Beware Greeks Demanding Gifts
by Dorothy King
Heidelberg University in Germany is to return its piece of the Parthenon frieze to Greece. The Greek Ministry of Culture have announced that it will be returned the Athens; the University itself is refusing to comment on the claims.
We’ve been here before. At the end of 2002 Silvio Berlusconi offered to give the Greeks the fragment of the Parthenon frieze in Palermo. The female foot was claimed to be the foot of Peitho, goddess of Persuasion, and many headlines followed claiming that the British Museum might now also be ‘persuaded’ to return the Elgin Marbles. In fact the foot is that of Artemis. Berlusconi had assumed that his electors would not care about their small piece of the Parthenon. But the Italians did care, and after widespread protests, the offer was withdrawn. The fragment remains in Palermo.
Many other politicians have fallen into the trap of wanting to send the Elgin Marbles back to Athens. Robin Cook became involved with Marbles Reunited, a Greek-backed pressure group a few years ago, before finally admitting that, although he cared passionately about the Parthenon Marbles going back to Athens, he hadn’t bothered to see them himself.
Hillary Clinton, a likely US presidential candidate in 2008, also made one of her pet causes returning the various pieces of the Parthenon scattered around the world to Athens. It seemed a perfectly harmless, politically correct initiative – likely to appeal to liberals, and to win the backing of American voters of Greek origin. The Greeks want architectural blocks back before the sculpture, as a priority, to be used in reconstructing the Parthenon. Several of these blocks were used as ballast by Venetian sailors, and are now incorporated into various Renaissance palazzi in Venice. One architectural block was given by the people of independent Greece to the people of America. It was incorporated into the Washington Monument in Washington DC, an obelisk-shaped structure that is now one of the most important and much-loved American monuments. If all the Parthenon Marbles were repatriated, the block incorporated into the Washington Monument would also have to be returned, and the monument itself would have to be dismantled. As Lord Melbourne remarked, “God help the Minister that meddles with art.” Clinton may now have dropped the cause.
The miniscule Heidelberg fragment is centimetres high, depicts a male foot, and probably comes from the north frieze. Although beautifully carved, the foot is of little importance except for the fact that it originally decorated the Parthenon. Most visitors to this provincial German town probably walk past it and, seen alone with no context and without any other Parthenon sculptures, it makes little impact.
Like the Palermo piece, it was probably hacked off a block of the Parthenon frieze by one of the Ottoman soldiers housed in the fortress on the Acropolis in Athens. These soldiers initially chopped up the ancient stones and burnt them to make lime with which to build their houses. In the 18th century Western tourists began to visit Athens, and expressed an interest in ancient sculpture. Enterprising Athenians began to sell the visitors small fragments of the Parthenon, doing so surreptitiously and without official approval.
Hundreds of these pieces of sculpture were sold over the years, and most of them are now lost. Some years ago a head was found at Chatsworth that matched a metope in the British Museum, so the Duke of Devonshire donated it to the Museum. Another block of the frieze was excavated in a garden in Essex, and more of these broken bits of stone may be found in years to come. Had Elgin acted fifty years earlier, far more of the Parthenon would have been preserved – as it is, it’s a miracle more was not destroyed, and that he was able to save as much as he did.
The Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum were legally acquired by Lord Elgin, from Selim III, the legal ruler of Greece. Had they remained in Athens, they would have almost certainly been greatly damaged, a tragic loss to the world’s cultural heritage. Elgin was allowed to save the sculptures from destruction because he was a favourite of the Sultan, largely as a result of having helped expel Napoleon and the French army from Ottoman Egypt. A copy of the official receipt (the Firman) exists, making this one of the best documented cases of legally acquired antiquities.
Far from setting a precedent, even if the Heidelberg fragment of the Parthenon does go back to Athens – and it is far from certain that it will – this would be largely an irrelevant gesture. The Greek Archaeological Service removed the West frieze from the Parthenon in 1993. Despite repeated requests that it be conserved, they instead put it in storage. Quickly cleaned and put on display for the 2004 Olympics, the Parthenon frieze in Athens is again kept away from the public in a museum store. Whereas in London the Elgin Marbles are cared for, and seen for free by millions of visitors each year.