The Elgin Marbles - The Partheon Marbles of Greece

The Elgin Marbles also known as the Parthenon Marbles, are a collection of Classical Greek marble sculptures (made mostly by Greek sculptor Phidias and his assistants), inscriptions and architectural pieces that were originally part of the temple of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens. Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin claimed to obtain in 1801 a controversial permit from the Sublime Porte, which then ruled Greece.

7th_Earl_of_Elgin_by_Anton_Graff_around_1788 Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and 11th Earl of Kincardine by Anton Graff (around 1788)

  From 1801 to 1812, Elgin's agents removed about half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon, as well as sculptures from the Propylaea and Erechtheum. The Marbles were transported by sea to Britain. In Britain, the acquisition of the collection was supported by some, while others likened Elgin's actions to vandalism or looting. Following a public debate in Parliament and the subsequent exoneration of Elgin, the Elgin marbles were purchased from Elgin by the British government in 1816 and were passed to the British Museum, where they stand now on display in the purpose-built Duveen Gallery.

1280px-Elgin_Marbles_British_Museum The Duveen Gallery of the British Museum

After gaining its independence from the Ottoman Empire, Greece began major projects for the restoration of the country's monuments, and has expressed its disapproval of Elgin's removal of the Marbles from the Acropolis and the Parthenon, which is regarded as one of the world's greatest cultural monuments. Greece disputes the subsequent purchase of the Marbles by the British Government and urges the return of the marbles to Greece for their unification. In the beginning... In November of 1798 the Earl of Elgin was appointed as "Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of His Britannic Majesty to the Sublime Porte of Selim III, Sultan of Turkey" (Greece was then part of the Ottoman realm). Before his departure to take up the post he had approached officials of the British government to inquire if they would be interested in employing artists to take casts and drawings of the sculptured portions of the Parthenon. According to Lord Elgin, "the answer of the Government ... was entirely negative."

Parthenon_pediment_statues Statuary from the east pediment

Lord Elgin decided to carry out the work and employed artists to take casts and drawings under the supervision of the Neapolitan court painter Giovani Lusieri. According to a Turkish local, marble sculptures that fell were burned to obtain lime for building. Although the original intention was only to document the sculptures, in 1801 Lord Elgin began to remove material from the Parthenon and its surrounding structures under the supervision of Lusieri. The excavation and removal was completed in 1812 at a personal cost of around £70,000. Elgin intended the marbles for display in the British Museum, selling them to the British government for less than the cost of bringing them to Britain and declining higher offers from other potential buyers, including Napoleon.

Elgin_Marbles_4 Frise West, II, 2

The Parthenon Marbles acquired by Elgin include some 21 figures from the statuary from the east and west pediments, 15 (of an original 92) of the metope panels depicting battles between the Lapiths and the Centaurs, as well as 247 feet (or 75 m of an original 524 ft or 160 m) of the Parthenon Frieze which decorated the horizontal course set above the interior architrave of the temple. As such, they represent more than half of what now remains of the surviving sculptural decoration of the Parthenon. Elgin's acquisitions also included objects from other buildings on the Athenian Acropolis: a Caryatid from Erechtheum; four slabs from the parapet frieze of the Temple of Athena Nike; and a number of other architectural fragments of the Parthenon, Propylaia, Erechtheum, the Temple of Athena Nike, and the Treasury of Atreus. (The Elgin Marbles)

