Losing our marbles

Johannes Ruckstuhl

Arena Arts

The hiring of Amal Clooney – wife of Hollywood actor George Clooney – by the Greek government to provide legal advice on the thorny issue of the repatriation of the Elgin Marbles has reignited passions on both sides. The ancient Greek sculptures currently reside in London’s British Museum, but Greece wants them back

Elgin Marbles

© Jan S. / Shutterstock

If one looks east across the grey rooftops of Athens, it is impossible to miss an island of green trees and yellowed rock that rises above the flat city. It’s a sight that is immediately familiar even to those that have never set foot in the Greek capital: here, between the Areopagus and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, sits the epicentre of Hellenic civilisation – and, in many senses, of Western civilisation as well – the hill of the Acropolis and, atop it, the Parthenon. Almost as familiar as this fantastic sight is the far less attractive image of the great Temple of Athena Nike, hidden from view, clad by layers of scaffolding as workers desperately try to shore up the crumbling building against Athens’ polluted skies. For several years in the early 19th century, the Parthenon ruins were also surrounded by scaffolding; some would argue for equally altruistic reasons as the contemporary works, while others contest that what happened on the site was nothing short of gross colonial vandalism.

Beginning in 1801, and over the course of ten years, workers sawed and chiseled their way through the marble pieces – the metopes and frieze – that ran around the exterior of the building atop two colonnades, as well as the sculptures that adorned the triangular front portion of the temple’s roof. They did this at the behest of Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin and British Ambassador Extraordinary to the Ottoman Empire. Originally intending simply to make casts and drawings, Elgin obtained a dubious mandate from Ottoman authorities, the very liberal interpretation of which allowed him to remove sculptures of ancient sites to Britain, what he took thus becoming known as the Elgin Marbles.

Like the tomb of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, or the Pergamon Altar, the Parthenon became the victim of a colonial treasure hunt. Even at the time, Elgin’s actions attracted controversy. While the marbles undoubtedly inspired John Keats to write a magnificent sonnet, they also stirred up a great deal of acerbic verse from his romantic colleague Lord Byron. Byron, who travelled extensively in Greece at the time, was horrified at the desolation Elgin left behind, and vented his anger and sadness in several stanzas of his lengthy poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:

Cold as crags upon his native coast,

His mind as barren and his heart as hard,

Is he whose head conceiv’d, whose hand prepar’d,

Aught to displace Athena’s poor remains:

Her sons too weak the sacred shrine to guard,

Yet felt some portion of their mother’s pains,

And never knew, till then, the weight of Despot’s chains.

Two and a half thousand years have not been kind to the Parthenon, and the frieze has deteriorated and been rent apart for more reasons than Elgin’s enthusiasm. Of the 115 frieze panels, 94, or about 80 per cent, survive (some of those lost were captured in the artwork of Jacques Carrey) and of these about half remain in Athens. The rest reside in the British Museum, while a few fragments are distributed between select museums around Europe, including the Louvre and the Vatican Museums. A similar fate has befallen the metopes, taken from the Parthenon’s external facade, and the pediment sculptures. For all the arguments about damage incurred before, during or after removal, including the infamous ‘cleaning’ of the British Museum pieces in 1938 with scrapers and chisels (and which the current senior curator Ian Jenkins has nonchalantly described as a “cock-up”), and the nationalist sentiment that the debate often becomes mired in, aesthetically it is the division itself that has done the greatest damage to the achievement of Athens’ builders.

And what an achievement it is: before one even begins to consider the importance of Hellenism on political and philosophical thought, one is struck by the deftness with which Phidias and his students hewed life from rock, and of which any word but perfection seems inadequate. Take one look at the shape of an arm or leg and their exact recreation of how muscle contracts and relaxes, or the layering of mounted figures creating the illusion of greater depth, the horses’ heads tossed backwards in fear. There is some debate over the interpretation of the panels, but historians’ best guess is that they portray a single narrative in linear sequence – the Panathenaic Procession that would have led to the Parthenon itself. It was the highlight of a religious and athletic festival (a lesser counterpart of the Olympic Games) in honour of Athena, the goddess of the city.

All of this is in complement to the astounding symmetry of the building itself (the use of the Greek letter phi as the mathematical symbol for the ‘golden’ ratio of symmetry, is named for Phidias). The inability of everyone – historian, art critic or casual observer – to view the whole of the procession in one place, any place, is to lose some of its beauty.

