Frieze Frame: Part II

“It Gives the Dirt a Polish.” The insistence on the Marbles’ whiteness and purity in the end is what did them the most damage since their wresting from the Temple itself. Cleaning them was of concern almost from their first arrival in England.
For one thing, there was the London air. The pristine sea-rinsed and mountain-cleansed air of Athens, a small preindustrial town in 1801 of about 10,000 souls, would have been scarcely any more polluted than in Pericles’ time (Athens’ air quality would not become noticeably polluted until the 1950s); whereas indus­trial, coal-fueled London, nicknamed “The Old Smoke,” had already had problems with air pollution for centuries. As early as 1661, the diarist and translator John Evelyn published a pamphlet on the problem of London’s coal smoke entitled Fumifugium.
One can imagine it was that much worse by 1804, when the Marbles began to arrive. In 1819, Shelley could write “Hell is a city much like London— / A populous and a smoky city.” Byron describes his Spanish hero Don Juan—like the Marbles, a traveller from sunnier climes—laying eyes on London for the first time in Canto X (published 1823) of the eponymous poem:


A mighty mass of brick, and smoke, and shipping,
Dirty and dusky, but as wide as eye10
Could reach, with here and there a sail just skipping
In sight, then lost amidst the forestry
Of masts; a wilderness of steeples peeping
On tiptoe through their sea-coal canopy;
A huge, dun cupola, like a foolscap crown15
On a fool’s head—and there is London Town.


Smoke and fog were the Victorian novelist’s métier, as perhaps best exemplified by Dickens’ opening of Bleak House, which wallows for several paragraphs in the dirtiness of London: “Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.”
The porous Marbles were subject to damp and cold in the sheds as well as London’s soot, smoke, and smog. Even when they had been removed (after the government’s purchase of them) to the British Museum’s Temporary Elgin Room, the gas-burning stoves used to warm the ad-hoc wooden gallery left a greasy coating. When the sculptures were finally put behind glass, the hermetically sealed cases became petri dishes for a rare fungus.
As early as 1849, only 32 years after the Marbles had been installed in the British Museum, there was a parliamentary inquiry on air pollution and the condition of the Marbles. Edward Hawkins, the Keeper of Antiquities, gave evidence about the deteriorating “appearance” of the Marbles. Asked whether the deterioration was “remediable,” he responded:


No, I do not see how it is remediable in the London atmosphere. The atmosphere of London is loaded with smoke from coal, which has a certain quantity of oil mixed with it; it clings to the objects, and it is almost impossible to keep it off; the very process of cleansing them almost makes matters worse, because it gives the dirt a polish.


In 1858 a series of irate letters appearing in the Times complained about the cleaning of the Marbles (described as “vandalism”), which were now to be washed continually (rather than periodically) with fuller’s earth (“clay water”).
By 1890–1891, a controversy concerning the Marbles and London’s air pollution reached the public more generally, and not just within England, but as far afield as America and Greece itself. The philosopher and historian Frederic Harrison published an editorial in the Nineteenth Century titled, “Give Back the Elgin Marbles.” He addresses the usual reasons given for holding on to them:


Every one of these assertions is a sophism, and the precise contrary is in every case true. They would be much more safe from the hand of man on the Acropolis than they possibly could be in London; and whilst the climate and soot of Bloomsbury are slowly affecting their crumbling surface, the pure air of the Acropolis would preserve them longer by centuries. Athens is now a far more central archaeological school than London [the British School at Athens had been founded in 1886]; and the art students of the world would gain immensely if the ornaments of the Parthenon could be seen again together and beneath the shadow of the Parthenon itself. The Parthenon Marbles are to the Greek nation a thousand times more dear and more important than they ever can be to the English nation, which simply bought them. And what are the seventy-four years that these dismembered fragments have been in Bloomsbury when compared with the 2,240 years wherein they stood on the Acropolis?


He goes on, in a passage that rings as true now as then:


Of course the man in Pall Mall or in the club armchair has his sneer ready—“Are you going to send all statues back to the spot where they were found?” That is all nonsense. The Elgin Marbles stand upon a footing entirely different from all other statues. They are not statues: they are architectural parts of a unique building, the most famous in the world; a building still standing, though in a ruined state, which is the national symbol and palladium of a gallant people, and which is a place of pilgrimage to civilised mankind.


(We might reasonably assume the man in Pall Mall and the club armchair is a member of the private Athenaeum Club, founded in 1824 by John Wilson Croker, who had insisted, at great and controversial expense, on installing an exact replica of the frieze running around the outside, white figures currently picked out by a backdrop of blue as if made for Phidias by Wedgwood.)
Perhaps Harrison’s piece would have been the end of the matter, but it triggered a sarcastic response (written with the assistance of British Museum authorities) from the editor James Knowles titled, “The Joke About the Elgin Marbles,” which culminates:


The collection includes, by common consent, the highest works of art ever produced by man. Its mere cash value is at present reckoned in millions, and the safe custody of it is a trust for which England is responsible to all future generations. Mr. Harrison satirically exhorts the English public to hand over this possession, gratuitously and unasked, to the mixed little population which now lives upon the ruins of ancient Greece . . .[Knowles embarks on a slippery slope argument—that the logic requires they also return enemy standards taken in war.] But hold! ’tis not alone the flags of conquered nations we have rent and torn and sliced away from their old and rightful owners. It is the actual countries themselves! What cannot the platform Pharisee say of Gibraltar, Malta, India, Burmah, Hong Kong, the Cape, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, IRELAND? . . . This is the logic of “giving back the Elgin Marbles.”


It was this last gambit perhaps, with IRELAND in all caps, that stirred the poet and British-diplomat-cum-Irish-nationalist Roger Casement, then travelling in the Congo, to fire off a sonnet in response. (Casement’s visit to the Congo, where he became friends with Joseph Conrad and witnessed unspeakable atrocities committed against the indigenous population by colonizers, radicalized him as a humanitarian and early investigator into human rights abuses.) The sonnet’s focus is the situation of the Marbles, in particular regarding their environment. The natural iambic pulse of Harrison’s title opens the sonnet:


Give back the Elgin marbles; let them lie
Unsullied, pure beneath an Attic sky.
The smoky fingers of our northern clime
More ruin work than all the ancient time.


