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Optical experiment eyes Parthenon mystery

Bonna Wescoat and graduate student An Jiang compare images of the original frieze to a canvas simulation. Photo by Ann Borden.

The Parthenon, one of the most important buildings in world history, has been studied for centuries, but many questions remain about the 2,500-year-old centerpiece to the Acropolis. Among them is the mystery of why an ornate frieze was located in a seemingly obscure position, high on the outside wall of the Parthenon's central chamber, and partially blocked by the surrounding colonnade.

An optical experiment, to be led by students of Emory University art historian Bonna Wescoat, will take a fresh look at the puzzle. Volunteer observers have been recruited to participate in the event, to take place on Saturday, November 10, at the Nashville Parthenon, a full-scale replica of the original building.

"We're recreating the experience of how the ancient Athenians may have viewed the frieze as they approached the Parthenon," Wescoat says. "This experiment could become a paradigm-shifting intervention in the studies of the frieze. We're bringing the science of seeing into the discussion, an important and overlooked area."

The original Parthenon, in Athens, Greece, was built to honor the goddess Athena, the patron of the city. "For complex visual and psychological reasons, it's an extremely powerful building," says Wescoat, whose research focuses on ancient Greece. "There's not a straight line in the Parthenon, every single stone in it is curved and tapered slightly. And the proportions are not the usual one-to-two, which is stable, but four-to-nine. These subtle refinements produce an energy and tension that engages the eye."

The building was elaborately painted, and outfitted with beautiful statuary and adornments, including the celebrated frieze. Wrapping around the four sides of the building, the carved marble panels depict a ceremonial procession. Now dispersed between museums in London, Paris and Athens, the frieze is considered an icon of Western art.

It has long been debated why such a refined work of art was placed in what seems like an obscure, cramped location. Scholars have surmised that viewers would have to crane their necks to glimpse the frieze, and much of its detail would be lost in the shadowy, ambient light. Some have even suggested that the frieze was not part of the original plan for the Parthenon, and may have been added as an afterthought.

Wescoat is among the doubters of that theory. Her perspective has been shaped both by her work on major archeology projects in Greece and frequent visits to the Nashville Parthenon, about a four-hour drive from Atlanta.

The Nashville Parthenon, originally built for Tennessee's 1897 Centennial Exposition, is made of concrete, not marble, and it does not include all of the original structure's ornamentations, such as the frieze. But the replica offers a vision of the Parthenon not as a ruin, but as a complete building.

"Each time I've taken students to the Nashville Parthenon, I've thought that the area where the frieze would be located is not as bad as it is made out to be," Wescoat says. "It's an intimate area. Tracking the panels with your eye, catching shifting views of them between columns, requires an effort that draws you in. You have to keep moving, just as in the procession portrayed by the frieze. The scene is both timeless and timely, an enduring visual expression of the citizens' relationship to their divine patron, Athena."

Full story at eScienceCommons »

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