The British Museum sees itself as the rightful proprietor of the Elgin Marbles and has refused all requests for their return – a debate that has been carried out both informally as well as debated in Westminster and the courts. To that end, the museum has published an extensive list of arguments in opposition to their restitution, as well as responses to the counter-arguments, titled The Parthenon Sculptures: Facts and Figures. In truth, the museum’s pursued line of argument is evasive and heavily diluted by half-truths, simplification of the historical record and downright conjecture. Most objectionable are its notions that the re-emergence of Greece as an independent state, being very recent, somehow disqualifies its citizens, or the citizens of Athens, from any true claim. And, secondly, the argument of precedence, namely that were the sculptures returned, all the museums of the world would subsequently be harangued by similar claims of ownership. Museums fear the scattering and diminishing of their hard-won collections, which, in turn, would reduce their status as museums and the streams of visitors passing through their doors.

In its first claim, the nationalist assertion, the museum sounds more colonialist than it perhaps intends. It is right to notice that with regard to ancient civilisation the terms ‘Greek’ and ‘Athenian’ are often used synonymously, and incorrectly so. Though even if such a claim were true, it would not alter the fact that the sculptures and reliefs were parted from a historical site that has been the focal point of Athens regardless of any Hellenic, Turkish or Greek nation that ruled over it. The Parthenon was not just the temple of Athena, but at various points a mosque, a Christian church, even a fort and gunpowder store. The latter in particular may not have been very respectful of its heritage (even less so the Venetians who shelled it), but its accumulated cultural and historical significance is tied inextricably to its location, and cannot simply be translated to a London exhibition room.

The second claim can be disproven even more easily: as is true of their Egyptian counterparts, there is no Greek desire to reclaim and hoard the treasures of its antiquity – only a few pieces, including the Parthenon metopes and frieze, have been requested. In fact the Greek government welcomes a diaspora of the country’s ancient artefacts. After all, the many thousands of objects, sculptures and architectural features located in museums around the world are testament to the enormous influence the Hellenistic tradition has had on civilisation, particularly Western civilisation. In the completed Acropolis Museum, there is a properly curated space for the marbles to return to. This museum has been a prestige project for Greece, and sits just across from the Theatre of Dionysus, underneath the Parthenon itself. It displays the portions of the metopes and friezes that were not removed by Lord Elgin, with the gaps variously filled in with photographs and casts – able substitutes but without the vivacious texture of the stone. The building is itself a significant achievement among museums: its glass fronts allow a direct and contextual view of the acropolis from almost every angle, and its support columns are arranged at the same distance as those of the temple.

In late 2014, one of the pediment sculptures – the statue of Ilissos – became the first piece to leave the British Museum. While its temporary loan to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg is encouraging in that it makes further future loans a possibility, it also stirred enough air to fan the political controversy for quite some time. Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras called it “an affront” and “a provocation” to Greece. In the UK, there was equal anger over the British Museum’s choice of partner – Russia, even if the Hermitage Museum does not speak for the regime of Vladimir Putin. There seems too great a disparity between giving a privilege such as a Parthenon sculpture to a country under sanctions, and by the same token refusing a country in serious need of an economic boost.

Rather than appear as treasure hunters, here is an opportunity for the British Museum, and indeed Britain, to make good on an uncomfortable chapter of colonial history. However, given that the status quo is an ideal situation for the British Museum, there is no interest on its part to hold any discussion at all. Global’s inquiry on the matter received no response. A restitution on legal grounds is unlikely, but the Greek government has engaged several high-profile lawyers – most prominent among them Amal Clooney (wife of actor George Clooney) – to consider its options. Regardless of celebrity endorsement, the arguments on this side are simply more compelling. One certainly needn’t share Lord Byron’s disdain for Britain’s conduct on the matter – as he wrote in The Curse of Minerva: “a land of meanness, sophistry, and mist./ Each breeze from foggy mount and marshy plain/ dilutes with drivel every drizzly brain” –  to wish to see one of Greece’s most sublime artistic achievements restored as fully as is possible.

Unfortunately, structural damage done to the Parthenon, some of it by Elgin, as well as acid rain and air pollution, has made it impossible to return the marbles to the facade of the Parthenon. However, the Acropolis Museum has made it possible to view the marbles in the context of their original intended location, making this the opportune time for reunification and strengthening the hope that one day soon the work of Phidias will once again assume its full splendour. Until then, it is not just the city of Athens, or the Greeks, but anyone who cares for the world’s political, philosophical and cultural heritage who is the poorer for its absence.

About the author:

Johannes Ruckstuhl is a staff writer at Global - the International Briefing


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