(lively piano music)
Voiceover: We're looking at the Parthenon.
This is a huge marble temple to the goddess Athena.
Voiceover: We're on the top of a rocky outcropping
in the city of Athens very high up
overlooking the city,
overlooking the Aegean Sea.
Voiceover: Athens was just one of many Greek city states
and almost everyone had an acropolis.
That is had a fortified hill within its city
because these were warring states.
Voiceover: In the 5th Century
Athens was the most powerful city state
and that's the period that the Parthenon dates to.
Voiceover: This precinct became a sacred one
rather than a defensive one.
This building has had tremendous influence
not only because it becomes the symbol
of the birth of democracy,
but also because of its
extraordinary architectural refinement.
The period when this was built in the 5th century
is considered the high classical moment
and for so much of western history
we have measured our later achievements
against this perfection.
Voiceover: It's hard not to recognize
so many buildings in the west.
There's certainly an association
especially to buildings in Washington D.C.
and that's not a coincidence.
Voiceover: Because this is the birthplace of democracy
it was a limited democracy
but democracy nevertheless.
Voiceover: There was a series of reforms
in the 5th century in Athens
that allowed more and more people
to participate in the government.
Voiceover: We think that the city of Athens
had between 300 and 400,000 inhabitants
and only about 50,000 were actually considered citizens.
If you were a woman, obviously if you were a slave
you were not participating
in this democratic experiment.
Voiceover: This is a very limited idea of democracy.
Voiceover: This building is dedicated to Athena
and in fact the city itself is named after her
and of course there's a myth.
Two gods vying for the honor
of being the patron of this city.
Voiceover: Those two gods are Poseidon and Athena.
Poseidon is the god of the sea
and Athena has many aspects.
She's the goddess of wisdom,
she is associated with war.
A kind of intelligence about creating
and making things.
Voiceover: Both of these gods
gave the people of this city a gift
and then they had to choose.
Poseidon strikes a rock
and from it springs forth
the saltwater of the sea.
This had to do with the gift of naval superiority.
Voiceover: Athena offered in contrast an olive tree.
The idea of the land of prosperity, of peace.
The Atheneans chose Athena's gift.
There actually is site here on the acropolis
where the Atheneans believed
you could see the mark of the trident
from Poseidon where he struck the ground
and also the tree that Athena offered.
Voiceover: Actually the modern Greeks
have replanted an olive tree in that space.
Let's talk about the building.
It is really what we think of
when we think of a Greek temple
but the style is specific.
This is a Doric temple.
Voiceover: Although it has Ionic elements
which we'll get to.
Voiceover: The Doric features are really easy to identify.
You have massive columns with shallow broad flutes
the vertical lines.
Those columns go down directly
into the floor of the temple
which is called the stylobate
and at the top the capitals are very simple.
There's a little flare
that rises up to a simple rectangular block
called an abacus.
Just above that are triglyphs and metopes.
Voiceover: It's important to say that this
building was covered with sculpture.
There were sculpture in the metopes,
there were sculpture in the pediments
and in an unprecedented way a frieze
that ran all the way around four sides of the building
just inside this outer row of columns that we see.
Now this is an Ionic feature.
Art historians talk about how this building combines
Doric elements with Ionic elements.
Voiceover: In fact there were four Ionic columns
inside the west end of the temple.
Voiceover: When the citizens of Athens
walked up the sacred way
perhaps for religious procession or festival.
They encountered the west end
and they walked around it
either on the north or south sides
to the east and the entrance.
Right above the entrance in the sculptures of the pediment
they could see the story of Athena and Poseidon
vying to be the patron of the city of Athens.
On the frieze just inside they saw themselves
perhaps at least in one interpretation
involved in the Panathenaic Procession,
the religious procession in honor of the goddess Athena.
This was a building that you walked up to,
you walked around and inside
was this gigantic sculpture of Athena.
Voiceover: These were all sculptures that we believe
were overseen by the great sculptor Phidias
and one of my favorite parts are the metopes.
Carved with scenes that showed
the Greeks battling various enemies
either directly or metaphorically.
The Greeks battling the Amazons,
the Greeks against the Trojans,
the Lapiths against the Centaurs,
and the Gigantomachy.
The Greek gods against the titans.
Voiceover: All of these battles
signified the ascendancy of Greece
and of the Atheneans of their triumphs.
Civilization over barbarism,
rational thought over chaos.
Voiceover: You've just hit on
the very meaning of this building.
This is not the first temple to Athena on this site.
