The Apollo at Bassae
We drive for over an hour, the serpentine road clinging to the sides of the Arcadian valleys, Greece showing off more scenery than one can shake a camera at, as it does. The road passes through several villages, and in those places it narrows to fit between the buildings, many places more suited to the passage of a donkey than to the meeting of two cars. There is little traffic, though, and eventually we approach the site of the Bassae temple – one of the supposedly hidden gems of Greek antiquity – tucked away on a remote hillside in the middle of Peloponnese.
The temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae is now technically located in the prefecture of Messinia, but historically belongs to the region of Arcadia and lies about 10 miles south of the Arcadian village of Andritsaina.
The temple, dedicated to the god of sun and poetry, healing and plague, in his Epicurius (Helper/Protector) incarnation, sits on a side of Mount Kotilion at an altitude of 1,131m. It is constructed from the local pale-grey limestone and its columns combine Doric (externally) and Ionic (internally) styles; the oldest known Corinthian capital in the world had also been found here. It’s not clear why or by whom the temple was built: it’s a truly grand building constructed in what even in the ancient times must have been the middle of nowhere.
The temple dates to the peak of the Classical Greek era, a relatively short phase whose light is still with us now, two and half millennia later. It was built in the first half of the fifth century BC, designed by Iktinos (an architect later painted by Ingres, alongside the lyric poet Pindar), better known as the architect of the Parthenon. This extraordinary structure, built at a great distance from all major centres of Greek political and cultural life, achieved nevertheless a wide recognition as a masterpiece, starting with Pausanias and his travelogue of the second century AD. In the 19th century it became something of a cult icon for Romantic travellers exploring the wilds of Greece, admired for the beauty of its construction and the perfect harmony between the building and the natural environment in which it is situated. Greeks had an undoubted genius for location, placing their buildings – especially the sacred ones – in sites that appear perfect for the purpose; an ideal unity of nature and artifice.
The remote location was probably the salvation of the Bassae temple which survived relatively unscathed throughout history (though the English removed a frieze which is now in the British Museum). It was the first Greek monument that was inscribed – in 1986 – on the UNESCO World Heritage list, and this inscription as well as the enduring interest of archaeologists and other researchers is probably the reason for the building’s current sad state.
Sad state, because the temple to the sun god, a building whose main structure survived two and half millennia open to the air, in perfect harmony with the wilderness around it, is now covered by a giant, white tent, a wedding marquee type of thing that protects it perfectly from environmental damage (as well as hiding it from the eyes of the visitors and separating from its setting).
The tent was erected, ostensibly, to facilitate restoration and protection work (apparently, the building was settling and the columns are not vertical anymore), and it had a ”clear temporary character” and ”protective role”. This temporary protection has now been in place for twenty-five years (it was set up in 1987) and, when questioned, one of the guides at the site seemed to doubt that it would be removed within ten years. There was an impression that it would stay there as long as it would last, protecting the temple: for whom, and at what cost, was unclear.
The canopy’s continuous existence for a quarter of a century is troubling. One can appreciate the need for temporary protective measures if essential work – or research, for that matter – needs to be done, but twenty-five years extends this notion, perhaps quite appropriately, into the realm of myth. There is a whole generation that has never had a chance to see this structure as it was meant to be, and it appears that if the Ephorate of Antiques gnomes have their way, the temple of Apollo Epicurius will never see the sun again. They are protecting it from rain, snow and wind, but who are they protecting it for?
The mindset under the tent is essentially an antiquarian one, focusing entirely on preservation for preservation’s sake but without questioning the purpose of the exercise. Who will be worthy enough to see the Bassae temple uncovered? And when? Another twenty five years from now, or maybe another five hundred?
This is not an easy question to answer and similar ones caused controversy among architects, historians and archaeologists for close to two hundred years. We hanker after the authentic but the definition of authentic is slippery, fuzzy and subjective; fashions and orthodoxy vary a lot here.
Viollet-le-Duc’s exuberant and very creative indeed ”restorations” of Mont St-Michel, Carcassonne and Paris’ Notre-Dame are considered misguided now; modern archaeologists would not dare to interpret an ancient site the way Arthur Evans did with Knossos. But what about additions and changes that came in the course of normal life of the building, when it was used for its intended, or later evolved purpose? Many a great building present a palimpsest of history and it seems presumptuous to decide which layers should be considered worthy of preservation and which should be cleared away. The once-misguided attempts at restoration acquire a patina of respectability, becoming an evidence of their own time.
A building that is two thousand years old is more than just of its time: it acquires layers of meaning that keep accumulating long after its original designers and users, and even their culture, are gone. That is why nobody repaints Classical Greek temples in the garish colours they used to wear: although more authentic as a reflection of the actual culture of the time, such a restoration would negate the centuries of re-interpretation and cultural processing that followed the departure of the priests and the faithful.
Thus to ruins and preservation, and a very postmodern question: what exactly is an ”authentic” ruin, and how much restoration, reconstruction and even protection is actually desirable. Anastylosis (when the structure is rebuilt using original elements) is the least controversial path, but even then, one particular use creates a set interpretation, locked into one time in a building’s history. Should we dismantle the medieval churches to recover the stone quarried from antique temples, assuming we could ever place it correctly? And, if the site has been a ruin – and functioned as a ruin, because surely the ruins have their own significance and speak to us throughout millennia in their own ruinous language, and have not just lain in prostrate desolation waiting for a kindly restorer – should we even attempt to reconstruct it? And if the wind, and sun, and snow, and rain, have been eroding it, isn’t it a little bit presumptuous, and petty, and sacrilegious even, to march in brandishing tents, and fences, and crowd-control barriers so the pedants with small brushes could play there happily for the next three hundred years – but the rest would be sneaking in under the canopy’s edge (having paid the entrance fee, though) to see the magnificence of the classical Doric in the dim light of the tent’s interior?
The temple of Apollo at Bassae stands thus defiled by a preservation order, removed from its context, disconnected and sad. I pay the entrance fee and walk under the canopy, while the Other Adult in our party decides to boycott the tent and returns to the car in a somewhat demonstrative fashion. Inside, there is a distinct lack of busy workers or researchers, although scaffolding is visible around some of the columns and part of the area is fenced off. It feels like a corpse, with an embalmer working on it before it gets laid out and then buried away, preserved for the future instead of being allowed to erode, and yes, even crumble away as did the remains of people who worshipped and laid sacrifices here two and half thousand years ago.