An Italian Sculptural Pilgrimage - part I

The Acropolis of Athens as Seen from Mars Hill

Join me on my summer holiday as I travel (mostly) through Italy—as always, in search of beautiful sites, sculpture and all things sculpture-ish. 

We landed in Athens (which, yes, I know, is not in Italy) to spend a couple of days re-visiting some of our favorite sites. Athens (and the whole of Greece) had a tremendous impact on Roman culture and aesthetic sensibilities. Much of Ancient Rome's best architecture and sculpture was inspired by (if not a copy of) earlier Greek masterpieces.

The photo above shows the Acropolis of Athens—truly a "Shining City on a Hill"— as seen from atop the Areopagus, (known as Mars Hill). The word "Acropolis" combines the root words for "highest point" + "city." Although this protected and defensible location had been inhabited by humans since 4000 BC, it began to take the form we know today in the Fifth Century BC. Several of architecture's most important buildings (ever) surrounded the Parthenon—the granddaddy of architectural perfection. Mars Hill is a rocky outcropping between the Acropolis and (overlooking) the Agora (essentially the ancient town center). Saint Paul the Apostle preached from atop this rock.

  The Parthenon of Athens

The Parthenon was a temple for the goddess Athena, namesake and patron of Athens. The building was built between 447 and 438 BC, though artists continued to decorate the structure for another six years.  When the Ottomans conquered in the 1460's, they converted the temple into a mosque—later using it to store gunpowder. When the Ottomans' enemy, the Venetians, attacked in 1687, the gunpowder storehouse proved too tempting a target to pass up. The Venetians shelled the Parthenon, thus exploding a good portion of the structure. In 1800, Lord Elgin (from England) struck a deal with the Ottomans, buying a large number of sculpted pieces from the Parthenon. For three years, he removed many priceless objects and took them back to London (where they remain, in the British Museum, to this day). 

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Athens

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus is an ancient musical venue snuggled alongside the Southwest slope of the Acropolis.  It was completed in 161 AD for Herodes Atticus (a senator and aristocrat) in memory of his late wife. It was originally covered with a (very costly) wooden roof and could hold 5,000 spectators. The stage has been graced with the likes of Maria Callas, Nana Mouskouri, Luciano Pavarotti, Frank Sinatra, Elton John, Sting and Yanni—and is still used today.

"How," you may ask, "does ancient architecture have anything to do with sculpture?" One only need see the piles of hand-chiseled stonework—scattered artfully around the architectural site—to realize that ancient stone architecture is no more than individual sculptures stacked one atop another. When it comes to the decorative arts, I allow myself liberal academic concessions.

We'll continue our summer holiday tomorrow.


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