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21 November 2007

Hooked on Classics Part III, or At Least Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Elgin Marbles

I seem to want to give my blog entries multiple titles these days. Probably because I recently sent my publisher a list of possible titles for my next novel (late 2008), after the publisher rejected the one I really, really wanted. (Oh well, my agent wisely comforted me, let's save that gorgeous title for some future gorgeous book -- what a canny psychologist, I thought, a good literary agent is, and thank heaven for that.)

While as for the second title of this blog entry (with due respect to Wallace Stevens), I thought of it because of Julia Justiss's recent post here, and her reference to the Elgin Marbles, about which she'll be posting more in the future.

And I realized I wanted to write about these art objects as well and wondered if I'd be stepping on toes. But I decided, (qua -- or beyond -- Stevens) that every historical romance writer who decides to write about the Elgin Marbles will write about them differently, and the more the merrier. And anyway, why should we be any different from the multitudes who came before us?

Because to look at these astonishing objects (what they were and what people thought they were) is to take up a a checquered, embroidered map of misreadings and contending agendas. To write about them is simply to extend the map a little into one's own territory.

One could begin (and many have) by disputing whether we ought to be calling them the Elgin Marbles at all. As with so many cultural, political issues, names matter. If you hear them called the Parthenon Marbles, chances are the speaker is of the party that believes they belong back in Athens. Lord Byron was only the loudest (and probably the most splenetic) in a controversy that went back to before the British Museum bought the objects in 1816, but there were plenty of folks who agreed with him.

Still are. You can go to the very spiffy and well-documented website of the British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles and find out a great deal more about it. And even if you don't follow out the link, you might be interested to know that Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave, Ian McKellen, and Fiona Shaw are all supporters.

I think I am too. At the very least I'm convinced that there's a good case to be made that Lord Elgin didn't really get permission to hack away at the Parthenon as he did. And it also seems to me that countries of origin should have the rights to their treasures. Not to speak of how fantastic it would be to see all that's left of the Parthenon all in one place, displayed to best reveal them, in the museum that Greece is building.

But I have to say "I think." Because I sincerely am confused about how far it goes. Does every art treasure go back to its place of origin? I can only imagine the great sucking sound of a vacuum cleaner going through the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art's wonderful classical wing (and other wings too) and how much the poorer I'd be for it. There's been a lot of controversy lately about these issues -- the Peabody Museum at Yale University recently concluded a historic deal with the government of Peru wherein it would return many of the treasures to the original site at Machu Picchu. And if ever I finish the book I'm writing, I'd like to read more about some recent sleazier art deals at the Getty Museum.

But there is still the book to finish, and novelist-concerns to be worked on, like the two complementary scenes where my hero and heroine encounter each other among the marbles (first meeting in April, with rain coming down upon the skylight and later, in July, with the gallery sunlit). The meetings bracket a London Season. And the skylight? Only a historical novelist could be so happy for the discovery of the skylight -- which you will not find in the room where the marbles are kept now, but only in the temporary one where they were kept until 1832, and which I have only now chased down the engravings.

And perhaps only a lifelong English major like me could be so happy to have discovered along the wayside, a possible answer to something that has gnawed at me since I first read Keats's "Ode to a Grecian Urn" in high school.

Though it wasn't until I took my current heroine to the British Museum (and had her peek into a case of vases in the company of her fellow silver fork author the young Benjamin Disraeli), that I realized that I've always been peeking at vases in museums, wondering which of them was, as my foppish young Disraeli puts it, "the pot the poet wrote about." And I've always been disappointed not to see some of the scenes.

But it's only as a part of my study of the marbles for this book that I found this one:
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?

And it's not on a pot at all. In fact, according to Nigel Spivey's terrific overview of Greek Art, it's more likely this scene over to the right (poor, sweet heifer) from the Parthenon Marbles' frieze.

Which frieze, as a whole, might be portraying the yearly Panathenaic Procession (qua my hero and heroine's April meeting) or a mythical, sacrificial one (qua July)... but that's another controversy, and another way to look at the marbles... of which there are clearly a great deal more than thirteen.

Have you been fortunate enough to see the Elgin, or the Parthenon, Marbles in the British Museum?

And what do you think about these big, head-achy issues of art and repatriation?