And concludes by picturing them among the tinkling sound of goat bells and bees, pastoral melodies that would not have been unheard in the Athens environs even in the 1890s:


Ah! let them hear again the sounds that float
Around Athene’s shrine on morning’s breeze,—
The lowing ox, the bell of climbing goat
And drowsy drone of far Hymettus’ bees.[10]


The lowing ox and the drowsing bees are also, by a sleight of poetic magic, the frieze brought back to life: that lowing ox, for instance, from block S XLIV that also made a cameo, as a heifer, in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”; and some of the members of the procession of the northern frieze are bearing honeycomb. Mount Hymettus has always been famed for its honey (and bees). An infant Plato, set down on the slopes of Mount Hymettus while his parents sacrificed to the Muses, was found to have honey bees settled on his lips, a mark of his future eloquence.
Casement would be hanged for treason in 1916 for his involvement in the Easter Rising—doubtless Mr. Knowles would have approved or even rejoiced at this sentence—and lent his name to a refrain in a Yeats poem: “The ghost of Roger Casement / Is beating on the door.”
The months-long exchange that began in the Nineteenth Century, and spilled over into other publications, would perhaps have been all but forgotten, but “The Joke About the Elgin Marbles” stirred up vexation in the Greek-speaking world: particularly, in a letter writer (and largely unknown poet) by the name of C. P. Cavafy (1863–1933), who would be discovered for anglophones by E. M. Forster; Cavafy’s collected prose contains at least two letters on the subject, both scathing.
Regarding Knowles’s sneering article, Cavafy writes: “Aridity in style and prolixity of cheap wit render its perusal a heavy task even for those to whom the restitution of the Elgin Marbles is of direct interest,—I mean the true friends of Hellas and of the unity of Hellenic tradition.” He goes on calmly to address and poke holes in Knowles’s arguments one by one, including such preposterous suggestions as that the Greek government might sell them off piecemeal. He concludes that “it is not dignified in a great nation to reap profit from half-truths and half-rights; honesty is the best policy, and honesty in the case of the Elgin Marbles means restitution.”
With Cavafyian precision and astuteness, he singles out for attention Knowles’s phrase “the mixed little population which now lives upon the ruins of ancient Greece,” “which is treading on slippery ground as, although I know nothing of Mr. Knowles’ ability in historical criticism, it is doubtful whether he is able to prove a theory, in attempting to support which even the renowned Fallmerayer failed.”
Cavafy is alert to point to Fallmerayer’s theory as being behind Knowles’s (and Knox’s for that matter) assertion that the current Greeks can have little to no racial continuity with the architects and builders of the Parthenon, a theory that again and again is trotted out as reason for the British (the true inheritors of Periclean Athens) to retain them and to undermine Greek claims.
Jakob Philipp Fallmerayer is a divisive figure, a brilliant scholar and writer, and a founder of modern Byzantine studies, but whose racial ideas of the 1830s have continued to fuel racist attitudes towards the Greeks, especially among historians, archaeologists, and Classicists themselves, who are not always aware of the troubling history of the theory.
His Geschichte der Halbinsel Morea während des Mittelalters, which appeared in 1830, put forth that:


The race of the Hellenes has been wiped out in Europe. Physical beauty, intellectual brilliance, innate harmony and simplicity, art, competition, city, village, the splendour of column and temple— indeed, even the name has disappeared from the surface of the Greek continent. . . . Not the slightest drop of undiluted Hellenic blood flows in the veins of the Christian population of present-day Greece.


This would provide Nazism’s white supremacy with some of its pseudo-scholarly basis, and during the Nazi occupation of Greece, allowed “classically educated officers . . . [to] excuse their atrocities against the Greeks as done to an inferior, not a noble, race.”[11]
Something strange happens, too, seeing these arguments translated and some words (such as “βλούμσβουρύ”) transliterated into Greek, a repositioning of the argument, a taking back of ground. Seeing Knowles’s phrase about the “mixed little population” translated into Greek, you realize what a Cavafyian phrase it is—Cavafy’s poems, such as “Returning from Greece,” are full of mixed populations living on the ruins of ancient Greece and Greek culture, but at the same time absolutely the heirs to that Hellenic civilization. Or consider “A Town in Osroene,” set in Southeastern Anatolia, and voiced in an inclusive first person plural, which concludes, in Evangelos Sachperoglou’s translation:


We are a mixture of races here: Syrians, Greeks, Armenians,
Such is Rhemon, too. Last night, though, when
His sensuous face was illumined by the moon,
Our mind went to Plato’s Charmides.


The mixed-race youths nevertheless achieve the Platonic Greek ideal of beauty. The Charmides of this poem refers to the beautiful young man (with a beautiful face and, seen naked, a perfect body) who is Socrates’ interlocutor in his eponymous dialogue, a meditation partly on age and beauty, if ostensibly on “self-restraint.”
When Charmides enters the wrestling school with his young entourage, we are told that “they all gazed at him as if he were a statue.” (The word for statue here is ἄγαλμα.) In Cavafy, it is the moon—and a brush with death—that marbleizes the chiseled features.
The displeasure in Athens and Greece stirred up by these debates of 1890 and 1891, perhaps brought to larger Greek attention by Cavafy’s letters, manifested itself in the Athens Council’s deciding to request the Marbles’ return; the opinion of the local population reached the London Standard and the New York Times.
A third option was proposed by Edwyn Bevan, that England should keep the Marbles (maybe Athens would even volunteer the remaining Marbles in their possession to complete the set?) and Britain would return the lone Caryatid, as her share of the porch’s weight on the Erechtheion was still being held up by the pile of bricks the Elgins had left in her place. Everyone had to admit that the result was not cosmetic. The monument was “spoilt in the same way in which a row of teeth is spoilt by one discoloured tooth.”
Perhaps the male gaze has tended to look at the gap of the missing Caryatid, variously replaced by Elgin’s heap, and later a terracotta replica, then, after German occupation, a “block of wood,”[12] as unsightly. In contrast, Virginia Woolf on her first visit to Athens in 1906, when she was in her early twenties, herself a maiden, instead gives us empathy. Standing “where the great Statue used to stand,” Woolf gives us a glimpse of what the Caryatid herself would have seen:


She looked straight through the long doorway, made by the curved lines of the columns, & saw a long slice of Attic mountain & sky & plain, & a shining strip of the sea.


Mountain and Monument. Pentelic marble, of which the Parthenon and its ornaments are constructed, comes from Mount Pentelikon, one of the mountains that ring the city of Athens. The Parthenon is an autochthonous outgrowth of Attica’s geology. Today, the ancient quarries are still in use but, since 1976, may contribute marble only to the ongoing renova­tions on the Acropolis itself, which began in earnest in 1975, shortly after the fall of the military junta and the restoration of democracy to Greece.
Should you want to purchase fresh-cut Pentelic marble, you would have to do so from the commercial Dionysos quarry, on the far side of the mountain from the city. The website of the marble company Marmara Nikolaki describes the special qualities of Dionysos marble (“He is the King of the Marbles. In fact, it is the best marble in the world”):


Pentelic marbles contain schism, a property that facilitates the extraction of boulders and is particularly perceived during the mechanical treatment of the rock. They have thin sub-saccharide tissue and high consistency, normal fracture resistance and easily polish.
It is white in color, of great purity, without barking and scattered veins.
When the Pentelic marbles are exposed to the atmospheric agents, a golden superficial coating is created, which makes the statues made of this marble very impressive.


