Elgin Ships Parthenon Marbles to England Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Lord Elgin’s removal of large sections of sculpture to England from the Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens began a revival of interest in classical antiquity among northern Europeans and provoked repeated international demands for the return of the artworks to Greece.

Summary of Event

In the wake of Napoleon I’s occupation of Egypt in 1798, during which large amounts of Egyptian antiquities were transported to Paris’s Louvre Louvre Museum Paris;Louvre Museum Museum Museums;Louvre , other northern European powers began extensive acquisitions of sculpture, jewelry, and even entire buildings from various historical sites around the Mediterranean basin to the more heavily populated cities in the north. Not yet clearly distinguished from antiquarianism, early nineteenth century archaeology rarely attempted to preserve the integrity of the sites being studied or to respect local peoples’ interest in their own native cultures. The practice of wholesale removal of artifacts would continue through most of the nineteenth century and include such major archaeological relocations as Karl Humann’s removal of the Great Altar of Pergamum from Turkey to Berlin in 1878, Heinrich Schliemann’s Schliemann, Heinrich smuggling of a vast treasure that included at least 8,750 gold rings and buttons from Troy Troy, ancient Archaeology;Troy to Germany in 1873, and Lord Elgin’s removal of marble sculptures from the Acropolis in Athens to London. Elgin Marbles Athens;Parthenon Archaeology;Parthenon Elgin, seventh earl of Sculpture;Greek Sculpture;Elgin marbles Art;museums Greece, ancient;Parthenon [kw]Elgin Ships Parthenon Marbles to England (1803-1812) [kw]Ships Parthenon Marbles to England, Elgin (1803-1812) [kw]Parthenon Marbles to England, Elgin Ships (1803-1812) [kw]Marbles to England, Elgin Ships Parthenon (1803-1812) [kw]England, Elgin Ships Parthenon Marbles to (1803-1812) Elgin Marbles Athens;Parthenon Archaeology;Parthenon Elgin, seventh earl of Sculpture;Greek Sculpture;Elgin marbles Art;museums Greece, ancient;Parthenon [g]Mediterranean;1803-1812: Elgin Ships Parthenon Marbles to England[0170] [g]Great Britain;1803-1812: Elgin Ships Parthenon Marbles to England[0170] [g]Greece;1803-1812: Elgin Ships Parthenon Marbles to England[0170] [c]Architecture;1803-1812: Elgin Ships Parthenon Marbles to England[0170] [c]Art;1803-1812: Elgin Ships Parthenon Marbles to England[0170] Lusieri, GiovanniBattista Hunt, Philip

Born Thomas Bruce, Lord Elgin became the seventh earl of Elgin on the death of his older brother when he was only five years old. The Bruce family had been heirs to the Elgin title since 1633, and this honor had fallen to Thomas Bruce’s direct line following the death of Charles Bruce in 1647. As he entered adulthood, Elgin studied in England and France before beginning a military career that would take him to numerous cities in Europe and Turkey. From 1799 until 1803, Elgin served as British ambassador to Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish-based empire was then a vast power which at that time controlled all of Greece. While he was there, Elgin became fascinated by the architecture Architecture;ancient Greek and sculpture adorning many ancient Greek cities, particularly the friezes that formed part of the classical temple to Athena, the Parthenon in Athens.

Portions of the Elgin marbles as they were displayed in the British Museum during the early twentieth century.

(George L. Schuman & Company)

Working through his agents, the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Lusieri Lusieri, Giovanni Battista and the chaplain Philip Hunt Hunt, Philip , Elgin learned what permissions he needed to acquire sculptures in Athens, what powers he should request from the Ottomans, and how to deal with various political obstacles he might encounter. At that time diplomatic relationships were particularly close between Great Britain and the Ottomans, Great Britain;and Ottoman Empire[Ottoman Empire] Ottoman Empire;and Great Britain[Great Britain] which had together driven the French out of Egypt only a few years earlier. Elgin was thus able to obtain a firman, or royal order, from the Ottoman Empire that allowed his representatives to study the Acropolis and to remove “extraneous” inscriptions and sculptures. Elgin would use his liberal interpretation of the firman’s latter privilege to justify his removal of a large number of sculptures from the Parthenon and nearby buildings. Elgin directed his agents to remove representative samples of sculptural decoration from the Parthenon, giving special attention to the building’s metopes—the square panels of relief sculpture depicting such scenes as the battle between the gods and the giants, the battle between the Greeks and the Amazons, and the Trojan War.

