“Cold as the crags upon his native coast, / His mind as barren and his heart as hard, / Is he whose head conceiv’d, whose hand prepar’d, / Aught to displace Athena’s poor remains.” Byron’s account of Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin, offers a poetically abbreviated albeit violently subjective version of the story of the Elgin Marbles – which seemingly remain as controversial as ever, a full two centuries after Elgin acquired them.
Byron’s ire was roused by what remains perhaps the most extensive act of cultural appropriation in modern history. Between 1801 and 1811, Elgin’s agents in Greece removed approximately half of the sculpture to have survived from the great fifth-century BC temple of Athena known as the Parthenon, set high above Athens on the rock of the Acropolis. After many trials and tribulations – several tons of sculpture were lost at sea between Athens and England and spent two years underwater before being salvaged – this astonishing mass of antique sculpture eventually reached London. Elgin, who had effectively bankrupted himself by acquiring and transporting his marbles, eventually sold them to the Trustees of the British Museum for what now looks like the knockdown price of £35,000. That is around £1.5 million in modern money, which these days is apparently only enough to buy a few square inches of a Picasso.
The Elgin Marbles can still be seen at the British Museum, forming what is perhaps its single greatest treasure. They comprise more than 75 metres of the great sculpted frieze that once ran around the inside of the entire Parthenon; plus 15 of the 92 sculpted panels, or “metopes” which once decorated its outside, occupying the spaces above its columns, depicting men defeating centaurs, Greeks defeating Amazons and other subjects allegorising the triumph of Athenian civilisation over its barbarous foes; as well as 17 of the larger than life-size figures, many of them sadly broken and mutilated, which once stood in the pediments at either end of the building, part of two grand representations of scenes from the city of Athens’s mythical past. Even in their fragmented state, these great works, carved with astonishing virtuosity and energy, form a truly remarkable ensemble. They are the earliest fully resolved naturalistic sculptures in the entire European art tradition and so, in effect, they represent the point where the story of western art might be said to commence. They are the beginning: the alpha.
But their continued presence on Bloomsbury is regarded by many as a crime against culture, an enduring symbol of British shame; and has been, in some quarters, ever since Byron began his extraordinarily effective smear campaign against Lord Elgin in the years after the sculptures arrived in this country:
“Cold is the heart, fair Greece! That looks on thee, / Nor feels as lovers o’er the dust they lov’d; / Dull is the eye that will not weep to see / Thy walls defac’d; thy mould’ring shrines remov’d / By British hands…”
The fires of controversy were fanned further by the rise of Greek nationalism, as a result of which the return of the Elgin Marbles was elevated to a cause celebre. The argument reached fever pitch in the 1980s, when the most entertainingly theatrical Greek politician in living memory, Merlina Mercouri, burst into televised tears on the Acropolis and proclaimed that “the Marbles are Greece’s soul”. The British response was not always temperate, the Director of the British Museum at the time, David Wilson, regrettably accusing Mercouri and her supporters of of attempting to destroy a great museum’s core, branding them all as cultural fascists and comparing their campaign for the restitution of the Marbles to the book-burning exploits of the Nazis.
Having spent much of the last six months making a film about the Elgin Marbles for BBC 2, I have been struck above all by how this particular debate still has a way of generating more heat than light. Mary Beard, the most lucid and impartial of the several historians to have tackled the subject, expresses it well when she says that many of the most emotive arguments on both sides of the controversy still rest on caricatures of the truth. “Britain has been parodied as an unreconstructed colonial power, desperate to hang on to its cultural booty in place of its lost empire; Greece as a jumped-up Balkan republic, a peasant state hardly to be trusted with the stewardship of an international treasure.” Politicians, she adds with wry understatement, “have leapt on and off the bandwagon.” A recent poll is said to have established that the majority of Britons now believe the Marbles should be returned; but given the general fog of prejudice, propaganda and misinformation that currently surrounds the subject – as thick, it sometimes seems, as the pall of smog that shrouds the Parthenon today, and which has forced the Greek authorities to bring those sculptures that still remain to them into the sanctuary of a museum – it is hard to know on what basis that hypothetical majority have reached their presumed conviction. The ambition behind the film I have made with director Robin Dashwood is not to solve the conundrum of the Marbles, but at least to separate some of the facts from the many fictions surrounding them.
Lord Elgin has undeniably been painted blacker by his enemies than he ever deserved to be – one result of which being that the real villains of the piece have been more or less airbrushed from the picture. The truth is that had it not been for one fateful incident, which occurred more than a century before Elgin ever stepped foot in Greece, the building, together with almost all of its original statues, would probably have endured intact into the modern period.
