modern-acropolis-museum.jpg

This wonderful photograph took up a whole half page in the Guardian yesterday:  I remembered the rainbow a week ago.

Last Sunday the first sculptures began to be moved from the Acropolis to the new museum built to house them in Athens.  About 4,500 items in total will be moved or taken out of storage over the next three months, and the museum will open to the public in 2008.  The scale reproduction of the upper gallery of the Parthenon temple will lack the original sculptures, still housed in the British Museum after having been looted from the temple between 1801 and 1805 by the Seventh Earl of Elgin under authority given by the ruling Ottoman empire.  Elgin ruined himself financially in the course of their acquisition and had to pawn them forever to the new British Museum.  Not only did the Earl have to suffer the indignity of financial ruin for his troubles (he believed he was saving the marbles from being broken up by marauding hordes), he had to suffer the public humiliation of being pilloried by Lord Byron in a famous poem.  As if that wasn’t enough his nose fell off, and his wife divorced him in a lurid trial.

Here’s an extract from an essay about the marbles and the nose and their effect on Elgin’s marriage:

“It was evident to the court that Elgin’s busy diplomatic schedule, his ceaseless ferrying around the Eastern Mediterranean in an attempt to secure British interests against Napoleon, not less than his monomaniacal interest in antiquities, had put much strain on the relationship. But it is not this neglect, hardly unusual in a man of Elgin’s class and position anyway, that comes across as having the gravest implications for the nuptial bond. Rather, it is Elgin’s ill-health, specifically, a degenerative condition of the face concentrated in the nose, that appears to have determined the course of Lady Elgin’s disaffection. The prosecutor’s examination of Elgin’s ambassadorial secretary, William Hamilton, reads:

- Mr. Hamilton, would you say that this withdrawal on the part of  
Lady Elgin was due to a definite reason? 
- Yes. While in Constantinople, Lord Elgin contracted a sever ague 
which  consequently resulted in the loss of his nose. 
- Mr. Hamilton, would you say that her Ladyship's interest in 
Lord Elgin began to wane at this point? 
- Yes.

The transcripts of the proceedings record a considerable commotion in the courtroom at this testimony, an uproar repeated when another of Elgin’s secretaries, John Morier, was asked for his observations on Lady Elgin’s conduct toward Lord Elgin:

- In the beginning she was a most affectionate wife and mother. 
- Do you mean to say that her Ladyship's conduct changed? 
- Yes. 
- When exactly? 
- As Lord Elgin's affliction became more serious. 
- You are referring to the loss of his lordship's nose? 
- I am.

Not surprisingly, there are no portraits of Lord Elgin in later life, and we can rely only on Lady Elgin’s letters and a few inconclusive doctor’s reports for our assessment of the gravity of Elgin’s condition, but it seems not unreasonable to describe the wasting disease he suffered from as having eaten away the greater part of his face. The diagnosis of one Harley Street physician is worth quoting, if only as a fine example of the periphrastic style long honored by the medical profession as expedient to those occasions when one has no idea what one is looking at:

A sore, established in the nose, supposing it was brought on by picking or any similar accident, would naturally, by full living and sedentary life…[become] very inflammatory and ultimately an obstinate ulcer.”

The British public have consistently shown their support for returning the marbles to Athens but neither the British Museum nor the government would be drawn into the debate over the weekend.    The British Museum web-page devoted to the “Parthenon Marbles” describes how Elgin rescued the remaining marbles with the full consent of the Turks and after half had been destroyed and how a Parliamentary Select Committee fully investigated and approved the Earl’s actions.  Today the Museum’s position is this:

“The British Museum’s Trustees argue that the Parthenon sculptures are integral to the Museum’s purpose as a world museum telling the story of human cultural achievement. Here Greece’s cultural links with the other great civilizations of the ancient world, especially Egypt, Assyria, Persia and Lycia, can be clearly seen, and the vital contribution of ancient Greece to the development of later cultural achievements in Europe, Asia, and Africa can be followed and understood.

The current division of the surviving sculptures between ten museums, with about equal quantities present in Athens and London, allows different and complementary stories to be told about them, focusing respectively on their importance for the history of Athens and Greece, and their significance for world culture. This, the Museum’s Trustees believe, is an arrangement that confers maximum public benefit for the world at large.”

The British ambassador to Athens said on Sunday “It’s a very impressive museum, but I can’t say much more than that”.  Which is, indeed, not saying a lot.

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