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The Ancient Art of Marble Sculpture Lives on at Greece’s Tinos

Marble art Tinos
Sculptor Petros Marmarinos, Pyrgos, Tinos Island, Greece. Credit:Courtesy of the Petros Marmarinos Studio

When one thinks of white stone sculptures, and the clear, cerulean waters of Tinos island, Greece comes to mind. The two are synonymous with each other, like the colors of the Greek flag.

The Greeks, who are regarded as the most superior sculptors of antiquity, favored the softness of marble when rendering fine, precise sculptures of either gods or humans. Its homogenous texture allowed for minute details with small margins of error.

Ancient marble sculptures ignite our imagination, like the controversial Parthenon Marbles (c. 447–438 BC), the breathtaking Nike of Samothrace (190 BC), the discovery of the Varvakeion Athena (200-250 AD), and the stunning Aphrodite of Milo.

What is it about this stone that evokes such an elusive stirring in us all?

Marble Art from Tinos

Should you happen to wander around the National Gardens of Athens near the Zappeion building, you will come across a few marble sculptures in amongst the trees.

There is the Wood Splitter, (1908) by renowned Greek sculptor Dimitrios Filippotis (1839-1919), installed in the gardens from 1958. His Young Wheat Reaper is also there, still perfectly lifelike despite being created in 1870.

Or perhaps you find yourself walking around the First Cemetery of Athens, where you will see many beautiful and somber works of early marble sculptors from the 19th century, like the Sleeping Woman (1878) by Giannoulis Chalepas (1851 -1938).

On a warm day, it is best to wear sunglasses against the shining marble reflecting the sun. Still, when you reach out in front of you to touch the resplendent white surface, shimmering as if it were alive, it feels unexpectedly cool and soft.

Giannoulis Chalepas and Dimitrios Filippotis are two artisans who originated from Tinos, from the town of Pyrgos, or Panormos, as it is sometimes referred to. Somewhere in the breeze, you can almost imagine the bell-like pings of the chisels in Pyrgos that bring life to its marble… for this is where the very souls of the statues were born.

Marble art Tinos
The marble sculptors of Pyrgos, Tinos island. Credit: Courtesy of the Petros Marmarinos Studio

Tinos — different from the rest

A long-held legend claims that the people of Tinos were initially taught about the craft of marble art by Phidias, whose ship, on the way to Delos, was forced by strong winds to shelter there. Whether this story is true or not, it is on account of the island of Tinos that sculpture started in the Cyclades with its rich abundance of dove-white and dark Verde marble.

Using hand tools, including sharp-tipped hammers, saws and iron wedges, the creations were near perfection.

Tinos and other Cycladic islands came under Venetian control from 1207 to 1715, following the Byzantine period. This occupation produced the “Golden Age” of Greek painting, sculpture, and the arts.

Marble art sculpture of a boat by Petros Marmarinos. Credit: Courtesy of the Petros Marmarinos studio

When Tinos was finally taken over by the Ottoman Empire in 1715, many residents were already highly skilled artisans. They were suddenly in demand throughout the Balkans, southern Russia, and Asia Minor. However, because Tinos, out of all the other islands, was only loosely ruled by the Turks, its folk art was not influenced by their occupation.

Upon gaining its independence from Turkey in 1829, Greece began to rebuild itself with the help of these masterful Tiniot marble workers. When the capital of Greece was transferred to Athens in 1834, the famous Tinian marble craftsmen and artists were invited to create the beautiful, classic marble pieces we celebrate today.

Masons from Tinos invited to Athens

It was the marble sculptors of Tinos who were involved in projects like the University of Athens, the National Library, the Metropolis Cathedral of Athens, the National Archaeological Museum, and the Old Houses of Parliament, to name a few. Tinian masons, and their sons, were also employed in the reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalos in the 1950s in the Agora of Athens; then they ascended the Acropolis in the mid-1970s to begin work on the Erechtheion.

Marble and Tinian craftmanship plays such a significant role in Athenian culture. Even apartments built in the 1960s and 70s have traditional marble sinks, and many old neighborhood curbs have their streets lined with marble.

The Acropolis Restoration Service (YSMA) now welcomes the third generation of these modern masons in restoring pieces of the Parthenon following age-old techniques.

