Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 30, 2010
Clemente Marconi Temple Decoration and Cultural Identity in the Archaic Greek World: The Metopes of Selinus New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 370 pp.; 130 b/w ills. Cloth $90.00 (9780521857970)

In 1823, two British architects, Samuel Angell and William Harris, ventured to excavate at Selinunte in the course of their tour of Sicily, and came upon many fragments of sculptured metopes from the Archaic temple now known as “Temple C.” Although local officials tried to stop them, they continued their work, and attempted to export their finds to England, destined for the British Museum. Now in the shadow of the activities of Lord Elgin, Angell and Harris’s shipments were diverted to Palermo, where they remain to this day in the Archaeological Museum.

The three better-preserved metopes (depicting a quadriga with Apollo’s family, Perseus and Medusa, Herakles and the Kerkopes) are well known and helped to formulate nineteenth-century opinions about Archaic sculpture and the position of the Greek west in its development. Although the metopes have been studied before, Clemente Marconi’s Temple Decorations and Cultural Identity in the Archaic Greek World is the first to include details about the topographical, religious, and architectural context of the metopes. Marconi’s larger project, of which this book is a beginning, is a thorough study of figural representation in Greek sacred architecture (xv–xvi).

The core of the book is a detailed, meticulous discussion of all remaining metopes and fragments (some of them never before published) from Temple C, together with an earlier series of metopes called the “Small Metopes,” from another Archaic temple at Selinunte, usually called Temple Y, whose foundations have not yet been excavated. Marconi had complete access to the storeroom in the Palermo Museum and its archives, and discovered that the British architects kept good records of their finds, which have proven to be a considerable help to him. The last part of the book presents a very useful catalog of all pieces, with dimensions, photographs, and line drawings by Adriana La Porta. I miss only an overall line drawing of the metopes of Temple C, showing them in Marconi’s reconstructed order. There is a darkly printed computer-generated reconstruction (fig. 64), but it is too small to be of use for illustrating the frieze, and gives only an overall impression of the temple.

The book begins with a fine essay on the use of figures on Greek temples; together with Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway’s Sather Lectures on architectural sculpture, Prayers in Stone: Greek Architectural Sculpture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), this chapter should be required reading for all students of Classical Archaeology. Marconi surveys the use of various media (terracotta plaques, metal attachments, paint) to decorate walls, columns, and the upper parts of buildings across the Mediterranean. It seems that there was a general tendency to decorate first the walls and lower parts, and that in time (ca. 630–600 BCE) the figural representations were moved upward to the higher parts of temples, even before architectural “orders” were fully established. As Marconi points out, the archaeological evidence for this revolution in temple decoration points to Aetolia as the center, with spreading influence on nearby areas (Thermon, Kalydon, and Corcyra), rather than in Corinth itself. The move of figures to the top of the temple for emphasis by about 600 BCE also coincides approximately with the use of columnar dedications, such as the sphinxes at Delphi and Aegina, and the colossal kouros at Delos, and indicates the growing importance of the visual impact of temples and monuments in sanctuaries. Marconi stresses the significance of theoria (i.e., both visiting a sanctuary and beholding it) and sight as a way of connecting with the divine.

The second chapter provides an excellent overview of the beginnings and development of monumental architectural in the new cities in Archaic Sicily. Marconi’s analysis of Megara Hyblaia, the mother city of Selinous, is especially useful. (To it one might add its striking similarity to the topography and layout of Megara in mainland Greece, the mother city of Megara Hyblaia itself, as known so far.) He highlights the significance and importance of the Temple of Apollo at Syracuse, the first stone Doric temple in Sicily (and perhaps anywhere), which he rightly dates to ca. 590–580, just before the Temple of Artemis at Corcyra. Less persuasive is the suggestion (originally made by Giuseppe Cultrera) that the nearby walls are the remains of an earlier attempt at building the temple; to me, their construction appears to be much later.

Marconi’s narrative account uses literary testimonia as well as the archaeological data; here and elsewhere, where the dating of items or their identification is slippery, he does not hesitate to say so, which at times necessarily leads to some vagueness in conclusions. This indicates clearly an urgent need for more excavation and systematic analysis of finds in Sicily and southern Italy. Marconi also has an impressive knowledge of the historiography of archaeology in Sicily stretching back through the nineteenth century, and frequently indicates which interpretive filters are at play in any given analysis.

