MICHAEL WOOD’S VIEW W
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...