On this clear morning destined for the departure for Delphi I am unconsoled at having to leave Athens, where everything measures up to the artistic emotion.The distance between Athens and Delphi, on a well-kept road, is 243 kilometres. The itinerary includes a halt, around noon, in Levadia, a medieval looking little town where a rich-flowing river winding in a hilly country sings below improvised bridges creating an unexpected haven, green and cool. Arrival in Delphi is scheduled for around four in the afternoon.Rocked by the car, I try vainly to summon to mind the processions for the Great Eleusinian mysteries, which followed our itinerary at precisely the same time of the year (September-October). In the same way, when, upon arriving in Eleusis, there appear before my eyes flattened ruins flanked by the smoke stacks belonging to a modern factory and when, walking these sacred places, I seek to recreate, for a moment, the town of old, it will prove impossible for me to feel the thrill that once filled the pilgrim who had come on foot all the way from Athens to receive initiation into the sacred mysteries. From the famous initiation chamber, where entrance was allowed solely to those invited to watch the performance of the mysteries – and prohibited upon pain of death to all others – there remains, in the hard rock, only the trace left by the pedestals of the columns that supported the roof and we shall never know more about the topography of this place, famous among the famous places of Ancient Greece.Eleusis is so much of a disillusion that the delay among the ruins must be shortened, not without a pang of the heart.Two hours' drive further a monumental marble lion, reconstructed piece by piece by pious hands, keeps watch once more over the battlefield at Chaeronea. Its tall figure looms from afar, to the left of the road: it is sitting on his hind legs, while its front legs are stiff and the claws dug into the ground, in tense expectation. This monument, erected on the spot where the Thebans buried the soldiers fallen in the battle against the Macedonians, refreshes the memory of the tragic fate that befell the sacred battalion sacrificed to the defense of the nation so many centuries ago.On the right and left side of the road locals are harvesting cotton: the white down of the plant is crammed into sacks, but the minuscule chapels along the road have not been forgotten either and offerings of cotton are carefully placed close to the lit icon lamp, white specks against the blue of the small edifices.Now the scenery changes once more, as we come close to the gloomy slopes of the Parnassus. The majestic bulk of the lofty mountain dedicated to Apollo and the Muses can now be seen in detail. Peculiarly severe alpine scenery; welcome training for those who are going to Delphi: solitary summits, slopes covered with stunted growth, sunless abysses; the winding road offers the traveler unexpected sights, Cyclopean architectures of sullen rocks and the silence of the bare peaks, born from secret straining of harps.But there on the right, the traveller lost in this stone universe and tortured by the approaching sighting of the unknown spots an eye of the sea tumbled at his feet: the Itea bay. It seems like the last smile of a happy world, basked in the light of the setting sun, the gentle message of good luck from the shores caressed by the blue sea. Delphi. Mountainous amphitheatre cut in the rock. Try to picture a rocky wall, leaning against the Parnassus massif, over five hundred metres above sea level, on which the sacred city of yore was built; the slope then plunges into the precipice, clothed in the greenish-silvery foliage of the olive trees, all the way down to the dry bed of the Pleistos, where the rocky wall of the Kirphis emerges that forms the other side of the valley.The present day road winds along the edge of the ruins. Upon one's arrival, the ruins are hidden from sight by a heel of rock thrust forward by the Fedriades; going round the obstacle, the traveller can take in the whole field of the ruins, arranged in tiers up the steep of the Fedriades and spreading to the left, while in front there rises, at a right angle with the Fedriades, a second wall of rock from whose middle, through a gigantic crack, rushes the spring of Castalia.The ruins must be contemplated throughout the day, but especially in the hours before sunset, when huge shadows descend over the sacred field. Nowhere are the forces of the unknown more active than at Delphi, among the walls of rock enclosed by bottomless pits, under the constant threat of some stone block tumbling down. As soon as you leave the modernized road and start climbing towards the ruins, you step on the stone slabs paving the sacred causeway, rebuilt in Roman times; the path spirals up to the Temple of Apollo, which commands the ruins.To the right and to the left of the sacred causeway there used to stand oblations brought by cities or illustrious persons, treasures and art monuments that used to adorn the Apollonian sanctuary. The pedestals of the monuments are still easily distinguishable, huddled together, since the space is limited (200x130m), but the monuments have perished in time, the destructive work of the people completed by the rocks rolling down from the Ferdiades. Alone the treasure of the Athenians, erected to commemorate the battle at Marathon, could be rebuilt piece by piece and stands once more on its place of old: a small Doric temple, with two columns, graceful beyond praise.Neighbouring this monument is the sacred place of the oldest Delphic cult, the Rock of the Sibyl, whose oracle was consulted by pilgrims arriving from everywhere. But the emanation that used to come out of the cracks in the rock long since stopped. Also here is the spring from which the serpent Python drank. Son of Gaea, he desired to have the oracle belonging to his mother all to himself and was slain in battle by Apollo. Later, on this spot was erected