The Latest Scheme for the Parthenon

British Museum, London/Art Resource
The central scene of the east frieze of the Parthenon. ‘The traditional reading of the frieze,’ writes Mary Beard, interprets it as ‘the presentation of a newly woven robe (peplos) to Athena,’ the high point of a festival celebrating the goddess. Joan Breton Connelly, in The Parthenon Enigma, instead argues that the frieze depicts a scene from early Athenian myth, in which King Erechtheus, as Beard writes, ‘has been told by an oracle that in order to save Athens from invasion he must sacrifice one of his daughters,’ and is not receiving the peplos but rather handing the material over to his youngest daughter, who will wear it as her shroud.

In March 1816 a Select Committee of the British House of Commons met to decide the fate of “The Earl of Elgin’s Collection of Sculptured Marbles; etc.” Whatever high hopes or greedy intentions had driven Elgin to take these sculptures from the Athenian Acropolis in the first place, the whole enterprise—with the huge cost of the excavation, the removal of some precious slabs from the Parthenon itself, and the transport back from Greece to England—had ruined him. He was close to bankruptcy and his only option was to sell his marbles to the government. The asking price was £74,000.

The Select Committee was, of course, concerned with fixing a good price (in the end Elgin had to accept just £35,000). But it was also worried about Elgin’s legal title to the collection. The government was not interested in acquiring stolen property, and so—as the published account of the proceedings shows—they quizzed him at length on whether he had proper authority to remove the sculptures and whether he had abused his public position as British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire to stitch up a private deal for the marbles. When they were broadly satisfied on that score, the committee members turned to the trickier question of artistic merit. Put simply, were the Parthenon sculptures worth buying at all?

To answer that, the committee proceeded with rather quaint nineteenth-century diligence, summoning a dozen leading artists, architects, and antiquarians of the day to give their verdict on the sculptures’ quality. Overall they were enthusiastic enough for the committee to recommend purchase for a bargain sum. But the transcript of their comments reveals that, when pressed hard by their parliamentary interrogators, many of these specialists were less confident about the quality of the whole collection than they at first appeared.

The sculptor John Flaxman, for example, was keen on the marbles becoming public property, but could not bring himself—when directly asked—to rank even the best pieces above the famous Apollo Belvedere in the Vatican (a perverse judgment by today’s taste). Richard Payne Knight, an antiquarian who was admittedly no particular friend of Elgin, judged even the “finest works in this Collection” to be no higher than “the second…

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