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Phidias, the master of the Parthenon

24 November - 5 May 2024

Phidias the Sculptor. Exhibition at the Capitoline Museums, Villa Caffarelli, Rome

“No one will ever surpass Phidias” Auguste Rodin, L’art, 1911

Capitoline Museums, Villa Caffarelli. Rome

The embodiment of Greek art at the height of its splendour, Phidias conquered first the Romans and then the Renaissance to become the absolute icon of sculpture. The Roman venue will host the first monographic exhibition dedicated to the great Greek sculptor. More than 100 works, including archaeological finds, Greek originals and Roman replicas, as well as paintings, drawings and manuscripts, some of which will be exhibited for the first time.

The exhibition, divided into six sections, plumbs the master’s work in its various aspects. From portraits to the grandiose design of the Parthenon, the symbolic site of classical Greece, to the colossal statues of Athena Parthenos and Zeus of Olympia, among the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Rare and valuable works punctuate the tour, some of them for the first time outside museum premises. This is the case of two original fragments of the Parthenon frieze, an Hoplite (Greek soldier) and a Young man with a bovine on loan from the Acropolis Museum in Athens. The sculptures of horsemen and bearded men from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna are of absolute value.

Exhibition route

First section

The first section, “The Portrait of Phidias”, highlights Auguste Rodin’s (1840-1917) homage to the Greek artist with the marble and plaster work Pallas au Parthénon (1896) from the Musée Rodin in Paris: a woman’s head surmounted by a stylised temple with six Doric columns, an idea of the Parthenon in Athens. Rodin’s fascination for ancient Greece is expressed in this eccentric sculpture. Rodin is one of the greatest sculptors of his time, nicknamed “French Phidias” by his contemporaries and for whom Phidias remains the absolute model.

Second Section

In this section, “The Age of Phidias“, we describe the stages of the artist’s career, the historical, political and artistic context of Athens at the beginning of the 5th century B.C., also illustrating the profile of the personalities who made it great: Themistocles, Pericles, Aspasia, evoked in the herme-portrait.
During this period, the young Phidias completed his apprenticeship with the Athenian sculptor Aegias and the bronze sculptor Agelada, a native of Argos, whose names are handed down in the sources, Phidias learnt the art of sculpting stone and casting metals, techniques that he later showed he mastered. Highlights include the statue of Apollo Parnopios (Apollo Kassel type), the statues of Athena Promachos and Athena Lemnia made on the Acropolis.

Third Section

In the section The Parthenon and the Athena Parthenos the sculptor’s activity in Athens and in particular on the Acropolis is explored, where Phidias, at the behest of Pericles, oversaw the complex renovation work on the sacred rock and in particular was “episkopos” “superintendent” of the Parthenon building site. Phidias is credited with the design of the temple’s rich decorative apparatus as well as the creation of the chryselephantine colossus, i.e. made of ivory and gold, of Athena Parthenos. Made in 438/7 B.C., at the height of its fame, the statue was over 12 metres high and covered in over 1,000 kilos of gold; it was placed in the naos (cella) of the Parthenon, hence its name.

Fourth Section

In “Phidias outside Athens“, some of the most significant episodes of Phidias’ career outside his home city of Athens are retraced, starting with his participation in the competition held in Ephesus around 440 B.C. for a statue of a Wounded Amazon, in which Phidias was resoundingly defeated. To commemorate the event, a podium is set up with figures of Amazons in the round, with busts and heads arranged at different heights. In the centre, the Statue of the wounded Amazon in the Sosikles type (Capitoline Museums, central decades of the 2nd century A.D.) – the winning work – and in front of it another Amazon from Turin, a valuable copy in green basalt.

Fifth section

The Legacy of Phidias” is the focus of this section, where the theme of the impact of Pheidian art and its techniques, particularly Chrysoelephantine art, on subsequent generations of artists in Greece and Magna Graecia is addressed. Among the most important works on display here are the Acrolithic Head of a goddess in Parian marble (470-460 B.C.) from the Vatican Museums and the Acrolithic Statue of Apollo in Greek marble (440-430 B.C.) from the temple of Apollo Aleo at Crimisa, today’s Cirò Marina (Crotone), on loan from the National Archaeological Museum of Reggio Calabria.

Sixth section

Opus Phidiae: Phidias Beyond the End of the Ancient World” explores the roots of the great sculptor’s unbroken fame in the modern age. In the 12th century, in the Mirabilia Urbis Romae, collections of Rome’s famous monuments compiled as guides for pilgrims visiting the city, we find the names of Phidias and Praxiteles inscribed on the bases of the colossal statues of the Quirinal,
associated, however, with philosophers or soothsayers who came to Rome at the time of Tiberius, thus losing their connection with the historical fact.

Other works

Other works in the section, which includes a focus on Canova and Thorvaldsen, include the marble group Antonio Canova seated in the act of embracing the Pheidian herm of Jupiter made in 1820 by Giovanni Ceccarini as a tribute to Canova, celebrating him as the Pheidian of the modern era (on loan from the Palazzo Comunale in Frascati) and the Cephysus, a plaster cast from the Accademia di Belle Arti in Fine Arts in Bologna taken from the original sculpted by Phidias (447-432 BC).

Who is Phidias

An art myth shrouded in an almost magical aura, Phidias lived in the Athenian Golden Age, when Pericles ruled, and under his tutelage produced incredible works, such as the Parthenon and its sculptural decorations and the mythical chryselephantine (i.e. made of gold and ivory) colossi, works that are among the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Very little is known about his existence and the little information we have comes to us from literary sources. His creative genius establishes him as an unsurpassed master of the classical Greek age: we can think of him as an equivalent of what Michelangelo was for the Renaissance.

The exhibition is promoted by:

Roma Capitale, Assessorato alla Cultura, Sovrintendenza Capitolina ai Beni Culturali and curated by Claudio Parisi Presicce.

Multimedia installations and digital content. The third section, dedicated to “The Parthenon and the Athena Parthenos” offers a unique opportunity to be transported back in time and relive the visit of the monument through the installation Phidias and the Parthenon.


Daily 9.30am-7.30pm. Last admission one hour before closing

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