Friday, June 06, 2003

What I've Been Learning

Around 1300 BC, the Minoan culture on Crete was flourishing. If you've ever seen the famous fresco (painting done on wet plaster which dries and is then permanent) Bull Jumping, that's from the Minoan palace at Knossos. The dark figure doing the flip is a man, while the pale figures are women. This is from the Egyptian custom of depicting men with dark skin and women with light skin because the former worked outside while the latter worked indoors (princes were often pale, though, as a sign of wealth). It has nothing to do with race. The palace at Knossos was called the Labyrinth ("axe-room") because the walls were adorned with paintings of double-headed axes, which was a Minoan royal symbol. Borrowing the concept of columns from the Egyptians, with whom they had trade, they built columns with no base and which got thicker at the top before being topped with a capital. These columns were wooden, and not load-bearing.

The Minoans controlled Crete, mainland Greece, the Aegean islands, and the coast of Turkey. One city-state subject to the Minoans on mainland Greece was Mycenae, near modern Corinth. In the Iliad, Helen is married to Menelaus, king of Mycenae. When the Minoan civilization collapsed, possibly due to the explosion of Thera (modern Santorini), and potentially giving rise to the legend of Atlantis, the Mycenaeans briefly became dominant. However, they were shortly thereafter overrun by the Dorians, a tribe from the North, which plunged what would later become the Greeks into the Dark Ages. The Aegean islands and Turkish coast was conquered by the Ionians in the meantime. Eventually, the Greek city-states such as Athens, Sparta, and Corinth arose and began building things. The the residents of these city-states, while rivals and occasionally even enemies, considered themselves Greeks, and, due to their being inherently superior to everyone else, would band together to fight barbarian invaders (a barbarian is a person who doesn't speak Greek, as foreigners all sounded to the Greeks like they were saying "bar bar bar bar..."). The Greeks were a very religious people, and thought that one way to connect to the supernatural was through logic. Thus, proportion was very important to them. Statues eventually developed into idealized forms, with the head from chin to hairline being exactly 1/7th the size of the statue as a whole. Temples, after many experiments, were finally designed so that there were X frontal columns and Y side columns in the proportion Y=2X+1. This is similar to the Golden Rectangle used in Greek architecture. The temples had originally been made of wood, but when the Greeks became more adept with stone, false beam-ends were carved into the stone in order to make the new stone temples seem like the old ones. Mainland temples used the Dorian Order for columns (Greek= style), while island and Asia Minor temples used the Ionian Order. All Greek columns were slightly bulged at the middle as an optical illusion (other wise they'd seem thinner in the center). Dorian columns had no base, were not fluted (grooved), and had a pretty simple capital. Ionian columns had a base, fluting, and a capital that looked like scrolls or seashells (imagine the old logo for the St. Louis Rams). When the Athenians built the Parthenon, the outside was in the Dorian style, but the interior was in the Ionian style. This was for several reasons, the ostensible reason being that the Athenians wanted to honor their Ionian allies in the recent war where they held out against the Persians. Another reason, however, was that Pericles, leader of Athens, had tricked the treasurers of the Delian League on the island of Delos into letting Athens safeguard the treasure, which he used to construct the Acropolis, of which part is the Parthenon. Thus, he hoped to placate any Ionians who got upset about this theft. The Corinthian columns had a base, were fluted, and had a leafy capital. The plant at the top represented death to the Greeks, and so Corinthian columns were only used in temples designed for mercenaries to offer their sacrifices.

The Greeks had colonies in Italy, and thus influenced the Etruscans in what is now the Tuscany region of Italy (get it? Etruscan, Tuscan...). The Etruscans had their own order of columns, which was essentially Dorian but with an additional base. The Romans conquered the Etruscans, and while Rome considered Greece to be the epitome of culture, much of their architectural designs were based on the Etruscans. The Greeks were more of a religious people, but the Romans were more political. They didn't care about proportionality in their structures or the Golden Rectangle. They used Corinthian columns because they liked them, freely modified Greek temple designs, and, unlike the Greeks, made use of arches. These arches allowed them to construct massive bridges and, when rounded, buildings like the Colosseum. Furthermore, the Greeks had been more adept at sculpture, and while many Greek statues were freestanding, Roman ones will always have something like a tree stump to help brace the statue. Contrary to what you may think, marble sculptures were considered cheap copies of the important statues, which were bronze. However, nearly all bronze sculptures were melted down in the Middle Ages, and only a few survive. Several Greek statues have been recovered from sunken ships, while the sole remaining Roman bronze equestrian statue, of Marcus Aurelius, exists because it was mistakenly thought to be Constantine, bringer of Christianity to Rome, and was thus left alone. This statue follows the custom of the horse's feet telling the method of death for the rider, with all feet on the ground indicating a natural death, one foot up indicating death received from a wound received in battle but not of immediate fatality, and two feet in the air representing death in battle. It is from this statue that all Medieval and Renaissance equestrian sculptors received their guidance. The Romans also tinkered with idealism in sculpture, showing the body idealized by the head as a realistic depiction of the person's face in order to make the statue identifiable. Whereas the narcissistic Greeks idolized their race, the political Romans idolized their leaders.


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