Ancient History & Civilisation



Until 2020, or thereabouts, the pleasure of a visit to the Parthenon itself will be limited to the outside of the building. The inside will be glimpsed only through an impressive, but intrusive, array of scaffolding and engineering tackle. Even the colonnade and steps are firmly off-limits until the current restoration programme (which is to include a section of the Christian church, as well as the fifth-century BC temple) is complete. Then it is hoped to allow some public access again, probably along a series of designated walkways. The days of wandering freely around the Parthenon, indeed around the Acropolis as a whole, are almost certainly gone for good.

Almost all the substantial pieces of sculpture left on or around the Parthenon by Lord Elgin and others are now on show in New Acropolis Museum, on Dionysius the Areopagite Street – conveniently located near the Acropolis Metro station (an elegant construction which has on display some of the ancient objects found in the course of its building). There is almost too much in this museum to take in at one visit. If you have come specifically to see the sculptures from the Parthenon, it is probably best to take the lift directly to the top floor, where (as the museum’s design brief insisted) you can glance back and forward from the temple itself to its original decoration. Leaving aside the political agenda that lies behind the display of the bright white plaster casts in place of the sections in London and elsewhere, this is the most complete version of the temple sculptures that you can ever see – carefully reconstructing their original architectural layout (another insistence of the design brief).

The plan of the museum implies that visitors will move up from the ground floor (by a ramp, stairs and/or escalator, intended to mimic the slope of the Acropolis itself), through the earlier sculptures from the site and on to the Parthenon gallery as the culmination of the visit. If you choose to make for the top floor first, you have a choice of then moving downwards through the galleries (and so touring the museum ‘against the grain’ as it were) – or, after seeing the Parthenon, going back down to the ground and starting again.

The other material in the museum is, in fact, hardly less impressive than the Parthenon sculptures themselves. Particularly striking is the Archaic Gallery, where – in a vast hall, which manages to convey the impression of the open expanse of the Acropolis itself – the material from the preclassical (mostly sixth-century BC) period of the site is on display (pp. 103–5). This includes a magnificent collection of female statues (Goddesses? Human worshippers? We cannot usually be sure), as well as the sculpture that once decorated the pediments of the early temples on the rock – some of these still showing clear traces of the original paint. A particular gem of this collection, which would be easy to overlook, is a trio of late sixth-century statuettes of scribes; the head of one is a plaster cast – to replace the original now in the Louvre, having been acquired by Fauvel (p. 94) in the early nineteenth century.

One virtue of the New Acropolis Museum, compared with the old, is that much more Roman material from the site is on display (including two stunning terracotta figures of ‘Victory’ (or Nike) that greet you when you on the ground floor). But for the later history of the Parthenon, you must go elsewhere.

The Benaki Museum (Ave Vas. Sofias) features some vivid images of the Acropolis in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including some eye-witness paintings of Elgin’s agents at work. It also has an excellent display on the Greek War of Independence and the role in it of European philhellenes such as Byron (who were neither so numerous nor significant as their self-advertisements tend to suggest). The Museum of the City of Athens (Klafthmonos Sq.) is housed in the first temporary palace of young King Otto, before he moved to the pile in Syntagma Square. Its displays capture the style of Athens (including its ancient monuments) in the early years of Otto’s reign. In the Byzantine Museum (Ave Vas. Sofias), among a baffling display of medieval carved masonry whose original location is utterly lost, there are one or two pieces known to have come from the Christian Parthenon.


In the British Museum the Parthenon sculptures are displayed in the frankly cavernous Duveen Gallery (pp. 167–8). Despite a wealth of information panels, books, videos and audio-guides, the challenge for any visitor is to recapture any sense of how the sculpture, and in particular the frieze, was arranged on the building itself. To understand the frieze, there are two key points to remember. First, it is displayed in the gallery ‘inside out’; that is, what originally decorated the outside of the Parthenon’s chamber walls is here shown running round the inside of the room. Second, the display has been designed to disguise the fact that large sections of the frieze are in Athens. In order to bring this off, it must effectively dismantle the original shape and layout of the sculpture, as it was on the temple. So, for example, the peplos scene (Illustration 14), which was originally in the centre of the short east end, is now slightly off-centre on one of the long sides of the room. Most visitors will find themselves defeated by the spatial gymnastics required to reconstruct the original arrangement, including the missing parts, in any detail. The simplest plan is to orientate a visit around the peplos scene (clearly visible almost opposite the door as you enter) and to remember that almost nothing of the frieze at the west end was brought to London. The only two slabs from this part of the frieze are immediately on your right as you come in (where the north-west angle of the building is clearly marked). Alternatively, just enjoy it.

