Monday, December 16, 2013

Reverie at the Parthenon, part two

By Glenn Juday
Note: In October/November 2012 Professor of Forest Ecology Glenn Juday participated in a private trip (pilgrimage) following the route of St. Paul, through Turkey, mainland Greece, the Aegean islands and Rome. As time permits he will post some sketches of the history, geography, and natural history and contemporary observations of this route.
Part 2 of 3

The design, construction and conservation of the Parthenon

The construction of the Parthenon displays architectural design skill, large-project construction capability, and artistic ability beyond the level of nearly all other structures of its time. The Parthenon displays a deceptively simple visual harmony, which is what first attracts most visitors. The harmony is based on the simple mathematical and geometric ratio of 9:4. This is the ratio of the length to the width of the Parthenon, and it is the ratio of the width of the front of the temple to its height. The same ratio carries over into the distance between the center of each vertical column to the width of each column.

An olive tree at the base of the Erectheum, on the Acropolis of Athens, October 2012. This olive tree commemorates the gift of the mythical goddess Athena.
The columns stand on a platform called the stylobate, which curves upward in the center very subtly at just the right amount to overcome the apparent visual distortion of a perspective view of such a large structure. The designers and builders achieved the effect of entasis in the columns, which involves the incorporation of slight curvature to counter the effect of apparent distortion from perspective view. And the builders even thought to (and were able to) slightly angle the columns inwards by about 7 cm to further contribute to the same effect. These sophisticated and subtly executed curves and lines make the Parthenon look even more symmetrical than it actually is. The overwhelming effect is to promote the classical ideal of visual beauty – proportion, symmetry, harmony.

The Parthenon originally was lavishly decorated with marble sculptures on both the exterior and interior. The west and east pediments (triangular spaces between the peak of the roof and height of the columns) were covered with tableaux of the mythological events of the involvement of the gods and demi-gods in the origin of the city. Analysis of residues on the sculptures indicates that they were originally painted, although the extent and color scheme are still being discovered and debated.

In terms of the quality of artistic workmanship, these sculptures are practically without parallel in the Hellenic (from the Greek Hellas for Greek) world of the time. Doric temples such as the Parthenon characteristically had a frieze or wide moldings and bands, which extended horizontally above columns. The frieze of the Parthenon could only be seen through the columns, requiring the viewer to look up. As a result they had to be designed very precisely so the viewer could see the details. The amazing fact about the sculptures on the frieze of the Parthenon is that the carvings are no more than 7.5 cm (3 in) deep. Yet the figures depicted convey a three dimensional look. They display a naturalness and fluidity that easily suggests movement, or strength and power in horses, or relaxation in the maidens.

All of the original sculptures have been removed from the building itself, although some replicas have been put in their place. Some were destroyed in late antiquity, some were partially destroyed in a 17th century explosion, and some have been placed into an excellent on-site museum. But perhaps the most famous set of sculptures missing from the Parthenon are the so-called “Elgin Marbles” (actually the Parthenon Marbles), which are one of the prized holdings of the British Museum. Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803. During his ambassadorship he obtained a blanket permission from Ottoman authorities to remove pieces of the Parthenon. The local Greeks were largely a suppressed, powerless, and poorly educated people. Ottoman officials, and obviously British as well, felt no need to consider their opinion at the time.

Agents working for Elgin removed about half of the Parthenon sculptures, a number of architectural members, and sculptures from the Erechtheum from 1801 to 1812, packed them up and shipped them off by sea to London. Some of the pieces were sawn apart to facilitate shipment. Even at the time, this removal of pieces of the Parthenon generated harsh criticism in Britain as equivalent to an act of vandalism or looting.

Elgin was unable to bear the expense of the entire operation while maintaining his estate. The British government purchased the Parthenon Marbles from Elgin in 1816 and put them on display in the British Museum, where they remain today in a special wing constructed for them. The museum’s dilemma is acute. On the one hand, the Greek government and people have a strong case for the return of their patrimony. On the other hand, few museums in the world could sustain all their current holdings on the basis of a consistent application of the general principle of repatriation of objects acquired with some shady overtones.

