Fifth century b.c.
Ictinus, a celebrated Greek architect, worked on such famous structures as the Parthenon on the Acropolis, the Temple of the Mysteries at Eleusis, and the Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae. The sheer scale, as well as the artistic grace of the Parthenon, are testament to the skill of Ictinus and other Greek architects of the day.
The exact dates Ictinus's birth and death are not known, but it is clear that he lived during the fifth century b.c. Very little is known about his life, though much is known about his work. It thought that Ictinus was not Athenian, but rather from the western Peloponnese. During the golden age of art and architecture in Greece, Pericles commissioned Ictinus and Callicrates to work, under the artistic vision of Phidias, on the Parthenon. The Parthenon, when completed, embodied all the refinements, civilization, and glory of ancient Greece and Athens.
The Parthenon was erected during the rule of Pericles in Athens and on the heels of a military victory over the invading Persians in 479 b.c. Pericles presided over the newly emerging democratic government and perhaps as part of a public relations campaign decided to rebuild the temples of the Acropolis, destroyed in war, in honor of the goddess Athena. The word "Parthenon" means "apartment of the virgin." Pericles enlisted Phidias, a famous sculptor and artist, to oversee the project, and Ictinus and Callicrates were chosen to actually design the Parthenon. Some have suggested that Ictinus and Callicrates were rivals not collaborators, while other sources claim Ictinus was the creative and artistic force behind the project and Callicrates played the role of engineer. Two years of difficult planning passed before construction began on the Parthenon in 447 b.c., during the Panathenaic Festival. The temple itself took less than 10 years to complete. The last stone was laid in 438 b.c., though work on the exterior of the temple continued until 432 b.c. The exterior Doric columns of the temple were 6 feet (2 m) in diameter and 34 feet (10.4 m) high. The temple itself was 101 feet (31 m) wide and 228 feet (69.5 m) long. There were three architectural styles used by the Greeks at that time: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. The Parthenon employed the use of the Doric, the most simple and severe of the styles.
Important to the design of the temple were the optical refinements used to make such an imposing structure more graceful and appealing. To the human eye straight lines appear to bulge or sag, but this optical illusion was counteracted in the design of the temple. Some of the methods employed by Ictinus were already in use by Greek architects, but these refinements reached new heights in the Parthenon. To that end, Ictinus and Callicrates made the Parthenon appear perfectly symmetrical when little of it was. The Parthenon was also famous for the artwork that it housed, including an enormous ivory and gold statue of Athena that stood 39 feet (12 m) high. Many of the sculptures in the Parthenon are now in museums or are missing, as in the case of the large statue of Athena.
The Epicurean Apollo, another notable architectural work by Ictinus, is one of the few nearly complete temples still standing. It was built in 420 b.c. on a 3,732-ft (1,131-m) rise near Phigalia, called Bassae. Ictinus was the main designer of the temple and incorporated all three orders of architectural style in the temple. It was a unique building—primitive, wild, and somewhat crude in appearance for the time. Perhaps in response to working under the artistic control of Phidias for so long on the Parthenon, Ictinus incorporated little sculpture in the Epicurean Apollo. Built in honor of Apollo, the temple harmonized the qualities of the temple with its natural environment. As scholars note, Ictinus seems to have deliberately built the temple in a wild and primitive style to reflect its wild surroundings. Ictinus also worked on the Temple of the Mysteries at Eleusis in around 430 b.c.
Despite the ravages of time, the Parthenon still symbolizes the strength and accomplishment of the society that built it. The aesthetic and emotional impact that the Parthenon has on those who see it now, as then, is incredible. Many of the artistic and architectural designs of the ancient Greeks, including those of Ictinus, are used in building designs today, and through the durability of these monuments modern society has learned much about the ancient Greeks.
Ictinus (active second half of 5th century B.C.) was a Greek architect and the chief designer of the Parthenon. In addition, he is known to have prepared a design for the Telesterion, the great hall of the Mysteries at Eleusis.
Of what city Ictinus was a citizen is not known, but the importance of the building projects assigned to him in Athens makes it not unlikely that he was an Athenian. Like Phidias, he may have been part of a coterie of artists and intellectuals who were particularly favored by Pericles and who were assigned the task of formulating and giving external expression to the ideals of Periclean Athens.
The intellectual side of Ictinus's activity is confirmed by Vitruvius, who records the existence of a treatise about the Parthenon written by the architect and an associate named Carpion. This treatise presumably dealt with the well-known "refinements" of Greek temple architecture— proportional relationships, curvature of horizontal lines, and inclination of vertical members—which Ictinus brought to their highest point of development in the Parthenon.
Ictinus seems to have been particularly interested in the development of interior space in Greek architecture. In the Parthenon he integrated the colossal cult image of Athena with the cella in which it stood by using the superimposed rows of Doric columns which supported the ceiling of the cella as a three-sided frame for the image. He also incorporated elements of the Ionic order into the Doric cella— notably the famed Ionic frieze around its exterior and Ionic columns to support the ceiling of its west room. Both Vitruvius and the archeological evidence suggest that the distinctive feature of Ictinus's design for the Telesterion at Eleusis, a project never completed, was to reduce greatly the number of interior supports so that there would have been more unobstructed space than ever before for witnessing the most secret rites of the Mysteries.
The traveler Pausanias states that the temple at Bassae was a votive offering to Apollo for aid in averting the plague of 430/429 B.C. Some architectural historians find it difficult to believe that the old-fashioned exterior of this temple could have been built by Ictinus after his work on the Parthenon. The design of its interior, on the other hand, incorporating the first use of the Corinthian order, engaged Ionic columns, and an Ionic frieze, seems to represent an imaginative extension of the innovations in the Parthenon.
It may therefore be that the temple was begun by another architect around the middle of the fifth century B.C. but left unfinished for a time and that Ictinus was invited to complete it by designing its interior somewhat after 430 B.C.
The literary sources regarding Ictinus are collected in Jerome J. Pollitt, The Art of Greece, 1400-31 B.C.: Sources and Documents (1965). A detailed discussion of Ictinus's buildings is in William Bell Dinsmoor, The Architecture of Ancient Greece (1950). For illustrations see Helmut Berve and Gottfried Gruben, Greek Temples, Theatres, and Shrines (1963). The archeological evidence for the Telesterion at Eleusis is summarized in George E. Mylonas, Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries (1961). □
Berve and Gruben (1963);
Placzek (ed.) (1982);
D. S. Robertson (1945);
Jane Turner (1996)