Horsemen section of west frieze from the Elgin Marbles of Parthenon in the Acropolis museum. Acropolis Frieze Greece - Reproduction in subway Acropolis Frieze Reproduction Caryatides at the Erechtheoin
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The "Elgin marbles"

The "Elgin Marbles" are a large selection of antiquities taken by Lord Thomas Bruce, the Seventh Earl of Elgin, from Greece and shipped to Britain between 1801and 1812. The pieces were sold to the British Museum in London in 1816.



Removal of pieces of the Parthenon: The 'Elgin Marbles'

Caryatide which Lord Elgin removed to the British Museum in London

Tourists and archeologists have removed pieces from the Acropolis over the centuries (tourists have often carried off small marble splinters and pebbles scattered over the Acropolis mount, which is now illegal). In the past, French and British antiquity specialists and hobbyists (and art dealers and smugglers) have been the most aggressive in taking pieces out of Greece and into museums in their respective countries, and the competition between the two forces to make their home capitols the "center of the art world" meant acquiring as much original Greek art (versus Roman copies) as possible, since the Greek artists of the ancient world were lauded as the best and most advanced in skill.

Though many had carried off a few pieces as Greece was opened up to European visitors in the 1700-1800's, the most famous removal from the Acropolis are the Elgin Marbles, sections of the Parthenon shipped to England between 1801 and 1812 by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin.

Elgin took claim to approximately half of the then surviving statuary at the Acropolis through an arrangement with the Ottomans. Elgin was 32 years old and the British Ambassador to Constantinople at a perfect moment in time because the Sultan had just reclaimed a large part of Ottoman property and influence by the defeat of Napoleon's forces in Egypt by the British, and when Elgin sought an Ottoman "firman" (a royal permit) this was provided. Previously, he had been barred from going up onto the Acropolis with his art team which he had hired to record through drawings and measurements the structures of this famous mount.

Some have suggested the "firman" Elgin obtained never actually existed, and even if it did, the reported contents of the firman does not give permission to take away the statuary and other pieces atop the Acropolis (though it did provide permission to dig up pieces elsewhere and to take them). Most historians, however, believe this firman was issued to Elgin, citing contemporary supporting evidence for its existence. Narratives of what happened next say that Elgin and his team used the firman and "stretched" it to first to take down a single metope along the south collonnade at the Parthenon, and then they followed that with taking down more until half were removed. The Turkish official (called "Dizdar," a fortress commander) protested and it is reported (by the British traveler Edward Daniel Clarke) that the Dizdar shed tears when Elgin's workmen failed to remove a metope correctly and it came crashing down, breaking into splinters.

Elgin claimed he was spurred toward this massive removal of pieces because the statuary was being continually damaged. He cited that sometimes the poorly paid Turkish troops burned up pieces in an effort to gain lime, that they piled up fragments, along with statuary, to make fortification walls, and took down structures atop the Acropolis to remove the interior lead connecting pieces so they could be melted down into bullets. Elgin also recounted that various tourists from Europe were breaking off pieces (especially noses) on statuary at various sites in Greece to take home as souvenirs, and as the scale of visitors increased the vandalism was also increasing.

Elgin's efforts to move the crated objects back to Britain had to circumvent a number of problems (besides the Dizdar and the occasional protests of Athenians who had little power to stop what was happening). One ship loaded with pieces sank (the crates were eventually raised and sent along their way in a different ship). Elgin had to contrive favors from British military craft to carry boxes on to Britain, this at a time when Britain and France were in a continual state of conflict on the Mediterranean. Some crates went to Malta and stayed there for years, and boxes that reached Britain were stored in various places, including Elgin's friend's homes.

There are accounts of contemporary opposition to what Elgin was doing. When his men removed a Caryatid from the porch of the Erechtheion, Greeks in Athens rioted, and this may be why the other five figures were not also likewise taken. Even men working for Elgin had second-thoughts about what they were doing, and in particular the Italian painter Giovanni Battista Lusieri, who was employed as a supervisor by Elgin, characterized it as a "barbarism." Lusieri later lived in Athens, near the Acropolis, until his death in 1821.

Lord Byron, the famous British poet who was particularly interested in Greece (and died in Missolonghi in 1824, having come to join the Greeks in the revolution against the Turks), mocked Elgin's efforts in his poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, published in four sections between 1812 - 1818. In the poem, Elgin is characterized as a plunderer upon Hellas, that he is the "...last, the worst..."

Elgin had been driven nearly to bankruptcy by his project of removing the marbles to England, had spent nearly 60,000 pounds in the process, and had suffered public humiliation through a divorce from his wife and also after being captured and imprisoned by Napoleon (the circumstances of his later parole forced him to quit the House of Lords). He had also experienced facial disfigurement during his long tour abroad, with his nose suffering particular disintegration (some attributed this to syphilis, though another likely explanation could be extreme skin rosacea accelerated by the strong Mediterranean sun).

In 1806 Elgin finally reached England, gathered the boxed pieces (Elgin originally had some 200 boses shipped out of Greece) from friends and storage places, and in 1807 began to exhibit them in Glouster House at the corner of Park Lane and Piccadilly.

Elgin's collection was consequently sold to the British government ten years later. Some books say Elgin sought 70,000 pounds, others say 50,000, in 1807, for his collection. All that the British government offered was 30,000, which Elgin refused. In 1816 the government then offered 35,000, and Elgin said yes.

In 1835 the new Greek government, with the mainland now free of Ottoman rule, made its first request for the return of the marbles. The British Museum (itself modeled on a Greek building, the temple at Priene) refused, but offered plaster reproductions instead. The requests have continued for the last 183 years.

TheParthenon 2018

Glossary:

Pediments and Metopes - Parthenon

Pediments - these sculpted figures were at either end (north-east and south-east) of the Parthenon and inside the raised triangular roofing space. This area combined with the metope area below is referred to as the "tablature."

Metope separated by triglyph

Metopes - Sculpted figures set apart from one another on rectangular slabs separated by a triple lined block called a "triglyph."

Acropolis frieze

Frieze - The Frieze is a continuous long series of figures. They were directly behind the metopes separated from it by air space. There were four friezes at the Parthenon, one each facing north, south, east and west. The frieze sat above an interior set of columns, which lined up behind the metopes. Behind the frieze was the block wall building of the actual temple (and inside that was a whole new set of approx. 46 smaller columns stacked into two floors). When looking at the Parthenon, the exterior columns are actually supporting an exterior section which goes up to support the roof (blown away by Venetian shelling in 1687) and behind that exterior line of columns is an interior line of columns (where the frieze were) , and behind that was the block wall of the temple with a large entrance door.

Resources on the Elgin marbles:

The 2009 book "Loot" by Sharon Waxman.

Why returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece would be madness - UK Telegraph

Greece wants Parthenon Marbles back, Tsipras tells May - Reuters

Corner Pediment

Corner pediment at the Acropolis Parthenon in Athens, Greece

More about the Acropolis


Page created October 2018



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