Lord Elgin - Saviour or Vandal?
By Mary Beard
Last updated 2011-02-17
Much of the sculpture that once enhanced the Parthenon in Athens was brought to London by Lord Elgin 200 years ago. Was this the act of a saviour or a vandal? Mary Beard looks at both sides of a fierce argument.
During the first decade of the 19th century the agents of Lord Thomas Elgin (British Ambassador to Constantinople 1799-1803) removed whole boatloads of ancient sculpture from Greece's capital city of Athens. The pride of this collection was a large amount of fifth-century BC sculpture taken from the Parthenon, the temple to the goddess Athena, which stood on the Acropolis hill in the centre of the city.
The Parthenon sculpture included about a half (some 75 metres) of the sculpted frieze that once ran all round the building, plus 17 life-sized marble figures from its gable ends (or pediments) and 15 of the 92 metopes, or sculpted panels, originally displayed high up above its columns.
These actions were controversial from the very beginning. Even before all the sculptures - soon known as the Elgin Marbles - went on display in London, Lord Byron attacked Elgin in stinging verses, lamenting (in 'Childe Harold's Pilgrimage') how the antiquities of Greece had been 'defac'd by British hands'.
Others enthusiastically welcomed the arrival of the sculpture in London. John Keats penned a sonnet to celebrate 'Seeing the Elgin Marbles' in the British Museum, and from Germany, JW Goethe hailed their acquisition as 'the beginning of a new age for Great Art'.
Since then, there has been a never-ending international debate about Elgin's removal of the sculptures, and whether they should be returned to Athens. Sometimes this can give the impression of an unseemly scrap over a favourite toy, with petulant cries of 'we want' being balanced by an equally unappealing refusal to let go. There certainly have been bad, as well as good, arguments on all sides. But the real reason that the dispute has lasted so long is that it raises important and difficult issues, and it is not easy to see what a fair resolution is.
Do monuments such as the Parthenon belong to the whole world?
There are many factors behind this. We do not know if Elgin's actions were legal at the time. He had obtained from the Turkish authorities then in control of Athens permission to work on the Acropolis, but only an Italian translation of this firman(or permit) survives and its terms are disputed.
Nor is it possible to reconstruct Elgin's motives. Some evidence suggests that he was a self-serving aristocrat, seeking sculpture to decorate his ancestral pile. Some say that he was genuinely concerned to rescue these works of art. But the main difficulty lies in the much bigger issue of 'cultural property' in general. Who owns great works of art? Do monuments such as the Parthenon belong to the whole world? And what does that mean in practice?
When Elgin's men removed the sculpture from the Parthenon, the building was in a very sorry state. From the fifth century BC to the 17th century AD, it had been in continuous use. It was built as a Greek temple, was later converted into a Christian church, and finally (with the coming of Turkish rule over Greece in the 15th century) it was turned into a mosque.
Although we think of it primarily as a pagan temple, its history as church and mosque was an even longer one, and no less distinguished. It was, as one British traveller put it in the mid-17th century, 'the finest mosque in the world'.
All that changed in 1687 when, during fighting between Venetians and Turks, a Venetian cannonball hit the Parthenon mosque - temporarily in use as a gunpowder store. Some 300 women and children were amongst those killed, and the building itself was ruined. By 1800 a small replacement mosque had been erected inside the shell, while the surviving fabric and sculpture was suffering the predictable fate of many ancient ruins.
On the one hand, the local population was using it as a convenient quarry. A good deal of the original sculpture, as well as the plain building blocks, were reused in local housing or ground down for cement. On the other hand, increasing numbers of travellers and antiquarians from northern Europe were busily helping themselves to anything they could pocket (hence the scattering of pieces of Parthenon sculpture around European museums from Copenhagen to Strasbourg) - and among these collectors was Lord Elgin.
Whatever Elgin's motives, there is no doubt at all that he saved his sculpture from worse damage. However, in prising out some of the pieces that still remained in place, his agents inevitably inflicted further damage on the fragile ruin.