Marble and the Cyclades
Marble sculptures of hearts on the Cycladic island of Tinos by Petros Marmarinos. Credit: Courtesy of the Petros Marmarinos Studio

The Tinos “marble village” of Pyrgos

Marble art sculpture is an expression of the cultural identity in Tinos, especially in Pyrgos, which is the largest village on Tinos Island with approximately 1,000 residents. Pyrgos has been described by many as an “open-air marble museum.”

Everywhere you turn, there is a spectacular display of intricately carved marble – motifs or fanlights on buildings or ecclesiastic iconostases believed to deflect evil influences. Family crests on snow-white houses, town squares, arches, corbels, monuments, door lintels, or fountains are in white engraved marble to conjure fertility or prosperity.

Pyrgos (Panormos), Tinos island
The bus stop in the “Open-Air museum” that is Pyrgos village on Tinos island. Credit:Stepanps/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

The town is also full of many different marble workshops. Once apprentices complete their training and earn the title of “Master Craftsperson,” they are presented with a small chest containing a set of tools. Almost one quarter are now women, which heralds a welcome change of the times.

A marble carver exists in nearly every family of Pyrgos. It is part of the DNA of any child born on the village that the knowledge and technical expertise of marble carving have been transferred from generation to generation.

As such, Pyrgos village has been included in the list of Representative Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of UNESCO in 2015.

The School of Fine Arts and the Museum of Tinos

The famous Pyrgos School of Fine Arts has been operating since 1955. The three-year course mainly teaches marble sculpture, architectural drawing, painting, and art history. The top two graduates are admitted without exams to the Athens School of Fine Arts each year.

The school, which belongs to the Greek Ministry of Culture, is instrumental in the tradition of marble sculpture, is funded by the Evangelistria of Tinos Foundation.

Creating a marble replica using a pointing device on a plaster model (Exhibition unit 3, marble carving). Credit:Museum of Marble Crafts, Pyrgos, Tinos island, Greece/Piraeus Bank Group Cultural Foundation © PIOP, N. Daniilidis

There is also an impressive Museum of Marble Crafts in Pyrgos, with a permanent collection recently opened to the public by the Piraeus Bank Group Cultural Foundation on International Sculpture Day on April 24, 2021. They salvaged and repaired old mechanical equipment that could replicate with precision and speed the skill of the ancient masons.

A comprehensive exhibition presents the designs of Tinian marble sculptors from the turn of the century, like those of Michalis Kouskouris (1886 -1971) and Ioannis Lampaditis (1856 – 1920) and his son, Evryviadis, famous throughout Greece, just to name a few.

Greek Reporter spoke to three marble carvers of note from Tinos.

Ioannis Filippotis of Athens

The descendant of the great modern Greek sculptor, Dimitrios Filippotis, Ioannis Filippotis,  continues the family tradition with his well-established workshop in Athens. He was named after his grandfather, another well-known sculptor. Ioannis Filippotis, who was born in 1908 in Pyrgos, Tinos.

Ioannis took over the family marble carving workshop in 1937 and created a name for himself like his forefathers. He carved a magnificent figure of Christ at the Monastery at Kechrovouni. His payment for this work, as it was right after World War II, was only two cartons of cigarettes and a sack of flour.

He constructed the great bell tower of the Holy Church of Panagia Evaggelistria of Tinos (Our Lady of Tinos) between 1951 and 1956. It has an imposing height of nearly 30 meters high, where it soars upwards in three marble compartments (lanterns), culminating in the shape of a cross.

his grandson Ioannis, a designer and ecclesiastical artist in his own right, speaks of his grandfather with pride to Greek Reporter, saying “That belltower holds approximately 50 cubic meters of marble and took him five years to build. My grandfather had 30 marble carvers on his team. With the money he was paid from building the bell tower, he purchased acres of land, constructed two homes, and created a workshop!”

Ioannis’ father, Stratis Filippotis, was also born in Pyrgos but left the island when he was 18 to study design and art at the Athens School of Fine Arts. There he opened up a workshop and a flourishing career, creating 300 iconostasis and 150 statues, whose designs can be sold online.

Ioannis and his father work together in Athens, but along with their over 80-year-old ‘Pappou Ioannis,’ their hearts belong to Pyrgos, on Tinos.

Petros Dellatolas of Spitalia, Tinos

Born in 1946, Petros Dellatolas has been carving marble since he was five years old. He graduated from Pyrgos School of Fine Arts in Tinos in 1961 and worked in Ioannis Filippotis’ workshop until 1966. From 1969 to today, he has been working and inspiring others to create marble art at his workshop in Spitalia on Tinos.

