Exciting title isn’t it? It kind of sounds like a sequel to one of the better class of action/adventure movies, with that in mind it’s time to hold on to your potatoes as my latest Adventure in Museum Land takes us back to where our last one left off, with the famous Parthenon Marbles.
In the first decade of the 19th century, Lord Elgin, that infamous obtainer of rare antiquities carried out his controversial cultural rescue operation/vandalism of the temple of Athena on the Athenian Acropolis. In 1809, the equally infamous – though for different reasons – Lord Byron stayed in Athens for 10 weeks before travelling around the rest of Greece and becoming a National Hero for the Greek people during their war for Independence.
Both of these men have left an indelible mark upon Greece and for very different reasons. Not only did Byron fight for the Greeks against the Turks, but he took on a fellow Peer of the Realm for them too.
However, his first attack on Elgin concerning the Parthenon Marbles doesn’t really ring true with this Greek National Hero persona Byron has attached to him:
“Let Aberdeen and Elgin still pursue
The shade of Fame through regions of Virtu;
Waste useless thousands on their Phidian freaks,
Mis-shapen monuments and maimed antiques.”
(From Byron’s English Ballads and Scotch Reviewers)
Hardly complimentary, and a world away from Keats’ and almost everyone else’s reaction to the famous Phidian sculptures. However, looking at them again, he kind of has a point…
To be fair to Phidias; the space he was working with was rather limiting. You can’t really fit much in that awkward triangle space of the pediments. Also various wars and shockingly bad maintenance resulted in the loss of hands and noses.
In 1811 Byron went on to write The Curse of Minerva, a poem he never intended to publish but saw print anyway thanks to a bootlegged copy printed without his permission. There is one part that bothers me, apart from the cheap blows about Elgin’s wife and son – you lose all moral high ground when you do things like that – anyway, Athena says “Another name pollutes my shrine!”
Granted the marbles are also commonly known as the “Elgin Marbles,” but nowhere on the actual stonework will you see his name. Travel a little way outside Athens to a town called Sunio, visit the Temple of Poseidon (then believed to be dedicated to Athena) and guess what you see…? Yup, that’s right.
But what, I hear you cry, WAS Minerva’s Curse?
“Brawny Brutes in stupid wonder stare,
And Marvel at his Lordship’s stone shop there.
Round the thronged gate shall sauntering coxcombs creep,
To lounge and lucuberate, to prate and peep.”
The debate about the Parthenon Marbles is still raging. My tuppence-worth? The Parthenon Marbles are the ancient equivalent of Paris Hilton, or other vapid celebrity. Famous for being famous, and thus it seems Minerva’s Curse shows no sign of stopping and the tourists will continue to flock.
At least we aren’t all spiders!