The Elgin Marbles also known as the Parthenon Marbles, are a collection of Classical Greek marble sculptures (made mostly by Greek sculptor Phidias and his assistants), inscriptions and architectural pieces that were originally part of the temple of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens. Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin claimed to obtain in 1801 a controversial permit from the Sublime Porte, which then ruled Greece.
Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and 11th Earl of Kincardine by Anton Graff (around 1788)
From 1801 to 1812, Elgin’s agents removed about half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon, as well as sculptures 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 others likened Elgin’s actions to vandalism or looting.
Following a public debate in Parliament and the subsequent exoneration of Elgin, the Elgin marbles were purchased from Elgin by the British government in 1816 and were passed to the British Museum, where they stand now on display in the purpose-built Duveen Gallery.
The Duveen Gallery of the British Museum
After gaining its independence from the Ottoman Empire, Greece began major projects for the restoration of the country’s monuments, and has expressed its disapproval of Elgin’s removal of the Marbles from the Acropolis and the Parthenon, which is regarded as one of the world’s greatest cultural monuments. Greece disputes the subsequent purchase of the Marbles by the British Government and urges the return of the marbles to Greece for their unification.
In the beginning…
In November of 1798 the 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” (Greece was then part of the Ottoman realm). Before his departure to take up the post he had approached 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.”
Statuary from the east pediment
Lord Elgin decided to carry out the work and employed artists to take casts and drawings under the supervision of the Neapolitan court painter Giovani Lusieri. 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.