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The Parthenon Marbles in the Louvre

"It may not be unworthy of remark, that the only other piece of Sculpture which was ever removed from its place for the purpose of export was taken by Mr. Choiseul Gouffier, when he was Ambassador from France to the Porte; but whether he did it by express permission, or in some less ostensible way, no means of ascertaining are with the reach of your Committee. It was undoubtedly at various times an object with the French Government to obtain permission of some of these valuable remains, and it is probable, according to the testimony of Lord Aberdeen and others, that at no great distance of time they might have been removed by that government from their original site, if they had not been taken away, and secured for this country by Lord Elgin."

Report from the Select Committee of the House of Commons (p. 7)

The French ambassador to the Ottoman court in Constantinople was the Comte de Choiseul-Gouffier, who competed with Lord Elgin, his English counterpart, for access to the Parthenon sculptures. Although Elgin had the advantage, given Nelson's victory at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, Choiseul did managed to acquire two metopes, as well as a panel from the Parthenon frieze (above).

The frieze and one of the metopes, both of which had been recovered on the ground, were sent to France but seized by the revolutionary government in 1798 and Choiseul, a royalist, compelled to go into exile. When allowed to return four years later, he was allowed to reclaim the metope but not the frieze, which Bonaparte himself had been seen earlier that year. After inquiring whether the Louvre possessed any work by the Greek sculptor Phidias, who had supervised the construction and sculptural decoration of the Parthenon (Plutarch, Life of Pericles, XIII.4, 9) and being told that it did, Bonaparte insisted that the panel immediately be taken from storage and put on display.

Choiseul's second metope (above) had fallen from the Parthenon during a storm and broken into three pieces. It remained in Athens and then been sequestrated by Turkey when the French invaded Egypt. In 1803, a frigate was sent to recover it.

Less than a month before, however, war again broke out between Britain and France, and the ship carrying the metope taken as a prize of war by the British. Sent to London, the government declined to buy the marble slab, which languished in the custom house for three years, until purchased at auction by Elgin. Realizing that it belonged to Choiseul, he offered to return the piece but Choiseul did not respond, convinced that the metope was not in Elgin's possession. After Choiseul's death in 1817, the British Museum, which had purchased the Parthenon marbles only the year before, refused to recognize any further claim of ownership. (Curiously, the Louvre, in its description of the metope, says that "Elgin later returned it to its original owner.")

The next year, Choiseul's heirs sold the broken metope (SM.10) to the Louvre for twenty-five thousand francs (about twelve-hundred pounds at the time). Other than fragments, it is the only other piece of sculpture from the Parthenon in its collection.

The fifteen metopes in the British Museum (SM.2-9 and SM.26-32) all are from the south façade of the temple and depict the battle between Centaurs and Lapiths (Centauromachy) at the wedding feast of the Lapith king. Of these, fourteen had been acquired by Elgin, the other by Choiseul, which is described in Smith's catalog as "rather tame and undecided" and the work of "an indifferent artist, both in composition and expression." The panel from the east frieze of the Parthenon (VII), on the other hand, is a masterpiece of classical Greek art.

It depicts one of the climatic moments of the Great Panathenaea, which was celebrated every four years in honor of Athena. Six Ergastines ("weavers"), young noble women who were charged with weaving the sacred peplos, approach the statue of the goddess and are greeted by two priests. One Ergastine can be seen to carry a phiale (patera), a shallow bowl used to offer a libation; behind her, another once held an incense burner.

The right-hand section of the procession, which had been found in the fortification of the Acropolis wall, is in the British Museum. While being taken to the harbor, it broke into two halves. Then the ship transporting it (and other panels from the Parthenon frieze) sank as it made for harbor in a storm, leaving the cargo at the bottom of the sea. (Ironically, if the frieze had not broken, it likely would have been too heavy to recover.) Over the next two years all the pieces were salvaged but had to remain half-buried on the beach until they could be conveyed to Malta, where they finally were put in storage. The marbles would not reach England until 1812, ten years after the ship carrying them first had set sail.

