June 25, 2004

The real story of the Elgin Marbles

Posted at 11:00 am in Elgin Marbles

A new BBC documentary on Saturday 26th June will take a fresh look at both sides of the case for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece.

BBC News

Last Updated: Friday, 25 June, 2004, 17:54 GMT 18:54 UK
The real story of the Elgin Marbles
By James Bregman
BBC News Online entertainment staff

The age-old controversy surrounding the Elgin Marbles is likely to re-emerge this year when the Olympics taking place in Athens.

The marbles – depicting gods, men and monsters – were removed from Athens’ Parthenon in 1811 by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire that controlled Greece at the time.

Whether they return to Greece has become both a political and national issue, with the Greeks demanding they be sent back to their homeland, while London’s British Museum has insisted they stay put.

But although these arguments have been heard many times before, less is perhaps known about the man who sparked the row – Lord Elgin.

A BBC Two documentary, called The Elgin Marbles, explores the man behind the marbles, as well as looking at both sides of the argument – should they stay or should they go?

A colourful and privileged figure, Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, became British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in 1799.

Based in Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), he enjoyed the respect and attention of the locals because England had recently defeated French forces in Egypt, a country the French had previously seized from the Ottomans.

“I think it’s important not to judge Elgin by the standards of present,” says the programme’s presenter, art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon. “You have to judge the man in the context of his own time.”

Utilising this power he negotiated what he claimed was permission from the Ottoman authorities to remove statues from the Parthenon.

The document upon which Elgin claimed legality is today cited by campaigners on both sides of the argument, whose interpretations of it inevitably differ.

Opposing sides claim it demonstrates both the legality and criminality of Elgin’s actions.

Either way, Elgin had a passion for art, and was not satisfied with hiring artists to produce pictures of the Parthenon. He wanted to take large pieces of it back home.

Although plundering such works would hit headlines today, during Elgin’s era there was an absolute mania for Classical Art, and it was common for the wealthy to collect ancient treasures from around the world.

Tourists to Greece regularly took souvenirs from the Parthenon site, and as a genuine lover of art now armed with apparent authority to take whatever he wished, Elgin began removing his share.

Some question whether someone willing to damage the sculptures by removing them could really have a genuine passion for them.

“I have one problem in having to believe Elgin was a lover of the arts,” says Jules Dassin, President of the Melina Mercouri Foundation which campaigns for the sculptures’ return.

Major damage

“I simply cannot imagine a lover of the arts allowing saws to attack some of the greatest works ever made.”

Modern campaigners also point to the damaging effects upon the sculptures of Athens’ notorious traffic. Similarly, Elgin claimed the sculptures were better off in Britain than the perilous environment he found them in.

Through years of damage through unrest and theft, the Parthenon statues were already hugely damaged.

Elgin told a Parliamentary inquest that a desire to protect what was left of the treasure was part of his motivation in taking them. The Turks, he claimed, had been even grinding down the statues to make mortar.

Elgin appears to be a slightly confused mixture of good and bad, whose motives can in one light be seen as justifiable and noble but are full of contradictions.

His desire to preserve art for posterity does not sit with his original plans to house it in his private home, whilst his supposed obsession with art conflicts with his willingness to desecrate the ancient building.

Attempting to fully understand Elgin as a person rather than a simplistic figure of notoriety proves as tricky as finding a resolution to the wider question of the marbles’ rightful fate.

The Elgin Marbles is being shown on BBC Two, Saturday 26th June at 2100 BST

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