Frieze Frame: Part I

Shadows and Magnitude. It is easy to forget that, when John Keats (1795–1821) wrote his often-anthologized sonnet “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles” in 1817, the eponymous Marbles were relatively new immigrants to England. They retained a frisson of recent controversy: the source of public and parliamentary debate a year before, they had only just been unveiled to the general public in the British Museum. The poem—light on observed detail and heavy on high Romantic swoon—seems more a hymn to Stendhal syndrome than a description of an actual artistic encounter:

My spirit is too weak—Mortality
Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.
Yet ’tis a gentle luxury to weep
That I have not the cloudy winds to keep
Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.
Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;
So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old time—with a billowy main—
A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.

Without the title, it would be very hard to guess what “these wonders” refers to at all. Only “godlike” and “Grecian”—at a stretch “old time”—even gesture at their general direction. Whence the pinnacles and steeps or the eagle? The billowy main and the sun—an imagined Greek setting—Greek sun and sea—are trucked into the cool, dim salon of the British Museum’s Temporary Elgin Room by the imagination.
Keats had not been alone on this visit: his friend, the irascible and erudite painter Benjamin Haydon (1786–1846), had served as enthusiastic docent. Keats dashed off this sonnet that same evening and sent it to Haydon, while still giddy from the museum experience; it is the second of a brace of sonnets, the first addressed to Haydon directly:

Forgive me, Haydon, that I cannot speak
Definitively on these mighty things;
Forgive me that I have not eagle’s wings—
That what I want I know not where to seek:
And think that I would not be overmeek
In rolling out upfollow’d thunderings,
Even to the steep of Heliconian springs,
Were I of ample strength for such a freak.
Think too that all those numbers should be thine;
Whose else? In this who touch thy vesture’s hem?
For when men star’d at what was most divine
With browless idiotism—o’erweening phlegm—
Thou hadst beheld the Hesperean shine
Of their star in the east and gone to worship them.

Both sonnets were published, one atop the other almost as if a single poem or double sonnet, in Leigh Hunt’s Examiner a week later.
This sonnet is much less of a “keeper,” with its vague sweep of Greek geography and unfortunate rhyme word “phlegm” (although here it means “stoic calm”), but the sonnets do shed light upon one another. The eagle makes an appearance in both, but in this poem, the eagle’s wings (this eagle is not too sick to fly) belong to Haydon rather than the speaker. Keats asks forgiveness for not being able to speak “Definitively on these mighty things,” which Haydon presumably can, perhaps thunderingly so. But by the second poem the vagueness and inability to articulate about the marble fragments becomes an immortal phrase in itself: “a shadow of a magnitude.”
It is irresistible to try to imagine the visit, with Haydon pontificating and Keats in tow, perhaps dumbfounded. Haydon had been obsessed with the Marbles—and would continue to be so for the rest of his life—since he first encountered them with his friend, the painter David Wilkie, nearly a decade earlier in 1808 in a “damp, dirty pent-house” in an open yard on Park Lane, where the Marbles had lain “within sight and reach.”
In Haydon’s lively Autobiography, he recounts this transcendent experience: “The first thing I fixed my eyes on was the wrist of a figure in one of the female groups, in which were visible, though in a feminine form, the radius and ulna. I was astonished, for I had never seen them hinted at in any female wrist in the antique. I darted my eye to the elbow, and saw the outer condyle visibly affecting the shape as in nature . . . That combination of nature and idea which I had felt was so much wanting for high art was here displayed to mid-day conviction. My heart beat! . . . I felt the future, I foretold that they would prove themselves the finest things on earth, that they would overturn the false beau-ideal, where nature was nothing, and would establish the true beau-ideal, of which nature alone is the basis. . . . I felt as if a divine truth had blazed inwardly upon my mind . . .”
Haydon concludes this recollection with “I do not say this now, when all the world acknowledges it, but I said it then, when no one would believe me,” adding that he was in such a state of excitement when he got home that Wilkie, a Scot, had to try to “moderate” his enthusiasm with his “national caution.”
At Haydon’s next opportunity to visit the Marbles, he dragged the Swiss painter Henry Fuseli (Johann Heinrich Füssli) with him, who endears himself to Haydon forever with his “uncompromising enthusiasm,” striding around and exclaiming, “De Greeks were godes! de Greeks were godes!”
Haydon’s own fascination with the Marbles and his advocacy for them were contagious, even overwhelming. Roughly ten years older than Keats, who was 21 at the time of their “bromance,” and further embarked on his artistic career of ambitious large-scale historical and biblical paintings, Haydon perhaps represented to Keats a kind of artistic seriousness and commitment to aspire to.

