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The Peculiar Optical Illusions Used in the Parthenon

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Everyone wanted to make the building as beautiful as possible. 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.

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The Parthenon is a masterpiece of symmetry and proportion. This temple to the Goddess Athena was built with pure white marble and was erected without mortar or cement, the stones being carved to great accuracy and locked together by iron clamps. The building and sculptures were completed in just 15 years, between 447 and 432 BC. The Parthenon shows how brilliantly the Greeks had mastered geometric principles. They saw mathematics as a means to understand the Divine. They achieved global perfection through deliberate departure from local precision. Minor geometric irregularities were incorporated by the architects to enhance the beauty of the building. 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.

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According to Neils, the columns of the temple appear to be bending at the middle perhaps due to the stress exerted by the roof. They are well spaced from each other to allow the light to penetrate (63). Different points of view illustrate the evenness between light and darkness. There are no straight lines in the structure of the temple because the entire lines look distorted. The temple is used to display the skills of ancient artists in the ancient days. The finishing of the temple is rough because one can still see the marks that the masons chisel made as he tried to dress the stones to create a uniform shape (Neils, Jennifer, 2005). The temple could have lasted longer were it not for the battles and the changes in climate that has led to erosion of its surface. The walls of this temple look so bare but one can not tell whether its plaster was eroded by weather or was simply was not there. The columns of this temple appear to have been erected on the stylobate. The columns are of the same length and they tend to protrude outwards to shield the verandah from rain water. The construction of Parthenon is said to have taken the longest duration due to the time taken to avail the building materials because they were not within close proximity to the temple hence more time was spent in ferrying the materials. Actually the decorations that are seen on its walls were done much later after the construction of the temple had been fully completed. The panes of this temple were chiseled in high relief which was common in a majority of such buildings during ancient days. They were perfectly mounted onto the outside of the walls and they were used as decorations as well as mediums of illustrating the confrontations that took place among the gods. The temple also served as a bank because there was a designated room that was meant for storing money. Frieze was used to decorate the exterior walls of the temple and also illustrate the rituals that were practiced by the ancient inhabitants of Greece. The east panel employs sculptures that illustrate how the goddess of Athens came into existence (Whitley, James, 2001)

The panels indicate that Athena was fathered by another god called Zeus. Athena is said to have been conceived in the head of his father Zeus and when his time was due for delivery he experienced a sharp headache on his head. He therefore instructed other gods to hit his head which caused his head to disintegrate and Athena was extracted from his head during this process.

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As can be seen, because the Parthenon had few straight lines and right angles, its designers and builders had to hand-craft each individual piece, among a total of over 70,000 architectural members, so as to fit them into their own specific place within the temple’s structure. 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.

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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.

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