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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Acropolis

For sheer size, the Temple of Zeus is more impressive. It was built by Hadrian and what the Romans lacked in subtlety, they made up for in scale. But looking up and westward between the columns, you can see the Acropolis.
You have to look up. For location, you can't top the Acropolis. Literally can't top it; it's the highest point in the city.

The myth tells us that Athena and Poseidon had a contest over who would be protector of the city; the winner was to be whomever gave the more useful gift. Poseidon gave either a fresh-water spring or else possibly a horse; the vagueness of this detail suggests whatever the gift was, it didn't make much of an impression. Athena gave an olive tree, and was hands down the winner.  "An olive tree!" the people exclaimed. "A fresh water spring or else possibly a horse is all well and good, but we've been waiting all our lives for an olive tree!" The olive tree proved invaluable not only as a source of food in itself, but for oil, a stimulus to trade, and the crowning touch in a martini. No wonder Athena was the goddess of wisdom.
The temple Pericles erected in honor of Athena has never been surpassed in beauty of design. The Greeks modified the turgid columns of the Minoans to tapering elegance. Each column is somewhat smaller at the top than the bottom and each tilts slightly toward the center of the Parthenon. Does this make the building appear taller than it really is, or does it give the marble appear as if, like a living thing, it is bending slightly under the roof's weight? Either way, it pleases the eye in a way only the eye understands.
Elaborate scenes of wars against Titans and Centaurs adorned the metopes - the part just above the columns - and an incredibly lavish depiction of the contest between Poseidon and Athena filled the pediment just under the roof.
The Parthenon also has interesting geometric properties. If you measure the interstices between the columns and multiply by the total number of columns plus the width of the triglyphs, you'll see what I mean. Go ahead, try it for yourself. I can wait.

Nearby and constructed somewhat later is the Temple of Poseidon.  As runner-up, he was entitled to a consolation prize. It's more haphazard looking than the Parthenon, and smaller, but it has caryatids, and who doesn't like a good caryatid?

The caryatids are reconstructions as are now parts of the Parthenon. There is a massive effort underway to restore the Parthenon to its original glory, repairing the damage when Venetians shelled the place while the Turks happened to be storing some gunpowder there. Honestly, it's hard to have patience with the way the Turks treated Athens.  Why would anybody store gunpowder on the Acropolis? They should have known that was the first place the Venetians would look!

At any rate, there is some controversy over whether the Parthenon should be reconstructed this way or just left "as is."  After all, if it's reconstructed, parts of it will be modern, and then when tourist guides say it was built in the Golden Age of Greece, they'll have to cough into their fists and add shame-facedly, "Well, mostly it was."

I'm undecided, but I lean in favor of reconstruction. For one thing, the engineers are doing a truly painstaking job, cutting fresh marble that fits into the existing remains like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.  Besides, if they never reconstruct, one day, what will be left? Not to reconstruct seems to leave all the cards in the hands of people like the Venetians and the Turks. "Blowing up the Parthenon, well, that's a shame, but on no condition should you rebuild it."  Is that the proper attitude?

Even in the Golden Age there must have been cavillers.  "The Acropolis used to have a bit of class before they went and threw up that Temple of Posiedon," I can imagine them saying. "That place is 'tau-alpha-kappa-iota,' tacky.  And those caryatids. Ugh."

The truth is, though we hide it from ourselves by erecting a Wall of China or a Pyramid of Giza now and then, everything we do is strictly ad hoc and provisional, just waiting for the next Venetian mortar shell or earthquake to undo.

Enjoy it while you can.

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