Duveen Gallery. Parthenon sculptures. East pediment. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Haydon’s expertise on the Marbles and his passion for them seem to have made as much of an impression as the sculptures and marble reliefs. In particular, Haydon would have pointed out to Keats that their beauty lay in their anatomical truth, how the artists understood the inner structures of the human body, whether it was the bones in a woman’s forearm or a muscle flexed in the armpit of a struggling torso, details that would hardly have been lost on Keats, who had not only studied anatomy in his surgical training, but still had daily experience of it at Guy’s Hospital. Haydon might have called the pediments “eagles” as a translation of the Greek word, aetôma (as happened during the Parliamentary Committee) or pointed out the missing eagle under Zeus’s throne. He might have recounted some of the Marbles’ misadventures, one shipment of which, on Lord Elgin’s brig the Mentor, sank in 1802 in rough seas off Kythera. The humans aboard were unscathed, but 17 crates of sculptures ended up at the bottom of the “billowy main,” rescued over the next two years with the help of hired Greek sponge divers brought in from Symi and Kalymnos. And Haydon would have waxed lyrical about the perfection glimpsed through the fragmentary: “In the most broken fragment, the same great principle of life can be proved to exist, as in the most perfect figure,” Haydon had observed, according to a note in Felicia Hemans’ long poem, Modern Greece, also from 1817.
When Keats and Haydon visited the Marbles at the beginning of March in 1817, it was also exactly one year on from the meetings of the House of Commons’ Select Committee and Parliamentary debate on whether to purchase the Marbles. The Committee had been formed to assess the artistic and monetary value of the Marbles, and also whether Lord Elgin had had the legal authority to remove them in the first place.
Haydon had been furious at the snub of not being invited to testify and had taken to the pages of Leigh Hunt’s Examiner to fulminate, in particular targeting Richard Payne Knight, whose testimony had held that the Marbles were of only the second rank, and that the lot was worth, on the open market, a fraction of Elgin’s asking price (the not inconsiderable sum of £73,600—roughly £6 million in today’s money). Haydon’s screed was entitled “On the Judgment of Connoisseurs Being Preferred to that of Professional Men” and contained the zinger, “No man will trust his limb to a connoisseur in surgery.”
If in no part of Keats’s Elgin Marbles sonnet does he describe the Marbles directly, but rather the overwhelming emotion of encountering them, there does seem to be a description of them in a more ambitious poem a couple of years later, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which those emotions are recollected in tranquility:

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?

The southern frieze has many blocks that depict people leading animals to sacrifice, and, in particular, block S XLIV depicts a heifer bellowing at the sky, and other parts of the poem have counterparts in the frieze. It may be assumed that the figures in Keats’s poem are sacrificing an unmated female animal (a heifer) to a virgin goddess, Athena perhaps.
Interestingly, Keats’s Grecian urn does not appear to be a red- or black-figure painted terracotta vase, but marble and carved, like the Parthenon frieze in relief (but also not unlike the carved marble Townley Vase, also in the British Museum’s Greek and Roman collection at that time, and which, in its depiction of the wedding of Bacchus and Ariadne, features the god and his bride as well as men and maenads):

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought

After his first visit to the Marbles, Keats would often return to the British Museum to gaze upon them. His friend (and portrait taker) Joseph Severn recollected that “He went again and again to see the Elgin Marbles, and would sit for an hour or more at a time beside them rapt in revery.”

Perhaps as he began truly to “see” the Marbles, the suggested narratives unfolded that would find themselves instead on a Greek pot. That poem’s Cold Pastoral of unheard melodies concludes, oddly enough, with an utterance, and that in the voice of the urn itself:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

The voice Keats hears, imagining what the Grecian urn would say, sounds a bit like Haydon’s.

Rock and Ruin. The Elgin Marbles, as Keats refers to them, consist of roughly half of the Parthenon’s surviving ornaments: 247 feet of 524 feet of the frieze; 15 of the 92 metopes;[1] and 17 pedimental figures, as well as architectural elements from the Parthenon (such as a Doric capital[2]), and from other buildings on the Acropolis, such as a Caryatid from the Erechtheion. These were removed from the Acropolis by agents of Thomas Bruce, Lord Elgin (1766–1841), mostly in a frenetic burst of activity from 1801–1803; an injunction against further “excavations”—Elgin’s agents were planning to remove the western frieze—was issued by the Ottoman governor of Athens (the Voivode) in 1805.[3]
It would take another decade to ship all the Marbles out of Greece to England.
Our only ancient description of the sculptures comes from Pausanias, a second-century AD travel writer: “As you enter the temple that they name the Parthenon, all the sculptures you see on what is called the pediment refer to the birth of Athena, those on the rear pediment represent the contest for the land between Athena and Poseidon.”[4] He also mentions a portrait sculpture of Hadrian, the Roman emperor of an earlier generation.
Pausanias tells us nothing whatsoever of the frieze, which, at 40 feet above the ground, would not have been viewable up close by visitors. This clearly depicts some sort of sacrificial procession. Until recently, the assumption by most scholars was that it displayed the Panathenaic procession, a mid-August festival held in honor of Athena’s birthday (with a grander version every four years) that culminated in offering a newly woven robe (a “peplos”) to the olive-wood statue of Athena Polias, “protectress of the city.” (It is fascinating to consider that this festival to a virgin goddess falls so close to the Christian festival for the Assumption of the Virgin Mary on August 15, an important religious holiday observed all over Greece.) This theory of the frieze’s subject was first put forth only in 1787, by the travellers and artists James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, and they propose it tentatively of block E IV: “May we not suppose this folded cloth to represent the peplos?”
There are problems with this reading of the frieze: the frieze includes elements of the procession that are unknown to us from written accounts and does not include elements of the procession we would expect. Where is the ship on wheels that carried the new peplos on it like a gorgeous sail? Where are the armed hoplites? Why, instead, are there anachronistic chariots?
The depiction of ordinary citizens outside of a mythological program or quasi-legendary-historical one on a temple frieze would be highly unusual to say the least. (Might it even be arguably sacrilegious? Phidias, for instance, the sculptor who oversaw the Temple’s decoration, was accused of impiety, and imprisoned, for supposedly including portraits of Pericles and himself on the shield of the massive chryselephantine statue of Athena.) This received view of the frieze has been challenged by Joan Breton Connelly, who suggests in her brilliant and heterodox The Parthenon Enigma that it is, instead, like essentially all other temple friezes, mythological in nature, depicting the sacrifice by the legendary king Erechtheus of one of his three daughters. Another view, put forth by Chrysoula Kardara, holds that the frieze represents the first Panathenaic festival, safely set in the semi-mythological past.
It is worth noting that these Marbles taken from the Parthenon were fragmentary, not so much because of the “rude / Wasting of old time,” but the violent intervention of man. The Parthenon had stood virtually intact from its completion in 432 BC—aside from the destruction of the original roof of Parian marble (prized for its pure whiteness and semi-translucence) in a fire in the third or fourth century AD, perhaps when the Temple was attacked by the Germanic Heruli tribe, or by Visigoths (or even angry local Christians), and the removal and destruction of some sculptures, particularly from the eastern pediment, when it was converted into a Byzantine church around AD 600—for over 2,000 years.
That changed in a flash on the night of September 26 or the wee hours of the twenty-seventh in 1687, when a Venetian general, Francesco Morosini (c. 1619–1694), at war with the Ottoman Turks, fired on the Temple with his cannons from the Philopappos Hill opposite.[5] (Morosini, a flamboyant character, was always draped in red from head to toe and never went into battle without his beloved cat, Nini.) Morosini’s Swedish artillery commander, Count Koenigsmark, scored a direct hit, and as the Turks on the citadel were using the building as a powder magazine, it exploded, blowing out the center of the building, killing 300 people, mostly women and children sheltering there, and bringing down an avalanche of tons of marble columns and entablature. Adding insult to injury, Morosini then attempted to wrench statues from the damaged Temple, including the horses of Athena and Poseidon, to bring them back as spoils to Venice, like the bronze horses of Constantinople looted by Doge Enrico Dandalo in the Fourth Crusade; when the tackle slipped, they smashed to the ground.
A building that had stood for over two millennia, successively functioning as pagan temple, a Byzantine and then a Latin church, and a splendid mosque, was now reduced to a picturesque ruin.
As Poetical in Piccadilly. Haydon had wanted the government to acquire the Marbles and had hoped they would benefit British artists and the British public at large, forming the basis of a new school of art; Keats likely would have been of that view. But Keats would have been well aware that many saw their removal from the Parthenon as despoliation and a crime; this had played into the debates of the previous year, but also was a view vehemently expressed by Lord Byron in the second canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a wildly popular bestseller that Keats was certain to have digested. The first two Cantos came out in 1812 and went through ten editions in the next three years. Byron became a celebrity overnight: “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.”[6]
One of the things Byron cannot forgive Elgin for is being Scottish (Byron had Scottish connections) and, like Byron, a lord. Here Byron dismisses him as a “Pict”:


