The Elgin Marbles, also known as the Parthenon Marbles, are a collection of Classical Greek marble sculptures made by Greek sculptor, painter, and architect Phidias in 400 BC. They were originally part of the Parthenon and other buildings erected on the Acropolis of Athens. However, between 1801 and 1812, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin removed about half of them from the Parthenon, along with other sculptures from the Propylaea and Erechteum.
The story of the Elgin Marbles begins in November 1798 when the Earl was appointed “Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of His Britannic Majesty to the Sublime Porte of Selim III, Sultan of Turkey.” Before he left, he felt that he could do something for the arts. He then endeavored to get the British government to appoint a staff of modelers, artists, draughtsmen, and architects to produce copies, drawings, and casts of Greek treasures, such as the Parthenon. The government feared the costs and according to Lord Elgin, they answered “No.”
Lord Elgin decided to perform the work himself and employed his own staff under the supervision of Giovanni Battista Lusieri. He was an Italian landscape painter from Naples and a court painter to Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies. Although Lusieri was unable to speak English, Lord Elgin drew up a contract with him and paid him £200 per year.
Elgin’s intent at the time was to obtain drawings and casts of the Parthenon. However, allegedly, he soon learned that fallen statues from it were being burned for lime and converted into mortar for building modern structures in the area. There were also supposedly locals who were breaking off bits the ancient sculptures and selling them to tourists as souvenirs. Elgin then realized that these irreplaceable treasures might be forever lost.
He then began to remove material from the Parthenon and surrounding area with Lusieri supervising the removal and supposedly even encouraging it. In addition, Lord Elgin claimed that he obtained an official decree, called a firman, from the central government of the Ottoman Empire that was ruling Greece at the time. This firman supposedly allowed him to remove the sculptures. However, the original firman has never been found.
When removal of what become known as the Elgin marbles happened, some people supported the Earl’s actions. Their support was noted by one writer who remarked:
“[T]he act was justified in the minds of most persons by the apathy of the Greeks themselves, and the consideration that the relics were saved from decay and possible destruction. The Turks cared nothing for the association which enriched even the mutilated fragments of Grecian art in the eyes of educated people in England, and no one could then foresee how speedily Greece was to attain her independence. Besides, there were actually rival purchasers on the scene, and if Lord Elgin had not secured the marbles they would have been sent to Paris.”
Others were critical of Lord Elgin and his actions and some argued that he did not have the right or the proper authority to remove the sculptures. One person incensed about the removal of these treasures was Lord Byron, a British poet, peer, politician, and leading figure in the Romantic movement. He also happened to be a fan of Lusieri and thought of him as an important painter. While traveling in Greece, Lord Byron was given a tour of Elgin’s handiwork and what he saw infuriated him – wide spaces at the Parthenon missing friezes and metopes. He called the Earl’s actions vandalism, and one writer later noted of Lord Byron’s intense displeasure:
“Lord Byron gave vent to his feelings in his letters and poetry, but his ‘Curse of Minera’ was kept among his papers, and was never printed until a copy was surreptitiously obtained and published in a magazine. … [It] shows that Lord Byron was not so cosmopolitan as to be indifferent to the danger his own country ran from foreign invasion.”
Transporting this priceless treasure to London was not accomplished without incident. In September of 1802 an English brig called the Mentor was heading to London when it sunk at the entrance of the port of Cerigo. At the time it carried ten cases of marble statues and the marble seat of the Prytaneum of Athens, which had originally been situated somewhere east of the northern cliff of the Acropolis. A Doctor Calucci, who served as the British Vice Consul at Cerigo, was hired by Elgin to recover the lost items. When he succeeded, papers reported:
“After a series of trials, during two years, [he] has succeeded in the recovery of this inestimable treasure; but not without being indebted to the address and intrepidity of the famous swimmers of Calimno, attended with an enormous expence.”
Lord Elgin did not just transport treasures from Greece to Britain. One newspaper noted in May of 1802 what else he had shipped and noted that he planned to present it to the King:
“The following curiosities were landed on Thursday at the Dock-yard, Portsmouth, from a brig lately returned from Egypt… – Cleopatra’s coffin; head of the Theban Ram, which is said to be 4,000 years old; two Pyramids from Grand Cairo; a statue of Marcus Aurelius, and one of Scipio in white marble; hand of a figure which is said to be 80 feet high, and a great variety of Egyptian Deities.”
