Frieze Frame: Part III

Eyewitnesses. As it happens, we know quite a bit more about Lusieri and the harvesting of the troublesome metope. We have accounts from several eyewitnesses that day, from their diaries, letters, and published accounts. The first account even becomes a footnote to Byron’s Childe Harold, a bit of evidence to support Byron’s poetic claim that the locals were dismayed, when he writes “Her sons, too weak the sacred shrine to guard, / Yet felt some portion of their mother’s pains.”
The note had been suggested to Byron by Cambridge professor Edward Daniel Clarke in a letter, after he first reads the poem:


When the last of the Metopes was taken from the Parthenon, and, in moving of it, great part of the superstructure with one of the triglyphs was thrown down by the workmen whom Lord Elgin employed, the Disdar, who beheld the mischief done to the building, took his pipe from his mouth, dropped a tear, and, in a supplicating tone of voice, said to Lusieri, Telos!—I was present.


The Disdar was the military official in charge of the fortified citadel—the Acropolis. “Telos” is the Greek for “end” or here, “enough” or even “stop!”—unchanged from the ancient Greek (ΤΕΛΟΣ), it would have been perfectly intelligible to Phidias or Pericles. Ultimately, though, as Clarke informs us, the Disdar, a poor man, is induced to allow further “dilapidation” in exchange for bribes.
Clarke’s longer published account in his own Travels in Various Countries of Europe, Asia, and Africa gives more detail but, with a slip of the passive voice, makes the smashed entablature sound almost like an accident:


Some workmen, employed under his direction for the British Ambassador, were then engaged in making preparation, by means of ropes and pulleys, for taking down the metopes, where the sculpture remained the most perfect. The Disdar himself came to view the work, but with evident marks of dissatisfaction; . . . We confessed that we participated [in] the Mahometan feeling in this instance, and would gladly see an order enforced to preserve rather than to destroy such a glorious edifice. After a short time spent in examining the several parts of the temple, one of the workmen came to inform Don Battista [Lusieri] that they were then going to lower one of the metopes. We saw this fine piece of sculpture raised from its station between the triglyphs: but the workmen endeavouring to give it a position adapted to the projected line of descent, a part of the adjoining masonry was loosened by the machinery; and down came the fine masses of Pentelican marble, scattering their white fragments with thundering noise among the ruins. The Disdar, seeing this, could no longer restrain his emotions; but actually took his pipe from his mouth, and, letting fall a tear, said in a most emphatical tone of voice, “Telos!” positively declaring that nothing should induce him to consent to any further dilapidation of the building.


Given Clarke’s letter to Byron and Lusieri’s own account, it is not an accident at all—the loosening has been on purpose, and the smashed masonry, collateral damage. This is even clearer in Edward Dodwell’s eyewitness account of the same event:


During my first tour to Greece I had the inexpressible mortification of being present when the Parthenon was despoiled of its finest sculpture, and when some of its architectural members were thrown to the ground. I saw several metopæ at the south-east extremity of the temple taken down. They were fixed in between the triglyphs as in a groove; and in order to lift them up, it was necessary to throw to the ground the magnificent cornice by which they were covered. The south-east angle of the pediment shared the same fate; and instead of the picturesque beauty and high preservation in which I first saw it, it is now comparatively reduced to a state of shattered desolation.


Robert Smirke, an architect and artist who made some accomplished sketches of the Parthenon, deeply moved by viewing the Greek Temples in person, was another eyewitness to the extraction of the metopes. In a letter he writes:


It particularly affected me when I saw the destruction made to get down the basso-relievos on the walls . . . men . . . labouring . . . with iron crows to move the stones of these firm-built walls. Each stone as it fell shook the ground with its ponderous weight with a deep hollow noise; it seemed like a convulsive groan of the injured spirit of the Temple.


Among his designs and buildings would be the Temporary Elgin Room, in which Keats would first view the sculptures, and, in 1823, with the Greek revolution well underway, the massive Neoclassical façade of the British Museum on Great Russell Street, with its 44 Ionic columns, approximating the 46 Doric columns of the Parthenon. (Smirke was a pioneer in the use of concrete foundations.) The Museum’s pediment is tricked out with allegorical sculptures inspired by the Marbles by Richard Westmacott (professor of sculpture at the Royal Academy and a pupil of Canova, he had also testified for the Select Committee), that symbolize the progress of civilization. At the apex stands a Classical female figure holding a globe and a spear. Representing a world-conquering view of civilization and science, her purview overlaps neatly with Athena’s own: wisdom, warcraft and technology. Smirke, in short, witnessed both the dismantling of one Temple and the construction of the new, secular temple out of the intellectual spolia of the first.
It seems ironic that these troublesome metopes portray the barbarous centaurs, drunk on wine, seizing and carrying off the women of the Lapiths at a wedding: rape is one of the frequent metaphors used by Elgin’s detractors for his exploits. In the catalogue of items Elgin wants to sell to the British government, Lusieri’s barbarously acquired metope is listed thus:


4. A Centaur is carrying off a Woman


Marble metopes from the Parthenon from south side of temple. © The Trustees of the British Museum.


Carrots and Sticks. The “inducements” that Clarke and Philip Hunt himself suggest were used in persuading the Disdar and Voivode and the British consul included both carrots and sticks.
Some such gifts sent along by Elgin to his agent Lusieri in 1802 incuded:


Three silver telescopes.
Three telescopes in yellow mounting.
One with a foot to rest on a table.
A green narghile [hookah] with a yellow foot,
and also with a foot of green crystal, which are exchanged.
One ditto, white—with a yellow foot,
and also one of white crystal.
A small green ditto.
A gold watch.
A compass.
Two crystal bottles, to hold ice and cool the water.
Two crystal covered glasses.
Four yellow cups etc. porcelain.
Three covered cups.
Two covered Wedgwood cups.
Three little pieces of Wedgwood, together forming an inkstand.
A box of instruments with one handle which serves for all the pieces.
A gun, that you must have cleaned.


