Sunday, July 6, 2014

Crikey! I've Lost My Marbles

Sculpture showing Athena's immaculate conception 
The head of a horse from the chariot of Greek moon-Goddess Selene

A Lapith and a Centaur battle it out. The Centaurs, mythological creatures that are half-horse, half-human have crashed the Lapiths' party, drunk too much wine and want to have their way with the Lapiths' women. The fight symbolizes the Athenians' struggle to keep out the barbarians at the gates.

What better way to spend a rainy June afternoon than to wander through the halls of the British Museum, taking in 2500 year-old scenes, real and mythical, immortalized in marble? I'm looking at the Elgin Marbles, Greek sculpture pilfered by Lord Elgin from the Parthenon temple in Athens around 1800, sculpture that has been the template for all sculpture since, from the ancient Romans (who assiduously reproduced these Greek forms) to the Renaissance-era artist Michelangelo and even to the French Rodin, in the early 20th Century. 

The folds in the garments of Greek Goddesses, the sinews in the muscular bodies of their heroes and the bulging eyes and flared nostrils of their beasts depict a beauty and fluidity of form that had not been seen till then (the Egyptian statues next door, grand they may be, are positively stoic). It is as if a moment in space-time has been frozen and reproduced in 3D. If I were to even try and make a copy of these Greek classics today, I would need a combination of high-resolution 3D scanning, 3D computer animation and graphics software (of the sort used by Hollywood studios), and high energy, computer-aided laser cutting. With all this 21st Century wizardry at my command, I would possibly still end up with a result that looks worse than what the Greeks managed with their imagination, their bare hands and a few basic tools.

One of the main advantages of living in Leuven is that London is just 2 hours away. If you're feeling the need for a history lesson, are running short on spices, or craving some high-quality Indian food, popping across the channel for a whirlwind, weekend visit is very do-able. It takes about the same time as driving the 100 km from central Melbourne to Geelong in peak hour, and I know of people who do that commute every day.

My 21st Century chariot at King's Cross station, London

And so it was this last Friday evening, needing to re-stock my larder and desiring a museum-fix (specifically a British museum fix), that I boarded the Eurostar from Brussels. Soon, my 21st Century 300 km/hr chariot, pulled by a fire-breathing, red-nostrilled mare was tearing through the patchwork of multi-hued green farmland to the west of Brussels. Heading in a south-westerly direction, the train screams through the French countryside, stops briefly at Lille and Calais in France, before diving underground and then under the Channel through a 38-km long tunnel that at its deepest, runs 75 metres under the seabed. I remember reading with great excitement, as a 10-year old in India, about the construction of this tunnel that would connect England and France, and the high-speed, bullet-nosed trains that would run through it. And here I am, 20-something years later, riding along in just such a train, 10s of metres under the English Channel with a barely-perceptible, low-frequency rocking motion the only reminder of my Grande Vitesse locomotion. 

The British Museum

The Parthenon, snapped during a previous visit to Athens, in a state of perpetual restoration (the scaffoldings have apparently been up since the 70s)

A model of the Acropolis, the Athenian city on the hill, with the Parthenon occupying centre-stage

So back to those marbles. The sculptures originally adorned the outer walls of the Parthenon, an Athenian temple built around 450 B.C., occupying centre-stage in the Acropolis, a citadel-city overlooking Athens. The Parthenon, with its Doric columns supporting a horizontal entablature, surmounted by a triangular pediment filled with sculptures, is the progenitor of most modern architecture. The British Museum itself, built in the neo-classical style, like numerous other buildings in the British capital (and other capitals around the world) borrows liberally from this Greek design from antiquity. 

Friezes, meteopes and pediments, the anatomy of a Greek temple, and indeed elements of the neo-classical architecture that styles important public buildings in most capitals around the world today

The Elgin marbles decorated the frieze and metopes in the horizontal entablature resting on the Doric columns of the temple and were embedded in the triangular pediment on top of the frieze. 56 relief panels from the frieze currently adorn the climate-controlled walls of room 18 at the museum and present a running commentary on Athenians, old and young, and their beasts of burden as they marched through the streets of their city during their quadrennial Panathenaic procession to present a newly woven robe to their beloved Goddess Athena at the temple in Acropolis. 

56 relief panels present a running commentary on the Panathenaic Way
These sculptures, perhaps the pinnacle of Greek craftsmanship, muse to 600 generations of artists, sculptors and architects are celebrated as works of art today, but back then, they were mere adornments on the exterior walls of the Parthenon, a side-show to the star inside. 

An Athenian entering the temple would've noticed (perhaps cursorily) these multi-coloured (there is some evidence of them being painted) depictions of Greek Gods and heroes some 10 metres above her head, but her attention would have been attracted to the object of her devotion, a massive, 36 metre tall, gold and ivory statue of the Goddess Athena inside the temple, removed later by the Romans and subsequently lost.

The sculptures on the frieze 10 m above the ground would have barely been registered by a devotee entering the temple
G'day, Bruce! And thanks for nicking those marbles.
It is only when we view these sculptures in isolation, at ground, and more importantly eye-level, that we really appreciate their full worth as works of art. And for this, we have to thank Thomas Bruce aka Lord Elgin, then British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (Greece was ruled by the Ottoman Turks in the early 1800s). Elgin took it upon himself to rescue these works of art and expended 80,000 pounds of his own money (about 4 million in today's sterling) in spiriting away these priceless treasures, and it is thanks to his far-sighted pilfering that we are able to see these sculptures in their current form today. The Greeks keep complaining about the loss of their national treasure (and rightfully so), but the truth of the matter is that these marbles have lasted far better than the ones remaining at the Parthenon.

Whether or not these ancient treasures, and others like it are better off at their original sites, or in a museum where people like me can see them in wonderfully curated and explained exhibits, all under the one roof, continues to be a point of debate. 

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