The Parthenon Marbles

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  • Topic: Parthenon, Acropolis of Athens, Elgin Marbles
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  • Published : November 7, 2011
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The Parthenon Marbles, known also as the Elgin Marbles (pronounced /ˈɛlɡən/, with a hard “g”), are a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures (mostly by Phidias and his pupils), inscriptions and architectural members that originally were part of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens. Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799–1803, had obtained a controversial permission from the Ottoman authorities to remove pieces from the Acropolis. From 1801 to 1812 Elgin's agents removed about half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon, as well as architectural members and sculpture from the Propylaea and Erechtheum. The Marbles were transported by sea to Britain. In Britain, the acquisition of the collection was supported by some, while other critics compared Elgin's actions to vandalism or looting. There is controversy as to whether the removed pieces were purchased from the ruling government of the time or not. Following a public debate in Parliament and subsequent exoneration of Elgin's actions, the marbles were purchased by the British government in 1816 and placed on display in the British Museum, where they stand now on view in the purpose-built Duveen Gallery. The debate continues as to whether the Marbles should remain in the British Museum or be returned to Athens


In December of 1798, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, was appointed as "Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of His Britannic Majesty to the Sublime Porte of Selim III, Sultan of Turkey". Prior to his departure to take up the post he had approached at least three officials of the British government to inquire if they would be interested in employing artists to take casts and drawings of the sculptured portions of the Parthenon. According to Lord Elgin, "the answer of the Government... was entirely negative." Lord Elgin decided to carry out the work at his own expense and employed artists to take casts and drawings under the supervision of the Neapolitan court painter Giovani Lusieri. However, while conducting surveys, he found that Parthenon statuary that had been documented in a 17th-century survey was now missing, and so he investigated. According to a Turkish local, marble sculptures that fell were burned to obtain lime for building. Although the original intention was only to document the sculptures, in 1801 Lord Elgin began to remove material from the Parthenon and its surrounding structures[ under the supervision of Lusieri. The excavation and removal was completed in 1812 at a personal cost of £74,240 (about $4 million in today's currency). Elgin intended the marbles for display in the British Museum, selling them to the British government for less than the cost of bringing them to Britain and declining higher offers from other potential buyers, including Napoleon.

The Elgin Marbles include some 17 figures from the statuary from the east and west pediments, 15 (of an original 92) of the metope panels depicting battles between the Lapiths and the Centaurs, as well as 247 feet (or 75 m of an original 524 ft or 160 m) of the Parthenon Frieze which decorated the horizontal course set above the interior architrave of the temple. As such, they represent more than half of what now remains of the surviving sculptural decoration of the Parthenon. Elgin's acquisitions also included objects from other buildings on the Athenian Acropolis: a Caryatid from Erechtheum; four slabs from the parapet frieze of the Temple of Athena Nike; and a number of other architectural fragments of the Parthenon, Propylaia, Erechtheum, the Temple of Athena Nike and the Treasury of Atreus.

Legality of the removal from Athens

As the Acropolis was still an Ottoman military fort, Elgin required permission to enter the site, including the Parthenon and the surrounding buildings. He allegedly obtained from the Sultan a firman to allow his artists access to the...
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