Elgin undoubtedly believed that his removal of the sculptures from the Parthenon was not mere spoliation but rather an attempt to preserve the ancient artifacts in a manner that would not be possible in Greece. The Parthenon had been badly damaged as recently as 1689 during the Turko-Venetian War, in which the Ottomans had used the ancient structure to store Explosives;and Parthenon[Parthenon] explosives. When their explosives were hit by a shell during a Venetian bombardment, the resulting detonation caused most of the damage currently seen in the building. Moreover, Elgin depicted the Ottomans as indifferent to the historical significance of the Acropolis. He claimed that they regarded it as a site at which idols had been worshipped and had failed to protect it during the empire’s many political upheavals. Finally, Elgin probably believed that he was making the cultural richness of the Parthenon available to many more people by moving parts of it from sparsely populated Greece to heavily populated London.

Despite his intentions, Elgin realized that his actions were likely to provoke protests from the Ottomans. He therefore hurried to have a large portion of the sculptures taken from Athens on the British ship Mentor, followed by an even larger amount of material conveyed by the British warships Diana and Hydra. The Mentor was wrecked in a storm before it reached England, and its cargo of antiquities had to be reclaimed from the bottom of the sea over the next several years.

The first of Elgin’s shipments from Greece to England began arriving in London in 1803. When Elgin himself returned to England in 1806, he began displaying his acquisitions to his fellow countrymen, many of whom were able to see ancient Greek art for the first time. These private showings gave rise to a renewed interest in the art of the classical period, much of which had been known in England, France, and Germany only through written descriptions and often unreliable drawings.

By 1811, Elgin had suffered a number of financial reverses, causing him to offer the marbles for sale to the British government in the hope that he might recover his private investment in their transportation and begin repairs on his home, which had been suffering from years of neglect. The British government offered Elgin only half of what he requested. Elgin then embarked on a long series of negotiations to sell the sculptures for what he considered to be a fair price.

In 1812, the last of the shipments that Elgin had ordered to be sent from Athens finally arrived in London, and the Acropolis sculptures were once again together in a single location. Finally, on June 7, 1816, the House of Commons voted to purchase the marbles from Elgin for £35,000, only a moderate increase from what it had offered him five years earlier. By that time, a fierce debate was already developing between those who believed that the sculptures had been looted from Greece and should be returned and those who believed that they were likely to be better preserved in England than in Greece. The marbles were transferred to the British Museum, Museums;British where they then became the centerpiece of that institution’s collection of antiquities.

Significance

Removal of the Elgin marbles to England gave rise to a renewed interest in ancient Greece throughout northern Europe. The classical revival of the nineteenth century differed from the neoclassicism of the eighteenth century by placing a greater emphasis on ancient Greece than on ancient Rome. This revival can be traced to the impact that the Elgin marbles had on their original audience. Although relatively few northern Europeans traveled to Greece during the early nineteenth century, many did travel to London, and the collection of the sculptures in the British Museum provided many visitors with their only direct contact with ancient Greek art.

Elgin’s looting of the Acropolis also began a controversy that has continued to affect relations between Great Britain and Greece Great Britain;and Greece[Greece] Greece;and Great Britain[Great Britain] into the twenty-first century. The Ottoman and later the Greek governments have consistently argued that the removal of the Elgin marbles from Athens to London was an act of international theft, that there can be no justification for the sculptures’ continued presence in the British Museum, and that the works should immediately be returned to Athens, where museum space is ready for them.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cosmopoulos, Michael B., ed. The Parthenon and Its Sculptures. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Comprehensive art historical approach to the significance of the Elgin marbles as well as other sculptures associated with Athens’s Parthenon.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gallo, Luciano. Lord Elgin in Search of Greek Architecture: The Elgin Drawings at the British Museum. London: Philip Wilson, 2005. Includes information, not merely on the Elgin marbles themselves, but also on the larger archaeological and cultural implications of Elgin’s travels in Greece.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">St. Clair, William. Lord Elgin and the Marbles. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Exhaustive account of the details leading to Elgin’s acquisition of the sculptures and their subsequent influence on European art and architecture.

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