The first time I stepped inside the Parthenon was a cold, grey December morning in 2013. The Acropolis was deserted except for the employees, and as our group entered the cella, overcome with awe and wonder at the size and scope of the building and the contrast between the yellowish patina of the ancient stone and the blinding white of the new marble, we noticed a flash of colour in the otherwise muted surroundings—the marble workers had carved a small Christmas tree with a star on top from the discarded cuttings of the new white marble, and they had painted the stone bright green and brown. It was completely charming, and even though I’d been atop the Acropolis more than a dozen times, this was the first time I saw beyond the monuments and entered the world of those individuals working tirelessly to restore and preserve them. On the Rock: The Acropolis Interviews, accomplishes precisely what we experienced that day: it reveals the people behind the buildings and brings their stories to light.
In this bilingual volume, Vieira presents the stark reality of education, training, and professional life for marble-workers in Athens specifically, and Greece more generally, through individual interviews with 15 men and women who have spent various lengths of time restoring the monuments atop the Acropolis.1 On the Rock begins with acknowledgements of the effort that went into recording and translating the interviews, and is followed by a prologue that is honest, open and direct with regard to the purpose of this volume: “to document a community—and a craft—in transition under an externally imposed crisis” (p. 12). Vieira, an artist who openly states that she is neither Greek nor an expert on classical antiquity, has a natural prose style that describes a raw and real Greece in the middle of an economic crisis. The author’s intention is clearly to provide a platform for these workers to share their stories and to bridge a gap between the formal scholarship concerning the Acropolis monuments in antiquity and the real, lived experience of restoring these same buildings today.
The contents of the book appear first in English, on high-quality, white glossy pages with clear chapter separations between each of the interviews, accompanied by 16 full-colour photos. The Greek text follows on blue matte pages, without page breaks for separate sections or photos. Although the inclusion of the original Greek is important and appreciated, the contrast between the Greek and English presentation is apparent and makes it difficult to cross-reference the two texts. The translation was done in several stages, and I only noted a few minor discrepancies. For example, the question ‘Kατάλαβες;’ (Janoulanis, p. 197) is translated as “Understand?” (p. 49), which is a quite literal rendering (and can even be construed as combative in English), yet perhaps a more idiomatic, colloquial tone between interviewer and interviewee would be “You know what I mean?”.2 Overall, however, the Greek translation is superb, and Andrea Gilbert transforms the beautiful, straightforward simplicity of the Greek into English with an almost poetic flair — e.g. Alexopoulos’ effortlessly sincere observation: “Everything is easy and everything is hard” (p. 60).
The interviewees comprise marble workers of all ages, primarily from Athens and Tinos, in various stages of their careers. At the time of writing, many were actively employed on Acropolis restoration projects (Angelopoulos, Janoulinos, Christopoulou, Bougelis, Kardamis, Despiris, Georgopoulos), others had retired, forcibly or voluntarily (Foskolos, Alexopoulos, Megoulas) and the remainder were laid off or simply not rehired when their contracts ended (Zervas, Pravitas, Perantakos, Sampson, Vlati). All the interviews are presented in running prose, with no questions, interjections, or corrections. Footnotes are included to provide additional context or, more often, to clarify technical terms or concepts, but the overarching goal is to offera series of narratives unencumbered with outside amendments. The advantage to this refreshing presentation style is the ease with which one can read the stories— which are absorbing, engaging, nostalgic and all too often melancholic. The only obvious drawback is that the reader is unaware of how much the accounts themselves may be edited—for example, every interviewee discusses the economic crisis in Greece, which is a powerful thematic unifier throughout this book. Itis, however, impossible to know if this—or any—topic was introduced organically or was the result of the interviewer’s questioning; whether this affects the overall impact of the book is a matter of personal opinion, but should be noted nonetheless. The only additional critique of note is that there is no bibliography or suggestions for further reading. I suspect, however, that any such section was omitted intentionally to emphasize that the primary focus of this volume is neither formal scholarship nor research.
The On the Rock interviews are not presented in any particular order and can be read collectively or individually. Any one of them would provide excellent supplementary reading for post-secondary courses on the topography and monuments of Athens, especially for the knowledge provided by marble-working experts on ancient carving techniques and building construction. Perhaps more importantly, each chapter—while focusing primarily on modern marble carving and building restoration—also sheds light on what the Acropolis and its monuments mean to the contemporary Greeks who are working tirelessly (and often with insufficient compensation) to restore them. For most (with the notable exception of Christopoulou, who is decidedly jaded about working on the site throughout her interview), working on the Acropolis is the ultimate professional goal, and the ‘Rock’ represents much more than just a worksite for the best marble sculptors in the country: the monuments embody the technical perfection of the ancient sculptors and the Parthenon itself is considered the model restoration project against which standards are measured throughout Greece. Most of the men and women recall having a special bond with the physical location itself and openly express their fondness and nostalgia for their time —however short—spent there.
Ultimately, On the Rock comprises 15 personal narratives that are infused with anecdotes emphasizing the weight of this work—literal and figurative—, technical descriptions of the carving process, the great responsibility and precision required to succeed in this profession, the logistical hurdles encountered through the current crisis, the impact of (and general appreciation for) tourists, the perceived rank and status of various positions of those working on restoration projects, and the endurance and strength of the Greeks as represented through the monuments atop the ‘Rock’. Above all, the accounts chronicle much more than individual biographies—together, they convey the collective global meaning of the Acropolis itself for these workers: permanence and stability in a shaky and unstable, forever changing, political, economic, and social world.
1. This book is unrelated to the temporary exhibit and accompanying catalogue at the Acropolis museum, “CHISEL AND MEMORY. The contribution of marble craftsmanship to the restoration of the Acropolis monuments/ ΣΜΙΛΗ ΚΑΙ ΜΝΗΜΗ. Η συμβολή της μαρμαροτεχνίας στην αναστήλωση των μνημείων της Ακρόπολης”.
2. Only once did I find a typo, with the incorrectly inserted brackets on p.80 (Greek p.214).