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Italy Returns Parthenon Marble to Greece, Piling Pressure on British Museum

Parthenon Marbles
Italy will return a fragment of the Parthenon Marbles that Lord Byron left in Palermo. Credit: Urban Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5

The Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports announced this week that Italy will return a fragment of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece, a move which adds pressure on the British Museum to follow suit and return the magnificent Parthenon Marbles to their rightful home.

At a November 30 meeting of Greece’s Central Archaeological Council, journalists were informed that the return of the fragment of the Parthenon Marbles would be initiated at its next meeting, scheduled to take place before the end of 2021.

This is the second time the fragment will return to Greece. In 2008 Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and his Greek counterpart Karolos Papoulias were present at the Acropolis Museum in Athens to witness the joining of the fragment with its frieze.

The resolution of these delicate, year-long discussions represents a breakthrough for Greece and Italy, both aggrieved by the theft of great numbers of their antiquities over the centuries. Greece has gone to great lengths to return the Parthenon Marbles, even building a magnificent state-of-the-art museum, to guarantee their return.

The fragment, from stone VI on the eastern frieze of the Parthenon, can currently be seen at the Museo Archeologico Antonio Salinas in Palermo, Sicily. The sculptural piece, depicting the robe and right foot of the hunting goddess Artemis, has spent two centuries in the Palermo museum. Under conditions dictated by Italian law, the piece will travel back to Greece on a four-year loan, with the intent to extend for a further four years.

Statue of Athena to Be Exchanged for Fragment

In return for the fragment of the Parthenon Marbles, the Acropolis Museum will send the Palermo institution a headless statue of the goddess Athena, according to the blog Archeology.wiki. The statue will be replaced by a vase after a four-year period, matching the amount of time the fragment of the Parthenon Marbles remains in Greece.

The two museums, the Regional Government of Sicily and Minister of Culture and Sports Lina Mendoni began negotiations for the long-term loan of the fragment of the Parthenon Marbles in January 2021, the Greek Ministry’s announcement states.

Palermo fragment Parthenon Marbles
The Palermo fragment of the Parthenon Marbles will be returned to Greece before the end of 2021. Credit: John Kolsedis Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5

The fragment, depicting the right foot of the goddess Artemis, has had its own odyssey. After Lord Elgin detached the piece from the Parthenon, along with the rest of the Parthenon Marbles, he embarked on his voyage to London by sea in 1806.

Elgin made a stop in Palermo and met his friend, the British consul Robert Fagan, who was also known for his love of archeology and art. Elgin offered Fagan the fragment of the Parthenon Marbles before leaving for London in order for Fagan to add it to the collection of antiquities he already had from excavations in Sicily.

Following Fagan’s death, the piece was transferred to the Royal University of Palermo and ended up at the Salina Museum. It has since been known since then as the Palermo fragment of the Parthenon Marbles.

Greece offered a similar deal to the UK in November, seeking the return of the Parthenon Marbles. Amid the long-running and contentious debate over repatriation for pieces of the Parthenon held by the British Museum, the UK Prime Minister’s office announced that the decision will be delegated from the government to the museum’s board of trustees.

Without any legislative update to existing deaccessioning laws, the board is powerless to return anything at all, especially pieces the museum maintains were obtained legally, not looted. However, documents that emerged recently suggest that the UK may have more discretionary power than it publicly admits: they establish that official policy at the time of their writing, in 1991, was to obfuscate, because the government didn’t want to return the ancient items to Greece.

To pressure the British Museum, this action could be the model for the Parthenon Marbles to be exchanged on a temporary loan of other significant Greek antiquities.

In November when Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis met with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson the Parthenon Marbles dominated the discussion. Athens proposed reuniting the Parthenon Marbles in exchange for a long-term share of Agamemnon’s golden burial mask and the Artemision Bronze.

The exchange of the fragment with Italian cultural authorities could provide the model for the British Museum to follow a similar path for the Parthenon Marbles reunification.

 

 

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