BMCR 2008.04.17

The Propylaia to the Athenian Akropolis II: The Classical Building. Edited by Anastasia Norre Dinsmoor

, , , The Propylaia to the Athenian Akropolis. Princeton, NJ: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1980-2004. 2 volumes : illustrations ; 31-34 cm + pocket of maps. ISBN 0876619405 $125.00.

The Foreword by Charles K. Williams II and the Preface by Anastasia Norre Dinsmoor give accounts of the long gestation period preceding the publication of this book, beginning in 1906 with “the innovative but unpublished research of Bert Hodge Hill and Henry Dunn Wood” (p. xxix). “In 1908 William Bell Dinsmoor…continued the investigation of the Propylaia” (p. xxvii). “Dinsmoor worked with the primary material intermittently until 1928, and at intervals over subsequent years he attempted to synthesize his observations regarding the Propylaia” (p. xxix). “In his later years William Dinsmoor resumed work on the publication of what had been his initial undertaking in Greece, even though he had been physically weakened by a stroke…William Dinsmoor Jr. had returned to Greece in 1962, and, together, father and son joined forces on the Propylaia project…William Dinsmoor died in 1973…Once on his own, William Bell Dinsmoor Jr. reworked and supplemented the material on the earlier history of the western gateway of the Akropolis. In 1980 he published The Propylaia to the Athenian Acropolis I: The Predecessors” (p. xxviii). “At the time of his death, in 1988, he was working on a revision of his father’s material on the Classical building and was continuing to add to the corpus of drawings necessary for publication” (p. xxix).

Anastasia Norre Dinsmoor describes her work on the book as editor from 1988 to 1992 as the “final phase of this research project” when she acquired the freedom “to concentrate on the task of collating manuscripts, random notes, sketches, photographs and drawings”. She says: “resolving inconsistencies not only between the views of the two Dinsmoors, but also between each man’s research at various times, was one of the major challenges I faced as the editor of the book. The bibliography is up to date through 1992, when the manuscript was submitted for publication; some important recent contributions have been taken into account, and in some cases the consequent changes to the manuscript have been more than editorial, as new text has been composed” (p. xxx).

The following abbreviations are used henceforth so as to avoid confusion: Dinsmoor, for William Bell Dinsmoor; W.B.D. Jr. for William Bell Dinsmoor Jr.; A.N.D. for Anastasia Norre Dinsmoor.

The book was published in the present form sixteen years after W.B.D. Jr.’s death. As a matter of principle this book should have been an objective publication, in a manner allowing the reader to distinguish each author’s contributions, with the editor’s interventions or comments easily distinguishable in the footnotes, margins or brackets. Instead, one has a book with a continuous text, conveying the impression that it was completed by its authors, preventing the reader from distinguishing the original work of Dinsmoor from that of W.B.D. Jr., or from that of A.N.D. In regard to the unsigned plans and drawings, in many cases the editor does not make it clear which are original drawings by Dinsmoor, which have been worked over by W.B.D. Jr and where Christopher Pfaff, Roxana Docsan, Anne Hooton and Michael Fitzgerald have made “minor additions and corrections” (p. xxx) to incomplete drawings. Some drawings have no indication of source whatsoever, e.g. fig. 14.22-29. All this makes it clear that the editor has done to the book more than what an editor is normally expected to do in a posthumous publication.

The book is in two parts. Part I, The Design, in nine chapters, deals with the plan and the unit of measure, proposing seven successive projects for the construction of the building. Part II, The Building, in twelve chapters, presents the documentation and analysis of the material remains of the building, starting from the various components of the Central Building and, then, proceeding to the four wings of the Propylaia.

According to the editor’s preface, this book aims to be the “first comprehensive record of the classical gatehouse to the Athenian Akropolis” (p. xxix), which would serve as a standard reference for archaeologists and students of Greek architecture. In the editor’s own words “This book seeks to be a complete publication of the Classical building only insofar as good evidence permits” (p. xxx). Has this aim been achieved? I believe that it has not.

To start with, the presentation of some parts of the building is conspicuously inadequate; for example the presentation of the tiles and wooden structure of the roofs (pp. 302-303, 390-394, 431-432) and of the central passageway (pp. 455-456).

