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A tale of three Parthenons

Mention the Parthenon to someone in Tennessee & it is likely that they will think you are referring to the copy in Nasahville, rather than the original in Athens. The Nashville copy is the most complete replica of the building, but it entirely lacks the imposing context of the original, being located in a flat park. There is another less known copy – the Walhalla in Germany, that whilst not being an exact copy of the building, enjoys a far more similar location, & as a result manages to recapture some of the magic of the Athenian Acropolis.

Guardian [1]

Welcome to Nashville, home of rhinestone, cowboys…
…and the Parthenon. Jonathan Glancey on the Athens of the south
Jonathan Glancey
Monday June 11, 2001
The Guardian

Subtract Elgin marbles from Parthenon and what do you get? Trouble, on a suitably epic scale. The battle for the return of the Parthenon frieze to its original home in Athens has been, to say the least, protracted. This summer it enters a fresh phase as 14 firms of architects around the world, but mostly in Greece, prepare designs for the new Acropolis museum – a cluster of three modern pavilions, one of which will be reserved for the Elgin marbles. How long it will stay empty remains to be seen. The position of the British government is that the marbles will stay in London.

Some 20bn drachmas (£36m) have been promised for the winning design team. The result will be announced later this year, and work is due to begin on the building at the start of 2002. One answer might be to reproduce the marbles. Well, maybe not. Everyone wants the real thing, and, in this case, the real thing is of undimmed magnificence – unlike the tourist-besieged Parthenon itself, which continues its long, slow decline, ravaged by pollution.

Today, though, there are at least two full-scale reproduction Parthenons that allow us to see this great building in something like its full glory. The real Parthenon was built to mark the final triumph of fifth-century Athens over the Persians following long and savage wars. That sort of dramatic background isn’t exactly evident in the most surprising of the three Parthenons: Nashville’s, which was originally built of timber and plaster for the Tennessee Centennial exhibition of 1897. The Nashville Parthenon was later rebuilt in concrete, reopening in 1931. It has since been restored again, and this year it is resplendent in all its American-Athenian glory. The Nashville Parthenon now serves as the city’s principal art gallery. The interior houses a full-scale reproduction of the statue of Athene Parthenos, all 42 foot of her; she looks like a prop from a DW Griffith epic, but that’s not so surprising, since the original was clad in gold 2,500 years ago. In her right hand she carries a six-foot statue of Nike, goddess of victory.

This Parthenon was designed to give the city a bit of class. Yet, for all its weighty bronze doors, its floors of Tennessee marble, its Florida cypress roof, the Nashville Parthenon lacks the intense beauty of its Athenian ancestor. This is partly a question of purpose and partly one of location. The original Parthenon commands a magnificent setting: the Nashville Parthenon sits within the genteel constraints of a public park. The Parthenon represents the achievement of and the yearning for a triumphal nationalism: the younger temple just adds a bit of civilised swagger to a town we know best for its country and western music. It is – without being unkind, for it does look good – vacuous.

There is a more successful reworking of the Parthenon in Germany. Like the Athenian original, the Walhalla has both gravitas and a commanding position, rising high above the Danube at Donaustauf east of Regensburg. It was built in 1807 by Ludwig, crown prince of Bavaria, at a time of deep humiliation for Germany. That spring it had witnessed the defeat of the Prussian military by Napoleon, and the next year saw four kings and 30 princes swear allegiance to the French conqueror. Ludwig dreamed of a great temple of honour to German heroes, to mitigate dishonour. And what better architectural precedent could he choose but the Parthenon? His version, a stupendous building completed in 1842 to the designs of the great Greek revivalist Leo Von Klenze, stands on three stepped marble platforms at the top of 358 marble steps. From its south portico, the rich wheatfields of the Bavarian plain spread like some giant cloth of gold.

Across its threshold, guarded by massive doors of oak and bronze, faced inside with maple inset with red amaranth, is a truly godly vision sheathed in marbles quarried from throughout Germany. The great gold-plated, bronze, timber, tin and French plate-glass ceiling is supported by caryatids rising from the capitals of Ionic columns.

The Walhalla is named after the Germanic or Nordic dwelling place of the gods. Today, the red-and-cream marble walls of this 19th-century Parthenon are lined with busts of musicians, artists, poets and scientists as well as emperors, princes and warriors. Albert Einstein is here alongside Bach and Beethoven. Sadly, Ludwig’s temple is little visited today: it is still associated in the German mind with Hitler, who loved to be photographed here, and Nazi ambition, which was represented architecturally by neoclassical design.

Of course, this is wrongheaded. The architecture of ancient Greece has been used by democracies and dictatorships alike. As for Athens, that was only ever an imperfect democracy: the Parthenon rose above a society based on slavery.

The Parthenon marked the zenith of ancient Greek architecture. It was commissioned by Pericles between 490 and 480BC. Phidias, the sculptor, was in charge of co-ordinating the rebuilding of the hilltop temples, destroyed by the Persians during the wars, that overlooked the city and its agora (marketplace) below. He brought in the architects Ictinus and Callicrates, who spent 11 years (447-436BC) perfecting the great Doric temple in their charge. Its famously subtle design – to ensure its lines appear straight to the onlooker, there is not a true straight line in its construction – required not only great mathematical judgment from its architects, but also immense skill from masons.

The Parthenon and the temples around it symbolised key aspects of Greek society and culture. The temple was at once a place of gathering and worship as well as a representation of a Greek fighting ship (the basis of Greek power), a domestic loom (the practical heart of every Greek household), and the people themselves. These last were represented by the columns that marched around the heart of the temple, as if clustering around the presence of Athene, the guardian spirit of the city represented by a giant statue inside. The loom was represented by the temple fronts with their columns set, as with a loom, within a clearly defined frame. As for the fighting ship, that was suggested in the way the columns – no straight lines, remember – billowed out like a sail.

For ancient Greeks, then, the Parthenon was not just beautiful and impressive, it was also a symbol of the core values that held their civilisation together. Its legacy has been vast. You can reproduce its form, but you can’t reproduce its emotional power and cultural significance. Small wonder the Greeks, having lost their marbles to m’lord Elgin, want them back to animate the world’s greatest building.