Behold the goddess Iris, belted tunic undulating in an imagined wind, bosom held out and head held … well, almost 1,500 miles away in Athens.
These are the Elgin marbles if you ask the British, the Parthenon marbles if you ask the Greeks. A nobleman saved them 200-odd years ago if you ask the British, and he stole them if you ask the Greeks. This fight never really got old, but it’s especially new today. The European Union might ask an exiting United Kingdom to drop off these paragons of ancient achievement on its way out. The case is stronger than ever.
When Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin and 11th Earl of Kincardine, traveled to the Acropolis in the early 1800s as the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, the sultan allegedly bestowed his permission to “take away some pieces of stone with old inscriptions and figures.” Naturally, the earl took this as license to remove some 17 statues from the pediments, 15 metopes (carved panels) and 247 feet of the frieze from the Parthenon and bring them back home to merry old England.
What’s now widely viewed as unconscionable seemed much more defensible at the time. A civilized fellow from a civilized country was performing the civilized act of preservation, rescuing a treasure that the higher mind of a Scotsman could appreciate from Philistines who couldn’t. (Lord Elgin initially intended to “preserve” the marble in his own home, and only sold them to the museum later when he was hard up for cash.) Use the Parthenon to store gunpowder or break off bits of its edifice to construct a garrison, and you relinquish any claim to complain when someone swoops in to carry away a statue or two or 200. You also relinquish any claim to ask for the stuff back centuries later.
So Iris stands headless in London, and Poseidon’s front torso lingers in Greece, lonely for its Bloomsbury-based rear.
The problem Bruce’s beneficiaries have now run into is that those one-time “barbarians” have transformed into the rightful inheritors of Hellas. Greece is today revered as the cradle of Western culture, and who better to house that culture than the Greeks? The British turn this point around and argue that it was their foresight in whisking Iris and company off to the isles that spawned neoclassicism in the first place by reintroducing a forgotten style to their taste-making citizens.
The English in this manner write themselves into a story of art as a living thing, and of sculptures always in motion, even when they’re standing still. What those clashing centaurs meant to their purported creator, a sculptor and architect named Phidias, hundreds of years before the birth of Christ is different from what they meant to the Byzantine Emperor Basil II, who made a pilgrimage to Athens in the Parthenon’s days as a church. And that, in turn, is different from what they meant to the Turks who turned the building into a mosque and then a munitions store during the Morean War.
Which is different from what they mean to the 6 million tourists and locals alike who come to gaze at them for free at the British Museum every year.
Western culture, in other words, might have started in Greece, but it doesn’t belong to the people who happen to live within those man-drawn borders today. It belongs to the whole Western world that has been shaped, subtly and not, by the Phidiases of yesteryear — or to the whole world, period.
This is well and good. But that doesn’t mean this art belongs to Britain.
There’s an aesthetic case for unification, somewhere, and a geographic case for reunification in Greece. No god or goddess should be made to bear the indignity of headlessness, and no visitor should be needlessly deprived of viewing a masterpiece that’s actually in one piece. Athens’s Acropolis Museum makes this case with a gallery whose walls are adorned with yawning spaces that wait for the missing marbles to fill them. And regardless of the far-flung influence of the ancient empire, the inhabitants of modern-day Greece are more likely than anyone else literally to be the great-great-great-et-cetera grandchildren of Socrates. Athens is still literally Athens.
Then there’s the larger story. Just like the British say, history is always moving, and art is always moving with it. The tale Lord Elgin and his countrymen have written themselves into is a tale of sun-never-setting imperialism where London is the Earth’s center — but that tale is getting new chapters every day, and in the latest installment, the white guys don’t always get to cry “finders, keepers.”
These museums stuffed full of ill-gotten gains are starting to look like artifacts themselves: frozen in a time when it was okay to abscond with dribs and drabs of a country’s culture because you thought you knew better what to do with them. Sending Dionysus home to recline would recognize exactly what the keepers of plunder repositories call up to defend themselves: It’s okay for things to change.
And right now, as always, things are changing. This brouhaha is back because of Brexit, after all.
That leaves a question. Maybe the marbles are an ode to connectedness between the old Mediterranean world and the new and wider one today. Maybe they do belong to all of us. Why, then, should their keeper be the very country that insists on belonging only to itself?
Molly Roberts writes about technology and society for The Post's Opinions section