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The Acropolis Through Its Museum: Wandering Among the Monuments of the Sacred Rock and the Great Achievements

July 2014 (118.3)

Book Review

The Acropolis Through Its Museum: Wandering Among the Monuments of the Sacred Rock and the Great Achievements

By Panos Valavanis. Translated by Alexandra Doumas. Pp. 159, figs. 210. Kapon Editions, Athens 2013. Price not available. ISBN 978-960-6878-61-9 (paper).

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Do not be fooled by the title of this book or its popular design. This is no mere colorful exhibition guide of the new Acropolis Museum. It is a fabulous overview not only of the Athenian Acropolis and its museum but a timely and accessible account of the discoveries beneath the museum as well as those on the slopes of the citadel. The great strength of this volume is that it was penned by a scholar who intimately knows the history, topography, and monuments of Athens. The quality of the illustrations, photographs, and line drawings is stunning, and the volume is destined to be heavily scanned by anyone teaching the art, architecture, and archaeology of the Acropolis and its surrounds.

In a few succinct paragraphs, Valavanis sets the topographical stage by defining the fortified enceinte of the classical city and its various gates, as well as discussing the thorny issue of the population of the classical city. There is a brief paragraph (11) on the spelling/pronunciation of Athenà vs. Athéna—as in the goddess and the city—and the fact that every time the Athenians pronounced the name of their city it was as if they pronounced the name of their goddess, and vice versa. There is a summary of the important remains at the site on which the Acropolis Museum now stands: streets, houses, workshops, wells, cisterns, bathhouses, and graves. A nice touch is that a third-century B.C.E. engainion—the sacrifice made during the laying of the foundations of an ancient house in this area—now serves as the modern engainion of the new museum.

Much of the beginning of the book is devoted to the remains found on the slopes of the citadel (18–33). In addition to the Early Iron Age burials on the south slope, there is an account of the houses and minor sanctuaries in the adjacent area. These begin with the prehistoric remains (Neolithic and Bronze Age) and extend to the later Roman period, including the shrine in the house/school of Proklos and the Early Roman terracotta Nikai, represented as if landing on the roof of a building. There are summaries of the Sanctuary of the Nymphe, the Asklepieion, and the Sanctuary and Theater of Dionysos.

Having ascended the rock, it is the Acropolis that forms the focus for the rest of the book. There are basic facts briefly noted here that are hard to come by in more specialized studies, such as the precise height and surface of the rock. The account begins with the prehistoric period and the fortified Cyclopean walls. There is discussion of the mythology of the citadel and of the scant remains of an early temple, dating between 660 and 600 B.C.E., on the site of the Mycenaean palace, represented by the bronze cutout, in the form of a wheel, decorated with a full-body figure of the Gorgon (34–7). This is followed by a succinct yet engaging overview of the archaic Acropolis (38–55). All the high notes are hit, with wonderful illustrations of the small pediment depicting the apotheosis of Herakles, the pediment with the “three-bodied daemon,” known in my student days as “Bluebeard.” Athena is there in all her glory, striking terror into the hearts of the giants on the pediment of the Archaios Neos. There is a judicious selection of the archaic sculptural dedications, all illustrated with stunning new photography: the Moschophoros, the votive sphinx with well-preserved traces of color, the stele of the potter holding his kylikes, and the enigmatic “scribe” or “treasurer,” who may well represent a vase painter at work. The marble horses and horsemen are there, including the “Rampin rider,” whose head (in Paris) and body (in Athens) were reunited by the great Humphrey Payne, and the horseman with the colored Persian-style trousers, the anaxyrides, and, of course, the korai, whom Panagis Kavvadias had the good fortune of uncovering in early February of 1886. The Peplos kore—as she is, and as she has been restored—together with Acropolis 675, 680, 681, 682, 685, and the heads of 643 and 696, delight the eye. And this is followed by an account of the Acropolis during the Persian Wars (56–7), together with works in the Severe Style, including the Kritios Boy and Blonde Boy, the Mourning Athena, the bronze head of a bearded warrior, and the magnificent bronze lamp in the form of a warship found in the Erechtheion (58–61).