But Hunt began his stay in Athens wielding a “stick”—the firman that was to permit the travellers’ unmolested access to the citadel for the purposes of sketching, measuring, and molding. When he discovered the Disdar was charging Elgin’s artists and other visitors a steep 5 guineas a day (about eighty-five pounds in today’s money) to have access to the rock, he was furious.
Philip Hunt writes to Lord Elgin, July 23, 1801, immediately upon his first arrival in Athens:


. . . When the Vaivode had read the letters, and perceived the determined tone with which we spoke, he became submissive in the extremest degree, and assured us he was highly mortified to find that the Disdar had presumed to treat any Englishman with disrespect, or demand money on any pretext. On wishing to see the Disdar’s Son, difficulties were started about his being absent; but on declaring my resolution to know really where the blame attached, the poor miscreant came in bare-footed and trembling; attempted to deny the fact complained of by Mr. Dodwell’s party [the complaint was exorbitant fees for artists’ access to the Acropolis and disrespectful behavior by the soldiers]; but on my repeating what had happened both to Mr. Nesbitt and myself, the Vaivode and Mou Basheer [an Ottoman enforcement official] told him he was exiled; I then interceded for him on promise of his future good conduct, and he was pardoned. The Mou Basheer however hinted to him that as he was young and strong he might find employment in the Gallies of the Sultan on a second complaint.[24]


The threat of enslavement of the ailing Disdar’s son seems to have done the trick. The first metope, allegedly already loose and in danger of falling to its destruction, is removed from the Parthenon, with the help of a British ship carpenter and five of the crew, on July 31, eight days later.
Regretted by All. Curiously, the Select Committee was also intent on discovering the attitude of the locals, and especially the local Greeks—were they disturbed by the removal of the Marbles? Did they care? This seems to expand the concern beyond mere legality, instead tentatively dipping a toe into moral waters, and it perhaps reflects on Byron’s own take, that the Greeks “felt some portion of their mother’s pains.”
Byron backs up what seems mere rhetorical flourish with not one but two anecdotes in his prose notes: one was the famous eyewitness story of Edward Daniel Clarke. The other comes out in an aside:


At this moment (January 3, 1810), besides what has been already deposited in London, an Hydriot vessel is in the Pyræus to receive every portable relic. Thus, as I heard a young Greek observe, in common with many of his countrymen—for, lost as they are, they yet feel on this occasion—thus may Lord Elgin boast of having ruined Athens.


Readers of Cavafy may have a strange sensation reading this passage, about a young Greek’s feelings as a vessel is going to be loaded with Greek “plunder” to be shipped to an imperial power—the mirroring points of coincidences with Cavafy’s “On an Italian Shore” are many, if it is set, rather, after the destruction and looting of Corinth in 146 BC (plundered by the Romans under Lucius Mummius of its sculpture, to furnish their own stately homes).
Cavafy explores the melancholy feelings of an idle pleasure-loving “Italiote” Greek youth in Magna Graecia watching Greek plunder being unloaded on the other side. From James Merrill’s pitch-perfect translation:


Today, however, whollycontrary to his nature,
he’s lost in thought, dejectedthere on the shore he sees
with bitter melancholyship upon ship that slowly
disgorges crates of bootyfrom the Peloponnese
Greek booty Spoils of Corinth.


It is tempting to wonder whether Cavafy had not read Byron’s anecdote and mulled over it, recasting it in a more distant historical context; many of his poems are inspired by such footnotes to history. Byron’s poetical works, as well as his letters (in English), were among the books in his personal library.
In one of the many ironic coincidences that attend the history of the Marbles, Byron will in fact be aboard the same vessel, the Hydra, as Elgin’s last collection of Marbles as it shipped out of Greece in 1811, along with Lusieri, and a teenager, Nicolo Giraud—a relation of Lusieri’s, perhaps his wife’s brother—with whom Byron had an intimate, probably sexual, relationship.
The answers about local reaction given to the Committee by persons who were on the ground in Athens around the time of Elgin’s project vary. Philip Hunt, Elgin’s henchman and the initiator of the Marbles’ removal, responds when asked whether there was “any discontent or sensation among the people of Athens,” “I had no personal knowledge that it did.”
In fact, Hunt himself records in a letter in July 1801, as the removals commenced, that the British consul in Athens, Spyridon Logothetes, was distinctly uneasy:


I found our consul extremely timid . . . As Archon of Athens, perhaps, he did not enter con amore into the idea of taking the sculptures from the Parthenon; and ventured to hint that the Voivode [the Ottoman governor of Athens] durst not extend the Firman to such a point.


For that matter, Hunt was in possession of a letter from January 1803, from Ioannes Benizelos (1735–1807), author of a History of Athens and a high-ranking member of Athenian society, regretting the Marbles’ removal. He writes to Hunt (in old-fashioned Greek) of “the last deplorable stripping of the Temple of Athena on the Acropolis . . . The temple is like a noble and wealthy lady who has lost all her diamonds and jewellery. Oh, how we Athenians must take this event to heart . . .” It is perhaps the first evidence in Greek of Greek uneasiness with the operation.
At the Committee, William Hamilton, who had been in Athens during some of the removals, replies to the question, “No unpleasant sensation whatever; they seemed rather to feel it as a means of bringing foreigners into the country, and of having money spent amongst them.” Once the Parthenon removals had ended, Lusieri, it should be pointed out, was still paying wages to dozens of local workmen for various archaeological excavations about Attica up until 1813.
John Bacon Sawrey Morritt, who had been in Athens in 1795, shortly before the operations, responded, “They were decidedly and strongly desirous that they should not be removed.” Morritt would be in a position to know, for he had tried to detach and carry off Marbles from the Parthenon himself to his hall in Yorkshire, Rokeby; his redecoration plan was thwarted by the authorities. As he wrote in a letter from Athens at the time, “you are in a perfect gallery of marbles in these lands. Some we steal, some we buy, and our court is much adorned with them.” He adds, huffily, of his foiled plans for some metopes from the Parthenon: “Scruples of conscience had arisen in the mind of the old scoundrel [the Disdar] at the citadel.”[25]
Of course, public opinion could shift in such a period, but the idea that the removal of the Marbles created no “sensation” among locals and residents is belied by several eyewitness accounts from the period of their removals in 1801 to 1803, and even some years after, from 1809 to 1810, the period when Byron first visited Athens. As John 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.” This, of course, regards only the English visitors. Hobhouse (in Athens at the same period, travelling with Byron), though decidedly pro-Elgin—and an avid collector of ancient marble statues himself— agrees and expands this to include both Frankish (i.e., Western European) and Greek locals:


It was, however, during our stay [1809] in the place, to be lamented, that a war more than civil, was raging on the subject of my Lord Elgin’s pursuits in Greece, and had enlisted all the Frank settlers and the principal Greeks on one or the other side of the controversy.


Shortly thereafter, describing a tour of the Acropolis, he writes that he notices places in the marble that turn out to be “marks of the separation.” Mr. Lusieri “showed the places in the pediment whence the two female colossal statues, the Neptune, the Theseus, and the inimitable horse’s head, still remembered and regretted by all at Athens, had been removed.”


Turks and Greeks. The Memorandum advertises that Elgin, who had never been to Athens when he requested the firman—and whose total stay in Athens amounted to 59 days—was concerned about the danger posed to the Marbles by the Turks. “Besides, it is well known,” asserts the author of the Memorandum, “that the Turks will frequently climb up the ruined walls, and amuse themselves in defacing any sculpture they can reach; or in breaking columns, statues, or other remains of antiquity, in the fond expectation of finding within them some hidden treasures.” Other accusations against the Turks include grinding down broken marbles for mortar and firing at the tympanum for sport.
Eyewitness accounts of English travellers (Clarke and Dodwell respectively) from the time of the Marbles’ removal insist, however, that the Turks regarded the building with reverence. In Clarke’s words:


Lusieri told us that it was with great difficulty he could accomplish this part of his undertaking, from the attachment the Turks entertained towards a building which they had been accustomed to regard with religious veneration, and had converted into a mosque.