The theoretical Part I strangely enough precedes the presentation of the building itself, with the result that a reader who is not already extremely familiar with the building has to look for supporting information in the very long Part II. However, the analysis is interesting and must be essentially due to Dinsmoor, as the editor makes clear in the preface (page xxix): “Part I is directed primarily to architects and theorists of design; in its pages the reader will find William Dinsmoor’s account of the development of the plan for the Propylaia by Mnesikles.” Nevertheless, reading the text leaves no doubt that, even if most of the ideas belong to Dinsmoor, the text has been written by the editor. Not only did many of the books referred to appear after Dinsmoor’s death but, more important, one stumbles on observations that are irrelevant or unnecessary, something that is far from Dinsmoor’s style. For instance, Chapter I ends with the idiosyncratic statement that the concept of the roofs of the Propylaia is identical with the concept employed by another Greek architect in the roofs of Ayia Sophia in Constantinople, “to build up a pyramidal mass in thoroughly Mnesiklean spirit” (p. 4)! Similarly, in Chapter IV one finds the following observation (p. 13): “An even number of columns was necessary in order to accommodate a central processional roadway, and at least two side passages were required for routine pedestrian traffic”; what is the need of explaining why a classical architect used an even number of columns in the main façade of a propylon? An odd number of columns would mean a column on the central axis of the façade, which would be an unacceptable oddity. And again, in Chapter IV, (note 73, p. 30) one finds the erroneous statement that “the material from building B was reused only in the northern extension of the foundations of the Northeast Hall (i.e., in a second phase of construction of the Propylaia),” rather than noting that the famous geison blocks from building B, are in the west wall of the Northeast Hall which, at the same time, is the east wall of the Pinakotheke. Dinsmoor could absolutely not be the author of this remark.

Part I teems with general and unoriginal statements, many of them presented either carelessly or as undisputable axioms. For example, while discussing the fact that the west façade krepidoma has four steps instead of three (which is the standard practice), it is argued that this was done in order to make the steps more commodious (p. 38). Long ago it was observed that the west façade krepidoma has four steps instead of the three in order to conform to the formal rules of the Doric order; since the height of the central krepidoma would have been disproportionately great in relation to the Doric order of the two wings on a smaller scale, Mnesicles divided the height of the krepidoma into four steps; this gave him the possibility to make the lowest step of the wings of Eleusinian limestone, producing the visual effect of three white marble steps, proportionate to the smaller scale of the superposed Doric order of the wings (see L.T. Shoe, “Dark Stone in Greek Architecture”, Hesperia Suppl. 8, 1949, p. 345).

Part II containing “the detailed documentation and analysis of the various components of the building” (p. 59), is composed in a variety of styles and approaches and described as the “distillation of collaboration of father and son” (p. xxix). This “distillation”, however, has been carried out by the editor in such a way that it is impossible to find out what each of the two authors contributed and what is due to the editor’s intervention. The detailed description of the foundations leads to no conclusions justifying the length of the text (p. 61-70).

Numerous examples of misunderstanding or misstatement of important issues due to lack of training in architecture and experience in dealing with Akropolis architecture reveal the editor functioning as author. For instance, on page 73 there is a detailed description of the west ends of the sides of the central passageway, where it becomes obvious that the author of the text does not understand that the dimension and the position of the blocks in this area are dictated by the fact that they are the visible ends of the foundation of the west façade stylobates.

Finally (p. 83), in relation to the fact that in the south aisle two floor slabs are missing, one finds the following remarks: “The two slabs…were removed in order to make room for the foundations of a statue pedestal. Afterward the area was slightly enlarged for the insertion of a Byzantine cistern made of brick and lined with cement.” In antiquity no one would have removed part of a marble floor in order to go deeper to build the foundation of a statue smaller than life size (the rather small scale of the statue is suggested by the dimensions of the area of the floor where the apergon was trimmed for the positioning of the pedestal); one would place the pedestal directly on the floor. In the case of the Propylaia, the floor not having been finished, one would trim the apergon before placing the pedestal. Indeed, parts of the sides of the trimmed area survive beyond some parts of the margins of the outline of the cistern.

In the text (p. 153-154) the anchor slots for the door leaves of the east portico are presented as classical with no reasoning. On page 157 note 62 Dinsmoor is reported to have considered them Roman (which they in fact are). The editor has evidently removed Dinsmoor’s interpretation from the text, replacing it with her own interpretation. Here is one of the cases where censorship exercised by the editor is traceable.

The treatment of the jamb revetments of the five doors in the transversal wall of the central building is another example of drastic editorial intervention. According to the text (p. 147) “it is not unreasonable to assume that…the architect extended his use of [Eleusinian] limestone accents to the jamb revetments and the outer trim of the doorways, in order to set off these openings and enrich considerably the visual impact the visitor experienced when approaching the gates”. The lack of surviving remains of such Eleusinian stone revetments is accounted for by explaining that they had to be replaced early on when the architect realized that “the highly brittle nature of the stone may [italics mine] have made it unsuitable for such an application” (p. 147). As p. 157 note 44 informs us, “This idea originated with Anastasia N. Dinsmoor and was adopted by William Dinsmoor Jr.”.