But most the modern Pict’s ignoble boast,100
To rive what Goth, and Turk, and Time hath spared:
Cold as the crags upon his native coast,
His mind as barren and his heart as hard,
Is he whose head conceived, whose hand prepared,
Aught to displace Athena’s poor remains:
Her sons, too weak the sacred shrine to guard,
Yet felt some portion of their mother’s pains,
And never knew, till then, the weight of Despot’s chains.


What! shall it e’er be said by British tongue,
Albion was happy in Athena’s tears?110
Though in thy name the slaves her bosom wrung,
Tell not the deed to blushing Europe’s ears;
The ocean queen, the free Britannia, bears
The last poor plunder from a bleeding land:
Yes, she, whose gen’rous aid her name endears,
Tore down those remnants with a harpy’s hand,
Which envious Eld forbore, and tyrants left to stand.


Cold is the heart, fair Greece! that looks on thee,
Nor feels as lovers o’er the dust they loved;
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed130
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatch’d thy shrinking Gods to northern climes abhorr’d!

Byron, who left England in 1816, never to return, would never see the Marbles in their British Museum setting; he was not, for that matter, much interested in antiquities the way many of his contemporaries were. (In English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, he dismisses the Marbles as “Phidian freaks”; elsewhere he remarks, pointedly, that he is “not a collector.”) But he does seem to have seen the collection in London, in the cold damp shed where Haydon first encountered them, at Elgin’s house at the corner of Park Lane and Piccadilly.
Having acquired the Marbles at great personal expense—or at any rate, at the expense of his now ex-wife’s considerable fortune—and although he listed them as of “no value” to hustle them through customs—Elgin now needed to demonstrate their aesthetic and financial worth to sell them at a good price to the government and extricate himself from debt.
Elgin hit upon linking the “unloved Parthenon statues to the wildly popular sport of boxing” and gained a little income by charging for admission.[7] In 1808, one scheme even involved having the English national champion, the six-foot-two prizefighter Bob Gregson, pose naked for two hours in attitudes similar to the sculptures’, so people could compare physiques. The implication was that a fit British body in fighting form was the natural modern expression of idealized Greek masculine beauty.
Consider for a moment the scene: men and women of society being able to admire—or ogle—a “ripped” and naked body at close quarters in a dim shed against a convenient backdrop of respectable cultural significance. Imagine, say, Jane Austen’s Captain Wentworth, still disappointed in “the year eight,” happening upon this spectacle, alongside Regency bucks like Rawdon Crawley. Or Anne Elliot for that matter. It’s a scene worthy of Bridgerton! Celebrities, including the renowned Shakespearean actress Mrs. Siddons, flocked to the Marbles in the shed; the actress, famously, was supposed to have been moved to tears in their presence.
Elgin followed up the success of this with other popular “happenings,” including actual boxing matches in the shed between some of the most famous boxers of the day. One show in July 1808 boasted three pairs of celebrity fighters, including John Gully, a popular prizefighter; John Jackson, who was not only the prizefighting champion of Britain, but Byron’s personal trainer; Jem Belcher, a bare-knuckle fighter who had been Champion of All England; and Dutch Sam, the “Man with the Iron Hand,” whose physique was considered especially symmetrical and Grecian.
Byron no doubt witnessed at least one of these events—Byron numbered many pugilists among his friends, not only his trainer John Jackson, but the heavyweight boxer Tom Cribb, who also participated in one of these bouts. He immortalizes the titillating sex-saturated atmosphere—part art opening, part underground rave, part nightclub—in his verse diatribe against Lord Elgin’s removal of the sculptures, The Curse of Minerva:

