Leading Article: Losing our marbles

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The Independent Culture
AS ACADEMICS meet at the British Museum to talk about the Elgin marbles, it is worth reminding ourselves just why the sculptures reside in London and not in Athens, where they graced the Parthenon for more than 2,000 years, until Lord Elgin began shipping them to Britain in 1802. The simple explanation is just that Lord Elgin, the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which held suzerainty over Greece, gave the antiquarian ambassador permission "to take away any pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon" from the Acropolis. That this permission may have been extracted, or abused, with the liberal hand of bribery muddies the waters, but doesn't touch the root of the issue, which lies in the deep historical connections between public art and political power.

Listen to the 19th-century tones of triumphalism. "Since the dominion of men was asserted over the ocean, three thrones, of mark beyond all others, have been set upon its sands: the thrones of Tyre, Venice and England". So wrote the art critic John Ruskin, surveying the stones of Venice, so many of which were looted from the Byzantine predecessors of the Ottomans.

But the Venetians, unlike the British, found glorious ways of displaying their loot. The British Museum's cold Duveen galleries, with their sepulchral, scraped-white marbles, are a temple to desolation. Put those stones back on the Parthenon, paint them in gaudy colours, let them enjoy the light and warmth of the Mediterranean sun. We still have Stonehenge, after all, which looks just right in the wintry rains of November.