Monday, 8 July 2013

Preview: The Parthenon

Where is the Parthenon?

The answer is, of course, all across Europe. The Parthenon - or parts of it at least - can be found in London, Paris, Copenhagen, the Vatican, Vienna, Wurzburg, Munich and, most obviously, Athens. This esteemed 2500-year-old Greek temple sits on a large rock overlooking Athens, but today we just see the bones. One of the earliest symbols of a civilised world has seen its details stripped away and deposited in various museums, most notably the British Museum, which has been proudly displaying 75 metres of the Parthenon's marble sculptures for almost 200 years. The Parthenon has had a long and active history, packed with multiple functions, abuse, and controversy, but still it stands, and it remains as revered today as it was upon completion way back in 438 BC.

It doesn't exist in isolation. The Parthenon is part of a complex on the rock that is Athens Acropolis. Having a big rock in the middle of a city is always a good idea, and Athens' rock is particularly impressive, rising dramatically from the surrounding land but having a nice flat top perfect for building stuff on. This made it a great defensive spot. Settlement seems to have been going on for thousands of years, but the area began to get more developed by around 1500 BC. Where there's defence, there's attack, and the ancient fortified Acropolis suffered a few shifts in fortune and the occasional massacre. But such was ancient life - always a dire massacre round the next corner.

It's in 489 BC that we find ourselves in vaguely familiar territory - this is the Classical period of ancient Greece, where culture, science and philosophy flourished in a way that has shaped Western civilisation ever since. In 489 BC, the construction of what we now call the Older Parthenon began, a grand temple on the site of the version we see today, built to commemorate a victory against the Persians. It didn't last long - in 480 BC the Persians fought back with devastating force and numbers. Athens fell, and everything on the Acropolis was wiped out. They certainly didn't spare a monument built in honour of their defeat.

It's fair to say that the Athenians were a little upset by this. You build things up then someone comes along and knocks them all down - it's very disillusioning. Upon reoccupying the city, a conscious decision was made to leave the ruined stumps of the Old Parthenon and the rest of the Acropolis as eternal reminders of the barbarian invasion. A generation went by with the scars of defeat all too visible.

But then a man called Pericles decided that this was not how he rolled. He'd been fighting wars for Athens and generally being heroic and leaderly, and wanted to make the city great again. Not only that, but he wanted to make it stand out against the various other Greek city states. The best way to do this, he believed, was not simply by killing people but through the arts, and so between 449 and 431 BC, the Acropolis was reconstructed to its full glory. He brought in the best artists and sculptors to give Athens a rock to be proud of, and central to that was the new Parthenon, cost be damned. Built to hold the statue of the goddess Athena, patron goddess of the city, and also act as a treasury, it was made from 22,000 tons of white marble quarried from Mount Pentelicus, around 10 miles away. Two years in the planning, construction began in 447 BC and finished nine years later in 437 BC, though some sculptures were still being put in place as late as 432 BC.

As you'd expect, there was a team of workmen, and even a team of sculptors working on it, but heading the teams were two architects, called Iktinos and Kallikrates, and a sculptor called Pheidas. These were experienced and innovative craftsmen, with highly nuanced touches. It's not for nothing that we celebrate Classical Greece as the birthplace of modern civilisation, there was a subtlety and sophistication that belies the times they were living in. The quality of the Parthenon's architecture is a perfect example of this. Built in the Doric style, the simplest of the Classical styles but no less effective for it, the Parthenon has some extraordinary subtle touches. The columns all curve at the middle and then lean inwards by around 7cm - in theory, the columns would eventually meet if stretched to a mile. It's thought, although not wholly agreed, that these subtle touches are to adjust for the effects of perspective, and thus make the columns seem straighter than they would if they were, paradoxically, actually straight. As a result of these subtle touches, there is not a single cubic stone in the Parthenon - they are all very slightly trapezoidal, almost every one a different shape and uniquely fitted.

(Stephen Fry, in an episode of QI from a few years ago, stated that this is a myth, saying, "The columns around the Parthenon look straight because they are actually straight. It was originally believed to be an optical illusion due to a thing called entasis, which is where if a column is exactly straight, it looks big from a distance, but it looks spindly if it bows inwards. So, if you make it bow outwards, it looks straight. But, that's what they didn't do. It is also believed that entasis is used on some buildings nowadays to give them more support, but it certainly doesn't exist in the Parthenon." However, I don't know what his source for this was, and it doesn't accord with what I've read; neither can I find good supporting information online.)

At the centre of the temple was the 12-metre-tall statue of Athena, covered in gold and ivory, and likely by today's tastes incredibly tacky. It's worth bearing in mind something about all the Greek sculpture that has survived the millennia. No doubt, it is exquisitely crafted, but an ancient Greek transported forward in time would hardly recognise the figures and buildings - because all the colour has gone. We have an image of the classically white marble sculptures, but the first thing the Greeks did upon finishing their works of art was paint them. That paint has entirely faded over time. While we have to trust the Greeks' judgement and talents, it's pretty hard to imagine a full colour Parthenon - the British Museum has done some recreations but I can't say I'm bowled over. And though the statue of Athena was incredibly valuable, I wonder whether it would fit our perception today of good taste, or simply seem like something you'd find in a rapper's hallway.

