BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Michael Wood on… re­build­ing lost mon­u­ments Michael Wood is pro­fes­sor of pub­lic history at the Univer­sity of Manch­ester. He has pre­sented nu­mer­ous BBC se­ries and his books in­clude The Story of Eng­land (Vik­ing, 2010)

I’m hav­ing prob­lems with restora­tion just now. Not home im­prove­ments, I has­ten to add, though our old garage cer­tainly needs it! No, it’s about restor­ing his­toric build­ings. And not so much why, but how far?

Here in the UK, restora­tion is a sim­ple is­sue. We pre­serve the build­ing as it is and we hand it on. We don’t spec­u­late. In China mean­while, they just go for it. What counts is not the ac­tual fab­ric of a build­ing, but the sense of place, the mem­o­ries and sto­ries it con­jures up. A lost Song dy­nasty tower? Re­make it. The hang­ing gar­dens of Baby­lon don’t ex­ist any more? Just re­build them.

I’m just back from Athens, where they’ve taken a very dif­fer­ent path. There, re­stor­ers are still work­ing on a painstak­ing con­ser­va­tion project which be­gan way back in 1975: the par­tial restora­tion of the spec­tac­u­lar group of tem­ples on the Acrop­o­lis, cen­tring on the Parthenon. Gen­er­ally re­garded as the great­est of all Greek tem­ples, the Parthenon sur­vived un­til the 17th cen­tury. At that point, un­der Turk­ish rule, it was home to a mosque in a small town on the rock, with nar­row lanes, typ­i­cal Greek houses, and a Frank­ish tower from the Mid­dle Ages. But in 1687, a Turk­ish pow­der mag­a­zine inside the tem­ple was blown up by Vene­tian ar­tillery fire, smash­ing the build­ing and throw­ing thou­sands of pieces of mar­ble across the rock. That be­gan the slow plun­der that cul­mi­nated with Lord El­gin: looted pieces were scat­tered across eight Euro­pean cities, in­clud­ing Lon­don.

With Greek in­de­pen­dence in the 1830s came the most rad­i­cal changes in the mon­u­ment’s 2,300-year history. Now seen as the sym­bol of Greek – and west­ern – civil­i­sa­tion, the Acrop­o­lis was swept clean of all struc­tures save those of the clas­si­cal age. Thou­sands of frag­ments were re­trieved, and me­dieval bas­tions were dis­man­tled to find bro­ken sculp­ture. And so the restora­tion of the Acrop­o­lis and the Parthenon be­gan.

But its restora­tion to what, ex­actly? The clas­si­cal tem­ple? The Byzan­tine basil­ica with its bell tower? The Frank­ish church from the time of the cru­sades? Or the last in­car­na­tion: the mosque with its minaret? And even if we only fo­cus on the clas­si­cal past – which one? The Parthenon was a tem­ple to the god­dess Athena for more than 800 years. Do you go for the tem­ple built by Per­i­cles in the 440s BC? Or Hadrian’s ad­di­tions? Or Ju­lian the Apos­tate’s re­build in the AD 360s? Given all the changes over time, is it even pos­si­ble any longer to strip ev­ery­thing away to get back to the Per­i­clean build­ing?

Faced with this co­nun­drum, the Athe­nian re­stor­ers opted for Per­i­cles, but they wisely took a very lim­ited aim: re­pair the dam­age with mar­ble from the orig­i­nal quarry on Mount Pen­telicus; put back the blown-off bits (that’s 2,675 tonnes of mar­ble). Metic­u­lous and schol­arly, it is noth­ing less than a mod­ern act of piety.

But in­com­pa­ra­ble though it is, the Parthenon will still be a shell, lit­er­ally and metaphor­i­cally. The feel­ings it once evoked can only be imag­ined when you en­ter the new Acrop­o­lis Mu­seum and con­tem­plate the ar­chaic world of Athe­nian re­li­gion – the strange sac­ri­fi­cial cults, the sen­sa­tional painted vo­tive stat­ues of young women, and the great god­dess her­self, whose fes­ti­vals are rep­re­sented on the won­der­ful frieze that once adorned her tem­ple, most of which is now in the Bri­tish Mu­seum.

This is some­thing the Parthenon’s re­stor­ers did not feel was within their re­mit even to sug­gest. To save the build­ing and pass it down as a ruin was enough, and for that they de­serve our grate­ful thanks. But to get a real sense of the feel­ings it must once have in­spired, you have to visit Nash­ville, of all places. There you’ll find a full-size replica of the Parthenon, built be­tween 1920 and 1931, with a 42ft high statue of Athena shim­mer­ing in gilded robes. The ef­fect is lit­tle short of sen­sa­tional.

Every gen­er­a­tion re­stores the past as an obli­ga­tion to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions, driven in part by their own present needs, and in part by their chang­ing con­cep­tions of their history. But one day, in flick­er­ing lamp­light, to see again the Sanc­tu­ary of Artemis at Brau­ron? Or the tem­ples to Neme­sis at Rham­nous? Now that would be a restora­tion! I know what the Chi­nese would do...

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