Edward Dodwell, a young painter from a wealthy Irish family, writes in his Classical and Topographical Tour through Greece, after admitting that the Turks were indifferent to or would make use of marbles fallen from the building, adds that:


But the metopæ of the Parthenon were out of their [the Turks’] reach; and I never heard an instance of their firing at them, which it is said they did as an amusement. On the contrary, the Parthenon is regarded with respect not only by the Greeks but by the Turks; for it was dedicated to Saint George,[26] when it became a Christian church; and was converted into a mosque when Athens fell under the Turkish dominion.


Earlier, he wrote:


nor have I any hesitation in declaring, that the Athenians in general, nay, even the Turks themselves, did lament the ruin that was committed; and loudly and openly blamed their sovereign for the permission he had granted! I was on the spot at the time, and had an opportunity of observing, and indeed of participating, in the sentiment of indignation which such conduct universally inspired. The whole proceeding was so unpopular in Athens, that it was necessary to pay the labourers more than their usual profits before any could be prevailed upon to assist in this work of profanation.


Both Dodwell and Clarke, for all that they deplored the dismantling of the Parthenon and its subsequent forlorn spectacle, were themselves avid collectors of antiquities and had no compunction about acquiring separated or freestanding statuary. When Byron says, “I am not a collector,” we must understand him to be an unusual British traveller indeed! Elgin’s crime was perhaps, to Dodwell and Clarke, a matter of degree rather than kind, and of maiming a well-known monument, depriving future tourists of the pleasure of viewing and sketching it intact.
Clarke, for instance, had managed, with the help of Lusieri and bribes, to obtain permission to remove a statue of Demeter (now thought by archaeologists perhaps to represent a priestess of her cult) from Eleusis. This was, then, both “legal” and also morally repugnant. The locals honored it in the name of “Saint Demetra”: a saint otherwise unattested in Greek Orthodoxy. Arguably, this object has been “venerated over a longer continuous period than any other from the ancient world.”[27]
As “Eleusinian” Clarke, a Cambridge mineralogist, himself says of the caryatid, “the inhabitants of the village still regard [it] with a very high degree of veneration. They attributed to its presence the fertility of their land; and it was for this reason that they heaped around it the manure intended for their fields.”


I found the goddess in a dunghill buried to her ears. The Eleusinian peasants, at the very mention of moving it, regarded me as one who would bring the moon from her orbit. What would become of their corn, they said, if the old lady with her basket was removed? I went to Athens, and made application to the Pacha, aiding my request by letting an English telescope glide between his fingers. The business was done.


This statue fragment comes up again and again in the accounts of travellers: Cornelio Magni mentions it in his travelogue of 1674—showing that even then it was thought worth a visit—and observes with wonder that sailors from Provence were wont to visit it and hail it as a fellow countrywoman.[28]
Clarke wanted it principally because others had failed to get it. He perhaps should not have been surprised when it was shipwrecked off Beachy Head (and had to be salvaged at great expense); the superstitious locals had predicted as much.
The colossal (Clarke estimated it weighed two tons) yet faceless statue fragment, torn from the fields, now sits, little remarked on by visitors, in a high alcove of the Greek and Roman Gallery at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.
As Lusieri had put it in a letter to Elgin, “This fragment which is very much injured is more interesting to antiquaries than to artists.”


A Light-Filled Mosque. The Parthenon had been converted from a Roman Catholic church into a mosque in the 1460s, after Athens, until recently a Florentine duchy, was secured by Turahanoglu Ömer Bey for the Ottoman Empire. According to the Greek historian Michael Critobulus, when Mehmed the Conqueror, a “wise man and Philhellenist and great king,” entered the city, he admired the Acropolis and the Parthenon, and praised Athens as the “city of the philosophers.”[29]
While I am ignorant of any firsthand Turkish assessments of the Parthenon from the early nineteenth century, we do have an eyewitness account of an Ottoman traveller in Greece around 1667–1669, when the building was still intact.
Evliya Çelebi, courtier, musician, explorer, travel writer, exclaimed of the “light-filled mosque” that there was “not such a resplendent mosque anywhere else on earth; because no matter how many times you enter it, you will always discover some new example of artistry and workmanship.” Of the dizzying array of sculptures, he wrote, “The human mind cannot indeed comprehend these images—they are white magic, beyond human capacity. One with the intellect of Aristotle would be dumbfounded at the sight of these statues and proclaim them a miracle, because to a discerning eye they seem to be alive.” He concludes with a prayer that the Parthenon “remain firm on its foundations until the end of time. Amen, O Helper of men!”[30]


Turks, Travellers, and Time. Only a handful of years after Çelebi’s visit, in 1674, we have an Italian account of what the still-intact monument looked like by Cornelio Magni, who was travelling with the French Ambassador to the Sublime Porte, the Marquis de Nointel. (The same party included the artist Jacques Carrey, whose detailed drawings of the Parthenon are among the only evidence we have for some elements, since destroyed.) Magni’s account describes the pediments—the Western pediment:


Above all these stands out the great simulacrum of a Jove with a ruined right hand, very broad legs, a sign that here must have been situated his Eagle. . . . In the middle of the Chariot, or Biga, Minerva sits majestically in a triumphant pose, followed by figures, some half-naked and some clothed, which form a jubilant procession.


Of the program of metopes depicting the war of the Lapiths and the centaurs (Magni confuses this somewhat, thinking instead this depicts the battle of Theseus with the centaur—as opposed to the Minotaur—in the Labyrinth), he remarks, “Many of these figures are whole, and others lack heads, arms, hands, legs and feet: but all those that remain are endowed with the art of miracle.” He lays the blame equally among time, Turks, and travellers for the damage some have suffered: “True it is that, from the devouring power of time, and the instability of Govern­ments, and the blind superstition of the Turks, and the indiscreet curiosity of Foreigners, these great works are left so lacerated that . . . they bring tears to the eyes of those who, enchanted by such excellent manufactures, have a great veneration for their perfection and antiquity.”
The frieze on the walls of the cella (the Temple’s inner chamber) seemed, however, to be considerably more intact:


Between the interior order and the exterior of the Colonnades there rises a great wall of white marble well connected . . . encrusted by a frieze of bas-reliefs, on which one can see many Sacrifices, with an infinity of tiny figures, in very low relief but of perfect workmanship: these have been spared the injuries of the others . . . so that they remain more entire than the former.


