BRITISH MUSEUM, Parthenon Marble Introduction

Audio File length: 2.22
English / USA Language: English / USA

The rectangular hall you now stand in was specifically designed to display the museum's most important and controversial group of classical statues: the "Elgin Marbles", which are the statues and reliefs Lord Elgin took from the Parthenon of Athens in 1801.

At that time Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire, and the British Ambassador to Istanbul Lord Elgin cleverly managed to negotiate the purchase of Phidias' extraordinary Parthenon sculptures, which had been damaged by Venetian naval bombardment at the end of the seventeenth century. After the fall of Napoleon, the marbles were transported to London and the great Italian sculptor Antonio Canova was brought to England to examine and possibly restore them; he refused to restore the missing parts, exclaiming: "This isn't marble, it's flesh!"

All of the decorations embellishing the exterior walls of Athens' largest temple were entirely made by Phidias and his workshop towards the end of the fifth century BC, with perfect stylistic unity. Here at the British Museum, two rooms house the temple's two completely-reassembled pediments with their free-standing or high relief figures, while the bas-reliefs can be seen in the wing connecting them.

In this absolute masterpiece of ancient art, the great Athenian sculptor was able to invent a new way of depicting the divine image and the language of mythology. As you can see, the triangular shape of the pediment forced the sculptors to distribute the figures across a space that narrowed as it approached the angles. Despite this limitation, Phidias managed to create an extremely varied composition where giant statues stand with "Olympic" naturalness and vigorous, sweet nudes are "classic" models to be admired in sunlight.


FUN FACT: Greece has always given the British state the "cold shoulder" because of these marbles. They periodically undertake legal action to demand the sculptures' return, and the newly-renovated Acropolis Museum in Athens has a large room that was left controversially empty, ready to exhibit Phidias' statues and reliefs.

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