The spectacular Pergamon Panorama exhibition, currently being hosted by the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, is a journey to the ancient Greek city of Pergamon in Asia Minor as it existed in AD 129. It depicts the Roman era under Hadrian, who spent some time in the city.
The Panorama was developed in 2011 by the artist and architect Yadegar Asisi as part of a special exhibition at the Pergamon Museum. The first show, untitled “Pergamon: Panorama of the Ancient Metropolis“, was incredibly successful, attracting over 1.5 million visitors during its one year run. Now, the monumental 360° panorama is back with an even more realistic and larger version and an accompanying exhibition in which 80 of the Antikensammlung’s most important works from Hellenistic Pergamon are on display. However, the Pergamon panorama has been given alternative accommodation during the partial closure of the Pergamonmuseum for renovation. A temporary new building was erected opposite the Bode Museum with an exhibition area of around 2,000 square metres.
The ancient city of Pergamon (now known as Bergama, in present-day Turkey) was the capital of the Attalid dynasty (3rd – 2nd century BC) which ruled over large parts of Asia Minor. It was famous for its impressive monumental structures, its sculpture workshops, its important library and school of philosophers, and was a flourishing centre of Greek art and culture in the Hellenistic period. The city was built high above the Bakirçay valley (the ancient Kaikos valley) on extensive systems of terraces and retaining walls with buildings adapted to the sloping terrain.
During the Roman period, Pergamon was the first capital of the Asian province, but it eventually lost this status to its local rival, Ephesus. Hadrian granted it the title of metropolis (mother-city) in AD 123, and as a result of this, the city saw a significant burst in building activity: temples, a stadium, a theatre, a huge forum, and an amphitheatre were constructed. Besides, the sanctuary to Asclepius (the god of healing) was expanded into a lavish spa.
The archaeological site of Pergamon has provided many fine works of Hellenistic and Roman art, but perhaps the most impressive is the Great Altar of Zeus which now resides in the Pergamonmuseum in Berlin. Most of the finds from the excavations before the First World War were taken to Berlin, with a smaller portion going to the İstanbul Archaeological Museum after it was opened in 1891. After the First World War, the Bergama Museum opened and has received all the finds discovered since then.
With Asisi’s 360° panorama, visitors are transported to the acropolis of Pergamon and come face to face with a complete picture of the city in the 2nd century AD as well as detailed scenes of everyday life. The room in which the panorama is presented features a 15 metre-high raised tower where visitors climb up to three platforms, allowing for a spectacular bird’s eye view of the city.
As visitors walk around the platforms, Asisi’s meticulous attention to detail is revealed. In preparation for this extensive project, Yadegar Asisi travelled to Bergama to photograph the entire landscape and ruins around him. In addition, all the people featured in the panorama were photographed in period clothing, and then carefully placed into each scene while Hellenistic sculptures served as models for the numerous scenes of ancient life.
In close cooperation with the German Archaeological Institute, the visuals from the first Pergamon panorama were comprehensively reworked with 40 new scenes added into the picture. The new panorama is six metres higher and shows more everyday scenes, Asisi having taken scientific criticism of its reconstruction into account in the revision. Overall, the panorama will be more realistic, and the viewer is now presented with a bloodier representation of the acts of sacrifice at the great altar. Asisi has also corrected the architecture, especially for residential buildings, and redesigned everyday life with scenes of poverty and slavery.
The action takes place on 8 April AD 129, on the day that Hadrian was expected to visit the ancient city. His visit coincides with one the most important religious festival in the ancient calendar, the Great Dionysia, taking place in the theatre. As we climb up to the upper platform, three main sections of the panorama stand out amid the sound of the hustle and bustle of the city: the Theatre of Dionysus, the Great Altar, and the stonemasons and sculptors workshops.
The 3,100 sq m circular representation is an immersive 3D experience in which visitors feel suddenly catapulted into the hustle and bustle of the city through a day cycle. People gather in the square in front of the Acropolis, a woman is washing her clothes in the river, a dog is barking from a distance. An elaborate light show allows the day to pass from sunrise to dusk, and atmospheric music by awarded film composer Eric Babak recreates the sound from the scenery we see in the pictures.
Hadrian commissioned various improvements and expansions that changed the face of Pergamon and Asisi’s panorama reflects these urban changes. The Emperor had the monumental Trajaneum (a Temple for Trajan and Zeus Philios) on the Upper Acropolis area completed. Scaffolding on the retaining wall of the building and around Trajan’s colossal statue reveals that the work is still being done at the time of Hadrian’s second visit Pergamon. With its glossy white marble, it outshines the rest of the buildings on the upper city.
Hadrian is shown entering the upper tiers of the theatre through one of the stone arches. He is accompanied by his wife Vibia Sabina and his companion, the beautiful youth Antinous. They are all attending the Great Dionysia, an important religious festival taking place every spring. We see thousands of inhabitants and visitors flocking to the theatre and actors getting ready for their performance. On the terrace of the Theatre of Dionysus, the festival procession approaches and sacrifices are being made on the altar.
Above the theatre, people have gathered at the Temple of Athena, Pergamon’s oldest sanctuary dating back to the 4th century BC. The temple was a north-facing Doric peripteros temple with six columns on the short side and ten on the long side and a cella divided into two rooms. The foundations of the temple, measuring around 12.70 x 21.80 metres, are still visible today (see here). The sanctuary of Athena was entered through a magnificent gateway (propylon) which was added by King Eumenes II in the early 2nd century BC. It has been rebuilt in the Pergamonmuseum (see here).
