Joan Breton Connelly The Parthenon Enigma

ISBN 13: 9780307593382

The Parthenon Enigma

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9780307593382: The Parthenon Enigma

Built in the fifth century b.c., the Parthenon has been venerated for more than two millennia as the West’s ultimate paragon of beauty and proportion. Since the Enlightenment, it has also come to represent our political ideals, the lavish temple to the goddess Athena serving as the model for our most hallowed civic architecture. But how much do the values of those who built the Parthenon truly correspond with our own? And apart from the significance with which we have invested it, what exactly did this marvel of human hands mean to those who made it?

In this revolutionary book, Joan Breton Connelly challenges our most basic assumptions about the Parthenon and the ancient Athenians. Beginning with the natural environment and its rich mythic associations, she re-creates the development of the Acropolis—the Sacred Rock at the heart of the city-state—from its prehistoric origins to its Periklean glory days as a constellation of temples among which the Parthenon stood supreme. In particular, she probes the Parthenon’s legendary frieze: the 525-foot-long relief sculpture that originally encircled the upper reaches before it was partially destroyed by Venetian cannon fire (in the seventeenth century) and most of what remained was shipped off to Britain (in the nineteenth century) among the Elgin marbles. The frieze’s vast enigmatic procession—a dazzling pageant of cavalrymen and elders, musicians and maidens—has for more than two hundred years been thought to represent a scene of annual civic celebration in the birthplace of democracy. But thanks to a once-lost play by Euripides (the discovery of which, in the wrappings of a Hellenistic Egyptian mummy, is only one of this book’s intriguing adventures), Connelly has uncovered a long-buried meaning, a story of human sacrifice set during the city’s mythic founding. In a society startlingly preoccupied with cult ritual, this story was at the core of what it meant to be Athenian. Connelly reveals a world that beggars our popular notions of Athens as a city of staid philosophers, rationalists, and rhetoricians, a world in which our modern secular conception of democracy would have been simply incomprehensible.

The Parthenon’s full significance has been obscured until now owing in no small part, Connelly argues, to the frieze’s dismemberment. And so her investigation concludes with a call to reunite the pieces, in order that what is perhaps the greatest single work of art surviving from antiquity may be viewed more nearly as its makers intended. Marshalling a breathtaking range of textual and visual evidence, full of fresh insights woven into a thrilling narrative that brings the distant past to life, The Parthenon Enigma is sure to become a landmark in our understanding of the civilization from which we claim cultural descent.

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About the Author:

JOAN BRETON CONNELLY is a classical archaeologist and the author of two previous books, Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece and Votive Sculpture of Hellenistic Cyprus. She received her A.B. in classics from Princeton University and Ph.D. in classical and Near Eastern archaeology from Bryn Mawr College, where she now serves on the board of trustees. In 1996, Professor Connelly was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. She received the Archaeological Institute of America’s Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award in 2007 and held NYU’s Lillian Vernon Chair for Teaching Excellence in 2002–2004. She has held visiting fellowships at All Souls College, Magdalen College, New College, and Corpus Christi College at Oxford University, and at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, and has been a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Professor Connelly has excavated throughout Greece, Kuwait, and Cyprus where she has directed the Yeronisos Island Excavations since 1990. She is currently a professor of classics and art history at New York University.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


Never before in human history has there been a structure that is at once so visible to the world, so celebrated, so examined, so invested with authority, and yet, at the same time, so strangely impenetrable at its core. After centuries of study and admiration, the Parthenon remains, in so many ways, an enigma.

The past three decades have brought perhaps the most intensive period of scrutiny the Parthenon has seen since its construction nearly twenty--five hundred years ago (447–-432 b.c.). The monumental work of the Acropolis Restoration Service in the conservation and analysis of the building has revealed a wealth of new information about how the Parthenon was planned, engineered, and constructed. Surprises, like newly revealed traces of bright paint on architectural moldings set high within the west porch, hint at the original, radiant decoration of the temple. At the same time, freshly emerging evidence from Greek literature, inscriptions, art, and archaeology has broadened our understanding of the world in which the Parthenon was built. The myths, belief systems, ritual and social practices, cognitive structures, even the emotions of the ancient Athenians, are now under rigorous review. But much of what has been discovered in recent years does not fit into the sense we have had of the Parthenon for the past two and a half centuries. Why?

