Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Athena in Nashville

One of the great pleasures of travel of almost any kind is the discovery of the unexpected. I was in Nashville attending a conference and on my last day decided to visit what I had heard was the only full-scale replica of the Parthenon in the world. How strange that such a thing should be found in the country music capital of the world but after hearing the details of the story, perhaps you too will see the outline of a musical and artistic connection between the past of ancient Greece and present day America.

The City of Nashville first built the Parthenon to house the international art exhibition for the 1897 Centennial Exposition. Nashville’s pavilion was constructed of brick, wooden lathe and plaster and was intended to reflect the city’s reputation as the “Athens of the South.” Following the Exposition and due to popular demand, the city left the temporary structure standing in Centennial Park. (A similar event also occurred in San Francisco with the Palace of Fine Arts, which likewise was never intended to be a permanent structure.) However, by 1921 the building was crumbling to such a degree that the Park Board authorized reconstruction with more lasting materials. The commitment was made to completely replicate the original structure and by May 1931, the Parthenon was reopened to the public, attracting thousands of visitors from the United States and abroad. This version of the Parthenon remained unchanged until 1987 when a radical renovation was undertaken to completely update the facilities and add a critical missing element.

The original Parthenon replica of the Centennial Exposition did not have a duplicate of the great sculptor Phidias’ fifth century statue of Athena. This 42-foot statue, now lost in the mists of antiquity was one of the marvels of the ancient world. It was originally made of plates of ivory and gold attached to a wooden frame. Athena, born from the head of Zeus was known as the goddess of wisdom, prudent warfare and the arts.

Beginning in 1982, Nashville sculptor Alan LeQuire and a handful of assistants from around the world began the exhaustive process of studying all known references to the statue in millennia-old documents and duplicating the original as closely as possible. The resulting statue is a stunning modern interpretation of the original. Although ivory was not used in the replica, gold leaf was—and in abundance.
I could see the brilliant gold leaf of the statue through the wire fence designed to foil the ever-present pigeons but decided that before I went inside, I wanted to walk the perimeter of the Parthenon to get a feel for the dimensions of the building. I had the strangest sense that as I walked through the columns supporting the roof and exterior of the building that they sprang from the earth based on ancient algorithms that still resonate. The Greeks were convinced that there was a profound relationship between numbers, music and the shape and value of all things. The Music of the Spheres, for example, was a Greek concept based on the production of various mathematical harmonies and ratios between objects on a cosmic scale. We also know that the Parthenon was constructed on what is called the Golden Ratio, which is roughly 1.616 and that this fidelity to the math, so to speak, has the feel of both music and mass. (If you divide the length of the Parthenon by its width, for example, you will get the value of this ratio.) This is a building that was developed at the very beginning of the scientific world, as we know it today, and the power of the minds that created the Parthenon can sometimes be felt as a tangible presence. As I walked the perimeter, this power, this music created a silent symphony of anticipation.

I entered the Parthenon through the basement entrance and walked up a flight of stairs into the Naos room where Athena is housed, and into the glory of an ancient religion. The forty-two foot statute of Athena captivates you with much of the same presence that the noble statuary of Michelangelo elicits. There is a familiar sense of “churchliness” but this was no church that either you or my parents ever went to. Athena looks like a Madonna dressed for some ancient war. Lapis blue eyes stare across the centuries untouched by Christian or modern sensibilities. She is at once alien and hauntingly familiar with the gulf of 2,400 years whispering in the air. Her left hand supports a seventeen-foot shield and thirty six-foot war spear. Her power is absolute and the allegiance of the souls that she must have commanded has the hint of a cemetery silence. The five-foot marble pedestal on which she stands is decorated with bas-reliefs of the gods and goddesses present at the birth of the Goddess Pandora. Standing on top of Pandora, the symbolism of Athena practically shouts: “I am the triumph of wisdom over the adversity of circumstance. Take comfort from me, I will protect you.” Such indeed was the protector of Athens—a Goddess and a woman that men turned to in times of adversity and peril.

Copies of the Elgin Marbles, which British diplomat Sir Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin removed (some say fleeced) from the Parthenon between 1801 and 1804 are found in both the Treasury room and around the perimeter of the Naos room where Athena resides. The original Elgin Marbles are housed in the British Museum in London and were removed by Elgin after an explosion in 1687 had left these sculptural fragments of the front pediment of the Parthenon lying about the ground of the original Acropolis in Athens.

You will also want to visit the Cowan Collection, which represents such American artists as Winslow Homer and William Merritt Chase. This splendid collection is housed in the art galleries in the basement of the Parthenon and has been there since 1931, shortly after James Cowan’s death in 1930. Cowan was an art collector from Chicago who had spent his childhood in the farmlands of Tennessee and had visited the 1897 Nashville Parthenon as a boy. He saw, perhaps, an appropriate connection between the democracy and art of Greece and that of America. (It is of course well known that many of our political institutions were modeled, at least initially by our Founding Fathers, on those developed by Athens and the later political structures of Rome.) There are also many wonderful black and white photographs of the Centennial Fair of 1897, along with a wooden and working model of the construction crane that the Athenians used to erect the Parthenon. I have not seen such a working model anywhere else in the world, although I’m sure they must exist.

Walking the length of Centennial Park, I couldn’t help but reflect on my visit the previous day to the County Western Hall of Fame and Museum, which was also recently reconstructed. There, among many other wonderful artifacts, you may view Elvis’ Cadillac Limousine with its extraordinary fish scale and diamond dust paint job—a monument to a mind and lifestyle that the Greeks would have marveled at. But my most entertaining moment came as I viewed the July 7, 1971 Governor’s pardon of Merle Haggard, signed by the then Governor of California, Ronald Reagan. Haggard had been put in jail, years before his music career for bank robbery and was, I suppose, due to his contribution to County and Western Music, a role model of reform. There was, however, a curiously discordant note within the original and official copy of the pardon—one that would have horrified even the Greeks. The word constitution was misspelled.

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