A Frenchman on the Acropolis

In his small workshop perched on the Athens Acropolis, Mathieu Francois cuts white marble the way ancient workmen used to 2,500 years ago. The 47-year-old Frenchman is part of a giant effort to restore the renowned, fifth-century BC monument from the damages time and man have inflicted on it through the centuries. «The Acropolis is a magnificent place. It has a life of its own and the work we do there becomes a part of history,» Francois told AFP. Archaeologists have been facelifting Greece’s most visited ancient site since 1975. Work on the monument quickly becomes emotional. «It’s unsettling to detect tool traces left from stonecutters 2,500 years ago that look like they were carved yesterday.» Francois works at the site five days a week, seven-and-a-half hours a day. The Frenchman learned his trade on the island of Tinos – the country’s center for stone and marble cutters. Greek Petros Delatolas taught him their traditional way of stonecutting manually by tool rather than with machines as done today. «Delatolas started his career by working the stone manually by tool, which doesn’t happen anymore. It was he who taught me how to work the marble quicker,» Francois said. Aptly trained in the old masters’ ways, the Frenchman passed exams to become part of the Athens Acropolis restoration project. «I always wanted to restore ancient monuments, particularly from the classical period, whose works are perfect.» The fortunate coincidence of August’s Athens Olympics also helped to make his dream come true. «I was admitted in 1999… they hired people at the time to speed up works for completing the restoration before the Games.» Francois was assigned to the Acropolis’ majestic Propylaea gates. He works there to this day alongside 40 colleagues on different tasks, from casting missing statue parts to fitting and fine-cutting them. «It’s very difficult, one has to be very precise, one handles stone blocks weighing more than 15 tons.» Stone is engraved in the Frenchman’s family tradition. A grand-uncle, Oswald Wenckbach (1895-1962), was a well-known Dutch sculptor. Francois himself was born in the Netherlands and later grew up in the southern French region of Avignon-Carpentras. Before turning to marble, Francois worked in theater and music there. At the age of 16, he worked with French theatrical director Robert Hossein in the French city of Reims and then played in Paris. Equipped with a university degree in «European cultural management,» he arrived in Athens in 1993 as an intern at the local French institute to promote the Fete de la Musique – a annual music festival taking place in different cities across the continent. Fascinated by the country, he decided to stay. He opened a theater course, organized a tour for African music groups and then met the Tinos stonecutters, which led him to his current Acropolis adventure. His full-time job there does not exhaust the prolific Frenchman’s creativity. In his free time, he deepens his stonecutting skills at the defunct quarries at Mount Pendeli near Athens where the original Acropolis marble originated. At home in the Athens quarter of Kaisariani, he does side work. «I do ‘poor art’ from marble, sometimes bronze, but no wood.» Much of his material, snow-white Pendeli marble, is easiest found in the form of abandoned sinks from old Athens households. «In the 1950s it was fashionable to have a marble sink. Housewives insisted on the whitest marble they could get. That’s how much Pendeli marble was processed into the sinks which I now collect.» Francois is preparing an exhibition of his works in Turin, Italy in the spring. In June, he will take part in another art show on the Greek island of Rhodes. But the Acropolis will keep him busy for an indefinite period to come.