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|Year||c. 447–438 BCE|
|Dimensions||75 m (247 ft)|
|Location||British Museum, London|
|Year||c. 447–438 BCE|
|Dimensions||75 m (247 ft)|
|Location||British Museum, London|
The Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles (// EL-gin), are a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures (mostly by Phidias and his assistants), inscriptions and architectural members that originally were part of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens. Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin claimed to obtain in 1811 a controversial permit 'not to remove statues but what he might discover in specific excavation' from the Ottoman house, which then ruled Greece.
From 1801 to 1812, Elgin's agents removed about half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon, as well as architectural members and sculpture from the Propylaea and Erechtheum. The Marbles were transported by sea to Britain. In Britain, the acquisition of the collection was supported by some, while others likened Elgin's actions to vandalism or looting.
Following a public debate in Parliament and the subsequent exoneration of Elgin, the marbles were purchased by the British government in 1816 and were passed to the British Museum, where they stand now on display in the purpose-built Duveen Gallery.
After gaining its independence from the Ottoman Empire, Greece begun major projects for the restoration of the country's monuments, and has expressed its disapproval of Elgin's actions to remove the Marbles from the Acropolis and the Parthenon, which is regarded as one of the world's greatest cultural monuments, disputes the subsequent purchase of the Marbles by the British Government and urges the return of the marbles to Greece. The dispute is ongoing and in 2014 UNESCO agreed to mediate between Greece and the United Kingdom in resolving the dispute of the Elgin Marbles.
In November of 1798, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, was appointed as "Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of His Britannic Majesty to the Sublime Porte of Selim III, Sultan of Ottoman Empire" (Greece was then part of the Ottoman realm). Before his departure to take up the post he had approached at least three officials of the British government to inquire if they would be interested in employing artists to take casts and drawings of the sculptured portions of the Parthenon. According to Lord Elgin, "the answer of the Government ... was entirely negative."
Lord Elgin decided to carry out the work at his own expense and employed artists to take casts and drawings under the supervision of the Neapolitan court painter Giovani Lusieri. However, while conducting surveys, he found that Parthenon statuary that had been documented in a 17th-century survey was now missing, and so he investigated. According to a Turkish local, marble sculptures that fell were burned to obtain lime for building. Although the original intention was only to document the sculptures, in 1801 Lord Elgin began to remove material from the Parthenon and its surrounding structures under the supervision of Lusieri.
The excavation and removal was completed in 1812 at a personal cost of around £70,000. Elgin intended the marbles for display in the British Museum, selling them to the British government for less than the cost of bringing them to Britain and declining higher offers from other potential buyers, including Napoleon.
The Parthenon Marbles acquired by Elgin include some 17 figures from the statuary from the east and west pediments, 15 (of an original 92) of the metope panels depicting battles between the Lapiths and the Centaurs, as well as 247 feet (or 75 m of an original 524 ft or 160 m) of the Parthenon Frieze which decorated the horizontal course set above the interior architrave of the temple. As such, they represent more than half of what now remains of the surviving sculptural decoration of the Parthenon. Elgin's acquisitions also included objects from other buildings on the Athenian Acropolis: a Caryatid from Erechtheum; four slabs from the parapet frieze of the Temple of Athena Nike; and a number of other architectural fragments of the Parthenon, Propylaia, Erechtheum, the Temple of Athena Nike, and the Treasury of Atreus.