Be all the bruisers cull’d from all St. Giles’,
That art and nature may compare their styles; 80
While brawny brutes in stupid wonder stare,
And marvel at his lordship’s “stone shop” there.
Round the throng’d gate shall sauntering coxcombs creep,
To lounge and lucubrate, to prate and peep;
While many a languid maid, with longing sigh, 185
On giant statues casts the curious eye;
The room with transient glance appears to skim
Yet marks the mighty back and length of limb;
Mourns o’er the difference of now and then;
Exclaims, “These Greeks indeed were proper men!” 190
Draws slight comparisons of these with those,
And envies Laïs all her Attic beaux.
When shall a modern maid have swains like these!
Alas! Sir Harry is no Hercules!
And last of all, amidst the gaping crew, 195
Some calm spectator, as he takes his view,
In silent indignation mix’d with grief,
Admires the plunder, but abhors the thief.

Byron’s own notes to the poem explain the boxer’s marveling at the “stone shop” thus: “Poor [Tom] Cribb was sadly puzzled when the marbles were first exhibited at Elgin House; he asked if it was not ‘a stone shop?’—He was right; it is a shop.”
I think also that there can be little doubt that the “calm spectator” at the end of the satirical scene, where it is the audience rather than the Marbles that is so closely observed, is Byron himself, astounded into melancholy speechlessness, admiring the “plunder” and abhorring the “thief.”
The Curse of Minerva, perhaps rightly, is referred to as a “libellous poem,” not so much because Byron excoriates Elgin, but because not only does Byron bring up Elgin’s deteriorating nose, rumored to be from syphilis (“When Venus half avenged Minerva’s shame”)—if Byron’s Elgin resembles a villain from fiction, it might be Voldemort—but he also promulgates gossip about Lady Elgin’s adultery from the very public Elgin divorce of 1808, even suggesting that at least one of their five children was illegitimate:

Be all the sons as senseless as the sire:
If one with wit the parent brood disgrace,
Believe him bastard of a brighter race

Byron perhaps knew this to be a bridge too far, and, at the intercession of a friend of Elgin’s, did not officially publish the poem.
Yet the first fifty-odd lines of the poem contain one of the most beautiful descriptions in literature of the panoramic view at sunset from the rock of the Acropolis, with the accuracy of an eyewitness: the sweep from Mount Hymettus to the Saronic Gulf, and including details such as the minaret (“Her [the moon’s] emblem sparkles o’er the minaret”), which at that point projected from the Temple. In Byron’s time, the Parthenon contained a functioning mosque, as it had also been, earlier, an Orthodox and then a Roman Catholic church, complete with bell tower, dedicated to Our Lady of Athens—the Virgin of Athens—a title that the ancients would have found indistinguishable from Athena’s own. The minaret of course is long gone, but one of the secrets of the Parthenon is that the spiral staircase that went up to it still exists, as far as the architrave, climbing up to a ghostly muezzin in the sky. The part of the minaret that protruded from the architrave was demolished in 1832 under the new Ephorate (Superintendency) of Antiquities after Greece had won its independence.
This description of the Acropolis view, the best part of a poem that is mostly political harangue, Byron thought well enough of to repurpose wholesale for the beginning of the third Canto of his poem The Corsair. But The Curse of Minerva Byron circulated only privately in an edition of eight, though it was more widely pirated and distributed.
It appears that Byron was inspired to write The Curse of Minerva in part after reading a manuscript of John Galt’s mock-epic the Atheniad. Galt (1779–1839), a Scottish novelist and entrepreneur as well as one of Byron’s first biographers, became friends with Byron and John Cam Hobhouse (1786–1869) on their travels; they were all in Athens together. Galt writes in his autobiography, “the rape of the temples by Lord Elgin was at that time the theme of every English tongue that came to Athens.” His Atheniad ingeniously depicts the sinking of Elgin’s brig, the Mentor, as both a punishment to Elgin and an opportunity to reanimate the Neptune of the pediment. It also has Minerva avenging herself on Elgin directly by taking away not his nose, but his wits: she leaves him writing nonsense. (The Memoran­dum that Elgin will publish in 1810 is perhaps already making the rounds?)
Still, as with Byron’s Curse of Minerva, the poem has its “nose” imagery, certainly there to tweak Elgin’s own ruined structure. As they read Elgin’s writings

At home the sages, struck with sad surprise,
Gaze on the page with nostrils, mouth, and eyes—
With mouth apert [sic] and nostrils wide and round,
The senseless slaves of wonder still are found.

The poem seems to give Byron both the germ of the idea for The Curse of Minerva and its poetic form.
Horace Smith, a poet in Leigh Hunt’s circle, as well as stockbroker—he helped manage Percy Bysshe Shelley’s finances—got in on the action too, publishing with his brother James seven Spenserian stanzas on the subject, “The Parthenon. On the Dilapidation of the Temple of Minerva at Athens,” in their 1813 Horace in London. Like Galt’s and Byron’s poems, it was a curse, or a prophecy. Here, though, it is not Elgin’s nose (or his wits) that will suffer, but his sex life:

And Hymen shall thy nuptial hopes consume.—
Unless like fond Pygmalion thou canst wed
Statues thy hand could never give to bloom,
In wifeless wedlock shall thy life be led,
No marriage joys to bless thy solitary bed.

