The Study of Greek Sculpture in the Twenty-First Century1

By Ridgway, Brunilde Sismondo | Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, March 2005 | Go to article overview

The Study of Greek Sculpture in the Twenty-First Century1


Ridgway, Brunilde Sismondo, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society


UNTIL FAIRLY RECENTLY-and to some extent even today-our study of Greek sculpture has followed guidelines that were established in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, primarily by such pioneers as Johann Joachim Winkelmann and Adolf Furtwangler. We assumed a linear stylistic development through time, with peaks in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. followed by decline. We firmly believed in the superiority of Greek over Roman sculpture; the latter was considered imitative but helpful because it copied Greek creations by major masters now lost to us, which could then be reconstructed through discriminating analysis of these Roman replicas. And we trusted ancient literary sources, although written at a great remove in time from the persons and monuments they cited.

Recently this situation has begun to change, thanks largely to historiography and to a new understanding of the Roman copies. I am fully aware that some scholars have not totally embraced such changes, or even reject them outright. I can only offer here my specific point of view and, for lack of time, ask that my word be taken for it, without thorough demonstration of each point. At the end, I shall recapitulate what I consider the most significant shifts in our thinking, but I should warn that I speak as an archaeologist, not as an art historian, although my topic concerns Greek art.

When Nashville, Tennessee, is mentioned, it usually brings about thoughts of the Grand Ole Opry; to me the name recalls the Parthenon, or rather the most accurate modern replica of the Athenian temple, built in the 1920s in consultation with a member of this Society, William Bell Dinsmoor, the great historian of Greek architecture. I was his student in Greece in the 1950s and often heard him speak with pride of the accuracy of measurements in the interior of the Nashville cella, which he had designed. Some thirty years later, in the 1980s, I in turn was one of the consultants for the colossal statue of Athena Parthenos-Pheidias' gold-and-ivory masterpiece that Alan LeQuire, a local sculptor, had been commissioned to recreate. Officially displayed to the public on 20 May 1990, but still lacking its gold coating, the image could finally appear in all its luminous splendor on 5 September 2002.2

Now you might think that if the new approach to the study of Greek sculpture is to create artificial theme parks, the situation has definitely changed for the worse. Yet the Nashville Athena Parthenos has taught us a great deal. None of the great chryselephantine colossi from antiquity has survived, and it is difficult for us to visualize something at this enormous scale. Just to give an example, the much smaller Nike figure alighting on Athena's hand is considerably taller than life-size; yet from the floor it looks almost like a homing bird easily coming to rest on a human hand. It is hardly visible for detailed inspection. By contrast, the great shield, standing roughly at eye level, could and did have its many motifs sketched and reproduced in later times. An understanding of the image's visibility, greater or lesser, is only one of the acquisitions we have made through this reconstruction.

Granted that no amount of research could fully recover the appearance of the Pheidian sculpture, the proportions of the base and of the statue itself, carefully worked out on the basis of ancient evidence, closely approximate the original. The tripartite composition, when completed, proved to harmonize perfectly with the surrounding colonnade and to fill the interior of the cella with a presence that is both awesome and overwhelming. It proclaims the dominance of size and especially of the exotic and rich materials-the ivory, the gold-over elements of style; indeed, Pheidias was praised for rendering the majesty of the gods, not for his personal manner. It makes us understand the fame that could accrue in antiquity to its maker, who was also the master of the Olympia Zeus and other chryselephantine statues. …

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