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The liquid chocolate beauty of the Elgin Marbles - Harry Mount

Blog | By Harry Mount | Dec 07, 2020

Elgin Marbles, London. Source: ChrisO

Ian Jenkins, Senior Curator for Ancient Greece at the British Museum, has sadly died at 67. Harry Mount visits the British Museum and Athens to admire the finest of all Greek temples

Lord Byron was furiously opposed to the Elgin Marbles being stripped from the Parthenon. So Mrs George Clooney, Amal Alamuddin, is not the first British media darling to get plus points for wanting to return the marbles.

In Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, composed in 1810, the year he swam the Hellespont, Byron wrote of Lord Elgin, ‘Of all the plunderers of yon fane [the Parthenon] … the last, the worst, dull spoiler, who was he? Blush, Caledonia, such thy son could be!’

Addressing the Parthenon, Byron put Amal Alamuddin’s case perfectly:


Dull is the eye that will not weep to see

Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed

By British hands, which it had best behoved

To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.

Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,

And once again thy hapless bosom gored,

And snatch'd thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!


Still, as I examined the battered Doric columns of the Parthenon recently, it was hard not to raise a cheer – at a discreet distance from any Greeks in the vicinity – for Lord Elgin. He whipped his marbles away from Athens in 1803, paying £75,000 for them before Athenian exhaust fumes could do their worst.

How extraordinary the Parthenon must have looked before it was bombed and eroded, and how striking, in its original greens, blues and reds. In the east pediment of the Parthenon, particularly dramatic blue stripes have been found in the Parthenogenesis (‘birth from a virgin’) scene – the birth of Athena from the head of her father, Zeus.

Using UV light and high-intensity lamps, a German archaeologist, Vinzenz Brinkmann, has recently discovered that the Parthenon, and most classical statues, were painted – as most medieval cathedrals were. The translucency of the hardened marble was intensified by the application of coloured wax which seeped into the stone.

For centuries, Renaissance experts and Renaissance sculptors based their theories of Greek aesthetics on pure, white statues. In fact, the colour on the ancient statues was washed away by the elements or eroded by centuries buried underground. Where fragments of faded colour survived in the deep folds of the drapery, experts dismissed it as dirt. The eighteenth-century German art historian Johann Winckelmann said of ancient sculpture, ‘The whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is as well. Colour should have a minor part in the consideration of beauty because it is not [colour] but structure that constitutes its essence.’

Scholars should have paid closer attention to Greek literature. In Euripides’s play Helen of Troy, Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, said, ‘If only I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect. The way you would wipe colour off a statue.’

Greek for ‘the virgin’s apartment’ – in honour of the goddess Athene – the Parthenon was built, under the control of the master-artist Pheidias, from 447 BC to 438 BC. It was an extraordinary and precise moment, when Greek politics, art and architecture clicked into place. Pericles called Athens the School of Greece; the artistic, as well as the political and intellectual, centre of the world.

In the sixth century BC, Greek sculpture was still pretty clunky. Primitive, stiff, chunky, largely symmetrical humans marched forwards like stone automatons, their arms locked to their sides, with a single leg making a formal step forwards. And then, within a century, they raced into the sublime, with anatomically accurate representations, full of human spirit and expression, turning on their heel, twisting their bodies in contrapposto, off-axis pose, as Michelangelo’s David did, nearly 2,000 years later.

The Elgin Marbles were in a class of their own; in Thucydides’s words, a possession for all time. The folds of the Athenians’ flowing, sleeved chitons – which a century before had been thickly carved into straight, blockish bands – came to wild, realistic, asymmetric life. The oozing, flowing, swerving, unpredictable lines of fifth-century drapery have been compared to liquid chocolate in their natural, liquid movement.

Literally liquid, in the case of the statue of Ilissos – lent by the British Museum to the Hermitage in St Petersburg amid much controversy in December 2014. Ilissos was named after a river that still flows through Athens, and his cloak is sculpted to look dripping wet. With his twisting, bent body, Ilissos could fit snugly into the corner of the western pediment of the Parthenon. What a change from that primitive, stiff, chunky Greek sculpture of a century before. When Ilissos turned up at the Hermitage, the Russian curators were staggered by his melted-chocolate brilliance. ‘He has made our own ancient statues look dead,’ one curator told Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum.

