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AD Classics: The Parthenon / Ictinus and Callicrates

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It is unsurprising that Athens, the city widely considered to be the cradle of Western civilization, would have made as celebrated a contribution to architecture as it has to countless other human pursuits. Built on a hilltop above the contemporary city, the weathered marble complex known as the Acropolis stands as a faded remnant from the former city-state’s ancient glory years, surrounded by the products of the centuries that followed. The greatest of these landmarks, the Parthenon, captures an age long past when Athens was the wealthiest and most powerful city-state in Greece and beyond.

Courtesy of Flickr user Mitch Allen (licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)Before the Acropolis was a temple complex, it was a city. With three steep sides, the hill could only be accessed from its western end, making it an ideal location for a Mycenaean citadel. The settlement which rose on and around the hilltop, while large enough to merit the construction of a city wall, was relatively obscure until its later inhabitation by the Greeks. In the 8th Century BCE, King Theseus—the man legend would later credit with the defeat of the mythical Minotaur—united the disparate settlements of Attica, the region stretching from the Acropolis and its surroundings south to the port of Piraeus. It was at this point that the already ancient citadel became the center of the Athenian city-state.[1]An invasion by Xerxes of Persia in the 5th Century BC forced the myriad city-states of Ancient Greece to band together for survival. Rising from the ashes of a destructive sacking in 480 BC, Athens led what later became known as the Delian League to victory against its greatest enemy. Over time, the once humble city-state gradually accrued greater wealth and authority in the League until it was deemed the “first among equals.” In 454 BC, the transferral of the Delian League’s treasury—a communal savings intended for expenditure on the safety and security of all members—to Athens allowed Pericles, noted statesman and de facto leader of the city, to divert the funds toward the rebuilding of the ruined Acropolis.[2]

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An artistic reconstruction of the Parthenon as it appeared in the Fifth Century BC; while the temple is an austere monochrome today, it was originally embellished with bright red, blue, and golden paints. ImageCourtesy of Flickr user CircaSassy (Public Domain)The greatest of the monuments erected under Pericles’ ambitious building scheme is the Parthenon, the temple dedicated to Athena – the patron deity from whom Athens derives its name. Its position on the southern flank of the Acropolis, as well as its size and the brightness of its marble, make it the most visually prominent structure in the entire complex. However, the Parthenon did not merely stand out amongst its immediate neighbors, but as what many consider to be the master work of Classical Doric architecture. With the political power of Pericles and the misappropriated funds of the entire Delian League, the enormous temple was constructed in only sixteen years, between 448 and 432 BC.[3]

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A plan of the Parthenon as it was built; the rectangle inside the cella was the base on which the sculptor Pheidias’ enormous likeness of Athena Parthenos once stood. ImageCourtesy of Wikimedia user Argento (Public Domain)Before the Persian Wars, the precursor to the Parthenon had been a standard Doric temple with six columns supporting its front façade, essentially indistinguishable from any of its contemporaries (including a neighboring structure on the Acropolis itself). The Periclean replacement which stands today, as developed by the architect Ictinus, swelled in size and grandeur and, thanks to landscaping, was placed upon a literal pedestal. It features a then-unprecedented total of eight columns lining its forward and rear façades; the north and south of the temple feature seventeen columns each. Spanning the columns was an unadorned architrave, topped by a frieze which featured alternating decorations of triglyphs and metopes around its perimeter. Pediments with lavish sculpture work depicting the legendary history of Attica crowned the eastern and western façades.[4,5]

The Parthenon’s columns, following the Doric order, were baseless, fluted, and topped by simple rectangular capitals.[6] That said, and while these details held true to Doric architectural tradition, the overall proportions of the building did not: the columns were unusually slender, an effect heightened by the relatively subdued flare of their capitals. The spacing between the columns exceeded that of previous Doric temples, and with the entablature above situated lower than standard proportions would have dictated, the Parthenon appears less massive than its size would otherwise imply.[7]

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The Parthenon’s columns, being narrower than typical Doric proportions dictated, served to reduce the bulk of the temple and make it appear more airy and graceful. ImageCourtesy of Wikimedia user Jebulon (licensed under CC0 1.0)These were not the only irregularities incorporated into the Parthenon’s design for the sake of aesthetics. Careful observers may notice that the seemingly straight horizontal lines of the building are in fact slightly warped, rising almost imperceptibly from the corners to the center of each of the temple’s four faces. Further investigation reveals that the columns of the peristyle are not perfectly vertical, but lean inward; additionally, those columns that form the corners of the peristyle are approximately two inches thicker than their peers.[8]

