Parsing the Parthenon (II)

In the first post in the short series, I outlined some of the Parthenon’s history, finishing up with Morosini trying to loot the structure and remove the parts back to Venice. It is good he was only successful to a limited degree in that regard, though Scottish nobleman Thomas Bruce, aka the Earl of Elgin, did a vast amount more thievery under a dubious note of permission from the Sultan, the results of which can be found in the British Museum today. It’s nice that those examples are preserved and available to view, however they are the cultural property of Greece.

The topics of vandalism and theft of Parthenon relics, not to mention from a great many other Greek historical sites is a subject which could fill many volumes. What I want to delve into with this second post though is the building itself and how it came to be understood in the West in the 1700-1900 period.


The Grand Tour.

Starting in about 1660, wealthy young Englishmen began taking a post-‘Oxbridge’ (Oxford and Cambridge Universities) trek, through (mostly) France and Italy in search of art, culture and the roots of Western civilization. With nearly unlimited funds, aristocratic connections and months (or years) to roam, they commissioned paintings, perfected their language skills and mingled with the upper crust of the Continent. The Grand Tour offered a liberal education, and the opportunity to acquire things otherwise unavailable at home, lending an air of accomplishment and prestige to the traveller. Grand Tourists would return with crates full of books, works of art, scientific instruments, and cultural artifacts – from snuff boxes and paperweights, to altars, fountains, and statuary – to be displayed in libraries, cabinets, gardens, drawing rooms, and galleries built for that purpose. “Look at me!. I’m wealthy and cultured!”

The Grand tour went as far west as Italy, and did not venture into Greece as it was under control of the Ottoman Empire, and a country that, since the destruction of the Parthenon in 1687 and the expulsion of the Venetians, largely had been closed to Europeans.  However, with an easing of diplomatic relations in the mid-eighteenth century, it became possible for an intrepid traveler to visit Greece. 

In 1751, the English architects James Stuart and Nicholas Revett announced a proposal they had conceived of several years earlier in Rome. Their intention was to systematically survey the architectural monuments of Athens in three folio volumes, with engraved plates and a descriptive text. The venture received funding from a club called the Society of the Dilletanti

For the next two years Stuart made notes and picturesque gouache paintings of the actual state of the principal monuments, and Revett did the measured drawings. After working for about two years, the political situation arising from the Ottoman occupation that had commenced in 1458 became too hot, compelling their departure in March 1753.

Upon return, Stuart set to work to write a multi-volume work on his discoveries, however he turned out to not be the most focussed individual, which frustrated many of the readers who had pre-paid a subscription to the promised volumes. He married his maid and dabbled in architectural commissions.

Finally, in 1762 out came The Antiquities of Athens: Measured and Delineated by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, Painters and ArchitectsPublished in 4 volumes and a Supplement, the second of which, coming out years after the first, described the Parthenon:

In Volume II one finds a view of the front of the Parthenon:

They took meticulous measurements of the structures and in particular showed many detailed views of the remaining carved figures decorating the structure, however they completely missed on some crucial details, like column entasis.

Europeans were familiar with column entasis from Roman examples which were themselves patterned after Greek architecture. In the case of the Parthenon the entasis was so slight on the columns that it was missed altogether by Stuart and Revett. The entasis of columns in Greek examples was not observed until 1810, by Cockerell.

It should be further noted that, up to this point in time, Roman culture and art was considered the ultimate achievement of Antiquity. Discovery of Greek classic architecture, however, was about to rock that boat.

Interestingly, a Frenchman named Julien-David Le Roy got wind of Stuart and Revett’s plan to be the first to examine ancient Greek architecture, so he determined for some reason to beat them to the punch. He was living in Rome at the time, and did not reach Athens until 1755, some time after Stuart and Revett had sailed back to England. He remained a few months, and with the help of some Capucine monks was able to survey many structures. Upon return to Paris in the same year, he set to work feverishly, wanting to get his work out ahead of Stuart and Revett.

The result was Les Ruines des Plus Beaux Monuments de la Grèce by Julien-David Le Roy, published in 1758:


Unlike Stuart and Revett, Le Roy was not interested in simply making precise measurements of structures, but was more interested in conveying the spirit of the architecture as he saw it;

Part of the south side of the Parthenon is illustrated:

On the metopes are scenes from the Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs, also known as the Centauromachy, in which the mythological Athenian king Theseus took part. Interestingly, the author added to this side a pediment as well. He was not a stickler for accuracy it seems.

Le Roy’s ‘The Parthenon: 1. Plan of the temple. 2. West side of the temple’:


On the pediment is depicted the battle of Athena with Poseidon. On the metopes the Centauromachy.

In fact, the Centauromachy is on the south side of the temple and not in the west, as the author shows.