The restoration proposed in the book for the epistyles on the eastern side of the central building door wall is another example of mistaken treatment of the material. From the surviving fragments we can restore the height and the width of these epistyle blocks but not their individual lengths. These lengths could be fixed if we possessed enough material from the epikranitis course below, but, unfortunately, we possess only one major fragment of the epikranitis from the door wall. The normal thing would be to have five epistyle blocks on the east side of the door wall, reflecting the five backers of the epistyles of the façade; the central epistyle would relieve the lintel below from the weight of the superposed blocks, as it would transmit it on the doorjambs on either side of the central doorway. That this is the only solution in the logic of the classical builders and, particularly, of Mnesikles, is corroborated by the fact that the arrangement of the Ionic epistyles at the top of the lateral walls of the western (Ionic) hall reflect the arrangement of the Ionic epistyles resting on the Ionic columns (p. 237, fig. 10.2, pl. 4).

The solution suggested here includes two epistyle blocks “at the center…their outer ends breaking joints with the epikranitis and balanced above the piers on either side of the central doorway; in this way they would have put no weight on the great central lintel, in the manner of the frieze cantilevers of the façades” (p. 168, fig. 10.10, 14.15). This solution involves a conspicuous joint in the central axis of the building, something that would be so very unusual that one might say it would violate a principle of classical Greek architecture, in regard to design and structure. Furthermore, the author’s solution disregards many facts. The comparison with the frieze cantilevers is irrelevant since, in that case, the axial joints in the axis of the building are cleverly concealed behind the central metopes (p. 182, fig. 10.1, 10.3, 14.20-14.22).

The jointing system would not suffice to lead Mnesikles to the violation of basic principles in the relations of architectural elements in the superstructure. This is corroborated by the fact that Mnesikles had compromised with the existence of neighbouring vertical joints in the Ionic epistyles and inner cornice blocks at the top of the west face of the door wall in the north and the south aisles (p. 237, fig. 10,9). Mnesikles had to compromise with this because the two epistyle blocks in each of the lateral aisles, on the west face of the door wall, should reflect the two Ionic epistyles that were backing the architrave above the two corresponding intercolumniations of the west façade.

The failure of the author of the aforementioned restoration to understand how structure and forms work in the syntax and grammar of classical architecture, leads to another erroneous restoration, that of the Ionic epistyle above the central lintel and the inner cornice at the top of the west face of the doorwall in the central passageway; in this case too, the suggested solution includes two blocks (and not of one solid block), not only adding weight to the exceptionally long lintel but also creating another conspicuous joint in the central axis of the building (p. 237, fig. 10.9).

These solutions could not have been suggested by Dinsmoor.

I will not refer to other examples of distorting original ideas of the authors, which appears to be due to the editor’s interventions. However, the book does contain a vast number of accurate measurements of existing blocks, correct restorations of missing parts of the monument and sound structural observations. There is no doubt that these belong to the original work by Dinsmoor and, though one cannot tell in what extent, by W.B.D. Jr. But whatever the original work was, its parts seem to have been reshuffled, in some cases altered and in many cases changed beyond recognition by new text from the editor that often is obscure.

The lack of adequate illustrations makes the book even more obscure. There are mostly general drawings, some of them unfinished (e.g. Fig. 10.7, 10.11, 14.37) and many of them anonymous, as mentioned before. The few poorly chosen photographs are not clearly related to the text. Besides, most of the photographs have no indication of source or date; a document kept in the archives of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens dated February 1, 1978, signed by W.B.D. Jr., ends with the phrase: “I am also entrusting to the care of Professor Immerwahr [then Director of the A.S.C.S.A] numerous photographs which belonged to Professor Dinsmoor.” If photographs published in the book, are Dinsmoor’s, the absence of attribution seems all the more troubling.

The detailed descriptions structure or form require more drawings and/or photographs to allow the reader to undestand the text. Chapter XV for example, which deals with the Ionic order, is illustrated with five photographs, one drawing with a cross-section of the base of a column, another drawing already published in W. B. Dinsmoor, “Structural Iron in Greek Architecture”, AJA 26, (1922), p. 153 fig. 3., which shows the iron bar in the Ionic architrave blocks above the Ionic columns, and one page with “sketches of assorted fragments of Ionic capitals” which, thus presented, are absolutely useless.

William Bell Dinsmoor was one of the finest specialists in the study of Ancient Greek architecture; his work on the Propylaia was for him a major commitment. It is a great injustice to his work that this does not come out through the present book. Instead of an annotated publication which would render the Dinsmoors’ work accessible to any reader, the book is based on their work so altered by the editor as to make it a new book. This book must be treated with the utmost caution. More than that, it could be misleading for the unsuspecting reader. One is all the more disappointed when one considers the fact that the original material itself is still inaccessible for research.