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Restoration of heritage: From the rubble of Atlases, a colossus will rise

Of all the punishments chronicled in Greek mythology, none were as heavy-handed as the one that Zeus meted out to Atlas. Having led the Titans in their losing battle with the Olympian gods for control of the heavens, Atlas was condemned to bear the sky aloft for eternity.

Restoration of heritage: From the rubble of Atlases, a colossus will rise


And of all the temples built during the ancient Greek empire, none enlisted more Atlases than the one dedicated to the Olympic Zeus in Akragas, a city-state now called Agrigento, on the southwest coast of Sicily. Atop massive half-columns, 38 Atlases, each 25 feet tall and carved from limestone, seemingly held up the architrave — the main beam that rests on the capitals of columns — with their bent arms.

The Doric temple — the world’s largest — was built to commemorate the victory over Carthage at the battle of Himera in 480 B.C.; it survives today as a heap of tumbled pillars and blocks of stone at the Valley of the Temples archaeological park. Only one of its Atlases, or telamones, remains even semi-intact. It stands on display in the Regional Archaeological Museum, badly weathered and footless but upright.

This past summer the park’s director, Roberto Sciarratta, announced he had commissioned a colossal statue, a sort of Franken-Atlas, to mark the founding of Akragas 2,600 years ago. Reassembled fragments from eight of the telamones are to be arranged on shelves within a steel-ribbed contemporary sculpture in the shape of the damned Titan. Over the last 15 years archaeologists have recovered and catalogued some 90 artifacts from the ruins of the temple. “The goal is to recompose piece-by-piece the beams of the Temple of Zeus to restore a portion of its original splendor,” Dr Sciarratta said. “The new statue of Atlas will serve as a guardian of the temple dedicated to the father of the gods.”

The story of Akragas is not nearly as uplifting as the story of Atlas. The city was settled mainly by colonists from Crete and Rhodes in an area the Romans called Magna Graecia, or “Greater Greece.” Akragas came to prominence under the tyrant Phalaris (circa 570-549 B.C.), notorious in legend for his gruesome approach to executions. The condemned were roasted inside a hollow bronze bull, their screams, according to the first-century B.C. historian Diodorus Siculus, channelled into small sounding pipes to mimic the bellowing of an enraged beast.

The concept of the project has been criticized for violating professional standards and, perhaps, good taste. “No archaeologist would endorse the use of ancient sculpture, no matter how fragmentary, to create a modern sculpture, even if the purpose is to highlight the site’s antiquity,” said C. Brian Rose, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Nowadays, a copy of the museum’s Atlas, cobbled together in the 1970s, lounges near the rubble, roped off from the public. “Many visitors believe the Atlas on the ground is authentic,” said Leonardo Guarnieri, a park spokesman, with a shrug worthy of Ayn Rand. “It is not authentic.”

He added that the hands of the new golem Atlas would be unencumbered. That ought to take a load off his shoulders.

Franz Lidz is a correspondent for NYT©2020

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