That chocolate melted even further in the fourth century BC, when Hellenistic statuary grew more mobile with the use of the running drill. Boring holes at unprecedented speed, the running drill undercut the marble and produced crisp, deep-shadowed drapery.

The Greeks were also the first to use entasis: the special effect that came of letting columns bulge ever so slightly outwards in the middle. Entasis was designed to counteract the ugliness produced by a straight-sided column. The eye plays a strange practical joke on the brain, and cons it into thinking the straight sides of the column actually dip inwards in the middle.

The entasis trick is even harder to pull off when you see that the columns of the Parthenon aren’t carved from one single, long chunk of stone. They’re made of a series of column drums, held almost imperceptibly together by mortice and tenon joints to form a single, swelling, column. The flutes were carved once the columns had been laid on top of each other, to make the joins even more imperceptible.

Entasis wasn’t just used on the columns of the Parthenon but also on the stone platform on which they stand. On the 228-foot-long sides of the temple, the base rises in the middle by 4¼ inches from the level at either end. That’s only a gradient of one in 300, but it’s enough to hide a paperback, if you lay it at one end of the base and try to see it from the other end.

The Parthenon had a rough time of it over the years, not just from pollution and Lord Elgin. Its biggest blow came in 1687, under Turkish occupation. Athens was a Turkish city from 1458 until the kingdom of Greece was proclaimed in 1832.

In the 1460s, the Parthenon became a mosque – fragments of the building survive today. And then, in 1687, a Venetian soldier, besieging the Turkish occupiers, fired a tragically accurate mortar round, hitting a gunpowder magazine at the heart of the temple. Three hundred people were killed; the roof, of Parian marble tiles, collapsed, as did 60 per cent of the frieze sculptures. Six columns fell on the south side, eight on the north; only one column remained in the eastern porch.

But, still, enough of it remains; though much is taken, much abides. On a recent evening in the Herodion Hotel beneath the Parthenon, we stopped the selfies and the mindless chit-chat about where to eat and what time to book the cab to the airport the following morning. The hotel guests sipped their Mythos beers on the rooftop of the Herodion, and sat and stared. I had never seen people just look at a great work of art for so long.

There are older buildings than the Parthenon – Stonehenge among them. But the Parthenon is the first piece in the jigsaw – a building whose Doric columns could easily be transported to a twentieth-century town hall without looking antiquated. A sort of perfection had been hit on. And, with all due respect to Stonehenge, you can see which one was built first.

The other reason – the greatest one – for the genius of the honey-yellow ruin staring down on us was democracy.

In 508 BC, 60 years before the Parthenon was begun, the first democratic reforms were introduced by Cleisthenes, Pericles’s great-uncle. Cleisthenes was a leading member of the Alcmaeonids – the Athenian Kennedy family – who dominated politics from the seventh to the fifth century BC. Both Pericles and the leading politician, Alcibiades, were Alcmaeonids.

For 180 years, until Philip II of Macedon, Alexander the Great’s father, took over the city in 322 BC, Athens was the first, and possibly the last, true democracy. It’s no coincidence that those 180 years encompassed the golden years for Athenian literature, architecture, sculpture and all-round civilisation.

The basis of that democracy was simple enough. Political decisions were made by the demos, or the people, in the ekklesia, or Assembly. The ekklesia was held every eight days on the Pnyx, the hill half a mile west of the Parthenon, with a carved stone speaker’s platform. It comes from puknos – ‘crowded’. In fact, there's rather a lot of space at the Pnyx. The crowded bit is thought to refer to the single entrance to the hill.

Democracy was the undercurrent to the Elgin Marbles. For all the gods and goddesses on the Parthenon frieze, there wasn’t a single overbearing tyrant, king or pharaoh there.