Our contemporary understanding of the Parthenon and the symbolism that has been constructed for it from the Enlightenment on has everything to do with the self--image of those who have described and interpreted it. There is a natural tendency to see likeness to oneself when approaching a culture as foreign as that of Greek antiquity. How much more so this is when looking at a monument that has become the icon of Western art, the very symbol of democracy itself. With these labels comes a projection onto the Parthenon of all our standards of what it means to be civilized. In looking at the building, Western culture inevitably sees itself; indeed, it sees only what flatters its own self--image or explains it through connection to the birthplace of democracy.

This association has been reinforced again and again by the adoption of Parthenonian style for civic architecture beginning with the neoclassical movement and culminating in the Greek Revival. From the early nineteenth century on, financial and governmental institutions, libraries, museums, and universities have reproduced classical architectural forms to communicate a set of values, implicitly aligning themselves with the flowering of democratic Athens. One need only look at the Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia (1811–-1824), the British Museum (1823–-1852), the U.S. Custom House on Wall Street (1842) (page 341), Founder’s Hall at Girard College in Philadelphia (1847), the U.S. Treasury Building in Washington, D.C. (1836–-1869), the Ohio State Capitol (1857), the Philadelphia Museum of Art (1928), or the U.S. Supreme Court Building (1935) to recognize quotations from the iconic form of the Parthenon.1 Ironically, these unequivocally secular civic structures have appropriated what is, fundamentally, a religious architectural form. Preoccupied with the political and the aesthetic, we have become all too comfortable with the constructed identity of Parthenon as icon, neglecting its primary role as a deeply sacred space.
Any views that depart from the well--established contemporary understanding of the Parthenon, and its association with civic life as we know it, have been effaced, like the traces of paint and intricate detail that once adorned the surface of the temple itself. Criticism of the conventional creed is taken as an attack on an entire belief system. The long--standing association of the Parthenon with Western political ideology has, indeed, caused new interpretations to meet with enormous resistance. But there is much more to the Parthenon and the people who created it than flatters and corresponds to our sense of ourselves. To recover it, we must begin by trying to see the monument through ancient eyes.

Viewing the Parthenon as synonymous with the Western democratic system of government began in the eighteenth century, when the art historian Johann Winckelmann first linked the emergence of individual liberty to the development of high classical style. In his influential book, Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums ( History of the Art of Antiquity, 1764), Winckelmann argued that the rise and decline of artistic styles followed developments in the political sphere. The peak of Greek art, he maintained, coincided with the democratic form of government.2 Nine years later his student Johann Hermann von Riedesel took this model a step further, proclaiming the Parthenon to be “the supreme product of Athenian democracy.”3
This sentiment was robustly embraced during the Greek War of Independence (1821 to 1830) and the period that immediately followed it. As the modern Greek nation was forged, the European powers that helped to shape it constructed narratives through which they could trace their own political systems back to the epicenter of the Athenian Acropolis. On August 28, 1834, the newly designated king of Greece, Otto, son of King Ludwig of Bavaria, officially inaugurated the Parthenon as an ancient monument. In a carefully orchestrated pageant conceived in the very image of Periklean Athens, King Otto rode on horseback with his regents, court, and bodyguards while soldiers from the National Guard led a procession of citizen elders, teachers, guild officers, and other notables.4 Sixty Athenians marched with olive branches in hand, while on the Acropolis, Athenian maidens, dressed in white and carrying bows of myrtle, unfurled a banner displaying the image of Athena.5 Upon reaching the citadel, King Otto was presented with keys to its gate and escorted into the Parthenon by the neoclassical architect Leo von Klenze. There, the king was enthroned upon a chair covered in laurel, olive, and myrtle. Klenze delivered a rousing patriotic address, advocating the restoration of the Parthenon and the obliteration of every trace of Ottoman Turkish building on the Acropolis. “All the remains of barbarity will be removed,” Klenze proclaimed. He then bade King Otto to sanctify the first marble drum to be restored to the “reborn Parthenon.” The king obliged, tapping three times on the white marble column segment set before him.6 Klenze’s vision of a barbarian--free Acropolis was fully realized in his “ideal view” of the Acropolis (following page), painted in 1846 and acquired by King Otto’s father, Ludwig I, some six years later.7

