January 03: Arrival of the ‘Elgin Marbles’ in London

2016/01/03 § Leave a comment

During this month in 1804, the first sixty-five cases that transmitted the Parthenon sculptures (“Elgin Marbles”) arrived in London.

As English ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, traveled to Athens.  There he discovered, among the disarray of the Acropolis (the Ottomans did not appear to be much interested in historic preservation, at least of Greek antiquities), an opportunity to enrich his homeland–and, no doubt, his cultural standing (not to mention his bank account).  He struck a deal with the local authorities to crate up a trove of fragments, including the majority of sculpture that had fallen from the Parthenon.  The cases were shipped to England where they were placed in storage for two years while Lord Elgin was detained in France and then schlepped back and forth between different sheds and coal barns while Elgin attempted to sell them to the reluctant (and in this case, truly feckless) British Government.  After dithering for years, they were finally purchased on June 7, 1816 for £35,000–a bit less than half of the sum Elgin originally bargained for.

Artists, poets, and generally smart people understood the value of the scuptures at once, and such like have enjoyed them for almost two centuires in their present home at the British Museum, where they command an approporaetly stately wing of their own.  The story of these Greek sculptures is interwoven so tightly with later developemtns in Britain (and elsewhere) that one can understand the claim of the Brits to leave them well enough alone, where they are, deaf to the calls of the Athenians and others to return them.  Contemporary criticism against their removal is not new, but was voiced almost immediately, and not only by Greeks.  While the fragments were still encased and stored in a shed, opened on occasion for special viewings, Lord Byron wrote the following lines in “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” (Canto the Second, XV), published 10 March 1812:

      Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
            Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
            By British hands, which it had best behoved
            To guard those relics ne’er to be restored:— 
            Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
            And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
      And snatched thy shrinking Gods to Northern climes abhorred!

If returned to Athens, the scutures would be placed in a musuem, removed from the context for which they were designed, never to be replaced on the Parthenon even if its reconstruction is ever complete.  Would that really be an improvement?

Image: pediment sculptures from the Parthenon, as displayed in the British Museum, London (by Clio)

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You are currently reading January 03: Arrival of the ‘Elgin Marbles’ in London at Clio’s Calendar: Daily Musings on Architectural History.

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