September 2008


Reflections on the Elgin Marbles

Rescue or looting? It’s disturbing to visit the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum, I find, because the eye notices their wreckage and beauty at the same time. One empire, the Ottoman, ignored the Parthenon as art, affixing a minaret to it and using it as a mosque. This neglect was probably better than the pillaging that another empire, the British, did after 1801, when Lord Elgin chivvied a document from the Turkish sultan that may or may not have allowed him to hack off and cart away half the friezes, pediment statues, and intermediate sculptures along the roof edge, or metopes. Elgin “rescued” enough precious art to strip the temple fairly bare. When he was nearly broke in 1816, the British government bought the marbles, after a queasy debate in Parliament that ended, basically, with “they’re ours now, nobody else can have them.”
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