the column dedicated by the inhabitants of Naxos to the Sphinx; its oblong, enigmatic figure dominates the column; it can still be seen today – unfortunately mutilated – at the museum.The origins of the sacerdotal city must be looked for in the myth of the serpent Python, defeated and replaced by Apollo. This victory was celebrated by a sacred drama, performed in this very place.Later, public devotion raised, in a lofty place commanding the terrace, a shrine to Apollo that contained, among other things, the gold statue of the god and a secret subterranean chamber where Pythia – a simple woman in her fifties – seated on a three-legged stool and, intoxicated by the subterranean emanations, delivered oracles. Of the secret chamber (adyton) nothing is left that could explain the layout of the place; everything has been destroyed by land-slides, all so common at Delphi; but the massive blocks of stone are still standing to bear testimony, so we can form an idea of the grandeur of the edifice, which was the size of the Parthenon. Stairs cut in the rock lead to the well-preserved theatre, which dominates the ruins; the stadium is located further away, to the north-west and is so well preserved that it allows the visitor to truly see, in their mind's eye, the walking races. The museum, a building well adapted to its purpose, is located close to the ruins. Upon entry, the newcomer' eye is caught by the bronze statue, covered in black patina, of an adolescent, the sole survivor of a statuary including four horses, the chariot, the driver and the owner of the equipage. The scene illustrated by the sculptor takes place at the racecourse, after winning the race; the horses are going at an amble and a young boy is walking next to them, holding the bridle. Of the whole group, the driver alone has remained whole (he only lacks his left arm); the rest has been destroyed by land-slides and the fragments that have been recovered were unusable for the reconstruction of the ensemble. The bronze statue depicts a young man draped in a long, tight tunic that falls in straight folds almost to the ground. From afar, the tunic looks like a shirt bound with a belt above the waist; the pleats of the tunic are in such a manner arranged as to deal tactfully with a variation in the play of volumes: the vertical lines slim the figure, while the horizontal pleating of the short sleeves gives amplitude to the upper part of the body. The sculptor neglected no detail in order to recreate lifelikeness: the moulding of the feet and hands of the statue shows even the veins and the tension in the muscles.The face of the adolescent has regular features; the curly hair is tied at the back with a cord, attribute of the victor. A youthful breath comes out of the half-open lips, while the eyes, made from stones of many colours, convey to the face an expression of frozen will which surprises and intrigues the viewer, like a lingering dilemma. The room on the left exhibits the remains of the Siphnians' Treasury, monument that used to stand on the left side of the sacred causeway, not far from the entrance; the treasury was a copy of an older monument offered by the city of Cnidus to Apollo: an edifice in which two women, serving as substitutes for the columns, supported on their heads the pediment of the temple. The façade of the Siphnians' Treasury, recreated in plaster, is exhibited in the same room as the fragments recovered from the site. The still primitive art of the sculptures is amazing in its robustness; the frieze, depicting the battle between the giants and the gods, is not devoid of movement and prefaces later masterpieces: the frieze of the Parthenon and the tribune of Caryatides.The last room on the right displays a monument unique in its conception: a column with vertical, perfectly parallel ribs shoots up from a bush of acanthus leaves. The motive is repeated five times and as many times the white column rises among the foliage only to be crowned, at the top, by a platform supporting three dancers with the back towards one another, thus facing the viewer from all sides, leaning against a background of stylized acanthus leaves. The young girls on top of the column are bacchantes in Dionysus' suite. Attired in transparent tunics, they perform a dance with slow movements; the right hand, held aloft, points in an instinctive gesture to the tall hairdo, customary with ritual dances; the left hand holds the tunic that flutters in the wind. The gracefulness of the feminine bodies, the ironic expression of the faces and the purity of the features make of this statuary a charming rendering of feminine youth and grace.In the same room, a marble statue arrests the eye: covered in a rare lustrous patina, it depicts Antinoos, Hadrian's favourite. The adolescent body, so graceful that it looks almost feminine, lends itself to double meaning; the sculptor succeeded in capturing his model's thrilling seductiveness. I purified myself in the water of the Castalia, as Pythia did of old, by letting the water fall on my head and I returned to the field of the ruins that same night. In this atmosphere stripped bare of any vulgar attraction I felt, as in no other place, on that starry night, the infinite appeal of solitude; allured by the sidereal beyond, I was rediscovering in me feelings and thoughts buried beneath the ashes of the years, vague flashes that appeared now as dazzling light … I went slowly up the sacred causeway and I found inside Apollo's temple, still hot from the midday sun, the stone, fallen from who knows which part of the pediment, on which I had sat earlier that day. Unspeakably moved, I reclaimed my seat on this improvised throne, ready to witness the celebration of some sacred rite …Far away, from the village, there sounded the silvery summons of a bell, reminding nocturnal pilgrims of the endurance of the outside world and the necessity of returning to its midst. Excerpted from: Notes from Greece, 1964

by Al. Rosetti