As the Acropolis was still an Ottoman military fort, Elgin required permission to enter the site, including the Parthenon and the surrounding buildings. He allegedly obtained from the Sultan a firman to allow his artists access to the site. The original document is now lost, but what is said to be a translated Italian copy made at the time still survives. Vassilis Demetriades, Professor of Turkish Studies at the University of Crete, has argued that "any expert in Ottoman diplomatic language can easily ascertain that the original of the document which has survived was not a firman", and its authenticity has been challenged. The document was recorded in an appendix of an 1816 parliamentary committee report. 'The committee permission' had convened to examine a request by Elgin asking the British government to purchase the marbles. The report claimed that the document in the appendix was an accurate translation in English of an Ottoman firman dated in July 1801. In Elgin's view it amounted to an Ottoman authorization to remove the marbles. The committee was told that the original document was given to Ottoman officials in Athens in 1801, but researchers have so far failed to locate any traces of it despite the fact that the Ottoman archives still hold an outstanding number of similar documents dating from the same period. Moreover, the parliamentary record shows that the Italian copy of the firman was not presented to the committee by Elgin himself but by one of his associates, the clergyman Rev. Philip Hunt. Hunt, who at the time resided in Bedford, was the last witness to appear before the committee and claimed that he had in his possession an Italian translation of the Ottoman original. He went on to explain that he had not brought the document, because, upon leaving Bedford, he was not aware that he was to testify as a witness. The English document in the parliamentary report was filed by Hunt, but the committee was not presented with the Italian translation purportedly in his possession. William St. Clair, a contemporary biographer of Lord Elgin, claimed to possess Hunt's Italian document and "vouches for the accuracy of the English translation". In addition, the committee report states on page 69 "(Signed with a signet.) Seged Abdullah Kaimacan". But the document presented to the committee was "an English translation of this purported translation into Italian of the original firman", and had neither signet nor signature on it, a fact corroborated by St. Clair. The lines pertaining to the removal of the marbles allowed Elgin and his team to fix scaffolding, make drawings, make moldings in chalk or gypsum, measure the remains of the ruined buildings and excavate the foundations which may have become covered in the [ghiaja (meaning gravel, debris)]; and "...that when they wish to take away [qualche (meaning 'a few')] pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon, that no opposition be made thereto". The interpretation of these lines has been questioned even by non-restitutionalists, particularly the word qualche, which in modern language should be translated as a few. According to non-restitutionalists, further evidence that the removal of the sculptures by Elgin was approved by the Ottoman authorities is shown by a second firman which was required for the shipping of the marbles from the Piraeus.
Despite the controversial firman, many have questioned the legality of Elgin's actions. A study by Professor David Rudenstine of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law concluded that the premise that Elgin obtained legal title to the marbles, which he then transferred to the British government, "is certainly not established and may well be false". Rudenstine's argumentation is partly based on a translation discrepancy he noticed between the surviving Italian document and the English text submitted by Hunt to the parliamentary committee. The text from the committee report reads "We therefore have written this Letter to you, and expedited it by Mr. Philip Hunt, an English Gentleman, Secretary of the aforesaid Ambassador" but according to the St. Clair Italian document the actual wording is "We therefore have written this letter to you and expedited it by N.N.". In Rudenstine's view, this substitution of "Mr. Philip Hunt" with the initials "N.N." can hardly be a simple mistake. He further argues that the document was presented after the committee's insistence that some form of Ottoman written authorization for the removal of the marbles be provided, a fact known to Hunt by the time he testified. Thus, according to Rudenstine, "Hunt put himself in a position in which he could simultaneously vouch for the authenticity of the document and explain why he alone had a copy of it fifteen years after he surrendered the original to Ottoman officials in Athens". On two earlier occasions, Elgin stated that the Ottomans gave him written permissions more than once, but that he had "retained none of them." Hunt testified on March 13, and one of the questions asked was "Did you ever see any of the written permissions which were granted to [Lord Elgin] for removing the Marbles from the Temple of Minerva?" to which Hunt answered "yes", adding that he possessed an Italian translation of the original firman. Nonetheless, he did not explain why he had retained the translation for 15 years, whereas Elgin, who had testified two weeks earlier, knew nothing about the existence of any such document. English travel writer Edward Daniel Clarke, an eyewitness,records that the Disdar, the Ottoman official on the scene, attempted to stop the removal of the metopes but was bribed to allow it to continue.
In contrast, Professor John Merryman, Sweitzer Professor of Law and also Professor of Art at Stanford University, putting aside the discrepancy presented by Rudenstine, argues that since the Ottomans had controlled Athens since 1460, their claims to the artefacts were legal and recognizable. The Ottoman sultan was grateful to the British for repelling Napoleonic expansion, and the Parthenon marbles had no sentimental value to him. Further, that written permission exists in the form of the firman, which is the most formal kind of permission available from that government, and that Elgin had further permission to export the marbles, legalizes his (and therefore the British Museum's) claim to the Marbles. He does note, though, that the clause concerning the extent of Ottoman authorization to remove the marbles "is at best ambiguous", adding that the document "provides slender authority for the massive removals from the Parthenon ... The reference to 'taking away any pieces of stone' seems incidental, intended to apply to objects found while excavating. That was certainly the interpretation privately placed on the firman by several of the Elgin party, including Lady Elgin. Publicly, however, a different attitude was taken, and the work of dismantling the sculptures on the Parthenon and packing them for shipment to England began in earnest. In the process, Elgin's party damaged the structure, leaving the Parthenon not only denuded of its sculptures but further ruined by the process of removal. It is certainly arguable that Elgin exceeded the authority granted in the firman in both respects".
