Post(card)-Byzantium: The 19th Century Revival of an Empire

by Abby Westover ’17

Take a moment to examine the item below:


One of the most noticeable aspects is the title “Theodora.” The name belongs to the Byzantine prostitute-turned-empress, whose scandalous story history teachers so often dangle as an exotic fruit to entice students’ interest in the era. The decorative disks, laden with colorful jewels and ending with dangling droplets, are equally striking. A bit subtler, the Eagle of Byzantium lurks in the background, elegantly adorning the paper and stamping it with a sense of regal power. Visually, this item denotes royalty and wealth.

With this consideration, the purpose of this item might seem a bit curious, if not flat-out contradicting: it is a postcard advertising lotion. Overall, not exactly something you would consider glamorous. The term “postcard” is much more likely to conjure images of cheap, badly-printed images that can be bought for a pittance at a seedy tourist shop and are sent to friends when you feel guilty about not keeping in touch with them.

Though the appearance and function of this particular postcard might seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum, they work together in a complex and fascinating manner. The cosmetics company advertised, Ed. Pinaud, used the appeal of an historical figure known for her exotic and decadent nature to increase the attractiveness of its product; printing the advertisement on a postcard allowed for inexpensive dissemination. Although this particular example is unused, the blank space on the front would normally be used to write a quick note to a friend, similar to our modern-day usage of texts or Snapchats. The advertisement merely served as a background, a framework for an accessible and common mode of communication. Ultimately, this postcard embodies the intersection between the mundane and the exalted, the modern and the ancient, providing invaluable insight into the popular imagination to which it catered.

As the summer intern working on Dumbarton Oak’s Ephemera Collection, cultural history is my trade. Postcards, collectibles, ticket stubs, magazines, and even receipts provide glimpses into the lives of people who once owned them: where they traveled, what they thought, what caught their interest, and what they considered beautiful. As a result, they are a great way to track changes and developments in cultural phenomena.

One of these developments, as is represented in the aesthetics of the Theodora lotion postcard, was a turn-of-the-20th-century obsession with the Byzantine Empire. This Byzantine-mania was due largely to the work of a French playwright by the name of Victorien Sardou. Elena Boeck writes about his dramatic re-telling of a history and its influence on popular culture in her article Archaeology of Decadence: Uncovering Byzantium in Victorien Sardou’s Theodora. Before Victorien Sardou’s 1884 play Theodora, Byzantium had faded in the memories of his contemporaries, likely remaining for most people a vague notion of a kingdom that straddled the West and East and slowly suffocated between them. However, his re-creation highlighted the decadent, regal, and seductive qualities of the empire.

The 1884 version of the play, which premiered in France, starred the beloved actress Sarah Bernhardt as the complex, morally ambiguous Theodora. Her background as a prostitute and eventual rise to the throne evinced a character both scandalous and impressive. Bernhardt returned to the role in a 1902 revival, solidifying in French popular imagination the lavish appeal of Byzantine style, architecture, and memorable set of characters.

Proof of Byzantium’s popularity can be found in a number of ways, with postcards playing no small role in demonstrating the numerous cultural effects of Sardou’s play. , visual reminders of the spectacular production the owners had witnessed. The cards below show the actor Dejardin as Justinian (left) and Sarah Bernhardt onstage as Theodora (right):

But the ripple effects moved beyond simply a wish to remember the play itself. As can be seen from these cards above, perhaps the most striking aspect of the play was its visual appeal. The play inspired creative minds of the time, sparking them to create artistic representations of Byzantium that often matched Sardou’s lavish style much more than actual historical accuracy:

However, the creative license taken in the revival of a popular Byzantium did not mean an absence of sincere historical interest, some of which was likely re-awakened by Sardou’s play. Byzantine sites were popular travel destinations at the turn of the century, such as the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul (left) and the mosaics of Theodora and Justinian in Ravenna (right).

Unfortunately, we cannot exactly determine through postcards what the cultural presence of Byzantium was like before the 1884 play, as the golden age of postcards began in the 1890s. However, the cards we do have are such simple yet beautiful illustrations of how theoretical phenomena interact with daily life. Sardou’s play was critically acclaimed and adored by many lovers of theatre, but from these cards we see that it permeated many facets of his culture. Byzantium was once more at the forefront in many Western minds, half a millennium after its dissolution.

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