Like many another fine classical temple, it owed its longevity to its beauty, which ensured that after the fall of the Athenian empire, and the advent of the Romans, the building was converted into a splendid Christian church. When Byzantine influence over the Balkans waned and the Greek lands were annexed to the Ottoman Empire, the Parthenon became a mosque but still remained essentially intact. It was only on 28 September 1687, more than two thousand years after it was originally built, that catastrophe finally befell the structure. It was then that a Venetian army besieging Turkish-controlled Athens, under the command of a Swedish general, Count Koenigsmark, decided to aim a barrage of shells at the Parthenon. The Turks, counting on theVenetian respect for antiquity, were using it as their principal munitions store – as well as a temporary shelter for more than 300 women and children. But when Koenigsmark’s men fired on the Parthenon, the powder store ignited and the resulting explosion not only killed all those inside but also blew out the centre of the building, either destroying or scattering large amounts of the sculpture that decorated its two long sides. The pediments at either end survived, but to add insult to injury the overall commander of the Venetian forces, one General Morosini, made an unsuccessful attempt to remove the sculptures in the western pediment which brought them crashing to the ground, pulverising most in the process.
From that time on, the Parthenon was a ruin, although modern visitors to the Acropolis encounter a scene very different to that which met the eyes of Elgin and his men when they set foot there in the early years of the nineteenth century. When Greece in the early years of its independence was ruled by a king imported from Germany, the philhellene King Otto, son of “mad” Ludwig I, the entire site was rigorously stripped of all its so-called “remains of barbarity” by assiduous German archaeolgists. They removed more or less every trace of Byzantine and Turkish settlement, destroying Byzantine buildings, mosque turrets and an entire village which had sprung up around the ruins, leaving only those monuments standing which could be dated to the time of Pericles. Since the early twentieth century the Parthenon itself has been reconstructed to a degree once unimaginable, which also obscures the nature of the site as it was in Elgin’s time and tends to make his behaviour seem worse than it actually was. When Elgin arrived in Athens the Parthenon a ruin. A Turkish garrison town had been built on and all around it. Much sculpture was simply lying around on the ground, while some pieces had been incorporated into fortifications and yet other fragments were being made to serve as ornaments in the gardens cultivated by Turkish soldiers and their wives. Grand Tourists of the period regularly lamented that the Turks showed scant respect for the remains of the Parthenon, but those same Grand Tourists plundered the site themselves, paying local masons to chip off a face here, or a hand there, from the surviving bas-reliefs, as souvenirs to take home. In the circumstances, Elgin deserves huge credit for recognising that the sculptures which remained visible had survived as some kind of coherent ensemble – this cannot have been easy to see – and the fact remains that had he not acted as he did the Marbles would be in a far sorrier, far more fragmented state than at present.
Elgin’s methods were hardly conventional, by modern standards of collecting, albeit almost scrupulous by the standards of the early nineteenth century. However, he did take full advantage of his hugely advantageous position as British Ambassador to the Ottoman Court, in securing permission to remove sculptures from the site. He overstepped the wording of that permission, particularly during the later stages of the removals, when he was truly gripped by collecting mania, doing significant damage to the structure of the Parthenon itself to remove certain sections of the frieze that remained in situ. But whatever view is taken of his morality, it should be remembered that a high-ranking Turkish official remained on site overseeing Elgin’s workforce for more than a year. So it must be said that the government with sovereign power over Athens at the time consented to his actions.
Perhaps none of this should have any bearing on the future of the Marbles but it is perhaps revealing that most of those currently campaigning for restitution have subtly changed tack in recent years. The nationalism card is not as often played as it once was, perhaps sensibly, given that the ethnic and cultural links between modern Greeks and ancient Greeks are, in truth, little stronger than those between the inhabitants of any other Balkan country and the race of Pericles and Phidias. The assertion that the British Museum lacks legal title is also less frequently heard. Nowadays, the argument tends to follow the line that what should be done is that which is best for the Marbles themselves. Proponents for return argue that all the existing sculptures would be most effectively seen in one place and believe that the new museum currently under construction in Athens – where it is planned to leave yawning gaps in the display to mark the gaps where the Elgin Marbles might fit in – should be that place. Those who oppose such a view argue that the Elgin Marbles are so central a part of the British Museum, itself in its own way as remarkable a cultural construction as Pericles’ Parthenon, that to remove them would be to damage it irreparably.
Both sides have a point. The British Museum has owned the Marbles for a very long time and has built its collection in the knowledge of that ownership. To give just one example among many, its late Roman bas-relief of boys and horses – fascinating precisely because so anodyne and effete when compared with the hard, epic, virile qualities of the Parthenon sculptures themselves – would all but lose its role in the display were the Marbles to be removed. A great museum’s carefully woven strands of connection, between one culture and another, should not be lightly unpicked. But there is something undeniably poignant about the Marbles’ dispersal, which could be partially ameliorated – but only in truth partially – by placing all the surviving fragments under one roof. This would also, incidentally, require cooperation from the Louvre and one or two other museums holding bits and pieces. Perhaps the construction of the new museum in Athens, with its conspicuous gaps, will make the case for reuniting the Marbles more eloquently than any verbal advocacy can do.
The truth is that there is no absolutely right or wrong way to resolve the Elgin Marbles debate, because this is one of those situations to which no entirely satisfactory solution exists. Personally I blame the trigger-happy Swede and his Venetian allies, who blew the Parthenon up in the first place.