The Parthenon – made up of both the ruins of Athens and the sculptures that, thanks to Lord Elgin, are on display in London – has long been more than just a temple. When Chateaubriand arrived in 1806, he claimed to have washed his horses and put on “gala clothes” before seeing the 2,000-year-old site. For Lord Byron, he symbolized the Greek independence movement for which he would eventually give his life.
More than a century later, during the Second World War, Lord Halifax even suggested sending the Parthenon friezes – removed by Elgin between 1801 and 1812 – to America, in the hope that their presence, evoking the ancient democracy, would garner public support for the United States. entering the war. The Nazi occupiers, meanwhile, had flown a swastika from the ruins, trying to reclaim this fundamental image of European civilization for their own purposes.
It is therefore fitting that historian William St Clair, who died last year, begins his latest book, Who Saved the Parthenon?, by acknowledging that while the Parthenon can be “an inert accumulation of animals, plants and minerals”, he assumed a significance – and a level of controversy – beyond any other ancient site.
St Clair devoted much of his life to studying the Acropolis, publishing Lord Elgin and the Marbles in 1967 and That Greece Might Still Be Free in 1972, and his scholarship became known for its dramatic flair. In his 1998 revised edition of the old book, he revealed that the British Museum had, under the aegis and persuasion of Lord Duveen – who had made his fortune altering old master paintings and selling them on the market American – irreparably damaged friezes.
If you visit the Duveen Gallery at the British Museum today, you will be greeted by polished white shapes. Yet in what St Clair describes as “dull London” before the 1930s, the marbles “looked dull and dirty”: their age had given them patina and texture, and traces of the glossy paint that adorned them remained. originally them in the 5th century BC. Their “rich mixture of white, brown, orange and occasional black” contradicted what the public expected: accounts of art history had long assumed that classical sculptures were white, and many people were used to the pristine perfection of plaster casting. models.