The Debate over the Parthenon Sculptures
Among disputes over removed cultural objects, perhaps few are better known than that concerning what were formerly known as the Elgin Marbles, which even the British Museum now prefers to call the Parthenon sculptures. It is important to note at the outset, however, that even though the Parthenon sculptures were removed during this long age of plunder, were not actually plundered. They were removed with the apparent permission of the government that had ruled the territory for four centuries. The source of the conflict over the sculptures is twofold – (1) Ottoman rule of the territory of modern Greece was in its final decades, and the movement in favor of Greek independence was on the rise (Greece would attain independence in 1832); and (2) the Parthenon, which even at the time had long been recognized as one of the finest examples of classical architecture and sculpture, became an important symbol of Greek independence and nationalism.
It is timely to consider the Parthenon sculptures as one example of how the past is sometimes not even past. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the British Museum’s acquisition of the sculptures from Lord Elgin. The sculptures comprise roughly 50 percent of the surviving sculptures from the temple, the other half held by the Acropolis Museum in Athens. Additionally, fragments from the Parthenon are held by several other museums, including the Musée du Louvre and the Vatican Museums. Some fragments have been returned to Greece, including those given by the University of Heidelberg and a museum in Palermo, Sicily (the Greek government then loaned this fragment back to Palermo). The Vatican Museums loaned one of its fragments to the Acropolis Museum.
The Parthenon was constructed between 447 and 432 B.C.E., and is regarded as the exemplar of classical art and architecture at the height of Periclean Athens. It was designed and built by the architects Ictinus and Callicrates under the supervision of the sculptor Phidias, and it originally served as a temple to Athena and as a symbol of Athenian civic life. Part of the temple was destroyed by fire in 195 B.C.E., with more destructive fires occurring with the invasion of the Germanic Heralic tribe in A.D. 267 and the Visigoth sack of Athens under Alaric in 396 C.E. In the 5th century C.E. it was transformed into a Greek Orthodox cathedral (Theotokos Atheniotica), then a Roman Catholic cathedral (Notre Dame d’Athenes) under the Franks in 1204, and, in 1458, under Ottoman rule, it was again transformed into a mosque. In 1687, the Parthenon was being used as a military center. During the bombardment of Athens by Venetian forces, a powder magazine located in the Parthenon suffered a hit, and the resulting explosion destroyed a large part of the structure. At the time of Lord Elgin’s ambassadorship, the Parthenon was still being used by the Ottoman army, and was referred to as the “citadel.” Continue Reading