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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.2 (2001) 311-313

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Book Review

Lord Elgin and the Marbles: The Controversial History of the Parthenon Sculptures

Ruins as Architecture: Architecture as Ruins

William St. Clair. Lord Elgin and the Marbles: The Controversial History of the Parthenon Sculptures, 3d rev. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998). Pp. 419. $16.95 paper.

Thomas J. McCormick. Ruins as Architecture: Architecture as Ruins (Dublin, N. H.: William L. Bauhan, 2000). Pp. 57. $12.50 paper.

No cultural property or work of art has ever excited such impassioned scholarly debate, nationalistic posturing, and imperialistic recalcitrance as the so-called Elgin Marbles. Taken in the early years of the nineteenth century from their home on the Acropolis in Athens by the seventh Earl of Elgin (Thomas Bruce), these sculptural masterpieces by Phidias have been embroiled in controversy ever since. Now in the British Museum in London, the Elgin Marbles are composed of architectural sculptures and fragments that once adorned western antiquity's most celebrated building--the Parthenon--and consist of frieze reliefs, pedimental figures and smaller metope reliefs required by the temple's Doric architectural order. Since the Romantic era the Elgin Marbles have been the canonical examples of the purity and perfection of late fifth-century B.C.E. Hellenic art, the Age of Pericles, designated "High Classical" by art historians. As William St. Clair narrates in great detail, however, their modern history has been anything but pure and perfect. In its third edition with four new chapters that are arguably even more controversial than the original story, Lord Elgin and the Marbles has become the authoritative source for the history of the Parthenon sculptures in the last two centuries of their existence.

Divided into twenty-six chapters with two appendices, an extensive selected bibliography, and a highly sophisticated index, the book is easy to use and the writing is clear and accessible. The first five chapters narrate Elgin's early years, the beginning of his diplomatic career and his posting to Constantinople that made it possible for him to remove the Parthenon marbles and many other antiquities from Ottoman-occupied Greece. Chapters six through thirteen chronicle [End Page 311] the difficulties Elgin and his numerous agents encountered in obtaining possession and transport of the marbles during the Napoleonic wars, part of which time was spent by the Scottish earl in a French prison. The longest section of the book, chapters fourteen through twenty-two, describes the tortured negotiations and eventual purchase of Lord Elgin's collection for the nation and their definitive removal to the British Museum. The last four chapters, the new material, narrate the parallel histories of the marbles and the Parthenon in the era of Greek independence and the formation of a Hellenic political and cultural identity and, most interestingly of all, the disastrous cleaning of the sculptures in 1937-38 that resulted in the almost complete removal of the original surface and patina of the marbles. This scandal was hushed up by the government and the British Museum until the author forced the issue and examined the relevant documents, which are published for the first time in the second index.

The huge cast of characters; legal maneuverings; cloak-and-dagger antics of English, French; and Turkish agents; corrupt politicians; envious colleagues and enthusiastic artists; tales of adultery and betrayal; and many other episodes make Lord Elgin and the Marbles a highly entertaining read. The majority of issues tackled by the author are treated with as much even-handedness and equanimity as the highly inflammatory subject would allow. Convincing and articulate, the book's myriad virtues will be apparent to any reader. I shall limit my critical comments to a few factual errors and points of disagreement.

In discussing the innovation of actually destroying an architectural fabric in order to remove architectural sculptures, St. Clair singles out Elgin's secretary Philip Hunt, subtly exonerating the nobleman from an act that appalled many contemporaries and continues to bewilder modern critics (86-96). The responsibility for this atrocity, however, must ultimately...


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