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A short history of the Parthenon Marbles: Why restitution is not always the answer

A look at what happened to the sculptures from early Christian times to the 21st century, and the damage to those remaining after Lord Elgin bought the majority of them

Advocates of the “restitution” of the Elgin Marbles do their best to ignore, belittle or dismiss the fact that the sculptures removed by Lord Elgin’s agents from the Parthenon were spared substantial further damage. Instead, the more intemperate of them suggest that Elgin’s actions represent perhaps the worst assault ever perpetrated upon the building.

The history of the degradation and destruction of the architectural sculpture on the Parthenon spans 1,600 years, from the fifth century to the closing decades of the 20th century. In what follows I will seek to place Elgin’s actions in the context of that history before turning to what I regard the central issue in the “Marbles” debate.

The first and greatest single assault on the sculpture that ornamented the Parthenon occurred around 500 when the temple was converted into a Christian church.1 It was at that time that the statues in the east pediment depicting the birth of Athena—the most important decorative element of the main façade of the temple—were removed and destroyed. Approximately 65% of the east pediment sculptures were lost at that time.

All that remained in situ of that massive composition were seven of the outermost framing figures. (Figs1,2). At the same time the metopes of the east, north and west sides of the building were systematically defaced, six frieze blocks, three on the north and three on the south side, were removed in the process of opening windows into the church, and the central block of the east frieze was removed.

The late Robert Browning, a staunch advocate of “restitution”, glossed over this assault on the Parthenon in an astonishing manner. He wrote of the transformation of the Parthenon into a church: “The occasional, apparently deliberate, defacement of sculptural figures was probably the work of over-zealous Christians at this time but there was no systematic defacement.”2

It is incorrect to suggest that the destruction was the work of some “over-zealous” Christian minority. It was part of a wholesale, church/State-sponsored assault on pagan sculpture throughout the late Roman empire. The battered remnants of classical architectural sculpture and the thousands of empty statue bases that litter classical sites attest to the thoroughness and fury of this Christian onslaught on pagan art. Furthermore, the systematic manner in which the Parthenon was assaulted can hardly be described as “occasional, apparently deliberate defacement”. A great deal of organisation and effort went into achieving those results. This militant, iconoclastic Christian strand in the patrimony of modern Greeks deserves wider acknowledgement.

A large series of drawings attributed to Jacques Carrey provides a reliable indication of what sculptures survived the modifications to render the Parthenon fit for Christian worship and still remained on the building in 1674, the year in which he visited Athens as a member of Louis XIV’s embassy to Constantinople.3

The greatest catastrophe to befall the fabric of the Parthenon occurred in 1687 in the course of the Venetian bombardment of the Turkish garrison holding the Acropolis. A direct hit ignited the munitions the Turks had stored in the building. The resultant explosion demolished most of the north and south sides of the building. Fourteen well-preserved metopes that adorned the central portion of the south side and a comparable number of the long-defaced metopes on the north side were destroyed and the central frieze blocks on both the north and south sides of the building were shattered. The sculptural decorations surviving on the east and west fronts were not damaged by the explosion but the west pediment suffered when an officer serving under Francesco Morosini, the victorious Venetian commander, sought to remove Athena’s horses in order to transport them to Venice. This attempt ended in disaster: the equipment used to lift the horses failed; they were dropped and shattered.

In the 18th century, the sculpture that survived the Venetians suffered enormous damage and destruction through the piecemeal actions of generations of indifferent locals and souvenir-seeking visitors from Western Europe.

The extent of the damage visited upon the Parthenon sculptures in those years may be established by comparing Jacques Carrey’s drawings of 1674 with drawings by Richard Dalton, who was in Athens in 1749, and James Stuart, who was there in the early 1750s, and with casts taken by Louis Fauvel in the late 1780s.

In the west pediment Carrey recorded two complete horses and 20 human figures of which eleven still retained their heads (Fig.3). Dalton’s drawing of the west pediment records the survival of eight reasonably complete figures (of which just two retained their heads), two torsos and one badly battered fragment of a figure (figs 4,5).4

By the time Elgin’s agents arrived in 1801, all that remained of the west pediment sculptures was four reasonably complete figures (all headless and with truncated limbs), one substantial torso and a further six badly battered fragments of torsos. None of the eleven heads recorded by Carrey survived into the 19th century. The east pediment suffered fewer losses in the course of the 18th century: all seven figures shown by Carrey remained, albeit with the loss of extremities and two of the three heads he recorded.

The well preserved metopes on the south side of the Parthenon that survived the Venetian bombardment also suffered severe losses in the course of the 18th century. Most of the heads and in some cases entire figures recorded by Carrey were hacked off and carried away in piecemeal fashion. A small number of these fragments survive scattered about Europe.5

The frieze also suffered serious losses in the course of the 18th century. In the middle of the century Stuart recorded the whole of north frieze block XXX; by 1801 just a chunk of it survived (Fig.6). In addition to the smashing of frieze blocks, numerous heads were hacked off and in some cases attempts were made to chisel off entire figures.

