April 05: the Antiquities of Athens

2016/04/05 § Leave a comment

During this month in 1748 a group of British artists traveling in Naples cooked up a scheme to study the ancient ruins of Athens and publish their findings.

Among them was an architect who was also a scholar of Latin and Greek (imagine that!) named James Stuart (1713-88).  With his friend, artist/architect Nicholas Revett (1720-1804), he circulated a proposal to “publish an accurate Description of the Antiquities of Athens.”  Members of the Society of Dilettante decided to support the venture, and the pair finally arrived in Greece 18 March 1751.  They set about rendering evocative images of what they saw and took scrupulous measurements to reconstruct the exacting details of the Greek monuments.  After working  for about two years, the political situation arising from the Ottoman occupation that had commenced in 1458 became too hot, compelling their departure in March 1753.  (Architecture students following in their footsteps on their own Grand Tours would be well to keep in perspective: your lost luggage is a bummer, but at least Turkish spies are not trying to kill you.)

Almost a decade later, the fruits of their work began to appear in the first installment of The Antiquities of Athens, published in four volumes between 1762 and 1794.  The big pages of finely detailed drawings included images (like the one above) that showed Athens as it was: in this case, the ruined Parthenon with a mosque built inside its roofless peristyle.  But of greatest use to architects was the collection of reconstructed drawings like this facade of the same temple, and other large-scale details that made the recreation of Grecian motifs and details possible in modern architecture.

The books had immediate and far-reaching impact.  The first volume included some of the smaller and more unusual monuments, like the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, which would eventually appear on a number of buildings as a Grecian stand-in for a cupola.  (William Strickland was particularly fond of the motif, which he used in Philadelphia and Nashville.)  It was the last tome that included the most famous of Athenian landmarks, including the Parthenon.  It paved the way for the large-scale adoptions of temple fronts in northern Europe and the United States, where Greek architecture was soon adopted for its relationship with the birthplace of democracy to shape the architectural identity of the new nation (as with this additional Strickland).  Even as interest in literal adoptions of Greek architecture waned, the books remained in print through the nineteenth century; their recent revival through a new publishing venture reveals the true lasting significance of the work completed by Stuart and Revett almost three centuries ago.  Clio imagines a well-worn first edition on the drafting tables of contemporary firms like this one, whose work makes her weak in the knees.

Leafing through the Antiquities reminds Clio of all kinds of good times, and she wonders why you don’t leaf through it more often as well?  It’s pretty regularly available on the auction circuit, and you don’t even have to sell your car to afford this fine edition by the fine folks at the ICA.

Image: The Parthenon, as they found it

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