Elgin_horse_2d Parthenon Selene Horse

As the Acropolis was still an Ottoman military fort, Elgin required special permission to enter the site, including the Parthenon and the surrounding buildings. He allegedly obtained from the Sultan a firman to allow his artists access to the site. The original document is now lost; however, a translated Italian copy made at the time still survives. Vassilis Demetriades, Professor of Turkish Studies at the University of Crete, has argued that "any expert in Ottoman diplomatic language can easily ascertain that the original of the document which has survived was not a firman". The document was recorded in an appendix of an 1816 parliamentary committee report. 'The committee permission' had convened to examine a request by Elgin asking the British government to purchase the marbles. The report claimed that the document in the appendix was an accurate translation in English of an Ottoman firman dated July 1801. In Elgin's view it amounted to an Ottoman authorization to remove the marbles. The committee was told that the original document was given to Ottoman officials in Athens in 1801, but researchers have so far failed to locate any traces of it despite the fact that the Ottoman archives still hold an outstanding number of similar documents dating from the same period. Moreover, the parliamentary record shows that the Italian copy of the alleged firman was not presented to the committee by Elgin himself but by one of his associates, the clergyman Rev. Philip Hunt. Hunt, who at the time resided in Bedford, was the last witness to appear before the committee and claimed that he had in his possession an Italian translation of the Ottoman original. He went on to explain that he had not brought the document, because, upon leaving Bedford, he was not aware that he was to testify as a witness. The English document in the parliamentary report was filed by Hunt, but the committee was not presented with the Italian translation purportedly in his possession. William St. Clair, a contemporary biographer of Lord Elgin, claimed to possess Hunt's Italian document and "vouches for the accuracy of the English translation". In addition, the committee report states on page 69 "(Signed with a signet.) Seged Abdullah Kaimacan". But the document presented to the committee was "an English translation of this purported translation into Italian of the original firman", and had neither signet nor signature on it, a fact corroborated by St. Clair. The document allowed Elgin and his team to fix scaffolding so as to make drawings and moldings in chalk or gypsum, as well as to measure the remains of the ruined buildings and excavate the foundations which may have become covered in the [ghiaja (meaning gravel, debris)]; and "...that when they wish to take away [qualche (meaning 'some' or 'a few')] pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon, that no opposition be made thereto". The interpretation of these lines has been questioned even by non-restitutionalists, particularly the word qualche, which in modern language should be translated as a few but can also mean any. According to non-restitutionalists, further evidence that the removal of the sculptures by Elgin was approved by the Ottoman authorities is shown by a second firman which was required for the shipping of the marbles from the Piraeus. Despite the controversial firman, many have questioned the legality of Elgin's actions. A study by Professor David Rudenstine of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law concluded that the premise that Elgin obtained legal title to the marbles, which he then transferred to the British government, "is certainly not established and may well be false".  (The Elgin Marbles SEO content) Rudenstine's argumentation is partly based on a translation discrepancy he noticed between the surviving Italian document and the English text submitted by Hunt to the parliamentary committee. The text from the committee report reads "We therefore have written this Letter to you, and expedited it by Mr. Philip Hunt, an English Gentleman, Secretary of the aforesaid Ambassador" but according to the St. Clair Italian document the actual wording is "We therefore have written this letter to you and expedited it by N.N.". In Rudenstine's view, this substitution of "Mr. Philip Hunt" with the initials "N.N." can hardly be a simple mistake. He further argues that the document was presented after the committee's insistence that some form of Ottoman written authorization for the removal of the marbles be provided, a fact known to Hunt by the time he testified. Thus, according to Rudenstine, "Hunt put himself in a position in which he could simultaneously vouch for the authenticity of the document and explain why he alone had a copy of it fifteen years after he surrendered the original to Ottoman officials in Athens". On two earlier occasions, Elgin stated that the Ottomans gave him written permissions more than once, but that he had "retained none of them." Hunt testified on March 13, and one of the questions asked was "Did you ever see any of the written permissions which were granted to [Lord Elgin] for removing the Marbles from the Temple of Minerva?" to which Hunt answered "yes", adding that he possessed an Italian translation of the original firman. Nonetheless, he did not explain why he had retained the translation for 15 years, whereas Elgin, who had testified two weeks earlier, knew nothing about the existence of any such document. English travel writer Edward Daniel Clarke, an eyewitness, records that the Disdar, the Ottoman official on the scene, attempted to stop the removal of the metopes but was bribed to allow it to continue. In contrast, Professor John Merryman, Sweitzer Professor of Law and also Professor of Art at Stanford University, putting aside the discrepancy presented by Rudenstine, argues that since the Ottomans had controlled Athens since 1460, their claims to the artefacts were legal and recognizable. The Ottoman sultan was grateful to the British for repelling Napoleonic expansion, and the Parthenon marbles had no sentimental value to him. Further, that written permission exists in the form of the firman, which is the most formal kind of permission available from that government, and that Elgin had further permission to export the marbles, legalizes his (and therefore the British Museum's) claim to the Marbles. He does note, though, that the clause concerning the extent of Ottoman authorization to remove the marbles "is at best ambiguous", adding that the document "provides slender authority for the massive removals from the Parthenon ... The reference to 'taking away any pieces of stone' seems incidental, intended to apply to objects found while excavating. That was certainly the interpretation privately placed on the firman by several of the Elgin party, including Lady Elgin. Publicly, however, a different attitude was taken, and the work of dismantling the sculptures on the Parthenon and packing them for shipment to England began in earnest. In the process, Elgin's party damaged the structure, leaving the Parthenon not only denuded of its sculptures but further ruined by the process of removal. It is certainly arguable that Elgin exceeded the authority granted in the firman in both respects".