The Acropolis hill today is a bare rock, on which are perched the famous monuments of the fifth century BC - including the Parthenon. There is the tiny temple of Victory, which stands by the propylaia, or main gateway, to the hilltop, and also the so-called Erechtheum, another shrine of Athena, with its famous line-up of caryatids (columns in the form of female figures). One of the caryatids is now, thanks to Elgin, in the British Museum.
In Elgin's day it was quite different. The Parthenon stood in the middle of the small village-cum-garrison base that then occupied the hill. It was encroached upon by houses and gardens, and by all kinds of Byzantine, medieval and Renaissance remains. It is quite wrong to imagine Elgin removing works of art from the equivalent of a modern archaeological site - it was more of a seedy shanty town.
It is quite wrong to imagine Elgin removing works of art from the equivalent of a modern archaeological site - it was more of a seedy shanty town.
This changed dramatically in the 1830s, after the Greek War of Independence which ended Turkish rule in Greece. The young Bavarian prince, Otto, who was put on the throne of the new Greek nation, was confronted with terrible problems - not least of which was how to find the patriotic symbols for a new country that had just experienced a dreadfully brutal war.
It is clear that Otto's classically-educated advisers saw the culture of ancient Athens as a valuable card here. Athens was chosen as the capital city and (once the plan to build the royal palace on the Acropolis had been rejected) a systematic programme of excavations began. In the course of this, everything that did not belong to the 'great' period of the fifth century BC was removed. The hill was stripped to bedrock, with just the classical monuments preserved or reconstructed, to serve as a symbol of the new nation's heroic past.
There is no doubt that today the status of the Parthenon as a Greek national monument is an important factor in the campaign to restore the Elgin Marbles to Greece. The complicating paradox is that the Parthenon was not a national monument when those same sculptures were removed.
Meanwhile in London, the Elgin Marbles started a new chapter of their history -- as museum objects. Acquiring the sculptures had bankrupted Elgin, and he was keen to sell them to the government. In 1816 a Parliamentary Select Committee looked into the whole affair (examining everything from the quality of the sculpture as works of art to the legality of their acquisition) and recommended purchase, though for much less money than Elgin had hoped. From that point on the sculptures have been lodged in the British Museum.
Over the last 200 years they have come to 'belong' in the British Museum and are now historically rooted there as well as in Athens. Not only were they an important part of British 19th-century culture (inspiring Keats and others, and prompting replicas of themselves across the country), but they are also integral to the whole idea of the Universal Museum and the way museums over the last two centuries have come to display and interpret human culture.
Over the last 200 years they have come to 'belong' in the British Museum and are now historically rooted there as well as in Athens.
The museum movement depended on collection, on moving objects from their original location, and on allowing them to be understood in relation to different traditions of art and cultural forms. In the British Museum, the Elgin Marbles gain from being seen next to Assyrian or Egyptian sculpture, at the same time as they lose from not being 'at home in Greece'.
This is what causes the irresolvable conflict - it has turned out that there is more than one place that can legitimately call itself 'home' to the Elgin Marbles.
The battle of the Marbles has been fought on many fronts. The weaker arguments do neither side much credit. Both the Greeks and the British have accused each other of not caring properly for their precious charges. And there have been outbreaks of vulgar nationalism (reaching a low point when one Director of the British Museum claimed that the campaign for the return of the Marbles was a form of 'cultural fascism' - 'it's like burning books').
The stronger arguments tend to reveal just how complicated the dilemmas are. There is a powerful case for suggesting that the Parthenon could be better appreciated if it could be seen close to the sculptures that once adorned it. (Though environmental conditions in Athens mean that the original sculptures can never go back on the building itself.) On the other hand, it is undeniable that part of the fame and significance of the Parthenon rests on its wide diaspora throughout the western world.
The likelihood is that we will be debating these issues for many years to come.
Ultimately it comes down to matters of ownership, and how the world's great cultural icons are to be shared. In the performing arts that problem is relatively easy to solve. Shakespeare might have a special connection with Stratford, and Mozart with Vienna - but we can all 'own' their works in performance anywhere in the world.