This Italian account was only published in 1688, however, a year after Morosini’s “lucky shot” had reduced the Parthenon to ruin, scarcely 20 years after Evliya Çelebi had prayed for its foundation to stay firm forever.


“Detached Heads.” The knocking off of heads is a theme of the history of the Marbles. The catalogue of objects Elgin offered for sale contained a whole subsection of “Detached Heads,” with 13 items, beginning with: “Portrait, larger than nature, with long beard and deeply cut eyes, a diadem round the hair; perhaps Sophocles.”
But the fate of a particular Marble head—the supposed head of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, mentioned in Pausanias—became a minor theme of the Committee proceedings. It was the focus of two questions—the alleged callous treatment of the Marbles by the Turkish authorities and the high antiquity of the Marbles.
It is first introduced in the testimony of Elgin’s private secretary, William Hamilton, who tosses off this anecdote at second hand: “I understood that one of the heads of the figures that are still left, was broken off by a Turk, and dashed in pieces on the marble pavement.”
In one of those curious coincidences that cluster around the Marbles, Hamilton also happens to be the man who took possession of the Rosetta stone in Egypt in 1801, as part of the Treaty of Alexandria with the defeated French. We think of the stone as displaying three scripts and two languages: Egyptian hieroglyphics, Demotic Egyptian, and ancient Greek. But in fact there is a fourth script and third language (and second monarch) inscribed on it. Along the left- and right-hand edges of the stone, scarcely legible painted Latin characters announce in English: “Captured in Egypt by the British Army 1801” and “Presented by King George III.”
Lord Aberdeen, an avid antiquities collector (he appears to have attempted to acquire the frieze in Athens himself), was asked, “Was the head upon the second figure?” when he was there in 1803:


It was when I arrived at Athens, and was destroyed while I was there; I believe in the hope of selling it to some traveller, it had been knocked off, and falling on the pavement, was broken to pieces.


We have another account of this event altogether from Dodwell, who relates this in his A Classical and Topographical Tour through Greece, published in 1819, a few years after the Committee proceedings:


The head of the male figure in the western tympanon, which is said to have been knocked off by a Turk, is in my possession. I received it four years afterwards from a soldier of the garrison, who assured me that it was detached by a sailor, who was however neither a Greek nor a Turk; and the same thing was told me by the British agent, who was present at the time it was broken off.


Here we meet Dodwell the collector.
What a strange thought that this “head of Hadrian” is not smashed at all when the Committee is meeting, but is in someone else’s hands. The Committee admits this much in its own report: “The head of the emperor Hadrian still exists,” the report admits, confirming Dodwell’s own account and going some way to refute the charges of cavalier destruction by the Turks.
The head has since been lost. Presumably it still exists some­where, perhaps among the random heads that languish in the storerooms of the museums.
Or perhaps it is to be found, heavy and unputdownable, in George Seferis’ poem Mythistorema:


I woke with this marble head in my hands.


Interlude: Washed Away. Lusieri, alone of all the travellers connected to Elgin, stayed on in Athens and eventually died there. He built himself a house on the northeastern side of the Acropolis, on what is now Stratonos Street in the neighborhood now known as Anaphiotika. (In fact, his was one of the houses torn down to make housing for the workmen from Anafi who had migrated to Athens to construct King Othon’s palaces.) We know its precise location, though, because it is marked on a map of Athens made in 1820, shortly before the Greek Revolution broke out, attributed to Kyriakos Pittakis, who would become Greece’s first Ephor of Antiquities.
Lusieri continued to excavate and dig up treasures for Elgin throughout the Attica region, keeping meticulous financial records of payments to workmen and landowners, but alas for archaeologists, few records of which things were found where. In 1807, however, when he had to flee Athens for a period of two years, the numerous treasures in his house were confiscated by the Voivode of Athens, and much of the collection sent to Ali Pasha. (Byron readers will remember Ali Pasha, the Lion of Ioannina, from the colorful description of his court in Childe Harold. He is also memorialized in a 15,000-line poem in the Greek vernacular, the Alipashiad, composed by his court poet, Haxhi Shehreti, an Albanian Muslim.)
Ali Pasha, in turn, bestowed some 120 of the Greek vases on Napoleon.[31]
We know the details of Lusieri’s death, in 1821, just as the Greek Revolution was breaking out, second hand from the English poet and unfailingly generous poetic patron, Richard Monckton Milnes. Milnes, a persistent albeit failed suitor of Florence Nightingale and author both of such literary volumes as the Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats and erotica such as the pornographic Rodiad, on the pleasures of flagellation, writes about Lusieri’s death in a footnote to his 1834 Memorials of a Tour in Some Parts of Greece: Chiefly Poetical. He gives this account—perhaps apocryphal—as an example of the continued anger of the local population regarding Elgin’s actions:


Signor Lusieri, the active agent in this business [the removal of the Marbles], died by the breaking of a blood-vessel. The feeling of the people ran so high against him, that he thought it necessary to barricade his house at night, particularly as he lived quite alone. The day of his death, the neighbourhood, surprised at his non-appearance, forced the door, and found him extended on the floor, his blood about him, and a huge black cat seated on his breast, which the people to this day believe to have been the avenging spirit, the punisher of his crimes, or else the form assumed by his own black soul; according to this latter notion, the animal was instantly killed.


(This beast met a very different fate from Morosini’s beloved cat, Nini. After its death, Morosini affectionately had Nini embalmed, along with a mouse between its paws, to carry on its favorite pastime in the afterlife. Nini and his or her mouse are still on display at the Museum of Natural History in Venice.)
Lusieri had been a successful painter when he met Elgin and, at 45, already in his prime. He would later muse that, had he not begun working for Elgin, he might have achieved fame as a major artist.
Lusieri’s bad luck dogged him even after his death: most of his Greek watercolors sank to the bottom of the sea—half a life’s work washed away—in 1828 with the HMS Cambrian, a ship that had seen action at the pivotal Battle of Navarino. His gravestone of Pentelic marble can be found in the garden of St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Athens, on the Street of the Philhellenes, where it weathers, with its almost illegible Latin inscription, eroding to anonymity, propped in a corner.