Publication of Le Roy’s work caused quite a stir. The next year, exasperated at the delay with Stuart, Revett quit the undertaking altogether. Stuart, too, must have been annoyed that he had allowed himself to be pre-empted by his rival, a Frenchman who had not even arrived in Athens until after he had departed nearly a year before. (Even more maddening, an unauthorized version appeared in English the next year.) Critical of Le Roy’s inaccurate drawings and perfunctory observations, Stuart set about completely revising his text to refute them. Four years later, in December 1762, the first volume of The Antiquities of Athens finally appeared.

In the preface, Stuart declared that he, at least, was determined “to avoid Haste, and System, those most dangerous enemies to accuracy and fidelity, for we had frequently, with great regret, observed their bad effects in many, otherwise excellent, Works of this kind.” Railing against Le Roy, every misunderstanding and inaccuracy were itemized. There were insinuations of plagiarism and charges that descriptions had been taken from others and not made directly, as well as failures to recognize monuments for what they were (e.g., the gateway to the Roman Agora and Hadrian’s Library).

You see, pissing matches go way back.
Both Stuart’s work and Le Roy’s were hugely influential and Stuart’s work in particular had both a profound influence on the Greek Revival and ushered in an age of precision measurement of ancient architecture. In the nineteenth century especially, Stuart’s work served architects and designers as a principal source book for the Greek orders and decorative motifs.
Bringing this matter home to a US audience, I can make mention of the first person to write pattern books on architecture in the United States, namely Asher Benjamin, whose works brought architectural history, style and geometry to ordinary builders in the field. One of his most influential works is The Practical House Carpenter, published in 1843.
To quote from the Wikipedia page on Benjamin,

“The archeological sources of his designs were scrupulously cited, from the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens to the Arch of Titus in Rome. Other architects, including Ithiel Town and Ammi B. Young, freely assimilated his plans, as did innumerable carpenters. Indeed, the charm of many early New England towns owes a debt to Asher Benjamin. “

The Temple of Hephaestus in Athens was detailed in Stuart’s 3rd volume. Here’s a view of the front of that building in that text:

This is another widely admired and copied building – including, somewhat near to where I live, the Vermont State House in Montpelier.  Hephaestus, by the way, was the patron god of blacksmiths, metalworking, carpenters, craftsmen, artisans, sculptors, metallurgy, fire, and volcanoes, so if you are looking for an alternate direction in which to worship, look no further. :^)

Here is plate 4 from Benjamin’s The Practical House Carpenter, showing the Doric order on the same structure, likely an image taken directly from Stuart’s text:

It seems that The Practical House Carpenter represented a change in sentiment for Benjamin in terms of his desire to bring Grecian architecture to an American audience. From the Preface:

Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of the first volume of The Antiquities of Athens. In 1803, he appointed Benjamin Henry Latrobe as surveyor of public building in the United States, and Latrobe designed a number of important public buildings in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, including work on the United States Capitol and the Bank of Pennsylvania.

Besides the US, the Greek Revival was of course hugely influential in England, Scotland, France and Germany – even Russia.


The reader may recall from the first post that Morosini’s effort to capture Athens, resulting in the destruction of the Parthenon, was a Phyrric victory, in that a year later the Ottoman turks recaptured the city.  They retained control of Greece and surrounding territories to the east and south, consolidating what became termed the Ottoman Empire. While the Ottoman Empire lasted until 1922, Greece was not a happy participant within it. The Greek War of Independence began in 1821, and ran until independence was gained in 1832. The great powers of the day, Russia, Britain and France, naturally intervened in this war and helped the Greeks gain victory and expel the Ottoman Turks. Greece was finally recognized as an independent nation in the Treaty of Constantinople of May 1832. By agreement between the controlling powers, a new king ascended the throne, and he was…  a German, Otto, second son of Bavarian King Ludwig I. A loan of 60 million francs was also provided, with ‘conditions’, along with 3500 troops to protect him. He was still a minor when he ascended the throne. This arrangement was termed the ‘Hegemonic Constitution’. Otto spent one decade as absolute monarch introducing an expanded legislation in an effort to westernize the country without taking into account the local traditions of the country. Although King Otto tried to function as an absolute monarch, as Thomas Gallant writes, he “was neither ruthless enough to be feared, nor compassionate enough to be loved, nor competent enough to be respected.”  Otto strived to placate the controlling powers by playing them off against one another, in an effort to keep the foreign loans rolling in, and this strategy, in the end, pleased no one.

