Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Phidias' workshop - using real places in fiction

Last year in the summer, I prepared part of this posting. I didn't finish it because I have been looking for a particular reference (see second to last paragraph). 
As you can see, I had a wonderful trip in 2013. 
It was a mixture of holiday ...
...  research ... 
... and socialising.

Part of the research was another visit to Ancient Olympia. I went to have another look at Phidias' Workshop. I took liberties with its design in The Boy with Two Heads and I wanted to see whether I had really changed it so much. This is how it appears in my story:

The main road was busy with traffic for the market and the precinct. Panainos and Themis paused on the forecourt, looking at the front of the Workshop. It was a huge, rectangular stone building with a high-walled yard behind. 
‘He really did it,’ said Panainos quietly. 
‘Did what?’ asked Themis, surprised at the plainness of what seemed to him to be just another warehouse.
‘He said to me he’d build the workshop the same size as the inner room of the temple, so that he could get the statue in the right proportion.’ 
‘Why wouldn’t he?’ replied Themis. ‘It’s a very good idea.’ 
‘Because it must have cost the Elians a lot more than they bargained for,’ laughed Panainos. ‘Phidias never lets mere price stop him when he plans a monument.’ 
No one seemed to be around, but the small, heavy door opened as they approached it. A guard in full armour with sword and spear stepped out and confronted them. With him was a scribe, tablet and stylus at the ready. 
‘Name and business?’ growled the guard. 
‘Panainos, son of Harmides, brother of Phidias,’ intoned Panainos, ‘and Themistokles, son of Kallistos, my apprentice.’ 
The scribe wrote this down. The guard bowed his head slightly and stood back. ... 
[Inside] They turned through an open doorway. 
‘Wow!’ breathed Themis as they stepped into a huge, bright space where dust motes hung sparkling in the air and soft music played. It was as high as a temple, with pillars painted on the walls. Cupboards and storerooms lined the left side, workbenches the right. Light streamed in from windows half way up the walls, and from panels in the ceiling. 
Panainos swept over to a long bench where four young men were bent over their work. Themis saw trays of labelled pebbles, rows of minute tools and the sparkle of cut gems as Panainos asked for Phidias. 
One gem-cutter gestured to the high back wall that was almost all door. They could see a sunny yard beyond. ‘Out there,’ he said ... 
Two more armed guards stood on either side of the doorway. They saluted Panainos as he and Themis stepped out into sunlight. Acrid smells of vinegar and burning bone caught in Themis’ throat. 

Phidias' workshop now
That was my fiction, but in reality there is no sign of the large door I gave the Workshop at the back, or of a yard. And the front door seems to have been quite large, not small as I made it. I had the columns inside painted on the walls when in fact it seems they were probably real and perhaps held up the roof. 

However, the building was turned into an early Christian basilica around AD440 and then destroyed in the earthquake of AD551, so perhaps my fictional view of it is not too impossible.

This is the west wall where I made the huge door into a yard behind ...

... and this is the south wall.

This is what it looks like inside now, with the early Byzantine church arrangements, now also ruined.

There is a story that, during the excavations, a cup was found with the ancient Greek for 'I belong to Phidias' scratched on its bottom. This appears in most of the guide books and articles about the Workshop. But I read somewhere that the man who found the cup confessed on his deathbed to scratching the inscription himself. However, from the descriptions in Pausanias and other sources and the archaeological finds of moulds and tools, it is quite clear that this building and its environs were where the statue was made and its golden, ivory, bejewelled and carved adornments prepared. 

And perhaps the story of the man on his deathbed is as fictional as my story. The cup might have been a tourist souvenir, as these were also sold in antiquity, according to the website 'Ancient Olympics'. But if anyone reading this can vouch for the deathbed story, I would be very grateful, as I have searched for it again and again since I got back from that trip, and failed to find it.

On the subject of using real places in historical fiction, I have come to the conclusion that we writers should use our common sense about what might have been, without making any glaring errors. Places readers can visit give an extra dimension to a story, as long as there is no disappointment involved. What do you think?

All photographs © Julia M Newsome, except the aerial view of Phidias' workshop, which was taken from a postcard with no credit given.

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