Just a little bit to the right
as we look at the east end
there was an older temple to Athena
that was destroyed when the Persians invaded.
This was a devastating blow to the Atheneans.
Voiceover: One really can't overstate the importance
of the Persian War for the Athenean mindset
that created the Parthenon.
Athens was invaded and beyond that
the Persians sacked the acropolis,
sacked the sacred site, the temples.
Destroyed the buildings.
Voiceover: They burned them down.
In fact, the Atheneans took a vow
that they would never remove the ruins
of the old temple to Athena.
Voiceover: So they would remember it forever.
Voiceover: But a generation later they did.
Voiceover: They did, well there was a piece
that was established with the Persians
and some historians think that
that allowed them to reneg on that vow
and Pericles, the leader of Athens
embarked on this enormous,
very expensive building campaign.
Voiceover: Historians believe
that he was able to fund that
because the Atheneans had become the leaders
of what is called the Delian League.
An association of Greek city states
that paid a kind of tax
to help protect Greece against Persia
but Pericles dipped into that treasury
and built this building.
Voiceover: This alliance of Greek city states,
their treasure, their tax money, their tribute
was originally located in Delos
hence the Delian League,
but Pericles managed to have that treasure
moved here to Athens
and actually housed in the acropolis.
The sculpture of Athena herself
which was made of gold and ivory
Phidias said if we need money
we can melt down the enormous amount of gold
that decorates this sculpture of Athena.
Voiceover: Since that sculpture doesn't exist any longer
we know somebody did that.
We need to imagine this building
not pristine and white
but rather brightly colored
and also a building that was used.
This was a storehouse.
It was the treasury
and so we have to imagine
that it was absolutely full of valuable stuff.
Voiceover: In fact we have records
that give us some idea of what was stored here.
We think about temples or churches or mosques
as places where you go in to worship.
That's not how Greek religion work.
There usually was an altar on the outside
where sacrifices were made
and the temple was the house of the god or goddess,
but with the Parthenon
art historians and archeologists have not been able
to locate an altar outside
so we've wondered what was this building?
One answer is it was a treasury.
Voiceover: It also functions symbolically.
It is up on this hill.
It commands this extraordinary view
from all parts of the city,
and so it was a symbol of both the city's wealth and power.
Voiceover: It's a gift to Athena.
When you make a gift to your patron goddess
you want visitors to be awed
by the image of the goddess that was inside
and of her home.
Voiceover: This isn't any goddess.
This is the goddess of wisdom
so the ability of man to understand our world
and its rules mathematically,
and then to express them in a structure like this
is absolutely appropriate.
Voiceover: Iktinos is a supreme mathematician.
I mean we know that the Greeks
even in the archaic period before this
were concerned with ideal proportions.
Voiceover: Or the sculptor Polykleitos
and his sculpture of the Doryphoros
searching for perfect proportions and harmony
and using mathematics as the basis
for thinking that through.
Voiceover: We have that here.
Voiceover: To an unbelievable degree.
Voiceover: What's extraordinary is
that it's perfection is an illusion
based on a series of subtle distortions
that actually correct for the imperfections of our sight.
That is the Greeks recognize
that human perception was itself flawed
and that they needed to adjust for it
in order to give the visual impression of perfection.
Their mathematics and their building skills
were precise enough to be able to pull this off.
Voiceover: Every stone was cut to fit precisely.
Voiceover: When we look a this building
we assume it's rectilinear,
it's full of right angles,
and in fact there's hardly a right angle in this building.
Voiceover: There's another interpretation
of these tiny deviations
that these deviations give the building
a sense of dynamism.
The sense of the organic
that otherwise it would seem static and lifeless.
The Greeks had used this idea
that art historians call entasis before
in other buildings.
For example, columns bulge toward the center.
This is not new
but the degree to which it's used here
and the subtlety in the way it's used is unprecedented.
Voiceover: For instance in those Doric columns
you can see that there's a taper
and you assume that it's a straight line
but the Greeks wanted ever so slight
a sense of the organic.
That the weight of the building was being expressed
in the bulge, the entasis of the column
about a third of the way from the bottom.
In this case every single column
bulges only 11/16th of an inch
the entire length of that column.
The way that the Greeks pulled this off
is they would bring column drums
up to the site.
They would carefully carve the base and the top
and then they would carve in between.
Voiceover: We see this slight deviation in the columns
but we also see it not only vertically
but also horizontally in the building.
Voiceover: That's right.
You assume that the stylobate,
the floor of the temple is flat but it's not.
Rain water would run off it
because the edges are lower than the center.