The frieze is thought to show the Panathenaic procession: the festival where Athena’s sacred robe, or peplos, was dedicated to the olivewood statue of Athena Polias – Athena of the City – in a temple by the north façade of the Parthenon. Athena was the patron god of Athens; thus the name. The Greek for Athens was ‘Athenae’, the plural of Athene (Athena in the Attic dialect). So, strictly speaking, Athens is a plural, meaning ‘Athenes’; perhaps because the city swallowed up lots of small villages, each called Athena.

If Poseidon had had his way, Athens would be called Poseidon – or Poseidons, perhaps. He staked his claim to the Acropolis by magically causing a stream of water to appear there; Athena countered with an olive tree, conjured out of nowhere. The gods declared her the winner, with the right to confer her name on the city.

At the centre of the Panathenaic procession – bang in the middle of the east façade, between Hera and Zeus on one side and Athena and Hephaistos on the other – there stands not a king, not a god, but a little girl. She's taking the sacred peplos from a figure thought to be the Archon Basileus – the King Magistrate, the chief religious official, but certainly not a king. The implication is clear: man, or, in this case, a little girl, is, as Plato said in the Protagoras not long after, the measure of all things.

Unless that man was a slave – and there were as many as 100,000 slaves in Athens, around 40 per cent of the population. That’s about the same proportion as in the Deep South before the American Civil War – and few would claim that as an ideal society. Women, foreigners and non-citizens, slaves especially, were very much not part of the demos. Slaves were treated as sex objects to be abused at will, with their heads shaved, as you’ll often see on Greek pottery.

Even the most sophisticated democrats of them all took slave ownership for granted: Plato’s will mentioned five slaves, Aristotle’s more than 14.

It doesn’t make things much better that the slaves were allowed to do sophisticated work. The accounts for building the Erechtheum, the temple next to the Parthenon, show that, of 86 builders used, 24 were citizens, 42 were metics (resident aliens) and 20 were slaves, who did much of the exceptional painting, woodwork and carving. Metics, too, were treated pretty well: Pericles’s mistress, Aspasia, was one, from the city of Miletus on the west coast of Turkey. He kissed her every evening when he got home from running the world’s first democracy, and burst into tears when she was charged with running a high-end brothel. Slaves weren't treated quite so nicely.

The slave-built Erechtheum is famous not just for the caryatids – the pillars modelled on girls from Karyai in Laconia – but also for the earliest surviving use of the egg and dart motif. Slaves may well have come up with the motif – and on a much venerated, ancient building, too.

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I recently visited Mount Pentelikon – the mountain that provided the stone for the Parthenon.

The first time I saw the mountain quarries glinting in the sun, it was quite a thrill. The wild, jagged lines of the hillside have been carved into neat rectangular voids, eating deeper and deeper into the flank of the mountain. Across the mountainside, 20-foot-long streaks of rusty orange iron oxide dribbled down the gleaming white, flat surfaces of the quarry; just as they did 2,500 years ago, when Pheidias turned that stone into the soft, golden, shallow relief of the Elgin Marbles. That lovely golden shade – which you can still see in the British Museum – was formed by the iron oxide.

The ancient Mount Pentelikon quarry was only opened in 490 BC, after the victory at Marathon. The new source of stone – along with the confidence and financial boost of victory – led to the building of a sort of pre-Parthenon on the Acropolis. That was smashed to pieces by the Persians in 480 BC – the other red-letter year for the Athenians. In the late summer of that year, the Spartans, fighting on the Athenian side, lost to the Persians at the heroic last stand of Thermopylae. Days later, though, the Athenians beat the Persians at the Battle of Salamis. With further victories in 479 BC – over the Persian army at the Battle of Plataea, and the Persian navy at the Battle of Mycale on today’s western coast of Turkey – the stage was set for the Athenian political and artistic triumphs of the later fifth century.

Down on the valley floor, in the shadow of Pentelikon, the fields were dotted with ten-foot-long, coffin-shaped chunks of marble – grooved with the drill lines that split the stone from the mountain. What magic to take these inert cuboids of stone and turn them into the Elgin Marbles, the greatest sculptures in history, nearly 2,500 years ago.