That is not the case with these blocks of marble. Where do they belong? Is it better or worse to have them scattered through the world? Are they the possession of those who live in the place where they were first made? Or are they the possession of everyone? The likelihood is that we will be debating these issues for many years to come.
Elgin Marbles: fact or fiction?
So many theories abound about the controversial Elgin Marbles, scholars claim it's hard to separate fact from fiction. Here, archaeologist Dr Dorothy King dispels the myths.
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 21 July 2004
Although a new book by Robert Bowie Johnson, Jr. claims that the Parthenon depicts the book of Genesis, including Noah and his flood, this theory has not been widely accepted, and the Israeli government have not used it as the basis to claim the Parthenon for the State of Israel. At least not yet. The general consensus is that the Parthenon and its sculptures were designed by Pheidias, and funded by the city-state of Athens in the fifth century BC.
So, to clarify, here is the correct version of the Marbles and their history, without the revisions that have been attached to them over the years.
"The Athenian Akropolis ... was, from the late fifth century BC onwards: the monumental symbol of Hellenic civilization." Historian Nigel Spivey.
The Athenian Acropolis was important only to the Athenians, not to other Greek states. Some sanctuaries, such as Delphi and Olympia were Pan-Hellenic, meaning that they were important to all Greek states, but the Acropolis was not. Although almost every building in antiquity was 'sacred' - plays, for example, were put on as part of the cult of Dionysus - the Parthenon was not used to house the cult of Athena until the fourth century BC, when the Erechtheion was too dilapidated to do so any more.
The Parthenon was built as a giant treasury come bank, to house the riches of Athens, rather than as a temple. This is reflected by the fact that there are only a handful of ancient references to the building.
"The monuments of the Acropolis at Athens, in particular, occupied a very special place in the heart of the Greeks [in Elgin's day]" British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles.
It must be nice to be able to re-write history with so much fantasy and hindsight. The Parthenon was important to the Byzantine Greeks not because of its' past, but because it had been converted into their cathedral. By Elgin's day it had become a mosque and been destroyed in an explosion. The ancient glory of the Parthenon interested Western travellers, but few Athenians.
"Blind are the eyes that do not shed tears while seeing, O, Greece beloved, your sacred objects plundered by profane English hands that have again wounded your aching bosom and snatched your gods, gods that hate England's abominable north climate." Byron, Childe Harold.
Dear old Byron is often cited to show that Elgin was condemned in his own day for bringing the Parthenon marbles back to London. Byron was not considered the most reliable source in his own day, and went into exile because of his terrible reputation.
Most scholars, on both sides of the argument, agree that had Elgin not brought the Marbles back to London, they would have been badly damaged in Athens, and possibly destroyed. Byron, who liked being rude about Elgin because he did not like Scots, did not think the Marbles should have been brought to London because he had a Romantic notion of ruins. He did not want the Marbles preserved, but rather wished them to disintegrate in the ruins of the Parthenon, for this would have been more Romantic for him.
"More damage was done to the Parthenon in 1801-2 than in the previous 2,200 years" Melina Mercouri, former Culture Minister of Greece (The Times, 15.1.83).
In fact the Parthenon Elgin saw, was not as well preserved as the Parthenon visitors see in Athens today; the latter is a result of several reconstructions of the building by the Greek Archaeological Service. The Parthenon Elgin saw was a ruin. It had been converted first into a Greek church, when much of the sculpture was deliberately defaced, then into a mosque.
In 1687, during the Last Crusade, it was a munitions store; it exploded and the building's wall came tumbling down. Approximately half the sculpture that survived all these disasters was then lost, chopped up and used as building stone, or as souvenirs.
"Elgin took sculpture from Turkish-occupied Athens by a combination of bribery, duplicity and sheer force majeure." (Nigel Spivey), through "bribery and corruption of Officials" (Melina Mercouri). "Elgin did not act legally in stripping the Parthenon of its sculptures." (British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles.)
