Ancient authors and modern archaeologists

Another important identification was made in 1859 when the French archaeologist Charles Lenormant recognised, in a small and unfinished marble statuette (left), a greatly reduced copy of the colossal gold and ivory statue of Athena made by Pheidias for the interior of the Parthenon. Ancient authors had described parts of the statue, such as the helmet, shield and base. Pausanias' 2nd century AD account is the fullest (I.24.5-7). He says that the image of Athena stands upright, that she is clad in a garment that reaches to her feet… and that at her feet lies a shield, and a serpent…(and)…On the pedestal…is wrought in relief the Birth of Pandora…'

Photo of Furtwängler
  • Adolf Furtwängler

Descriptions by the ancient authors were used extensively from the mid-19th century by some archaeologists, particularly in Germany, where an approach developed, which was later called an 'archaeology of style'. This type of search for individual Greek artists was promoted by Adolf Furtwängler (right) whose Meisterwerke griechischer Plastik was published in 1893, and translated into English, as Masterpieces of Greek Sculpture, in 1895. A fundamental tool for Furtwängler's research was photography. Previously scholars had relied on drawings or engravings. However conscientious the draughtsman or the engraver, a truly accurate and objective reproduction was only possible with a camera. Photography enabled fragments to be compared closely, even when they were miles apart.

Perhaps the most famous example of Furtwängler's use of photography to reconstruct a statue, and identify it with descriptions by ancient authors, was the Athena which three authors say Pheidias cast in bronze for the islanders of Lemnos to dedicate on the Athenian Acropolis in the mid-5th century. Furtwängler was able to demonstrate that a marble head in Bologna belonged to a marble body in Dresden. This plaster cast in Oxford (left) unites the two. Furtwängler concluded that the whole corresponded to descriptions by Pausanias (I.28.2) and others of the 'fair' Athena who wore no helmet.

The principal problem besetting the study of Greek sculpture was not the fragmentary condition but the lack of originals. Although ancient sources named famous sculptors and mentioned, or even described their work, most of the examples known to the 19th century were copies.

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