Exposure to the open air has discolored the frieze in the Louvre. Its original gray-white surface, the brightly painted colors long faded away, has acquired a variegated patina of brown and orange, the result of iron and other ferrous minerals in the marble reacting with rain water and moisture. The resulting honey-colored cast, most notably in the crevices and grooves of the sculptures, has tended to enhance the contrast with the polished surfaces, effectively taking the place of the original paint. This weathered effect was especially pleasing to the aesthetic sensibility of the nineteenth-century romantic, even more so when the remnants of a ruined civilization could be portrayed in the golden tint of sunset, as in Church's painting of the Parthenon (above).

Such discoloration is less evident, however, in the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum. The gallery where they were to be exhibited had been funded by Sir Joseph Duveen, a wealthy but disreputable art dealer who insisted that the stone be made as white as possible to satisfy a public expectation that this was the proper color of ancient marble. As a result, over a period of about eighteen months in 1937-1938 virtually all of the sculptures (including the Selene horse head) were overly cleaned (some with copper implements and carborundum) in preparation for the opening of the new hall. The result, St. Clair contends, was that the patina (and its original traces of paint and tool marks) was scraped and scoured away, rendering the marble a dull white. Jenkins argues that this is an exaggeration, although he does admit that weathered surfaces were rubbed smooth by the cleaning. (The damaged section of the procession that had been lost at sea was not cleaned, perhaps because of its vicissitudes, and the delicate lines left by the tools of the sculptor still can be seen.)

The unprecedented access of Duveen's workmen to the Parthenon sculptures, their unauthorized use of abrasives, and attempts by the Museum to keep these facts from the public caused a scandal at the time, which largely was forgotten with the outbreak of World War II in 1939, when the Duveen Gallery was scheduled to open. Damaged during the war and the sculptures still safely in storage, the gallery would not open to the public until 1962. The scandal itself was revisited by St. Clair in 1998, prompting the British Museum to host an international colloquium the next year to re-examine the issue.


Sculpted in high relief from local Pentelic marble, the metopes were placed over the outer colonnade above the architrave and between the triglyphs—hence their name, "between the opening." The best preserved, which were appropriated by Elgin, ran along the south side of the temple (originally, there had been thirty-two metopes adorning that side). Those on the other three sides were damaged in the devastating explosion of 1687, when a Venetian shell intentionally detonated the powder magazine stored in the Parthenon by the besieged Turks, who assumed that the Christians would not attack the monument.

When the Parthenon was converted to a church (possibly under Justinian in the mid-sixth century AD), the metopes were defaced by iconoclasts determined to remove any pagan vestiges from the temple. (Cook, in the official British Museum guide, places the conversion in the early fifth century, when an apse and bell tower were added, and windows cut into the frieze.) It is not known why the south metopes were spared, but it may have been due to the perception of the centaur in Christian iconography.

In the Life of Saint Paul the First Hermit (c. AD 375) Jerome relates that Antony, searching for Paul in the desert became lost and prayed to God to show him "the fellow-servant whom He promised me." He was sent a centaur who, extending his hand, pointed the way (VII). Antony then met a satyr, who offered him food, confessing that he was there to represent the other inhabitants of the desert and piteously exclaiming "We pray you in our behalf to entreat the favour of your Lord and ours, who, we have learnt, came once to save the world" (VIII). Weeping, Antony berated the Alexandrians for worshipping monsters when monsters, themselves, spoke of Christ (cf. Isaiah 34:14, "The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow.")


The painting of the Parthenon by Frederic Edwin Church (1871) is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York).


References: Lord Elgin and the Marbles (1998) by William St. Clair; "Lord Elgin and His Collection" (1916) by Philip Hunt and A. H. Smith, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 36, 163-372; A Catalogue of the Sculptures of the Parthenon, in the British Museum (1900) by A. H. Smith; Report from the Select Committee of the House of Commons on the Earl of Elgin's Collection of Sculptured Marbles (1816); Cleaning and Controversy: The Parthenon Sculptures 1811-1939 (British Museum Occasional Paper, No. 146) (2001) by Ian Jenkins (also The 1930's Cleaning of the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum on the British Museum website); The Elgin Marbles (1997) by B. F. Cook. The classic nineteenth-century study is Der Parthenon (1871) by Adolf Michaelis, who originally numbered the panels.

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