Mercouri. In 1981, the actress and singer Melina Mercouri (1920–1994), perhaps best known in the English-speaking world for her starring role in her husband Jules Dassin’s film Never on Sunday (ironically, perhaps, a story about the corrupt decadence of modern Greece viewed from the standpoint of an anglophone philhellene), became, under the PASOK government, Greece’s first female culture minister; she would also become its longest serving, surviving all of Andreas Papandreou’s many cabinet reshuffles.
On July 29, 1982, she kicked off her campaign on the world stage for the return of the Marbles, addressing the International Conference on Cultural Policies, organized by UNESCO in Mexico. Her moving speech checked such boxes as Elgin’s idealism-cum-condescension, patriotic fable, Byron’s friend Hobhouse, and the great Greek poet of the Left, Yiannis Ritsos. (“These stones cannot make do with less sky.”)
The Greeks loved her for this campaign and activism, quite apart from her acting; the Acropolis Metro Station is decorated with a famous photograph of her holding a summer bouquet, standing below the Parthenon on the Acropolis, so that she seems of a piece with one of the sturdy corner columns. In her fawn-colored trench coat, the same pale tawny color as the Pentelic marbles, with her weathered statuesque beauty, she could be a Caryatid on holiday, letting the wind run through her faded blonde hair and clutching the fresh flowers of the eternally recurring Greek spring.
The entrance of the Acropolis Metro Station, one of the newer ones—the original line of the Athens Metro was begun roughly the same time as the London Tube—boasts casts of the pedimental statues, while in the ticket hall there is a hugely enlarged copy of a watercolor from 1836 by Bavarian engineer Wilhelm von Weiler which shows the old Makriyannis Military Hospital (one of Athens’ first Neoclassical buildings, and which he himself had designed), with the Acropolis and Parthenon in the background—you can see the Frankish tower and just make out the little mosque. In the middle ground, soldiers in fezzes are helping a wounded veteran (complete with turban and fustanella) of the recent War of Independence, and in the foreground, staffage in the form of a charmingly exotic group of women in native dress and camels. (The Acropolis Museum stands next to the Military Hospital, the Weiler Building, which now serves as administrative offices.) Along the corridor of the train platform runs a copy of the northern and the western frieze, containing blocks from both the British and Acropolis Museums. I have spent more time meditating on the frieze in that station as I wait for a train than in any book or museum. I have a favorite block, W XII, the one where a horse is scratching its muzzle on its near fetlock. This block, as it happens, resides not in London, but in Athens; it is one Keats never saw.
In Mercouri’s later speech at the Oxford Union, similar to the UNESCO one, she makes her case for their return, relating two anecdotes; one concerning the Parthenon during the Greek War of Independence, and one an anecdote from Byron’s travelling companion John Cam Hobhouse.
During the War of Independence, she relates, “The Turkish soldiers besieged on the Acropolis ran short of ammunition. They began to attack the great columns to extract lead to make bullets. The Greeks sent them ammunition with the message: ‘Here are bullets, don’t touch the columns.’”
This is the sort of patriotic fable that is easy enough to dismiss as just that, and historians have tended to doubt its veracity from the get-go; the first version of this story appears only some 40 years after the alleged events.
But Hobhouse is an unlikely ally to invoke for the return or reuniting of the Marbles, as, even though a friend of Byron and staunch supporter of Greek independence, he was also sympathetic to Elgin’s cause and one of Elgin’s earliest apologists.
In Hobhouse’s two-volume memoir, A Journey Through Albania, and Other Provinces of Turkey in Europe and Asia, to Constantinople, During the Years 1809 and 1810 (1813), he vigorously defends Elgin, and the British, from the charges of unscrupulous acquisition of the Marbles in a ten-paragraph note. Hobhouse adds, however, “Yet I cannot forbear mentioning a singular speech of a learned Greek of Ioannina, who said to me, ‘You English are carrying off the works of the Greeks our forefathers—preserve them well—we Greeks will come and re-demand them.’” Hobhouse’s account is nearly contemporary with events, and he not only has no reason to lie, he has many reasons to omit it.
It is of course this anecdote that Mercouri uses in her UNESCO Parthe­non speech, fulfilling in effect the old man’s prophecy. But she adds a coloring phrase, the learned Greek of Ioannina had made this remark “in a voice trembling with bitterness.”
Interestingly, if one goes searching for the Ritsos quotation from the UNESCO speech, one will not find this exact line in his poems at all. Instead, she seems to be misremembering and conflating the first two lines of his important poem “Romiosini” (a difficult to translate word meaning in effect “Greekness,” but a Greekness of a distinctly non-Western cast):


These trees cannot make do with less sky.
These stones cannot make do under foreign footsteps.


Or in the 1972 translation by N. C. Germanacos:


these stones are not content beneath an alien heel.


“Memorably to Camera.” Mercouri’s campaign for the Marbles’ return (now many prefer to talk about “reuniting” rather than “returning” them) tends somehow to embarrass English speakers; media accounts characterize her as “feisty” and “emotive.” Professor Mary Beard (a current British Museum Trustee) describes Mercouri’s 1983 visit to the British Museum as weeping “memorably to camera” and equates this with the celebrated tragedienne Mrs. Siddons “predictably (and histrionically)” weeping on viewing the Marbles when they first arrived in England.
I would add, however, that although it is fair to assume that the celebrated and formidable Mrs. Siddons did visit the Marbles, which were the talk of the town, the suggestion that she wept doing so (much less “predictably” or “histrionically”) stems as far as I know only from a description in Elgin’s own propagandistic, hyperbolic, and ghost-written Memorandum, as a sort of testimonial:


It may be added, on the subject of these impressions and opinions, that one of the groups of female statues so rivetted and agitated the feelings of Mrs. Siddons, the pride of theatrical representation, as actually to draw tears from her eyes.


This is the only source I can track down, and all others, including A. H. Smith’s important “Lord Elgin and His Collection,”[32] point back to this quotation in the Memorandum. People do of course sometimes weep when encountering art, and we have many accounts of people feeling overwhelmed—Keats’s poetic swoon, for instance—in the presence of the Marbles; it seems eminently plausible. But what interests me is that with each iteration this anecdotal encounter becomes stagier and more dramatic; as of this writing, Sarah Siddons’ Wikipedia page casually asserts that the actress was most famous for playing Lady Macbeth—(Haydon describes attending one of her private readings from the play)—and for “fainting at the sight of the Elgin marbles in London.” The footnote leads back to Hunt and Smith.
One can track down some brief footage of Mercouri from a BBC documentary, touching a horse of the frieze, with a tear glittering in her eye. As the Chicago Tribune describes it: “Mercouri also paid a dramatic visit to the British Museum and—in the best theatrical tradition—stroked a horse on the frieze with tears in her eyes and told reporters jostling around her the marbles were in ‘beautiful exile’ in London.”[33] But then what I find are increasingly outlandish scenarios, such as archaeologist (and staunch Marbles “remainer”) Dorothy King’s anecdote from 2004:


In 1981, the Greek actress Melina Mercouri decided she wanted to enter politics. She was advised to find a national cause to champion, so she turned up at the British Museum, camera crew in tow, and demanded that the Elgin Marbles be returned to Greece. . . .
Mercouri, ever the diva, threw herself on her knees in a gallery at the museum and kissed the floor, proclaiming her love of the Parthenon. A curator, ever the English gentleman, helped her up, whispering: “These are beautiful sculptures, Mrs. Mercouri, but the Elgin Marbles are in the next room.”


