The Parthenon Marbles

Figures from the East Pediment of the Parthenon, Acropolis Athens. From left to right cat no D Dionysos ,middle E & F Demeter & Persephone, left G Hebe. British Museum London Exhibit

I was recently acquainted with the knowledge that Christopher Hitchens was one of the leading voices in the case of reunifying the Parthenon marbles and as a consequence of which I discovered his book.
Visiting, not long ago, the Parthenon and the Acropolis Museum, I was greatly attracted by the beauty and the elegance of the archaic marble art found at the vicinity of the ancient monument. This attraction led me to pursuing an expansion of my understanding of Phidias’ pedimental sculpture masterpieces, commissioned by the visionary leader Pericles some 2 500 years ago.

The top floor of the Bernard Tschumi designed Acropolis Museum, which is aligned to the Parthenon, is dedicated to the long awaited reunification of the marble figures as most of the relics exhibited are plaster cast replicas of the originals which for the past 200 years are part of an imperialistic trophy exhibition at the British Museum. This, some may say, harsh conclusion I draw from all facts presented by Hitchens in this book which discusses the arguments aroused in Britain about the moral legality of the possession of the sculptures since the return of Thomas Bruce Elgin from Constantinople. The first half of the book is particularly painful – Hitchens reveals in a factual detail the unscrupulous acquisition of the Parthenon marbles by Elgin who, possessed by cupidity, tore off the frieze from the monument and shipped it to Britain. The firman he was issued from the Ottoman authority at the time did not permit him to strip the sculptures and in a later correspondence Elgin himself admits that he had acquired the marbles without authorization. Most heartbreaking is that his intentions for their fate were far from noble, again revealed in another correspondence letter he expresses his desire to use the looted art as a decoration of his house.
Further in the book Hitches presents positions of various British intellectuals of the time expressing their concerns about the hideous act of appropriation of cultural and historical artefacts, especially in times of great vulnerability of the patron state. The author also expresses his strong positions against each of the arguments employed by the British Museum to defend its right of possession of the Parthenon marbles.
Reading Hitchen’s work, one cannot remain impartial to the subject of the Parthenon marbles reunification. The hellenic civilization has been a longtime donor of ideas and artifacts to Western modus operandi. Ideas, being so intangible, travel with the intention to be shared. Artifacts have a meaning only in the context of their original provenance. It is a fair claim to be made in restoring the contextual attributes of the site that had given us the protogenesis of democracy, especially when they have been saved/smuggled out in times of imperial occupation as a spoil for another imperial ambition.

For the sake of humanity and those of us who marvel astonishingly at the works of art should such a unique piece of ancient art remain amputated and torn apart? Others don’t think so. As a friendly act of generosity and solidarity the Vatican has returned the head of a young man from panel No 5 of the Parthenon frieze, the museum at Heildelberg has also returned the foot of a young man playing the lyre on panel No. 8, so has the Salinas museum in Palermo given back the foot of goddess Artemis.
Ancient Greek art is scattered all over the world and the modern Hellenic state has no other claims but to only reunify once again Phidias’ marble assembly, so to revive their brilliance and integrity in their birthplace of Athens where they were conceived, executed and adored. (less)

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