Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Convoluted Controversies of the Hellenic Heritage

                    So, Elgin got his money, the British Museum got his marbles and the world got a controversy. Suddenly, everyone wanted a piece of Greece including, unsurprisingly, the Greeks themselves. 

Unsatisfied Greeks Meet

In 1814, the Filiki Eteria, a secret organization, was founded with the intention of freeing Greece from Ottoman rule. Insurrections and revolutions began in 1821 and, to cut a very long story far, far much shorter than it deserves to be, the Greeks gained independence in March 1832. The war may have imposed a hiatus on archaeological activity but it didn’t end the damage done to archaeological sites. 

Trouble at Athens (again)

Once again, the Parthenon was subjected to artillery bombardment as, in 1826, Reschid Pasha ranged his guns on Greek defenders on the Acropolis, with the Erectheum being particularly damaged. The Turks were driven from Athens for the final time in March 1833, leaving the city in ruins, with scarcely only one hundred habitable houses left standing. 


Ludwig I of Bavaria, who had praised the Elgin marbles when many were denigrating their importance, provided Greece with its first King, when his son Otto was elected to the position in 1834. 

King Othon arrives in Athens

Otto Hellenized his name to Othon, wore traditional Greek costume and moved the capital back to Athens, but many Greeks felt that they had simply replaced the Turks, whom they understood, with Germanic bureaucracy, which they didn’t. 

Greeks dissatisfied with Bavarians

Bavarian architects and archaeologists moved in on the Acropolis with some, like Leo von Klenze, proposing that the Parthenon should be rebuilt by combining what ancient fragments could be recovered with modern building materials and techniques – two columns on the north side of the colonnade thus treated illustrate the folly of this project, which was thankfully abandoned. 

The ruined Parthenon

Another plan, which also found little favour, was proposed by Karl Schinkel (the man also responsible for designing the German Iron Cross), for a grand modern palace for the new Greek monarchy, with the Parthenon restored merely as an ornament to it. Other figures and other nationalities became involved, for better or for worse, but under the Archaeological Society of Greece, systematic excavations were conducted and all the areas not covered by buildings were examined down to the bedrock, with finds placed in a new museum built in 1866. 

Natural Disaster or the Hand Of Man?

And just when it seemed that the Acropolis would be spared any further damage, Mother Nature herself intervened as an earthquake in 1894 threatened to do what the hand of man could not manage, and it seemed that the Parthenon might topple. An international commission set to work and once more the Acropolis seemed saved, but Troubles in the Balkans, two World Wars, atmospheric pollution and acid rain have all posed dangers of their own sorts over the years. 

Greek ruins (pt 2)

Back to the controversy I mentioned at the outset. Inevitably, just as the Greeks wanted their country back, they also wanted their statues back. Some countries complied and sent back the stones they had taken from Greece. But the big one, the jewel in the crown, was the Elgin marbles. Even as Elgin was busy ordering the crates to ship them off to London, there were people pointing their fingers and shouting ‘Thief’. Elgin pointed out, later, that he was simply moving the statuary to a safe ‘asylum’ where neither invading armies could take pot shots at them nor enterprising locals could burn the marble to make lime mortar. He was doing ©Western Civilization a favour. 

Modern Greece?

This implies that the Greeks might reasonably expect to get them back at a later date, but that later date has not yet arrived, and so the Greek government regularly puts in a request and is just as regularly turned down. This argument would hold much more water if the British Museum was really just ‘looking after’ the marbles but it comes down to how you define ‘looking after’. When Elgin unpacked his crates, the marbles were a bit, shall we say, grubby. They were dirty, dusty and sooty, and so they were given a bit of a clean. J J Winckelmann, doyen of Hellenistic scholarship, had deemed that Classical Sculpture should be pure, pristine, white marble, because he’d seen the Apollo Belvedere in Rome and that was pure, pristine, white marble. 

Apollo Belvedere

Michael Faraday, the famous scientist, had a go at cleaning the marbles in 1838, using first water, then grit, alkalis and acids, but he despaired of ever getting the marbles white. Another attempt followed in 1858, which had little effect, and again in 1937, when scrapers, a chisel and an abrasive stone were tried, which succeeded in removing some of the surface of the stone (in places, up to one tenth of an inch), but the stones remained ‘dirty’. One problem is that Pentelic marble chemically reacts with air and over time acquires a patina, the white marble turning into a pale honey colour. According to taste and fashion, we currently like wood and bronze and copper and such-like to have a patina, it gives a piece ‘age’ and ‘character’ and every expert will tell you that the appeal (and financial value) of your whatever-it-is will diminish dramatically if you get out the scouring pads. But for some reason (not standing-up to the ‘experts’ being not the least) marble should be white – and let’s not forget that the Greeks themselves had painted their statues in very bright colours in the first place. Anyway, the Greeks said that the British had spoiled their marbles and the British said that the Greeks had spoiled the marbles to begin with and anyway they were Greeks for crying out loud, what had they ever done for ©Western Civilization (apart from getting it going, obviously, but you take the point). 

Greeks, eh? What are they like?

And, if museums started giving everything back to the original places they came from, where would it end? You’d only have museums full of things from you own country, which sort of undermines one point of museums. In addition, what about our stuff that’s in other peoples’ museums? Do we want all that back or can we do a swap? And what about the gear we bought, surely we can keep the things we’ve paid for, leaving aside the things we ‘acquired’ by other means. Then again, what about foreigners that come here and buy a house to live in? You see where all this is going? It all starts to get complicated very quickly. I’m not going to tell you my position on the Elgin marbles, but have a think about your own position, if you have a few minutes to spare. And then ask yourself why you think that.

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