Anthony Snodgrass, Professor of Classical Archaeology, on the Temple of Concordia at Agrigento.
GB Tell me why you chose this.
AS Because I’ve had a long time to look at it. It’s nearly sixty years since I first visited the temple, and I haven’t been back that many times; but year in, year out, I look at pictures of it (especially this photo) and I never get tired of looking. It’s a huge slice of luck, too, that the temple is so well preserved.
GB Can you visualise it in its original state, with stucco and decorations? If so, do you prefer the ruin – or the temple in your imagination?
AS Yes, the materials are important. Here in Sicily, the Greek builders and sculptors mostly worked in local limestone: they had no easy access to white marble, but I guess that stucco was reasonably successful in reproducing its effect, which we can see in dozens of buildings in mainland Greece. In this case, however, it seems that there was little or no sculptural decoration (painting is another matter), so the difference from its appearance today won’t have been all that great, I would be happy with either, but I’m not trying all the time to imagine the original state.
GB Do you believe that this is a higher form of beauty than nature? Do you think that the master builders who created it believed it was?
AS No, I believe that nature excels anything we can do (that’s why I’ve re-visited the Scottish Highlands every year of my adult life). But you asked me to ‘choose one object’, and I took this to mean an artefact. With the second part of your question, I’m not so sure. Greek literature is notoriously reticent in praising natural beauty, by comparison with perfect craftsmanship, and these builders could have felt the same. But if the Greek temple was really based on nature (see below), then we’re back where we started.
GB For you personally, to what extent does the beauty come from the building’s perfect proportions – and to what extent from its particular associations for you, your visits to it, your knowledge of its historical context?
AS one per cent from personal associations, one per cent from the context (of which little or nothing is known) and 98 per cent from the building itself and its proportions.
GB To what extent do you subscribe to classical conceptions of objective beauty through order, symmetry, proportion etc.?
AS I think you have to believe that there was something in their conceptions. If you think of a perfectly proportioned man or woman, you don’t want to alter anything, and the columns of a Greek temple are said to have been based on human proportions. Whether or not that is true, everything was clearly scrutinised in obsessive detail. Take this particular Doric temple (Doric was seen as the ‘male’ alternative). The Greeks fiddled and experimented with their temples for centuries on end, changing this or that tiny detail. For technical reasons which we needn’t go into, builders in the Doric order soon found that they had to move the outer columns of the façade slightly inwards, in order to get the upper works right. They clearly liked the result in aesthetic terms too, perhaps because it made the building look less sprawling. Sometimes they shifted the end columns quite abruptly inwards (by two feet in the case of the Parthenon). Here in Sicily, they thought of a different solution: move not just the two outer columns (#1 and #6) very slightly inwards, but the next two also (#2 and #5), so that the central gap, between #3 and #4, will be the widest, making a natural entrance way. You have to look very hard to see that they’ve done it at all. But in all their centuries of searching, I feel that this is the moment when they got it right. Plenty of experts would disagree: the word ‘provincial’ is freely thrown around when the art and architecture of Greek Sicily are discussed.
GB The Greeks were masters of creating optical illusions such as tapering columns, to give the illusion of a perfect form. Does this make it less perfect?
AS No, I think that it’s precisely the manipulation of optical effects that creates the feeling of perfection. Without them, these temples would risk looking like provincial stock exchanges.
GB What is your personal view of Plato’s idea of beauty as an ultimate value?
AS Well, it’s lasted pretty well, hasn’t it ? Plato of course used ‘beauty’ in many other contexts besides the visual (character and thought, for instance). But if we confine ourselves to visual beauty, there is a surprisingly wide consensus: I don’t think it is time-specific, though culture-specific it may be. Fashions and tastes change at bewildering speed, but some things just last. Look at any book or gallery of portraits of women who were judged beautiful in their own time: people’s preferences today may differ, but no one ever says “Yuk !”. There must be something ‘ultimate’ behind this.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
AS Shape, proportion and colour. I look around and see beauty everywhere, natural and man-made, often side by side with ugliness. I don’t think most people find it hard to decide which is which, and there will be a wider measure of agreement than on most topics. I would expect that posterity, too, will share the consensus.