This is a story that is “too good to check” (in the parlance of journalists) but absurd and easy to disprove. Mercouri knew the Duveen Gallery well; she had filmed a vital scene from the 1962 film Phaedra, directed by her future husband Jules Dassin, in the Duveen Gallery. In it she can be seen to gaze at Anthony Perkins (the Hippolytus to her Phaedra) against the backdrop of the Dionysus/Theseus god; her eyes brim with something inscrutable: melancholy, wariness, submerged desire. The Duveen Gallery serves here, as in Victorian literature, as a conveniently anonymous place for a public-meeting-cum-private-assignation, with the added irony of a Greek woman abroad in a room with displaced Greek sculpture. Dimoula’s Caryatid and Dionysus seem almost to prefigure the scene.


Duveen Gallery. Room 18. © The Trustees of the British Museum.


In a BBC film about the Marbles, Mercouri can be seen informally debating (with passion and exasperation, but no tears) with the director Sir David Wilson, who insists she will ruin the British Museum. “It is part of a monument, a unique monument!” she exclaims of the Parthenon. “There are many unique monuments,” Wilson begins, before Mercouri exclaims, incredulously, “There are many Parthenons in the world?!” (I am put in mind again, with the startling plural, of Dimoula’s “Parthenons and Erechtheions.”)
That Mercouri might have been genuinely moved instead of (or as well as) playing to the camera is for some reason unthinkable. Is it that she was a celebrity dabbling in politics, a fading movie star, a woman of a certain age, a lecturing matron? Of course, Mercouri was not, it might be pointed out, a dabbler in politics—she came from a political family; her grandfather was a mayor of Athens, her father an MP and public order minister: “I think that I was a political animal from when I was a very young girl, and I drank the political milk from my mother.” Her tomb, topped with an austere Neoclassical stele, overshadows Papandreou’s own in Athens’ exclusive First Cemetery.
The campaign was treated, at any rate, with sarcasm by Sir David Wilson, then Director of the British Museum, who dryly likened her request to visit the Marbles in an official capacity as a burglar ready to “case the joint.” (A nod, no doubt, to her role in the 1964 museum heist film Topkapi.) In a televised debate with her, he accused her of “cultural fascism.”
Mercouri had had, of course, direct experience of genuine fascism. She had been in her early twenties when Greece was occupied by the Nazis, and her father founded a resistance organization. An Athenian, she would have witnessed the Nazis enter Athens in 1941. She would have seen the flag with the Nazi swastika flying on the Acropolis in front of the Parthenon and would have rejoiced when two young men, Manolis Glezos and Apostolos Santas, scaled the rock and tore it down. She would have experienced the bitter-cold famine winter of 1941–42 in which tens of thousands of her fellow Athenians died of starvation.
But her memories of fascism would have been even more recent than that. Just over a decade before, Greece had been under a right-wing military dictatorship (1967–1974); Mercouri, in self-imposed exile during the Junta, was stripped of her citizenship for her outspoken criticism of the regime. She had famously retorted: “I was born a Greek and I will die a Greek. Those bastards were born fascists and they will die fascists.”
For Mercouri, the Acropolis and its temples and ornaments were beloved cultural artifacts, but also symbols of the birth and, maybe more importantly, the rebirth, of Democracy.
In 1986, Mercouri would give her speech at the Oxford Union, complete with the bullets anecdote and Hobhouse’s man from Ioannina (now merely a “heart-sick Greek man”). Mercouri had been invited to Oxford by a student of Classics sympathetic to her cause, a charmingly glib Homer-quoting fellow with a mop of white-blond hair by the name of Boris Johnson. In order to make the after party “go with a swing,” he writes to the Greek Embassy’s press attaché, “we are in search of cheap ouzo and retsina,” adding, “I was informed it might be feasible to obtain it through the embassy. Could you possibly advise?”[34]


Losing the Marbles. Mercouri and her “vociferous” campaign are one of the irritants around which James Merrill’s long, late poem, “Losing the Marbles,” empearls its nacreous layers. I was reminded by the sculptor Meredith Bergmann, in her astute and rewarding reading of the poem “‘Losing the Marbles’: Merrill and Sophrosyne,”[35] that Merrill himself gives us the 1985 origin story of the poem in his Collected Prose:


. . . we were talking about memory lapses, a topic increasingly relevant to everyone present. John Brinnin quoted Lady Diana Duff Cooper, who stayed young and beautiful for nearly ninety years. It seems that whenever a fact or a name slipped her mind, she would shrug and say cheerfully, “Oh well—another marble gone!” In a flash the image of the Acropolis in Athens appeared on my inner screen, and with it the history of Lord Elgin in the early nineteenth century, removing and carrying off to London most of the Parthenon sculptures. I remembered that individual consciousness had virtually begun in Greece; I thought of the periodic angry efforts made by the modern Greek government to get the marbles back from England­ and so forth . . . I suspected that I’d presently find myself embarked upon “Losing the Marbles” and shamelessly said so . . . For my birthday a month later one of that evening’s guests gave me a little bag of marbles from the supermarket. That present in turn gave me the last section of my poem.


Merrill (1926–1995), a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet, and son of a founding partner of Merrill Lynch, lived in Athens from 1962 to 1972, the last five of those years under Greece’s military dictatorship. In his long poem in seven sections (which progress from morning till night), “Losing the Marbles,” Merrill spins a meditation on memory and mortality out of that oldest joke about the Marbles.
Talking with an old friend about forgetfulness and death (“These latter years, Charmides, / Will see the mind eroded feature­less”)—the AIDS crisis and AIDS dementia loom in the background—the speaker and friend exchange ideas of “heaven.” Merrill’s is:


. . . to be an acrobat in Athens
Back when the Parthenon—
Its looted nymphs and warriors pristine
By early light or noon light—dwelt
Upon the city like a philosopher,
Who now—well, you have seen.


Much of the Marbles debate in poetry and prose is telescoped here. Merrill is matter-of-fact that the Marbles are “looted.” “Nymphs” is a curious choice for the virgins and matrons of the frieze, or the Amazons or Lapith women for that matter, or even the goddesses of the pediments. But it makes sense as a sort of shorthand and effortlessly collapses Keats’s “Grecian Urn” with the literature of the Marbles, as Keats’s imagination had no doubt done too. “Pristine” is a lovely word here, I think, not cold chastity or white purity, but having a sense at once of freshness and ancientness, unspoiled, original. The philosopher here, given that the addressed person in the poem is dubbed “Charmides,” must be Socrates, as the nod is to Plato’s dialogue. And acrobat? Merrill seems to be walking up along the architrave, in danger, as the Marbles were once Morosini had made a ruin of the Temple, of succumbing to gravity.
Like Keats’s Elgin sonnet, the poem is a meditation on mortality and art, on the eternal and the rude wasting of old time; in addition it is about erosion and forgetfulness as a kind of surprising grace. The puns come thick and multivalent in the first section:


These dreamy blinkings-out
Strike me as grace, if I may say so,
Capital punishment,
Yes, but of utmost clemency at work,
Whereby the human stuff, ready or not,
Fumbles, one last drum-roll, into thyme . . .


