The Acropolis of Athens

Reconstruction of the Acropolis of Athens.

In addition to the Parthenon, Pericles ordered the construction of other buildings both inside of the city of Athens and atop the Acropolis. The first major work was the Propylaea or monumental gate (located west of the Acropolis) which acted as a kind of facade for the sanctuary and was the only easy access to the rocky hill on which the Acropolis was built. All the sanctuaries of Greece had these monumental gates. The architect Menesicles was in charge of the construction of these Propylaea. An ideal reconstruction of the entire Acropolis could show the decorative value of this monumental entrance that had a pediment in its central body and two lateral wings advancing forwards. Later, during Roman times, the grand staircase and the lower access door (called in our days Beulé gate) were built.

The Propylaea of the Acropolis, ca 437 BCE.
The Beulé gate at the entrance of the Acropolis.

The general layout of the Propylaea was asymmetric. Besides the passage between columns it had two small unequal wings: one used as a pinacotheca or picture gallery which was finished, while the other wing wasn’t. The columns of the Propylaea’s facade were Doric without any sculptural decoration. But it is curious to observe how the columns inside the passage were built in the Ionic order, it was a first example of the combination of the two orders in the same building.

Temple of the wingless Victory or Nike áptera, ca. 420 BCE.

On one side of the Propylaea was built a small temple in Ionic style dedicated to the wingless Victory or Nike áptera. These small temple for the Wingless Victory had its frieze decorated with scenes from the battle of Plataea between Greeks and Persians. This temple’s balustrade was decorated with reliefs of Victories. One of these Victories is ready to get in her chariot, another is tying her sandal…

Nike tying her sandal (Acropolis Museum), one of the many reliefs that adorned the marble balustrade of the Temple of Nike Áptera.
The Erechtheum or Erechtheion, ca. 421-406 BCE.

Later, after the deaths of Pericles and Phidias, a final building was erected on the Acropolis. This building was built in order to unite in one place the old cults that didn’t have their own sanctuary. For all these minor cults the Erechtheum temple was built which stood near the place where the Old Temple used to be (the ancient predecessor of the Parthenon). The Erechtheum was built between 421 and 407 BCE in Pentelic marble and pure Ionic style, the national of Athens. In one part of this temple was the cella destined to shelter the divine marks left by the trident of Poseidon and Athena’s spear on the rock, in the other part were the two rooms for the worship of Cecrops and Erechtheus. On one side, as unique innovation, there was a beautiful porch sustained by six Caryatids or columns in form of a female figure. This porch was dedicated to Pandrosia the daughter of Cecrops. The use of the human figure as vertical support was fairly common in the Ionian Greek art (such as in front of the Treasury of Cnidus at Delphi), but wasn’t artistically accomplished until used in these figures of the Acropolis of Athens. The caryatids of the Erechtheum appeared immobile but not rigid, without bending under the weight, they rest on one leg and their arms are alongside their bodies in order to increase the column’s section.

The Porch of the Caryatids at the Erechteum, with six draped female figures (caryatids, successors of the Korai) as supporting columns.
One of the Caryatids of the Erechtheum (British Museum).

The group of bodies and colonnades of the Erechtheum contrasts with the Doric mass of the Parthenon. Crossing the Propylaea and after passing the great Athena Prómakos sculpted by Phidias, the Via Sacra of the Acropolis continued passed by the Erechtheum. The Parthenon, which was somewhat more distant, could not optically crush with its huge mass the smaller Erechtheum. In order to reach the entrance of the Parthenon it was necessary to walk all alongside the lateral façade of the temple to reach its main door which was located at the East. The Erechtheum was polychrome like all Greek temples, even gold was used in its decoration.

Other buildings of Athens from the time of Pericles were the so-called Temple of Theseus or Theseion, the Theater, and the Odeon used for music performances. The Odeon was a closed circular building with several orders of columns and areas for sitting.

Temple of Theseus or Theseion, also known as Temple of Hephaestus, ca. 450 BCE.

The sumptuous buildings were not confined to the city but were also found throughout Attica. Pericles put singular commitment in the reconstruction of the extramural sanctuary of Eleusis which was done with great magnificence. Eleusis could have been the common sanctuary of the whole Greek race after the Parthenon. This building had a square floor plan with several rows of columns, its roof was gradually rising in form of a lantern. It was designed by the architect Corebus.

Map of Piraeus showing the Hippodamian grid system of its streets.

Another initiative of Pericles was the reconstruction of the port of Piraeus and its connection to the city by a double wall. In Piraeus around 450 BCE, as in the colony founded by Athenians in Thurii near Taranto, the streets were projected in the Hippodamian grid system (so named after the ancient Greek architect and urban planner Hippodamus of Milletus who worked for Pericles) which is a grid with wide roads and a lattice of smaller secondary roads.

Corinthian capital in the Agora of Athens.
“The origin of the Corinthian Order”, illustrated in Claude Perrault’s Vitruvius (1684).

At this time (around V century BCE) the Corinthian capital must have been invented, which later came to characterize a new type of architecture. The Corinthian capital is a flared cylinder surrounded by three rows of acanthus leaves. In its angles were small volutes as a reminiscence of the Ionic order. Ancient writers attribute its invention to a great sculptor called Callimachus. In the Erechtheum was famous his great lamp in gold and bronze decorated with acanthus leaves which were protruding from the roof. A legend claimed that this artist had invented this new type of capital at Corinth. According to the legend, one day a young woman deposited a basket full of flowers on the grave of her lover and the view of that tuft of leaves and flowers above the funerary stele inspired the sculptor Callimachus the design of the new capital. From this time on the acanthus leaves with their symmetrically arranged​​ curls were found in almost all forms of decorative art in Greece.

The Acropolis (Reconstruction of the Acropolis and Areus Pagus in Athens), as imagined by the neoclassicist painter Leo von Klenze (1846, Neue Pinakothek, Munich). The artist imagined the colossal bronze statue of Athena Prómakhos as visible from far away, carrying a spear in her right hand.

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