The Peculiar Optical Illusions Used in the Parthenon
Callicrates and Ictines wanted their Parthenon to seem to float, so they made the whole thing curve slightly upward to the middle, so it almost looks like it is trying to take off into the air. And they knew that if you make the columns straight, an optical illusion makes them look thinner in the middle, so they made their columns a little thicker in the middle, so the columns would appear to be straight.
It is paradoxical that these modifications create the impression of great geometric perfection, even though they involve deliberate departures from strict regularity.Within the treasury of the Parthenon stood an 11-metre statue of Athena, carved in ivory with armour of pure gold. Sadly, nothing remains of this statue. It was one of the greatest creations of Phidias, the undisputed genius of Greek sculpture, who oversaw all the sculptural work. The most excellent carving is found in the frieze panels, many of which are now in the British Museum. The ratio of the longer side of the Parthenon to the shorter side is root-five to one. The Greeks were captivated by the square root of 5, which is an irrational number, not equal to the ratio of two whole numbers. It is easily constructed, being the diagonal length for a rectangle with sides 1 and 2. It has been argued that the façade of the Parthenon has proportions of the golden ratio, approximately 1.618, widely held to be the most aesthetically pleasing shape. Despite appearances, there are few perfectly straight lines or right angles in the Parthenon. The observer sees the eight columns of the façade as a perfectly regular array, but this is achieved by deliberately introducing subtle distortions called “optical refinements”. To avoid an apparent sagging effect, the base of the façade is about 6cm higher at its centre than at the corners. This curvature can be clearly seen by viewing it from close to a corner. The shape of the column shafts, and their slight tilt from the vertical, are said to correct optical distortions so that the building appears to be perfectly regular. The columns taper towards the top, but also swell slightly part of the way up, to avoid an impression of narrowing at the centre. The corner columns are marginally wider, to counteract another visual effect; without this adjustment, they would appear thinner than the inner columns.
Differences amounting to as little as a few millimeters often distinguish these members. As a result, today’s restorers have had their work literally cut out for them in order to find the original positions of all the Parthenon’s surviving blocks. This extraordinary modern effort, not undertaken by previous restorers including Nikolaos Balanos in the 1920s, has led to the Parthenon – one of antiquity’s most painstakingly and precisely constructed buildings – once again becoming about as “perfect” as its ancient human creators and present-day caretakers could make it.
Neils, Jennifer. The Parthenon: From Antiquity to the Present. Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.
Whitley, James. “The Archaeology of Democracy: Classical Athens.” The Archaeological of Ancient Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print.