Pure white when it is first excavated, in the elements it mellows to a tawny leonine patina. The Parthenon at sunset can seem like molten gold; at other times it looks like brushstrokes of paint against the sky. Lit up at night, until recently, it had the golden glow of a harvest moon; a change to LED lighting in 2020 at first made the Temple appear colder and whiter.
The Parthenon seems somehow to be a live thing, almost breathing on the hill. Its marmoreal perfection is not a deadness, but a kind of potential energy. Part of that is its position, against the ever-changing sky; sometimes the massy clouds seem more substantial, more marmoreal, than it does. Under the moon, it gains in hugeness and solidity. But part of this is the design itself (by master architects Ictinus and Callicrates), the “entasis,” whereby in order to look straight from a distance, the massive columns are all slightly curved; if their axes were extended upward from their platform, they would meet one and a half miles above the earth: The Parthenon, for all its near-golden ratio of proportions (the proportions of the Temple are all variations on 9:4), contains hardly any straight lines.
In 1906, Virginia Woolf writes: “The ravages are terrible, but in spite of them, the Parthenon is still radiant & young. Its columns spring up like fair round limbs, flushed with health.” She describes it under the changing light as “White & blue & tawny red” as “Stalwart & red & significant” as “ashy pale.”[13]
In 1932, at roughly Mrs. Dalloway’s age, Woolf visited the Parthenon again. “My own ghost met me, the girl of 23.” After her own weathering by time, she is surprised to find the Parthenon “more compact & splendid & robust than I remembered. The yellow pillars . . . gathered, grouped, radiating there on the rock . . . crowds flying as if suppliants (really Greek schoolchildren). The Temple like a ship, so vibrant, taut, sailing, though still all these ages.”[14] As Joan Breton Connelly observes, the Parthenon was indeed more splendid than Woolf had remembered, having undergone extensive (albeit highly controversial) reconstruction between her two visits under the direction of Nikolaos Balanos from 1922 to 1933.
Connelly also points out that the Marbles that still stand on the Parthenon have continued to change over the millennia, not just due to the rude wasting of old time, but by a molecular rearrangement and harmonization of their structure. Manolis Korres, the longtime head of the 48-year-old Parthenon restoration project, has discovered that:


after centuries of constant pressure exerted by the blocks upon one another, granules of marble have fused from one slab into the next, creating a solid mass of stone. Korres calls this erpismos, or “snaking,” within the crystalline structure of the marble, the arrange­ment of individual granules deformed into an undulating path.


The quarried Pentelic marble has again become a solid thing, monument reverting to mountain.


Duveen’s Deep Clean. Were Byron alive in the 1930s, the name “Duveen” would have caught his satirical eye: it rhymes so conven­­iently with “clean.” The Marbles’ natural tawny patina was of no interest to Joseph Duveen (1869–1939), a successful if ethically dubious art dealer cum “philanthropist.” In 1929, Duveen proposed a new gallery for the Marbles to the British Museum—the eponymous Duveen Gallery—and donated a million pounds to that end. One of his stipulations was that the lavish and elegant new gallery would have the same precise dimensions as the Parthenon building. Once the gallery was completed, in 1938, the Marbles would be given a second London coming out, in a swanky opening that was to have been inaugurated by none other than King George VI.
But before the opening, Duveen was adamant about the whiteness of the marbles. Duveen specialized in selling old European masters, stripped, touched up, and re-varnished, to American millionaires. (At the suggestion of Duveen Brothers, a restorer even cut down the oval Thomas Gainsborough portrait of Lady Horatio Waldegrave into a more saleable rectangle.) Lord Crawford, a member of the Board of Trustees of the Museum, remarked of Duveen in his diary, “Duveen lectured and harangued us. . . . I suppose he has destroyed more old masters by overcleaning than anybody else in the world, and now he told us that all old marbles should be thoroughly cleaned—so thoroughly that he would dip them into acid.” Duveen wanted them “with the London grime removed and in their first purity. They will be luminous.”
The Marbles of course had not been purely white almost since they were quarried.
Duveen’s workmen were given free rein and little to no museum supervision to go about the task of whitening the Marbles and set about it with copper tools, “carborundum,” i.e., silicon carbide (“the hardest substance, next to diamonds, known at that time,”[15] 9.4 on Mohs scale, with diamond being a 10), and even copper chisels. Anyone who has owned a cast iron skillet would stand aghast at how the marbles were “cleansed,” Duveen’s preferred term.
William St. Clair has unearthed many of the archives surrounding the cleaning, the subsequent scandal, and the cover-up. Some of the most moving items from this archive are “Pencilled Notes, in his Own Hand, of Macmillan’s Questioning of the Labourers, and of the Foreman Mason”: Lord Macmillan being the British Museum Trustee who chaired the secret investigation into the damage. These notes read like found Modernist poems or fragments of an ancient tragedy:


Sinclair/Used copper tools from June 1937
Daniels known to you for some months—not a good slab
for Duveen to see not white
enough recleaned
Sd. slab white
H. gave me some money for shifting big figures
£1 among 7. 3/- H. 2/-
Supposed to be from Daniels
only time 3 or 4 months
H. “see if you could brighten it up”
(before Daniels spoke to me)
Daniels praised my efforts
Sd. I was getting it whiter.


The “private and confidential” report of the British Museum’s Board of Enquiry in 1938 concluded that “The damage which has been caused [by the cleaning] is obvious and cannot be exaggerated.” The head of Selene’s horse (the subject of one of Haydon’s first sketches of the Marbles, and witness to a level of sharp detail no longer available to the modern viewer) is described as having been “skinned.” The assistant keeper, R. P. Hinks, took the fall and was successfully pressured to resign.


Marble statue from the East pediment of the Parthenon: Horse of Selene. © Trustees of the British Museum.


Frederick Morgan, a founding editor of The Hudson Review, with a replica of the Horse of Selene from the British Museum on his beach in Maine, 1972. Photo credit: Michael R. Alford. Copyright © Michael R. Alford.