That first picture is from a real, if less expensive, statue of Athena in a Parthenon recreation in Nashville, America.

The statue of Athena didn't bode well for its sculptor, Pheidias. It was so extravagantly expensive, he was accused of fiddling the books. The statue cost more than the entire Parthenon! Pheidias weighed the gold in an attempt to prove his honesty, but he could see that he wasn't flavour of the month in Athens, so to avoid trial he skipped town and went to Olympia. There his statue-building abilities came useful again, and he went on to build the Statue of Zeus, one of the Classical Wonders of the World.

Unsurprisingly, 2500 years later, the hugely expensive golden statue is no longer around, but more remarkably it actually remained in place inside the Parthenon for around 800 years, until about the 5th Century AD. Considering how much mankind likes gold and all the changes Athens went through in that time, this is pretty astonishing. By 338 BC, when Alexander the Great had taken over, Athens had ceased to be an independent political entity, and the Romans took charge in 146 BC. But the Parthenon was respected, and religious ceremonies still took place. It took Christianity to sound the death knell. The Romans started to convert, and all the old symbols of paganism were done for. The statue of Athena, as well as the statue of Zeus, were shipped off to Constantinople, where they disappear from history, and the Parthenon fell out of use.

But let's not blame Christianity too much, for the Parthenon was soon converted into a church, and for another thousand years was kept in good condition. It became a mosque in the 15th Century under the Ottoman Empire, and at some point was turned into a gunpowder store. Yes, a gunpowder store. It was also where the Turkish women and children happened to stay. You know this will end badly. On 28th September 1687, the Venetians attacked, bombarding the Parthenon and the Acropolis. At least 700 cannonballs hit, and one fatefully hit the ammo dump square on. The Parthenon was rocked by a gigantic explosion, killing 300 people and smashing the heart out of the ancient temple. Fires burned for two days. The Parthenon - which in 1687 had survived 2125 years in pretty decent condition - had been destroyed. The centuries that followed saw it thoroughly pillaged, by anyone who happened to stop by.


There is an ongoing argument, focussed mostly on the British Museum and the 75 metres of Parthenon sculpture on display, and whether that sculpture would be best served being returned to Greece. The Greeks, quite understandably, would quite like their priceless artefacts back, although it's not quite as cut and dry as they'd like to make out. I'll get into the argument more in my review, but I will express some dismay at what Greece intends to do with it if they ever get it back - put it straight back into a museum, right at the foot of the Acropolis.

In recent years, the Parthenon has undergone a hugely expensive clean up and overhaul, which although can never return it to its former glory, makes the Parthenon less of a building site. We're left with a skeleton, but this isn't all bad. The Parthenon, it must be remembered, is not an attractive member of the opposite sex that I'm trying to woo - whereby being in skeleton form is a definite minus point - it is an ancient monument, in which being half-ruined can actually add to the appeal. It's a huge shame that the destruction happened so recently, relatively, but it's also astonishing it's still here. A true monument built by an ancient civilisation that has defined the times we're living in, the Parthenon is an elder statesman of civilisation and architecture.

Personally, I have a suspicion that the 17th Century explosion might have been a bit of a killer blow to the Parthenon, and worry it might be a little too ruined to be a serious contender for my Wonder list. It's worth considering that the Parthenon was around during the formation of the original Wonders of the World, and didn't make the cut, and that was when it was in prime condition. Now that it's ripped to pieces, despite the increased appreciation that age brings, I can't see its chances being much improved.

I'll be visiting the Parthenon in around January or February next year, and will give a fuller account of it and its history then, as well as my own impressions.


  1. Interesting article; I don't know if this would count in any of your criteria but this building has spawned countless copies (US Supreme Court, French National Assembly, hundreds of local law courts around the world); it could be argued that it is the most influential building of all time.

    1) Painted sculptures. I would agree with you that at first it seems gaudy to have these classical sculptures covered in bright colours, however one day I visited the cathedral in Lausanne and they have some remarkably well preserved medieval painted stone statues, and in the context of the cathedral, it worked.

    2) The golden statue of Athena: I remember reading that originally it was meant as a fancy savings account for the city; i.e. in times of financial trouble they could simply strip the gold and ivory and flog it off. I think that by tying up all that valuable gold in a statue was a means of avoiding temptation to spend it unless they really had to. But I need to check on that.

    3) Elgin Marbles: I think the Greeks are ultimately correct: the marbles were taken by Lord Elgin with the permission of the occupying Ottomans, not the Greeks. But it's a very thorny issue with a lot of implications for various collections around the world.

    1. You raise an interesting point - influence might be another way to assess a Wonder. I was aware the Parthenon has quite a few copies around the world, but hadn't considered the full extent of its influence.

      Painted stuff - I think we have to trust the original sculptors/designers on this, rather than how some reconstructions make it look. Obviously, they got everything else right, so I guess the painting would have been good also.

      You're right about the statue - the Parthenon and most Greek temples were also treasuries. And I'm going to write more about the Elgin Marbles in my eventual review, but ultimately I feel they belong to the Parthenon rather than modern Greece, or the UK, or anywhere. Why go to all the effort to move them from the British Museum just to put them in another museum, at the base of the Acropolis? I'd like to see them refixed onto the Parthenon, even though I know this is not at all realistic or likely.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.