December 3, 2023

Last month we delved into a proposal to use digital technology to clone the 2,500-year-old Parthenon Marbles, currently in the British Museum.

It is hoped that such puzzling facsimiles might finally convince museum curators and the British government to return the originals to Athens.

Today we take a closer look at how these treasures of antiquity, known to many as the Elgin Marbles, have come so far.

The most obvious culprit is Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, who initiated the takeover while serving as British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1798-1803.

Before setting sail for this broadcast, he hatched a plan to assemble a documentary crew to sketch and create plaster casts of the Parthenon marbles for the eventual elevation of artists and architects at home. Even better, he would make the British government pay for it.

The British government, seeing the huge cost of such a proposal, passed.

So Elgin used some of his heiress wife’s fortune to fund the project himself, hiring the landscape painter Giovanni Battista Lusieri—described by Lord Byron as “an Italian painter of the first eminence”—to oversee a team of draughtsmen, sculptors and architects.

Like The Nerdwriter’s Evan Puschak notes above, political alliances and expansionist ambitions greased Lord Elgin’s wheels as the Ottoman Empire and Great Britain found common cause in their hatred of Napoleon.

British efforts to drive the occupying French forces out of Egypt generated enough goodwill to provide what was needed companya legal document without which Lusieri and the team would not have access to the Acropolis.

Original company has never surfaced, and the accuracy of what survives—an English translation of an Italian translation—casts Elgin’s acquisition of the marbles in a very doubtful light.

Some scholars and legal experts argued that the document in question was merely an administrative letter, as it apparently lacked the signature of Sultan Selim III, which would have given it contractual weight company.

In addition to allowing the team entry into the Acropolis grounds to sketch and make plaster casts, erect scaffolding and excavate the foundations, the letter allowed the removal of such sculptures or inscriptions as did not interfere with the work or the walls of the Acropolis.

This means the team had to limit themselves to unexpected apples, a result of the heavy damage the Acropolis suffered during a mortar attack by Venetian forces in 1687.

Some of the loose marble was harvested for building materials or souvenirs, but plenty of goodies remained on the ground for Elgin and company to take away.

In the article for Smithsonian magazineHellenistic author Bruce Clark details how Elgin’s personal assistant, the cleric Philip Hunt, used British support for the Ottoman Empire and anti-French positions to blur these boundaries:

Seeing how highly the Ottomans valued their alliance with the British, Hunt saw an opportunity for further, decisive expansion of the Acropolis project. With the nod of the Sultan’s representative in Athens – who at the time would have been afraid to deny the Briton anything – Hunt set about removing the statues that still adorned the top of the Parthenon. This has gone much further than anyone imagined possible a few weeks ago. On July 31, the first of the towering statues was brought down, beginning a program of systematic stripping, with dozens of local residents working under Lusieri’s enthusiastic supervision.

Lusieri, whose admirer Lord Byron became a fierce critic of Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon marbles, ended his days believing that his devotion to Lord Elgin had ultimately cost him an illustrious career as a watercolourist.

He also admitted that the team “had to be a bit barbaric”, a gross understatement considering their vandalism of the Parthenon over the ten years it took them to sail away with half its surviving treasures – 21 figures from the Eastern and Western Shields, 15 metope panels and 246 feet of what was a continuous narrative frieze.

Clark notes that although Elgin succeeded in moving them to British soil, “he derived little personal happiness from his antiquarian acquisitions”.

After the numerous logistical headaches of transporting them, he found himself begging the British government to take them off his hands when an acrimonious divorce left him in financial straits.

This time the British government agreed and won the lottery for £35,000 – less than half of what Lord Elgin claimed to have given for the operation.

The so-called Elgin Marbles became part of the British Museum collection in 1816, five years before the start of the Greek War of Independence.

They have been on constant display ever since.

The 21st century has seen a number of world-class museums reconsider the provenance of their most famous artefacts. In many cases, they decided to return them to their country of origin.

Greece has long demanded that the Parthenon marbles in the British Museum be permanently repatriated to Athens, but the museum’s trustees have so far refused.

In their opinion, it is complicated.

It is so? Lord Elgin’s main motivation may have been, and Bruce Clark suggests in a brilliant ninja move that the return could be seen as a positive undressing, atonement by going back to basics:

Let’s assume that among his mix of motives—personal aggrandizement, rivalry with the French, and so on—Elgin’s primary concern was the welfare of the statues. How might this purpose be best served today? Perhaps by placing the Acropolis statues in a place where they would be extremely safe, extremely well preserved and superbly displayed for everyone to enjoy? The Acropolis Museum, which opened in 2009 at the foot of the Parthenon, is an ideal candidate; it was built with the aim of eventually housing all the surviving elements of the Parthenon frieze…. If the Count really cared about the marbles and were with us today, he would want to see them in Athens now.

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Ayun Halliday is the chief primatologist East Village Incas zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and A creative, not famous, activity book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.



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