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Athena Velletri

Athena Velletri
Athena Velletri

by Alkamenes (?)
ca. 420–410 B.C.

At the advice of his parents Ge (earth) and Ouranos (sky), Zeus swallowed his pregnant wife Metis (cunning) whole in order to prevent the future birth of a son who might destroy his father. Later suffering from a terrible headache, Zeus called upon the blacksmith god Hephaistos to split open his head. When the axe of Hephaistos cleaved open the god’s head, Athena, fully grown and dressed in full armor, sprang forth with a war cry. She was a mixture of her parents, a combination of both power and wisdom. Because of these characteristics, the city-state of Athens chose her as its protectress and preserver of all state institutions.

The Temple of Hephaistos and Athena, begun in 449 B.C., was built on a hill overlooking the Agora (open city center) of Athens. The structure was constructed of marble and displayed a mixture of Doric and Ionic styles like the Parthenon. The temple had sculpted pediments, sculpted metopes, and a continuous figural frieze above the east and west ends of the interior room. The temple was completed in 416 B.C. when the cult statues of Hephaistos, the lame god of metallurgy and metal-smiths, and Athena Ergane, "the worker" and goddess of craftsmen, were dedicated. No longer extant, both statues are attributed to the artist Alkamenes, a student of Pheidias, the famous master sculptor in charge of the artistic program on the Athenian Acropolis.

The Athena Velletri, named after the city in Italy where the best copy was discovered, is likely a Roman copy of the Classical cult statue of Athena Ergane by Alkamenes. Executed in the Classical style, this statue depicts the goddess standing upright and looking down at the viewer. Her dress (a peplos and himation) is simple with clean, smooth folds, held together by a snaky belt. Around her neck, Athena wears her protective aegis, a breastplate displaying the head of the gorgon Medusa, beheaded by the hero Perseus with the goddess’ aid. Her extended right hand once held a spear while the left perhaps held a phiale (a dish used for libations). The Corinthian helmet she wears further accentuates her role as a goddess of war. Her size and pose create the appearance of a formidable protectress, peering down from above to reassure her people.

The face of Athena Velletri, however, is similar to a bust of Perikles (see outside and to left of the Cast Gallery) by the sculptor Kresilas, dated to ca. 425 B.C. Some scholars believe that the Athena Velletri is not a copy of a statue by Alkamenes, but rather a copy of a statue by Kresilas. The Athena Velletri highlights the difficulties of attributing Greek artistic works to known artists based on Roman copies.

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