Still, as Freud says, “Comparisons between nose and penis are common.”
The Smith brothers predict that “Poets unborn shall sing thy impious fame.” Horace Smith’s own fame has sunk to nearly nothing: he is mostly remembered for competing in a sonnet with Shelley on the subject of a statue of Ozymandias; his effort, “On a Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below” did not win. (The contest may in fact have been partly inspired by the British Museum’s acquisition of the colossal head of Memnon the Younger.) But the Smith brothers were correct about Elgin’s notoriety with poets yet unborn.
Byron’s rage at Elgin is, as Galt’s and Smith’s, over the damage to the Temple in situ; he has little interest in the Marbles themselves (although, in one of his notes, Byron is among the first to object to calling them the “Elgin collection”—“I suppose we shall hear of the ‘Abershaw’ and ‘Jack Sheppard’ collection,” he quips, invoking the names of legendary highwaymen). But there is something melancholy in thinking of Byron seeing the Marbles in the damp and dirty shed on Park Lane before he sets foot in Greece the next year and first sees the ruined and picked-over Parthenon. Having viewed the Marbles in this decidedly squalid, if not lurid, situation seems to have haunted him, and he writes to his publisher John Murray from Ravenna in 1821:

There are a thousand rocks and capes, far more picturesque than those of the Acropolis and Cape Sunium in themselves; what are they to a thousand scenes in the wilder parts of Greece, of Asia Minor, Switzerland, or even of Cintra in Portugal, or to many scenes of Italy, and the Sierras of Spain? But it is the “Art,” the Columns, the temples, the wrecked vessel, which give them their antique and their modern poetry, and not the spots themselves. Without them, the spots of earth would be unnoticed and unknown; buried, like Babylon and Nineveh, in indistinct confusion, without poetry, as without existence: but to whatever spot of earth these ruins were transported, if they were capable of transportation, like the obelisk, and the sphinx, and the Memnon’s head, there they would still exist in the perfection of their beauty and in the pride of their poetry. I opposed, and will ever oppose, the robbery of ruins from Athens, to instruct the English in sculpture; (who are as capable of sculpture as the Egyptians are of skating); but why did I do so? The ruins are as poetical in Piccadilly as they were in the Parthenon; but the Parthenon and its rock are less so without them. Such is the poetry of art.

Imperishable Columns, Immortal Dinner. A few months before the meeting of the Select Committee, in January 1816, London had been celebrating a “National Day of Thanksgiving” for the victory over Napoleon at Waterloo. No one seems to have been more excited about this than William Wordsworth (1770–1850), who wrote a slew of celebratory sonnets and odes, including his Thanksgiving Ode, January 18, 1816. Throughout these poems, the Napoleonic Wars are mapped onto the Persian Wars of Ancient Greece. Napoleon is likened to an Eastern despot on the ancient Persian model and Britain to freedom-loving Athens, defending liberty at Marathon. The Parthenon erected under Pericles and ornamented by Phidias, we might remember, was the resplendent replacement of a humbler earlier Parthenon, burned to the ground by Xerxes.
This is most explicit in his Pindaric “Ode Composed in January, 1816,” where English painting and sculpture will match Athens’ famed painted stoa (among whose frescoes was one depicting the Battle of Marathon) and her crowning Temple, the Parthenon, in commemorating the defeat of an ambitious tyrant:

Victorious England! bid the silent Art
Reflect, in glowing hues that shall not fade,
Those high achievements; even as she arrayed
With second life the deed of Marathon
Upon Athenian walls;
So may she labour for thy civic halls:
And be the guardian spaces
Of consecrated places,
As nobly graced by Sculpture’s patient toil;
And let imperishable structures grow
Fixed in the depths of this courageous soil; . . .

“The imperishable structures” in the 1827 version of the poem were in the original the more explicitly military “imperishable trophies” but eventually became, by 1845, “imperishable Columns.” (Is it coincidence that around this time the façade of the British Museum, with its 44 massive columns—inspired by the 46 columns of the Parthenon—was being completed?) The Periclean Parthenon was a constant reminder to the Athenians of the Persian threat and ultimate defeat. Very soon, then, after Napoleon’s own defeat, Wordsworth begins the process whereby Britain models herself as the new Athens, the Parthenon and her sculptures therefore as much a reminder of Waterloo as Marathon or Salamis.
Byron and Shelley were both appalled by these bombastic poems as an abandonment of Wordsworth’s republican values and a glorification of war. (Byron’s nickname for Wordsworth was “Turdsworth.”) But Haydon would have been delighted, of course, being in complete accord about the connection of ancient and contemporary art. On December 28, 1817, Haydon hosted one of the most famous literary dinner parties of the nineteenth century, in his painting room. The guests included Charles Lamb, William Wordsworth, a doomed young explorer headed out to find the source of the Niger, named Joseph Ritchie (“and pray, who is the Gentleman we are going to lose?” Lamb apparently quipped, when told Ritchie was going to penetrate the African interior), and Haydon’s young friend, John Keats. Lamb, Wordsworth, and Keats all had “cameos” in Haydon’s large-scale painting, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem—with its oddly prosaic and middle-aged Christ and dominated in the center by a dark, strangely proportioned donkey—which was in progress and on display. (Mrs. Siddons, with whom Haydon was on friendly terms, would later declare that “The paleness of your Christ gives it a supernatural look.”)
The evening of poetry, amateur phrenology, and drunken hilarity became known as the “Immortal Dinner.”
In-valuable. “You have lost your labour, my Lord Elgin; your Marbles are overrated; they are not Greek, they are Roman of the time of Hadrian.”
This was the discouraging comment by the antiquarian and connoisseur Richard Payne Knight, with which Elgin was accosted almost immediately upon his arrival in England after he had been released from imprisonment by Napoleon in France.
This would have been bad news to Elgin, who, nearly £90,000 in debt (close to a staggering seven million pounds in today’s money), was desperate to sell his collection to the British government.
Among other obstacles to the sale, Byron’s accusations—and the accusations of other British travellers in their published writings—had to be addressed. The Memorandum set the tone for the conversation: among other things an exculpatory protestation of selfless motive. The prospect of Britain’s purchasing the Marbles had come up in 1815 but was mooted while Parliament dealt with the more pressing matter of Waterloo; it came up again in 1816. A Select Committee—the Committee Haydon was furious not to be invited to testify before—was formed to address four concerns and claims:

The First . . . relates to the Authority by which this Collection was acquired:
The Second to the circumstances under which that Authority was granted:
The Third to the Merit of the Marbles . . .
The Fourth to their Value as objects of sale . . .

