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Many of the buildings we know best—from football stadiums to shopping malls—have Greek origins. The simple Greek megaron gave birth to both the temple and the basilica, the two building forms that many civic and religious shrines still embody. The Greek temple, with its pedimental facade, lives on in civic buildings, palaces, and ostentatious private homes throughout the world. Football and soccer are played in oval stadiums, the spectators now sitting on seats more comfortable than the stone slabs or dirt slopes they sat on in ancient Greek stadiums. Most theaters are now indoors, not outdoors, but the layout of stage, wings, and orchestra goes back to Greek theaters. The prototypes of shopping malls, with their side-by-side multiplicity of shops, can be found in almost every ancient Greek city. In fact, the mixture of shops and civic buildings, private homes, and public parks is one that most ancient Greeks knew very well. And, whenever we can look inside those ancient buildings, we see pots and pans in shapes many of which are familiar today (round-lidded casseroles and long-handled frying pans, to name just two of the most common). Many elegant homes still emulate the frescoed walls and pitched red-tile roofs of classical Greek antiquity.

In short, Greece was not just the "cradle of democracy," but the nursery of much of Western art and architecture. The portrait busts and statues of heroes that ornament almost every European city have their origins in ancient Greece. Both the elaborate vaulted funerary monuments and the simple stone grave markers of today can be found throughout ancient Greece. Much of Greek art and architecture was dedicated to one or more of the Greek gods, many of whose names are unfamiliar today.

Ancient Art

Ancient Greek art and sculpture have been major influences in the West and the East, shaping what is still considered the ideal. The gods themselves took on perfect human form in the marble sculptures created during the classical era, when Hellenic art reached its apex. Artists began carving and painting scenes on pediments and friezes as well, and sculpture flourished around the Mediterranean.

Athletic performance was exalted then as now, and perfection of the human form in motion was achieved in sculpture with Myron’s Discus Thrower (surviving in copies). The greatest sculptor of classical Greece is said to be Phidias, who designed the Parthenon friezes—battles, legends, and processions, including serene-faced gods, representing order triumphing over chaos.

Rhodes, Corinth, and Athens all had their own styles of pottery: plants and animals, fantastical creatures, and humans, respectively. Black-figure pottery first appeared in the 7th century B.C. with humans as the subject, and Athens produced most of it. With the 530-B.C. invention of the red-figure technique (black background, red clay), attributed to an Andokides workshop vase painter, artists were able to paint in finer detail. Athens became a center of ceramic exports by the 4th century B.C., and quality suffered with mass-production, much as it has today.

Greece’s artistic legacy didn’t wither after the classical era. In medieval times, artists such as Theophanes the Cretan (died 1559) painted icons and frescoes; a number of good ones are in monasteries in Mount Athos and Meteora. El Greco (Kyriakos Theotokopoulos, 1541–1614), a student of Titian, was born in Crete, though he lived and died in Toledo, Spain.

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