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The Temple of Segesta

Temple of Segesta near Trapani

The temple of Segesta is a Greek temple of the ancient city of Segesta, located in the archaeological area of Calatafimi Segesta, an Italian municipality in the province of Trapani in Sicily.

“The position of the temple is amazing: at the top of a wide and long valley, at the top of an isolated hill and yet surrounded by cliffs, it dominates a vast prospect of lands.”

J.W. Goethe – Italian Journey

Description of the Temple

The temple, sometimes called the “Great Temple”, was built during the last thirty years of the 5th century BC, on the top of a hill west of the city, outside its walls. It is a large hexastyle peripteral temple (ie with six columns on the shorter side, not grooved). On the long side it instead presents fourteen columns (a total of 36 therefore, 10 meters high). The current state of preservation presents the entire colonnade of the complete peristasis of the entire entablature. Despite the constructive elements and the proportions of the construction refer clearly to the classical period of Greek architecture, the temple has peculiar aspects on which historiography does not express unanimous opinions.

The Temple of Segesta
Detail of the tympanum of the Temple of Segesta

The origins of the Temple of Segesta

The first element of debate is constituted precisely by its nature of fully Hellenic artistic expression, updated to the major expressions of the art of the motherland and in particular of Attica, but realized in a city of the Elymians, a population of uncertain origin, but settled in Sicily long before the arrival of the Greek colonists in nearby Selinunte, with whom Segesta was constantly in conflict. Historians hypothesize that, thanks to trade, the Elymian city reached during the 5th century BC a high degree of Hellenization, such as to be able to consciously import a sophisticated artistic model like the Doric peripteral temple which thanks to the canonization of dimensions and proportions lent itself to a wide diffusion. It is also probable that the designer and the workers employed were Greek, coming from one of the nearby cities.

The second aspect that has always struck historians very much is the absence of vestiges of the cell inside the colonnade, which instead is one of the best preserved in the Greek world. This made us think of a hypetro temple, that is, of a sacred place devoid of cover and cell and tied to indigenous rites. As an alternative, a cell with a wooden structure was conceived, like all the cover, and therefore lost

Ashlars of the Temple of Segesta
The credipoma and the evident ashlars of the temple of Segesta

Historical Notes

1921/5000In the 1980s traces of the founding of the cell were found, buried inside the temple, along with traces of previous constructions (which would suggest that the temple was built on an even older sacred site). [4] Therefore the prevailing hypothesis now is that the temple was never finished, probably due to war events that involved the city for a long time and that the cell and the cover were never realized. This hypothesis is also corroborated by the lack of column grooves and by the presence, above all on the blocks of the crepidoma, of “bugne”, that is, of protuberances designed to protect the block during installation which would have been chiseled away in the finishing phase. Therefore, the temple should have had a large cell preceded by a pronaos in distal antis and a symmetrical opisthodomos on the back. The colonnade, with equal interaxes on all sides, presents the canonical double contraction of the terminal intercolumns to resolve the angular conflict as well as other typical optical devices such as the curvature of the horizontal lines and the decorative conception of the frieze that loses, at least in part its dependence on the colonnade. These features show a derivation from the attic evolutionary models of the late 5th century BC and in particular from the temple of the Athenians in Delos, to which the decorative elements also refer. The only aspects still referable to the severe style are the elongated proportions with 6×14 columns instead of the canonical 6×13 (double square), and the large dimensions in an age when the temples became smaller.

In the XVIII century the temple was the object of a first restoration by the architect Chenchi. It was visited by Goethe and became one of the goals of the Grand Tour and one of the causes of the rediscovery of Greek architecture and of the Doric that was at the roots of neoclassicism.

Longitudinal view of Segesta Temple
Peculiarity of Segesta Temple
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