The second two concerns are no longer at issue, but the first two, far from being “old hat,” continue to haunt all discussions.
The merit and the value—whether to buy them—and if so, for how much, putting a price on the “poetry of art”—were the subject of questions to many members of the Royal Academy of Arts. For Parliamentary Committee minutes, these make for surprising reading, like Platonic dialogues on the nature of art, value, and authenticity.
The Marbles were, from the beginning, truly invaluable—no one knew what kind of price to put on them, aside from Elgin’s expenses, which included bribes paid and interest and, for instance, £5,000 for sea salvage after the shipwreck of the Mentor in obtaining them.
For one thing, they were far from perfect, they were “maimed,” “mutilated,” “broken”—as Byron puts it, “Misshapen monuments and maim’d antiques” and “mutilated blocks of art.” (Elgin had originally looked into having them “restored” by the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova; he refused, however, to lay a finger on them.) It was pointed out in the proceedings of the Committee that, going by how much it had cost Elgin to get some misdirected French-extracted parts of the frieze out of customs, their value would be “no more than twenty-four or twenty-five pounds a piece.”
The questions put to the Artists and “Connoisseurs” reveal that the Marbles’ artistic value was also unclear: were they of the “first rank” of ancient Art, or not? Were they as good specimens in their way as the Vatican’s (second-century Roman copy) Apollo Belvedere or the elaborate (and restored) Laocoön? Were they of high antiquity (did they have “age value” as we might say now) or were some from the Roman era? Were they the work of Phidias, both executed and designed by him, or merely from an anonymous workshop? What had been paid for similar collections?
For the most part, the artists answered that they were of the first rank, better than the Apollo Belvedere and of high antiquity, but not everyone thought so.
Payne Knight, leading member of the Society of Dilettanti, arbiter of the “picturesque,” and expert on Priapic cults (as well as being Haydon’s nemesis), who had confronted Elgin on his arrival back in England, when queried by the Committee, replied that he thought they were a mixed bag, of second rank, certainly not Phidias’, and that some were potentially Roman. He valued them at a mere £25,000. “The value I have stated,” he added, “has been entirely upon that consideration of a school of art; they would not sell as furniture; they would produce nothing at all.” Perhaps Knight was aware that Elgin had origi­nally intended them to furnish his new house in Fife, Broomhall.
Few of the other art experts agreed with him, however. The Marbles were established as “first rank” and of the “highest antiquity,” vindicating Haydon’s assessment, and his vitriol.
Another Painter. For all that Haydon thought the Marbles would lead to a new school of art and improve the arts of Britain, they do not seem to have done much to improve his own painting. If Keats would achieve in his short life artistic immortality, an irrefutable position high on the slopes of Parnassus, Haydon would fail spectacularly.
At the age of 60, in a state of despair and debt, Haydon attempted to take his own life. First botching a gunshot to the head, which missed the brain, he finally succeeded by slitting his own throat and spattering the unfinished canvas of one of his unpopular historical paintings with his own blood in the process. Charles Dickens said of him, “he most unquestionably was a very bad painter” and, of his Nero painting, that it was “quite marvellous in its badness.” When he exhibited his historical painting, The Banishment of Aristides in the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, only 133 people visited his exhibit during Easter Week, compared to 12,000 people who paid to view “General Tom Thumb,” the three-foot-four-inch-tall American circus performer, during the same period at the same venue. Haydon is perhaps better known today for his engaging Autobiography; his true genius lay in writing.
A painter even more intimately bound up with the Marbles, the Italian Giovanni Battista Lusieri (1755–1821), was almost diametrically opposite in his view of paintings—his impulses were anti-Romantic; rather than painting from the imagination (as Haydon’s historical and mythological paintings did), he believed one should “faithfully imitate nature.” Byron reckoned him “an Italian painter of the first eminence.” A court painter for the king of the Two Sicilies, he specialized in landscapes and architectural studies—portraying, for instance, an erupting Vesuvius, but as a contemporary observation, not as, say, a backdrop for a history painting of the destruction of Pompeii. He might have continued making these exquisite paintings, but in 1799 he became the head of a set of artists Lord Elgin hired to make drawings and molds of ancient art and architecture in Greece. (Elgin’s first choice had been the young J. M. W. Turner, but, in a decision that might have radically changed the course of events, not to mention careers, Elgin decided Turner’s asking salary was too high.)

Giovanni Battista Lusieri (ca. 1755–1821), The South-east Corner of the Parthenon, Athens, 1803. Watercolor. Mary Hamilton Campbell, Lady Ruthven Bequest 1885. Photo credit: © National Galleries of Scotland/Art Resource, NY.

In the end, Lusieri would live in Athens the last twenty years of his life and was the agent who oversaw the physical removal of the sculptures from the Parthenon, as well as excavating and collecting antiquities from all over Attica. He was the cicerone every English traveller seems to have engaged for the Acropolis; he pops up in John Galt’s Atheniad as “Dontitos”:

Dontitos, chieftain of the cords and crew,
That from their frames the sacred sculptures drew.