The discontent against the authoritarian pattern of his policy festered and eventually his subjects’ demands for a Constitution proved overwhelming, and in the face of an armed but bloodless insurrection Otto in 1843 granted a constitution. However he rigged the election using fraud and terror. Ah, the old playbook, eh? In 1862 he was deposed while out of the country, and died in Bavaria, still apparently usually seen wearing Greek traditional regalia, in 1867.

That brief rule by the Bavarian Otto was to have significant bearing upon academic investigations of ancient Greek antiquities. The Bavarian King appointed other Germans to important posts within the government, and his first task as king was to make a detailed archaeological and topographic survey of Athens. After a time a Hungarian, Joseph Hoffer, became the official architect of the recently founded Greek kingdom and directed and superintended, in 1836, the clearing away of  rubbish from the platform of the Parthenon. At last one could truly see the structure. And the view was unexpected, as it revealed something really surprising: curvature.

Now we reach the meat of the topic, and the very reason I became so interested in the Parthenon of late and wanted to write about it.

The phenomenon of curvature at the Parthenon was first described in Hoffer’s essay “Das Parthenon zu Athen, in seinen Hauptteilen neu gemessen” published in 1838. Hoffer’s work was apparently largely ignored in his native Hungary, despite his incredible discoveries.

The Greek refinements, as they were termed, were then more thoroughly investigated, in 1845-47, by Francis Cranmer Penrose, culminating in the publication, in 1851, of “An Investigation of the Principles of Athenian Architecture,”

Later, William Henry Goodyear brought the work of Hoffer and Penrose to a wider audience, along with critical commentary upon their theories, with his book Greek Refinements: Studies in Temperamental Architecture (1912).

Goodyear summarized the findings of Penrose and Hoffer, and noted that the publication of their works had lead to somewhat of a backlash among the followers of Neoclassical architecture:

The great astonishment of modern architects and of modern antiquarians when the purposed irregularities of Greek temple architecture were brought to light is illustrated by the long- continued incredulity with which the publications and measurements of Hoffer, and even those of Penrose, were received, and is attributable to several causes.

      First the Athenian temples had been subjected to careful examination and supposedly accurate surveys since the middle of the eighteenth century by Stuart and Revett, and then by the architects who continued their work, but the horizontal curves were not observed until more than three quarters of a century later, and even the leaning columns were not observed until 1829, when they were announced by Donaldson.

     Second, the apparently symmetrical form of the Greek temple type favored the belief that absolute symmetry of details was a natural and necessary counterpart of the general symmetry of plan and form.

    Third, the methods and practice of modern architectural design had always assumed geometrical regularity and mathematical accuracy to be the necessary and natural conditions of all “correct” architecture.

For these reasons the discovery of purposed deflections from straight lines, and of other purposed departures from strictly symmetrical arrangements, in the Greek temples was a great surprise to modern antiquarians and to modern architects. The distinguished German antiquarian Böticher (1806-89) attempted to discredit the curvatures as an intentional refinement by the theory that they were due to settlement at the angles. His theory was decisively overthrown by an examination of the Parthenon foundations which was made by Ziller. The foundation curve of the front of the temple at Corinth was also subsequently shown by Dörpfeld to have been cut in the solid rock.

Another conclusive proof is found in the joints of the platform steps, which are perpendicular whereas the blocks themselves are sloping. If settlement or pressure had caused the curve, the joints would lean outward.”

The reaction of ‘experts’ to new and challenging information leads me to wonder what the response must have been like, say, when Kepler discovered that the planets in our solar system did not orbit around the sun in perfect circular orbits, rather in elliptical orbits – – were other astronomers pissed at Kepler? Perhaps, not, because unlike certain architects and art historians, perhaps, the scientist is more likely to resonate with something Aristotle said a long time back:

“In all this they are not seeking for theories and causes to account for observed facts, but rather forcing their observations and trying to accommodate them to certain theories and opinions of their own.”
(Aristotle, On the Heavens II.13.293a)

Goodyear made another excellent point in his book, page 20, where he considers the Greek Revival architecture, defunct by his time, in light of discoveries about the nature of Greek architecture, namely the curvature:

“…the modern copies of the Greek temples are inadequate and ineffective replicas of the originals, and the most renowned modern copies were made before the most important features of these temples were known to exist. Supposing that it had been possible to reproduce these refinements, the Greek Revival (so called), in which the original Greek monuments were directly copied, dated from the last half of the eighteenth century, before the refinements had been discovered, and this revival had mainly come to an end before their existence was widely known.”

Goodyear’s work was extensive and comprehensive, however, it was published in 1912 and some discoveries have been made since then, and much academic argument has ensued with each discovery. In the interest of keeping the post length reasonable, I’ll add a 3rd post to this series in the near future, where we can look at Greek temple refinements in greater detail and see what modern scholarship has to say.

All for this time- thanks for visiting the Carpentry Way.


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