The most notorious instance of the latter occurred in the last decade of the 18th century. Moulds made by Fauvel of the right half of east frieze block VI in the late 1780s (Fig.7) reveal a wonderfully preserved group of elders standing to the right of the Olympian gods. Little more than the battered outlines of the figures remained in 1801 (Fig.8).

Destruction on this scale would have continued unabated for several more decades and far less sculpture would survive in readable form today if Elgin had not acted. His cure may have been drastic, but it worked. Those pieces Elgin removed from the Parthenon were not only spared continued piecemeal damage and destruction in the last decades of Ottoman administration of Athens, but also the risks occasioned by the two sieges of the Acropolis that occurred in 1822 and 1827 in the course of the Greek war of independence.

The material removed to London was also spared the certain devastation that befell all the sculptures that remained exposed on the buildings of the Acropolis: dissolution in the increasingly polluted atmosphere of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century Athens.

Elgin’s agents left behind the well preserved westernmost north and south metopes, one on each side, and the greater portion of the west frieze because removing them would have required the dismantling of the western end of the structure. They also left all the illegible metopes on the north, east and west sides, and, in the west pediment, the pair of statues known as Kekrops and his daughter (Fig.15) and the lower half of a reclining female figure. Those pedimental sculptures were not removed because they were believed at the time to be “Hadrianic replacements”.

A shocking instance of post-Elgin loss may be observed on west frieze block VIII. A cast taken from moulds made by Elgin’s agents in 1802 records a heroic, bearded figure reining in a spirited horse (Fig.9). When a further cast was taken from a new set of moulds in 1872, nothing remained of the figure’s face: it had crumbled away (Fig.10). A photograph of the same block taken by Walter Hege in the 1920s reveals its appalling condition. (Fig.11).

Further instances of the flaking away of the surface of the west frieze, with the resultant loss of detail, are evident in this and others of Hege’s photographs.6 A more recent photograph, taken by the Greek Archaeological Service (Fig.12) before the block was detached from the Parthenon in 1993, shows subsequent deterioration.

All the exposed Parthenon sculptures were subjected to an awful process of disintegration in the course of the 20th century as the growth of Athens led to ever increasing atmospheric pollution. This process is described in chilling terms in a report by the Technical Office of the Acropolis:

The acid pollutants which are dissolved in rain water, i.e. Sulphur dioxide (SO2), Sulphur trioxide (SO3) and Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), attack exposed marble surfaces, turning the marble (limestone) into Calcium sulphate (plaster) or Calcium nitrate. The gypsum is in turn dissolved by rain and the attack continues on the new marble surface with [sic] emerges. This acid attack is extraordinarily devastating to architectural sculpture because the loss of detail results immediately. When surfaces are protected from rain the Sulphur dioxide (SO2)

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in the atmosphere produces a reaction termed sulphation. The sulphur dioxide (SO2) takes effect in two stages: first it quickly oxidises by catalysis into SO3; the second phase is a slow reaction of the SO3 with the Calcium carbonate (marble). Particles that are either in suspension in the air or have settled on the marble surface complete the process of deterioration.7 In other words, the surfaces of the sculptures and reliefs crumbled and flaked away. The damage to some of the sculptures in London as a result of unauthorised cleaning in the late 1930s cannot be compared with the loss of detail suffered by pieces that remained exposed until quite recently on the Acropolis.8 Sooty deposits on the surface of the marble were another problem (Fig.13).

From as early as 1905 the Archaeological Congress proposed that the west frieze be protected but no meaningful action was taken until the 1990s. It was finally removed to store in 1993 and has not been available to the public or generally available to scholars since.

The statues that had been left in the west pediment were removed to the Acropolis Museum in 1977 and stabilised. They are now displayed in cases filled with an inert gas (see Fig.15).

Viewing their scarred and pitted surfaces for the first time, I could not help but compare them with the reclining male figure in London that originally lay not far from them in the north corner of the west pediment (see Fig.14). That figure still retains traces of the original lustre of the polished marble. I was thankful that the latter had been spared their fate.

Whatever Elgin’s motives, the result of his actions was the rescue of the majority of the Parthenon sculptures surviving in 1801 from further deterioration and destruction. The removal of the pedimental figures and west frieze blocks from the Parthenon in 1977 and 1993 respectively was necessary and appropriate, no more than a belated continuation of the process begun by Elgin.

Not all the Parthenon sculptures have been removed to a safer environment. The well-preserved westernmost north and south metopes remain exposed.

These are not the only fifth-century BC architectural sculptures still exposed to Athenian pollution. The frieze blocks and metopes on the Hephaisteion, an intact mid fifth-century BC temple on the edge of the Agora and within sight of the Acropolis, also remain in situ and continue to deteriorate. (Those prepared to condemn the British Museum out of hand for the unauthorised cleaning of some of the Parthenon sculptures in the late 1930s should recall that the Hephaisteion frieze was, with official and scholarly approval, subjected to an even more drastic cleaning in the 1950s.9)

Unesco guidelines on the restitution of cultural properties call for the return of those objects which are “central to the cultural identity and national heritage of a people”, and whose removal “divests that culture of one of its dimensions”. Do these guidelines apply to the Parthenon sculptures in London? I believe not. The modern Greeks are not the sole heirs to the achievements of the ancient Greeks, and, moreover, those achievements are not the sole or even the most important component of their present-day identity. Nor can it reasonably be argued that modern Greece has been divested of an entire dimension of its national heritage by Elgin’s actions.

