Monday, October 15, 2012

Lord Elgin and Athens

Last month, I was lucky enough to be in Athens, in the sunshine, while everyone at home was huddling indoors to keep out of the rain!

At the strong recommendation of fellow author Louise Allen, I spent a lot of time in the impressive new Acropolis Museum. It was built to house the sculptures and artefacts from the Acropolis, partly in hopes that the British Museum would return the "Elgin Marbles" which have been on display there since 1816.

Here are some of the stunning originals still in Athens:

Horseman, possibly Theseus.  Sculpture attributed to Phidias.

And this is a 19th century reconstruction of the west Pediment of the Parthenon. You can see how breathtaking it would have been, even high above worshippers' heads.

Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, was British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799-1803. At that period, Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire and not an independent state. Britain had recently defeated Napoleon in Egypt and was held in high regard in Constantinople, which may have helped Elgin to pursue his obsession with the Acropolis, especially the Parthenon and its sculptures.

Elgin spent £70,000 of his own money removing about half of the existing Parthenon sculptures and shipping them back to England, a process which took his agents over 10 years. He claimed to have permission to do so from the Ottoman authorities though that is still a subject of dispute. Even at the time, he was accused of vandalism and looting, most notably by Lord Byron. To put his actions in perspective, though, it was commonplace for tourists of the time to take away souvenirs from places they visited, ignoring any damage they did.

Napoleon made a practice of removing art from many of the countries he conquered. For example, he took the four bronze horses from St Mark's, Venice, and used them for the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. After his defeat the horses were returned to their original owners, though, which is not true of the Elgin Marbles.

After a British parliamentary debate, the Elgin Marbles were bought from Lord Elgin for £35,000 in 1816 and presented to the British Museum. So Elgin suffered a huge financial loss as a result of his passion. He is reputed to have turned down much higher offers for the Marbles, including one from Napoleon. Whatever we may think about Elgin now, he seems to have had some redeeming qualities.

The new Acropolis Museum displays the Parthenon frieze and sculptures in a huge sunlit gallery at the top of the museum. From its floor-to-ceiling windows, visitors have a splendid view across to the Acropolis itself and the Parthenon on its summit.

The frieze has been recreated life-size and with the same aspect as the originals – the west side faces west, east faces east, etc. Those sculptures which remained on the Parthenon were removed to the Museum, to preserve them from pollution. Plaster casts of the ones in the British Museum fill many of the gaps, though some have been lost forever.

The marbles are stunningly beautiful, especially seen at eye-level in the Acropolis Museum, which would never have been possible when they were in situ, high up on the Parthenon. What's more, the original ones, with their beautiful colouring, are much easier to photograph than the white plaster casts.

A white plaster cast. next to an original panel

It is very noticeable that the marbles are not white, as we might expect. The originals are of a colour between honey and tan which is the natural patina of Pentelec marble as a result of exposure to air. Sadly, past restorers did not know that, and considerable damage was done to the marbles in the British Museum by restorers who were trying to make them white. In the Acropolis Museum, modern restorers are cleaning away the grime of centuries using lasers; the amount of detail being revealed is astonishing. Even the sculptors' chisel marks can be seen.

This is the Erechtheion, built in the 5th century BC, which held the wooden cult statue of Athena. Its porch is supported by Caryatids, though those you can see are copies. Five of the originals are in the Acropolis Museum being painstakingly cleaned.  The hairstyles, seen close up, are beautifully sculpted.

There should be six Caryatids, but Lord Elgin removed one. Athenians say that, at night, you can hear her five sisters mourning her loss.  Sad, don't you think?



Elizabeth Hawksley said...

What a fascinating post, Joanna. I've only ever been through Athens en route to the airport, alas. I'd love to see the Parthenon etc. properly.

We ought to remember, too, that the Parthenon was a complete building with a roof until the Venetians shelled it. The Turks were storing gunpowder inside, so the resulting explosion did far more damage than Lord Elgin.

Anonymous said...

Very true, Elizabeth. Our guides made much of that during our visit.

The Greek aim is to restore the Acropolis buildings to what they once were, but it's going to take decades and meanwhile the Acropolos hill is covered in cranes and scaffolding, as my pictures show. Some allege that the Greek policy of removing the remaining sculptures etc to the new Museum is making things worse instead of better.

girlygirlhoosier52 said...

I was there in the late 70's and the Acropolis was an aweinspiring sight- both by day and night. You wonder how they ever build anything because every where is an archological site....

Anonymous said...

That's absolutely true. The new museum itself is built on top of archaelogoical remains some of which date back to the Neolithic period. The museum is built on pillars with glass panels in the walkway so that visitors can see the remains underneath.

Michelle Joyce said...

The removal of the marbles is an amazing story, if someone wrote it as fiction it would be classed as overwritten melodrama. Some seem believe that Elgin was cursed for his actions, and he certainly paid a high personal price for them.
The accounts of how they were taken down from the temple are interesting. More drama, as the workmen thought the noises created were the sculptures crying out.

Anonymous said...

It's all of a piece with the Caryatids mourning their missing sister, I'd say. Very melodramatic, as you say, Michelle.

Jane Jackson said...

A fascinating post, Joanna. I learned a lot and love the fact that the laser-cleaning process will allow the sculptors' chisel marks to be seen. It's like touching the past.
Given the content of my post, which succeeds yours, I know how it feels to follow the Lord Mayor's Show!

Anonymous said...

You made me laugh, Jane. Thank you.

The laser process is fascinating. It cleans about a third of a square centimetre at a time, so very slow and painstaking. But, according to the film we saw in the museum, it seems to lift absolutely everything from the surface, leaving the marble underneath totally pristine and undamaged.