The Parthenon Marbles


It is no coincidence that the monumental south entrance to the British Museum, with its octastyle portico, steps and fluted Ionic columns, bears more than a passing resemblance to the Parthenon in the Acropolis, with its eight fluted Pentelic marble Doric columns on which sits a pediment, containing various pieces of sculpture. Or, at least until 1802, when Lord Elgin legitimately bought a large selection of them from the then Ottoman Empire, that used to. The pediment at the Parthenon was 30m across and 3.45m at its highest point. These are exactly the same dimensions as the pediment atop the British Museum, and the tympanum, the triangulated area containing the sculpture, which were all carved by Sir Richard Westmacott.

It comprises a group of allegorical figures, representing the “Progress of Civilisation”, from left to right, beginning with an alligator-type animal, a naked savage, a hunter, a tiller of the earth, muses representing the Arts, Mathematics, Science and so on, until the central figure representing Astronomy is able to stand to her full height, then down again through Drama, Poetry, Music to Natural History, at the apex of the triangle, represented by a turtle.


The Parthenon was built on the Acropolis of Athens between 447 and 438 BC, Acropolis simply meaning ‘high city’. The Parthenon tympanum, tells a much more interesting story, that of the defeat of the Persians first at Marathon in 490 BC, then at Salamis in 480 BC and at Plataea in 479 BC. The chariot of the sun rising at the left-hand side, and setting at the right, with the wonderful head of a horse drawing the chariot of the goddess of the moon, Selene, being one of the best preserved pieces brought to England by Lord Elgin. In all, there were 17 figures from the statuary from the east and west pediments, in addition to 15 (of the original 92) metope panels and a run of 75m of an original 160m of the Parthenon Frieze. These depicted the Olympian gods fighting the giant Greeks, including Theseus fighting Amazons, the Fall of Troy, and, in the fifteenth, in the purpose-built Duveen Galleries, Greeks fighting the barbaric centaurs at the wedding of the Pirithous, King of the Lapiths. The hosts gave the centaurs wine, and they immediately turned ugly, not only trying to rape the human guests, but trying to abduct the bride. A massive fight ensued, and, although the Lapiths won, there were colossal injuries on each side. Hence the phrase, you can take a half-man-half-horse to water, but you shouldn’t make it drink wine.

For the first time in 200 years, one of the Parthenon marbles, the figure of a river-god Ilissos, has left these shores on loan to the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg for a month to celebrate its 250th anniversary at the beginning of 2015. This caused an enormous fuss and re-ignited the controversy about whether or not the marbles should be returned to Athens to join the remains of the statuary. The BM’s stance is that they were purchased through the proper channels, and, had they not been shipped to the UK when they were, they would have been destroyed, pillaged or ruined by pollution and acid rain. They regard them as belonging to the world and that 6 million people a year visit the museum, of which they regard themselves as custodians.


The Greeks accused the Museum of further destroying the marbles in the 1930s by invasive cleaning. In addition to the recommended water and soap, copper chisels and carborundum were used on some of the sculptures over a period of 15 months. The British Museum held an internal enquiry and as a result the Keeper took early retirement, the Assistant Keeper resigned, and all the craftsmen concerned left the Museum’s employ. Dr Ian Jenkins, deputy keeper of Greek and Roman antiquities, recently came clean about the damage caused, remarking that “The British Museum is not infallible, it is not the Pope. Its history has been a series of good intentions marred by the occasional cock-up, and the 1930s cleaning was such a cock-up”.

Not only did the architect Robert Smirke borrow heavily from the Parthenon when he designed the BM building, a hundred years later, Rolls-Royce based their iconic Phantom radiator on it as well, as they thought it personified class, grace and beauty.  A shame that the latest Roller has gone for ostentatious bling and now resemble a shiny house-brick on wheels.


Don Grant

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