These features, requiring careful distortion of each column’s capital to suit its particular position and rake, cannot be attributed to chance or error. The most common explanation is that these refinements were an attempt to combat the optical illusions that cause truly straight lines to appear slightly curved to the human eye. Vitruvius, who claimed to have access to the original treatise written by Ictinus, not only supported this interpretation, but additionally noted that the thicker columns at the corners were made so in order to prevent their looking thinner than the other columns due to being surrounded by the bright sky behind them instead of the shadows of the temple’s interior.[9]

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An 1871 painting of the ruined Parthenon by Frederic Edwin Church. ImageCourtesy of Wikimedia user Boo-Boo (Public Domain)Behind the peristyle stood a rectangular walled structure divided into two separate chambers. The larger of these, known as the cella, was fronted by a colonnade of six columns and entered by a single doorway in the eastern end of the building. The interior of the cella, itself divided into three aisles by two additional colonnades, housed a 38 foot (11.6 meter) tall statue of Athena Parthenos, with skin of ivory and flowing garments of gold. It was, in part, the enormous size of this statue that dictated the similarly inflated size of the Parthenon as a whole. With Nike, the female anthropomorphization of victory, in her right hand and a shield bearing reliefs depicting Greek soldiers driving the Amazons out of Athens, the symbolism behind this portrayal of Athena was unmistakable: beyond merely representing the city-state that bore her name, she was the embodiment of their victory over the ‘barbarous’ Persians who had leveled her former temples.[10]

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The west pediment of the reconstruction of the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee depicts Athena and Poseidon fighting for the rule of Attica while the other gods look on. ImageCourtesy of Flickr user damian entwistle (licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)Although this was easily the largest sculpture in the Parthenon, it was not made for the admiration or enjoyment of the Athenian people. Indeed, while sacrifices could be offered to Athena in the open space before the temple, worshippers could not enter into the cella itself.[11] Instead, they could view the extensive sculpture work which adorned the exterior of the building. The western pediment depicted Athena and Poseidon battling for the right to rule Attica, flanked by an audience of the other Greek gods; likewise, the metopes along the architrave below depicted men, gods, and mythical creatures locked in eternal combat with one another.[12]

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Behind the outer peristyle, the Ionic frieze portrays the entirety of the Panathenaic Procession, which took place every four years in Athens’ ancient history. ImageCourtesy of Wikimedia user Marcus Cyron (licensed under CC BY 2.0)Lining the Parthenon’s interior walls was a second frieze depicting the Panathenaic Procession, a cavalcade and festival every four years which ran from the city gates through the agora to the Acropolis itself. The frieze, measuring a full 524 feet (159.7 meters) long, did not depict a single moment in the procession, but rather the entirety of the event, from its preparation to its completion.[13] Curiously, this frieze was not designed in the Doric style, but in the Ionic; while the significance behind this stylistic aberration is not definitively known, it is likely that it was a subtle proclamation that Athens was the leader of all the Greek peoples.[14]

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A 17th century painting by Verneda Giacomo Milheau portraying the Venetian bombardment that all but destroyed the Parthenon in 1687. ImageCourtesy of Wikimedia user DicoetziBot (Public Domain)Once the Parthenon’s structure and the statue of Athena Parthenos were completed in 438 BC, work began on the other new monuments Pericles envisioned for the Acropolis. The remaining sculptural work for the Parthenon itself continued until 432 BC, only a year before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta brought construction to a halt. In the centuries that followed, the Parthenon was repeatedly adapted to service the different religions of those who conquered Greece: initially converted to a church by the Byzantine Empire, it was then transferred to the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages before being turned into a mosque by the Ottoman Empire.[15]

Although the marble stonework of the Parthenon had proven its durability against the ravages of time, it was not indestructible. In 1687, Venetian forces laying siege to Athens shelled the ancient city, igniting a powder magazine stored inside the Parthenon. The resulting explosion was catastrophic, obliterating the cella and the elaborate frieze that had adorned its exterior.[16] Attempts by the Venetians to remove statues from the pediments were similarly disastrous, as multiple sculptures fell to the ground and were shattered beyond repair. Most of the remaining statues and reliefs (known as the “Elgin” or “Parthenon Marbles”) were later spirited away in the early 19th Century by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Controversially, these pieces are displayed in the British Museum to this day. Meanwhile, the Parthenon itself has since undergone rigorous restoration and preservation work, with much of the damaged peristyle reassembled to give modern visitors a glimpse of the temple’s ancient splendor atop the hill where it has stood for over two thousand years.[17]

After almost 2,500 years, the Parthenon still stands tall above the city of Athens. ImageCourtesy of Flickr user Aris Gionis (licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

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