AGRIGENTO, SICILY – For those well-versed in Greek mythology, the punishment meted out by Zeus to the Titan Atlas is one of the most memorable and haunting. For leading the Titans against the Olympian gods, Atlas was condemned to hold up the sky for eternity. The image has also inspired countless artists throughout the millennia. The figure of Atlas, actually 38 of them, stood atop the half columns of the Temple of Olympian Zeus in what is now Agrigento, formerly the city-state of Akragas in Magna Graecia or Greater Greece, settled by Greek colonists mostly from Crete and Rhodes.
Each limestone-carved Atlas was 25 feet tall and they “seemingly held up the architrave — the main beam that rests on the capitals of columns — with their bent arms,” the New York Times reported, adding that the “Doric temple — the world’s largest — was built to commemorate the victory over Carthage at the battle of Himera in 480 B.C.; it survives today as a heap of tumbled pillars and blocks of stone at the Valley of the Temples archaeological park.”
“Only one of its Atlases, or telamones, remains even semi-intact,” the Times reported and “stands on display in the Regional Archaeological Museum, badly weathered and footless but upright.”
Roberto Sciarratta, the park’s director, announced this past summer that “he had commissioned a colossal statue, a sort of Franken-Atlas, to mark the founding of Akragas 2,600 years ago,” the Times reported, noting that “reassembled fragments from eight of the telamones are to be arranged on shelves within a steel-ribbed contemporary sculpture in the shape of the damned Titan.”
According to the Times, “over the last 15 years archaeologists have recovered and cataloged some 90 artifacts from the ruins of the temple.”
Dr. Sciarratta told the Times that “the goal is to recompose piece-by-piece the beams of the Temple of Zeus to restore a portion of its original splendor. The new statue of Atlas will serve as a guardian of the temple dedicated to the father of the gods.”
The project has received criticism for “violating professional standards and, perhaps, good taste,” the Times reported.
C. Brian Rose, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology told the Times, “No archaeologist would endorse the use of ancient sculpture, no matter how fragmentary, to create a modern sculpture, even if the purpose is to highlight the site’s antiquity.”
Today, “a copy of the museum’s Atlas, cobbled together in the 1970s, lounges near the rubble, roped off from the public,” The Times reported.
Leonardo Guarnieri, a park spokesman, told the Times that “many visitors believe the Atlas on the ground is authentic. It is not authentic.”
He added that “the hands of the new golem Atlas would be unencumbered,” the Times reported, noting “that ought to take a load off his shoulders.”
The city of Akragas “came to prominence under the tyrant Phalaris (circa 570-549 BC), notorious in legend for his gruesome approach to executions,” the Times reported, adding that “the condemned were roasted inside a hollow bronze bull, their screams, according to the first-century BC historian Diodorus Siculus, channeled into small sounding pipes to mimic the bellowing of an enraged beast.”
Under the rule of another tyrant, Theron (circa 488-473 BC) “the community and the arts prospered,” the Times reported, noting that “the lyric poet Pindar described Akragas as the most beautiful city ‘inhabited by mortals,’ and the philosopher Empedocles, a native son, is said to have remarked that the citizens ate as if they would die the next day, and built as if they would live forever.”
Among the ambitious public works during Theron’s reign were “aqueducts, underground water systems and a series of sacred buildings” including temples “dedicated to Hera, Concordia, Heracles, Castor and Pollux, Demeter, Hephaestos and, further down, on the bank of the river Akragas, Asclepius, the god of medicine,” the Times reported, adding that “the Temple of the Olympian Zeus, also known as the Olympieion, was built using Carthaginian slave labor — presumably prisoners of war captured in the Battle of Himera,” and “the dimensions were roughly the same as an American football field and its end zones: 340 feet long and 160 feet wide, and rose to a height of 120 feet, not including the foundation.”
The Temple of Olympian Zeus, however, was never completed, the Times reported, noting that “when Carthage conquered Akragas in 405 BC after an eight-month siege, the temple was still open to the sky, perhaps owing to the difficulty of building a roof to span the distance.”
The current state of the temple ruins is “the result of two millenniums of earthquakes and pilfering,” the Times reported, pointing out that “during the mid-1700s, stonework was quarried and hauled away for use in breakwaters and jetties at the nearby town of Porto Empedocle.”