When my husband and I visited London together for the first time many years ago, we spent hours studying the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum, concentrating on the sculptures remaining from the east pediment of the Parthenon: Helios, the sun god, rising with his horse-drawn chariot at daybreak as the draped figures, attendant upon the birth of Athena, arced over to Selene, the moon goddess descending with her chariot at the far end.
So taken were we with their realistic beauty that we purchased, through the museum shop, a life-size cast of the head of the horse of Selene, the final figure in the sequence, straining visibly against the efforts of the night’s run. Now mounted on driftwood overlooking Blue Hill Bay at my house in Maine, he presides over the watery path of the August full moon. Living with him each summer has bonded me to the Parthenon, much like those European travelers who, beginning in the 18th century, discovered classical antiquities.
To view the Parthenon’s golden-hued columns illuminated against the night sky from almost anywhere in Athens is both seductive and riveting. Even in its skeletal state from centuries of neglect, the temple is inspiring in its radiant purity, symbolic of Pericles’ victories in the 5th century b.c. that ushered in a productive peace for Athenians and the first period of self-governing democracy. As the finest example of a Doric temple, it was completed in only nine years by Callicrates and Ictinus, working under the master sculptor Phidias from 447 to 438 b.c.—an incredible feat considering the slow process today as restorers raise marble blocks on ropes in a system of cranes and pulleys. With marble from the same quarry on Mount Pentelikon, it looks as it must have in ancient times—except for the white beach umbrellas that have sprouted up to protect workers from the blazing Attic sun.
Climbing up the steep paths of the 300-foot-high Acropolis, the monumental limestone podium for an assemblage of temples, a visitor senses viscerally in the crowds how it felt to participate in the Panathenaic, the ancient ritualistic procession that celebrated Athena and her gilded statue within the Parthenon. (The name Parthenon itself refers to her “virgin chamber.”) Once through the Propylaia, the ceremonial gateway and its Doric colonnade, one approaches the Parthenon indirectly to one side, unlike the direct axes of Roman antiquity. With its majestic form translated as power architecture in myriad descendants, and as a symbol of civic unity, the Parthenon is the original iconic building (from the Greek word eikōn, meaning image).
On my first visit to the Parthenon, I looked carefully for those architectural tricks that give the structure its subtle perspective, an optical illusion of straightness: The top steps of the plinth are almost imperceptibly curved concavely, and the fluted columns of somewhat different diameters lean inwards with a slightly convex profile. I then wound my way to the east pediment, where the original of my horse’s head, one of four drawing Selene’s chariot, was lowered on May 10, 1802, under the aegis of the permit (or firman) the British ambassador, the Earl of Elgin, had received in Istanbul from Athens’s Ottoman rulers.
As I turned the southeast corner, I saw, to my astonishment, Selene’s horse’s head, like mine, his open jaw spilling over the ledge—as well as Helios’ horses rearing up and Heracles reclining at the opposite end. These casts of the originals, placed by the Greek Archaeological Service, convey how details of the sculptures would have been articulated in the searing light and deep shadows of the noonday sun.
This experience has been further enhanced since the opening five years ago of the Parthenon Gallery at the Acropolis Museum, designed by Bernard Tschumi. The museum is placed in an urban well along the Dionysious Areopagitou, the pedestrian promenade leading to the Acropolis, and its streamlined glass, steel, and concrete structure hints at the classical by delineated, “fluted” vertical side fins. The key to its handsome presence is its transparency, from the glass plaza and interior floors over visible layers of excavated ancient neighborhoods to the illuminated interiors at night.