Art and Culture

The Telamon of the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento

In the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, on February 29, 2024, a Telamon (Atlas) was raised: a giant made of arenaceous tufa, nearly eight meters in height. The colossus has been recomposed and partially reconstructed after meticulous and extensive work carried out on fragments worn by time, remnants of the colossal statues that in the 5th century BCE they adorned and supported the upper part of the majestic Temple of Zeus. The raised Telamon represents not an “anastylosis” but a work of “musealization”: the first piece of a significant project born to enhance the understanding of the majestic Olympieion of Akràgas, starting with the grandeur of the statues arranged along its entire frieze. To provide you with a comprehensive and easy-to-reference historical and cultural overview of this initiative, we have organized the article around the following list of items:

What does Telamon mean and who were the Telamons

Telamon of the Temple of Zeus – Archeo. Museum of Agrigento

To better grasp the meaning of the gigantic Telamons of the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Agrigento, one must delve into Greek mythology. According to the myth, before the advent of the Olympian gods, the world was ruled by Cronus, known for devouring his newborn children, and the Titans: beings endowed with cyclopean strength and dimensions, often with a rough and brutal appearance. When the young Zeus defeated his father Cronus, the Titans moved to war against him, rejecting the new divine hierarchy.

With the assistance of his siblings and other Olympian deities, Zeus prevailed and compelled the defeated giants to bear “enormous weights” for eternity. Emblematic is the figure of Atlas, condemned to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders. These giants, bent under an unbearable burden, became the symbol of Zeus’s unstoppable power. A mythological episode that resurfaced in Greek architecture through the Telamons: imposing male statues used as supports for entablatures or as decorative elements, depicted in the perpetual act of “bearing a heavy load,” just like the monumental Telamons of the Temple of Zeus in Agrigento.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus: from greatness to ruin

Temple of Zeus – Virtual Reconstruction

The Olympieion of Akragas, present-day Agrigento, was designed to be one of the wonders of the ancient world, a unique creation both for its colossal dimensions and the originality of its architectural solutions. The construction of the majestic Temple began in the aftermath of the decisive victory achieved by the Akragantines over the Carthaginians in 480 BCE at Himera—a triumph that solidified the political and cultural supremacy of Agrigento and Syracuse over Sicily. This victory echoed the one achieved by the Greeks in the homeland during the same years: after the heroic sacrifice of Leonidas and his 300 Spartans, Themistocles inflicted a memorable defeat on the Persian fleet in the Battle of Salamis, thereby putting an end, also in 480 BCE, to the expansionist ambitions of Xerxes.

In such a historical context, the construction of the Olympian Temple of Zeus in Agrigento represented not only a monumental tribute to the father of the gods for the victory achieved but also the seal of Greek civilization’s supremacy at its zenith. Notably, the Olympieion, the Temple dedicated to Zeus, boasted truly unusual dimensions: 112.70 x 56.30 meters, which means it had an area almost twice as large as the Parthenon and comparable to the surface of a modern football stadium. Unlike other temples erected in the Valley, the Temple of Zeus was not surrounded by free-standing columns but was enclosed by walls on which semi-columns, approximately 18 meters high -seven on the short sides and fourteen on the long sides – were attached. Between each semi-column, at a height of around 11 meters, the colossal Telamons were positioned, supporting the imposing frieze.

Temple of Zeus – Virtual Reconstruction

For about seventy years, the construction continued until an abrupt halt in 406 BCE due to the Carthaginian conquest, marking the decline of Akràgas’s grandeur. The magnificent work remained unfinished, as reported by ancient historians Polybius and Diodorus Siculus. As one might imagine, the built sections inexorably succumbed to ruin, not only due to the effects of weather but also because of structural issues resulting from the incomplete construction. Historian Tommaso Fazello states that the last remnants of the grand Olympieion collapsed around 1400. The immense field of ruins was further depleted in the early decades of the 1700s due to the reuse of blocks as stones for the construction of the docking pier in Porto Empedocle, the city’s new port. Archaeology, as a discipline focused on the enhancement, preservation, and restoration of antiquities, only emerged in the late 1700s. Until then, it was a well-established practice to reuse materials or give new purposes to ancient buildings.

A Telamon rises again: from ruin to grandeur

Telamon of the Temple of Zeus – Archeo. Museum of Agrigento

Of the 38 Telamons that were meant to support the frieze of the majestic Olympieion of Akràgas, very few remains were left. However, thanks to the illustrious architect, artist, and archaeologist Raffaele Politi, one of the surviving Telamons was almost entirely recomposed in 1826. Today, it can be admired in all its mighty presence in the “Zeus Room” of the Archaeological Museum of Agrigento, alongside three Telamon heads unearthed in 1928 by archaeologist Pirro Marconi. A faithful reproduction was created in the location where Raffaele Politi recomposed the Telamon, and it is still resting among the ruins of the temple cell.

Casting of the Telamon displayed at the Museum

Since 2004, the Archaeological Park of the Valley of the Temples, in collaboration with the Germanic Institute of Rome, initiated new scientific studies on the fragments still existing and scattered in the area of the Temple of Zeus. After meticulous research and mapping, it was revealed that one Telamon still had approximately 80 percent of the original pieces.

Remains of the Temple of Zeus

Thus, a musealization project was born, primarily aimed at recovering and raising the stone giant “in situ”: the largest statue from antiquity in Sicily and among the most significant works created by Greek art. To enable an overview, the original blocks were integrated with a reconstruction of the missing parts, always made of tuff but in a way to remain distinguishable from the original blocks. The Telamon is housed in a special metal prism made of Cor-Ten steel, a material highly appreciated by architects and engineers for its robustness, resistance to atmospheric agents, and its ability to “self-protect” by developing a superficial patina in a few months, giving it a reddish-brown color. This characteristic will soon harmonize the prism with the landscape of the Valley of the Temples.

Elevated Telamon “in situ” – Valley of the Temples

The prism reproduces in its volumes the surface on which the Telamon was leaned and the frame of the temple it supported. Circular plates emerge from the prism, following the arrangement of the blocks, not only providing a complete view of the statue but also distributing the enormous weight of the pieces. This solution harmonizes various needs, including the safety and stability of the structure. In conclusion, after twenty years of studies, research, and work, the “stone giant” of ancient Akragas has risen again, just in time to welcome visitors to Agrigento, the Italian Capital of Culture 2025, of which it is also a symbol.

Where to find the Telamons

The recently recomposed and raised Telamon is located, as the map shows, on the north side of the Temple of Zeus within the Valley of the Temples. Not far from it, lying in the area corresponding to the inner cell of the Temple, is the cast of the original Telamon preserved inside the Archaeological Museum ‘Pietro Griffo’. Below is the complete interactive map of the places where you can admire the Telamons of the Temple of Zeus in Agrigento.

Telamons's Map - Valley of the Temples and Museum

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