Not​ many artists merit an exhibition where none of their work is on display. But for the masters of classical Greece there is little choice: most of their paintings and sculptures have been lost or destroyed and what we know of them comes from the descriptions and copies of later generations. Fidia, at the Capitoline Museums in Rome until 5 May, is the first exhibition dedicated to the Athenian sculptor Phidias, celebrated in his lifetime for the statue of Zeus at Olympia but best known today for his work on the Acropolis.

We know that he was born in Athens around 500 BC and was still active in the late 430s. We can’t be sure what he looked like, though there are some possibilities on display: a marble bust, discovered just outside Rome, of a bald man with a deeply creased brow, is labelled ‘Portrait of Phidias (?)’, as is a small bronze statuette, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum, of a similar looking man with a potbelly under his artisan’s tunic. The only piece in the show that was definitely touched by Phidias’ hand is a simple, broken drinking vessel. Scratched on the base in Greek are the words: ‘I belong to Phidias.’ It seems almost too good to be true, the sort of confirmation that typically eludes archaeological investigation and elevates an otherwise mundane item through its association with a famous figure.

Phidias’ childhood and teenage years would have been defined by the Persian invasions of Greece at the start of the fifth century, culminating in the sack of Athens in 480 BC. The following year, the allied Greek cities defeated Persia. Athens came to dominate the Aegean Sea. The exhibition includes busts representing Themistocles and Pericles, the two most powerful statesmen in this age of Athenian ascendancy. As Athens’ star rose, so did Phidias’, though his close association with its most famous citizen, Pericles, was to prove a liability as well as a blessing.

Also on display are the earliest known sculptures thought to derive from an original by Phidias: three similar, though not identical, marble heads of Apollo. All were discovered in Italy and date to between the first and second centuries AD, more than five hundred years after Phidias. In total, there are 25 Roman-era heads from across the Mediterranean that are thought to be copies of Phidias’ Apollo Parnopios (Parnopios means ‘locust killer’, after a story in which Apollo drove a locust plague from Attica).

Head of Apollo (c.120 AD), after Phidias

Head of Apollo (c.120 AD), after Phidias

The attempt to recover the appearance of lost classical statues by examining and comparing later versions originated in 19th-century Germany, where it was known as Kopienkritik. Scholars now avoid using the word ‘copy’ when referring to these Roman statues, and rightly so: they are no slavish facsimiles. But they do offer insights into Phidias’ work. The Capitoline curators use them to help visitors understand what a number of his most famous pieces would have looked like, allowing us to appreciate his distinctively idealised (rather than naturalistic) approach to the human form.

Phidias worked mainly in Athens, and, as Plutarch tells us, between 447 and 438 on the new temple of Athena on the Acropolis. The Parthenon was not the largest Greek temple but it was one of the most refined and certainly the most ornamented. Its two pediments were crowded with sculptures, 92 metopes showing mythological battles surrounded its exterior and a continual frieze depicting a mounted procession ran around the central chamber. Even on completion it was recognised as the classical temple par excellence, an emblem of the Athenian Empire.

The Parthenon was Pericles’ great project. Phidias’ role in its construction isn’t clear; Plutarch says that the architects were Callicrates and Ictinus. Phidias is sometimes cast as a works supervisor, project manager or, as the Capitoline exhibition has it, ‘artistic director’. But it’s impossible to know which elements he ‘directed’, let alone whether he carved any of it himself.

Most of the temple’s sculpture is now housed in Athens and London and doesn’t usually travel for exhibitions elsewhere. The curators at the Capitoline have managed to secure two small fragments from Vienna and two from Athens, though these have had their faces chiselled off. This scant offering hardly conveys the brilliance of the sculptural decoration, but the story of the monument is well told and its appearance illustrated by models, a video installation and antiquarian documents.

The more recent history of the Parthenon is portrayed primarily through drawings, engravings, documents and paintings. The bombardment of the Acropolis by the Venetians in 1687 is illustrated in Francesco Fanelli’s Atene Attica (1707); James Stuart and Nicholas Revett describe the dilapidated state of the temple in their Antiquities of Athens (1787); and William Gell captures in watercolour the removal of sculptures by Lord Elgin’s agents in 1801. Alongside these records are the earliest known drawings of the monument, from the 1440s, by the Italian humanist Ciriaco d’Ancona, and, two hundred years later, by the French draughtsman Jacques Carrey.