Voiceover: But only very, very slightly lower.
Voiceover: Across the long side of the temple
the center rises only 4 3/8 of an inch
and on the short side of the temple
on the east and the west side
the center rises only by 2 3/8 inches.
What happens is it cracks.
Our eye would naturally see a straight line
seem as if it rises up at the corners a little bit
so it seems to us to be perfectly flat.
The columns are all leaning in a little bit.
Voiceover: You would expect the columns
to be equidistant from one another
but in fact the columns on the edges
are slightly closer to one another
than the columns in the center of each side.
Voiceover: Architectural historians have hypothesized
that the reason for this
is because the column at the edge
is in the sense an orphan.
It doesn't have anything past it.
Therefore, it would seem to be less substantial.
If we could make that column
a little bit closer to the one next to it
it might compensate
and it would have an even sense of density
across the building.
Voiceover: Placing of the columns
closer together on the edges create a problem
in the levels above.
One of the rules of the Doric Order is that
there had to be a triglyph
right above the center of a column
or in between each column.
Voiceover: They also wanted the triglyphs
to be at the very edge
so one triglyph would abut against another triglyph
at the corner of the building.
If in fact you're placing your columns closer together
you can actually solve for that problem.
You can avoid the stretch of the metope
in between those triglyphs that would result,
but because the columns are placed so close together
they had the opposite problem
which is to say that the metopes
at the ends of the building would be too slender.
What Phidias has done in concert
with Iktinos and Kallikrates the architects
is to create sculptural metopes
that are widest in the center
just like the spaces between the columns
and actually the metopes themselves
gradually become thinner
as you move to the edges
so that you can't really even perceive the change
Voiceover: The general proportions of the building
can be expressed mathematically as
X equals Y times two plus one.
Across the front we see eight columns
and along the sides 17 columns.
That ratio also governs the spacing
between the columns
and its relationship to the diameter of a column.
Math is everywhere.
Voiceover: If we look at the plan of the structure
we see the exterior colonnade on all four sides.
On the east and west end
it's actually a double colonnade
and on the long sides, inside the columns
a solid masonry wall.
You can enter rooms on the east west only.
The west has a smaller room
with the four Ionic columns within it
but the east room was larger
and held the monumental sculpture of Athena.
The system that was used to create a volt
that was high enough to enclose a sculpture
that was almost 40 feet high was unique.
There was a U shape of interior columns
at two storeys.
They were Doric and they surrounded the goddess.
The sculpture is now lost
but the building is almost lost as well.
Here we come to one of the great tragedies
of western architecture.
This building survived into the 17th century
and was in pretty good shape for 2000 years
and it's only in the modern era
that it became a ruin.
Voiceover: First it was as we know
an ancient Greek temple for Athena
then it became a Greek orthodox church
then a Roman catholic church and then a mosque.
In a war between the Ottomans
who were in control of Greece
at this moment in history in the 17th century
and the Venetians.
The Venetians attacked the Parthenon,
the Ottomans used the Parthenon
to hold ammunitions, gunpowder.
Gunpowder exploded from the inside
basically ripping the guts out of the Parthenon.
Voiceover: Then to add insult to injury in the 18th century,
Lord Elgin received permission from the Turkish government
to take sculptures that had already fallen off the temple
and bring them back to England.
The [lie] and share of the great sculptures by Phidias
are now in London.
Greece recently has built a museum
just down the hill from the acropolis
specifically intended to house these sculptures
should the British ever release them.
Voiceover: Some have argued
that Elgin saved the sculptures
that would have been further damaged
had he not removed them,
but what to do about the future is uncertain.
Voiceover: At least one theory states
that this building was paid for
by plundered treasury from the Delian League
so there's a long history of contested ownership.
Voiceover: As we stand here very high up
on the acropolis overlooking the Aegean Sea,
islands beyond and mountains
on this glorious day,
I can't help but imagine standing inside
the Parthenon between those columns
which we can't do today.
Voiceover: The site is undergoing tremendous restoration.
There are cranes, the scaffolding
to maintain the ruin and not let it fall
into worst disrepair.
Voiceover: But if we could stand there
what would it feel like?
Voiceover: There is this beautiful balance
between the theoretical and the physical.
The Greeks thought about mathematics
as the way that we could understand the divine
and here it is in our world.
Voiceover: There's something about the Parthenon
that is both an offering to Athena,
the protector of Athens,
but also something that's a monument
to human beings, to the Atheneans,
to their brilliance,
and by extension I suppose in the modern era
human spirit generally.
(lively piano music)