Just as in Homeric Greece, the Ottoman Empire had a tradition of hospitality and of gift-giving. Elgin gave the Sultan and his circle lavish gifts, and the Sultan and his circle gave the Elgins and their embassy lavish gifts in return. This was the custom. The Elgins became favourites of the Sultan because Elgin was the representative of Britain, and the British had helped drive the French out of Ottoman Egypt.
The Sultan gave Elgin a Byzantine sarcophagus from his own Mosque and the few old stones - for that is how he saw the Parthenon sculptures - that Elgin wanted from Athens were mere trifles to him. He issued a firman, a copy of which is preserved, which was an Imperial decree, there being no higher law at the time than the wishes of the Sultan. Yes, Elgin did give many gifts to the authorities in Athens to speed work along. These gifts are often described as 'bribes', although the modern interpretation is inadequate. They were more akin to tips, unless one considers leaving a tip to the waiter in a restaurant a bribe.
"There is no question that his original intent was ... to decorate his own baronial residence in Fife." Nigel Spivey.
This rather curious statement contradicts every single source that exists, though that is rarely an impediment to Restitutionists. Elgin originally intended to make casts and drawings of ancient remains to help furnish examples for the decoration of Broomhall, his seat.
Once he intended to bring the Parthenon Marbles back to London, he was always clear that he wanted them to be housed in the British Museum. He even sold them to the Museum for less than his expenses bringing them back had been, declining many higher offers, from Napoleon amongst other.
Melina Mercouri pointed out that "After independence was gained, one of the first Acts passed by the Greek government was for the protection and preservation of national monuments."
Unfortunately the Greeks did not act on the Act, for the sculptures on the Acropolis continued to deteriorate when in the hands of an Independent Greek State. Comparison of the Caryatid from the Erechtheion brought back by Elgin, and those that remained in Athens make this clear; the carving on the London figure is still crisp, whilst the surface of those in Athens have deteriorated to such an extent that they can no longer be exposed to air, but rather have to be kept in a gas-filled box.
Apparently, it is highly racist to suggest that the present inhabitants of Greece are not the direct descendents of the Pericles, again according to Mrs Mercouri. It might be pedantic to point out that historically Pericles did not have any descendants, but also useful to point out that many migrations have occurred in the last two and half millennia, as well as intermarriage and decimation of peoples by acts of God.
It would be ridiculous to try to claim that Fred Bloggs of Chester-le-Street was a direct descendant of the Celts, or that George W. Bush was of the Sioux, and it is equally ridiculous to try to claim that the modern Athenian carries the blood of Pericles and of fifth century Athenians in his veins.
The Byzantine emperors saw themselves as heirs to the Romans not the Greeks, and the Greeks in what is now the modern state of Greece only began to claim descent from the Ancient Greeks when they realised that it would help their cause, winning Western support, during their War of Independence.
" ... the time has come for these Marbles to come home to the blue skies of Attica, to their rightful place, where they form a structural and functional part of a unique entity." Melina Mercouri.
"The Parthenon Sculptures form a work of art that makes sense only as a whole" according to Marbles Reunited.
"The Parthenon without the marbles is like a smile with a missing tooth" added Neil Kinnock, not a man known for his winning smile.
These quotes, and others like them, give the misleading impression that the sculptures in Athens and those in London would be brought together to form a whole with the building for which they were created. Restitutionists like to imply that the sculptures would be put back on the Parthenon.
If this were possible it would be a very interesting proposition, but alas it will never happen. The Parthenon sculptures can never be put back on the Parthenon because Athens is a very polluted city and acid rain would dissolve their surfaces. Archaeologists in fact regularly ask for the very opposite to happen; they ask that the Greek Archaeological service remove the last remaining sculptures from the building.
Of course if pressed, the Greeks will agree that the marbles, if returned to Athens, would be housed in a museum there, just as they are housed in a museum in London.
"... The sculptures showed clear traces of colour that the scraping destroyed." British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles.