The only element of the Parthenon that we know was designed by Phidias is lost: the colossal statue of Athena Parthenos, which stood in the inner sanctum. Over a core of (probably) cypress wood, Phidias used ivory (elephas) panels for the skin and gold (chrysos) for the clothing, a combination known as chryselephantine. Again, an idea of the statue’s appearance can be gleaned from textual descriptions and smaller imitations. Fragments from a number of Roman versions are included in the exhibition: a head from the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen and another from Dresden; a small statuette from Athens; and a marble shield loaned by the British Museum, which shows the attempted storming of Athens by the Amazons and its defence by Theseus.

Marble copy of the shield of Athena from the Parthenon (c.200 AD)

Marble copy of the shield of Athena from the Parthenon (c.200 AD)

Phidias’ friendship with Pericles probably secured him a role in the construction of the Parthenon; it also drew the enmity of others. According to Plutarch’s Life of Pericles, Phidias was accused of procuring women for his friend and appropriating gold from the statue of Athena. More than embezzlement, this would have been an act of sacrilege, but the charges didn’t stick. Phidias’ detractors finally got him on charges of impiety, alleging that he had sculpted portraits of himself and Pericles as two of the figures depicted on Athena’s shield. Plutarch reports that Phidias died in prison, either from disease or poison, but this seems doubtful. He was probably sent into exile: it was around this time, during a spell away from Athens, that he created his masterpiece.

The temple of Zeus at Olympia was built in the 460s. Three decades later, Phidias was asked to make a new statue for the shrine. Many accounts of its beauty survive. The Elder Pliny thought it without rival half a millennium later and Quintilian wrote that ‘the majesty of the work is equal to the majesty of the god’. Dio Chrysostom, writing at the end of the first century AD, addressed Phidias directly:

O best and noblest of artists … you have created a sweet and engaging sight … whoever might be burdened with pain in his soul, having borne many misfortunes and pains in his life and never being able to attain sweet sleep, even that man, standing before this image, would forget all the terrible and harsh things which one must suffer.

Made with the same chryselephantine technique as the Athena Parthenos, the statue of Zeus was prepared in an onsite workshop and built to match the dimensions of the cella, the inner chamber. (It was at the site of the workshop that Phidias’ cup was discovered in 1958, alongside iron tools and offcuts of ivory.) Zeus was depicted enthroned, a decision that allowed Phidias to increase his colossal proportions far beyond the height of the temple. Strabo was only the first to point out that, were Zeus to stand up, he would take the roof off. According to one story, perhaps apocryphal, when Phidias was asked what his inspiration for the figure of the god would be, he quoted the moment in the Iliad when Zeus makes Olympus shake with just the nod of his dark brow. It was not only the figure of Zeus that impressed viewers. Pausanias described at length the rich and complex imagery that decorated the gold, ebony and ivory throne and footstool, on which were depicted the trials of Heracles, Theseus battling the Amazons, Apollo and Artemis killing the children of Niobe and other mythological scenes. The stool was inscribed: ‘Phidias, son of Charmides, an Athenian, made me.’

Copy of Phid­ias’ head of Athena (c.100 BC)

Copy of Phid­ias’ head of Athena (c.100 BC)

Given the statue’s reputation, its representation in the exhibition is anticlimactic. A second-century AD marble relief from Modena shows the scene of Niobe’s children being cut down. Two Roman-era coins show Zeus’ head and the full-length seated statue. The curators could perhaps have been more adventurous in rendering the statue, though this would have involved some speculation. All traces of the original have vanished. Although an attempt by Caligula to move it to Rome was resisted, it was taken to Constantin0ple in the fourth century AD, probably perishing in a fire shortly afterwards.

Phidias’ influence on his Roman-era imitators is evident throughout the exhibition, but the final room reflects on his significance for later periods. Rejecting the awkward trend of including works by contemporary artists in archaeological exhibitions, the curators focus on 19th-century sculptors, including Antonio Canova (the ‘New Phidias’) and Bertel Thorvaldsen (the ‘Danish Phidias’). The importance of Phidias to Canova and Thorvaldsen is a reminder that valuing ancient sculptures primarily as historical artefacts rather than works of art is a relatively recent phenomenon. Fidia provides sufficient historical context, but by emphasising the aesthetic qualities of the sculpture it prevents matters of Athenian politics and society from overshadowing the artistry on display, while acknowledging that, when it comes to Phidias’ work, understanding is as much about reconstruction as appreciation.

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