“Capital” punishment is many things at once—“capital!” as an approving adjective and a nod to the capitals of columns, reinforced by the second pun of “drum-roll” (circus imagery also pervades) itself tumbling into the pungent pun of thyme and time. And its usual sense of fatality is there too, but in a sort of paradox, since the dreamy blinkings-out are here a kind of “clemency,” a stay of execution.
Mercouri’s campaign is referred to in the first section without yet naming her personally; rather it is the reaction of the raging Athens press, “Breathing fire to get the marbles back.”
Sections three and five present, first, a lacunose poem supposedly found in a papyrus, as though fragments of Sappho, and then the poem completely restored. So in the fragmentary version—Merrill’s “erasure” of his own poem—the subject is the body, but also “scornful . . . Ch[arm]ides”—here the charming and statuesque Charmides, briefly dis-armed, like a male Venus de Milo, becomes instead “Chides.” When the poem is fully restored (in elaborate syllabic stanzas reminiscent of Greek lyric meters), the Charmides stanza stands thus:


he had joined an elite scornful—as were, Charmides,
your first, chiseled verses—of decrepitude
in any form. Now, however, that
their figures also


Although not, at first glance, directly about the Marbles, they are, in a Keatsian way, about the pregnant possibilities of fragment and the limitations of perfection. Peering closer, we do see nods to Marbles and statuary. Charmides’ verses are, as Charmides’ Platonic beauty was, “chiseled,” and this poem ends with a reference to “harbor, palace, temple, all / having been quarried out of those blue foothills.”
Section four, between the fragmentary and restored poem, is more directly affected by the Greek news.


Besides, Art furnishes a counterfeit
Heaven wherein ideas escape the fate
Their loyal adherents—brainwashed, so to speak,
By acid rain—more diatribes in Greek—
Conspicuously don’t. . . .


“[B]rainwashed . . . By acid rain” reminds us of the “mind,” those Marbles at the beginning that will be “eroded featureless.”
By the ’70s and ’80s, acid rain in Athens was a serious concern for those sculptures remaining on the Acropolis, as the acidity made the surface of hard marble brittle and crumbly; in 1979, the remaining five Caryatids were removed from the Erechtheion and placed in the protective environment of the old Acropolis Museum, then located on the Acropolis itself. The elements of the western frieze that remained on the Temple (the first two of the 16 blocks were removed by Elgin) were given a sheltering cover in 1978 and finally removed from the building in 1992 and 1993.
“[D]iatribes in Greek” refers, of course, to the Greek media breathing fire for the Marbles’ return, the rude rants and hectoring lectures. But it is also worth noting that “diatribe” is itself a conspicuously Greek word, διατριβή, which now means dissertation or thesis, but that Plato uses for “discussion,” in the sense of passing—or maybe frittering—the time away. (Remember that Merrill had been living in Greece and in Greek.) “Diatribe” in fact comes from “dia-tribe”—to rub through. A diatribe is, in and of itself, a kind of erosion. For διατριβή, the standard lexicon Liddell and Scott give for its first definition: “A wearing away, esp. of Time”—time wasting—the rude wasting of old time.
The “diehard few” who embark on the QE2 for London, where they can drop by Bloomsbury and the British Museum, consider their own lost marbles


Of long ago, removed and mute, like stars
(Unlike vociferous Melina, once
A star herself, now Minister of Stunts).


This is the kind of satirical heroic couplet, gleefully snide and ending on the twist of an ingenious rhyme that Byron might have exulted in. The faded movie-star-cum-drama-queen has joined the circus of acrobats and funambulists, and if Mercouri is past her prime, it is worth remembering that Merrill is only a handful of years younger. Their lives nearly overlap, and they will die within a year of one another.
“Between the elegiac and the haywire”—Merrill contemplates almost from a place outside of space and time as the marble is laying down its crystalline structures, “shifting dregs of would-be rock” that might contain “Glints of a future colonnade and frieze”:


Do higher brows unknit within the block,
And eyes whose Phidias and Pericles
Are eons hence make out through crystal skeins
Wind-loosened tresses and the twitch of reins?


The punniest phrase in the poem is perhaps its most central:


All stone once dressed asks to be worn.


This is a kind of palindromic or chiasmic pun—“dress” doing double duty one way (worked and appareled), and “worn” doing double duty the other way (arrayed and abraded). From the moment the Parthenon and its ornaments were sculpted and erected and put on public view, as much at the time an expression of Athenian imperial might as democracy, they are destined to erode and fade and disintegrate, even if it be over millennia. Merrill seems to go beyond the idea of museumization of the Marbles or the campaign for their return; what Merrill seems to want is that the Marbles be both as they were before, that is, left in situ and never removed, and allowed to erode, even in the acid rain, as he also seems to accept the “grace,” the amnesty, of amnesia.
The sixth section presents a scholar filling in the lacunae of a fragmented text, the gaps themselves a kind of lapse of memory:


Then filled the sorry spaces
With pattern and intent,
A syntax of lit faces
From the impediment?


Only in Merrill, and only in such a poem, could an impediment also be a pediment.
The recovered words of the poem also seem somehow to be conflated with the looted Marbles, which are recovered at the same time. He imagines the triumphant return of the “belated Few,” which are forgotten words, or faces of lost friends, but also the Marbles, returned to Athens, “acrobat” reappearing as “saltimbanques”:


No matter these belated
Few at least are back. And thanks
To their little adventure, never so
Brimming with jokes and schemes,
Fussed over, fêted
By all but their fellow saltimbanques—


The seventh section seems the least to do with the Marbles, even though it is to do with marbles, both mental and physical. A friend remembers his joke (borrowed from Lady Duff Cooper) and brings Merrill a bag of children’s marbles for his birthday. Yet the ending, poolside, far from Athens, somehow manages to restore all the Marbles to the Temple, if not the mind:


Here and now were becoming a kind of heaven
To sit in, talking, largely mindless of
The risen, cloudy brilliances above.


The poem comes full circle: we are reminded that Merrill’s heaven was to be back when the Parthenon was pristine and philosophers conversed—such as older Socrates with the beautiful youth Charmides. That ancient past is now conflated with the here and now, which becomes its own temple. The risen, cloudy brilliances could be stars, perhaps the Milky Way, in the heavens, but at the same time are the Marbles, restored to their original brilliance and, in a rewinding of time’s palindrome, risen back to their pediments and the cella walls?
Merrill manages in the imagination to do what Mercouri fails in her lifetime to accomplish, not only bringing the Marbles back and reuniting them, but setting them against the Attic heavens.


