A Colossal Statue of Atlas Will Rise Again

Sicily’s Temple of Zeus once featured 38 giant likenesses of the mythological Titan. Now, a reassembled version is set to go on view

A statue of Atlas at the temple of Zeus in Agrigento, Sicily
A replica statue of Atlas at the Temple of Zeus in Agrigento, Sicily Photo by DeAgostini / Getty Images

A reassembled, 26-foot-tall statue of the mythological Titan Atlas will soon stand guard over the Temple of Zeus in Agrigento, Sicily.

As Franz Lidz reports for the New York Times, Roberto Sciarratta, director of the Valley of the Temples archaeological park, commissioned the “Franken-Atlas”—which will feature fragments from eight of the temple’s original limestone Atlases within a steel-ribbed contemporary likeness of the Titan—in honor of the 2,600th anniversary of Akragas’ (now known as Agrigento) founding.

Once home to 38 towering Atlas statues, each of which seemingly supported a section of the structure’s architrave, or main beam, the Temple of Zeus was the largest Doric temple ever constructed. Built during the fifth century B.C. but never completed, the architectural wonder is now in ruins.

Speaking with the Guardians Lorenzo Tondo in July, when the project was first announced, Sciarratta said, “The re-installment of the statue of Atlas is the culmination of a more comprehensive restoration [of the temple].”

He added, “In the last decade, we’ve recovered and cataloged numerous artifacts that were once a part of the original structure. … The goal is to recompose piece-by-piece the trabeation [beams] of the Temple of Zeus to restore a portion of its original splendor.”

Reconstruction of the Temple of Zeus
This model reconstruction of the Temple of Zeus shows how the Atlas statues were originally positioned. Poudou99 via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

Just one of the 38 Atlases—also known as telamones—remains partially intact today. But excavations over the past 15 years have recovered pieces of the ancient statues, as well as dozens of other artifacts dated to the temple’s heyday, enabling archaeologists to reconstruct a version of the Titan. (A replica of the sole surviving statue currently lies near the ruins, but as park spokesperson Leonardo Guarnieri tells the Times, “It is not authentic.”)

Atlas was a major figure in Greek mythology. One of the Titans, a race of pre-Olympian gods descended from Uranus (the Sky or Heavens) and Gaia (the Earth), he was forced to hold the world atop his shoulders after losing a war against Zeus and the other Olympian gods—a burden mirrored in the Temple of Zeus’ telamones.

“The idea is to reposition one of these Atlases in front of the temple,” Sciarratta told the Guardian. “So that it may serve as a guardian of the structure dedicated to the father of the gods.”

According to LiviusJoana Lendering, the Temple of Zeus was built around 480 B.C. to commemorate the tyrant Theron’s defeat of the Carthaginians. Theron likely relied on enslaved prisoners of war to construct the enormous structure.

An aerial view of the Temple of Zeus
An aerial view of the Temple of Zeus Photo by aslu / ullstein bild via Getty Images

During the fifth century, Akragas hosted more than 100,000 people, per the Guardian. But its fortunes waned over the years, with residents eventually repurposing parts of the ancient monuments for new buildings. The temple’s current state of disrepair is the result of 2,000 years of “earthquakes and pilfering,” notes the Times.

Plans to resurrect one of the Atlas statues have attracted criticism, with some archaeologists arguing that the project is in poor taste because it fails to offer an authentic portrayal of the temple and the objects around it.

“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,” C. Brian Rose, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, tells the Times.

Still, it’s worth noting that Italian news outlet Agrigento Notizie has disputed the claim that the resurrected statue is a “deceptive” reconstruction. In fact, Agrigento Notizie points out, the sheet of steel set to surround the original Atlas fragments will mainly serve to protect the fragile stone from erosion and keep the reassembled blocks in place.

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