The Parthenon, the instantly recognizable iconic symbol of so much of enduring value in art, architecture and democratic values, has had a difficult time enduring in recent decades. All it takes to dissolve marble into a salt crust is acid and water. For much of the post-WW II era, Athens existed in a vigorous cloud of air pollution that provided plenty of acidity, particularly sulfur oxides and nitrous oxides. Just add water and sulfuric acid and nitric acid are produced. Nearly all school children have seen a teacher put a few drops of acid on limestone or marble and watched the rock dissolve away. In just this way the Parthenon and its artwork began to dissolve away.

As the population in Athens exploded in the post-WWII years and a great influx of people from the countryside moved in as a result of the civil war with the communists in the late 1940s, a new and somewhat haphazardly constructed city with very bad air quality took shape. The great marble and limestone artistic and cultural patrimony of ancient Greece were bathed in acid. The damage was severe, and in some cases exceeded in a couple of decades the amount weathering in the previous two millennia. More recently some progress has been made in reducing air pollution.

Severely deteriorated figures on an original marble frieze from the Parthenon, now on display in the New Acropolis Museum, Athens. Acid deposition has dissolved outer layers of the marble and removed the clearly defined features of the faces of these figures. Much of this type of damage occurred from the development of air pollution starting in the mid 20th century. All susceptible original marble artwork at the Parthenon has been removed and placed in controlled environments indoors.

Greece has developed a world-class set of museum facilities, conservators and historians. A conservation and restoration plan for the Parthenon is being carried out gradually. Some of the severely damaged sections of the Parthenon remained as stone fragments littered about the Acropolis, and previous restorations frequently put them together incorrectly. Today these stone pieces are being taken apart and then reassembled correctly with the aid of a complete database of original stone fragments and a computer shape-matching program. But in the end the final decision about the proper placement of a fragment is reserved to human judgment. Some past restoration used concrete to supply missing material in order to join to original pieces. Older concrete mixtures can react with the original marble and accelerate deterioration, so concrete restorations are being removed. Reinforcement of some weakened stone structural sections was formerly accomplished using iron and steel reinforcing rods, which have reacted over the years with the marble and damaged it further. Where necessary, new titanium rods are being substituted for other metals.

All these problems are being systematically corrected while the Parthenon is open to visitors. The visibility of scaffolding and construction cranes are minimized to the degree the different asks allow so that visitors can continue to enjoy the Parthenon and it can continue to generated much-needed revenue for the Greek economy. 

Author in front of crane and scaffolding at the west end of the Parthenon, November, 2012.

The Parthenon is built from marble quarried from Mount Pentelicon, about 16 km (10 mi) from Athens. This proximity of an abundant source of high quality marble (a premium building material in ancient times) was a crucial factor in allowing the construction of such a large and elaborate temple to such high standards. Ancient records indicate that quarrying and moving the marble was the biggest expense in the construction of the Parthenon. The Mount Pentelicon quarry has been reopened, and it supplies marble for restorations of the original structure of the Parthenon and replica statuary. Restorations are now literally the same material as the original. 

Restoration on the Propylaea (“front gate”), Acropolis of Athens, November 2012. The light or white colored marble pieces are modern replacement marble from the original quarry of Mount Pentelicon. Over time these restoration pieces will weather to the buff, tawny color of the ancient marble.

The fate of the Parthenon through history

The Parthenon, obviously, has a long history. Yet it managed to survive in a more intact condition than most of its contemporary structures. The Parthenon outlasted the civic religion that produced it, the empires that absorbed it, and even a number of alternative uses that spread across the Acropolis. The Parthenon did not go into ruin slowly. Much of the worst damage to it came from specific incidents, with a surprising number of them in the later, more recent period of its long life.

Just before the spectacular recovery achieved by ancient Athens from the Persian attack that occasioned the building of the Parthenon, Athens formed a military alliance with more than 150 smaller and more vulnerable city-states. These city-states either contributed forces or alternatively paid a fee to the alliance. The sacred island of Delos held the treasury where the payment was stored and guarded, and so the alliance was called the Delian League. Over time the larger, stronger Athenian protectors began to dominate the League, and in practical terms it became an Athenian Empire. In 454 B.C. Pericles ordered the transfer of the League treasury to Athens. The self-appropriation of the immense wealth of the League treasury allowed Pericles to rebuild the Parthenon, the Propylaea and much of Athens on a lavish scale to the most exacting standards of quality.

The Parthenon itself appears from its earliest days to have been partially regarded as a treasury. The giant stature of Athena was made of ivory and covered with a massive amount of gold. As might be expected, when in later times (296 B.C.) a somewhat dodgy ruler, the tyrant Lachares, got into a pinch and needed some quick way to pay his army, he helped himself to the gold.

