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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Temple of Apollo at Bassae


“Comparatively unknown, [the Temple of Apollo at Bassae] still holds within its ordinary columnar shell more fantastic problems than any other building, I think we may say, of the Greek world.  Isolated among the difficult Arcadian mountains, nearly four thousand feet above sea level and far from human habitation, it was mentioned by only one ancient traveler, Pausanias….  And in this oldest description lies the first of our problems; for Pausanias reports that the temple was designed by the architect of the Parthenon at Athens, Iktinos, and that it was dedicated to Apollo [Epikourios, i.e., Apollo the Helper], and from these two facts he conjectures that it was erected at the time of the great plague in Athens (430-427 BC).  Some modern writers have denied both architect and date….”  Thus the great William B. Dinsmoor in his article “The Temple of Apollo at Bassae,” Metropolitan Museum Studies, 4/2 (1933), 204-227.

Its remoteness explains why the temple was not rediscovered until 1765.  Dinsmoor’s account of what happened next reads like an adventure novel, with murder by bandits, bribery, a storm at sea—a reminder that the early days of “archaeology” were anything but scientific.  Things were lost.  On the other hand, that the temple lay undisturbed for so many centuries was a plus.  Contrast the state of preservation of this temple with that of the Temple of Apollo at Corinth, for example!
Pausanias reports that the temple was built by the people of Phigalia, a small city in southwestern Arcadia, in honor of Apollo Epikourios, and that its architect was Iktinos, the designer of the Parthenon together with Callicrates.  It was a small temple with a Doric exterior, 6 by 15 columns, with two columns in antis in the pronaos and the slightly smaller opisthodomos.  It was built out of the local limestone, with a frieze and some details in marble.


The temple presents several oddities.  Its orientation is north-south, not east-west, like most Greek temples.  Its naos (cella) has engaged Ionic columns.  There is also second naos or adyton (shrine), with a side door on the eastern side.  Separating the adyton from the naos was not a wall but a single column with a different base and a Corinthian capital, the oldest known (marked as “a” on the plan and drawing of the interior).  So the temple featured all three orders.  Above the interior columns was an entablature that included a sculpted Ionic frieze running around all four sides of the naos.  Contrast the Parthenon’s frieze, which ran around the outside of the naos: one had to walk around the building to see it all.  In the temple at Bassae one could take it all in while standing in the middle of the naos. The subject of the frieze (now in the British Museum) was the Amazonomachy and the Centauromachy.

Some 80 years after Dinsmoor published his article, the problems and the controversies remain.  Was this building really designed by Iktinos?  When was this temple built?  Perhaps in the 420s.  But the sculptures seem to have been made later, c. 400-390 BC.  Why the adyton, with its curious side door?  Why the single Corinthian column?  What about the light needed to view the interior frieze?

Pausanias says that the Temple of Apollo at Bassae was second only the Temple of Athena Alea at Tegea.

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