Friday, July 07, 2006

Mount Athos Carved as a Monument to Alexander the Great

In Landscape and Memory Simon Schama follows his discussion of Mount Rushmore and its sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, with an account of Borglum’s classical exemplar Dinocrates, architect to Alexander the Great. According to Vitruvius (De architectura book 2) Dinocrates arrived from Macedonia and came to the notice of Alexander by dressing himself as Hercules and stationing himself within sight of the camp tribunal where Alexander was giving judgement. Dinocrates proposed to Alexander a Herculean project, the conversion of Mount Athos into a statue of a giant man which would have a city in one hand and a bowl in the other containing waters from all the rivers of the mountain. Alexander was impressed, but pointed out that on this mountain the city would not have sufficient supplies of grain to feed its people. The young architect was therefore set instead to survey and design the city of Alexandria.

This story in Vitruvius has been used by various architects and artists. Pietro da Cortona, in his drawing Pope Alexander VII Shown Mt Athos by Dinocrates c1655, linked the new pope to the Alexander of antiquity. Another illustration of ‘The Mount Athos Colossus’ appeared in Baroque architect J. B. Fischer von Erlach’s Sketch of Historical Architecture (1721). And then there is a landscape painting by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, Mount Athos Carved as a Monument to Alexander the Great (1796) (the Art Institute of Chicago’s site only has a tiny illegible thumbnail image, but someone has put up a snap here). As Simon Schama points out, Valenciennes’ painting ‘is a benevolent reworking of Poussin’s Polyphemus, whose Cyclopean eye is hidden by the rear view of the geological giant, and had first been tried out by Valenciennes in a chalk drawing done during his obligatory trip to Italy almost twenty years before. The painting was shown at the salon of the Republican Year VIII, when enthusiasms were running high for both Hellenic “purity” and the cult of nature. Shrewdly marrying the two together, Valenciennes produced the perfect icon of benevolent republican sovereignty, where the exquisite landscape, verdant and gently watered, is shown directly dependent on the mountainous authority of the paternal state.’


Michael J. Farrand said...

I've started in on a poem about Alexander the Great "The Man Who Conquered the World". Thought you might enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

Mount Athos has been a holy shrine of Orthodox Christianity since at least the 3rd or 4th Century AD. The Theotokos supposedly walked there, with St. John the Evangelist, in the 1st century. Alexander had his chance; alas, this site will never be touched again.