Had he not spent two decades in Elgin’s employ, he might be remembered now not as the despoiler of the Parthenon, but as a minor master—his surviving paintings have a precision and delicacy and clarity of observation, a truth and beauty, that Haydon was not able to approach. One of his most exquisite paintings, now held by the National Galleries of Scotland, is the study of archaeological finds from a tomb supposed at the time to be Aspasia’s. It consists of a perfect bronze vessel nestled inside a broken marble vase: a Grecian urn.
“Characteristics . . . of an Intellectual European.” From the moment Haydon first glimpsed the Marbles in 1808, he was struck by the artists’ knowledge of anatomy, which seemed a revelation. Not everyone thought ancient Greek artists worked out of this knowledge: Anthony Carlisle, Anatomy Professor at the Royal Academy of Arts, denied it. This enraged Haydon. How could he then “teach a Science to Students that they may excel in the Art, at the same time inferring it’s of no use by telling them the Greeks, the greatest Artists, did excel without it!” But it wasn’t enough that the anatomy of the Marbles was correct, Haydon went further: the arch of the foot, the placement of the ankle, the set of the pelvis, the “low, full, and vigorous” calves of the legs; the anatomical proportions of the idealized Greek figure exhibited “characteristics . . . of an intellectual European.”
Almost from the get-go, the Marbles were pressed into the service of race theory. Their whiteness—both the literal whiteness of the Marbles (which had in ancient times been painted in bold colors) and their perceived racial “whiteness”—was at issue. In the summer of 1811, when the Marbles were still huddled in one of the dark, dank, and chilly sheds, the arrival of the brig Traveller at Liverpool caused something of a commotion; per the Times of London, “the brig Traveller, lately arrived at Liverpool from Sierra Leone . . . [is] perhaps the first vessel that ever reached Europe, entirely owned and navigated by Negroes.”
The captain, Paul Cuffee, a freeborn biracial American (his mother was Wampanoag and his father Ashanti), arrived with a crew of former slaves from Sierra Leone, where he was investigating the founding of a colony of American blacks who desired to emigrate to Africa. He had come to Liverpool, in the wake of the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, to meet with the directors of the African Institution. Leigh Hunt, in the pages of his Examiner, hailed this “feat” as evidence that the “inferior animal character” of the black race was a result of the condition of slavery, and that with abolition, someday Captain Paul Cuffee could be welcomed as “one of the forerunners of an equal race of beings.” Six weeks of debate ensued in the pages of the Examiner; among the interlocutors were Leigh Hunt and “An English Student,” who happened to be none other than Keats’s friend, the painter Benjamin Haydon.
Haydon took a hard line. Compared to the “intellectual European” proportions of the Marbles, in particular the arched foot, “In examining negroes, I soon perceived them to sink from these characteristics . . . and approach those of the brute.” The brute in question was a dead lioness Haydon had got his hands on, whose (four) “feet” were decidedly flat; he had been making studies and plaster casts of an African American sailor known only to us as Wilson. (It turns out making a plaster cast of a live human being is rather a different operation from making plaster molds of ancient statuary; as the plaster hardened and constricted around his chest, Wilson could no longer breathe, and he lost consciousness. Luckily, Haydon smashed the mold and extracted him before the unfortunate man died.)
The African’s foot fell, according to Haydon, somewhere on the spectrum from lion and monkey to the European perfection of the Marbles. Haydon concluded the exchange with the opinion that “I deny the negro that power of conquering his brutality . . . because I suspect . . . he is without the intellectual power.” (He would come to issue a retraction, but only thirty years later.)
Haydon was only a dabbler in race theory. Robert Knox (1791–1862), the infamous Scottish Anatomist—he was the model for The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—who lectured extensively about his theory of race (as laid out in his 1850 The Races of Men, subtitled, as it happens, “A Fragment”), was also obsessed with the Marbles, asserting “The superiority of the Elgin marbles to all others,” and going into extensive detail about their anatomic knowledge: “The left deltoid is sculptured so as beautifully to display the varying position of the head of the humerus,” etc.
Knox held some curious beliefs about the ancient Greeks; among them was that they had been a mix of native Pelasgic peoples improved by invasions of Saxons and Scandinavians. The people who now inhabited Greece had reverted to the “Asiatic type.” Among the modern Greeks, “The grand classic face has all but disappeared, and in its place comes out a people with a rounded profile; the nose large and running into the cheeks, like the Jew; the chin receding; the eyebrows arched. Anti-classic in all things, how Greece has fallen . . .” Where could one find the Classic type of face and physique one saw in the Marbles and other exempla of Greek art? Why, in England! “for the streets of London abound with persons having this identical facial angle; and it is in England and in other countries inhabited by the Saxon or Scandinavian race that women resembling the Niobe, and men the Hercules and Mars, are chiefly to be found.”[8]
One problem with studying anatomy in Britain in the early 1800s was that bodies to dissect legally were in short supply. Until the Anatomy Act of 1832, cadavers could only be lawfully acquired in the form of executed convicts, and as executions had sharply declined, there was a dearth of raw material. To supply this shortfall, “resurrection men” snatched corpses from recent graves, a business so profitable that certain resurrection men—the infamous William Burke and William Hare—decided to skip the middleman and hasten the inevitable for people living on the fringes of society. Knox was their client, as immortalized in the nursery rhyme:

Up the close and down the stair,
In the house with Burke and Hare,
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox the man who buys the beef.

