Location: Agrigento Archaeology Museum, Valle di Templi, Sicily
Weather: Rain like you wouldn’t believe
The Archaeological Museum in Agrigento is an unassuming and unpretentious modern building grafted on and around the medieval church of San Niccolo, on a rocky promontory halfway between the old city and the beach. It is one story high, built of metal, glass and concrete, and it wouldn’t attract a second glance were it on the side of a highway in any American suburb.
We almost didn’t get in. We parked in the half-empty employee parking lot, and walked with borrowed umbrellas down the hill, and up onto the terrace of the museum, to discover closed gates, a closed church, and boards up to signify that the Ekklesiteria, or old city Senate-house, were in fact off limits. The sun came out briefly, and we looked down over the Valle di Templi, wondering at the beauty of the temples set against the Mediterranean Sea, and the stunning cloud forms which were about to dump some serious rainage on us. Disappointed that the museum was closed, though, we prepared to leave.
Then the Japanese tour group showed up. They walked through a little side gate we hadn’t seen, and into the museum garden. A narrow covered walkway snaked around the church and into its former cloister, and thence into the museum. I bought the guide book. Dad bought the tickets.
The first room, U-shaped, consisted of a series of terra cotta fragments of 11th through 7th century native pottery, to place Akragas in some sort of archaeological context. Photos on the walls illustrated the surrounding neighborhoods and settlements. The Greeks arrived by way of Gela, about 40 miles east of Agrigento, and most were either Gelanese descendants of colonists from Rhodes and Crete, or were newly arrived from Crete and Rhodes.
Gela was settled around 780 BCE as part of an overall effort on the part of the Greeks to settle and control Sicily. Cities like Messina, Taormina, and Syracuse had been founded on the eastern side; Gela was the key to their south-coast strategy. As the population of Gela ratcheted upwards, new settlers from Greece were recruited, and a core colonial party drawn from Gela, Crete and Rhodes settled at Akragas around 740 BCE. The Akragasians settled further on numerous outlying hills and potential acropoloi, in an effort to dominate the surrounding countryside. From the putative acropolis of Akragas, one can see a good five miles into the interior’s vales, and another seven miles or so up and down the coast. Using other settlements (and probably beacon towers), Akragas and Gela communicated easily with one another, to enforce Greek domination of southeastern Sicily. Akragas was thus at the center of valuable agricultural country, and a critical communications point for the Greeks. At its height, Akragas probably had around 400,000 people, a third of whom may have been slaves.
None of this makes the terra cotta any more interesting. It’s unpainted for the first five or six display cabinets, and much of it clearly belongs to the category of “stuff we make for ourselves because Greek export ceramics are too expensive for a little colony like us.” Cabinet seven is different, though.
In Cabinet Seven is a bowl, locally produced, which belongs to the Late Geometric style. It’s produced using local clay, and local oxides for the coloration. This bowl has sort of a creamy toffee-coffee color to it, and it’s got red and black decoration, mostly in the form of rosettes, triglyphs, and wavy bands. What makes it particularly interesting, though, is that the bottom has the first representation of the island of Sicily on it: A right-hand triskelion with a foot at the end of each arm, and the head of Medusa in the center. This remains the symbol of Sicily today, and it derives from the ancient name of the island, Trinicaria, meaning “Three Capes” or “Three headlands.” Its older name meant something like Trident-land, because the eastern side, with its two broad bays and eastward-curving headlands in the north and the south, made early visitors think the island was shaped like Poseidon’s trident. Anyway, this bowl is the first indication that we have that Mediterranean sailors have understood what their country is: an island shaped like three legs sticking out of a wild and dangerous center.
The rest of the first room is boring, but the second room contains four or six cabinets. Each cabinet contains twelve kraters, or wine-mixing bowls. Each of them is a masterpiece of the potter’s art, and the painter’s art. One of them was clearly the work of the Louvre Painter or a student of his/hers — few Greek ceramics are signed, and they are often known by the name of the museum which houses the first or best-known example of an individual painter’s work. These Greek vases are all Athenian export ware: they were made of Athenian red-clay, and then covered with black paint so that the figures were themselves red; detail was drawn into the figures in red paint.
If you go to the Metropolitan or the MFA in Boston, chances are that you’ve seen six or seven such kraters at once. Usually, the ones in American or British museums are displayed alone, in a single case, with a few minor lethykoi or perfume bottles, and maybe a pyxsis or perfume box. The American and British ones are usually assembled from fragments, and 20% of the piece is usually restoration work, in the form of modeling clay holding the major and minor pieces together (sometimes, the older restorations use plaster instead of modeling clay).
These forty to sixty kraters (not a single lethykoi, pyxsis, or kylix among them) are maybe 5% restoration, and 95% original. Some of them appear not to have been subjected to reassembly at all. I consider myself fairly well-informed on Greek mythology, but there were stories I didn’t recognize, even when I could recognize the characters in them.
