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The Parthenon (Wonders of the World) Hardcover – February 25, 2003
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From The New Yorker
This short, lively history by a Cambridge classicist examines not only the building's construction in the fifth century B.C. but also its subsequent life as Byzantine cathedral, Ottoman mosque, and iconic ruin and tourist destination. Beard steps adroitly through such controversial matters as the ownership of the Elgin Marbles, and is happiest when teasing out contradictions in the building's history: the Parthenon as it appears today is largely the result of the depredations of Victorian archeologists bent on stripping away anything that was not from Periclean Athens, and of extensive reconstruction in the nineteen-twenties—the combined results of which would be unrecognizable to any Athenian of classical times. She suggests that the Parthenon is ultimately as much an ideal of classicism as it is an actual building, and she relishes the story of the German scholar who went to Athens early in the twentieth century but couldn't bear to visit the Parthenon, in case it didn't live up to his expectations.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
Wry and imaginative, this gem of a book deconstructs the most famous building in Western history. Beard, probably Britain's best-known classicist, elucidates...the history of the ancient building, the functions--church, mosque, barracks, ammunition dump--it has served since antiquity, and the place it has held in the European imagination in the modern era. With éclat she dashes most of what we think we know about the ancient Greeks' building: the iconic image of the Parthenon held today is the product of a terribly inaccurate reconstruction in the 1920s, a reconstruction now being painstakingly undone...Beard reveals just how alien...the classical Greeks are to us, and just how little we know about them. (Benjamin Schwarz The Atlantic 2003-04-01)
With painstaking attention to detail and a fair-minded view of centuries-old controversies, Mary Beard delivers a brief, but thorough, and surprisingly readable history of what is arguably the world's most famous building...Beard pieces together what we do know, beginning with the earliest surviving account...[She] does a fine job of storytelling...describing changes on the site from a modern tourist's perspective. (Stephen H. Morgan Boston Globe 2003-05-04)
In her brief but compendious volume [Beard] says that the more we find out about this mysterious structure, the less we know. Her book is especially valuable because it is up to date on the restoration the Parthenon has been undergoing since 1986. (Garry Wills New York Review of Books 2003-10-09)
The Parthenon is an excellent and concise guide to one of the most famous structures in the world. Mary Beard takes readers on a journey, at once historical, anthropological, and archaeological, that is both thorough and good-naturedly humorous...This book will appeal to a wide range of readers looking to learn more about the Parthenon and Greek history. And, it can be used as a guide for those visiting the Parthenon or as an armchair trip for those who can't get to Greece. (Rachel Wallace Sacramento Book Review 2010-11-15)
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Top Customer Reviews
Beard, a classicist, reminds us that we have to do a lot of guesswork about the Athenian government of the fifth century BCE, even though it looms large in our imagined history of democracy. There were rumors of financial and sexual scandal connected to the project, which was attacked as a colossal waste of money and "dressing up Athens like a whore." The temple was not for worship such as occurs in our churches and mosques (both of which, in time, the Parthenon became). It was a strongbox, a place to keep not only the valuable statue secure, but also plenty of other treasures. The friezes were attacked by Christians when it was turned into a church, and had milder defacement from the Turks when it afterward became a mosque. The temple was more or less intact, though, until 1687, when Christians blew up the gunpowder the Turks were storing there. The ruin we see now on the Acropolis is not the ruin that was left. We now see columns running between the pedimented ends of the building, but this is a reconstruction from the 1920s. To put it mildly, this restoration did not meet the current standards for historic preservation, although it was heartily approved at the time. It is not an accurate reconstruction but "a plausible fiction" made of materials that were to hand, and it inexcusably injured the ancient blocks. Current reconstruction will position them as well as current research methods can direct.
Of course the history of the Lord Elgin and his theft or rescue of the sculptures is recounted here in very fair detail. What happened to them in the twentieth century, however, shows how large a role they play in the world's affections and interest. The rich art dealer Joseph Duveen provided the new accommodation for the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum. He somehow had access to the sculptures being prepared for their new accommodation, and in 1938, the director of the museum was horrified to find that copper tools and carborundum were being used to clean the figures at Duveen's direction. Beard reports that "... heads did, discretely, roll, and 'remedial measures' (the phrase alone makes you shudder) were taken on the marbles." There was a flurry of press criticism at the time, but a scholar turned the story up only a few years ago, resulting in an angry and emotional international conference to try to get to the bottom of the events of 1938. Beard says this is only the most recent climax of "the longest-running cultural controversy in the world," the fate of the Elgin Marbles. The Parthenon may be only a ruin, but it plays a role in the world's cares beyond just being a beautiful spot for sightseers. Beard's biography of the building, erudite and vigorous, shows just why the Parthenon looms important among humanity's monuments.
Sadly, the lay-out is hopelessly traditional with strictly black and white illustrations set on separate pages from the text. Thankfully, the photos and diagrams are very well chosen. It is striking for instance to see that the Parthenon in the middle of the 19th century was actually much more of a ruin than late in the 20th century!
This enthralling book is strongly recommended to all who have even only a remote interest in Ancient Greece or archaeology.
Mary Beard's style is simple, direct and entertaining but her account of the Parthenon's history is magisterial and a most fitting tribute. There is so much we don't know about the Parthenon but she has a good go at correcting our ignorance. She reminds us that for all its classical splendor, the Parthenon actually served as a Christian place of worship for almost as long, its design and statuory "artfully" adapted for this purpose. It has been the Parthenon's fate to be "rescued" by self claimed experts acting from a range of motives, the most controversial (I prefer notorious) of whom hired workmen to hack off the best surviving pieces of the frieze and ship them off to a large shed at his country estate in England. This, of course, was Lord Elgin whose name went with the marbles when he sold them to the British Museum. But worse (almost) was to follow, another so-called art lover set the staff to clean the marbles with the equivalent of household bleach and steel wool!
In another decade or so, the restoration programme to end all restoration programmes on the Acropolis will be over. Blocks of marble which generations have puzzled over will have been hoisted back into place and collapsed columns rebuilt. The cranes will depart and we will see something splendid once more. With Mary Beard's account to inform the visitor, the experience will be truly unforgettable.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Will buy more of Mary's books as I find them.