The Elgin Marbles Controversy: A Long-term Historical View

From Minerva July / August 2005.

In 480 BC the Persians invaded Greece and sacked Athens, deliberately destroying the monuments on the Acropolis. The Greeks swore an oath not to rebuild the temples until they had defeated the Persians. In the decades that followed, Athens formed the Delian League, rose to prominence, and fought off the Persian threat. In 454 BC, the treasury of the League was transferred to Athens, thereby giving the Athenians, and their foremost statesman, Pericles, complete control over substantial resources; one-sixtieth of the total was dedicated to Athena. In 450 BC Pericles decided to start rebuilding the destroyed temples, and launched his cherished project - the full refurbishment of Athens - both on the Acropolis and in the city’s civic centre. The most famous structure they built was the Parthenon (Figs 1-2).

Was the Parthenon one of the most important temples built in antiquity? Its function is unclear. Scholars dispute the idea that it was even a temple - no ancient sources describe it as being one - and many interpret it as the state treasury. It was dedicated to Athena in 439/8 BC, before the sculptures were completed. The more important structure on the Acropolis was the Erechtheion, which both housed the cult of Athena and was the focal point of the annual Panathenaic festival to Athena. The gold and ivory statue of Athena by Pheidias inside the Parthenon was more famous than the building itself, and the gold of the drapery was part of the city’s gold reserves. The funding of the Periclean building programme was highly controversial, and allegations of ‘colonial looting’ are perhaps more appropriately directed against Pericles than Lord Elgin. Pheidias, the sculptor who served as overseer of the project, was accused of embezzlement and was forced to flee Athens.

The Parthenon was a living building, which continued to be used for over 20 centuries after it was built; it was added to and refurbished by Alexander the Great and by Hadrian, and exposed to the rain and wind for centuries. Victorious generals attached shields won in battles to the fa├žades, and Roman emperors carved dedicatory inscriptions on them. Demetrius Poliorketes turned it into a private brothel, where he kept his mistresses; and Mark Anthony declared himself a god and held his marriage to Athena within the Parthenon. Although claims are sometimes made by the Greeks that the greatest damage to the Parthenon was done by Elgin, it is worth re-examining the history of the building between its erection and Elgin’s arrival in Athens to shed light on this contention.

Athens was periodically damaged by large earthquakes, the first in the history of the Parthenon being in 426 BC, soon after it had been built. Successive generations undertook repairs to the temple after further earthquakes, repairs also necessary due to weathering from wind and rain. Even academics tend to ignore the issue of the restoration of monuments in antiquity, but sculpture and buildings had to be refurbished. The Parthenon was refurbished on several occasions during both the Greek and Roman periods, as were other structures on the Acropolis, and elsewhere in Greece.

Ancient restorations are a relatively new area of research, but one in which I have undertaken work. The pedimental sculptures of the Archaic temple of Zeus at Olympia, for example, were damaged by an earthquake in the 4th century BC, and this was used as an excuse to adapt them to the contemporary taste for more crowded compositions by adding figures. The Augustan Ara Pacis in Rome was restored in the later Roman period. The best evidence for this is that eyes were painted rather than incised in Roman stone portraiture until the time of Hadrian. Yet on this altar the details of the eyes are incised; this feature means that the restoration must date to the Hadrianic period at the earliest.

Around AD 300 a large fire ravaged the Parthenon. The damage was so extensive that the interior had to be entirely rebuilt. A Hellenistic building was dismantled and its elements used to reconstruct the two storey colonnade within the main chamber. A 15th-century medieval Greek description of the interior of the Parthenon (before the Turkish explosion; see below) confirms that the original Doric colonnade was replaced with one using palm capitals from a Hellenistic Pergamene stoa (Fig 3). The Parthenon sculptures are likely to have been damaged during the fire, as the architectural framework had been. The roof collapsed over the frieze,
probably damaging the art as it fell to the ground.

Looking at the frieze blocks in Athens, a few details seem to be ‘wrong’ and incongruous for 5th-century BC sculptures: the frieze had been re-touched and lightly re-carved at some date. Although we know that the exterior sculptures of the Parthenon were restored a few times in antiquity, no-one has previously suggested this for the frieze. Several details look Byzantine, even medieval, but certainly not Classical Greek: the relief looks too shallow, as if cut back (Figs 4-5). Originally the frieze was located high up on a wall, sheltered from the elements by the roof of the Parthenon (unlike the sculptures outside), so it has long been assumed that it was not damaged by rain and wind over the centuries.

When the Parthenon was turned into a church, the sculpture on the outside representing pagan myths was deliberately defaced and destroyed. The central block of the frieze, where an offering was made to Athena, was removed, but otherwise the frieze was not deliberately damaged. The frieze itself showed a procession of Athenians, which could easily have been reinterpreted by Byzantine Christians as a Christian religious procession, and so was spared. So when was the frieze restored and slightly re-cut? Did soot need to be cleaned off it after the fire of AD 300?

