January 29, 2008

A TREASURE MADE WITH MATH AND MARBLE

By Neil Genzlinger

New York Times
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company


"Secrets of the Parthenon," Tuesday night on PBS, is no mere how-did-they-lift-those-heavy-rocks rumination. It's a condensed mathematics course, challenging you to keep up as it examines the principles and proportions the ancient Greeks used to erect that majestic building. You may fall by the wayside in the home stretch, which features a detailed analysis of the slight curve in the Parthenon's columns, but you'll still feel smarter by the program's end.

"The Parthenon, like a statue, exemplifies a certain symmetry, a certain harmony of part to part, and of part to the whole," explains Jeffrey M. Hurwit, an art historian at the University of Oregon. "There's no question that the harmony of the building, which is clearly one of its most visible characteristics, is dependent upon a certain mathematical system of proportions."

The program explores that system through the work of the Acropolis Restoration Project, which for more than 30 years has been trying to stabilize that Athenian landmark. At the Parthenon, its crowning feature, scholars are painstakingly reassembling the stones that remain into their original positions, a daunting task because the structure's seeming uniformity is an illusion.

"Although the building looks straight, they've discovered there's barely a straight line on it," the narration says. The curves are no accident, it adds; those Greek architects of 2,500 years ago knew about sightlines, proportions and optical trickery. The program's particular contribution is to detail just how the Greeks translated that knowledge into the gigantic scale of the Parthenon and how they were able to build such a complex edifice in such a relatively short time, about eight years.

The structural variations mean that the blocks of marble are not interchangeable; there is only one correct place for each, something an earlier group of restorers, at the turn of the last century, did not grasp. The current rebuilders had to start by tearing down.

The program is fascinating in its own right, but recent headlines about looted art and raided museums give it an extra resonance. It's dismaying to think how much grander still the site would be if so many pieces of the Parthenon had not been destroyed or carried off over the centuries.

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