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Video transcript

we're looking at the Parthenon this is a huge marble temple to the goddess Athena we're on the top of a rocky outcropping in the city of Athens very high up overlooking the city overlooking the Aegean Sea now Athens was just one of many Greek city-states and almost everyone had an Acropolis that is had a fortified hill within its city because these were warring States but in the fifth century Athens was the most powerful city-state and that's the period that the Parthenon dates to and this precinct became a sacred one rather than a defensive one this building has had tremendous influence not only because it becomes the symbol of the birth of democracy but also because of its extraordinary architectural refinement the period when this was built in the 5th century is considered the high classical moment and for so much of Western history we have measured hour later achievements against this perfection it's hard not to recognize so many buildings in the West and there's certainly an association especially two buildings in Washington DC and that's not a coincidence because this is the birthplace of democracy it was a limited democracy but democracy nevertheless there was a series of reforms in the fifth century in Athens that allowed more and more people to participate in the government we think that the city of Athens had between 300 and 400 thousand inhabitants and only about 50,000 were actually considered citizens if you're a woman obviously if you were a slave you are not participating in this democratic experiment this is a very limited idea of democracy so this building is dedicated to Athena and in fact the city itself is named after her and of course there's a myth two gods vying for the honor of being the patron of this city those two gods are Poseidon and Athena Poseidon is the god of the sea and Athena has many aspects she's the goddess of wisdom she is associated with war a kind of intelligence about creating and making things both of these gods gave the people of the city a gift and then they had to choose beside and strikes a rock and from it springs forth the salt water of the sea this had to do with a gift of naval superiority but Athena offered in contrast an olive tree the idea of the land of prosperity of peace the Athenians chose Athena's gift there actually is a site here on the Acropolis where the Athenians believed you could see the mark of the Trident from Poseidon where he struck the ground and also the tree that Athena offered actually the modern Greeks have replanted an olive tree in that space let's talk about the building it is really what we think of when we think of a Greek temple but the style is specific this is a Doric temple although it has a annika elements which we'll get to so the Doric features are really easy to identify you have massive columns with shallow broad flutes the vertical lines those columns go down directly into the floor of the temple which is called the Styla bite and at the top the Capitals are very simple there's a little flare that rises up to a simple rectangular block called an abacus and just above that our triglyphs and metope x' so it's important to say that this building was covered with sculpture there is sculpture in the meta piece they were sculpture in the pediments and in an unprecedented way a frieze that ran all the way around all four sides of the building just inside this outer row of columns that we see now this is an ionic feature so art historians talk about how this building combines Doric elements with ionic elements and in fact there were four ionic columns inside the west end of the temple when the citizens of Athens walked up the sacred way perhaps for a religious procession or festival they encountered the West End and they walked around it either on the north or south sides to the east and the entrance right above the entrance in the sculptures of the pediment they could see the story of Athena and Poseidon vying to be the patron of the city of Athens on the frieze just inside they saw themselves perhaps at least in one interpretation of involved in the Panathenaic procession the religious procession in honor of the goddess Athena and so this was a building that you walked up to you around and inside was this gigantic sculpture of Athena these were all sculptures that we believed were overseen by the great sculptor Phidias and one of my favorite parts are the meta piece carved with scenes that showed the Greeks battling various enemies either directly or metaphorically the Greeks battling the Amazons the Greeks against the Trojans the Lapiths against the centaurs and the giant imake the Greek gods against the Titans so all of these battles signified the ascendancy of Greece and of the Athenians of their triumph civilization over barbarism of rational thought over chaos and you've just hit on the very meaning of this building this is not the first temple to athena on this site just a little bit to the right as we look at the East End there was an older temple to Athena that was destroyed when the Persians invaded this was a devastating blow to the Athenians one really can't overstate the importance of the Persian War for the Athenian mindset that created the Parthenon Athens was invaded and beyond that the Persians sacked the Acropolis sacked the sacred site the temples destroyed the buildings they burn them down in fact the Athenians took a vow that they would never remove the ruins of the old temple to Athena so they would remember it forever but a generation later they did they did well there was a peace that was established with the Persians and some historians think that that allowed them to renege on that vow and Pericles the leader of Athens embarked on this enormous very expensive building campaign historians believe that he was able to fund that because the Athenians had become the leaders of what is called the Delian League an association of Greek city-states that paid a kind of tax to help protect Greece against Persia but Pericles dipped into that Treasury and built this building this alliance of Greek city-states their treasure their tax money their tribute was originally located in dillos hence the name Delian League but Pericles managed to have that treasure moved here to Athens and actually housed in the Acropolis and the sculpture of Athena herself which was made of gold and ivory Vidya said if we need money we can melt down the enormous amount of gold that decorates the sculpture of Athena and since that sculpture doesn't exist any longer we know somebody did that so we need to imagine this building not pristine and white but rather brightly colored and also a building that was used this was a storehouse it was the Treasury and so we have to imagine that it was absolutely full of valuable stuff in fact we have records that give us some idea of what was stored here we think about temples or churches or mosques as places where you go in to worship but that's not how Greek religion worked there usually was an altar on the outside where sacrifices were made and the temple was the house of the god or goddess but with a Parthenon art historians and archaeologists have not been able to locate an altar outside so we've wondered what was this building so one answer is it was a Treasury but it also functions symbolically it is up on this hill it commands this extraordinary view from all parts of the city and so it was a symbol of the city's wealth and power and it's a gift to Athena when you make a gift to your patron goddess you want visitors to be awed by the image of the goddess that was inside and of her home and this isn't any goddess this is the goddess of wisdom