An unseen yet palpable presence seemed to hover over Athens this June during the inaugural festivities for the New Acropolis Museum, which was designed by the New York–based architect Bernard Tschumi. This pervasive emanation was not the aura of Athena Parthenos (“Athena the Virgin”), dedicatee of her namesake city’s principal temple atop the Acropolis—the Parthenon of 447–432 BC, long esteemed as the apex of Classical architecture. Neither was it the shade of Ictinus, the building’s architect; nor that of Phidias, who sculpted the gold-and-ivory effigy of the goddess that nearly touched the inner sanctum’s forty-foot ceiling. Nor was it Agoracritus, putative head of the sizable Parthenon workshop that carved tons of white Pentelic marble into numerous fully dimensional figures for the two triangular pediments; ninety-two high-relief panels, called metopes, for the frieze above the oblong structure’s peripheral colonnade; and the bas-relief that wrapped like a ribbon around the exterior of Athena’s inner sanctum and depicted the Panathenaic Procession (the citizenry’s celebration of their divine protector’s birthday).
Instead, the regnant spirit of the New Acropolis Museum’s opening turned out to be a departed diva of the silver screen, Melina Mercouri, the actress-turned-politician whose name was repeatedly invoked at the ceremony, and over whose grave in Athens’s First Cemetery prayers were said as part of the consecratory observances. Those who recall Mercouri only as a mid-century sex symbol outshone by her more celebrated contemporaries Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot might be bemused by the exalted place she now occupies in the modern Greek pantheon, rather as if Angie Dickinson had become head of the National Endowment for the Arts. But more than anyone else, Mercouri vivified the continuing campaign to bring Greece’s long-lost archaeological treasures back to their homeland.
Three decades ago, she began agitating for the unconditional return of marble carvings that were sawn off the Parthenon between 1801 and 1812 under the direction of Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, an amateur antiquarian and British ambassador to the Sublime Porte (as the seat of the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople was called in diplomatic parlance). Elgin’s representative in Athens exploited loopholes in a vaguely worded permit from Greece’s Ottoman overlords and stripped both the Parthenon and an adjoining shrine, the Erechtheum, of their choicest surviving sculptures (many had been destroyed in the infamous Venetian bombardment of 1687). Elgin’s removal of the marbles provoked immediate outrage, not least from Lord Byron, who castigated him in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage of 1812 as “the last, the worst, dull spoiler” who “rive[d] what Goth, and Turk, and Time hath spar’d.”
Four years later, the British government bought the booty from the cash-strapped earl for £35,000 (about $4 million today), and the Elgin Marbles, as they became known, remain in the British Museum. Sporadic demands for their return to Greece …