the intensity or sincerity of Byron’s affection towards Teresa, some thinking that he was really in love, while others maintain that it was a mild case of romance…If we were to take him literally, we might argue that he was really in love, if only for a short time. But whatever Byron’s real affections may have been at that moment of the dagger episode, or when he wrote his farewell to the Maid of Athens, or even when he penned his letter to Drury…they certainly cooled off rather rapidly (“Athene,” Volume XI, No 1, Spring 1950).”

Here, Professor Brouzas is referring to the fact that when Byron returned to Athens , after a short trip to Constantinople , he did not stay at the Makri family home. Instead he took up residence at the Capuchin Convent. On August 23, 1810, Byron wrote to Hobhouse, in part, that “[I]ntrigue flourishes: the old woman Theresa’s (sic) mother, was mad enough to imagine I was going to marry the girl.” Whatever the true nature or endurance of Byron’s affections for Teresa Makri his brief encounter with her and his poem effected this woman for the rest of her life.

After the publication of “Maid of Athens,” English visitors (and soon individuals from around the world) began to visit and actively seek out the Makri home to “see” for themselves this maiden who had stolen Byron’s heart—if only for a short time.

When the Greek revolution finally came, the Makri women fled the city and sought refuge on Corfu until they could return home in safety. In 1829, Teresa Makri married John Black, an English philhellene who came to Greece soon after Byron’s death. Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe mentions the marriage and calls Black a “bore.” Black is said to have taught at one of Athens two gymnasia, while at the same time serving as British vice-consul first in Athens and later at Mesolonghi. The couple was to have one daughter. Black was characterized by a contemporary as “a gentleman only known for his down Mesolonghi in 1868.”

It was said that no English visitor to Athens missed meeting and speaking with Teresa Makri Black. Endless accounts exist in the travel writer literature of individual responses to “Mrs. Black” as she became known. Much ink was spilled over Mrs. Black’s hospitality, her enduring poverty, and her quiet modest nature. Still, not all accounts are flattering when it comes to descriptions of her physical appearance. As with all human beings Teresa Makri Black aged and some of her visitors thought she did so without particular grace.

While all too few writers have dwelt on Teresa Makri Black’s personality and character, it seems only fair to cite one of these English travelers who saw the Makri family not long after Byron encountered them. The painter Reverend H. W. Williams, whose Views of Greece would be published in 1829, offers us this verbal portrayal of the Makri women when he first met them in Athens of 1817:

“On the crown of the head (of each) is a red Albanian skull-cap with a blue tassel spread out and fastened down like a star. Near the edge or bottom of the skull-cap is a handkerchief of various colours bound round their temples. The youngest wears her hair loose, falling on her shoulders—the hair behind descending down the back nearly to the waist, and, as usual, mixed with silk…The two eldest have black or dark hair and eyes; their visage oval and complexion somewhat pale, with teeth of pearly whiteness. Their cheeks are rounded, their noses straight, rather incline to aquiline…Mariana, is very fair, her face not so finely rounded, but has a gayer expression than her sisters’, whose countenances, except when the conversation has something of mirth in it, may be said, to be rather pensive.

Their persons are elegant, and their manners pleasing and ladylike, such as would be fascinating in any country. They possess very considerable powers of conversation, and their minds seem to be more instructed than those of the Greek women in general. With such attractions it would, indeed, be remarkable if they did not meet with great attentions from the travellers who are occasionally resident in Athens . They sit in the eastern style, a little reclined, with their limbs gathered under them on the divan, and without shoes. Their employments are the needle, tambouring, and reading.”

International fame notwithstanding, Teresa Makri Black was dogged by poverty her entire life. After the death of her husband in 1868, Mrs. Black sought out the aid of George Finley, the historian, who successfully approached several prominent Greeks on her behalf. Then, in 1872, appeals were made in the “London Times” and ‘subscriptions’ were taken on her behalf. Interestingly these appeals were printed in both English and French. One especially noteworthy response was when Charles F. Gounod (1818-1893) the internationally famous composer donated the proceeds from his composition, “Maid of Athens” to Mrs. Black.

For all her worldly fame, all that is publicly noted is that Teresa Makri Black died in 1875.

The employment of Teresa Makri Black as an internationally recognized symbol of beauty has continued unabated since Byron first immortalized her in his 1810 poem. Undoubtedly, this process was aided by the fact that several illustrations of Teresa Makri Black, taken from life, were widely circulated. Perhaps the most accurate illustration was drawn by T. Allason in 1812 and copied by F. Stone. This drawing comes from “Finden’s illustrations of the life and works of Lord Byron: With…information on the subjects of the engravings,” by William Brockedon, Edward Francis Finden, and W. Finden (London, J. Murray, 1833).

Given her legendary status it is not surprising to learn that sometime around 1870, Filippos Margarities and Ioanni Konstantinou, the first two known professional photographers in Athens made a cabinet card portrait of Mrs. Black. During the era of the cabinet card photograph it was very common for celebrities to sell signed photographs of themselves to their public. While no published account reports that Mrs. Black sold her photograph to tourists given her enduring poverty it is not, given the existence of this portrait, inconceivable.

Another photographic image shows a bust of the Maid by an unknown sculptor taken by Edgar Papworth Sen. The original is in the collection of the British Royal family.

Over time any verbal or visual reference to Teresa Makri Black came to signal internal beauty. This notion was actively seized upon by the popular imagination. Advertisements from around the world depict the “Maid of Athens.” Images of the Maid appear on art deco cigar box art, in the brand labels of fruits and vegetables from Florida , calendar art, and numerous other items since the mid-1800s. One striking example of Teresa Black’s continued fame is that in 1948, one of the first Hellenic Airlines planes was named “Maid of Athens.”

The romantic notions held by Europeans and other philhellenes helped establish the Modern Greek state. Separating fact from fancy, and romance from the mundane, can help us better appreciate how much the products of the European imagination, as much as their physical actions, helped make the Greek nation state a reality.

 

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