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Melina Mercouri: The Epitome of the Hellenic Spirit

Melina Mercouri
Melina Mercouri in Amsterdam in 1985. Credit: Public Domain

Melina Mercouri (18 October 1920 – 6 March 1994) is engraved in the minds of millions of Greeks. In her life, she was several things: a striking woman; a stage and movie actress; a patriot; an activist; and a politician; but above all — and this is what she remains even after her death — she is a great Hellene.

Mercouri loved Greece so much that she epitomized the Hellenic spirit, becoming its ambassador worldwide.

In the heart of every Greek, she was the first politician who fought for what is the ultimate right of the Greek people: the return of the Parthenon Sculptures to their home, at the Parthenon, atop the Acropolis.

Melina Mercouri’s fight for the Parthenon Marbles

It was 1982 when Mercouri, with her overwhelming passion and the shine of the star that marked her, started her campaign for the return of the so-called Elgin marbles.

Her passion, her desire, her fight for the return of the priceless sculptures to their rightful home is summed up in her phrase: “I hope to see the marbles return to Athens before I die. But if they return later, I will be reborn to see them.”

Even in the sometimes-sketchy world of museums which routinely obtain artwork of questionable provenance from other countries, the Parthenon Marbles were a special case since they were part of a building and not a self-contained work of art.

Millions of objects which have been obtained by various means from foreign countries, such as the Venus de Milo, are exhibited at the best museums in the world. But the Marbles, which had been chipped off the building atop the Acropolis in the 1800s and carted off, are another story.

The Parthenon Marbles campaign began at the UNESCO General Policy Conference in Mexico when Mercouri – then Minister of Culture and Science – put forward the Greek request for the return of the Sculptures.

According to political legend, Mercouri’s internationally-known name and her glamorous persona were factors contributing to the assignment by Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou of the enormous weight of such a difficult diplomatic endeavor.

“You must understand what the Parthenon Marbles mean to us. They are our pride. They are a tribute the philosophy of democracy. They are our ambition and our name. They are the essence of our Greekness,” Mercouri had stated during her campaign for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures.

The draft recommendation for the return of the sculptural decoration of the Parthenon to Greece was submitted by the Greek delegation in 1982, with 56 votes in favor, 12 against and 24 abstentions.

Two years later, in October 1984, Greece submitted a formal request for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures, but in April of that year the British side rejected it.

That year, Greece filed an official request for the return of the marbles to UNESCO, which had initiated the agenda of the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation.

Her life

Born Maria Amalia Mercouri on Oct. 18, 1920, she was the favorite granddaughter of Athens Mayor Spyros Mercouris and daughter of United Democratic Left party lawmaker and Minister Stamatis Mercouris.

Mercouri studied acting at the National School of Dramatic Art (1943-46) and made her debut on stage in 1944.

She was established as a leading lady in 1949 with the stage role of Blanche in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire”.

Her first cinema role was as the leading actress in Michael Cacoyannis’ Stella (1955). However, it was the role of Ilia in the Academy Award-nominated “Never on Sunday” (1960), as well as the theater rendition of the movie in New York, that won Mercouri an international reputation.

In 1965, she married American director Jules Dassin, who directed her in “Never on Sunday” (1960), “Phaedra” (1962), “Topkapi” (1964) and “A Dream of Passion” (1978).

Mercouri’s political activism was shown in her protests against the military junta from abroad. After the restoration of democracy in Greece, she returned to the country of her birth and became a politician.

She was elected to represent PASOK, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement, in 1981 and became Minister of Culture and Sciences, an office she held until the end of the first eight years of the Andreas Papandreou administration.

As Culture Minister, her primary vision was the return of the Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum. At the same time, she also created “Municipal Regional Theaters” to bring theater to the Greek provinces.

Along with her French counterpart Jacques Lang, they created the institution of the “European Capital of Culture” in 1985.

Mercouri’s star dimmed forever on March 6, 1994, but the Greek people still call her only by her first name, as if she is a beloved relative.

Ten years after Greece’s formal request for the return of the Marbles, when Mercouri passed away, the precious sculptures were still at the British Museum. The British fought to keep them in their possession and they “won.”

But if one day the Parthenon Marbles do return to Greece, the spirit of Melina Mercouri will rejoice. And perhaps even be reborn.

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