Throughout his distinguished career, Dellatolas has done major architectural work, as well as restoration of ancient sites in Greece for the Greek Ministry of Culture and Ephorate of Antiquities for the Cyclades, to name a few. His ecclesiastical artworks are also seen in Tinos, Syros, Mykonos, and Santorini and his sculptures have been exhibited in Greece, Europe, and America.

Credit: Courtesy of the Dellatolas Marble Sculpture Studio, Pyrgos, Tinos Island

Currently, at 75 years of age, Dellatolas is enjoying his retirement. While he is always on hand to offer guidance to other marble art sculptors, he feels it better suits him to limit his advice to the philosophical sphere on the nature of marble carving; the technical advancements in his craft have replaced most of the classic tools he used to use.

He told Greek Reporter he could not say which one particular piece brought him the most joy or satisfaction in creating. He admits it can sometimes be that the latest piece is not always the best example of the advancement of his craft, “…but in fact, it is one’s life’s work as a whole story that one must observe. And from there,” he says to Greek Reporter with modesty, “you might sense a feeling of overall achievement.”

Petros Marmarinos of Pyrgos, Tinos

Born in 1970 in Pyrgos, Tinos, Marmarinos’ full name, incredibly means ‘stone’ and ‘marble mason.’ He inherited his talent from one of his grandfathers, a woodcarver and painter, and from the other, his remarkable name.

It had never occurred to Marmarinos to study marble masonry, although he had quite a few friends who did. He intended to study drawing in Athens, but by an unseen hand, he fell into marble art sculpture and enrolled at the school too in 1988, carrying on the family  tradition.

Sculptor Petros Marmarinos at his studio in Pyrgos. Credit: Courtesy of the Petros Marmarinos Studio

Sometime after his first two pieces of work, a boat (an exact copy of a wooden carving by his grandfather) and an icon of Christ, were placed in an exhibition. Out of the 200 artists who had participated in the show, it was his boat that had been highlighted in the newspapers, and his work started to speak for itself. That providential unseen hand had led the way again.

A few years later, he was invited to display his art at a philanthropic exhibition for the charity, The Smile of the Child, (Το Χαμόγελο του Παιδιού). One of the highlights of his career is having a significant collection recently certified to be shown at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, in the United States, permanently.

He told Greek Reporter, “I enjoy using old methods to create something new and minimal using simple lines. I am inspired by the ancient Greek sculptures, his modern fellow-townsfolk, the abovementioned Giannoulis Chalepas, and Dimitris Filippotis and Michaelangelo and Rodin.”

He says, “Since I was a child, I remember that unique ‘pinging’ sound coming out from the Pyrgos’ workshops. Nowadays, my workshop has joined in carrying along this local ‘musical’ tradition.”

Other sculptors of note from Pyrgos include Michail Saltamanikas, Filippos Kagiorgis and Paris Kollaros.

Ancient sculptors and quarries of marble

Soon after the Greco-Persian wars left much of Athens in ruins and Pericles commenced his building program in the 440s BC, Pentelic marble was excavated on the southwest side of the mountain. These ancient quarrying scars can still be seen.

Workshop of marble sculptor, Phidias
Workshop of Phidias at Olympia/Credit:Alun Salt/Wikipedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0

Prominent Greek sculptors, such as Phidias (5th century BC), who created the Parthenon marbles, and Praxiteles (4th century BC), who was responsible for the Attica sculptures, mostly used this fine-grained white marble of Penteli.

However, from the islands, while semi-translucent marble from Paros was also used by the ancient Greeks, as well as the crystalline marble from Thassos, it has been the 5,000-year-old quarries of Tinos island that have been prized most until today.

This cool, fine rock and its use in the artistic world is prized for its association with ancient masterpieces of the classical world.

From prehistoric Cycladic figurines to the ancient Temple of Apollo Zoster (6th century BC) in Vouliagmeni, to the Peplos Kore (530 BC) of Athens, marble has been used time and time again in Greek art and architecture to honor the gods, celebrate beauty, and hypnotize the public.

On Tinos island, especially in the village of Pyrgos, a tower, a lintel, a temple, or a bust, will remind you that unearthly art is everywhere, the dove-white reality that connects the people of Tinos to the art of marble.

As the song by the popular Greek singer says, Giorgos Zabetas says, “and I will bring a Tinian craftsman at your doorsteps.”

Handpainted marble sculpture. Credit: Courtesy of the Petros Marmarinos Studio, Pyrgos, Tinos Island


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