Survival of the Parthenon

After an onslaught of intolerance, greed and bombs

The following chapters are about the treasures that survived destruction. The first example is the Parthenon, and this chapter, the biggest of the book, goes deep into its history, what is special about it, how and why it was destroyed. For the first time too, diagrams are precisely illustrating the different stages of the destruction of the two pediments.

Ambition

It is said that thousands of years ago, atop a rocky hill overlooking a city and the sea, two gods met for an unusual fight, won by Athena, who gave her name to the city. She was not only the goddess of war, but of wisdom. Matters of war were put to good use in finally repelling the Persians, and matters of wisdom used to decide what to do with those newly acquired powers, as Athens was now the leading Greek city-state.

Athena's wisdom helped the Athenians create demokratia, democracy, and elect Perikles. He explained that “our system of government does not copy the institutions of our neighbours. It is more the case of our being a model to others than of our imitating anyone else. Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people”.

Circa 450 BC, enjoying the fruits of Athena's wisdom, it was time for the Athenians to express their gratitude by building her a worthy gift, the Parthenon. Being a democracy, the decision was approved by the Ekklesia assembly, and the accounts were carved on stone, so citizens would know how the money was spent.

The architects Iktinos and Kallikrates designed a building using not only the symmetry of nature, but an advanced understanding of optics.

Each column is not only tilted, it is also distorted to show “tension”, almost as if it was a limb whose muscles are tense by the action of carrying the building.

As a result every stone is unique, with less than the width of a hair gap between parts, adjusted and curved by a few millimetres from stone to stone, and a few centimetres from one side to another, enough to optically bend the entire temple, so it would appear to the eye perfectly straight.

To get an idea of the scale of the construction during a period of roughly 30 years, 100,000 tons of marble were quarried, transported to Athens and then carved, the Parthenon itself using 20,000 tons of marble. The Parthenon can even be thought of as an immense sculpture.

It might be hard to believe today, but there are barely any mentions of the building in surviving ancient literature. What really sets apart the Parthenon from anything else in the ancient world is its marble sculpture decor, created by men living in a democracy, for whom “our love of what is beautiful does not lead to extravagance; our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft”.
The importance of the Parthenon frieze is then explained at length.

Athena Parthenos

The actual treasure was inside the Parthenon, the statue of Athena Parthenos. The sculptor Pheidias conceived a 12 m (43ft) high chryselephantine statue, meaning made of solid gold and elephant ivory. A wooden structure underneath was set with gold sheets and a great quantity of ivory plaques. The amount of gold used was about 1,100 kg or 2,500 pounds.

It did not even make it to the Seven Wonders list, as the genius creator, Pheidias, went on creating another gold and ivory masterpiece, Zeus at Olympia, one of the two statues in the Seven Wonders list.

Like Athena and six wonders, it is lost. Only the pyramids of Giza remain, saved by their tremendous size.

This chapter is also a complement to the Greek miracle broken, melted & recycled chapter, a reminder that in Ancient Greece there was “an almost innumerable multitude of artists have been rendered famous by their statues” but “before them all stands the Athenian Pheidias”.

Loosing heads

The chapter then goes on to explain why heads of statues are cut, and what happened to the Parthenon and the statue of Athena Parthenos at the end of Antiquity.

A 'lucky shot' - blowing up the Parthenon

In 1687 the Parthenon resisted being bombed for four days, until “one of the bombs, striking the side of the temple, finally succeeded in breaking it”. The explosion was so powerful that it “made tremble all the houses”.

The Venetian commander who had set his cannons towards one of the few surviving wonders of Antiquity, had “the satisfaction of seeing one bomb fall, amid the others, with a lucky strike” on what he called a “barbarous site”.

While he celebrated such a “prodigious bomb”, 300 women and children sheltered inside had been blown to pieces. With them, the Parthenon.

Just before the explosion a French diplomat gave a description of the “splendours” of Parthenon. He described them as marvels “surpassing the most beautiful of the reliefs and statues of Rome” and mentioned “over two hundred figures, some entire, others mutilated”.

Recycling the Parthenon

With tens of thousands fragments scattered around the Acropolis, the Parthenon, one of the few temples of Antiquity that avoided being turned into a quarry, had been reduced to a pile of broken marble. Its ruins became an invitation for those in need of construction material.

For the next 150 years, the marble skeleton was surrounded by military barracks built with the fragments of the Parthenon.

Foreign travellers of the 18th century reported what they saw. One, a “heap of ruins”, and “the whole of these materials, to our great regret, were promiscuously consumed in the furnace, with their ornaments of sculpture and architecture, for the purpose of making lime to patch up the ruinous walls of the Acropolis”.

Until the last acts of destruction sustained by the Parthenon with the battles for Greek independence, a description of a wounded masterpiece shredded into further fragments.

Saving the Parthenon

From the 1830's to our time, the efforts made to restore the Parthenon.

A world treasure

First pondering, with Manolis Korres, the architect who led the Acropolis restoration, about the fact that “many later generations managed to transform one hundred thousand tonnes of sculpture and hewn marble, that had once belonged to the buildings of antiquity, into ten million shapeless pieces of one million times less value than the works destroyed in the process”.

Remember that Perikles proclaimed “mighty indeed are the monuments of our empire which we have left. Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now”.

Then marvel at how powerful must have been the work of Iktinos, Kallikrates and Pheidias for the “ten million shapeless pieces” to not just influence, but change the course of architecture and art history.

Pheidias' designs, even headless, were impressive enough for Auguste Rodin to haunt the British Museum so he could admire their “divine serenity”.

Even modern architecture pays homage to Iktinos and Kallikrates, as le Corbusier, one of the foremost architects of the 20th century, described the Parthenon as being without equivalent anytime in history, an illustration of the levels attainable by human creativity.

Making the Parthenon, even broken, more than a marble shell, a picturesque ruin coloured by the sunset. Instead, the embodiment of the ambition of those who gave us democracy, the foundation of medicine and hygiene, the template for Western art and architecture, as well as ideas and philosophy still shaping the world.

The Parthenon is indeed a wonder, for being a milestone of civilisation, a universal treasure, a gift to humanity.


This is a preview of the chapter about the history and importance of the Parthenon from the book Lost Treasures.