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Conservation in Action: the Bassae Frieze

Conservation in Action: The Bassae Frieze

Our casts of the Bassae frieze are in need of essential conservation work - it's a two-to-three week job, and we're going to be undertaking it right here, in our Cast Gallery. We'll be working with a team from Cliveden Conservation to remove the casts, strengthen them, and then rehang them with a new mounting system to prevent further damage.

It's going to be a tricky task: the Bassae casts are hung more than 3m high on the wall, and above our (very large) casts of the West Pediment from Olympia. But we'll be bringing you along with us. Book a ticket (lockdown permitting, of course) to see the conservation work for yourself or keep up to date online: we're going to be posting updates here and we've got a number of online events planned to keep you in the loop.

 

view of Bassai frieze with fighting centaurs
Our cast of the Bassai frieze is hung high above our heads - it's going to be tricky to access. In the original temple, it was hung even higher on the inside. (Bassae frieze, MOCA no.112a-q)

 

About the project

We are committed to ensuring our casts are preserved for future generations to enjoy and study – and as a result, we are regularly monitoring cracks in the plaster and corrosion in the metal, and embarking on a rolling programme of conservation work.

Plaster is a brittle and soft material, which is prone to damage, breaks and staining. Even touching can make it dirty. Internal metal skeletons and fixings are at risk of corrosion and metal fatigue. In this sense, our casts are more delicate than the originals.

Our casts of the Bassae frieze may not be at risk of touching (although look closely and you might see old handling marks) because they are mounted high up on the wall  but they pose their own challenges. We'll need to build a scaffold to access them, and we'll need to work carefully around the large and immobile casts of the West Pediment from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia beneath them. The new mounting system we'll be using will mean that their weight is carried by a shelf, rather than by mounts in the back of the plaster itself.

 

Planned dates

Start date: Monday 7 December 2020
Planned end date: Friday 18 December 2021
(This project may extend in January)

Please note: we will be closed for Christmas from 5pm on Friday 18 December 2020 and will reopen (lockdown permitting) at 11am on Tuesday 5 January 2021. We will also be closed on Friday 11 December for essential maintenance work.

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Upcoming Activities

Watch this space!

 

Our plaster casts of the Bassae Frieze

Cambridge, Museum of Classical Archaeology, nos.112a-q

Purchased: 1880 and 1884

Our casts of the Bassae Frieze are about 140 years. They were purchased as the Fitzwilliam Museum prepared to open their brand new Museum of Classical and General Archaeology on Little St Mary's Lane, behind the church - that's us! The Fitzwilliam Museum had decided to create a new museum to take the plaster casts (and other archaeological and ethnographic collections) out of its main galleries, and was investing heavily in expanding the cast collection in the run-up to throwing open the doors on 6 May 1884.

 

two parts of a panel from the Bassai frieze, with Hercules in the middle
This extra-long panel was cast in two pieces. It shows Herakles, stealing the girdle of the Amazon queen, Hippolyta: he's the figure in the middle. If you look closely, you can see the panels aren't quite hanging together properly. We're going to fix that. (Bassai frieze, MOCA no.112k1-2)

 

The first ten casts of the Bassae frieze to enter the collection were donated by Henry Sidgwick on 29 May 1880. Yes, that's the same Henry Sidgwick that Sidgwick Avenue, where we are located today, is named after: he was a key figure in the promotion of access to higher education women, and one of the founders of Newnham College. He also donated a number of casts of other objects in the British Museum, including a Discobolos.

Four years later, the Fitzwilliam Museum purchased another six casts of the frieze. They turned to the same supplier as Henry Sidgwick had done: Brucciani & Co in London. Brucciani was the premier plaster cast workshop, or formatore, in London and was the official supplier of casts for the British Museum.

Will we be able to tell the difference between the casts purchased in 1880 and those purchased in 1884? We don't know. Watch this space.

 

The original Bassae Frieze

London, British Museum 1815,1020.1-6, 10-11, 13-14, 17-23

Dates: c.450-500 BCE

The Bassae Frieze originally adorned the inside (the cella) of the Temple of Apollo in Phigalea (Greece). Here, Apollo was worshipped as Epikourios, the 'helper' - he seems to have been worshipped in particular by mercenaries, at this hard-to-reach site on a mountain-side.

 

scene from Bassai frieze with Caineus being beaten into ground by centaurs
This panel is unique in our gallery: it is our only cast to show the Greek hero Caineus. Caineus was born a woman, but the gods granted his request to become a man after an assault - and they gave him an invincible body. So the only the way the centaurs here can defeat him is by beating him into the ground with their shields, to be buried alive. (Bassai frieze, MOCA 112d)

 

The feature of an internal continuous frieze was an unusual one in a Greek temple: more often, decoration is focused on the outside. The frieze features Amazons fighting Greek heroes called Lapiths and, transitioning seamlessly, Centaurs fighting Greeks. The figures are stout and bulky, packed tightly together in close combat where neither the Greeks nor their foes seem to have the upper hand. Twenty three slabs of the original frieze are held by the British Museum and MOCA has cast of seventeen of them.

There was another seemingly unique feature of this temple, too. The Temple of Apollo at Bassae is the first recorded example of a Corinthian column, the most ornate of the Greek architectural orders. Corinthian columns are crowned with acanthus leaves sprouting from the capital. There was only one such elaborately-decorated columns at Bassae - and in most reconstructions it sits as the focal point at the end of the cella, where the cult statue would normally stand. Sadly, the Corinthian capital from Bassae is now lost.

 

panel from Bassai frieze with baby clasping at mother
The Bassai frieze shows female figure as both fighters and victims. Here, a baby clings to its mother as she comes under attack. Elsewhere, Amazon women are the aggressors. Can you see the dust? We're going to give the panels a good clean. (Bassai frieze, MOCA no.112g)

 

Further Reading

 

Museum of Classical Archaeology logo

Every cast tells two stories.
One ancient. One modern.

Admission is free.

 

Reopening

We are currently closed.
We will reopen on Tuesday 8 December.

In line with the latest Government advice regarding Covid 19, the Museum of Classical Archaeology intends to reopen to members of the public on Tuesday 8 December at 11am. Our first priority is the safety of our staff and visitors. Tickets must be booked in advance and will be released on Tuesday 1 December.

 

Closure for essential maintenance

We will be closed on Friday 11 December and Monday 14 December for essential maintenance. We apologise for any inconvenience caused.

 

Planned Christmas Closure

Pending reopening after lockdown, we will close for the Christmas break at 2pm on Friday 18th December 2020, and will reopen at 11am on Tuesday 5 January 2021.

 

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Opening hours

(From Tuesday 8 December)

Tues-Fri: 11am-2pm
Sat*: Closed
Sun and Monday: Closed

Closed on Bank Holidays

 

Saturday Opening

We are currently closed on Saturdays.

*Please note: We are only open on Saturdays during University of Cambridge term time.

 

 

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Museum of Classical Archaeology
Faculty of Classics
Sidgwick Avenue
Cambridge
CB3 9DA

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