Tuesday, September 26, 2023

The Parthenon is a Maimed but Grand Survivor of Antiquity

The Parthenon was originally brightly painted.

Sitting on top of the Acropolis, the stony high point of Athens, the Parthenon in all of its ruined glory is one of the most famous structures in the world, an icon of classic antiquity, and for the Greeks, the symbol of their cultural glory.  But its current condition is not just the result of centuries of wear and tear or even of the earthquakes that shake the eastern Mediterranean.  Here’s what happened.

The Parthenon we know today was the second—some believe the third—temple structure on that hill.  The first was begun shortly after the Battle of Marathon about 490 BCE.  It was a sanctuary for Athena Parthenos, the Virgin Athena.  It replaced even older temple structures to other gods.  Alas, the structure, sometimes called the proto Parthenon, did not last long and was not even finished when the Persians sacked the city and razed the Acropolis in 480 BCE. 

Some believe that a second proto Parthenon was begun around 466 BCE and abandoned before completion, its foundation used in the present structure.  This theory, propounded by German archeologist Wilhelm Dörpfeld around 1890 is not now widely held.

Most believe the site was left vacant for 33 years, some say because of an oath sworn by the Greek allies before the Battle of Plataea in 479 BCE declaring that the sanctuaries destroyed by the Persians would not be rebuilt until Greece was safe from further Persian invasion.  The Peace of Callias between the Greeks and the Persians in 450 BCE supposedly relieved the Athenians of their obligation.  But in fact, decades of war had emptied the city’s coffers.  There was no money for public works on a grand scale.

A bust of Pericles inscribed "Pericles, son of Xanthippus, Athenian." A marble Roman copy after a Greek original from c. 430 BCE.

The great Athenian leader Pericles relocated the seat of the Delian League, the alliance of more than 150 Greek city states which ringed the Aegean and Black Seas and which defeated the Persians, from the island of Delos to Athens and made the Arocopolis its de facto headquarters.  Athens was then the preeminent power in that corner of the world, and like many a victor before him, Pericles was determined to show off that power and wealth in stone.  He ordered the crown of the Acropolis leveled and the construction of a new temple to Athena.  Construction lasted from 447 to at least 432 BCE.

We know that the architects of the new building were Ictinos and Callicrates and the sculptor Phidias was both the general artistic supervisor and the creator of the bas relief decoration, incidental sculpture, and the giant statue of Athena Parthenos that was the center piece of the interior.  More on her later.

It was a massive project to build the temple which measured 228.0 x 101.4 feet at the base with 46 out and 23 inner Doric columns supporting a massive roof of marble tiles. The largest single expense in its creation was the transportation of tons of the stone from Mount Pentelicus, about 10 miles from Athens to the Acropolis.  The finished work is considered the finest example of Greek architecture ever built and inspired the later Romans and well as the classical revival architecture for public buildings that was popular in Europe and America for a century and a half.

Interestingly, although we call the Parthenon a temple, it was evidently not originally a place of worship—it was more of a public monument, a center for civic events, and perhaps more than anything a treasury.  The Cult of Athena Polias, the civic protector of the city, worshiped nearby in the more ancient temple on the northern side of the Acropolis.  Nor were there any know priestesses or rituals associated with the site. 

A reproduction of the Statue of Athena Parthenos by Pheidias, the centerpiece of the Parthenon literally clothed in the treasury of Athens.

Phidias’s famous statue was not an object of veneration which must at all times be ritually attended, cleaned, and preserved.  Which is probably a good thing because the statue was assembled on a wooden core, covered with shaped bronze plates covered in turn with removable gold plates, with the flesh of the goddess’s face and arms made from ivory.  The gold, made from melted coins seized from enemies of Athens, weighed 44 talents—about 2,400 pounds.  Importantly, the plate could be removed.  Essentially, it represented a large portion of the treasury of the Delian League.  The gold plates were removed at least once by Lachares in 296 BCE to pay his troops and were replaced by gilded bronze plates.

The trouble is, no matter how big and heavy you make your treasury by turning it into a monument, eventually someone will conquer you and haul it away.  Which is just what happened.  The Romans carted it away in the 5th Century C.E. It was reported in Constantinople before disappearing entirely.  We know pretty much what the statue looked like, however, from copies, vase painting, carved gems, coins, and written descriptions.

The Parthenon itself stood and remained dedicated to Athena for nearly 1000 years.  During much of that time it was painted in vivid colors, not at all the austere white that we imagine.  We know that from the contemporary accounts of visitors to Athens and it has been confirmed by the recent archeology which using modern technology has identified tiny residue of paint.  Undoubtedly it was re-painted after a major fire in the 3rd Century destroyed the roof, which was replaced by wood with clay tiles and pitched more steeply than the original and damaged the great statue of Athena.

In an act of Christian triumphalism Emperor Theodosius II decreed in 435 AD that all pagan temples in the Byzantine Empire be closed.  The Empire carted off many of the remaining treasures and the Parthenon was left open for further looting. 

After that the building fell into other hands and was converted to other uses.  Around 590 it was converted to an Orthodox Church known at different times as Church of the Parthenos Maria (Virgin Mary), or the Church of the Theotokos (Mother of God).  Many physical alterations and additions had to be made to the building, pagan sculptures that could not be re-interpreted as Christian were removed and many were destroyed, Christian texts were carved into some pillars, and interior walls were painted with icons.  It became one of the four most holy Orthodox pilgrimage places.

