Thursday, August 11, 2011

Reasoning: The Landscape of Memory on the Acropolis

Photocredit: Cerinthus

One of the textbooks for my Art History class, The Acropolis in the Age of Pericles, is fabulous [1]. Jeffrey Hurwit's writing style is engaging and, more importantly, he seems genuinely interested in his subject matter and he communicates this across the page to his reader. Having taken many classics courses over the years, I have read a lot of articles about the Parthenon and viewed a lot of pictures of the acropolis. However, Hurwit manages to point out new and fascinating tidbits that range in subject from materials to construction to ritual practice.

For example, in the chapter "Landscape of Memory on the Acropolis," which for me has been the high point of the book thus far (I am about halfway through), discussed the way that the architects of the Periclean Acropolis preserved and highlighted the history of both Athens and more specifically the acropolis. There still remain so-called Cyclopean walls (walls made of large limestone boulders which have the cracks between them filled in by smaller stones [2]) from the Bronze Age (presumably a Bronze Age Palace) which were given a place of honor rather than dismatled or hidden by the more regular and precise-looking classical walls (Hurwit 62-63) as well as remains of a Bronze Age Tower built into the Classical temple of the cult of Athena Nike. The building project went so far as to place windows into the tower so that Athenians could peer in at the original tower structure from the earlier age (Hurwit 64-65).

It was not just the Bronze Age architecture that the Classical Athenian builders monumentalized; many Archaic structures were incorporated into their classical counterparts. This was particularly important to the Athenians because Xerxes sacked the Archaic Acropolis when he invaded Athens and destroyed not only the standing temples and shrines but also the so-called Older Parthenon which was under construction at the time. Pericles' plan for the classical Parthenon used some of the metopes and columns of the Older Parthenon  and some of the foundations became a Persian War Memorial (Hurwit 70).

Further incorporating Archaic predecessors, "the Erechtheion ...was not so much a temple as it was a composition of many shrines" (Hurwit 71), including the pre-Erechthieon and the shrine of Athena Polias and alters to other gods and heroes. The Erechtheion (see picture below) became an oddly-shaped monument to the past religious tradition and allowed it to continue to a flourish in a new and grander setting.
Photocredit: Cerinthus
These are just a few of the fascinating pieces that makes the architecture come alive. It demonstrates the power of the acropolis not just as a monument but as a reminder of Athens' proud history.

  1. Walking the other day, I was thinking to myself how often I am harshly critical of textbooks and scholarly work and I was wondering whether I was becoming an arrogant curmudgeon. However, I remembered reading this book that my vehemence in the praise of scholarship I like is of the same degree of my criticism of those texts I find lacking. I am not sure if this ameliorates my harshness in any way, but at least it makes me feel slightly more balanced.
  2. Cyclopean walls were named thus because later Greeks thought the boulders in the Bronze Age walls were so big they must have been placed there by Cyclopes.

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