In the century that followed, the growth of archaeology and an ever--increasing recognition of classical Greece as the cradle of Western civilization elevated classical cultural production to a whole new level.8 In 1826 work began on a replica of the Parthenon atop Calton Hill just east of Edinburgh. Designed as the National Monument of Scotland to memorialize Scottish soldiers and sailors lost in the Napoleonic Wars, it would become, people hoped, the final resting place for a host of Scottish notables. The structure was never completed, and the single façade that stands today is marked with an inscription that reads, “A Memorial of the Past and Incentive to the Future Heroes of the Men of Scotland.”9 Meanwhile, just above Regensburg in Bavaria, King Ludwig I built his own Parthenon (1830–-1842), designed by the same Leo von Klenze of the ceremony on the Acropolis. Named Walhalla, “the Hall of the Dead” (facing page), the Bavarian Parthenon was furnished with portrait busts and inscribed plaques commemorating more than a hundred famous individuals across eighteen hundred years of German history. By 1897 the United States could boast of its own Parthenon, built in Nashville, Tennessee, for the state’s Centennial Exposition of 1896–-1897. The wooden structure was rebuilt in concrete in 1920–-1931 and remains a prized landmark of the city to this day (page xiv).10

By the twentieth century, Ernst Gombrich would hail the “Great Awakening” in Greek art as a product of the dawn of democracy. He viewed the “summit of its development” in the high classical period as a direct reflection of the “new freedom” experienced by artists working within the new political system.11 This positivist construct was perpetuated in a blockbuster exhibition of Greek art that traveled across the United States in 1992, celebrating the twenty--five hundredth anniversary of the birth of democracy. The show, titled The Greek Miracle: Classical Sculpture from the Dawn of Democracy, treated viewers in Washington, D.C., and New York City to the very finest of surviving Greek art.12

The tendency to see oneself in ancient artistic masterpieces is not, however, limited to the adherents of any particular political ideology. Cecil Rhodes viewed the Parthenon as a manifestation not of democracy but of empire. “Through art, Pericles taught the lazy Athenians to believe in Empire,” he maintained.13 Karl Marx, also attracted to Greek art, preferred to understand classical monuments as products of a society not at its peak but in its infancy. “The charm of [Greek] art,” Marx argued, “was inextricably bound up” with “the unripe social conditions under which it arose.”14 The splendor of high classical art in general, and the Parthenon in particular, would hold irresistible attraction for the fascist regime of Hitler’s Germany, which readily appropriated it in the service of its ideological, cultural, and social agendas.15

Should we be surprised that Sigmund Freud’s response to the Parthenon was one of guilt? He was tortured by the fact that he had been privileged to see a masterpiece that his own father, a wool merchant of modest means, could never have seen or appreciated. Indeed, Freud was riddled with guilt at the thought of having surpassed his father in this good fortune.16

In 1998, the editor Boris Johnson, now mayor of London, published in The Daily Telegraph an interview with a senior curator at the British Museum. Johnson quoted the curator as saying that the Elgin Marbles are “a pictorial representation of England as a free society and the liberator of other peoples.”17 Thus, the Parthenon serves as both magnet and mirror. We are drawn to it, we see ourselves in it, and we appropriate it in our own terms. In the process, its original meaning, inevitably, is very much obscured.
Indeed, our understanding of the Parthenon is so bound up with the history of our responses to it that it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the two. When the object of scrutiny has been thought so matchlessly beautiful and iconic, a screen for meanings projected upon it across two and a half millennia, it is all the more challenging to recover the original sense of it. What is clear is that the Parthenon matters. Across cultures and centuries its enduring aura has elicited awe, adulation, and superlatives. Typical of the gushing is that of the Irish artist and traveler Edward Dodwell, who spent the years 1801–-1806 painting and writing in Greece. Of the Parthenon he declared, “It is the most unrivaled triumph of sculpture and architecture that the world ever saw.”18 This same sentiment inflamed Lord Elgin, less a man of words than of action. In fact, during the very years of Dodwell’s stay in Athens, Lord and Lady Elgin and a team of helpers were busy taking the temple apart, hoisting down many of its sculptures and shipping them off to London, where they remain to this day.