The Fourth Crusade conquered Byzantium in 1204 and Athens fell under the sway of the Catholic Church, which tore out Orthodox iconography and renamed the building the Church of Our Lady.  Other physical alterations were made, including the construction of a bell tower at the southwest corner. And so it remained for another 250 years.

Then it was time for the Catholics to exit the stage.  In 1456, Ottoman Turks laid siege to Athens which was defended by a Florentine army which made its last stand on the Acropolis, holding out for two years before surrendering to the Turks. By the turn of the 16th Century, they converted the building to a mosque, scouring it of graven images, both Catholic and pagan, and extending the old church tower into a minaret.

Despite all of these changes of hands, the basic structural integrity of the building was intact and much of the sculptural ornamentation, especially the frieze and pediments were well preserved.  Several westerners visited the city, wrote detailed descriptions, and made drawings of the venerable building.  Everyone who saw it was struck by its beauty.

In 1687 the Venetians, the dominant naval and military power in the Mediterranean, decided to retake Athens for the greater glory of the Church as part of its wider war against the Ottomans.  Or maybe they just wanted to sack the city.  Hard to tell the difference. 

Francesco Morosini and his subordinate general, the Swede Count Otto Wilhelm Königsmarck laid siege to Athens.  As the Catholics before them had done, the Ottomans fortified the Acropolis—and they made the Parthenon their main arsenal, filling it with hundreds of barrels of powder.  In retrospect it was probably not the wisest idea to make the most visible target in the city into a literal powder keg.

Morosini seems to have been informed of how the Parthenon was being used by a deserter—or perhaps even by a Turkish agent in the belief that the attackers would never target such a historic treasure.  They were wrong.  Morosini pounded the city with artillery from the surrounding hills.  He did not spare the temple.  A mortar round pierced the roof on September 26, 1687 and exploded in the magazine.  

An Italian representation of the bombardment of the Parthenon and attached Mosque by Venetian mortars in 1687 causing the Ottoman powder arsenal inside to blow up almost destroying the ancient temple.

The explosion was tremendous.  Greek architect and archaeologist Kornilia Chatziaslani described the destruction:

. ...three of the sanctuary’s four walls nearly collapsed and three-fifths of the sculptures from the frieze fell. Nothing of the roof apparently remained in place. Six columns from the south side fell, eight from the north, as well as whatever remained from eastern porch, except for one column. The columns brought down with them the enormous marble architraves, triglyphs and metopes.

Three hundred defenders and civilians were killed outright.  Stone fragments rained down like shrapnel over a wide area wounding hundreds more.  Fires were ignited that burned much of the Acropolis and much of the city including many homes.  Of course it finished off Turkish resistance.  Morosini occupied the city in triumph.

Count Königsmarck would later claim that Morosini regretted the “accidental” destruction of the temple, but in his own report back to Venice the commander boasted of his lucky shot.  The next day Morosini ordered the looting of the smoldering wreckage.  His troops tried to remove sculptures of Poseidon and Athenas horses fell to the ground and smashed as they tried to detach them from the building’s west pediment.  The victor had to content himself with lesser spoils.  21st Century Venetians with their sinking city may be all about preserving “our priceless architectural and cultural heritage”, but clearly in the 17th Century they didn’t give a rat’s ass.

Morosini held the city for less than a year, retreating when the Ottomans assembled a large army to dislodge him.  

A late 18th Century European depiction of the ruined Parthenon and attached mosque.

When the Turks returned they did not try to rebuild the nearly destroyed building.  They did use some of the stone wreckage as construction material elsewhere in the city and used smaller pieces as land fill.  They also discovered there was a lucrative European market for antiquities and began to loot the ruins for their own profit and to allow visitors to cart of souvenirs which were sometimes hacked from still standing components. 

Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin obtained a controversial permit from government to remove pieces from the Parthenon while serving as the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803.  Through 1812, Elgin’s agents removed about half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon and carted them away to England where they found a prominent home in the British Museum.

A war of independence restored Athens to Greek hands for the first time in centuries in 1832.  For the Greeks the Parthenon was a great cultural symbol.  They quickly leveled the minaret and razed the remaining portions of the mosque.  They cleared the Acropolis of all Latin, medieval and Ottoman buildings.  But they had no money for further restoration or to prevent continued looting by western antiquity collectors and dealers.  

Looted from the Parthenon, the so-called Elgin Marbles are proudly displayed in the British Museum.  Despite decades of appeals and negotiations the Brits refuse to return what they stole.

The Greeks always protested the legitimacy of the Lord Elgin’s questionable deal—indeed the supposed permit documents from the Sultan have never been found.  The Greek government has been demanding a return of their patrimony since 1975 when they began a comprehensive project to restore the Parthenon and the Acropolis.  The British Government has steadfastly refused on the principle that they were stolen fair and square despite decades of rancorous negotiations.

The Parthenon today is threatened by Athens, air pollution and acid rain which eats away at the marble.

There have been several attempts at not so much restoring the Parthenon, but cleaning and preserving it in its current state of ruin.  Heavy air pollution and acid rain continue to do damage to the building and some predict may complete what the Venetians started.


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