Hare and Burke’s killing spree inevitably drew scrutiny when, in 1828, they murdered a beautiful 18-year-old woman (Mary Paterson) and deposited her body, almost still warm, with Robert Knox, who, far from being concerned and suspicious, was so pleased with the specimen he proceeded to preserve her in whisky. Artists flocked to draw her and medical students to study her. Her beautiful proportions, no doubt in combination with her deathly whiteness, predictably led to comparisons with the Marbles: “A model worthy of Phidias.”[9]
“The More Beautiful the Whiter It Is.” The insistence on the whiteness and purity of the Marbles—and indeed their “chasteness”—attended them from their debut into London society. Felicia Hemans is remembered now mostly for her schoolroom recitation chestnut, “Casabianca,” which begins “The boy stood on the burning deck” (itself mostly remembered because of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Casabianca,” which begins, “Love’s the boy stood on the burning deck”), set during the pivotal 1798 Battle of the Nile, when Horatio Nelson defeated the French fleet. In 1817, she published her long poem Modern Greece (originally titled Modern Greece and the Elgin Marbles) in 101 ten-line stanzas. The poem describes picturesque Greek settings and relates legends of modern Greece (such as the Dance of Zalongo, a mass suicide of women and children to avoid Ottoman enslavement), but its conclusion is that Elgin has rescued the Marbles, and it rehearses Haydon’s argument (and the one put forth by Elgin and the Committee) that bringing them to London will foster a new flowering of English artistic genius:

And who can tell how pure, how bright a flame,
Caught from these models, may illume the west?
What British Angelo may rise to fame,
On the free isle what beams of art may rest?
Deem not, O England! that by climes confined,
Genius and taste diffuse a partial ray;
Deem not th’ eternal energies of mind
Sway’d by that sun whose doom is but decay!
Shall thought be foster’d but by skies serene?
No! thou hast power to be what Athens e’er hath been.

Their flame is “pure” and “bright.” “Pure” and “chaste” occur many times in the poem, twice in tandem: “The pure intelligence, the chaste repose,” “Each pure chaste outline exquisitely flows.”

Marble statue from the West pediment of the Parthenon (West pediment N). © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The whole poem is perhaps an answer to Byron’s anti-Elgin stanzas in Childe Harold, her choice of the patriotic Prior stanza (a Spenserian stanza with an extra line), a way to differentiate herself from Byron’s stanza choice. Byron, who had approved of some of her earlier poetry, was not impressed. In September of 1817, he writes to his publisher, John Murray: “Modern Greece—good for nothing; written by some one who has never been there, and not being able to manage the Spenser stanza, has invented a thing of its own . . . Besides, why ‘modern’? You may say modern ‘Greeks,’ but surely ‘Greece’ itself is rather more ancient than ever it was.”
One of the things that made the Marbles and other Greek statues “chaste” was not just their purity of line, but the vacant eyes and white surface that lacked the flesh tones of human skin, which would have been troublingly erotic. The fact that the ancient Greeks had indeed painted their statues, including the Marbles, was beginning to dawn on the English—it is mentioned even in the Report of the Select Committee—but was met with cognitive resistance. As John Nicholas Fazakerley, a member of the Committee, observed regarding the marbles taken from the Aphaia Temple site on the Greek island of Aegina by Charles Robert Cockerell and Baron Otto Magnus von Stackelberg in 1811 and sold to the king of Bavaria:

And there was one particularity in them which has seldom been remarked in other monuments of antiquity, which was, that it goes to corroborate an idea that has been entertained, that the Ancients painted their statues, and employed gilding on parts of the face; in the eyes of some of them there are remains of painting and gilding, which much added to their value as matters of curiosity.

That the Parthenon Marbles had been just as garish beggared belief. Even by 1868, when their original coloring was considered fact rather than conjecture, overtly insisting on it could still stir up controversy. When popular Dutch-born artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912) displayed his painting, Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to His Friends, which portrays Phidias giving a sort of private art opening to Pericles and Aspasia of the then-new frieze, richly colored, including dark Mediterranean skin tones, it was criticized for its “bad archaeology” and “fairground colours.”
Critics were still evidently under the sway of the pioneering Hellenist and art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who theorized that the color white was superior for sculpture. As he wrote in his pioneering 1764 The History of Art of Antiquity:

As white is the colour which reflects the greatest number of rays of light, and consequently is the most easily perceived, a beautiful body will, accordingly, be the more beautiful the whiter it is.

[1] The northern, western, and eastern metopes were already badly damaged, probably by early Christians—the southern metopes were best preserved, perhaps because it was harder to get to them on the steep side of the rock. Elgin thus takes nearly half of the well-preserved metopes.
[2] So large it had to be sawn in two to get it through the gates of the citadel.
[3] On the advice of the French ambassador Guillaume Brune, who had got wind of the plan, which would have involved dismantling the western porch, the best preserved part of the building. William St. Clair, Who Saved the Parthenon?: A New History of the Acropolis Before, During and After the Greek Revolution (Cambridge, 2022)
[4] Pausanias, Description of Greece, trans. by W. H. S. Jones (London, 1918), Vol. 1, pp. 17–29.
[5] There is another theory, though, that the temple was destroyed by a mortar shell, fired not from Philoppapos Hill but closer to the temple, deliberately aimed to come down through the thin roof, rather than the thick walls—a piece of this shell may be displayed at Eton college:
[6] Thomas Moore, Esq, The Works of Lord Byron: With His Letters and Journals, and His Life (London, 1832–33), 17 volumes.
[7] Fiona Rose-Greenland, “The Parthenon Marbles and British national identity,”, October 25, 2013.
[8] Robert Knox, The Races of Men: A Fragment (Lebanon, 2015).
[9] Henry Lonsdale, A Sketch of the Life and Writings of Robert Knox, the Anatomist (London, 1870).