so the ability of man to understand our world and its rules mathematically and then to express them in a structure like this is absolutely appropriate and it DiNozzo's a supreme mathematician I mean we know that the Greeks even in the archaic period before this were concerned with ideal proportions Pythagoras or the sculptor Polly cleitus and his sculpture of the difference searching for perfect proportions and harmony and using mathematics as the basis for thinking that through and we have that here to an unbelievable degree what's extraordinary is that its perfection is an illusion based on a series of subtle distortions that actually correct for the imperfections of our sight that is the Greeks recognized that human perception was itself flawed and that they needed to adjust for in order to give the visual impression of perfection and their mathematics and their building skills were precise enough to be able to pull this off every stone was cut to fit precisely well when we look at this building we assume it's rectilinear it's full of right angles and in fact there's hardly a right angle in this building there's another interpretation of these tiny deviations that these deviations give the building a sense of dynamism the sense of the organic that otherwise it would seem static and lifeless the Greeks had used this idea that art historians call in cases before in other buildings slight adjustments for example columns bulge toward the center so this is not new but the degree to which it's used here and the subtlety in the way it's used is unprecedented well for instance in those door columns you can see that there's a taper and you assume that it's a straight line but the Greeks wanted ever so slight a sense of the organic that the weight of the building was being expressed in the Bulge the intesa of the column about a third of the way from the bottom but in this case every single column bulges only eleven sixteenths of an inch the entire length of that column the way that the Greeks pulled this off is they would bring column drums up to the site they would carefully carve the base and the top and then they would carve in-between so we see this slight deviation in the columns but we also see it not only vertically but also horizontally in the building well that's right you assume that the style about the floor of the temple is flat but it's not rain water would run off it because the edges are lower than the center but only very very slightly lower across the long side of the temple the center rises only four and three-eighths of an inch and on the short sides of the temple on the east and the west side the center rises only by two and 3/8 inches but what happens is it corrects our I would naturally see a straight line seem as if it rises up at the corners a little bit so it seems to us to be perfectly flat the columns are all leaning in the little bit and you would expect the columns to be equidistant from one another but in fact the columns on the edges are slightly closer to one another than the columns in the center of each side and architectural historians have hypothesized that the reason for this is because the column at the edge is in a sense an orphan it doesn't have anything past it and therefore it would seem to be less substantial so if we could make that column a little bit closer to the one next to it it might compensate and you would have an even sense of density across the building placing of the columns closer together and the edges created a problem in the levels above one of the rules of the Doric order is that there had to be a tri glyph right above the center of a column or in between each column but they also wanted the triglyphs to be at the very edge so one tri glyph would abut against another tri glyph at the corner of the building and if in fact you're placing your columns closer together you can actually solve for that problem you can avoid the stretch of the meta P in between those products that would result but because the columns are placed so close together they had the opposite problem which is to say that the meta piece at the ends of the building would be too slender so what Phidias has done in concert with ICTA notes and kalak ratings the architects is to create sculptural meta peas that are widest in the center just like the spaces between the columns and actually the meta peas themselves gradually become thinner as you move to the edges so that you can't really even perceive the change without measuring and the general proportions of the building can be expressed mathematically as x equals y times 2 plus 1 so across the front we see 8 columns and along the sides 17 columns that ratio also governs the spacing between the columns and its relationship to the diameter of a column math is everywhere we look at a plan of the structure we see the exterior colonnade on all four sides on the east and west end it's actually a double colonnade and on the long sides inside the columns a solid masonry wall you can enter rooms on the east and west only the West has a smaller room with the four ionic columns within it but the East Room was larger and held them monumental sculpture of Athena it's interesting the system that was used to create a vault that was high enough to enclose a sculpture that was almost 40 feet high was unique there was a huge a interior columns at two stories they were Doric and they surrounded the goddess the sculpture is now lost but the building is almost lost as well here we come to one of the great tragedies of Western architecture this building survived into the 17th century it was in pretty good shape for 2,000 years and it's only in the modern era that it became a ruin first it was as we know an ancient Greek temple for Athena then it became a Greek Orthodox Church then a Roman Catholic Church and then a mosque in war between the Ottomans who were in control of Greece at this moment in history in the 17th century and the Venetians the Venetians attacked the Parthenon the Ottomans used the Parthenon to hold munitions gunpowder gunpowder exploded from the inside basically ripping the guts out of the Parthenon and then to add insult to injury in 18th century Lord Elgin received permission from the Turkish government to take sculptures that had already fallen off the temple and bring them back to England and the lion's share of the great sculptures by Phidias are now in London Greece recently has built a museum just down the hill from the Acropolis specifically intended to house these sculptures should the British ever release them some have argued that Elgin saved the sculptures that would have been further damaged had he not removed them but what to do about the futures uncertain and at least one theory states that this building was paid for by plunder Treasury from the Delian League so there's a long history of contested ownership so as we stand here very high up on the Acropolis overlooking the Aegean Sea Islands beyond and mountains on this glorious day I can't help but imagine standing inside the Parthenon between those columns which we can't do today the site is undergoing tremendous restoration there are cranes the scaffolding to maintain the ruin and not let it fall into worse disrepair but if we could stand there what would it feel like there is this beautiful balance between the theoretical and the physical the Greeks thought about mathematics is the way that we could understand the divine and here it is in our world there's something about the Parthenon that is both an offering to Athena the protector of Athens but also something that's a monument to human beings to the Athenians to their brilliance and by extension I suppose in the modern era human spirit generally