If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the Parthenon looks exactly right because it's all slightly wrong. But then, few beholders realize they're being deceived.
Generally acclaimed the world's most architecturally perfect structure, the Parthenon is lopsided, bent, and bulging. No structural line in the entire temple is straight. This does not contradict Ralph Waldo Emerson, who considered it "the best gem" on earth. Nor do tour guides exaggerate when they tell you that "The Parthenon is the ideal, crystallized in Pentelic marble."
Why this paradox? The Parthenon is simply a classic triumph of trompe l'oeil. The other buildings sharing the same hill-the Acropolis-aren't exactly what they seem to be, either. Indeed, nearly everything about the Parthenon and its companion structures is uneven, including their history.
Phidias, Ictinus, Kallicrates, Mnesicles, and the other Greek artisans who began building the Parthenon in 447 B.C. knew what they were doing-or thought they did. Their careful study of perspective in the uncompromising Greek light proved that for a line to appear straight, it must actually curve (shades of Einstein!). For a floor to appear flat, it must actually bulge. If columns are to appear straight and evenly spaced, they must actually bend and be unevenly spaced. The Greeks had discovered what Oriental artists also knew by then: "perfection" is subjective.
Even a camera can be fooled. On some photographs of the Parthenon, you can take a map compass and measure the discrepancies, but you can't see them. Everything looks even and harmonious. The camera has recorded a perfect deception.
The deceptions that worked so well on the Parthenon were repeated on other Acropolis structures, and sometimes they were blatant. The Porch of the Maidens on the Erechtheion, the Ionic temple on the northern edge of the 301-foot Acropolis, for example, is absolutely nonfunctional. The Porch never had an entrance; it exists simply to balance the genuine porch on the opposite side.
Many of the buildings on that illustrious hill display unintentional imperfections. Pericles and a few other prominent Athenians are given credit for creating the Acropolis monuments, but the Acropolis construction was actually a well-attended "work-in." Plutarch recorded that every craftsperson of repute turned out to work-"carpenters, moulders, coppersmiths, stoneworkers, goldsmiths, ivory workers, painters, pattern weavers, workers in relief ... wagoners, merchants, sailors, helmsmen by sea and by land, cartwrights, teamsters, and drovers; rope-makers, flax workers, leather cutters, road makers, and miners." So many craftspeople showed up, in fact, that the Parthenon and its sisters may have had more subcontractors than the space program. A single column or cornice might have been built by a single artisan arid his apprentices. Each craftsman wanted to make his contribution a little different from the others. As a result, none of the components on the Acropolis match perfectly.
Nowadays, we admire the alabaster paleness and pure white luminosity of the Acropolis marble. But as one historian has noted, the creators of the monuments actually made them look like "painted women." They dyed the columns originally with bright yellow saffron wax and painted contrasting rings around them. Other parts of tile temples were gilded and painted bright hues of red and blue. The many statues that originally stood inside the temples had flesh-colored faces and striking eyes of gems or ivory. Time and the sun, of course, have bleached the colors away. If the marble today seems to be turning golden again, that's just the result of rusting iron particles in the marble.
Even the name "Parthenon" is inaccurate. The temple was dedicated to Athens' patron goddess, Athena Parthenos, "Athena, the Virgin." Yet the actual Parthenon, or Virgin's Chamber, was only one part of the temple, a single room at the west end of the building.
Associating the entire Acropolis with a temple dedicated to a virgin is also ironic, if not ingenuous. Excavations during the early 1900s by archaeologists, including Oscar Broneer of the American School of Classical Studies, revealed just the opposite: the annual spring fertility rites on the Acropolis were "must" events at which the gods and goddesses of wine, revelry, passion, and love were given their due respects. The homage seems to continue. To this day, on moonlit nights (when the Acropolis is open late for tourists), Greek and foreign devotees of Eros, Aphrodite, and Dionysus faithfully make their appearance.