Excavation of the Greek marbles began in 1801 and ended in 1812 and cost Lord Elgin around £70,000. Rumors claimed that he originally planned to use these treasures to decorate his private home near Dunfermline in Scotland, called Broomhall House, but a costly divorce forced him to reconsider. Apparently, his wife refused conjugal relations with him and fell in love with their neighbor. Without her wealth to support him, Lord Elgin needed to settle his debts and therefore looked for buyers. Among those interested was the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
The British government was less interested, but nonetheless extensive parliamentary debates about the purchase were undertaken in the House of Commons. Lord Elgin had acquired “247 feet of the frieze … 15 metopes, … [and] 17 pedimental sculptures.” Unfortunately, the pedimental sculptures were heavily damaged so that often the only recognizable piece was a torso. Critics were harsh in their appraisals of the marbles, and, thus, when talks about their purchase first began, there was opposition partly because the Elgin marbles were in bad shape and partly because they were not what many people considered to be “ideal beauty” at the time.
There was also concern about Lord Elgin’s authority to remove them from Athens. To help shore up his legitimacy in their removal, a supposed Italian copy of the translation of the original Ottoman firman was presented to Parliament by the clergyman, Reverend Philip Hunt. He stated that the original document had been addressed to the cadi (chief judge) and the vaivode (governor) of Athens. A translation of a portion of it stated:
“He (Lord Elgin) had also at the time expressly besought us that an official letter may be written from hence ordering that as long as the said painters shall be employed in going in and out of the said citadel of Athens, which is the place of their occupations, and in fixing scaffolding round the ancient Temple of the Idols (Parthenon), and in moulding the ornamental sculpture and visible figures thereon in plaster or gypsum, and in measuring the remains of other old ruined buildings there, and in excavating foundations when they find it necessary, in order to discover inscriptions which may have been covered in the rubbish, that no interrupt may be given them, nor any obstacle thrown in their way by the disdar (or commander of the citadel) or any other person, that no one may meddle with the scaffolding or implements they may require in their works, and that when they wish to take away any pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon that no opposition may be made thereto.”
Of this translated document critics noted that the original intent of the firman was that only casts be done of the sculptures and that “pieces of stone” meant something other than the great frieze, the metopes, and the pedimental figures. Critics opposing the government purchase of the Elgin marbles also stated that there was too much “indefiniteness” and that there was no clear permission granted to Lord Elgin for what he had taken.
A supporter of Lord Elgin who thought otherwise wrote to the editor of The Gentleman’s Magazine on 2 May 1813. He signed his named Verax and remarked:
“Allow me, Sir, here to say something in vindication of Lord Elgin’s exertions.
It is quite easy to see that all this outcry against his Lordship’s success derives solely from the disappointment of a few discontented Travellers, whose selfish gratification may have been curtailed, when they found the Grecian soil indeed, and the site of many antient buildings, but all dismantled of their former glories and once-boasted temples, and a vacuity instead, which left them to return to their friends without the envied, the exclusive distinction of seeing what ‘the many’ might in vain wish to behold, but which now (alas for them!) all the world may see in London! …. yet complain upon this head would be about as reasonable, as censuring a man for having left nothing in Greece worth going to see, when he has taken the only security remaining for the preservation of what was ever most worth seeing there, for immortalizing the Art which produced those admired objects, and for enabling the publick to see them without any labour or expense. … In short, Sir, the question is this: Who deserves best of the Country – the Tourist, or the Patriot? He, who after gratifying his own inclination to travel, reimburses himself in part upon the publick by a desultory account of his Tour, not now very interesting or very new; or the Patriot, who, after an immense expence, difficulties, and risk, has laid the foundation of a School in the Fine Arts, by which his country will be ennobled and hundreds in future ages reap both emolument and fame.”
Lord Elgin also published his own defense, and, ultimately, a parliamentary committee concluded that the Elgin marbles were best given “asylum” under a “free government.” A deal was struck for their purchase in June of 1816 when Lord Elgin sold the marbles to the British government. He did so at a significant loss as they paid him £35,000, about half the cost he spent in procuring them.