When the marbles were shipped to England, they were "an instant success among many" who admired the sculptures and supported their arrival, but both the sculptures and Elgin also received criticism from detractors. Lord Elgin began negotiations for the sale of the collection to the British Museum in 1811, but negotiations failed despite the support of British artists after the government showed little interest. Many Britons opposed the statues because they were in bad condition and therefore did not display the "ideal beauty" found in other sculpture collections. The following years marked an increased interest in classical Greece, and in June 1816, after parliamentary hearings, the House of Commons offered £35,000 in exchange for the sculptures. Even at the time the acquisition inspired much debate, although it was supported by "many persuasive calls" for the purchase.
Lord Byron did not care for the sculptures, calling them "misshapen monuments". He strongly objected to their removal from Greece, denouncing Elgin as a vandal. His point of view about the removal of the Marbles from Athens is also reflected in his poem "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage":
Byron was not the only one to protest against the removal at the time:
And English travel writer Edward Daniel Clarke, who witnessed the removal of the metopes, called the action a "spoliation" and lamented that "thus the form of the temple has sustained a greater injury than it had already experienced from the Venetian artillery," recording also that "neither was there a workman employed in the undertaking ... who did not express his concern that such havoc should be deemed necessary, after moulds and casts had been already made of all the sculpture which it was designed to remove."
A parliamentary committee investigating the situation concluded that the monuments were best given "asylum" under a "free government" such as the British one. In 1810, Elgin published a defence of his actions which silenced most of his detractors, although the subject remained controversial. John Keats was one of those who saw them privately exhibited in London, hence his two sonnets about the marbles. Notable supporters of Elgin included the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon.
A public debate in Parliament followed Elgin's publication, and Elgin's actions were again exonerated. Parliament purchased the marbles for the nation in 1816 by a vote of 82-30 for £35,000. They were deposited in the British Museum, where they were displayed in the Elgin Saloon (constructed in 1832), until the Duveen Gallery was completed in 1939. Crowds packed the British Museum to view the sculptures, setting attendance records for the museum. William Wordsworth viewed the marbles at the museum and commented favourably on their aesthetics.
Some of the marbles were damaged before Lord Elgin obtained them.
Another example of prior damage is that sustained during wars. It is during these periods that the Parthenon and its artwork have sustained by far the most extensive damage. In particular, an explosion ignited by Venetian gun and cannon fire bombardment in 1687, whilst the Parthenon was used as a munitions store during the Ottoman rule, destroyed or damaged many pieces of Parthenon art including some of those later taken by Lord Elgin. In particular this explosion sent the marble roof, most of the cella walls, 14 columns from the north and south peristyles and carved metopes and frieze blocks flying and crashing to the ground and thus destroyed much of the artwork. Further damage was made to the art of the Parthenon by the Venetian general Francesco Morosini when he subsequently looted the site of its larger sculptures. His tackle was faulty and snapped, dropping an over life-sized Poseidon and the horses of Athena's chariot from the west pediment to the rock of the Acropolis forty feet below.
The Acropolis was besieged twice during the Greek War of Independence, once by the Greeks and once by the Ottoman forces. During the first siege the Greeks chose to offer the besieged Ottoman forces, who were attempting to melt the lead in the columns to cast bullets, bullets of their own if they would leave the Parthenon undamaged.
Elgin consulted with sculptor Antonio Canova in 1803 about how best to restore the marbles. Canova was considered by some to be the world's best sculptural restorer of the time; Elgin wrote that Canova declined to work on the marbles for fear of damaging them further.
To facilitate transport by Elgin, the column capital of the Parthenon and many metopes and slabs were either hacked off the main structure or sawn and sliced into smaller sections causing irreparable damage to the Parthenon itself to which these Marbles were connected. One shipload of marbles on board the British brig Mentor  was caught in a storm off Cape Matapan and sank near Kythera, but was salvaged at the Earl's personal expense; it took two years to bring them to the surface.
The artefacts held in London suffered from 19th century pollution – which persisted until the mid-20th century – and Greek conservators have asserted that they have been irrevocably damaged by previous cleaning methods employed by British Museum staff.
As early as 1838, scientist Michael Faraday was asked to provide a solution to the problem of the deteriorating surface of the marbles. The outcome is described in the following excerpt from the letter he sent to Henry Milman, a commissioner for the National Gallery.
The marbles generally were very dirty ... from a deposit of dust and soot. ... I found the body of the marble beneath the surface white. ... The application of water, applied by a sponge or soft cloth, removed the coarsest dirt. ... The use of fine, gritty powder, with the water and rubbing, though it more quickly removed the upper dirt, left much imbedded in the cellular surface of the marble. I then applied alkalis, both carbonated and caustic; these quickened the loosening of the surface dirt ... but they fell far short of restoring the marble surface to its proper hue and state of cleanliness. I finally used dilute nitric acid, and even this failed. ... The examination has made me despair of the possibility of presenting the marbles in the British Museum in that state of purity and whiteness which they originally possessed.
