05 January 2008

Time to restore the Parthenon Sculptures to ‘the birthplace of European Civilisation’

The damage to the Parthenon Marbles and the way they are displayed should make us all support Greek demands that they are returned to Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2008)

By Patrick Comerford

Just after the turn of the New Year, I was in London with my elder son, and we stayed in Bloomsbury, three or four minutes walk to the British Museum. It was his first time to stay overnight in London, and we did all the usual tourist things a father and son should do together on their first time in London together – see Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, Horse Guards, Downing Street, Buckingham Palace, the Changing of the Guard, the Tower of London and the Crown Jewels and the Globe Theatre. We walked across and the Millennium Bridge, strolled past the West End theatres and wandered through Chinatown.

We attended Choral Evensong in Westminster Abbey, visited the Crypt in Saint Martin-in-the-Field, and climbed to the Golden Gallery at the very top of the dome of Saint Paul’s Cathedral.

But his priority on this visit was to see the Parthenon Marbles, and the British Museum was the first place to visit two mornings in a row. Having climbed the Acropolis and visited the Parthenon together during a recent trip back to Athens, Jamie now wanted to see the Parthenon Sculptures.

I had been to the Duveen Galleries only a few months earlier, but this was Jamie’s first visit. And it was awe-inspiring for the two of us to find ourselves in the presence of one of the greatest works of our civilisation, to stand so close to them and to photograph them. And yet it was obvious to both of us how sad it was that we could not see these sculptures in Athens, in their original setting, and that as we were looked at them they were facing into a rectangular enclosed area rather than running along the outside of the building of which they are an original and integral part.

‘Birthplace of civilisation’

The Acropolis in Athens is one of the most-visited sites in the world and last year was formally proclaimed the pre-eminent monument on the European Cultural Heritage list of monuments. President Karolos Papoulias of Greece, the Mayor of Athens, Nikitas Kaklamanis, and the French Culture Minister, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, attended a ceremony in Athens last year at which the Acropolis and the surrounding archaeological sites were described as “the birthplace of the European civilisation.”

According to George Voulgarakis, who was then the Greek Culture Minister, the Acropolis preserves our collective memory and “represents the civilisation shared by all people.” He called for the return of the Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum, and said now is the time to correct an “historical error” and to restore the harmony of one of the greatest monuments of humanity.

Over the last few years, the Greek government has spent tens of millions of euros on the new Acropolis Museum in Athens, all in the hope of reuniting the sculptures and the Parthenon. A former Greek Culture Minister, Evangelos Venizelos, has promised that when the sculptures are returned, Greece will ensure that the Duveen Galleries in the British Museum will always host Greek antiquities on loan for exhibitions, including rare and newly-discovered works that have never been seen outside Greece. But Britain continues to ignore all Greek requests and proposals.

Symbol of civilisation

The Parthenon is the most important symbol of Greek culture and the most important symbol of European civilisation and democracy. The biggest building on the Acropolis of Athens, it was commissioned by Pericles and was designed and built by the architects Iktinos and Kallikrates and the sculptor Pheidias between 447 and 436 BC. It celebrates the victory of the Athenian Democracy that encouraged the creation and development of all the arts as well as of politics, philosophy, theatre and science as we know them today. As a celebration of the achievements of a free, democratic people, of our culture and our civilisation, it is an important symbol for the whole world. Referring to the Parthenon Sculptures, the late Melina Mercouri declared: “They are a tribute to the democratic philosophy.”

The Parthenon is a meticulously self-contained and perfectly proportioned marble temple enclosed by 46 fluted Doric columns. It has long been judged the single most important building in western civilisation – it perfectly embodies classical values and its beauty is impossible to match.

On the other hand, we found the display of the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum both bewildering and unsatisfactory. They are arranged along the inside of the walls in the Duveen Galleries, facing into the exhibition room. But when Pheidias sculpted the frieze he was using the outside walls of the building to dramatically present the procession in the Panathenaic Festival.

The arrangement of the sculptures in the British Museum gives the impression that they form a whole. But they are not. Many parts are damaged or missing, and there is no indication where the missing slabs should be placed. But then, the story of the theft of the marbles and their arrival in London is one of intrigue, deception and theft.

Democracy and deception

Down the centuries, the Parthenon has been a church, a mosque and even a gunpowder store, and it was partly destroyed by a Venetian mortar in 1687. But throughout those times, it remained a sacred symbol to Greece and it remains a symbol of our democratic values and our civilisation.