"The surfaces of the sculptures had been left largely untouched since ancient times" but, at the British Museum, they were "crudely scraped to reveal their raw marble sub-surface". This act of barbarism was followed by an "institutional cover up", according to William St Clair. He refers to a cleaning in the 1930s that removed the brown sludge from the Elgin Marbles.
A conference on the condition of the Parthenon Marbles was held in December 1999; most agreed that the cleaning was harsh, but a method popular at the time, a method which the Greek Archaeological Service continued to use for several decades, and which the Italians still consider acceptable. Heaping scandal upon scandal, "the museum abruptly cancelled the plans to publish the proceedings" according the William St Clair, who clearly has not noticed that all papers submitted by participants are freely available on the museum's website.
Although publication in a book would have been an option, it was not possible in this case as many Greek participants did not wish to submit copies of the papers they had presented at the conference.
One fear expressed by curators is that if the Elgin Marbles were returned, this would create a precedent, with other countries claiming that art was illegally acquired and should be returned to them. But "the precedent argument is unusually silly. For one thing, the Greeks do not want anything else "back"." According to Christopher Hitchens.
It is good to hear that Mr Hitchens has the omnipotence to guarantee the actions of all future Greek governments. The Restitutionists claim that the Parthenon sculptures are unique, but they only want those in London back; not those in Paris, Italy, the Vatican, Germany, Denmark - or at least they have so far failed to ask for those. Various Greek governments have however asked for the return of the Victory of Samothrace from the Louvre, the Bassae frieze from the British Museum, and assorted other works of art, which are all also presumably 'unique'.
"They [the Parthenon sculptures] are a tribute to the democratic philosophy." Melina Mercouri.
The Parthenon was built to house the tribute Athens gathered from its Empire. Although Athens herself was Democratic, as long as you were a male land-owner, its empire was not. States that tried to leave the Athenian fold were sacked, and Pericles was an early and enthusiastic fan of crucifying ones enemies.
Although Democracy is a Greek word, so is hypocrisy. Since the Greeks make such a fuss of how the British Museum displays and has cared for the Elgin Marbles, one can assume that they themselves have done a better job. But then again it's always silly to assume. Although there are many wonderful museums in Athens where their half of the Parthenon sculptures could be housed, for the last decade the majority of these have been in an inaccessible basement store room, which scholars and tourists alike are denied access to.
Some of the sculptures remain on the building, where they are being eaten away by acid rain. Other were removed as late as 1993, but still have not been restored. A few blocks of the frieze are on display, and some of the pedimental figures sit forlornly in gas filled box - they were removed in 1977, by which point they had become too delicate to have contact with air.
Despite this the remains of the frieze were not taken down until 1993. So, if some Greek fairy god-mother could wave a magic wand and send the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum back to Athens tomorrow, they could not even be displayed next to the Athens Parthenon sculptures.
The Athens pieces are in such bad condition that if the two were ever displayed next to each other, it would cause considerable embarrassment to the Greeks, and seriously bring into question their custodianship of what they themselves describe as their greatest cultural treasures.
The British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles rather disingenuously claims that ownership of the Marbles is no longer an issue, and that the Greeks only want a loan. This does not however mean that the Greeks accept British ownership, as the last Culture Minister made clear.
The loan requested is also a permanent one, which seems to defy any rational interpretation of the word "loan". If we wanted to call in this loan and bring our Marbles back to London do we honestly believe the Greek government would pack them up and ship them back to us? And if they didn't, what could we possibly do about it? Send in the SAS in a dawn raid to bring them home?
The Elgin Marbles are quite happily housed in the British Museum, which saved them from destruction in the first place, and which has cared for them admirably ever since. When the Greeks can demonstrate that they too have done an admirable job of caring for the Marbles in Athens then, perhaps, we can discuss a loan.
The Parthenon sculptures: stewardship
The British Museum holds in trust for the nation and the world a collection of art and antiquities. The Parthenon sculptures have been an integral part of this collection for the best part of 200 years. They are displayed in purpose-built galleries seen every year by millions of visitors, free of charge.