The White Line. As with all complex achieved works of art, there are resonances and ironies in Merrill’s poem that extend beyond the frame of the poem. If the Marbles, especially the frieze, are the images that animate the background of this poem, the text he has taken for his sermon on grace and forgetfulness is, of course, Plato’s dialogue Charmides, which concerns “sophrosyne”—self-restraint, modesty, measure. That Mercouri’s “vociferous” demands seem instead immoderate—and certainly the Athenian press lacks, then as now, any restraint—is part of the conscious point of the juxtapositions.
But did Merrill consider any further irony of the Charmides? The dialogue, though set in the present tense, depicts a past event; Socrates has just returned from the Battle of Potidaea, which Plato’s readers would know as harbinger of the Pelopon­nesian War that would end Athens’ hegemony. (Among the inscriptions Elgin removed from Athens, from those already collected in the courtyard of the British consul, Logothetes, and serving to decorate a fountain there, was one bearing the names of the Athenians who fell at the Battle of Potidaea.)
Plato’s readers would also know that the young and beautiful Charmides—Plato’s uncle, in fact, on his mother’s side—here quizzed on his self-restraint by Socrates—would in time become one of the 10 governors of the Piraeus who in 404–03 assisted the Thirty Tyrants in forming their own junta over an Athens defeated by oligarchic Sparta. Although a touchstone dialogue for homoerotic desire, it is also an ironic essay on power and the fragility of democracy. For Plato, the Parthenon was not a ruin, it still glittered new and intact on the holy rock; but the Athens of Pericles, who had himself died of plague early in the war, certainly was.
Looking back at Plato (as Merrill perhaps intends us to), I am also struck by something earlier in the short passage where Socrates compares the beautiful youth to a statue. Just as Charmides enters, Socrates remarks (here in the translation of Rosamund Kent Sprague):


You mustn’t judge by me, my friend. I’m a broken yardstick as far as handsome people are concerned, because practically everyone of that age strikes me as beautiful.


This is true of course of middle age—I feel that way myself—how do the young not realize how beautiful they are? Benjamin Jowett’s 1892 translation, however, is closer to the Greek, and to the point:


Now you know, my friend, that I cannot measure anything, and of the beautiful, I am simply such a measure as a white line is of chalk; for almost all young persons appear to be beautiful in my eyes.


Socrates talks of measurement not just of beautiful people, but of “the beautiful.” His judgement that all young persons are beautiful to him is exactly the pitch of age looking back upon erotic beauty that Merrill strikes in his poem.
Jowett also explicates the slightly obscure proverb—as Sprague attempts to do with her “broken yardstick”—but even he very slightly misses the mark. The line (στάθμη) in question is specifically the line that is drawn against a carpenter’s rule or mason’s square. If the mark is white, as it is here, it is useless when measuring, as the scholiasts remind us, not chalk, but white marble, that is to say, Parian or Pentelic marble, a costly material where exact measurement is important both practically and economically: measure twice, cut once. Further, there is the word ἀτεχνῶς, not fully picked up in any of the translations—“simply,” yes, but in the sense of “artless,” “without skill”—without “techne,” the know-how of the craftsman. “I am as artless as a white mark on white marble.” The diction and imagery of the passage have to do not only with sculpture, but also with the stoneworker’s shop (one thinks back to Byron’s “stone shop”). Hardly surprising when we remember that Socrates’ father, Sophroniscus (the name, which might be translated “little man of moderation,” “Soberman,” is closely related to sophrosyne, the subject of the Charmides dialogue) was, according to later biographies, a stonecutter, mason, or marble worker. Socrates himself was supposed to have been a stonecutter before taking to philosophy to earn his bread; this proverb from the stone shop seems, therefore, delightfully apt.
If I may be allowed a step further, Socrates’ father, in the previous generation, could quite plausibly have overlapped with, and therefore conceivably worked on, Pericles’ Parthenon building project; Socrates evidently knew Pericles’ circle through his father’s connections. The Parthenon would, after all, have been the principal work in Athens for stonecutters, masons, and sculptors, painters, engineers, riggers, teamsters, muleteers, and others, not only for the decade and a half, between 447 and 432 BC, when the Acropolis was erected and decorated. (The Temple was completed in a jaw-dropping nine years; the ornaments took only another five to finish. Compare the restoration of the Parthenon, which has been ongoing since the mid-’70s.) “[F]ull employment,” as Connelly reminds us, would have continued through the construction of the Propylaia, the Erechtheion, and the Temple of Athena Nike, “thanks to Perikles’s vision . . . well past his death, into the last decade of the fifth century.” (One thinks forward to how Elgin’s agents become major employers in Athens in the nineteenth century, this time for the Temple’s partial dismantling.)
And there is the further curious coincidence that this Charmides shares a name with the father of Phidias; presumably they were not kin, but it is hard not to shake that the connection is felt somehow, perhaps in the simile. Certainly Oscar Wilde seems to pick up on these various adumbrations in his long, strange, erotic poem, “Charmides,” about a Greek youth who rapes a virginal statue of Athena, a literalizing, perhaps, of the metaphor of Elgin’s “rape” (in the words of John Galt) of the Temple.


[24] A. H. Smith, “Lord Elgin and His Collection,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 36, 1916, pp. 163–372.
[25] The Letters of John B. S. Morritt of Rokeby: Descriptive of Journeys in Europe and Asia Minor in the Years 1794–1796. ed. G. E. Marindin (London, 1914).
[26] Dodwell is perhaps conflating accounts here—the Parthenon became a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary; the nearby temple of Theseion was dedicated to Saint George.
[27] William St. Clair, Lord Elgin and the Marbles: The Controversial History of the Parthenon Sculptures, Third Revised Edition (Oxford, 1998).
[28] Gratitude to Gregory Dowling for his translation.
[29] Franz Babinger, Mehmed the Conqueror and His Time (Princeton, 1978).
[30] An Ottoman Traveller: Selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Çelebi, trans. and commentary by Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim (London, 2011).
[31] Tatiana Poulou, “Giovanni Battista Lusieri, Lord Elgin’s Unknown Agent and His Excavations in Athens,” 200 Years: The Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum, New contributions to the issue (Athens, 2016).
[32] A. H. Smith, ibid.
[33] Katerina Syrimi, “Greece to Britain: Return Our ‘Soul,’” Chicago Tribune, November 21, 1985.
[34] Helena Smith, “Letters Show How Boris Johnson Backed Return of Parthenon Marbles,” The Guardian, July 3, 2022.
[35] Meredith Bergmann, “‘Losing the Marbles’: Merrill and Sophrosyne,” Contemporary Poetry Review, December 2, 2013.