1818: The Parthenon’s surviving metope and its absent counterparts

Commented by: Eleonora Vratskidou

Material description

Τhe watercolour by the architect and painter from Argostoli, Cephalonia, Gerasimos Pitzamanos or Pizzamano (1787-1825), depicts the southwest corner of the Parthenon, divested of its decorative marble panels (metopes) in 1801-1802, during Lord Elgin’s expedition, which resulted in the removal of a significant amount of architectural and other sculpture from the Athenian acropolis. Dated 1818 and never published (before 2018), the watercolour is part of an album containing samples of Pitzamanos’ work – landscape and costume drawings from his travels, watercolours and architectural engravings –, compiled by the artist towards the end of his life. The album is held today at the National Historical Museum in Athens. Along with a few oil paintings, it is the only surviving ensemble of Pitzamanos’ œuvre.

Watercolour and pencil on paper, 31,5 x 22 cm, 1818, folio 32 in the album according to Pitzamanos’ numerotation; n. 134 in Kouli, 2013.
Inscription bottom right: »Patenone [sic] d’Attene [sic] /dove Lord Elghin [sic] levò/le metope«

Short summary

Lord Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon marbles caused intense reaction among European intellectual and artistic circles. Several artists and travellers visually recorded the conspicuous emptiness of the temple’s entablatures, along with the numerous written commentaries on the topic. Pitzamanos’ watercolour is the only known visual account by a Greek observer, made three years before the Greek uprising against the Ottoman Empire. While registering what seems to be a significant loss, his image at the same time renders as abstraction the humble Turkish dwellings surrounding the temple, revealing the tensions underlying perceptions and appropriations of the multitemporal and multicultural site of the Acropolis.

Commentary

Born into a noble but impoverished family, whose Bohemian-Italian origins went back to the end of the 13th century, Gerasimos Pitzamanos lived through what was perhaps the most tormented period in the history of the Ionian Islands. After serving as military officer and engineer both in the short-lived independent Septinsular Republic (1800-1807) and under the French imperial regime (1807-1814), Pitzamanos had the chance to study painting and architecture at the illustrious French Academy in Rome from 1809 to 1817, thanks to a scholarship provided by the French administration. He returned to Corfu in 1818, the islands having been turned into a British protectorate, to be offered a position as professor of civil architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts, part of the Public School of Corfu, reformed by the newly appointed commissioner of the islands Thomas Maitland. Just before obtaining his post at the school in July 1818, Pitzamanos accompanied the second-in-command on the islands, General Frederik Adam (1784 -1853) and the British consul of Patras, John Cartwright (1787-1841), on a diplomatic journey to the Sublime Porte, though it is unclear whether Pitzamanos was invited to join them in his capacity as an artist or because of his previous military and diplomatic experience. The journey, which led them through mainland Greece and along the coast of Asia Minor to Constantinople, lasted almost five months, from March to mid-July 1818, during which time, apart from his graphic output, Pitzamanos also wrote a short travel note on the Ottoman capital (Kouli, 2013, vol. 1, pp. 40-41).

The painting, made during their passage through Athens, depicts the south-west corner of the Temple of Minerva. Pitzamanos adopts a close and almost frontal viewpoint, capturing the first four outer columns of the western end of the temple (out of the six still standing), two columns of the inner peristyle and part of the cella as well as, considerably foreshortened, the internal side of the west front columns and the upper beams adjoining the cella to the peristyles. This ravaged architectural structure is projected against an intensely bright, blue sky, unusual in other travellers’ depictions of the monument during this period. The relief representing a scene from the Centauromachy on the metope and the mutules of the geisa are the only decorative elements to animate the building. Part of the crepidoma, partially covered in vegetation, is also depicted, as well as the heaps of debris – stones, tiles, soil – in the interior of the temple.

The depiction of the architectural details of the upper part of the building is accurate despite the rough quality of the execution. The underlying pencil sketch of the monument is unfinished and, in many areas (e.g. the columns), the artist draws directly with colour. Pitzamanos’ painting is evocative of the tensions between architectural-archaeological drawing and landscape painting, evident in the rendering of the sky and the overall use of watercolour to convey shadow and atmospheric conditions.

Pitzamanos’ impressive close-up view, which in many ways anticipates early mid-century photographic views, is rather unusual among the graphic works produced during the period, which usually render broader views of the monument. A similar close view of the south-east corner, with a steep diagonal bottom-up perspective, by Giovanni Battista Lusieri (The South-east Corner of the Parthenon, Athens, 1803, watercolour, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh: https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/20528/south-east-corner-parthenon-athens) is quite different in intention: of blinding accuracy and minutiae, it creates a grandiloquent dramatic effect, in contrast to the almost jovial monumentality and unfinished character of Pitzamanos’ drawing.