The Museum is committed to the permanent display and interpretation of its collection, communicating to a world audience and providing an international context where cultures can be compared and contrasted across time and place. The sculptures from the Parthenon have come to act as a focus for Western European culture and civilisation, and have found a home in a museum that grew out of the eighteenth-century 'Enlightenment', with its emphasis on developing a shared common culture that goes beyond national boundaries.
The Museum is always developing new ways of promoting the understanding of the sculptures by the widest possible audience. It does this through educational and scholarly programmes, through publication and through its display of the sculptures, which is constantly reviewed. The Museum maintains close contact with its colleagues in Athens, including those concerned with the archaeology and restoration of the Acropolis.
Against the background of this broad moral responsibility, the legal status of the Parthenon sculptures is clearly defined. The Trustees of The British Museum hold its collections in perpetuity by virtue of the power vested in them by The British Museum Act (1963).
Romancing the Stones
Jun 5, 2009 in Newsweek
It's not polite to call the Elgin Marbles the Elgin Marbles anymore. Not even in the British Museum, where the ancient Greek sculptures and reliefs have resided since the early 19th century, after a British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire named Lord Elgin hacked them off the Parthenon. Even in that age of imperialism, many Brits saw Elgin's acts as cultural vandalism. Lord Byron slammed the marbles' removal in his bestselling epic poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. The call for their return has grown since Greece won its independence from Ottoman rule in 1829, led by the Greek government in particular since the 1980s. In the noisy debate over the restitution of ancient artworks to their original locale, no case is more controversial or inflamed than the question of the Parthenon marbles: should the British finally send them back?
Later this month a new Acropolis Museum will open in the shadow of the Parthenon in Athens. The building is more than a bold composition in glass, steel, concrete and stone: it is architecture as argument, explicitly meant to sway opinion over the fate of the marbles. Designed by the Swiss-born, New York–based Bernard Tschumi, the three-level structure begins to express its agenda in the way it defers to an ancient settlement that was discovered during excavation of the construction site. (The building was adapted so that it is raised on concrete pillars, allowing archeological work to continue beneath it—and with glass floors that will give visitors a dramatic view of the ongoing dig.) But it's the crown of the museum that will make the most powerful case for restitution: the top floor is a glass box that is canted at an angle away from the structure beneath it—like an uneven stack of cartons—so that it lines up perfectly with the Parthenon, visible about 1,000 feet away. Many of the Parthenon's original sculptures were lost or destroyed over the centuries; those remaining on the temple were removed in recent years because the pollution in Athens was eating away the marble. Now, along with other sculptures, the frieze that encircled the temple—it depicts a procession of figures, some bringing sacrifices—is installed in the new museum in its original configuration on the Parthenon. To accentuate the ghostly absence of the missing marbles, there are white plaster copies to fill the gaps.
The history of how the marbles got to London is muddy enough to bolster both sides of the argument. When the seventh Earl of Elgin took up residence in the embassy in Constantinople in 1799, he began to pursue his passion for classical antiquities. He sent emissaries on a mission to -Athens, which was then a shabby little outpost that had been under the Ottoman thumb for 400 years. At first, Elgin wanted only some sketches and plaster casts made of the great sculptures and reliefs on the Parthenon and other nearby ruins. But his permit from the Ottoman sultan granted his crew access to the Acropolis—then a Turkish garrison—and stated that "no one meddle with their scaffolding or implements nor hinder them from taking away any pieces of stone with inscriptions and figures." Politics was at play here at least as much as art appreciation. The Ottomans were grateful to Britain, which had blocked the advance of Napoleon in Egypt—and over several years, Elgin's agents chiseled away at the most potent symbol of the golden age of classical Greeks. But the gods got even, with Elgin at least. In the course of his Ottoman escapade, he lost the following: his beautiful and rich wife to his best friend, a big chunk of his nose to a nasty infection he'd caught in Constantinople and, ultimately, his marbles, which he was forced to sell to the British government in 1816 for £35,000 (roughly equivalent to $4 million today) to dig himself out of debt after his divorce.
