Among the first to visit Greece’s new Acropolis Museum, devoted to the
Parthenon and other temples, the author reviews the origins of a gloriously
“right” structure (part of a fifth-century-b.c. stimulus plan) and the continuing
outrage that half its façade is still in London.
The great classicist A. W. Lawrence (illegitimate younger brother of the
even more famously illegitimate T.E. “of Arabia”) once remarked of the
Parthenon that it is “the one building in the world which may be assessed as
absolutely right.” I was considering this thought the other day as I stood on top
of the temple with Maria Ioannidou, the dedicated director of the Acropolis
Restoration Service, and watched ...view middle of the document...
Under the direction of the artistic genius
Phidias, the temple had two massive pediments decorated with the figures of
Pallas Athena, Poseidon, and the gods of the sun and the moon. It then had a
series of 92 high-relief panels, or metopes, depicting a succession of mythical
and historical battles. The most intricate element was the frieze, carved in
bas-relief, which showed the gods, humans, and animals that made up the
annual Pan-Athens procession: there were 192 equestrian warriors and
auxiliaries featured, which happens to be the exact number of the city’s heroes
who fell at the Battle of Marathon. Experts differ on precisely what story is
being told here, but the frieze was quite clearly carved as a continuous
Ever since Lord Byron wrote his excoriating attacks on Elgin’s colonial
looting, first in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812) and then in The Curse of
Minerva (1815), there has been a bitter argument about the legitimacy of the
British Museum’s deal. I’ve written a whole book about this controversy and
won’t oppress you with all the details, but would just make this one point. If the
Mona Lisa had been sawed in two during the Napoleonic Wars and the
separated halves had been acquired by different museums in, say, St.
Petersburg and Lisbon, would there not be a general wish to see what they
might look like if re-united? If you think my analogy is overdrawn, consider
this: the body of the goddess Iris is at present in London, while her head is in
Athens. The front part of the torso of Poseidon is in London, and the rear part is
in Athens. And so on. This is grotesque.
It is unfortunately true that the city allowed itself to become very dirty and
polluted in the 20th century, and as a result the remaining sculptures and
statues on the Parthenon were nastily eroded by “acid rain.” And it’s...