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Parthenon Replicas — Cement or Paper?

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Τhe Parthenon doesn't just crown Athens — originally built for the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition, this full-sized replica adorns Nashville, "The Athens of the South."  
I was nine years old the first time I saw the Parthenon, a wide-eyed village kid on my first trip to the Greek capital with my adoptive parents, just before my voyage to the New World.

For me, the Greek Gods were as real as Santa Claus was for you, so you can imagine my excitement walking on the Acropolis. And not just on the Acropolis, but inside the Parthenon itself. And, hard as it might be to believe today, we also got to sit for a photo on one of its fallen columns! A white-haired photographer covered his head with a black cloth attached to the back of his 4 x 5 large format camera, and we had a photograph I treasure.

As our ship, the Queen Anna Maria, was heading out of the port of Pireaus, the Acropolis and the Parthenon floated above the sea of white that is modern Athens, as if on a cloud.

In my new home in the Midwest I really never felt that far away from the Parthenon. Sure, there were exciting models to assemble, including a home-made, simple, version of the Parthenon for a history class project; new friends to meet at a new school, never-seen-before-TV to watch, a new language to learn, but there the Parthenon always was, usually painted in a Greek plate hanging on a wall.

That is, until I visited Mrs. Alexandra. In her home, the Parthenon — an instantly-recognizable icon around the world — wasn't the familiar one on the Acropolis, but an immaculate temple, surrounded by a carpet of green.

After treating me to her tasty koulourákia cookies, the kindly Mrs. Alexandra explained that this Parthenon was in a far-away city called Nashville. Or, rather, she must have said, "Nas-ville," because the "sh" sound does not come easily to the Greek tongue. Nashville? The city might as well have been on the far side of the moon, because my aged adoptive parents had no car and did not travel. But I knew that, one day, I'd wanted to walk inside it, just as I once had on the Acropolis.

A Classical Monument to adorn "The Athens of the South"

It took me 44 years, but, on a recent Saturday, I found myself in Nashville's Centennial Park, with Mrs. Alexandra's Parthenon just around the corner. My heart starts beating faster when I see the Parthenon, looking so much like a dream, a figment of a distant childhood memory. For a moment I feel like my childhood hero, Alkis, a time-traveler in the popular 1950s "I Was There," (Ímoun Kaí Egó Ekeí) Greek children's books. It's as if Alkis and I had been magically transported to 438 B.C., when the Parthenon was erected during Greece's Golden Age. No weathered, broken, or missing columns, no looted sculptures, no roof and south colonnade destroyed by a Venetian shell.

The Nashville Parthenon is surrounded by elegant, fluted, Doric columns that stand on a three-tiered base, and high above them are found the sculptures of the so-called Western Pediment. Gods and Goddesses, chariots and horses flank Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, as she engages Poseidon, the God of the Sea, in a contest to name the city at the foot of the Acropolis. Poseidon, Mythology tells us, plunged his trident into the ground causing a spring to flow. But Athena won the day with her gift of an olive tree, giving her name to Athens (Athéna, in Greek.)

Just below the pediment, three-fluted triglyphs alternate with relief-carved metopes on a dark-red background frame the Parthenon. The dark-red is an example of the polychromy, the decoration of a Greek temple with color.

Red or not, the late afternoon light gives the Parthenon into a golden hue, and it's not until I walk up the three tiers leading to its base that I realize that this beautiful "replica" is not made of marble, or stone, but cement! Cement, so masterfully poured and and colored (see photo above).

I begin walking down the long colonnade with its 17 tapered columns, slightly bulging at the center, since the Ancient Greeks realized that a straight column would look convex to the eyes. In fact, there's not much about the Parthenon that's not what it seems: the floor of the parthenon, or stylobate, where the columns rest, curves upward towards its center — so that it will look straight to the eye. The columns bulge at the center — a feature called entasis — so they may not appear convex. And the columns that surround the Parthenon lean inwards, and would actually meet, if extended, high above the temple. These refinements and the Parthenon's Golden Mean proportion achieved a perfection never attained before or since.

As I had done on my first visit to the Acropolis, I get down on my hands and knees, close one eye, and look down the edge of the long stylobate. Sure enough, it curves!

Looking up, I notice that the famous Parthenon Frieze, that marvelous, masterful depiction of the Panethenaic Festival dedicated to Athena, is missing. It surrounded the walls of the temple, but in the early 1800s it was stripped from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin, and is now found in the British Museum. The "Parthenon Marbles," as the frieze and other priceless Parthenon sculptures are known, have long been the subject of a acrimony between Greece and the British Museum.

Does the absence of the Frieze detract from the wonder that is the Nashville Parthenon? Not at all. In fact, it's very absence makes me marvel at the Ancient Greeks commitment to art and perfection. Who else would create the masterpiece that is the Frieze — and place it so high up, right below the roof, that a scaffolding would have been necessary to appreciate its beauty?

I enter the Nashville Parthenon from an underground entrance below the East Pediment that leads to the galleries of the Nashville Art Museum — this Parthenon's other function. (The Parthenon of Athens, besides being dedicated to the "Virgin" Goddess — Parthenos, therefore Parthenon — also housed a treasury.) But the galleries of the Nashville Art Museum will have to wait, because my heart is racing and I'm running up the staircase that leads to the naós, or sanctuary, above.

In the presence of the Goddess

In antiquity, the chryselephantine — now, there's a word I never thought I would ever get to use in my blog — of the Goddess Athena stood in the Parthenon. A gold-and-ivory colossal masterpiece of the sculptor Phidias, it towered almost two-stories high, the Goddess Athena in full war panoply: three-crested helmet, spear, and snake-haired-Medusa-adorned shield. It must have struck awe — or maybe terror is a better word — in the hearts of worshippers approaching the Goddess in the dimly lit Parthenon.

The oil lamps of the ancient Parthenon have here been replaced by shafts of spotlights, but the sight of Athena is no less formidable. Surrounded by a forest of double columns and reaching to the roof, a height of 42 feet, the Goddess appears in gold helmet, dress, and shield, as she might have to Ulysses or one of her Trojan War favorite heroes.

She holds in her right hand a small stutue of Nike (the Goddess of Victory), and with her left, an immense shield, decorated with Medusa, the Gorgon who with one glance could turn men to stone. As if Medusa's snake hair weren't enough cause for fright, there's a huge golden serpent twining its coils around her spear, representing the protective and power of the Earth Goddess.

I try to take it all in, but this is such an unexpected, overwhelming sight, and so many memories flood my mind — of the glorious history of the Greece I left behind; of the photograph of me and my late adoptive parents taken 44 years ago; of the Parthenon's devastation through explosions, looting, and the loss of the statue of Athena in the mists of history; of the touching love of Classical Greece by the people of Nashville that this Parthenon represents, and my eyes mist.

If only Alkis, my time-traveler hero, and Benjamin — who, during the long construction of his Pompeian House never tired of hearing stories of Athena and the Greek Gods — could be here with me now…

A visitor provides scale for the 42-foot-high statue of the Goddess Athena, an 8-year pursuit by Nashville artist Alan LeQuire — awe-inspiring, as the famous original gold-and-ivory masterpiece by Pheidias that once adorned the Parthenon must have been. 
Can't make it to Nashville — or Greece — anytime soon? This Parthenon paper model by Paper Landmarks — one of the finest available — measures 11,4 x 5,3 x 3,5 inches and offers a view of the inner temple, complete with the Statue of Athena. 

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