A further effort to clean the marbles ensued in 1858. Richard Westmacott, who was appointed superintendent of the "moving and cleaning the sculptures" in 1857, in a letter approved by the British Museum Standing Committee on 13 March 1858 concluded
'I think it my duty to say that some of the works are much damaged by ignorant or careless moulding – with oil and lard – and by restorations in wax, and wax and resin. These mistakes have caused discolouration. I shall endeavour to remedy this without, however, having recourse to any composition that can injure the surface of the marble
Yet another effort to clean the marbles occurred in 1937–38. This time the incentive was provided by the construction of a new Gallery to house the collection. The Pentelic marble, from which the sculptures are made, naturally acquires a tan colour similar to honey when exposed to air; this colouring is often known as the marble's "patina" but Lord Duveen, who financed the whole undertaking, acting under the misconception that the marbles were originally white probably arranged for the team of masons working in the project to remove discoloration from some of the sculptures. The tools used were seven scrapers, one chisel and a piece of carborundum stone. They are now deposited in the British Museum's Department of Preservation. The cleaning process scraped away some of the detailed tone of many carvings. According to Harold Plenderleith, the surface removed in some places may have been as much as one-tenth of an inch (2.5 mm).
The British Museum has responded to these allegations with the statement that "mistakes were made at that time." On another occasion it was said that "the damage had been exaggerated for political reasons" and that "the Greeks were guilty of excessive cleaning of the marbles before they were brought to Britain." During the international symposium on the cleaning of the marbles, organised by the British Museum, Dr Ian Jenkins, deputy keeper of Greek and Roman antiquities, remarked that "The British Museum is not infallible, it is not the Pope. Its history has been a series of good intentions marred by the occasional cock-up, and the 1930s cleaning was such a cock-up". Nonetheless, he pointed out that the prime cause for the damage inflicted upon the marbles was the 2000-year-long weathering on the Acropolis
Dorothy King, in a newspaper article, claimed that techniques similar to the ones used in 1937–1938 were applied by Greeks as well in more recent decades than the British, and maintained that Italians still find them acceptable. Attention has been drawn by the British Museum to a purportedly similar cleaning of the temple of Hephaistos in the Athenian Agora carried out by the conservation team of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens with steel chisels and brass wire in 1953. According to the Greek ministry of Culture, the cleaning was carefully limited to surface salt crusts. The 1953 American report concluded that the techniques applied were aimed at removing the black deposit formed by rain-water and "brought out the high technical quality of the carving" revealing at the same time "a few surviving particles of colour".
According to documents released by the British Museum under the Freedom of Information Act, a series of minor accidents, thefts and acts of vandalism by visitors have inflicted further damage to the sculptures. This includes an incident in 1961 when two schoolboys knocked off a part of a centaur's leg. In June 1981, a west pediment figure was slightly chipped by a falling glass skylight, and in 1966 four shallow lines were scratched on the back of one of the figures by vandals. During a similar mishap in 1970, letters were scratched on to the upper right thigh of another figure. Four years later, the dowel hole in a centaur's hoof was damaged by thieves trying to extract pieces of lead.
Air pollution and acid rain have caused damage to marble and stonework at the Parthenon. The last remaining slabs from the western section of the Parthenon frieze were removed from the monument in 1993 for fear of further damage. They have now been transported to the New Acropolis Museum.
Until cleaning of the remaining marbles was completed in 2005, black crusts and coatings were present on the marble surface. The laser technique applied on the 14 slabs that Elgin revealed a surprising array of original details such as the original chisel marks and the veins on the horses' bellies. Similar features in the British Museum collection have been scraped and scrubbed with chisels to make the marbles look white. Between January 20 and the end of March 2008, 4200 items (sculptures, inscriptions small terracotta objects), including some 80 artefacts dismantled from the monuments in recent years, were removed from the old museum on the Acropolis to the new Parthenon Museum. Natural disasters have also affected the Parthenon. In 1981, an earthquake caused damage to the east façade.
Since 1975, Greece has been restoring the Acropolis. This restoration has included replacing the thousands of rusting iron clamps and supports that had previously been used, with non-corrosive titanium rods; removing surviving artwork from the building into storage and subsequently into a new museum built specifically for the display of the Parthenon art; and replacing the artwork with high-quality replicas. This process has come under fire from some groups as some buildings have been completely dismantled, including the dismantling of the Temple of Athena Nike and for the unsightly nature of the site due to the necessary cranes and scaffolding. But the hope is to restore the site to some of its former glory, which may take another 20 years and 70 million euros, though the prospect of the Acropolis being "able to withstand the most extreme weather conditions – earthquakes" is "little consolation to the tourists visiting the Acropolis" according to The Guardian. Directors of the British Museum have not ruled out temporarily loaning the marbles to the new museum, but state that it would be under the condition of Greece acknowledging British ownership.