Since then, the trustees of the British Museum have never wavered in their position that Elgin's marbles legally belong to the museum. Scholars long argued that the marbles were better preserved in London than they would be in smog-choked Athens, with its poor museum facilities. "The British said, you don't deserve them, you don't have a place to put them," says Antonis Samaras, the new minister of culture in Greece. "Now we have one of the best museums that can be." But rather than trying to negotiate the point right now, the Greeks are letting their new museum do the talking. "We are presenting in a visual way what was, to this point, a verbal discussion," says the museum's president, Dimitrios Pandermalis. Is there a glimmer of hope that all the remaining marbles from the Parthenon might eventually be reunited, at least temporarily? The trustees of the British Museum have stated they would consider lending the marbles to Athens—though some are too fragile to travel in either direction, notes the director, Neil MacGregor—provided the Greek government acknowledge Britain's ownership of the artworks. For many Greeks, that's a sore point. "How can anyone dare say they belong to the British?" asks Samaras. "These are treasures taken out of the Acropolis when Greece was under enemy occupation." Pandermalis takes a gentler, less political approach: he suggests that Greece could lend other classical pieces to London in exchange for a long-term loan of the marbles. "It's not easy," he says, "but let's find a solution for both sides."
Those who agree the British Museum owns the marbles have a strong case. Unlike the recent instances of American museums returning ancient Roman artifacts to Italy—where there was proof of theft or looting since 1970, under the terms of international treaties—here there is no legal basis, many experts say, given that Elgin's actions were approved by the rulers in power and that 200 years have passed. What's more, the precedent set by giving back the marbles would open a Pandora's box of similar claims, says James Cuno, the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, citing one potential high-profile target: Queen Nefertiti, ensconced in Berlin's Altes Museum for nearly a century.
To cut through this Gordian knot would practically require the wisdom of the ancients, but here's one idea: Wouldn't it be thrilling to see the marbles together in -Athens for a period of time? And wouldn't it be reasonable to return them afterward to the stewardship of the British Museum, where they can bask in a panorama of mankind's highest achievements? The ancient Hellenic culture that produced the marbles seeded all of Western civilization, not just the contemporary nation of Greece. The marbles, really, belong to everyone.
Mistress of the Elgin Marbles: A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin
by Susan Nagel
Mistress of the Elgin Marbles is the story of Mary Nisbet, the Countess of Elgin - one of the most influential women of the Romantic era whose exploits enriched world culture immeasurably. The richest heiress in Scotland and the wife of accomplished diplomat Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, she traveled to Turkey when Elgin was appointed the Ambassabor Extraordinaire to the Ottoman Empire - a journey that would change history." Interweaving extensive details gleaned from primary sources and excerpts from the countess's own letters, Susan Nagel draws a vivid portrait of this formidable woman who helped bring the smallpox vaccine to the Middle East, financed the removal and safe passage to England of classical marbles from the Parthenon, and struck a deal with Napoleon that no politician could have accomplished. Yet, as Nagel shows, those achievements were overshadowed by scandal when Mary's passionate affair with her husband's best friend flamed into the most lurid and salacious divorce trial in London's history
Mistress of the Elgin Marbles
January 18, 2011 by Teresa
She was the first Western woman to freely visit the sultan of Turkey’s Seraglio. Five months pregnant and dressed as a man, she was the first woman to attend a political ceremony in the Ottoman court. She brought the smallpox vaccine to Turkey, was held hostage by Napoleon, and was instrumental in bringing the marble sculptures from the Parthenon to England. Yet Mary Nisbet, the one-time Countess of Elgin, was buried in an unmarked grave. Susan Nagel’s biography of Mary Nisbet tells of this remarkable woman whose name is scarcely remembered today, except insofar as it is connected with the Elgin Marbles. Born to great wealth in Scotland in 1778, Mary lived a life of acclaim and notoriety that soured along with her marriage to Thomas Bruce, the Earl of Elgin.
