Tuesday, September 18, 2007

How Lord Elgin Lost His Marbles

"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 mouldering shrines remov'd
 By British hands, which it had best behov'd
 To guard those relics ne'er to be restor'd.
 Curst be the hour when from their isle they rov'd,
 And once again thy hopeless bosom gor'd,
 And snatch'd thy shrinking Gods to northern climes abhorr'd."
Lord Byron from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage in response to Lord Elgin's removal of marbles from the Parthenon

During his tenure as British Ambassador to Constantinople (1799-1803), Lord Elgin contracted with the Turkish government to remove parts of the Parthenon, including over 75 meters of friezes, 17 life sized marble statues, and 15 of only 92 metopes.  This agreement was effected between Lord Elgin (a representative of the British Empire but not acting on their behalf - the Prime Minister William Pitt denied funds for this transaction so Lord Elgin paid out of his own pocket)and the Turkish government who were an occupying force in Athens at the time.  There is no doubt that the Turks had no respect for the Parthenon - it was being used as an ammunitions depot and they were using the statues as targets for practice shots but there is doubt as to whether the agreement between the Turks and Lord Elgin was legal.  From an ethical standpoint, greed or desire for esteem seemed to be the motivating factor for Elgin.  Only an italian translation survives as a record for the transaction that seemed to be greased with bribes under the table as well.  Did Lord Elgin really believe that the Turks as an occupying force had the right to sell pieces (literally) of ancient Greek history?  The marbles date to the 5th century bc.

Removal of the marbles met with difficulties immediately.  One of the ships sank in the harbor before even getting underway and the marbles were underwater for 2 years.  Once back in England, Elgin was forced to move house with the marbles several times and, finally, in desperation and burdened by huge amounts of debt, he applied to Parliament and the British Museum to buy the marbles from him.  They eventually did for the amount of £35,000 which did not even cover a quarter of Elgin's own costs in getting the marbles back to England.

The arrival of the marbles in England created an enormous stir in the artistic circles of the day with people quickly choosing sides.  Notables of the time weighed in - Keats, Byron, Haydon, Payne Knight - Lord Byron, the poet, was one of the most vociferous detractors of Elgin and his suspect plan and Byron wrote and published several poems attacking Elgin.

Elgin himself suffered not only an enormous amount of debt in the transfer of the marbles but he also contracted a flesh eating disease and syphilis which ate away his nose and portions of his face.  Perhaps karma for his underhanded machinations to remove marbles from the sacred ground of the famous temple to the Goddess Athena?  Lord Byron pointed out that Lord Elgin's disease caused resemblance to the fractured marbles that Elgin returned with as most were not intact themselves, even going so far as to call his second poem "The Curse of Minerva" - Minerva being the Roman equivalent of Athena. 

According to Byron from "The Curse of Minerva": Elgin is a "lawless son / ... do[ing] what oft Britannia's self had done" (211-12). Elgin's sin is to turn sacred ruins into commerce. "Long of their Patron's gusto let them tell, / Whose noblest, native gusto is--to sell: / To sell, and make, may Shame record the day, / The State receiver of his pilfer'd prey" (171-74; author's emphasis).

The debate continues to the present day.  The Greek government has requested the return and the British Museum has declined repeatedly which bears out that possession is 9/10 of the law.
My opinion?  If Greece wants them back, they should get them or come to an agreement with the British Museum on the Museum being able to display the marbles with ownership reverting back to Greece and negotiating an eventual return.  It seems Athena already put her two cents worth in as reflected in the life of Lord Elgin post his precious marbles.

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