Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Parthenon 2

The Parthenon Refinements, 447-432).

The lines of the Parthenon, essentially, or apparently, verticals and horizontals, were designed by way of subtle yet significant variations from the norm, so that what appears to be straight is in fact curved, and thus the stylobate, as Pollitt points out, becomes a “subtle dome” (72) I love that notion. The dome is there, but only if you measure for it. Greeks apparently had no use for arches and domes and such, unless they were invisible. Wait for the Romans for arches and domes and such to appear, so beautifully in connection with Greek trabeation such as this.

What are we to make of these so-called refinements? Pollitt says that those “delicate variations meant that virtually every architectural member of the Parthenon had to be carved, like a jewel, to separate, minute specifications.” Does this not feel like sculpture?

I first learned, I forget where, that the Parthenon refinements actually make the lines look more uniform, straighter, more regular. That is how I taught the term entasis - the slight swelling of the column at the middle - as I pat my belly - that makes it look straight when seen from below. This is the theory proposed by Vetruvius, who knows a thing or two; apparently, without those variations the lines at those dimensions would look crooked.

Pollitt points out two more reasons for the variations, and then goes on to suggest that they all work pretty well. In addition to the compensation theory, he says that the “anti-Vitruvian” theory has it that the variations in fact make the temple stand out by way of its different lines and exaggerated optical effects.

Pollitt’s third reason for these refinements is that they are

...intentional deviations from ‘regularity’ for the purpose of creating a tension in the mind of the viewer between what he expects to see and what he actually does see. The mind looks for a regular geometric paradigm of a temple with true horizontals, right angles etc., but the eye sees a complex aggregate of curves and variant dimensions. As a result, the mind struggles to reconcile what it knows with what the eye sees, and from this struggle arises a tension and fascination which makes the structure seem vibrant, alive, and continually interesting. (Pollitt 77)

I should say how enormously grateful I feel, not just to the Parthenon, of course, but to Pollitt and others like him who have taken the trouble to point such things out to me.