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Global issue 20

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. 64 l www.global -br ief ing.org 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. Arena Arts Its accumulated cultural and historical significance is tied inextricably to its location, and cannot simply be translated to a London exhibition room 64 l www.global -br ief ing.org f i rst quar ter 2015 global


Global issue 20
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