Athens and all of Greece came under Roman rule after 146 B.C., at first under the Republic, and later the Roman Empire. In 88 B.C. Athens revolted, and the Roman Army under the general Sulla crushed the resistance with much violence and emphatic attention to the details of looting. But once Roman rule was unchallenged, life in Athens continued much as before. The Greek language remained solidly established in the eastern Mediterranean. The Romans had a saying that: “Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit.” (Captive Greece captured her rough conqueror). The Romans had a god paired to nearly each in the Greek pantheon, in part because the Roman gods and religion developed under some Greek influence in their formative years. So once the Roman Empire engulfed Athens it was a simple matter to let the Parthenon stand and function as it had before.

The Romans were practical, proud of their achievements in engineering (both civil and military), and focused on the future – as in expanding or protecting the Empire. Many Romans deeply respected the Greek cultural patrimony, but a number, especially the more populist types, tended to regard Greek philosophical schools, refined language, and attachment to a golden past as stuffy, effete and hopelessly impractical. Even in the early times of the Roman Empire, only a couple of centuries after construction of the Parthenon, there was a nostalgia about the Athens of a golden, glorious past, now faded. But there is no particular evidence that the Romans identified the Parthenon in any special way as the icon of the institution of democracy or the cultural achievements of the Golden Age of Athens. Partly, that was because there was plenty of other evidence to make the point – physical evidence as well as unbroken transmission of cultural evidence.

In the late 4th century Athens experienced a brief incursion of the Goths and Vandals from the north, who, not surprisingly, vandalized and looted much of the city. They were driven out and went on to sack the greatly weakened city of Rome in 410 A.D. The Roman Empire had by then reorganized, and earlier in the 4th century the Emperor Constantine founded a strong new and much more defensible capital, Constantinople, at the old village of Byzantium as the Eastern Roman Empire. Immediately Athens was at the heart of the new empire. But it was Christian empire from its start, and the Parthenon was quickly converted into a Christian church.

The contemporary author Anthony Kaldellis argues that the Parthenon was more important as a church than it had been as a cultic temple, and in fact there is scant evidence for the latter use at all. However there is evidence that the Parthenon Church became an important pilgrimage destination. The Parthenon was initially dedicated as the Church of the Holy Wisdom (Greek: Ἁγία Σοφία, or Hagia Sophia). It was then rededicated to the Virgin Mary as Theotokos (literally “God bearer,” or more commonly, Mother of God). The term Theotokos emerged in 431 at the Council of Ephesus from the controversies over the nature of the person of Christ. Given the origin of the Parthenon as a structure dedicated to Athena Parthenos – Athena the Virgin – one interpretation under the new Christian culture was that the old and imperfectly understood prepared the way for the perfect and fully revealed (Blessed Virgin Mary). An apse was added at the east end, and the internal columns were removed. Significantly it is not clear that many statues of pagan deities were removed from the Parthenon during its active use as a church. Some polemicists would like to make the Christian culture of the time a retrograde and vandalizing force. While it is indisputably true that among the Christian ranks there existed ignorant and weak-minded people, there is little evidence to support the conjecture of systematic anti-cultural and anti-art fanaticism. And the clearest example of anti artistic fanaticism, the iconoclast controversy, was introduced as the result of imperial meddling and was resolved as a result of condemnation of iconoclasm (literally, icon smashing) by Church councils of 787 and 843. In any event, the great pagan mythic scenes on the pediments of the Parthenon were certainly not removed. For nearly a millennium the Parthenon functioned under this order. It certainly was architecturally one of the oddest churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

As a result of the Fourth Crusade, Athens and Constantinople itself were conquered by western knights, with the latter severely looted. During the period from 1205 to 1456, Athens was ruled by a succession of medium “western” powers heavily invested in trade with the eastern Mediterranean and able to project power and establish bases there - Burgundians, Catalans, Florentines, and, briefly, Venetians. All of them appear to have extended respect to the Parthenon. By this time the differences between the ancient apostolic Eastern and Western Churches had firmed up into a schism or split of Eastern Orthodoxy versus the Catholic and overwhelmingly Latin Church. The western rulers of Athens in this period transformed the Parthenon into a Latin-Rite Catholic Church. In the late thirteenth century, Pope Nicholas IV even granted an indulgence for those who went on pilgrimage to it.