In 1799, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, was appointed the British Ambassador to the Sublime Porte of Constantinople, the Ottoman Court in Turkey. Elgin was then building a grand country house, Broomhall. His architect, Thomas Harrison, was a passionate admirer of Greek classical architecture, and encouraged Elgin to send back drawings of Greek antiquities and to bring back plaster casts.

Elgin asked his government to subsidise a project to draw and make moulds on the Acropolis, claiming this would help to educate artists and the public. Secretly, he knew this would also enhance his designs for his lavish new home. But there was no suggestion at the time that anything should be removed from any monuments or buildings. The government refused his request, and Elgin left for the Mediterranean with his new and rich bride, Mary Nisbet, how hoping to use her money to finance his new adventures.

Elgin arrived in the Mediterranean in 1800, and his staff included a chaplain, the Revd Philip Hunt, who had an insatiable appetite for Greek antiquities, and Giovanni Batista Lusieri, an Italian landscape artist. Athens was then a small, Turkish-occupied town of 1,300 people, clustered around the base of the Acropolis, and the people of Athens welcomed their arrival, hoping this large retinue of foreigners would create jobs and wealth

Elgin used his influence with the sultan to be allowed to draw and make casts of the Parthenon Sculptures. However, the more he busied himself with his project, the more he realised that the Ottoman officials in charge of the Acropolis were easy to bribe, and that the Parthenon Sculptures were there not only for copying but also for the taking.

Elgin’s team dealt with two key Ottoman dignitaries – the Voivode or Governor of Athens and the Disdar or military commander of the Acropolis. Neither of these two was averse to selling off the occasional piece of antiquity. The Disdar was prepared to sell access to the Acropolis, but he drew the line when it came to allowing Elgin’s team to sketch – he was worried that they might spy on the military fortifications or that they might take delight in the women in the Ottoman houses that could be seen from the Acropolis. When the Disdar demanded an official permit from the Sultan, Elgin supposedly obtained a firman or decree of the highest order signed by Sultan Selim III, authorising their work on the Acropolis.

Enthusiastic, competetive chaplain

When Elgin was busy in Constantinople, he delegated the Acropolis project to his chaplain. In his enthusiasm to compete with other Europeans, Hunt went to Constantinople, and returned to Athens in July 1801 claiming he had received another firman.

Later that summer, the sultan invited the glamorous Lady Elgin to the Sublime Porte. She was invited to Topkapi Palace to meet the power behind the throne – the sultan's mother, or Valida Sultana – making her the first western woman invited to witness the opulence and mystery of the fabled harem. In 1802, when the Elgins arrived in Athens, Lady Elgin was pregnant with her third child. She stayed to supervise her husband's project while he went island-hopping. The first two firmans had already been passed on to the authorities in Athens, and Lady Elgin now claimed she had further firmans authorising the removal of the Parthenon sculptures.

Between 1801 and 1804, Elgin’s busy team stripped down the monuments of the Acropolis, removing huge pedimental figures, friezes, metopes, columns and other pieces – representing over half of all the surviving sculptures from the monuments.

The removal of the metopes was witnessed by Edward Daniel Clarke, a visiting British scholar: “We saw this fine piece of sculpture raised from its station between the triglyphs: but while the workmen were endeavouring to give it a position adapted to the line of descent, a pair of adjoining masonry was loosened by the machinery and down came the fine masses of Pentelican marble scattering their white fragments with thundering noise among the ruins. The Disdar, seeing this, could no longer restrain his emotions … and letting fall a tear, said in a most emphatic tone of voice ‘telos’ [‘the end!’ or ‘never again’].”

Elgin personally oversaw the removal of the stunning horse’s head from the chariot of the waning moon (Selene) in the east pediment. Lady Elgin wrapped some of the marbles for shipping herself, and persuaded two British navy captains to disobey Nelson's orders and transport the cases to England. Elgin’s brig, the Mentor, sank with some of the finest sculptures off the island of Kythera (Cerigo), forcing Hunt to seek the help of Captain Clarke and HMS Braakel to salvage the sculptures and ship them to London.

‘The last plunder’

After leaving Constantinople with his family in 1803, Elgin was captured by the French and remained a prisoner-of-war for three years. Lusieri worked on in Athens, removing one whole Caryatid from the Erechtheion and replacing it with a crude bare brick pillar to prevent the roof from collapsing.

