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← A day in the life of an ancient Greek architect - Mark Robinson

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Showing Revision 1 created 09/14/2020 by lauren mcalpine .

  1. As dawn breaks over Athens,
    Pheidias is already late for work.
  2. The year is 432 BCE,
  3. and he’s the architekton,
    or chief builder,
  4. for the Parthenon—
    Athens’ newest and largest temple.
  5. When completed, his masterpiece will be
    an enormous shrine to the goddess Athena,
  6. and a testament to the glory
    of the Athenians.
  7. But when he arrives onsite he finds
    five epistatai, or city officials,

  8. waiting to confront him.
  9. They accuse Pheidias of embezzling gold
  10. designated for the temple’s
    sacred central statue.
  11. He has until sundown to provide
    all the temple’s expenses
  12. and account for every flake of gold—
    or face the judgement of the courts.
  13. Though he’s insulted by these
    false charges, Pheidias isn’t surprised.

  14. Pericles, the politician
    who commissioned the Parthenon,
  15. has many enemies in city government,
  16. and this project
    is somewhat controversial.
  17. The public is expecting a classic temple
    in the Doric style:
  18. simple columns supporting
    a horizontal entablature,
  19. crowned with a triangular roof.
  20. But Pheidias’ plans are far more radical
    by Athenian standards.
  21. His designs combine Doric columns
    with a sweeping Ionic frieze,
  22. hosting a vast panorama of the city’s
    Great Panathenaic festival.
  23. Not only will this sculpture show
    humans and gods side by side—
  24. something never before seen
    in a temple’s décor—
  25. it will also cost much more
    than the traditional approach.
  26. Praying to the Gods that his colleagues
    have been keeping track of their spending,
  27. Pheidias sets off to prove his innocence.
  28. First, he checks in with his architects
    Iktinos and Callicrates.

  29. Rather than using a blueprint,
  30. they pore over the syngraphai,
    or general plan,
  31. and paradeigma, a 3D model.
  32. Without an exact blueprint, the team
    often has to resolve issues in real time,
  33. guided only by careful calculation
    and their instinct for symmetry.
  34. Maintaining this symmetry
    has proven especially difficult.

  35. The Parthenon is built on a curve
    with the columns leaning slightly inwards.
  36. To project strength,
  37. and potentially keep the columns
    looking straight from a distance,
  38. the architects incorporated entasis,
    or slight bulging, in each column.
  39. For the temple’s other elements,
  40. the team calculates symmetry by employing
    relatively consistent proportions
  41. across the design.
  42. But their shifting plans require
    constant recalculations.
  43. After helping solve one such computation,
  44. Pheidias collects his colleagues’
    gold records
  45. and heads off to receive
    a special delivery.
  46. Immense marble blocks for the Parthenon’s
    pediment have just arrived

  47. from quarries at Mount Pentelikon.
  48. The usual ramps would collapse
  49. under the weight
    of these 2 to 3 ton stone blocks,
  50. so Pheidias orders the construction
    of new pulleys.
  51. After recording the additional expense

  52. and supervising
    the construction all afternoon,
  53. he finally arrives
    at the sculpture workshop.
  54. His sculptors are carving
    92 mythical scenes, or metopes,
  55. to decorate the temple.
  56. Every carving depicts fighting
    from different epic battles—
  57. each a mythical representation
    of Greece’s victory over Persia
  58. about 40 years earlier.
  59. No temple has ever used
    so many metopes before,
  60. and each scene adds to the temple’s
    ballooning expenses.
  61. Finally, Pheidias turns
    to his primary responsibility,

  62. and the focal point of the entire temple.
  63. Covered in thick layers of gold,
    minutely decorated,
  64. and towering above her worshippers,
  65. this will be a statue of the city’s
    patron and protector: Athena Parthenos.
  66. When the temple is complete,
    throngs will gather on its perimeter—
  67. offering prayers, performing sacrifices,
  68. and pouring libations
    for the goddess of wisdom.
  69. Pheidias spends the rest of the day

  70. designing finishing touches
    for the statue,
  71. and as the light fades,
    the epistatai arrive to confront him.
  72. After looming over his records,
    they look up triumphantly.
  73. Pheidias may have accounted
    for the temple’s general spending,
  74. but his records show no mention
    of the statue’s gold.
  75. At that moment, Pericles himself arrives
    to save his chief builder.

  76. The temple’s sponsor tells
    them that all the gold on the statue
  77. can be removed and weighed individually
    to prove Pheidias’ innocence.
  78. Assigning laborers to the task—
  79. and charging the officials to watch
    them late into the night—
  80. Pheidias and his patron
    leave their adversaries
  81. to the mercy of mighty Athena.