My Chief Texas Correspondent forwards an item from the Wall Street Journal. It documents an art exhibition in Houston, that includes a sculpture, carved, or more likely “shaped,” from bat guano. (There is a picture.) Except, though I did not think Texas deficient in bats, this medium had to be supplemented, with seabird droppings.

“Less is more,” was my first reaction. Always competitive, my CTC asks if Toronto can offer anything to match this mechanical-looking, batshit display. I hope to be defeated.

My own nocturnal reveries, last night, were on a topic not unrelated. I dreamt of Greek Terracottas. Specifically, I was haunted once again, by Tanagra figurines once seen in a museum at Alexandria, twenty years ago — until awakened by the jackhammers of the morning.

Terracotta is fired clay. Tanagra is (or was) in Boeotia — the magnificent countryside north-west of Athens. The habit of shaping figures from clay, for all purposes from funerary to toys, is of great antiquity, and followed the Greeks wherever they travelled. Then in the 4th century before Christ, Tanagra’s craftsmen became dominant in this trade. Their painted, clay, sculptural maquettes (most between four and eight inches high), were a marketing revolution. Whereas, through previous centuries, the figurines were what we instinctively call “archaic,” and brimming (to my eyes) with a religious spirit, a new vogue entered with the Hellenistic age.

Many of these “Tanagras” (I doubt this is a valid plural) depict elegant women, in their himations (light wraps), often under wide suspended hats that look devilishly fashionable. Others depict actors, from Menander and the New Comedy, or their theatrical masks. This is satirical caricature — enlarged expressive mouths and extravagant gestures; professional mourners weeping; naughty slaves and lazy boys. But the ladies show what we call “naturalism,” in its most subtle forms. Beneath the wind-caressed veils of their drapery, exquisitely creased and folded in the clay, one is aware that the women have human bodies. The artists hint at shoulders, waists, thighs. The faces are serene. These are Muses, but fully descended from the heavens.

Gentle reader may have called upon the “Lady in Blue,” at the Louvre in France. It is sure to be on the Internet. It still has faded colouring and gilding, and sweeps your head away. Those I examined in Alexandria were down to the clay potter’s slip with, at most, tiny flecks of paint adhering. But they were still devastating.

The city itself — long has it obsessed me — was Queen in its era. In several ways it is the first modern city, though without all our machines. The Ptolemies invented the academic, and sub-academic “cultures.” The Egyptian Quarter was our first ethnic slum. (The city was in the Greek linguistic realm; always “Alexandria-by-Egypt.”) Below the surface of what is now a sprawling Islamic conurbation, lie the jagged ruins of what once became the Roman “second city” — Cleopatra’s town, larger in population than Eternal Rome at times. It was that Empire’s principal wheat port, as Egypt was its bread basket. It offered thrilling juxtapositions of poverty and wealth.

Scrambled in the subterranean mush lies, reputedly, the tomb of Alexander the Great. The Pharos — the vertiginous skyscraper lighthouse, wonder of the world — still exists but only as a stub, no longer even an Ottoman fortress. An earthquake tumbled it; sea levels around it rose and fell. The Library of Alexandria was burnt out more than once; pylons were driven through what may have been its buried foundations, for a sparkling, UN-funded “New Library” — immense, but without books.

These ladies from that Hellenistic world — like stunning runway models from Paris, now twenty-four centuries in the grave. They stand at the beginning of our adventure in naturalism (between the “Sun Gate” and the “Moon Gate”); and at the rebirth we tumbled into, as the ancient gods were dying, or losing their credibility. As it were, we were being “reborn,” as orphans.

But then the jackhammers return, and even our latest irreligion is smashed and crushed to gravel.