When the French released Elgin in 1806, he found a second collection of plundered antiquities was still in Athens. The Ottomans claimed Elgin had never been authorised to remove any sculptures, but once they changed their minds in 1809, Lusieri loaded most of the sculptures onto a ship that sailed hastily for London. The five heaviest cases remained, but were shipped to London a year later on a British navy vessel with Lusieri on board.

In Childe Harold, the poet Byron called Elgin’s destruction of the Parthenon “the last plunder from a bleeding land.” He wrote: “Blind are the eyes that do not shed tears while seeing, O, Greece beloved, your sacred objects plundered by profane English hands that have again wounded your aching bosom and snatched your gods, gods that hate England’s abominable north climate.”

No documentary evidence

Back in London, the Elgins were divorced in two scandalous trials that brought notoriety to them both. By 1816, he was deeply in debt and the British government offered him £35,000 to pay off his creditors. But even the parliamentary hearings on buying the sculptures were tainted. Dr Jeanette Greenfield, in The Return of Cultural Treasures (Cambridge, 1998), points out that “the original firman was never produced by Elgin in the House of Commons Parliamentary Select Committee in 1816. Only a copy written from memory was produced. There is no direct documentary proof of the right to remove the marbles.”

The Greek historian Professor Vassilis Demetriades, who has carried out extensive research in the Ottoman archives in Greece and Turkey, questions whether Elgin ever secured the legal documents he claimed. He is convinced that there never was a firman. Indeed, the only evidence for a firman is an unsigned Italian translation, without any signatures or seal. This document, now in the possession of Elgin’s biographer, the Cambridge historian William St Clair, it is nothing more than an “official letter,” giving Elgin permission to copy, draw, mould and dig around the Parthenon – there was no permission to saw sculptures off the monument. Perhaps all that Elgin ever possessed was a letter of introduction from an obliging vizier, giving instructions for Elgin’s men to be allowed to enter the Acropolis.

The British Museum still claims today the sculptures have been well cared for. However, in the 1930s the sculptures were “cleaned” under the mistaken belief that they were originally brilliant white, although the sculptures were made from Pentelicon marble that acquired a mellow honey colour when exposed to the air. The “cleaning” was carried out under the instruction of Lord Duveen who financed the building of the Duveen Galleries. The cleaners used wire brushes, copper tools and carborundum that caused irretrievable damage. At other times, the Duveen Galleries have been hired out for private parties. Although the museum admitted the damage, the full report remained secret for 60 years until William St Clair revealed it in his book, Lord Elgin and the Marbles (Oxford, 1998).

Restoring integrity

The Parthenon Sculptures are not free-standing works of art – they are integral architectural parts of one of the most magnificent and unique monuments in the world. The former leader of the British Labour Party, Neil Kinnock, once said: “The Parthenon without the Marbles is like a smile with a tooth missing.”

The painstaking task of transferring hundreds of statues and friezes from the Acropolis to the New Acropolis Museum in Athens began in October and is expected to be completed soon. A total of 4,500 antiquities, mostly marble sculptures dating to the 6th and 5th centuries B.C., are being moved to the New Acropolis Museum. “The work is going well and is on time,” says the new Greek Culture Minister, Michalis Liapis. Last month, five of the Caryatids that once acted as pillars in the Erechtheion began their journey from the old museum on the Acropolis to a new museum in Athens. The missing sixth Caryatid is in the British Museum in London, along with the Parthenon Marbles. But on the two mornings we were in the British Museum this month, the gallery exhibiting the missing Caryatid was closed off.

It is unbelievable that over half the Parthenon Sculptures and the sixth Caryatid are separated by 2,000 miles from the monuments for which they were carved. The return of the Sculptures to Athens would help to restore the beauty and meaning of the Parthenon and its physical and historic integrity. As Melina Mercouri said: “The time has come for these Marbles to come home to the blue skies of Attica, to their rightful place, where they form a structural and functional part of a unique entity.”

The New Acropolis Museum, designed by the Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, is due to open to the public later this year. The museum is ready to receive at least three million visitors a year, and is equally ready to receive the Parthenon Marbles. Whether they ever return to Athens is now a question for politicians that will be debated at a sepcial UNESCO conference in Athens in March.

© Patrick Comerford, 2008

The British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles is at 73 Saint Paul’s Place, London N1 2LT; http://www.parthenonuk.com/index.php

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College.

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