The early history of Selinous itself is the primary focus of the third chapter. In a thorough discussion of the vexed question of its date of founding, Marconi supports Thucydides’ lower date of ca. 628 BCE over Diodorus Siculus’ higher date of ca. 651 BCE. This now seems very likely in view of recent studies of Early Corinthian pottery, although again more study of local production is needed. Marconi argues that the economic basis for Selinous must have depended more on agriculture than on trade, despite its location on the west side of the island, close to the Carthaginian bases and even Carthage itself. Moreover, the transformation of the city with grid plans, agora, and many temples need not necessarily indicate the hands of tyrants, since such buildings were built later here and elsewhere without such intervention.

The following chapter (4) considers all the early monumental construction at Selinous, which was considerable in scope and placement, over at least three different sites (the akropolis, and eastern and western hills), and probably a fourth in the agora, as yet incompletely excavated. Here Marconi discusses the recently discovered small temple (called “Triolo N”) to the south of the Sanctuary of Demeter Malophoros, uncovered in the course of illegal bulldozing in the 1980s and now reconstructed with seven courses up to its geison course. There is yet another temple further to the north of the Malophoros sanctuary, Temple M, whose heavy proportions and reconstruction (by Laura Pompeo) as di-style in antis show a strong similarity to the earlier Temple of Aphaia on Aegina.

Temple Y itself, to which are assigned the Small Metopes, may have had a similar design. Here are two of many indications brought out by Marconi for the connections between the Aegean islands and Sicily, and East Greek cities and Sicily. Some are suggestive rather than conclusive, but overall it appears that cultural bonds formed a large network rather than nearly exclusive connections with only a few mainland cities. Marconi separates the Small Metopes into two groups, dated to ca. 550 and ca. 540 BCE, surprisingly low dates. It is not entirely clear whether they really are from two phases of the same building or from two different buildings. To me, they seem similar enough to have come from one building. That so fundamental an issue may still be open illustrates the challenges of reconstruction when there is still so much excavation to do.

In the following chapter (5), Marconi discusses in depth the famous metopes and many other fragments assigned to Temple C, which together would have comprised ten metopes above its hexastyle east façade. Those on the right or northern half of the façade are relatively complete, but the others are more fragmentary. Marconi sees no thematic unity, which in any case, as he points out, does not appear in architectural sculpture until the beginning of the fifth-century BCE. He also feels R. Ross Holloway’s view that the imagery represents the major pantheon of deities listed in the “Zeus” inscription from Temple G (IG XIV.268) is likely not supported by the actual remains (170). Marconi accepts Holloway’s suggestion that the frieze represents a sort of epiphany in sculpture, however, and expands it in the last chapter. Marconi again dates the metopes rather low, to two phases, one ca. 540–530, with a completion phase ca. 510. His arguments depend in part on correlations with painted pottery, following an earlier line of argumentation made by Ernst Langlotz (170–176).

In the concluding chapter (6), Marconi brings together many of the book’s themes and topics. He finds associations with Megara Hyblaia and Megara in mainland Greece reflected in the depictions of Apollo playing the kithara or shown with his mother and sister, thus showing an interest in these mainland connections. Marconi feels the Archaic imagery in the west (including the two major series from Selinous and the series of thirty-eight metopes from the Foce del Sele Sanctuary of Hera at Paestum) should not be interpreted as a statement of Greek identity in the face of non-Greeks, a differentiation that belongs to a later period after the Persian and Carthaginian wars, but rather a collective statement of polis identity, which includes a sense of belonging to the same cultural orbit as mainland Greece.

Another important aspect Marconi brings out is the role of the imagery on temples in making the presence of the divine seem close and visible. Temple builders accomplished this by emphasizing deities in the sculpture and through the stylistic device of frontality, a common feature in the Selinuntine metopes and in other figural motifs such as the gorgoneia in the pediments and antefixes on the eaves of the temples. The many figures on these fully decorated Selinuntine temples beheld the viewer as much as viewers beheld them.

Temple Decorations and Cultural Identity in the Archaic Greek World offers a rich array of information and thoughtful, wide-ranging observations that should be read by anyone interested in Greek sculpture and architecture. Sicily and the Greek west have been relatively neglected by Anglophone scholars, and the material remains are sometimes still perceived and discussed with sorely outdated assumptions. Marconi’s book helps redress this and moves forward questions about the history of the Greek west and its relationship with the rest of the Mediterranean world.

Margaret M. Miles
Professor, Department of Art History, University of California, Irvine