The pediments and metope panels do not present such difficulties. The east pediment is to the right, the west to the left, as you enter the gallery. In both cases the effect of the display is to make them look much more complete than they really are; you certainly could not fit the lost birth of Athena and its attendant figures into the gap left here in the centre of the east pediment. The metopes are now divided between the two ends of the gallery but, in fact, they all come from the south side of the building.

How much damage was actually done to these sculptures in the 1930s (pp. 168–73)? Although the conference in 1999 reached some broad agreement about what happened under the auspices of Duveen and about the overall state of the damage, there remains intense disagreement about the condition of many individual pieces. But some of them provide a clear and relatively uncontroversial introduction to the whole question:

images For the best, uninterrupted and close-up view of the orange-brown ‘coating’ that was so much at issue, look at the fragments in the showcases in the left-hand information room, before you enter the main gallery (Duveen was not the slightest bit concerned with these ‘minor’ pieces). You should then be able to spot it at various places on the pediments, frieze and metopes.

images For a lesson in the complexity of the history of the marble surfaces, try south metope XXVII (Illustration 18) at the right-hand end of the gallery. This metope was hardly touched by the 1930s cleaning, though a little coating on the Greek’s cloak may have been removed. The apparent drips on the marble are caused by natural weathering, where ridges of harder stone are exposed as the softer stone erodes. There is also a clear ‘weather line’ on the Greek’s leg: the outer surfaces are obviously weathered, but where it was protected (on the inner sides and between his thighs) the surface retains its smooth, polished appearance.

images For a clear indication of the visible effects of the cleaning, the figure of the goddess Hebe (?) (also known as ‘figure G’) on the east pediment provides the best example. In good light there is an obvious ‘tide-mark’ near the top of her thigh: below is cleaned, above is not. This is where the workmen abruptly stopped when the museum authorities discovered what was going on. Compare also the back of the head of the horse of the Moon with its front (Illustration 17). The back has been cleaned, the front has not. To judge from early photographs, there was only a little surviving coating to be removed, but the surface was made much smoother (a ‘skinned’ appearance, as the museum’s own enquiry in 1938 put it).

images For trace of ‘original’ paint, go to the back of figure E (perhaps the goddess Demeter or Persephone) on the east pediment. On the base (just below the rectangular cutting) is an obvious brush stroke – known affectionately in the museum as ‘the brush stroke of Pheidias’. Although the effects of two and a half millennia have made this a rather dark daub, it was probably originally a light colour, and a test stroke by a workman, trying out his paint where it would not be noticed. If you look carefully you will see how the coating still visible here goes over the paint (and is therefore later than it). But you can see too that the coating itself has weathered, suggesting that it is an ancient, if not an ‘original’, element on the monument.

The two information rooms on either side of the main entrance contain important material that many visitors miss. On the right-hand side is a cast of the west frieze, made from moulds taken by Elgin’s agents. Comparison with the original sculpture in Athens provides clear evidence of the environmental damage done over the last 200 years (Illustration 23). In the left-hand room is a third-century AD Roman version of the shield of the great statue of Athena and one of our main sources of information on its design. There is also further vivid evidence of damage to the sculpture, this time under Turkish rule. A slab of the north frieze survived pretty well intact up to the mid-eighteenth century, and was drawn complete by Stuart and Revett. All Elgin’s agents could find was the small fragment on display here (together with a copy of Stuart and Revett’s drawing). Presumably the rest of the slab had been smashed, re-used in building or ground into cement.

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