Friday, May 6, 2016

The Elgin Marbles


It's fun when our trips from different years and different countries begin to intersect.  Like when we visited Pergamon in Turkey one year, and more recently, Berlin, where a good chunk of the Pergamon artifacts had been set up on their museum island. Or when we visited the Tomb of Columbus in Seville, but found out that at least some part (parts?) of him still rest in the Dominican Republic. (Alas, I haven't been able to get there yet!)

 A few years ago, CC visited Athens, and of course, in Athens, climbed up the hill of the Parthenon.

To round out the tour, we also glimpsed the Acropolis Museum at the bottom of the hill, a modern structure with much interesting stuff, and a deliberate hole.  The Greeks are still more than a little eager to get back pieces of the Parthenon that are now in England, at the British Museum.  Specifically, the pieces that came to be called The Elgin Marbles.  No, not the marbles that Opie would play with back in Mayberry.  Rather the marble sculptures that once graced the Parthenon itself, before the centuries and various interested parties took parts home with them.

Here's how a Time magazine article spun it:
The Elgin Marbles receive their name from the British lord who craftily spirited them away from Greece. Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin and ambassador to the Ottoman Empire — occupiers of Greece in the early 19th century — grew to admire the Parthenon's extensive collection of ancient marble sculptures and began extracting and expatriating them to Britain in 1801. Lord Elgin claimed his imprimatur from an Ottoman sultan, who said he could remove anything from the Parthenon that did not interfere with the ancient citadel's walls. Despite objections that Lord Elgin had "ruined Athens" by the time his work was done in 1805, the British Government purchased the marbles from him in 1816. They've been housed at the British Museum ever since.
This isn't exactly a neutral piece, titled as it is, "Top 10 Plundered Artifacts."  A British paper, The Guardian, takes quite the opposite view, in "Parthenon Marbles: Greece's Claim is Nationalist Rhetoric that Deserves to Fail."  The British Museum gives a bit more history, which takes more account of the disregard that the Ottomans and many others had for all this 'pagan debris.'  

I'm not sure whether our frantic schedule on this current tour will let us see the Elgin Marbles (sadly, the one thing in London I actually want to see...), but they certainly play into the course material for our British Romanticism course (ARTS/ENGL).  Benjamin Robert Haydon, a "big picture" painter, become an enthusiastic champion of the Marbles, and introduced them to his friend, John Keats, the poet. 

Keats himself wrote about the Elgin Marbles, as in "On Seeing the Elgin Marbles":
My spirit is too weak—mortality
   Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
   And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.
   Yet ’tis a gentle luxury to weep
   That I have not the cloudy winds to keep
Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.
Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
   Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;
So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
   That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old time—with a billowy main—
   A sun—a shadow of a magnitude. 
We are also reading Stan Plumly's The Immortal Evening  [see the NYTimes book review] , a book about a strange dinner party at Haydon's place, which included Keats, Wordsworth, and Charles Lamb, to unveil Haydon's current work, "Christ's Entry into Jerusalem."


The book itself is probably too detailed for our students' interest, but it gives a sense of the ordinary associations of these poets and painters and writers, who weren't at all legendary all by themselves in a lonely tower.  It's that London which I'd like to experience, the one that engaged and enlivened the arts, the one with quirky paths and surprising friends.


later, bob

0 Responses

Post a Comment

Subscribe to our feed