Behind the temple of Athena stands the Pergamon library which is said to have been the second largest in the ancient Greek world after the Library of Alexandria and to have housed more than 200,000 scrolls. However, the location of the library building is not certain. Since the 19th century excavations, it has generally been identified with an annexe of the northern stoa of the sanctuary of Athena in the Upper Citadel, but inscriptions found in the gymnasium which mention a library might indicate, that the building was located in that area.
At the Great Altar of Zeus, Pergamon’s most famous structure, bloody sacrifices are being performed in honour of the god to encourage his benevolence. Most offerings to Zeus were bulls or rams. The animals would have been slaughtered with large axes or sacrificial knives after being stunned with a wooden mallet. The beasts were then burnt on the small fire altar inside the huge altar edifice. The colourful frieze in high relief showing the battle between the Giants and the Olympian gods known as the Gigantomachy is particularly striking. A second frieze in lower relief runs in the upper, internal courtyard. It depicts the life story of Herakles’ son Telephos, the mythical hero of the Pergamene countryside.
Although about 85% of the Great Frieze has been preserved, considerable parts depicting of the gigantomachy are missing. Starting in the late 19th century, attempts have been made time and again to complete the frieze with varying degrees of authenticity. For Yadegar Asisi this represented a particularly difficult challenge since his panorama is intended to show the city of Pergamon as it looked in AD 129. Advised by top experts on the altar, he made sketches of the missing parts of bodies, garments and weapons based on similar scenes in other Hellenistic sculptures. Asisi’s reconstruction of the frieze is said to be the most plausible in both archaeological and artistic terms. The drawing is on display alongside the panorama tower.
In the shadow of the Great Altar are scenes from the slave market. The Roman slave trade became an important commercial activity, particularly in between the 1st century BC and the 2nd century AD. One of the principal centres of the slave trade appears to have been Ephesus, situated approximately 200 kilometres away from Pergamon. According to the ancient sources, the number of slaves employed in the house of a wealthy family could be 200. As Roman Ephesus had more than 250,000 inhabitants there would have been about 60,000 slaves. On the panorama, the slaves are shown lined up like cattle in front of a house and are being presented on a podium to their future masters. Here, Asisi had to rely solely on his artistic intuition as there is no surviving image of a slave market.
The sculptors and stonemasons workshops are depicted as a group of wooden huts on a terrace above the Great Altar. The kings of Pergamon possessed virtually unlimited funds and embellished their capital city with a profusion of sculptures of the highest quality. Not only did they employ many of the best Greek sculptors, but they also collected older works of art.
Pergamon was also famous for the production of parchment, a durable writing material made of animal skin. Indeed, parchment (Greek: pergamene) was named after the city. An ancient anecdote even attributes its invention to the Pergamenes, but this is a legend. They probably only improved the production method. Pergamene was made of untanned skins of animals and was expensive and not readily available.
There are also scenes of everyday life in the residential area on the steep slopes with rocky sanctuaries where people are shown making small bloodless sacrifices to commune with their gods.
On the plain below the acropolis, the panorama shows the Roman town with its typical urban planning. Private houses and public buildings are bordered by a network of parallel and perpendicular streets. Large-scale construction such as the amphitheatre, the enormous circus with its race track and the semicircular theatre with its high stage building are all present. We can also make out the building we know today as the Red Basilica (also known as the Red Hall), a sanctuary of gigantic proportions probably built on the orders of Hadrian and thought to have been used for the worship of the Egyptian gods. It consists of a forecourt lined by porticos and a main building made of brick and faced with marble (see here).
Farther afield, on the fertile plain, was the Asclepeion, the sanctuary of the god of healing, Asklepios. This place of pilgrimage for the sick in search of a cure had transregional significance in Hellenistic times and was later held in the highest esteem throughout the Roman Empire. Under Hadrian, the sanctuary was endowed with magnificent architecture.
The accompanying exhibition presents some 80 objects from the Antikensammlung collection, arranged predominantly according to their find site and ancient display context. The Prometheus group from the Sanctuary of Athena is mounted on an abstract Caucasus landscape in gold. The Parrot Mosaic from the palace complex stands resplendent against a dark red wall. The Telephos Frieze from the Pergamon Altar is displayed in the changing light of day and night. The Great Frieze is represented by a multimedia installation, as it has to remain in the Pergamonmuseum for conservation reasons.
Since 2003, Yadegar Asisi has been the creator of the world’s biggest panoramas. In his pictorial representations of cities (ROME 312), the natural world (Amazonia, Everest) and events from history (The Wall), the spectrum of his subjects are as diverse as his working methods, which range from drawing by hand to digital image creation. His 360° Panoramas create visual worlds that break free from two dimensions and are instead elevated to art spaces of monumental proportions.
The panorama and his accompanying exhibition are one of the most incredible installations and most beautiful pieces of art I have ever seen. It is an absolute must-see experience for visitors to Berlin. Sadly, due to the coronavirus, all buildings of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin are currently closed to the public until further notice.
- Catalogue: Scholl, Andreas, and Agnes Schwarzmaier, eds. Pergamon – Meisterwerke der antiken Metropole und 360°-Panorama von Yadegar Asisi. Pp. 320. Imhof Verlag, Petersberg. ISBN 978-3-7319-0793-0.