By 1460, the recent Islamic conquest and destruction of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire by the Ottoman Turks allowed a continuation of jihad and invasion into mainland Europe. Greece and Athens were conquered, and the Parthenon was converted into a mosque. A minaret was added, but even at this date the Parthenon was far more intact than anybody in modern times has seen. Then a period of neglect and decline began. The Venetians alternately traded with and fought the Ottomans in the eastern Mediterranean. During one of these wars, in 1687 the Parthenon suffered the greatest damage in its history. The Venetian forces were attacking, and the Ottoman forces were defending from the Parthenon. The Ottomans had stored their gunpowder in the Parthenon. A Venetian mortar bomb arced through the roof and detonated the gunpowder. The explosion destroyed the central portion of the Parthenon.  The roof collapsed, and pillars especially on the south side were cut in half. Most of the sculptures were damaged to some degree. A fire raged for a day and a half. The largely intact patrimony of a time two millennia earlier was ravaged in an instant.

By the late 18th century tourism to Athens began to develop under the protection of the strong British fleet that dominated the Mediterranean Sea and a general decrease in risk of travel on land. The ruins of the Parthenon fit right in with the mood and aesthetic of this, the early Romantic Period. In its essence the aesthetic went something like: a long lost romantic past is encountered in ruins that speak of the intangible things of the spirit and culture. The Parthenon became a must-see on any decent tour of the Mediterranean.

The Ottomans anticipated an eventual conquest and replacement of European civilization with Islamic culture, and so were not greatly moved by the Parthenon or its fate. But the British, a rising power in the region, had an intellectual class keenly interested in all things ancient and Greek. The widespread teaching of Greek (some of the American Founding Fathers were among the students of the language) began to create a class for whom the Athenian past spoke. The removal of the Parthenon Marbles by Lord Elgin was the product of that unique moment in history when the indigenous Greek people were powerless, the ruling Ottoman power indifferent (or bribable), and an outside global power (British) enthralled and projecting power into the region.

Seething under Ottoman and Islamic suppression, and benefiting from a Greek language revival, the rise of a merchant class, and young people educated in European universities, in 1821 the Greeks began a war for independence. A sympathetic British and European elite offered encouragement and pressed their governments to support the revolt. A combined British, French and Russian fleet defeated an Ottoman naval force, and Ottoman land forces were forced to withdraw. George Gordon Byron (Lord Byron), the chief English Romantic poet, joined the revolt and died of a fever, becoming a Greek national hero. During the struggle, Greek and volunteer forces besieged and attacked the Parthenon. Ottoman defenders rearranged the ruins for defense, and even extracted lead for bullets from metal stays that held parts of the Parthenon together. The Greeks forces were so upset it is said that they offered the defenders their own bullets if they would agree to stop damaging the Parthenon.

The Greeks gained control of Athens in 1832 and promptly removed the minaret from the Parthenon. All modern and medieval structures were cleared from the Acropolis, and it became an historic district controlled by the Greek government. In essence the Parthenon was appropriated for Greek nationalism. Given the influence of the Romantic movement and the thorough destruction of Greek and Byzantine culture and learning by four centuries of Ottoman rule, the modern act of recalling the past skipped over most of a millennium and a half. In the subsequent presentation and depiction of the Parthenon, a hazily recalled and inaccurately depicted secular past leapt directly into a politically charged modern world. The tourist experience at the Parthenon was crafted to provide this meaning, and the Parthenon became the icon of the origins of democracy and the cultural flowering of the time of Pericles and the Golden Age of Athens. This interpretation is accurate enough, as far as it goes.

But the idea that the Parthenon was a treasury, a mosque, and since there is no record of it being de-sacralized, that the Parthenon is still an Orthodox (“Panagia Atheniotissa”) or Catholic church (“Notre Dame d’Athène”), is simply not part of the modern consciousness. At the very time the modern world has established strong cultural institutions such as museums or scholarly institutes and developed a continuously improving historical record, a sort of black hole has opened up in the contemporary historical understanding of the middle life of this unique and iconic building. Perhaps the history of the Parthenon is too much of a record accumulated over too much time for the somewhat odd world we inhabit to show much respect for historical truth. But perhaps there will always be a few people interested in such things, and who knows what meanings will be attached in the future to this hauntingly attractive building and the island of ‘time out of time’ that surrounds it?

See Part One

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