Defenders of the request for the Marbles' return claim that the marbles should be returned to Athens on moral and artistic grounds. The arguments include:
A range of different arguments has been presented by scholars, political-leaders and British Museum spokespersons over the years in defence of retention of the Elgin Marbles within the British Museum. The main points include:
The last was tested in the English High Court in May 2005 in relation to Nazi-looted Old Master artworks held at the British Museum which its Trustees wished to return to the family of the original owner; the Court found that due to the British Museum Act 1963 these works could not be returned without further legislation. The judge, Mr Justice Morritt, found that the Act, which protects the collections for posterity, could not be overridden by a "moral obligation" to return works, even if known to have been plundered. It has been argued, however, that the case was not directly relevant to the Elgin Marbles, as it was about a transfer of ownership, and not the loan of artefacts for public exhibition overseas, which is provided for in the 1963 Act. In 2005 a new Act concerning the repatriation of ancestral remains allowed for the return of Aboriginal human remains to Tasmania after a twenty-year battle with Australia.
Another argument for keeping the Elgin Marbles within the UK has been made by J. H. Merryman, Sweitzer Professor of Law at Stanford University and co-operating professor in the Stanford Art Department. He has argued that if the Parthenon were actually being restored, there would be a moral argument for returning the Marbles to the temple whence they came, and thus restoring its integrity. The Guardian has written that many repatrionists imply that the marbles would be displayed in their original position on the Parthenon. However, the Greek plan is to transfer them from a museum in London to one in Athens. The sculptures which Elgin did not remove have been taken down and put into the New Acropolis Museum. "Is it more spiritually satisfying to see the Marbles in an Athenian museum gallery than one in London?" Other voices, this time in the House of Lords, have raised more acute concerns about the fate of the Elgin Marbles if they were to be returned to Greece. In an exchange on 19 May 1997, Lord Wyatt, asked:
My Lords, is the Minister aware that it would be dangerous to return the marbles to Athens because they were under attack by Turkish and Greek fire in the Parthenon when they were rescued and the volatile Greeks might easily start hurling bombs around again?
International organizations such as UNESCO and the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures, as well as campaign groups such as Marbles Reunited, and stars of Hollywood, such as George Clooney and Matt Damon, as well as Human Rights activists, lawyers, and the people of the arts, voiced their strong support for the return of the Elgin Marbles back to Greece.
Hollywood star George Clooney voiced his support on the return from the United Kingdom and reunification of the Parthenon Marbles in Greece, during his promotional campaign for his movie The Monuments Men (2014 Film) which retells the story of Allied efforts to save important masterpieces of art and other culturally important items before their destruction by Hitler and the Nazis during World War II. His remarks regarding the Marbles, reignited the multifaceted debate in the United Kingdom about the return of them back to their home country. Public polls were also carried out by newspapers in response to Clooney's stance on this matter.
Despite the British Museum's official position on its ownership of the marbles, in 1998, all the public polls carried out by companies and newspapers, show a favor of returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece.
Ipsos MORI carried out a scientific poll asking "If there were a referendum on whether or not the Elgin Marbles should be returned to Greece, how would you vote?" returned these values from the British general adult population:
A more recent opinion poll in 2002 (again carried out by MORI) showed similar results, with 40% of the British public in favour of returning the marbles to Greece, 16% in favour of keeping them within Britain and the remainder either having no opinion or would not vote. When asked how they would vote if a number of conditions were met (including, but not limited to, a long-term loan whereby the British maintained ownership and joint control over maintenance) the number responding in favour of return increased to 56% and those in favour of keeping them dropped to 7%.
Both MORI poll results have been characterised by proponents of the return of the Marbles to Greece as representing a groundswell of public opinion supporting return, since the proportion explicitly supporting return to Greece significantly exceeds the number who are explicitly in favour of keeping the Marbles at the British Museum.
|Sculpture from the Parthenon's East Pediment, Smarthistory|
The remainder of the surviving sculptures that are not in museums or storerooms in Athens are held in museums in various locations across Europe. The British Museum also holds additional fragments from the Parthenon sculptures acquired from various collections that have no connection with Lord Elgin.
The collection held in the British Museum includes the following material from the Acropolis:
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