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8 Comments:

Blogger Jane said...

I've only seen the Elgin marble on tv. Many people believe that if Lord Elgin didn't take them they wouldn't have survived till now. The Getty Museum recently agreed to return 40 antiquities to Italy. I don't exactly now which is the right answer as to who the stuff belongs to.

11:18 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

I'm on the same page with Jane. I wonder how safe some of these antiquities would be if they were returned to the countries they came from. It breaks my heart to read about what was lost during the bombings of WWII, or any war, for that matter.

I don't know what the answer is, but I am all for preservation!

11:34 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

well, one of the answers to that is that nobody, even the Venetians who shelled the Parthenon in the 17th century, did more damage to the building than Lord Elgin.

12:06 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

I saw the Elgin Marbles when I was ten years old. They were and are magnificent and I tend to agree had Elgin not taken them that might well not have survived and THAT would have been a terrible loss. It is a truly difficult conundrum. How close did those fires get this year? It has been almost 40 years, but I still remember the absolute awe they inspired.

6:36 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fascinating post, Pam! I haven't seen the Elgin Marbles, though hopefully I will on my next visit to London (always so much to see and most of what I do see directed by whatever I'm researching). I'm inclined to think the marbles should be returned, and to believe in repatriation of artifacts in general (I certainly wouldn't be very happy about bits of the Jefferson or Lincoln Memorials being removed and taken to other countries to display).

As to writing about an historical topic that's been written about before, I think different writers can always put a new spin on an historical subject, just as they can on a plot element such as an arranged marriage or an estranged couple or feuding famlies. I was a bit worried about writing about the Duchess of Richmond's Ball and the Battle of Waterloo after it had figured in novels by Thakeray, Heyer, Bernad Cornwell, Mary Jo Putney, and goodness knows who else. But in the end I decided that whatever I wrote about it, for good or ill, would be particular to my story and characters.

So looking forward to your book!

8:52 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I've seen both the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, and have been to the Parthenon -- which is truly an awe-inspiring experience. Climb the Acropolis and look at what's left of the great treasures and you will find yourself very emotional. Well, at least I did. I agree that if Elgin had not taken them when he did (and good intentioned people, like Elgin and Schliemann at "Troy" didn't have the knowledge and tools we have today) then none of us might ever have been able to enjoy them.

I have very mixed feelings about repatriating these treasures. I grew up making frequent pilgrimages to the Greek galleries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and it broke my heart that "we" had to return the Kalyx Krater that I used to visit more often than some of my friends. I studied "The Sleep of Sarpedon" at great length in junior high and high school and was said to see the vase depart.

8:34 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'm not so sure they wouldn't be there, Amanda, if Elgin hadn't taken them. Because I have read that from 1837 on the Greek nation put a lot of effort into their own archeological endeavors, revaluing and protecting their treasures.

It's a complicated thing even from a political/historical p.o.v. -- cultural concerns come into play in ways an amateur like me finds difficult to weigh and sort. Romantic British panhellenism got a huge shot in the arm after (anti-Elgin) Byron's death and the British government was rather forced to look more kindly upon Greek nationalism than it might have because of this. But Elgin also belonged to one of the panhellenist societies -- Greek independence was the first trendy popular liberal cause in England since the French revolution and it also had to do with the popularity of all that plundered marble. In 1834, the first king of the modern Greek nation was Otto, son of whatever Ludwig was ruling Bavaria at the time -- who was a great classical collector and artlover.

I'm not sure what side I'm arguing here. Just trying to make a case for how oddly intermixed the cultural and the political were in popular opinion at the time and trying to get my bearings within it.

8:03 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

As I said, I've got mixed feelings too, and, as a novelist (and just as me, too), the wider ripples in the stream fascinate me -- the what-was-happening-then (as in whichever era is under dicussion)in terms of their culture and perceptions; what was literally happening on the ground and how that impacted natives as well as outsiders.

One thing that's catnip to novelists is being able to create the scenario where both sides get fully developed characters with a defensible POV. The situation surrounding how the Elgin marbles came to be taken from the Parthenon in the first place (plunder of a treasure, or preservation of it??) is a perfect case in point.

I don't think the issue is remotely black-and-white; at least for me, it's all in shades of gray.

8:03 PM  

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