Temporary_Elgin_Room_at_the_Museum_in_1819 A portrait depicting the Elgin Marbles in a temporary Elgin Room at the British Museum surrounded by English staff, a trustee and visitors, 1819. Statuary from the east pediment and the Selene Horse are visible

When the marbles were shipped to England, they were "an instant success among many" who admired the sculptures and supported their arrival, but both the sculptures and Elgin also received criticism from detractors. Lord Elgin began negotiations for the sale of the collection to the British Museum in 1811, but negotiations failed despite the support of British artists after the government showed little interest. Many Britons opposed the statues because they were in bad condition and therefore did not display the "ideal beauty" found in other sculpture collections. The following years marked an increased interest in classical Greece, and in June 1816, after parliamentary hearings, the House of Commons offered £35,000 in exchange for the sculptures. Even at the time the acquisition inspired much debate, although it was supported by "many persuasive calls" for the purchase. Lord Byron did not care for the sculptures, calling them "misshapen monuments". He strongly objected to their removal from Greece, denouncing Elgin as a vandal. His point of view about the removal of the Marbles from Athens is also reflected in his poem "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage":
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 snatch'd thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!
Byron was not the only one to protest against the removal at the time:
"The Honourable Lord has taken advantage of the most unjustifiable means and has committed the most flagrant pillages. It was, it seems, fatal that a representative of our country loot those objects that the Turks and other barbarians had considered sacred," said Sir John Newport.
And English travel writer Edward Daniel Clarke, who witnessed the removal of the metopes, called the action a "spoliation" and lamented that "thus the form of the temple has sustained a greater injury than it had already experienced from the Venetian artillery," recording also that "neither was there a workman employed in the undertaking ... who did not express his concern that such havoc should be deemed necessary, after moulds and casts had been already made of all the sculpture which it was designed to remove." A parliamentary committee investigating the situation concluded that the monuments were best given "asylum" under a "free government" such as the British one. In 1810, Elgin published a defence of his actions which silenced most of his detractors, although the subject remained controversial. John Keats was one of those who saw them privately exhibited in London, hence his two sonnets about the marbles. Notable supporters of Elgin included the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon. A public debate in Parliament followed Elgin's publication, and Elgin's actions were again exonerated. Parliament purchased the marbles for the nation in 1816 by a vote of 82-30 for £35,000. They were deposited in the British Museum, where they were displayed in the Elgin Saloon (constructed in 1832), until the Duveen Gallery was completed in 1939. Crowds packed the British Museum to view the sculptures, setting attendance records for the museum. William Wordsworth viewed the marbles at the museum and commented favourably on their aesthetics.  
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