Was it cleaned later when the Parthenon Church was refurbished by its new Archbishop in the 12th century? One hand on the frieze certainly would not look out of place in a medieval Florentine painting. It seems fitting that at this time Nerio Acciajuoli, a Florentine, was the Lord of Athens. In 1394 he left funds in his will to refurbish and beautify the Parthenon. Nerio so loved this monument that he even asked to be buried within it. Thus it would seem fitting if he turned out to be in some way responsible for the Parthenon frieze and one of the sculptures we most admire today. However, I believe that the Empress Athenais-Eudoxia was responsible and argue thus in my new book (see below).

In the Christian period the Parthenon was converted into a church, by which time Pheidias’ statue of Athena Parthenos had been removed to Constantinople (AD 426). In doing so the east-facing temple was transformed into a west-facing church, as necessitated by the liturgy. The solid wall between the two rooms within the Parthenon was pierced by a large door, and an apse was built into the original entrance to the ancient building at the east end. As a result, much of the east pediment was destroyed and at least a third of the pedimental figures were lost. Only
seven figures remained in the corners of the gables. The other sculptures were deliberately defaced by the Christian Greeks.

In 1204 the Franks turned this church into the Catholic Cathedral of Athens, where the Catalan Company, a band of mercenaries from Spain, held war councils. In 1458 the Turks gained control of Athens, and turned the Parthenon into a mosque. During the Turkish period the Acropolis was used as a fortress, with a military garrison. The home of the governor was in the Propylaea, although he is said to have kept his harem in the Erechtheion with its famous Maiden Porch. The Parthenon became an arsenal in which gunpowder was stored.

When the Papal Army, under General Francesco Morosini, was fighting the Turks, they besieged the Acropolis in 1687 and a shell fell on the Parthenon (Fig 6). The gunpowder magazine within the building exploded, and the long sides of the Parthenon were blown away. The metopes along the south side were the only ones that had not been defaced by the Christians, but these, along with the remains of those on the north side, were now lost. The frieze along both long sides was also blown off the building, and came tumbling to the ground, with many blocks smashing. The gables at each end shook and many of the statues in them fell out. In both sculptural and architectural terms this caused the greatest destruction in the history of the Parthenon. Almost half the remaining sculpture was lost during the explosion. Morosini shattered some more of the pedimental sculptures when he tried to remove them from the Parthenon. He was unable to take away any of the Parthenon sculptures, but still returned to Venice with other Greek sculpture.

Fortunately Jacques Carrey had visited Athens in 1674, before the explosion. He had been on his way to Constantinople as part of an embassy sent by Louis XIV and led by the Marquis de Nointel. This artist spent several weeks on the Acropolis and drew the Parthenon in great detail, so we are able to use his colour images, together with the accounts of early travellers, to reconstruct the fragments and interpret the decorative scheme of the sculpture.

By the time Lord Elgin visited in 1802, the Parthenon was a pile of ruins amidst a jumble of Ottoman huts that housed the garrison. Trees and bushes were abundant, their roots entwining the ancient marble and eroding it. Handy blocks had been carted off as building material or ground down to make lime. A few sculptures that had been spared this fate were chopped up and sold off to the few passing tourist. The east and west ends of the Parthenon were still partially standing, but almost everything else lay in pieces on the ground. In the 50 years before Elgin removed the Parthenon sculptures from the Acropolis, almost half of the sculptures had disappeared or been destroyed.

Lord Elgin was appointed British Minister to the Porte of Constantinople, and became a favourite of the Sultan, who allowed him to receive items from his personal mosque, something otherwise unprecedented. When Elgin wished to remove some sculptures from the Acropolis, the Sultans willingly granted this wish, as clearly stated in the Firman (permit). Elgin’s men excavated the Acropolis and saved many of the Parthenon sculptures from destruction by bringing them to London. They entered the British Museum in a complex transaction that partly reimbursed his costs, and there they became known as the Elgin Marbles. There they are seen by millions, but became iconic and a household name less because they are great sculptures but more because we argue over them.

Although the re-built Parthenon in Athens today appears almost ‘whole’ from a distance, the structure was only reconstructed in the 20th century. In the later Ottoman period the Parthenon was not a great sight, barely visible from the ground and barely recognisable as one of the masterpieces of Greek architecture. The reconstruction by Nicholas Balanos in the 1930s was also highly problematic; it caused more damage than it did good, and the Greek Archaeological Service has been working on un-doing his harm for the last three decades. After years of pressure the Greek government has finally arranged for a few more of the Parthenon sculptures in Athens to finally go on display and is building a highly controversial museum to house them.

The arguments over where the Elgin Marbles belong - in London or in Athens - will no doubt continue for the foreseeable future. Each side holds firmly entrenched views, but one needs to know the entire history of the Parthenon to make an informed view.

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