One particularly strident voice in the Marbles debate insists that “a brilliant frieze that was carved as a unity, and that tells a narrative story, should not be broken in two and exhibited in two separate cities,” and goes on to offer a spurious analogy of a divided Mona Lisa.10

The return of the Elgin Marbles to Athens would not result in the restoration of the “unity” of a work of art. Nearly one-third of the frieze is lost beyond recall. Nor would we come anywhere near achieving the “unity” of the great compositions that once filled the pediments with the return of the Elgin Marbles. The loss of pedimental sculpture has been even more severe than the losses suffered by the frieze. Any alleged “aesthetic point” that would be made by the return of the London material would be outweighed by the damage such an action would do to great cultural institutions throughout the world.

Some “restitutionists” argue disingenuously that their demand would not result in irreparable damage to the world’s great museums. The Greeks, they assure us, have no claims on any other material beyond their borders. But it is not the Greeks alone who claim theirs to be a special case.

Other “restitutionists”, with greater honesty, have admitted their distaste for institutions like the British Museum and make it clear that they would be happy to see them emptied of their “stolen property”. Nigel Spivey recently provided a particularly distasteful example of this argument, calling for the “acceptance of guilt” and a “process of atonement” by the great museums of the world. I find Mr Spivey’s claim that the Elgin Marbles are “object lessons of greed, xenophobia and intransigence” in part incomprehensible and in part deeply offensive.11

If Mr Spivey and others are affronted by what they regard as the fruits of imperialism, they might remind themselves of the motives behind the construction of the Parthenon itself. It was meant to proclaim Athens the richest and most powerful of all Greek cities. The buildings raised on the Acropolis were the most extravagant temples and subsidiary buildings constructed anywhere in the Greek world in the fifth century BC. The building programme was funded in large part with the gains of empire. The Athenian empire had begun as a defensive league under the leadership of Athens but was quickly transformed into a brutally administered imperium.

The distribution of works of art beyond their place of origin is not an unmitigated evil, an absolute crime against culture. “National museums”, when literally that, simply reinforce national prejudices and notions of racial superiority. The contribution of the British Museum and its counterparts to fostering internationalism in the broadest sense deserves recognition, appreciation and respect.

The “restitution” of the Elgin Marbles would not significantly enrich the life of the Greek people; it would immeasurably impoverish the lives of all the rest of us. The world’s great museums allow us to grasp the breadth of human artistic achievement and to challenge narrow national conceits.

In the British Museum the Parthenon sculptures are not demeaned by being reduced to totems of anyone’s nationality but are freely available to all to be studied and appreciated in a rich comparative context as part of our common heritage.

The Greeks, with international cooperation, have made tremendous efforts over the past three decades to consolidate all the monuments of the Acropolis. Most of the structural damage they have had to repair was the direct result of the catastrophically ill-conceived restorations of all the major buildings on the Acropolis undertaken by Nikolas Balanos in the opening decades of the 20th century.

Now the Parthenon and the other structures have been restored out of fragments of their original fabric combined with substantial amounts of freshly quarried Pentelic marble. The surviving sculptures, whether in the Acropolis Museum, the British Museum, the Louvre or elsewhere, cannot be returned to their original locations. That material is not required to achieve the “reintegration” of the Parthenon or any of the other Acropolis monuments. Casts or laser-cut marble facsimiles of all the sculptures that can appear meaningfully on the Parthenon should be placed on it. We would then come as close as possible to a realisation of the lost whole while leaving the originals where history has scattered them. One may be a passionate Philhellene and still believe that the Elgin Marbles should remain in the British Museum.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2002 issue of ArtWatch UK

Footnotes

1 There was a great fire in the Roman period that destroyed the roof and interior of the Parthenon but did not result in any losses to its external sculptural decorations. The fire is likely to have occurred in 267 AD, when the Heruli, a Germanic tribe, invaded Attica and sacked Athens. See Jeffrey M. Hurwit, The Athenian Acropolis: History, Mythology, and Archaeology from the Neolithic Era to the Present (Cambridge, 1999), pp. 283 ff.

2 Christopher Hitchens, The Elgin Marbles: Should they be returned to Greece? with essays by Robert Browning and Graham Binns (London, 1987, revised edition: London, 1999), p.20; p.7 in the revised edition.

3 All of Carrey’s drawings are reproduced in T. Bowie and D. Thimme, The Carrey Drawings of the Parthenon Sculptures, (Bloomington and London, 1971).

4 Richard Dalton, Antiquities in Sicily, Greece, Asia Minor and Egypt (London, 1751-1752).

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The fate of the Parthenon sculptures in Athens'