(In 1999 a colloquium was convened at the British Museum for Greek and British conservators to discuss the infamous scouring and the Museum’s lack of transparency, “Cleaning the Parthenon Marbles.” [One notes that Elgin’s name itself has already been “scrubbed” from the title.] “Patina, epidermis, and crust were among the various terms employed to describe the surface and changes that it has undergone,” words that suggest respectively marble as art object, living animal, and mineral. “In the small difference of two letters between ‘rubbed’ and ‘scrubbed’ lies the conflict between those who view the over-cleaning as unfortunate but not of devastating consequence and those who decry the ruination of Phidias’s figures.”[16])
As it happened, there was no splashy opening of the gallery in the wake of the cleaning “catastrophe” and scandal. The king cancelled his participation, and Duveen suffered a fatal stroke. Some of the Marbles were briefly displayed in the new setting but with a guardrail (not part of the original plan of the gallery) to keep viewers at a distance. War broke out shortly thereafter, necessitating the Marbles’ removal—some to a museum vault, some to the Aldwych station of the London Underground for their own safety. (The gallery was damaged in the bombing.) The Marbles were not back on display until 1949, some years after the end of the war; the Duveen Gallery itself would not reopen until 1962, once public outrage had died down and the scandal was nearly forgotten, and with no ceremony at all. Despite the British Museum’s website’s assertion that the Marbles have been on permanent display since 1817, for a decade the Marbles were kept from the scrutiny of the public eye.
In 1937, as war was brewing, the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was given a preview tour of the Marbles and the glamorous new purpose-built gallery by Duveen himself; Chamberlain wrote to his sister Ida: “Lord Duveen took us to see. . . the new galleries at the Brit Museum for the Elgin Marbles. I think he has made sure that the latter will never leave London but of course some day they may be bombed out of existence.”


Lost in Translation. The debt-ridden Lord Elgin had attempted to sell the Marbles to the British Government in letters to Prime Minister Spencer Perceval as early as 1811 but ran into difficulties: rumors swirled around his acquisition of them, mostly to do with whether he had abused his position—and financial allow­ance—as Ambassador to the Sublime Porte to obtain undue influence; after all, he had become ambassador in 1798, just months after the Battle of the Nile, at a time when the Ottoman regime would have been most grateful to the English for their stymieing of Napoleon in Egypt. (The stalled negotiations about the collection suffered a further setback when Perceval was shot dead in the lobby of the House of Commons on May 11, 1812.)
In order to sell the Marbles to Parliament, Elgin realized he had to refute Byron’s (and others’) charges of sacrilege and pillage and ease the Parliament’s mind that they were not receiving stolen property. To this end, he—or rather, in all likelihood, his chaplain, the Reverend Philip Hunt—composed a Memorandum, both explaining Elgin’s rationale and listing the objects in the collection: half moral justification, half auction catalogue. In the words of the Memorandum, Elgin had been “impelled, by a stronger motive than personal gratification, to endeavour to preserve” the Marbles.
Elgin’s claims to legality in their removal were largely based on written permission in the form of a “firman”[17] from the Ottoman Sublime Porte (then under Sultan Selim III) to the governor of Athens, produced at the beginning of July 1801, before Elgin had ever set foot in Greece, much less set eyes on the Parthenon. When the Committee asks, “The Fermauns granted to your Lordship were not . . . permissions to take particular pieces, one from the city and one from the citadel, and so on?,” Elgin replies, “I had never been at Athens, and could not specify any thing.”
Asked to produce the firmans by the Committee, Elgin replies first that “I have retained none of them,” and when the Committee presses, “In point of fact, your Lordship has not in England any copy of any of those written permissions?” Elgin replies, “None.” He has left them all in Athens, he says, with his agent Lusieri.
And that might have been an end to the drama of the firman; Parliament could have chosen simply to take him at his word. But two weeks later, Dr. Philip Hunt, Elgin’s chaplain and right-hand man, is called for examination.
Asked by the Committee, “Did you ever see any of the written permissions which were granted to him [Elgin] for removing the Marbles from the Temple of Minerva?—Yes,” Hunt answers and rattles on at length:
“I advised Lord Elgin to apply to the Porte for a fermaun . . . and as I had been before deceived with respect to the pretended contents of a fermaun, I begged that this might be accompanied by a literal translation; the fermaun was sent with a translation, and that translation I now possess” and adds, before being asked, “It is left at Bedford, and I have no means of directing any person to obtain it; I would have brought it if I had been aware I should have been summoned by this Committee before I left Bedford.”
This “literal translation,” or at least an English rendering of the Italian translation, is entered into the Committee minutes in the Appendix. (The Italian original, in fact itself a mere summary, resurfaced in the 1960s.) The important passage is at the very end:
Elgin and his five artists should be allowed access to the Acropolis to erect scaffolds and model with chalk or gypsum “the ornaments and visible figures thereon,” or to measure fragments, or to excavate “in search of inscriptions among the rubbish; that they be not molested by the said Disdar (or commandant of the citadel) nor by any other persons . . . and that no one meddle with their scaffolding or implements, nor hinder them from taking away any pieces of stone with inscriptions or figures.” (Quite a lot was already on the ground, including some elements of the frieze.)
This may be interpreted in assorted ways, but it would be a stretch that permission to model with chalk or gypsum the ornaments visible on the building also allowed for ornaments to be removed from said structure (damaging structure in the process), or that the permission to excavate and search through the rubbish for stones with inscriptions or figures refers to removing anything not among the rubble already scattered over the ground.
It is very similar to what Hunt has said it contained, “permission to view, draw, and model the ancient temples of the idols and the sculptures upon them, and to make excavations, and to take away any stones that might appear interesting to them.”
“Any stones” is rather different from “any pieces of stone,” but, at any rate, the Committee appendix has an N.B. appended to the translation:
“N.B.—The words in Italian rendered in two places ‘any pieces of stone,’ are ‘qualche pezzi di pietra.’”
Someone, perhaps even the clerk compiling the minutes, knows enough Italian, it would seem, to know that “qualche” does not mean “any,” but rather “some.”[18] Some pieces of stone.
The whole is such a shaggy dog story that it is tempting to believe, as some do, no such Turkish document ever existed. Hunt’s Italian original, translated by an Antonio Dané, but in the hand of Bartolomeo Pisani, the British Embassy’s interpreter, has turned up, although oddly without the signet signature described in the English translation included in the appendix of the Select Committee’s report; research by Turkish academics through the extensive Ottoman archives in 2019 has not uncovered any record of such an Ottoman document.[19]
On the other hand, we do seem to have one eyewitness to the original “firman”—none other than Byron’s friend and fellow Elgin-mocker, John Galt. In his Autobiography, he relates:


This same rape [Elgin’s removal of the Marbles] is curious in many particulars. I saw the firman on which Lord Elgin commenced the dilapidation of the Temples, and as I did not understand Turkish, the person who read it to me said it was only to remove a stone.


“Only to remove a stone” has potentially travelled quite far from “take away any pieces of stone,” perhaps by the intermediate jump of “some.” Like a red wheelbarrow, so much depends on the translation of, potentially, a single word.
Incidentally, Galt later made a gambit for the Marbles himself:


Here was a chance of the most exquisite relics of art in the world becoming mine, and a speculation by the sale of them in London that would realize a fortune. The temptation was too great. My correspondents at Malta were Messrs. Struthers, Kennedy, and Co., to whom I wrote to pay the bills upon receiving the stones, &c., &c., and I shipped myself on board the vessel that I might see her safely to Hydra, where she was to put herself under the protection of a man of war. Accordingly that evening we sailed with our precious cargo, and next morning arrived at Hydra, from which the vessel was conveyed to Malta. But on her arrival there, the agent for the earl paid the bills, and my patriotic cupidity was frustrated.


