How The Parthenon Marbles Ended Up In The British Museum

Last month, we delved into a pro­pos­al to use dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy to clone the 2,500-year-old Parthenon Mar­bles cur­rent­ly housed in the British Muse­um.

The hope is that such uncan­ny fac­sim­i­les might final­ly con­vince muse­um Trustees and the British gov­ern­ment to return the orig­i­nals to Athens.

Today, we’ll take a clos­er look at just how these trea­sures of antiq­ui­ty, known to many as the Elgin mar­bles, wound up so far afield.

The most obvi­ous cul­prit is Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, who ini­ti­at­ed the takeover while serv­ing as Britain’s ambas­sador to the Ottoman Empire from 1798–1803.

Pri­or to set­ting sail for this post­ing, he hatched a plan to assem­ble a doc­u­men­tary team who would sketch and cre­ate plas­ter molds of the Parthenon mar­bles for the even­tu­al edi­fi­ca­tion of artists and archi­tects back home. Bet­ter yet, he’d get the British gov­ern­ment to pay for it.

The British gov­ern­ment, eying the mas­sive price tag of such a pro­pos­al, passed.

So Elgin used some of his heiress wife’s for­tune to finance the project him­self, hir­ing land­scape painter Gio­van­ni Bat­tista Lusieri — described by Lord Byron as “an Ital­ian painter of the first emi­nence” —  to over­see a team of drafts­men, sculp­tors, and archi­tects.

As The Nerd­writer’s Evan Puschak notes above, polit­i­cal alliances and expan­sion­ist ambi­tion greased Lord Elgin’s wheels, as the Ottoman Empire and Great Britain found com­mon cause in their hatred of Napoleon.

British efforts to expel occu­py­ing French forces from Egypt gen­er­at­ed good will suf­fi­cient to secure the req­ui­site fir­man, a legal doc­u­ment with­out which Lusieri and the team would not have been giv­en access to the Acrop­o­lis.

The orig­i­nal fir­man has nev­er sur­faced, and the accu­ra­cy of what sur­vives — an Eng­lish trans­la­tion of an Ital­ian trans­la­tion — casts Elgin’s acqui­si­tion of the mar­bles in a very dubi­ous light.

Some schol­ars and legal experts have assert­ed that the doc­u­ment in ques­tion is a mere admin­is­tra­tive let­ter, since it appar­ent­ly lacked the sig­na­ture of Sul­tan Selim III, which would have giv­en it the con­trac­tu­al heft of a fir­man.

In addi­tion to giv­ing the team entry to Acrop­o­lis grounds to sketch and make plas­ter casts, erect scaf­fold­ing and expose foun­da­tions by dig­ging, the let­ter allowed for the removal of such sculp­tures or inscrip­tions as would not inter­fere with the work or walls of the Acrop­o­lis.

This implies that the team was to lim­it itself to wind­fall apples, the result of the heavy dam­age the Acrop­o­lis sus­tained dur­ing a 1687 mor­tar attack by Venet­ian forces.

Some of the dis­lodged mar­ble had been har­vest­ed for build­ing mate­ri­als or sou­venirs, but plen­ty of good­ies remained on the ground for Elgin and com­pa­ny to cart off.

In an arti­cle for Smith­son­ian Mag­a­zine, Hel­lenist author Bruce Clark details how Elgin’s per­son­al assis­tant, cler­gy­man Philip Hunt, lever­aged Britain’s sup­port of the Ottoman Empire and anti-France posi­tion to blur these bound­aries:

See­ing how high­ly the Ottomans val­ued their alliance with the British, Hunt spot­ted an oppor­tu­ni­ty for a fur­ther, deci­sive exten­sion of the Acrop­o­lis project. With a nod from the sultan’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Athens—who at the time would have been scared to deny a Briton anything—Hunt set about remov­ing the sculp­tures that still adorned the upper reach­es of the Parthenon. This went much fur­ther than any­one had imag­ined pos­si­ble a few weeks ear­li­er. On July 31, the first of the high-stand­ing sculp­tures was hauled down, inau­gu­rat­ing a pro­gram of sys­tem­at­ic strip­ping, with scores of locals work­ing under Lusieri’s enthu­si­as­tic super­vi­sion.

Lusieri, whose admir­er Lord Byron became a furi­ous crit­ic of Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon mar­bles, end­ed his days believ­ing that his com­mit­ment to Lord Elgin ulti­mate­ly cost him an illus­tri­ous career as a water­col­orist.

He also con­ced­ed that the team had been “oblig­ed to be a lit­tle bar­barous”, a gross under­state­ment when one con­sid­ers their van­dal­ism of the Parthenon dur­ing the ten years it took them to make off with half of its sur­viv­ing trea­sures — 21 fig­ures from East and West ped­i­ments, 15 metope pan­els, and 246 feet of what had been a con­tin­u­ous nar­ra­tive frieze.

Clark notes that although Elgin suc­ceed­ed in relo­cat­ing them to British soil, he “derived lit­tle per­son­al hap­pi­ness from his anti­quar­i­an acqui­si­tions.”

After numer­ous logis­ti­cal headaches involved in their trans­port, he found him­self beg­ging the British gov­ern­ment to take them off his hands when an acri­mo­nious divorce land­ed him in finan­cial straits.

This time the British gov­ern­ment agreed, acquir­ing the lot for £35,000 — less than half of what Lord Elgin claimed to have shelled out for the oper­a­tion.

The so-called Elgin Mar­bles became part of the British Museum’s col­lec­tion in 1816, five years before the Greek War of Inde­pen­dence’s start.

They have been on con­tin­u­al dis­play ever since.

The 21st-cen­tu­ry has wit­nessed a num­ber of world class muse­ums rethink­ing the prove­nance of their most sto­ried arti­facts. In many cas­es, they have elect­ed to return them to their land of ori­gin.

Greece has long called for the Parthenon mar­bles in the British Muse­um to be per­ma­nent­ly repa­tri­at­ed to Athens, but thus­far muse­um Trustees have refused.

In their opin­ion, it’s com­pli­cat­ed.

Is it though? Lord Elgin’s ulti­mate moti­va­tions might have been, and Bruce Clark, in a bril­liant nin­ja move, sug­gests that the return could be viewed as a pos­i­tive strip­ping away, atone­ment by way of get­ting back to basics:

Sup­pose that among his mix­ture of motives—personal aggran­dize­ment, rival­ry with the French and so on—the wel­fare of the sculp­tures actu­al­ly had been Elgin’s pri­ma­ry con­cern. How could that pur­pose best be served today? Per­haps by plac­ing the Acrop­o­lis sculp­tures in a place where they would be extreme­ly safe, extreme­ly well con­served and superbly dis­played for the enjoy­ment of all? The Acrop­o­lis Muse­um, which opened in 2009 at the foot of the Parthenon, is an ide­al can­di­date; it was built with the goal of even­tu­al­ly hous­ing all of the sur­viv­ing ele­ments of the Parthenon frieze…. If the earl real­ly cared about the mar­bles, and if he were with us today, he would want to see them in Athens now.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art Restores the Orig­i­nal Col­ors to Ancient Stat­ues

Robots Are Carv­ing Repli­cas of the Parthenon Mar­bles: Could They Help the Real Ancient Sculp­tures Return to Greece?

John Oliver’s Show on World-Class Art Muse­ums & Their Loot­ed Art: Watch It Free Online

Take a Vir­tu­al Real­i­ty Tour of the World’s Stolen Art

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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