Athens: A Frankfurt exhibition project

Athens—no other city had a stronger influence on the development of Europe. That sounds like a cliché, but it’s not.

The exhibition "Athens. The Triumph of Imagery" was on view at the Liebieghaus from 4 May to 4 September 2016.

It was in this city that, more than 2,500 years ago, theatre was invented, and here that the idea of equality, and thus of democracy, was developed and put into practice. Athens was the domain of Plato and Aristotle. The European ethos—indeed, the concept of the laws of nature—were forged by the thoughtsmiths of ancient Athens. Values such as philanthropy, humanity and right of asylum were formulated and demonstrated in the classical tragedy and Attic philosophy. And it was in the city of the goddess of Athena that the fundamental steps towards a European conception of art were realized. The most beautiful buildings, paintings and sculptures of European antiquity were created within the context of a strong alliance between politics and art.

Following the destruction of Athens and Attica by the Persians in 480 and 479 BC, the sanctuaries and cemeteries lay in ashes. Yet this defeat gave rise to a splendid and radical new beginning: between 450 and 410 BC—i.e. within a mere forty years—the power politician Pericles accomplished the coordinated reconstruction of a complete cultural landscape. The man he commissioned to mastermind the project was the ingenious sculptor and painter Phidias.

The mythological realms of the Acropolis

Our ambitious exhibition project “Athens: The Triumph of Imagery” at the Liebieghaus revolves in general around the high classical edifices on the Acropolis, and inquires in particular into the numerous images—some of colossal size—that tell the myths of Greece, and above all the fairy tale of the city goddess Athena and her son. Two hundred years of research into the pediment figures, metopes, friezes and freestanding sculptures did not yield a satisfactory interpretation of the great images on the Acropolis. It took the discovery of fragments of Athenian playwright Euripedes’ lost tragedy Erechtheus to bring about a turning point in the study of the visual language of classical Athens. Since this discovery, we know that the main focus of the tale of Athena was her “son” Erechtheus, who sacrificed his daughter and his own life to save his country in the war with Poseidon and Eumolpos, the sea god’s son.

The bronze warriors from Riace

The Frankfurt project devoted to the reconstruction of the famous classical bronze sculptures from Riace, depicting two naked warriors, is progressing by leaps and bounds. The reconstruction of Riace A was already completed in May 2015. Since the autumn of 2015 we have been working on the recreation of the second figure, Riace B. The scientific and technical realization is guaranteed by the collegial support of the classical archaeologist and art historian Salvatore Setti and generous financial aid from the Italian government.

At the end of September 2015, with the assistance of colleagues in the department of forensic medicine at the Universität Bern, we took digital measurements of the figure. This resulted in a data model; the head has already been printed out in 3D. Since the end of last year, the well-known sculptor Christoph Bergmann of Munich—who is well acquainted with the forms of classical art through his own work—has been addressing himself to supplementing the lost weapons and head covering. With the aid of traces found on the naked, unprocessed skull of Riace B, we have been able to verify that the figure once wore a so-called alopekis on its head. This fox-skin cap belonged to the costume and arms of the Thracians, a mountain people of the north. With the forceful effect of their bodies and weapons, the two reconstructions are sure to cast a spell over the visitors and convey the violence of the conflict between the gods with surprising immediacy.

A “scenographic” exhibition

For the scenic design of our Athens show we were able to obtain the services of the Atelier Markgraph in Frankfurt. In close coordination with the museum staff, the designers drew up an exhibition plan uniting strong graphic and media elements. The exhibition will take the visitor through twelve rooms representing the twelve months of the ancient Attic calendar. These ‘month rooms’ will describe the major festivals of the annual cycle, retelling the Attic myth in the process. Especially beautiful originals of classical Greek art will convey the atmosphere of the sanctuaries whose imagery in turn reflects the myth.

Exceptionally beautiful and prominent loans from the world’s major antiquities collections in Berlin, Munich, Göttingen, Fulda, Würzburg, London, Paris, Rome, Naples and Athens await us all. The famous marble portrait of Pericles and the great statue of Hera Borghese from the Vatican Museums are just two examples.


Prof. Dr. Vinzenz Brinkmann

Head of the Collections of Antiquities and Asia

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