November 28, 2003

The Copenhagen Parthenon Marbles

Posted at 6:15 pm in Elgin Marbles

A lot of attention is devoted to the Parthenon sculptures in Athens & the British Museum, but comparatively little information is available on the other fragments scattered around Europe. This is in many ways not surprising, as they amount to less than three percent of the surviving pieces. A few years ago, a fragment from Palermo in Sicily was due to return, but the process was halted at the last minute. This article looks at the case of two heads from the metopes of the Parthenon, currently located in Copenhagen’s National Museum.

The Copenhagen Post

Could Copenhagen lose its marbles?

When classical scholars, historians and philhellenes flock to Copenhagen it is not to see the Little Mermaid. It’s the National Museum’s two exquisite ancient heads from the Parthenon in Athens that’s the draw. But is Greece going to claim them back?

Currently, Greece is campaigning the British Museum for a return of the Elgin Marbles, a group of sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens brought to England by Lord Elgin in 1812. When they are returned, Athens will be poised to demand the restitution of other artefacts from the Acropolis from various museums in Europe. This includes the Copenhagen Marbles, the pride of the National Museum’s antiquities collection.

Lawrence Durrell said the two marble heads made Copenhagen a major place of pilgrimage for all philhellenes. They ended up in Denmark by a sheer quirk of fate. A certain Captain Moritz Hartmann, a Dane serving in the Venetian army which bombarded the Acropolis in 1687, purchased the artefacts from a street vendor in Athens. The marble sculptures, in advanced classical style and obviously the work of an important sculptor, date from the fifth century BC. The heads, a centaur and a Lapith, were removed from one of the southern metopes of the Parthenon. Originally, they formed part of a frieze depicting the classic battle between the Lapiths, the ancient Greeks of Thessaly (representing civilisation and order) and the centaurs, drunken monsters with human torsos growing out of horses’ bodies (symbolising chaos and barbarism). The Copenhagen Marbles are in fact a part of the Elgin or Parthenon Marbles, the collection of ancient Greek sculptures stripped from the Acropolis by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, and placed in the British Museum in London in 1816.

“The two Copenhagen heads are of great symbolic significance for the Greek people, they are part of an entity, they belong with the rest of the Parthenon sculptures,” Georgios Fotopoulos, cultural attache at the Greek Embassy in Copenhagen said. “It would be a splendid gesture on the part of Denmark to offer to return them,” he said. Fotopoulos stated that when Greece succeeds in getting Britain to return the Elgin Marbles for exhibition in the new museum presently under construction on a site below the Acropolis, the Athens government would make a formal request to Denmark to secure the two heads.

“Regardless of when or how Denmark got them, the two heads belong in Greece with the rest of the frieze. But we have as yet made no official request for their return,” Fotopoulos said.

The Danish National Museum’s reaction is non-committal, “In principle we only decide on returning artefacts on a case by case basis, when we have actually received a formal request,” Curator Peter Pentz of the museum’s Antiquities section told Danish media. The National Museum has in recent years returned the bulk of the Icelandic Sagas to Iceland as well as Inuit artefacts to Greenland and a Maori chieftain’s head to New Zealand.

In October, the British Museum issued its most stinging rejection so far of Greek pleas for a restitution of the Elgin Marbles. There are bits and pieces of Parthenon sculpture scattered all over European museums, notably a frieze slab, a metope and a head in the Louvre in Paris and assorted fragments in the Vatican as well as at Wurzburg, Heidelberg, Munich, Vienna, Palermo and Strasborg.

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1 Comment »

  1. Ονούφριος Ντοβλέτης said,

    07.03.19 at 10:04 pm

    Thank you for the information.
    I’m a guide in Athens and I was wondering indeed how these two heads ended up in Copenhagen.
    The condition of this metope is always the “funniest” and saddest for tourists because the whole slab is in London, the two heads in Denmark and only a tiny part of the centaur’s leg was left behind in the city where it was made…

    Museums are supposed to respect art and NOT treat it as a trophy and bully other countries by keeping their artifacts.

    Best regards,
    Onoufrios Dovletis

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