Regarding the sweep of authority granted by the firman, the Select Committee had asked Elgin’s chaplain Philip Hunt,


Do you imagine that the firmaun gave a direct permission to remove figures and pieces of sculpture from the walls of temples, or that that must have been a matter of private arrangement with the local authorities of Athens?


Hunt: “That was the interpretation which the Vaivode [the civilian governor] of Athens was induced to allow it to bear.”


Shanghaied to Bloomsbury. When Keats visited the Marbles in 1817, they had only recently arrived at their respectable address in Bloomsbury, exhibited in the British Museum’s Temporary Elgin Room, designed by architect Robert Smirke. The frieze circled the room at a little above eye level, while pedimental statues were displayed higgledy-piggledy about the middle of the room, Selene’s horse’s head set on the floor. (Perhaps this was as they had been displayed in the shed.)
Haydon must have brought with him the sense of wild discovery of having stumbled upon hitherto unknown great masterpieces in a damp shed in the yard of a nobleman’s house, leaving Keats reeling, but Keats also witnessed them at the beginning of their “museumization” and gentrification. Their purity and chasteness (again, going hand in hand with their “whiteness”) were coupled to a proto-Victorian respectability. Byron had witnessed them as backdrops to louche aristocratic scenes of boxing and flirting in 1808, but by 1822, in his 13th canto of Don Juan, he could describe a grim society gathering as:


But all was gentle and aristocratic
In this our party; polish’d, smooth, and cold,
As Phidian forms cut out of marble Attic.


Many authors and poets have perceived something vaguely melancholic about Greek sculpture languishing in this prosaically respectable corner of London.
A. E. Housman first visited the British Museum as a fifteen-year-old in 1875, writing to his beloved stepmother, Lucy Housman (whom he addresses affectionately as “Mamma”), “Yesterday I went to the British Museum & spent most of my time among the Greeks & Romans.” This would, of course, have included the Elgin Saloon. He teases her a little: “I looked at your Venus—the Towneley [sic] Venus in the alcove, but I do not admire her” and adds, unsurprisingly to us, perhaps, “What delighted me most was the Farnese Mercury.” After Housman had spectacularly failed at Oxford and found himself a patent clerk in London, he would have had more opportunity to visit the British Museum, which was scarcely a 13-minute walk away from the offices on Chancery Lane. This time, visiting the Greek and Roman rooms was not an opportunity for a family letter, but a poem, “Loitering with a vacant eye.” While he doesn’t describe the Marbles themselves (instead it is a standalone statue), it is interesting that he identifies with the Greek sculpture in the museum; they are both displaced persons, suffering from exile and homesickness. Housman looks at the statue, and the statue looks back:


“Well met,” I thought the look would say,
“We both were fashioned far away;
We neither knew, when we were young,
These Londoners we live among.” 10
Still he stood and eyed me hard,
An earnest and a grave regard:
“What, lad, drooping with your lot?
I too would be where I am not.
I too survey that endless line15
Of men whose thoughts are not as mine.
Years, ere you stood up from rest,
On my neck the collar prest;
Years, when you lay down your ill,
I shall stand and bear it still . . .”


The “collar” that presses on the neck of the statue is surely the yoke of slavery and oppression, of being “owned” by others—not unlike the “Ottoman yoke” that Greece had freed itself from, with help from philhellenes like Byron and the Great Powers. But perhaps it also had a parallel in the collar Housman would have worn to work as a clerk. There is something rather unbearable (although the poem is about “bearing up”) in realizing that the statue is right . . . he will be standing there long after Housman’s suffering in life had ceased.
Thomas Hardy, in his “Christmas in the Elgin Room,” has the statues speak, as Housman’s did, in the first person. As a Hardy poem, it seems cousin both to “Channel Firing” (in the voices of the dead who are disturbed by the noises of war) and maybe also to his Christmas poem, “The Oxen.” While, on one level, the poem is about how the pagan gods have been replaced by Christianity, on another level it is about the sadness and homesickness of the Marbles in cold and gloomy London.
They are roused by the Christmas bells:


“And what, then, mean such clangs, so clear?”
“—’Tis said to have been a day of cheer,
And source of grace
To the human race
Long ere their woven sails winged us to exile here.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
“O it is sad now we are sold—
We gods! for Borean people’s gold,
And brought to the gloom
Of this gaunt room
Which sunlight shuns, and sweet Aurore but enters cold.”


They are in “exile,” they have been purchased for “gold,” the room is “gaunt,” shunned by the sun, cold, and they miss being “Radiant” on “Athenai’s Hill.” The “woven sails,” though of course a perfect straightforward depiction of sail cloth, also, in the words of the statues, seem to me to harken back to the intricately woven peplos for Athena’s statue that was attached to the mast of a ship-wagon in her sacred procession.
“Bloomsbury” is not only the statues’ address at the Museum, but seems to be shorthand for their domestication, a downturn in their fortunes that is less Greek tragedy than Victorian plot twist. James Elroy Flecker, perhaps best known now for his beloved musical piece of Orientalism, “The Golden Journey to Samarkand,” published “Oak and Olive” in the same volume (1913). It describes wanting to be in Greece when in England and vice versa. The stanza that rises above this charming but slight piece, that seems to vibrate with emotion, is this one:


And there’s a hall in Bloomsbury
No more I dare to tread,
For all the stone men shout at me,
And swear they are not dead;
And once I touched a broken girl
And knew that marble bled.


We know, of course, exactly which hall in Bloomsbury and which stone men. There is a pivot to the personal in the last two lines, with the “I,” who has touched “a broken girl.” The “broken girl” is presumably the lone Caryatid Elgin had extracted from the Erechtheion’s Porch of the Maidens. Though not part of the Phidian frieze of the Parthenon, she is perhaps as storied as the frieze and, of course, as a single standalone human figure more easily personified. Flecker brings her to life with “And knew that marble bled.”
There might even be something more personal behind it. Flecker had met his future bride, a Greek woman, Helle Skiadaressi, in 1910, on board a ship to Athens, during his diplomatic career in the Levant. Had they visited the Museum together? One wonders what her feelings would have been, looking on the displaced Caryatid. Some exchange (an argument even) seems to have happened there, in a place where Flecker could contem­plate ancient and modern Greek womanhood side by side. Later in the poem, where he says, “Oh well I know sweet Hellas now,” the similarities of “Hellas” with “Helle” resonate in the background.
(I would propose Byron as alone among poets in being unsusceptible to sentimentalizing a single Caryatid, since he had once actually compared a Greek maiden—Haidee in Canto 2 of Don Juan—to a statue, only to chuck the idea at once: Statuary were “A race of mere imposters, when all’s done— / I’ve seen much finer women, ripe and real, / Than all the nonsense of their stone ideal.”)
Later, John Heath-Stubbs would express the dissonance for anglophone writers of viewing the Acropolis in Athens while being aware of the Marbles in London. In his (1963) “Parthenon,” he writes of seeing the ruin that it is, “the model / Of every second-rate ‘classical’ building— / Church or museum” and


Off-white like a sea-worn shell,
Like a bird’s skull,
Under remorseless light;
Denuded the colour and gold
Long since; the centaurs and heroes
Shanghaied to Bloomsbury.
It seems very small:
And She has departed.