In the foreground, Pitzamanos roughly sketches the humble dwellings surrounding the temple, leaving them uncoloured, in contrast to the rest of the image. The architectural structure on the left, featuring a door and three windows, is represented in a somewhat awkward relation to the temple itself (incoherence in perspective is also to be observed between the second and the third outer columns). The left-hand uncoloured structure with the two triangular surfaces (gable ends of houses?) is less easy to identify and seems to serve mainly as a surface for the added inscription in Italian (Italian being the most commonly spoken language in the Ionian Islands, which had remained under Venetian rule for over four centuries), while a faint sketch (an upright head?) is discernible on the upper part. The inscription is not simply the message conveyed by the image, but an active part of its composition. It is important to note that the verb »levare« used by Pitzamanos is rather neutral, devoid of any evaluative connotation to the described action. The power of the enunciation lies precisely in its solemn, factual character: »dove Lord Elghin [sic] levò/le metope«.

Despite the explicit intention to illustrate the place where Elgin removed the sculptures, Pitzamanos did not chose to depict the conspicuously empty eastern end of the south side, from which all seven remaining metopes were taken by Lord Elgin, as seen for instance in an illustration in John Cam Hobhouse’s travelogue Journey through Albania (1813, t. 1, p. 343: South east angle of the Parthenon), which similarly sought to record the pillaged monument. The absence of the metopes that Pitzamanos’ drawing seeks to capture is underlined or magnified by the representation of the one single metope still remaining in place among the 32 panels of the south wall, fifteen of which were taken by the British ambassador to the Sublime Porte.

This underlying tension between absence and presence is manifest elsewhere in the image. While Pitzamanos is documenting an act of severe damage to the monument manifest in the emptiness of the southern frieze, he is in his turn »defacing« the surrounding humble dwellings of the Turkish military and their families, who lived in the fortress of the Acropolis. The co-presence of two different media – pencil and watercolour – and their unequal distribution in the composition denote the co-presence of different temporal and cultural universes, inevitably instituting a hierarchical relation between them. Is this peculiar »tracing-deletion« (Kouli, 2013, vol. 2, n. 134) the conscious censure of a fervent classicist, who nonetheless cannot fully suppress his commitment to meticulous documentation? Or simply the product of the rapid conditions of its execution on the spot:  the need to finish quickly, focusing on the most essential?

The spectral structures of the foreground thematise a constant tension between documentary accuracy and idealised versions of the site with emphasis on the classical era, which tend to omit or significantly reduce any later historical constructions. This tendency is evident in artists’ and travellers’ depictions of classical monuments. The practices and politics pertaining to antiquities that were forged in the modern Greek state upon its creation in the 1830s would go into the same direction. In various contexts throughout the 19th century, the Greek state erased monuments and material remnants of the country’s own multiple pasts, Byzantine, Frankish, Venetian, and, above all, Ottoman. Starting in the 1830s, the Acropolis was the first site to be purged of its multi-ethnic and multi-temporal remnants, including Ottoman domestic, religious and mortuary architecture, in order to recreate a monumental evocation of the classical era, which would best serve the ideological agenda of the new-born state (Hamiliakis, 2008, p. 85-99).  

Bibliography

Yannis Hamilakis, The Nation and its Ruins: Antiquity, Archaeology, and National Imagination in Greece, Oxford 2007.

John Cam Hobhouse, A Journey through Albania and other Provinces of Turkey in Europe and Asia to Constantinople, during the years 1809 and 1810. 2 vols. London 1813.

Anastasia Kouli (ed.), Iππότης Γεράσιμος Πιτζαμάνος (1787-1825): Ζωγράφος και Αρχιτέκτων [The Chevalier Gerasimos Pitzamanos (1787-1825): Painter and Architect]. 2 vols., Αthens 2013.

Cite this article as:
1818: The Parthenon’s surviving metope and its absent counterparts, commted by Eleonora Vratskidou, in: Translocations. Ikonographie: Eine Sammlung kommentierter Bildquellen zu Kulturgutverlagerungen seit der Antike, https://transliconog.hypotheses.org/kommentierte-bilder-2/1818-the-parthenons-surviving-metope-and-its-absent-counterparts, published on 03.12.2019.