Thomas was an ambitious man whose own funds could not keep up with his demands. When he met and fell in love with Mary Nisbet, he gained the wealth that enabled him to accept a position as ambassador to Turkey. Besides bringing her fortune to the match, Mary also brought a vivacity and energy that charmed everyone she met. Her parties and her lively spirit made her irresistible to the Turkish officials whose confidence her husband needed to gain. Their years in Constantinople were happy and exciting ones, and their marriage seemed perfect. The only difficulty was the toll that pregnancy seemed to take on Mary’s health.
When Thomas’s service as ambassador ended, the couple traveled to Greece where they were able to get directly involved in a project they were funding to sketch Greek antiquities. It was at this time that the Elgins received permission from the Ottoman sultan to remove the famed marbles from the Acropolis. Because her husband was off on a tour at the time, Mary was actually the one who ensured that the marbles were removed and that ships for transport were made available. According to Nagel, this was, for Mary, an act of devotion to her husband, and the letters excerpted in this biography show how ardently Mary wanted her husband’s praise for these efforts.
After their successes in Turkey and Greece, the pair traveled to France, and Napoleon, seeking redress for the capture of one his officers, decided to detain them there. During this period, the two were often separated, with Thomas sometimes being imprisoned while Mary had the freedom to go where she wished, often with Thomas’s closest friend, Robert Ferguson. It was at this time that the cracks in the Elgin marriage started to show. Thomas expressed fury at the rumors that Mary had taken up with another man, and Mary was frustrated at Thomas’s spendthrift ways and his insistence that she continue to have children, regardless of the effect on her health.
Eventually, the marriage fell apart under the strain. Upon returning to England, the Elgins made headlines not for their achievements, but for their scandalous divorce. Divorce laws at the time offered Mary little protection. Fortunately, however, her parents were alive, and she had not yet inherited the whole of her fortune, so her husband had no claim upon that. Her children, however, were lost to her, and her chief solace was her relationship with Robert Ferguson.
Nagel’s biography is a competently written overview of the life of a fascinating woman. Nagel relies extensively on Mary’s own letters and diaries, and the quotes from those writings leap off the page, filled with Mary’s own vivacity and passion. Nagel’s own prose, on the other hand, is at best merely workmanlike and at worst a trifle awkward. She has an unfortunate tendency to overexplain quotes that are self-explanatory and to string together short quotes—often just a word or two—that don’t add much to the discussion, other than showing that Nagel is not drawing these ideas from her own head:
As the winds were not favorable for their journey on to Constantinople, Elgin and his party went off to visit what Mary mistakenly called Troy, some twelve miles from shore. “They are to ride there so I had prudence enough to remain here, I hope you give me credit . . . I don’t expect they will see anything.” The next day she corrected herself, reporting what stories the gentlemen brought back from “Troas,” which apparently included a visit to “an immense quantity of ruins . . . Some people have mistaken this for Troy.” (She poked fun at her own gaffe.)
Every now and then, passages like this one made me wince, but the story is so interesting that it wasn’t a big deal. A more serious issue was that I think Nagel loved her subject so much that she couldn’t help but take her words at face value. In the portion of the book that focuses on the divorce, Nagel never seems to question Mary’s own version of events, no matter how suspicious the circumstances are. To be sure, Thomas Nagel sounds like a selfish piece of work, especially given his actions after the divorce, but that doesn’t mean that his charges of adultery didn’t have some basis in reality.
On the question of the Elgin marbles, Nagel does write a bit about the controversy, and again she is careful to keep Mary free from guilt. Here, her approach is to explain the various positions people have held regarding the removal of the marbles without passing judgment on any of these positions. Nagel’s own view is unclear, but what is clear is that Mary herself was acting out of love for her husband without considering the political ramifications. The implication is that Mary herself is guilty only of loving too much.
Nagel’s attempts to exonerate Mary from any charges of wrong-doing make the book seem more like hagiography than biography. I wish she had been more willing to ask tough questions about Mary herself, but given how history has minimized women’s contributions and villainized women for their weaknesses, I suppose it’s not a bad thing to shower a few historical women with nothing but praise. Nagel’s account, even if one-sided, does bring a little-known woman to the public’s attention, and that is a very fine thing.