Despite the Marbles being “shanghaied” to Bloomsbury, writers have had a tendency to remarry what man has put asunder—Herman Melville’s 1891 poem “The Parthenon,” written in the same period as the “Give Back the Elgin Marbles” controversy, inserts a stanza on the frieze, the most complete and perfect of the stanzas, the most animated, and the most “standalone,” in four sections on views of the Temple:


The Frieze.
What happy musings genial went
With airiest touch the chisel lent
To frisk and curvet light
Of horses gay—their riders grave—
Contrasting so in action brave
With virgins meekly bright,
Clear filing on in even tone
With pitcher each, one after one
Like water-fowl in flight.


Refreshingly, the American imagination here has not insisted on anything’s being “chaste”: the virgins are instead “meekly bright” and, in an Ovidian metamorphosis, “take flight.”


On the Tack of Caring for Greek Sculpture. Towards the end of E. M. Forster’s novel, A Room with a View, about a group of English travellers who have met in Florence, the heroine Lucy Honeychurch comes up with the harebrained idea of travelling to Greece with a pair of adventurous spinsters, the “Miss Alans.” (Perhaps if she had gone, she might have ended up an adventurous spinster herself.) Published in 1908, A Room with a View must be set somewhat earlier, given that the vicar, Mr. Beebe, has “never heard” of Housman’s wildly popular A Shropshire Lad. Mr. Beebe explains the wildness of the plan to Freddy and Mr. Vyse, Lucy’s soon to be ex-fiancé.


Then you don’t see the wonder of this Greek visit. I haven’t been to Greece myself, and don’t mean to go, and I can’t imagine any of my friends going. It is altogether too big for our little lot. Don’t you think so? Italy is just about as much as we can manage. Italy is heroic, but Greece is god-like or devilish—I am not sure which, and in either case absolutely out of our suburban focus . . . The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for me. There the contrast is just as much as I can realize. But not the Parthenon, not the frieze of Phidias at any price . . .


For Mr. Beebe the frieze is again ineffable, as it was to Keats; and Greece itself is mad, bad, and dangerous to know.
Yet the “frieze of Phidias” is of course a good deal closer to home than Italy, and the set of Italophiles have met up at the National Gallery, a sixteen-minute walk away from the British Museum. Lucy Honeychurch, on a rainy day in London, where she has gone to visit the Miss Alans “in their beloved temperance hotel near Bloomsbury,” proposes ducking in to the British Museum to her mother, who refuses. “If they must take shelter, let it be in a shop. Lucy felt contemptuous, for she was on the tack of caring for Greek sculpture . . .”
In the end Lucy marries, abandons the Athens trip, and perhaps can give up on trying to “get up the names of the goddesses and gods.”
The idea that one ought to care for Greek sculpture, and particularly these, has already crept into the conversation by the Victorian era. By 1951, 43 years after A Room with a View, E. R. Dodds can begin his seminal The Greeks and the Irrational with this anecdote:


Some years ago I was in the British Museum looking at the Parthenon sculptures when a young man came up to me and said with a worried air, “I know it’s an awful thing to confess, but this Greek stuff doesn’t move me one bit.” I said that was very interesting: could he define at all the reasons for his lack of response? He reflected for a minute or two. Then he said, “Well, it’s all so terribly rational, if you know what I mean.” I thought I did know.


This museum visit, which perhaps was shortly after the damaged Marbles had returned to public view in 1949, cannot be further from Keats’s and Haydon’s.


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


Greek Poets and the Marbles. As becomes clear flipping through a recent Greek anthology of poems about the Parthenon, The Parthenon in Poetry: An Anthology (ELIA, 2009), edited by Dr. Liana Giannakopoulou, Greek poets have not tended to address their sonnets and odes to the Marbles in Bloomsbury—after all, many would not even have the opportunity to visit London to view them—but to the ruined Parthenon itself, which still presides over Athens, the nation’s capital since 1834. Perhaps there is also among the Greeks a deeper historical sense.
When there is outrage at the Parthenon’s damaged state—not by time, but by the hands of men—it tends to center not on Elgin, but on Morosini’s blowing up of the Temple in 1687, the “Venetian’s fire” or the “the cannons of Morosini,” the moment the building went from being a useful structure to a ruin. The rapacious Elgin is less a threat than mass tourism and cheap souvenirs.
Even so, at least a few major Greek poets have made the pilgrimage to Bloomsbury and been inspired to write a poem. Angelos Sikelianos (1884–1951), the first Greek poet nominated for the Nobel Prize (although he never won it), was deeply influenced by John Keats, so much so that he wrote a poem entitled “Yannis Keats,” which effectively makes Keats an honorary Greek poet and brings him to Greece, a place Keats was never able to visit in life. In fact, in the poem, Sikelianos transforms himself and Keats into the Homeric road-trip buddies, Telemachus and Peisistratus, palling around at Nestor’s palace and later at Sparta. They end up attending a sacrifice, with lowing, garlanded heifers, as if walking into Keats’s poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
Sikelianos’ sonnet about the Marbles, however, could not be more different from Keats’s “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles.” The poem’s title is “Zoophoros,” the Greek for “frieze.” These two words, denoting the same thing, stand at opposite poles of connotation. Even though the English “frieze” is not etymologically related to “frigid” or “freeze” (rather, the source is “Phrygian”), it is a cold, static, icy word. Zoophoros (or “zôphoros”), however, literally means Zodiac- or “animal-bearing”; it brings out the animation of the band of sculptures, which do indeed read a bit like a comic strip, showing us not just a continuous file of animals and people, but different moments in time (getting the horses and riders ready, for instance). Keats reels before the unimaginable chasm of time between Pericles and us; Sikelianos brings the horses and riders to life in the continuous present. The sonnet combines close observation—the veins on the horses’ bellies are clearly visible on the Marbles, an anatomical detail that no doubt delighted Haydon, and Sikelianos presumably would have seen the frieze before the ruinous Duveen scouring—with an imaginative leap.
Color reenters the frieze, like traces of paint, and the frieze itself ceases to be individual blocks and becomes cells of animation, a rhythm of movement; the heat and the sounds of Greek summer—after all, the Panathenaic procession occurred mid-August—seem to fill the cool galleries of the British Museum:


Kicking their steeds’ flanks with the red apples
Of their heels, right where the bulging vein
Forks and ramifies, and the sweat dripples
In rivulets down to the hooves from the belly,
Driving them with palms slapped on the withers
Where the hair is parted so the mane
Falls on either side like swan feathers,
And crowned themselves with hats or wreaths, they urge
Them on—Heat splits the earth—The cicada’s throb
In the olives heralds airy victory—
Here comes the procession, the ceremonial robe;
And then with a fair and following breeze, they surge
Past, abounding wave of horses, dancing—
Galloping, cantering or prancing . . .
—my translation


Kiki Dimoula (1931–2020) has a poem from her first book, Erebus (1956), about seeing the Marbles in the British Museum. She had lived in London for seven months at that period, perhaps accounting for the low, dark skies that cloud the collection, whose title, after all, means “Darkness,” and in particular, the thick, foggy gloom of the Underworld.
In the “British Museum,” the speaker, who we may presume is a Greek woman in London, is drawn to the other displaced Greek woman in the hall, that “broken girl,” the lone Caryatid.
Rika Lesser and Cecile Inglessis Margellos’ translation begins:


In the chill of the Museum room
before my eyes: stolen, fair
sole Caryatid.


The poem imagines a connection between the Caryatid, her “dark sweet gaze” fixed on the figure of Dionysus, chiseled in an attitude of voluptuousness, two steps away, his gaze fallen on her “strapping waist.” (A Caryatid has to be a sturdy girl after all, if she is to bear weight.) She suspects “An everlasting idyll / unites them.” This “everlasting idyll” surely harks back to Keats’s “Cold Pastoral,” where desire is ever kept in check: “Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,” but is also “For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d.”
The poet imagines Dionysus (the figure sometimes identified as Theseus) rising from his place, carefully, so as not to arouse the suspicion of the other statues, “with wine and with caresses” to “undo the Caryatid’s chastity.”
It is telling where the English takes liberties with the Greek. The word Lesser and Margellos translate as “chastity,” “systole,” means rather “modesty,” or “reserve” or “bashfulness” perhaps. (The principal meaning of systole, as in English, is “contraction” but comes to mean a shrinking back—a combination perhaps of Byron’s “shrinking Gods” and Keats’s “maidens loth.”) This may not seem like a huge difference, but chasteness—sexual cleanness and purity—is a word and concept that the anglophone imagination has attached consistently to the Marbles since their arrival in England. “Systole” is less about purity and cleanliness than about how a woman, or a Caryatid for that matter, carries herself; here Dimoula’s Caryatid is a proper Greek girl, full of desire but not willing to make the first move. Notably, in the Greek, Dionysus does not “undo” this modesty, like a chastity belt, but merely “bends” it; the Caryatid, eternally upright, has an opportunity to yield a little, to let down her elaborate hair.
But in the second half of the poem, Dimoula imagines a darker possibility. Maybe she is wrong, and


Some other tie may bind them
more strongly, more woefully


In the Greek, this “woefully” is instead adjectival: a tie or relationship that is “more painful.”
She imagines them on winter evenings and August nights stepping down from their high pedestals


and with nostalgia’s sighs and tears
erecting passionately in memory
Parthenons and Erechtheions they’ve lost.


There are slight echoes of Cavafy throughout the poem, in English heard most clearly here, with its plural Parthenons and Erechtheions of memory harkening back a bit to Cavafy’s plural “Ithakas,” and also perhaps to, in “The God Abandons Antony,” “and bid farewell to the Alexandria you are losing.”
Dimoula’s ending, though, is rather different; Lesser and Margellos have switched the last two lines (perhaps to chime with Cavafy). A more literal version might go:


with the sighs and the tears of nostalgia,
those Parthenons and Erechtheions of which they have been deprived
in their memory with passion they erect them.


In Greek, though, the primary meaning of “nostalgia” is not a sentimental yearning for an idealized past, but the ache of longing to return home, “homesickness.” Note that they have not “lost” their Temples, they have been “deprived” of them, a violence less accidental and more purposeful. In the Greek, the ending is also less despondent and more, well, passionate, ending not on loss and dejection, but reconstruction. If the Marbles cannot return to the Acropolis, the Marbles, in the poet’s mind, will build and reduplicate their Temples in London.


Enchanted Bodies. Dimoula’s imagining of the pain—and the groans and tears—of the removed statues is reminiscent of older tales, two of them the most uncanny stories from British travellers to Athens at the time of Elgin’s undertaking. Hobhouse, who had spent some months in Athens in 1809 with Byron, relates the following:


Some Greeks, in our time, conveying a chest from Athens to Piraeus, containing part of the Elgin marbles, threw it down, and could not for some time be prevailed upon to touch it, again affirming, they heard the Arabim [the spirit] crying out, and groaning for his fellow-spirits detained in bondage in the Acropolis.


This is certainly a colorful and curious story about the ignorant and superstitious natives. Bondage here seems to suggest Greek oppression under the “Ottoman yoke.” In this case, far from looting the statues, Elgin is “liberating” them.
Hobhouse adds that, conveniently: “the Athenians consider the condition of these enchanted marbles will be bettered by a removal from the country of the tyrant Turks.” This is his published account; his diary from the same period lacks that rhetorical flourish and has a slightly different tenor:[20]


And some Greeks . . . declared they heard an Arabim groan and scream most piteously within them [the trunks where the statues were packed]. Some of these statues, they say, have been heard to bewail at leaving their friends and fellow marbles in the Acropolis.


What is common to both accounts is the belief that the statues are groaning in distress, but the reasons given for that distress are almost diametrically opposed. (It was a not uncommon Christian belief from Byzantine times that pagan statues were possessed by demons: damage to extremities such as feet was sometimes done to hobble their potential movement.[21])
Frederick Sylvester North Douglas (grandson of Frederick North) in 1813 published an account of impressions travelling through Greece from 1810 to 1812, including three weeks spent in Athens (not long after Hobhouse’s account).
While Douglas was touring the Acropolis, an “illiterate servant” of the Disdar (the chief military officer on the citadel of the Acropolis) observing Douglas’ admiration of the standing Caryatids, and his “regret” for the “bad taste that has removed one of them,” turned around and told him


that when the other κορίτσια (girls) had lost their sister, they manifested their affliction by filling the air at the close of evening with the most mournful sighs and lamentations, that he himself had often heard their complaints, and never without being so much affected as to be obliged to leave the citadel till they had ceased; and that the ravished sister was not deaf to their voice, but astonished the lower town, where she was placed, by answering in the same lamentable tones.