Art historian Thomas Craven wrote that the Athenians of the classical era were "virginal only in the purity of their art." Pericles himself faced several morals charges. One involved his mistress, Aspasia. A brilliant woman, who may have written several of the orator's best speeches, she was accused of running a sporting house for Athenian intellectuals. (The sculptor Praxiteles' mistress was later brought to court on similar charges, but summarily acquitted.)
The scourges of time Guidebooks may tell you that the glorious ruins atop the Acropolis have been "ennobled" by time, but they have also been ravaged by it. Once ancient Athens' power had waned, the Acropolis was sacked regularly. Alexander the Great scarred the Parthenon's hallowed halls by hanging shields along them. Another Macedonian, Demetrius I, installed his collection of mistresses in (you guessed it) the Virgin's Chamber. The Christian emperor, Theodosius II, outlawed pagan worship and razed part of the Acropolis in A.D. 401. Justinian cut new entrances, walled up old ones, added arches, and dug up the foundations to bury bishops there. Crusaders added a campanile. Eventu¬ally, the Acropolis was hardly recognizable-but worse was on the way.
In the mid-1400s, the Turks occupied Greece. The pashas made the Parthenon a domed mosque and stocked the Erechtheion with plump harem cuties. About 200 years later, a bolt of lightning struck the Propylaea, the triumphal entryway to the Acropolis which the Turks had turned into a powder magazine. Much of it was blown to bits. The Turkish generals had to move their powder to the Parthenon when they defended the city against the Venetians. The move itself was fatal, but so was a little gossip ....
German mercenaries manned the Venetian mortars, and a rumor spread that the Germans' aim was bad. The loose talk so wounded the gunnery lieutenant's Teutonic pride that he resolved to hit the Turks' powder stores with a single shot.
He succeeded about 7 o'clock the night of September 26, 1687. An eyewitness wrote that the "powerful explosion wholly ruined the beautiful building." The walls of the Parthenon and 28 columns collapsed, bringing down three-fourths of Phidias' sculptured frieze. Not long thereafter, numerous squatters in ramshackle shacks sullied the hallowed hill.
Thomas Bruce, the seventh lord of Elgin and probably the most infamous despoiler of the Acropolis, arrived in Athens at about the beginning of the 19th century. Over a period of time, he took the best of the remaining sculpture, including an entire caryatid from the Porch of the Maidens, back to England. Fellow countryman Lord Byron called the exploit "robbery." (The fiery Byron had worked with the Greeks in their struggle for indepen-dence.)
The Elgin controversy continues to this day. Who rightfully owns the works taken from Turkish-occupied Greece? As recently as 1971, the present Lord Elgin had to publicly defend his greatgrandfather's actions. A sign now in the Acropolis museums laments that the famed "Elgin Marbles" still rest in "the sunless basements of the British Museum."
And, on nights when the Aegean wind whips over the Acropolis, a Greek may still whisper to you, "Hear that? It's the other caryatids crying for their sister."
After the expulsion of the Turks in 1833, the Greeks removed everything from the Acropolis except the structured ruins. This was the "pure" Acropolis that Herman Melville saw in 1867, shattered "like cakes of ice." Several years later, Mark Twain, not-so-innocently abroad, illegally left his ship in Piraeus Harbor and hiked to the sacred hill under cover of darkness, stealing grapes from vineyards along the way. Finally, about 3 a.m. on a summer morning, Twain saw in "the flooding moonlight ...the noblest ruins ... "
That Acropolis, too, is gone. In 1920 the Greek government began to partially reconstruct the Parthenon and its sisters. In many cases, the ruins were ennobled, not by time, but by portland cement and iron braces. Capitals were turned 180 degrees to show their best side. In the last few years, scaffolding, walkways, and railings have been installed to prevent tourists from "loving the Acropolis to death."
Today, particularly in the moonlight, the Acropolis ruins shine again as the noblest buildings built by human hands-even when you know they look exactly right because they are all slightly wrong.