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Elgin Marbles

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The Parthenon Marbles, often called the Elgin Marbles, is a large collection of marble sculptures brought to Britain in 1806 by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799-1803. Taking advantange of Ottoman suzerainty over what is now Greece, he obtained a firman for their removal from the Parthenon from the Ottoman Sultan. The sculptures were deposited in the British Museum, London in 1816, and in 1936 were placed into the purpose-built Duveen Gallery.


The Parthenon Marbles include some of the statuary from the pediments, the metope panels depicting battles between the Lapiths and the Centaurs, as well as the Parthenon Frieze which decorated the horizontal course set above the interior architrave of the temple. As such, they represent more than half of what now remains of the surviving sculptural decoration of the Parthenon: 247 feet from the original 524 feet of frieze; 15 out of 92 metopes; 17 partial figures from the pediments, as well as other pieces of architecture. Elgin's acquisitions also included objects from other buildings on the Athenian Acropolis: the Erechtheion, reduced to ruin during the Greek War of Independence (1821-33); the Propylaia, and the Temple of Athena Nike. Lord Elgin took half of the marbles from the Parthenon and wax casts were produced from the remaining ones.

Interpretation of the frieze

At present, about two-thirds of the frieze is in London and a third remains in Athens. Much of the Athenian material is not on display, and there are fragments in nine other international museums. Considerable debate surrounds the meaning of the frieze but most agree that it depicts the Panathenaic procession that paraded through Athens every four years. The procession on the frieze culminates at the east end of the Parthenon in a depiction of the Greek gods who are seated mainly on stools, either side of temple servants in their midst. This section of the frieze is currently under-appreciated as it is split between London and Athens, a doorway in the British Museum masking the absence of the relevant section of Frieze. An almost complete copy of this section of the Frieze is displayed and open to the public at Hammerwood Park near East Grinstead in Sussex.

Damage to marbles

To facilitate transport, the column capital of the Parthenon, the Erechtheum cornice and many metopes and slabs were sawn and sliced into smaller sections. One shipload of marbles sank off Cape Matapan, but was salvaged at the Earl's expense; it took two years to bring them to the surface.

The artifacts have been irrevocably damaged by the unauthorised "cleaning" methods employed by British Museum staff in the 1930s, who were dismissed when this was discovered. Acting under the erroneous belief that the marbles were originally bright white, the marbles were cleaned with copper tools and caustics, causing serious damage and altering the marbles' coloring. (The Pentelicon marble on which the carvings were made naturally acquire a tan color similar to honey when exposed to air.) In addition, the process scraped away all traces of surface coloring that the marbles originally held.
The Greeks applied similar processes to other buildings remaining on the Acropolis in the 1950s. The works remaining in Greece have been damaged mostly by the polluted Athenian atmosphere. The Marbles in the UK may have been damaged by the damp London climate.

The Greek claim to the marbles

The Greek government claims that the marbles should be returned to Athens on moral grounds, although it is no longer feasible or advisable to reposition them onto the Parthenon. As part of the campaign, it is building the New Acropolis Museum, designed by the Swiss/American architect Bernard Tschumi, designed to hold the Parthenon sculptures arranged in the same way as they would have been on the Parthenon. It is intended to leave the spaces for the Parthenon Marbles empty, rather than using casts in these positions, as a reminder to visitors of the fact that parts are held in other museums.

Other displaced Parthenon art

Lord Elgin was neither the first, nor the last, to disperse elements of the marbles from their original location. The remainder of the surviving sculptures that are not in museums or storerooms in Athens are held in museums in various locations across Europe (including the Louvre Museum). The British Museum also holds additional fragments from the Parthenon sculptures acquired from various collections that have no connection with Lord Elgin.

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