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The Parthenon and the Elgin Marbles by Epaminondas Vranopoulos

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Essay title: The Parthenon and the Elgin Marbles by Epaminondas Vranopoulos



Athens 1985


The response to the Greek government's demand for the return to Greece of the sculptures of the Parthenon, now in the British Museum, has been so encouraging that it has given rise to hopes that the Elgin Marbles, as they have come to be known, may indeed one day be restored to their rightful home.

The favourable response has come from UNESCO and from public opinion world-wide, including Britain.

For the time being, however, the British government and the authorities of the British Museum do not agree that the marbles should be returned. They base their stand on the argument that if the Parthenon sculptures were returned, it would set a precedent by which all the great museums of the world would ultimately have to return their treasures to their country of origin.

Nevertheless, this argument cannot apply to the Elgin Marbles because they are an inseparable part of the Parthenon and cannot be compared to such things as Egyptian obelisks, pharaoh's mummies, Mesopotamian tablets or Easter Island monoliths - not even with other Greek masterpieces such as the Winged Victory of Samothrace or the Venus de Milo.

Classical scholars and art historians are unanimous in declaring the Parthenon to be a unique example of Greek classical art. Those who visit it today see it without the sculptures and many are doubtless unaware that they even exist. Yet the marbles and the Parthenon, together, form part of their cultural heritage and they are prevented from appreciating and understanding its architectural value and aesthetic worth to the full.



The Parthenon is a representative example of the high degree of architectural accomplishment attained by the 5th century BC.


After their victory against the Persians at Plataea in 479 BC, the Athenians returned to their abandoned city and found all the buildings on the Acropolis had been laid waste.

Themistocles, Aristides and Kimon successively vied with each other in rebuilding the city. But Pericles surpassed them all.

Pericles put the prosperity that accrued to Athens in the middle of the 5th century BC to good use by beautifying the city with monuments that would do credit to its fame. He wanted to make Athens an artistic and cultural as well as a political pan-hellenic centre.

During the thirty years of the Pericles' rule the following buildings were erected: the Parthenon and the Propylaea on the Acropolis; the Poikele Stoa and the Temple of Hephaestus in the Agora; the Odeon at the foot of the Acropolis; the temple of Poseidon at Sounion and the temple of Nemesis at Ramnous. The general artistic supervision of the Acropolis buildings was assigned to Pheidias, who distinguished himself by producing decorations that were unique in magnificence, harmony and grace. Ictinus and Callicrates were in charge of the actual construction. The Parthenon had top priority in the reconstruction plans of the city.

Work on the Parthenon began in 447 BC and as we know it was dedicated to the goddess Athena in 432 BC, we may assume it took 15 years to build.

In 450 AD the Parthenon was turned into a Christian church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It was not greatly altered, with the exception of the removal of some sculptures on the eastern side to make way for the apse of the Christian church. When the Franks occupied Athens in 1204, they turned the Parthenon into a Catholic church and when the Turks arrived in 1458 the Parthenon became a mosque with Turkish houses built all around it.

In 1674, the French ambassador to the Sublime Porte in Constantinople, the Marquis de Nointel, paid a visit to Athens accompanied by Jacques Carrey, an artist, who spent two weeks making sketches and drawings of the Parthenon. However hastily drawn and imperfect these records may have been, they are important to our knowledge of the Acropolis. Now preserved in the Paris Library, the Carrey drawings happened to be made only 13 years before the explosion of a powder magazine partly destroyed the Parthenon during the siege of the Venetian general Francesco Morosini in 1687. Morosini's bombardment is made more reprehensible by the fact that he knew the Turks were storing gunpowder on the Acropolis.


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