Here was Athena, with the Aegis on her breastplate, mounting a four-horse chariot called a quadriga. Here was Perseus contemplating the bound Andromeda, wondering wether or not to free her. Here is Hephaestus, shaping a throne for his mother Hera’s entrapment. Here is Dionysius, dancing backwards and facing forward, while all the other Olympians march in steady procession, facing sideways like Egyptian animal-faced deities. Greeks making offerings to a herm in a gymnasium courtyard. (New England pagans, take note. We need a herm on someone’s land, somewhere). Rams being led to the altar for sacrifice. Warriors raping a woman in a Trojan War scene of some kind. The Japanese tourists crowd around, taking photographs of everything. Three hundred years of some of the finest in Greek ceramics, in one room. Wow. It’s almost too much to take in.
At the end of the hall is a statue of a warrior, part of the pediment group from one of the temples. He wears a Corinthian-style helmet, and his stooped figure suggests he was in the lower-right corner of the pediment. It’s not bad, but it’s clear that it’s not meant to be seen from this close up. You’re meant to see it from thirty feet below, as part of a larger assemblage of figures. Here, it just looks slightly shoddy and half-finished.
The next room is a series of terra cotta votive figurines. Literally, a thousand goddesses in a single room, most of them produced from moulds. In one case, there is actually the mould standing in the cabinet, next to four goddesses produced from that same mould. Most of the figures have a slot in the back, where you can put a papyrus scroll with your prayer of devotion. Did you know that papyrus was one of the major exports of Sicily? I didn’t. I thought it only grew in Egypt. Turns out it was exported to Sicily, and set loose on all the river systems here. Now it’s confined to one valley, west of Syracuse, where it’s on the endangered species list. This room is interesting in a vaguely technical way, but not really inspiring.
Those D&D players, and a few others, will know that a caryatid is a column in a building shaped like a woman, which acts as a load-bearing element in architecture. The most famous caryatids are those on the Erechtheum, on the Athenian Acropolis in Greece.
Until today, I didn’t know that there were also Telamones, or statues of men that acted as architectural elements in buildings. I also didn’t know that the Greek colonists of Akragas invented them for use in their Temple to Olympian Zeus, which they began constructing after a victory over Carthage in 480 BCE.
Yes, 480 BCE. I didn’t know that in the very same year as Salamis and Themopylae, the Sicilian Greeks were fighting the Phoenicians for control of Sicily. The battle assured that the Romans would be in a position to take control of Italy in the 400s and 300s BCE, and that the western Mediterranean didn’t become a Phoenician playground, in the same way that the Athenians assured that Greece, and Europe, didn’t become a Persian playground. Whoa. The mental shift here for me astounds me, still. I’m wrapping my brain around the fact that Greece is not the only thing going on in the 5th century BCE. I’m going to have to rethink how I teach in the winter term as a result of this Sicily trip.
Anyway, the temple. The columns of the Temple of Zeus are the size of Sequoia sempervirens trees in diameter, twenty feet or more. They were eleven meters high. And THEN, rising alongside these massive columns, and standing thirteen meters high, rising a good ten meters above the columns, were these telamons or Atlants, figures of giants built into the temple walls. There were maybe thirty of these built into the Temple of Zeus, and only this one survives complete, in addition to three heads of the others.
The room built to house this telemon is three stories high. They’ve dug out a basement, and added on a second floor, to house the thing. And they also have models of the base of the temple, and six variants on the elevation, to explain possible assemblies of the columns and telemons.
It’s the most unusual and original temple in the Doric style anywhere in Sicily, possibly in the world. If the Carthaginians hadn’t come back in 409 BCE and deliberately knocked it to the ground, the history of the world might be very different indeed.
Off the Telemon Gallery is a ramp up into the Public Buildings Gallery, where they have an exhibit on the Bouleterion and the Ekklesiteria, the two public buildings in Akragas that have been so far excavated. A Bouleterion is simultaneously the lower-house of a Greek city’s government, and the public records office; the Ekklesiteria is the meeting house for the city senate. In this gallery they have some coins, and some tokens, and some pieces of a legal inscription, and some other minor objects. The important one is the Ephebe.
An Ephebus is a young man of arms-bearing age, ready to train to be a hoplite but not yet ready to stand in the line of battle. He hasn’t yet grown a beard, so he’s entitled to be in the kind of homosexual relationship for which the ancient Greeks are (probably deservedly) famous.
This marble statue was probably made around 480 BCE, at the time of the Akragasian victory over Carthage. His straight hair is long, but held up by a headband of some sort, and rolled out of his eyes. His body is lean and idealized, but without the prominent six-pack common to later Greek statuary and modern homoerotic photography. Call it a four-pack — suggested, not thoroughly defined. The face is damaged, but shows firm, rounded cheeks, an elegantly wide nose, a high forehead, almond shaped eyes.
My father and I both feel weak in its — his — presence. He belongs to the Classical Age, the Golden Age of Athens, and of Greek art in general. The Parthenon post-dates him by only forty years. Smoothly polished, with strong biceps, flat pectorals, and strong thighs and buttocks, he represents everything that the Greeks believed about male beauty.
Between the Greek vases, the Telemone, and this statue, the trip has been paid for. It’s a rich, beautiful experience of the best that Greek Sicily has to offer.