The classical Acropolis is appropriately introduced with Korres’ graphic reconstruction of the monuments from the northwest (62–3). The dates and primary characteristics of the main buildings are enumerated, and the more detailed accounts are prefaced by the lesser-known and lesser-studied buildings: the Sanctuary of Artemis Brauronia, the Chalkotheke, the open-air sanctuary of the mythical Pandion, the Sanctuary of Zeus Polieus, and the Arrhephoreion. Dating to Hellenistic times are the honorific pedestals, topped by four-horse chariots, erected by the city in honor of Eumenes II and Attalos II. And finally, the most notable of the Roman monuments, the small circular monopteral temple dedicated to Roma and Augustus. Preliminaries aside, we proceed to the big four: the Mnesykleian Propylaia (68–73), the small Temple of Athena (or Wingless) Nike (74–80), the Erechtheion (81–9), an intermission reviewing the Greek and Roman ex-votos on the Acropolis (90–3), and the Parthenon as finale (94–159).

If you think you have all the illustrations you need to teach the Acropolis to undergraduates, think again. The Propylaia are introduced with Connolly’s wonderful reconstruction painting, with plans and drawings by Tanoulas, additional watercolors by Travlos and Connolly, and new photography. In the case of the Temple of Athena Nike, we move from the reconstructed building in situ to the sculptures in the museum and back again (these are the best illustrations of the frieze and the parapet I know of). For the Erechtheion, in addition to the spectacular photographs of the building and the Karyatids, there are watercolor and line reconstructions by Connolly and Korres, a plan by Travlos, and even a legible transcription of one of the building inscriptions of the Erechtheion. Among the sculptural dedications in the round, there are new photographs of Prokne and Itys, a Roman copy of Miltiades from Delphi, a youthful portrait of Alexander the Great, the stunning acrolithic head of a goddess with “tears,” due to the oxidization of her bronze eyelids (perhaps Aphrodite), and the portrait bust of a barbarian ruler from the Theater of Dionysos. Of the reliefs, the selection is equally judicious: the trireme relief (Paralos), the reliefs of the pyrrhichos dance and the apobates from the Panathenaia, and finally the second- or third-century C.E. marble sphere with the god Helios and magical symbols found in the Theater of Dionysos.

Valavanis’ summary of the Parthenon is not only highly readable but also balanced and erudite. The historical and political context of the building is reviewed and its architectural features are described and discussed, as are its sculpted decorations: the metopes, the frieze, and its artistic and political underpinnings. The coloration of the sculptures is discussed before moving on to the pediments. There are full reconstructions of both pediments that will serve students and teachers well. The akroteria of the Parthenon are included, as is the cult statue, and a final section deals with the ideology and politics of the Acropolis monuments. As someone who has pored over these monuments for lengthy periods of time, I found myself fixated, enjoying details I had overlooked, and the lighting in photographs picks out aspects that may be difficult to glean when visiting the museum. In looking at the frieze, metopes, and pediments, I found myself longing for the opportunity to see all the extant sculptures together even for a brief moment in time.

This book is well written—in part a product of Doumas’ first-class English translation—well structured, richly illustrated, and beautifully conceived. I will certainly be recommending it to both undergraduates and graduates as the first thing they have to read about the Acropolis and Athens. This is not a slight to the many compelling books on the subject that are available. It is, rather, praise to Valavanis for putting together such a wonderful introductory textbook.

John K. Papadopoulos
Department of Classics
Cotsen Institute of Archaeology
University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California 90095-1510

Book Review of The Acropolis Through Its Museum: Wandering Among the Monuments of the Sacred Rock and the Great Achievements, by Panos Valavanis, translated by Alexandra Doumas

Reviewed by John K. Papadopoulos

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 118, No. 3 (July 2014)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1183.Papadopoulos

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