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Art: Acropolis: Threat of Destruction

3 minute read

“It is dressed in the majesty of centuries,” wrote Plutarch, having gazed on the Acropolis above Athens. “It contains a living and incorruptible breath, a spirit impervious to age.” Ever since the superb temple of the Parthenon was built atop the Acropolis in the 5th century B.C., it has survived the mutations of history. Conquering Romans turned the Parthenon into a brothel; Christians made it an Orthodox church; the Turks converted it to a mosque, and then used it as a powder magazine—which exploded when hit by Venetian artillery in 1687. But nothing in the Parthenon’s history has equaled the damage done to it in the past 50 years by the ravages of air pollution.

Now UNESCO is trying to raise $15 million to save the ruin (Greece has already pledged $5 million of the total). To launch the fund-raising drive, UNESCO’s director-general, the Senegalese classicist and art historian Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow, climbed the Acropolis and issued a warning. “After resisting the onslaughts of weather and human assailants for 2,400 years,” he cried, “this magnificent monument, on which Ictinus and Phidias left the imprint of their genius, is threatened with destruction as a result of the damage which industrial civilization has increasingly inflicted on it.”

Athens’ tumultuous auto traffic, combined with the factories that have sprung up since the end of World War II, has pumped so much sulfur dioxide into the air that it is literally melting the Parthenon’s marble. In the past ten years, according to Greece’s Minister of Culture, Constantine Trypanis, the carved details on the five caryatids of the Erechtheum have seriously degenerated, while the face of the horseman on the Parthenon’s west side is all but obliterated. In addition to the pollution damage, frosts and water seepage have cracked some of the stones. Others have been split by a disastrously ignorant restoration of the Parthenon’s columns from 1913 to 1931, when iron bars were inserted in the stones as reinforcements; they soon corroded in the sea air.

Drastic problems demand drastic cures. The Greeks’ current plan is to remove all the remaining sculpture and install it in a yet unbuilt museum at the base of the Acropolis. The bare patches will be filled with fiber-glass replicas, made by the British Museum—which, thanks to Lord Elgin, already has the better part of the Parthenon’s original friezes. As for the stones, the rusty iron clamps and rods will have to be extracted and replaced in what one UNESCO expert calls “a gigantic root-canal job.” Finally there is the problem of mass tourism—3 million visitors a year shepherded round the Acropolis by yammering guides, 6 million feet setting up their cumulative (and, says UNESCO, destructive) vibrations in the stone. The only solution to that seems to be to reorganize the traffic flow by restricting tourists to a boardwalk around the monuments. The idea of a Parthenon “restored” with fiber-glass replicas, girdled by lines of tourists trudging along a viewing ramp, may be depressing, but it also may be better than no Parthenon at all.

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