Lord Elgin had begun to display the marbles in 1807 in his temporary museum, and after their purchase by the British Government, they were placed in the British Museum where they were displayed free of charge. Many people wanted to see them, and, among the visitors was the famous Romantic poet John Keats. He viewed them in 1817 and produced a sonnet afterwards titled, “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles.”
Another famous visitor was the Italian Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova. He began famous for his own sculptures and later developed a friendship with the famous socialite, Juliette Récamier, who he thought was so beautiful that he created from memory a marble bust of her. It is known today as “Juliette Récamier en Béatrice,” but when he revealed it to her, she disliked it and could not see herself in the idealized piece. However, that was not how Canova was feeling about the treasures that Lord Elgin had acquired. After seeing them, Canova wrote a letter to him, that in part started:
“Permit me, my Lord, to express to you, the lively gratification I have experienced on seeing, in London, the precious antique Marbles … I never can sufficiently examine them to gratify myself; and though my stay in this great capital is necessarily very short, I have consecrated every spare moment, to contemplate these famous reliques of antient art. I admire in them the truth of nature joined to the choicest of beautiful forms. — Every thing here breathes life, with the most exquisite skill, yet without the least affectation, or ostentation of art, which is veiled with admirable address. The naked figures are true and beautiful flesh. I esteem myself happy in having been able to see with my own eyes, these distinguished works, and I should have been content to have come to London solely for them.”
Today, the Elgin marbles remain in the British Museum, but since the early 1980s, the Greek government has argued that they should be returned and dispute Britain’s right to them. Ongoing controversy still exists as to whether Lord Elgin had authority to remove these treasures and whether the documentation purportedly authorizing him to do so is legitimate.* Of Lord Elgin’s right to remove the pieces, The Architect wrote a piece on 8 November 1884 that stated:
“From what we have said it will be seen that the entire transaction is surrounded by the indefiniteness which is always dangerous in a law case, and an ordinary tribunal would probably hesitate to accept the title on which England holds the sculpture. The English ambassador obtained privileges from the Grand Porte, which he chose to interpret as being a concession to Lord Elgin, the connoisseur. The Turkish officials at Athens were influenced by means of bribes in money and gimcrackery, and in consequence did not interfere. The high authorities in Constantinople, after the manner of an English circumlocution office, declined to know anything of the operations, as they had received no official information. It was easy for the Earl of Elgin, under those circumstances, to remove as much sculpture as he cared to possess. The real difficulties were those attending the voyage to England.”
*A more recent examination of the documents related to the Elgin Marbles has resulted in a constitutional law professor, David Rudenstine, at the Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law arguing the British committed fraud. Rudenstine “challenges the British claim to patrimony by arguing against the country’s historical legal defenses. … British Parliament committed fraud in 1816 by purposefully altering a key document during the translation process, making it appear as though Elgin had received prior authorization from Ottoman officials to remove the Parthenon marbles when he had none. [Thus.] ‘from a laywer’s point of view, this is fraud.”
-  G.G.N. Byron, The poetical works of lord Byron, with notes v. 3 (London: Suttaby, 1885), p. 58.
-  Ibid.
-  Tyne Mercury; Northumberland and Durham and Cumberland Gazette, “Foreign Intelligence,” March 5, 1805, p. 2.
-  Stamford Mercury, “London,” May 7, 1802, p. 2.
-  J. H. Merryman, Thinking about the Elgin Marbles: Critical Essays on Cultural Property, Art and Law (Austin: Wolters Kluwer Law & Business, 2009), p. 66.
-  The Architect: A Weekly Illustrated Journal of Art, Civil Engineering and Building v. 32 (London: Gilbert Wood & Company, Limited, 1884), p. 292.
-  J. Nichols, The Gentleman’s Magazine v. 113 (London: E. Cave, 1813), p. 426–27.
-  On the Parlimentary Purchase of the Elgin Marbles (Edinburgh, 1816), Scots Magazine, p. 192.
-  The Architect: A Weekly Illustrated Journal of Art, Civil Engineering and Building v. 32 (London: Gilbert Wood & Company, Limited, 1884), p. 292.
-  Prominent Lawyer Suggests that Officials Committed Fraud to Keep Elgin Marbles in England During 19th Century, ArtNews, February 2020.