It has occurred to me that there might even be some truth to this story. The Erechtheion had stood largely unmolested for twenty-two centuries. Removing the load-bearing Caryatid, and replacing her with an ad hoc support, would have resulted in much shifting of the ancient stones. Who is to say that, in the evenings as the air cooled and a breeze rose up, the sound of the weight contracting and the structure resettling would not have produced some very eerie sounds?


A Centaur at the Wedding. Although it is often said that Elgin intended to “rescue” the Marbles from the Turks, the “natives,” the elements, and, perhaps most worryingly, the French—and who knows but that this last motive had some bearing later, when Elgin refused to sell them to Napoleon—his original plan was to use them to furnish his new Scottish mansion. In July 1801, his mind is abuzz with plans for the interior decoration of Broomhall, the new house he plans for himself and his 23-year-old bride, Lady Elgin, the beauty and heiress Mary née Nisbet, to be paid for at her expense.
It is through Lady Elgin’s money and energy, and even supervision, that the bulk of the Marbles are eventually removed, packed, and shipped. Lively and unconventional as well as beautiful, she excited the admiration of both Sultan Selim III and of Napoleon, received an ode in Persian to her beauty by the poet and travel writer Mirza Abu Taleb Khan, and was an early promoter of the small pox vaccine.[22]
Elgin writes of Broomhall from Constantinople to the painter he has employed, Giovanni Battista Lusieri,


This building is a subject that occupies me greatly, and offers me the means of placing, in a useful, distinguished and agreeable way, the various things that you may perhaps be able to procure for me.
The Hall is intended to be adorned with columns—the cellars underneath are vaulted expressly for this . . . one can easily multiply ornaments of beautiful marble without overdoing it; and nothing, truly, is so beautiful and also independent of changes of fashion.
These reflexions only apply to unworked marble. You do not need any prompting from me to know the value that is attached to a sculptured marble, or historic piece.


Elgin has yet to arrive in Athens (in fact, he will never see the Parthenon with the Marbles attached), where his mania for collection reaches a kind of fever pitch.
By October, Elgin is giving Lusieri shopping lists:


The first on the list are the metopes, the bas-reliefs, and the remains of the statues that can still be found. . . . Would it be permissible to speak of a Caryatid?


The fact that Elgin demurs a little at the Caryatid indicates, I think, that even Elgin realized taking a supporting column might be crossing a line. As if Lusieri is down at a supermarket and might forget milk, Elgin adds, “Do not forget some capitals on the Acropolis.”
He concludes with the ecstasy of a collector on the hunt: “To sum up, the slightest object from the Acropolis is a jewel.”
On January 5, 1802, Lusieri writes to Elgin that “If I cannot get the Pandroseum [the Erechtheion] entire, I do not despair of one of the Caryatids”; and on the eleventh, “Without a special firman it is impossible to take away the last [that is, the entire Erechtheion]. The Turks and the Greeks are extremely attached to it, and there were murmurs when Mr. Hunt asked for it.”[23]
In September of 1802, the ever-loyal Lusieri in Athens can write proudly to Elgin of having obtained a metope with a centaur carrying off a woman. He confesses (there is almost a thrill of transgression here): “This piece has caused much trouble in all respects, and I have even been obliged to be a little barbarous.”
And a little later: “send a dozen marble saws of different sizes to Athens, as quickly as possible. I should require three or four, twenty feet in length . . .”


The Temple of the Cari—Something. Lady Elgin was an enthusiastic partner in the venture and supervised removals, packaging, and loading cargo, on Elgin’s behalf. Although young and pregnant with her third child, she was in some ways left balancing the whole weighty operation on her head. She boasts of the superior efficiency of women, writing to Elgin in May 1802:


I am now satisfied of what I always thought; which is how much more Women can do if they set about it, than Men. I will lay any bet had you been here you would not have got half so much on board as I have.
As for getting the other things you wished for down from the Acropolis it is quite impossible before you return. Lusieri says Capt Lacy was upon his first coming here against the things being taken down, but at last he was keener than any body & absolutely wished you to have the whole Temple of the Cari—something, where the Statues of the Women are—


Like Lusieri, she craved Elgin’s approval, “How I have faged [i.e., fatigued] to get all this done, do you love me better for it, Elgin?”
The Elgins (plural) would be remembered in the rueful and rhymed Latin inscription some traveller placed on the Parthenon:


Quod non fecerunt Goti,
hoc fecerunt Scoti
(That which the Goths did not do, the Scots did.)


Another traveller scrawled on a remaining Caryatid, “Opus Phidiae” (the work of Phidias), and on the brick column with which Elgin had replaced the Caryatid, “Opus Elgin.”


[10] Many sources on the Internet give “Hymettus’ breeze,” but this is clearly wrong—no poet, no matter how mediocre, will rhyme “breeze” with “breeze,” breezes do not drone, and Hymettus was famed for bees and honey.
[11] Robert Eisner, Travelers to an Antique Land (Ann Arbor, 1991).
[12] Mr. Julian Snow, in the House of Commons, 24 October 1950; so described from a visit to Athens three years before, in a speech proposing the return of the Caryatid from the British Museum as a token of encouragement to Greece after its bloody civil war.
[13] Virginia Woolf, A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals 1897–1909, ed. by Mitchell A. Leaska (New York, 1990)
[14] The Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. by Anne Olivier Bell, assisted by Andrew McNeillie (New York, 1982), Vol. 4: 1931–1935.
[15] William St. Clair, “The Elgin Marbles: Questions of Stewardship and Accountability,” International Journal of Cultural Property, 8(2), pp. 391–521.
[16] Claire L. Lyons, “Conference report. Cleaning the Parthenon Sculptures. British Museum, London, England (November 30–December 1, 1999),” International Journal of Cultural Property, 9(1), 2000, pp. 180–184.
[17] Technically, a firman must be signed by the Sultan—not the case with this letter.
[18] I am grateful to Gregory Dowling for this insight.
[19] Ömer Erbil, “Turkish Researchers Debunk UK’s Elgin Marbles Claim,” Hürriyet Daily News, March 28, 2019.
[20] For a full account of Hobhouse’s Elgin note and discrepancies with the diary, see: Eleonora Vratskidou, “Hobhouse: A note on Lord Elgin’s Pursuits in Greece (1813),” Translocations. Anthologie.
[21] Cyril Mango, “Antique Statuary and the Byzantine Beholder,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 17, 1963, pp. 53, 55–75. John Pollini, “Christian Desecration and Mutilation of the Parthenon,” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Athenische Abteilung, 122, 2007, pp. 207–228.
[22] Susan Nagel, Mistress of the Elgin Marbles: A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin (New York, 2004).
[23] A. H. Smith, “Lord Elgin and His Collection,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 36, 1916, pp. 163–372.