Even the removal of its sculptures, however, could not dull the building’s allure. In 1832, the French poet Alphonse de Lamartine, last of the Romantics, declared the Parthenon to be “the most perfect poem ever written in stone on the surface of the earth.”19 Not long thereafter, the neo--Gothic architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet--le--Duc proclaimed the cathedral at Amiens to be “the Parthenon of Gothic Architecture.”20 Even the great arbiter of twentieth--century modernism Charles--Édouard Jeanneret, later known as Le Corbusier, upon first seeing the Parthenon proclaimed it “the repository of the sacred standard, the basis for all measurement in art.”21

And so the Parthenon’s larger--than--life status has had a profound effect on the ways in which it has been scrutinized, what questions have been asked of it, and, more interesting, what questions have been left unasked. Too revered to be questioned too much, the Parthenon has suffered from the distortions that tend to befall icons. The fact that so few voices from antiquity survive to tell us what the Athenians saw in their most sacred temple has only enlarged the vacuum into which post--antique interpreters have eagerly rushed.

it has not helped the effort to recover original meaning that beginning in late antiquity, long after Athens had lost its independence, the Parthenon suffered a series of devastating blows. Around 195 b.c., a fire consumed the cella, the great room at the eastern end of the temple. At some point during the third or fourth century a.d., under Roman rule, there was an even more ruinous fire. Some scholars have pointed to the attack by the Germanic Heruli tribe in a.d. 267 as the cause of this destruction, while others have attributed it to the Visigoth marauders under Alaric, who plundered Athens in 396.22 Whatever the cause, the Parthenon’s roof collapsed, destroying the cella. The room’s interior colonnade, its eastern doorway, the base of the cult statue, and the roof had to be entirely replaced.23

The Parthenon’s days as a temple of Athena were now numbered. Between a.d. 389 and a.d. 391, the Roman emperor Theodosios I issued a series of decrees banning temples, statues, festivals, and all ritual practice of traditional Greek polytheism. (It was Constantine who legalized Christianity, but it was Theodosios who outlawed its competition, making it the state religion.) By the end of the sixth century and possibly even earlier the Parthenon was transformed into a Christian church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. This conversion required a change in orientation, with a main entrance now smashed open at the western end of the structure and an apse added at the east (page 337). The westernmost room became a narthex, while a three--aisled basilica stretched toward the east in what had been the temple’s cella. A baptistery was introduced at the building’s northwest corner.24 By the late seventh century this church had become the city’s cathedral under the name of the Theotokos Atheniotissa, the “God--Bearing Mother of Athens.” When, in 1204, Frankish forces of the Fourth Crusade invaded, they converted the Greek Orthodox cathedral into a Roman Catholic one, renaming it Notre-Dame d’Athènes. A bell tower was added at its southwest corner. With the fall of Athens to the Ottoman Turks in 1458, the Parthenon was rebuilt once again, now as a mosque, complete with a mihrab, a pulpit, and a soaring minaret on the very spot where the bell tower had stood.

Having survived largely intact for more than two thousand years, the Parthenon suffered a catastrophic explosion on September 28, 1687. A week earlier, the Swedish count Koenigsmark and his army of ten thousand soldiers had landed at Eleusis, just fourteen kilometers to the northwest. There they joined the Venetian general Francesco Morosini for the siege of Athens, but one front in the larger Morean War, also known as the Sixth Ottoman--Venetian War, which lasted from 1684 to 1699. As the Venetian army advanced upon Athens, the Ottoman Turkish garrison defending the city barricaded itself on the Acropolis. The Turks had, by now, torn down the t...

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